Amusements during the winter months, when the temperature is at
the lowest point--Etymology of the word Chippewa--A meteor--The
Indian "fire-proof"--Temperature and weather--Chippewa
interchangeables--Indian names for the seasons--An incident in
conjugating verbs--Visiting--Gossip--The fur trade--Todd, McGillvray,
Sir Alexander Mackenzie--Wide dissimilarity of the English and
Odjibwa syntax--Close of the year.
1822. December 1st. We have now plunged into the depths of
a boreal winter. The blustering of tempests, the whistling of winds,
and the careering of snow drifts form the daily topics of remark. We
must make shift to be happy, with the most scanty means of
amusement. Books and studies must supply the most important item in
this--at least, so far as I am concerned.
It is observed by Dr. Johnson "that nothing can supply the want of
prudence, and that negligence and irregularity, long continued, will
render knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible."
This sententious apothegm is thrown out in contemplating the life of
Savage, one of the English poets who united some of the highest
requisites of genius with the lowest personal habits. But how much
instruction does it convey to all! It does not fall to the lot of
all to have wit or genius, or to be eminent in knowledge. None,
however, who are not absolute idiots are without some share of the
one or the other. And in proportion as these gifts are possessed,
how fruitless, and comparatively useless do they become, if not
governed by prudence, assiduity, and regularity!
3d. The Indian tribes in this vicinity call themselves
Ojibwaeg. This expression is in the plural number. It is rendered
singular by taking off the g. The letter a, in this
word, is pronounced like a in hate, or ey in obey.
Chippewa--often written with a useless terminal y--is the
Anglicized pronunciation. The meaning of this seems obscure. The
final syllable wae, in compound words, stands for voice. In
the ancient Massachusetts language, as preserved by Eliot, in his
translation of the Bible, as in Isaiah xi. 14, Chepwoieu means the
What a curious subject for speculation the Indian language presents!
Since I began to dip into this topic, I have found myself
irresistibly carried forward in the inquiry, and been led to resume
it, whenever the calls of business or society have been intermitted.
I have generally felt, however, while pursuing it, like a mechanist
who is required to execute a delicate and difficult work without
suitable implements. Technical words may be considered as the
working tools of inquiry, and there seems to be a paucity of terms,
in our common systems, to describe such a many-syllabled, aggregated
language as the Indian. I have been sometimes half inclined to put
my manuscripts in the fire, and to exclaim with Dryden, respecting
some metaphysical subject--
bolt this matter to the bran."
It is not, however, the habitual temper of my mind to give up. "The
spider," it is said, "taketh hold with her hands, and is in king's
palaces;" and should a man have less perseverance than a spider?
4th. A meteor, or fire-ball, passed through the village at
twilight this evening. The weather, which has been intensely cold
for the last three days, indicates a change this evening. Meteoric
phenomena of a luminous character were universally referred to
electricity, after Franklin's day. Chemistry has since put forth
reasons why several of these phenomena should be attributed to
phosphorus or hydrogen liberated by decomposition.
5th. The Chippewa jugglers, or Jassakeeds, as they are
called, have an art of rendering their flesh insensible, probably
for a short time, to the effects of a blaze of fire. Robert Dickson
told me that he had seen several of them strip themselves of their
garments, and jump into a bonfire. Voltaire says, in his Essay on
History, that rubbing the hand for a long time with spirit of
vitriol and alum, with the juice of an onion, is stated to render it
capable of enduring hot water without injury.
7th. Acting as librarian for the garrison during the season,
I am privileged to fill up many of the leisure hours of my mornings
and evenings by reading. The difficulty appears to be, to read with
such reference to system as to render it profitable. History,
novels, voyages and travels, and various specific treatises of fancy
or fact, invite perusal, and like a common acquaintance, it requires
some moral effort to negative their claims. "Judgment," says a
celebrated critic, "is forced upon us by experience. He that reads
many books must compare one opinion, or one style with another, and
when he compares must necessarily distinguish, reject, prefer."
Sunday 8th. Quintilian says, "We palliate our sloth by the
specious pretext of difficulty." Nothing, in fact, is too difficult
to accomplish, which we set about, with a proper consideration of
those difficulties, and pursue with perseverance. The Indian
language cannot be acquired so easily as the Greek or Hebrew, but it
can be mastered by perseverance. Our Indian policy cannot be
understood without looking at the Indian history. The taking of Fort
Niagara was the first decisive blow at French power. Less than three
months afterwards, that is, on the 18th of October of that year,
General Wolf took Quebec. Goldsmith wrote some stanzas on this
event, eulogizing the heroism of the exploit. England's consolation
for the loss of Wolf is found in his heroic example, which the poet
refers to in his closing line,
thy tomb a thousand heroes rise."
11th. Names are the pegs of history. Velasco, it is said, on
visiting the gulf which receives the St. Lawrence, and finding the
country cold and inhospitable, cried out aca nada--"there is
nothing here." This is said to be the origin of the word Canada.
Nothing could be more improbable: Did the Indians of Canada hear
him, and, if so, did they understand or respect the language of a
foreigner hovering on their coast? We must look to the Iroquois for
the origin of this word. Jacques Cartier, in 1534, evidently mistook
the Indian word Canada, signifying a town, for the whole country.
The Indians have no geographical terms for districts. They name a
hill, a river, or a fall, but do not deal in generics. Some a
priori reasoning seems constrained, where the facts are granted,
as this: All animals at Nova Zembla, it is said, are carnivorous,
because there is no grass.
12th. Snow covers everything. We are shut out from the
civilized world, and thrown entirely on our own resources. I doubt,
if we were in Siberia, or Kamschatka, if we could be so completely
13th. Ellis, in one of his northern voyages, asserts the
opinion that the northern lights kindle and disperse the vapors
requisite to the formation of lightning. Hence there is no thunder
in high northern latitudes. We admit the fact, but doubt the
reasoning. Vapor is but water in a gaseous state. It is a fine
medium for the exhibition of electricity, and we cannot say that
electricity exists without it.
14th. When Lucas Fox sailed to discover the north-west
passage to India, in 1631, he carried a letter from Charles the
First to the Emperor of Japan. Such was public information, in
Europe, twenty-two years after the discovery of the River Hudson,
and the settlement of New England, eleven years later.
15th. The state of the weather, during this month, has
exhibited some striking changes. The first three or four days were
quite severe. On the fifth it became mild, and continued so for
eight or nine days. During this time, nearly all the snow which had
previously fallen was carried off by rains, or the heat of the sun.
The weather was so mild that I sat in my office, on the 13th,
without fire, for about two hours. Two evenings previous, the snow
fell from the roofs of buildings at nine o'clock, and it continued
thawing through the night. To day, the wind has veered round to a
northerly point, and the weather has resumed its wintry temperature.
22d. The River St. Mary's froze over during the night of this
day. The stream had been closed below, for about a week previous.
24th. The Tartars cannot pronounce the letter b. Those
of Bulgaria pronounce the word blacks as if written Iliacs. The
Chippewas in this quarter usually transpose the b and p
in English words. They substitute n for l, pronouncing
Louis as if written Nouis. The letter r is dropped, or
sounded au. P is often substituted for f, b
for v, and ch for j. In words of their own
language, the letters f, l, r, v, and x, do not occur.
The following are their names for the seasons.
Years are counted by winters, months by moons, and days by nights.
There are terms for morning, mid-day, and evening. The year consists
of thirteen moons, each moon being designated by a descriptive name,
as the moon of flowers (May), the moon of strawberries (June), the
moon of berries (July), &c. Canoe and tomahawk are not terms
belonging to the Chippewa language. From inquiries I think the
former is of Carib origin, and the latter Mohegan. The Chippewa
equivalents are in the order stated, Cheman and Agakwut.
26th. In going out to dinner at 3 o'clock, a sheet of paper
containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and
questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening,
I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought
conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless
to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the
labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the
fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm
water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime
I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I
imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another,
I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.
27th. I devoted the day and evening in transcribing words
into my "Ojibwa Vocabulary." This is a labor requiring great
caution. The language is so concrete, that often, when I have
supposed a word had been dissected and traced to its root,
subsequent attention has proved it to be a compound. Thus verbs have
been inserted with pronouns, or with particles, indicating negation,
or the past or future tense, when it has been supposed they had been
divested of these appendages. I am now going over the work the third
time. The simplest forms of the verb seem to be the first and third
persons singular of the imperative mood.
Ennui, in situations like the present, being isolated and shut up as
it were from the world, requires to be guarded against. The surest
preventive of it is employment, and diversity in employment. It has
been determined to-day to get up a periodical sheet, or jeu
d'esprit newspaper, to be circulated from family to family,
commencing on the first of January. Mrs. Thompson asked me for a
name. I suggested the "Northern Light." It was finally determined to
put this into Latin, and call it Aurora Borealis.
28th. Visits make up a part of the winter's amusements. We
owe this duty to society; but, like other duties, which are largely
connected with enjoyment, there is a constant danger that more time
be given up to it than is profitable. Conversation is the true index
of feeling. We read wise and grave books, but are not a whit better
by them, than as they introduce and fix in our minds such principles
as shall shine out in conversation or acts. Now were an ordinary
social winter evening party tested by such principles, what would a
candid spectator judge to have been the principal topics of reading
or study? I remember once, in my earlier years, to have passed an
evening in a room where a number of my intimate friends were engaged
in playing at cards. As I did not play, I took my seat at an
office-table, and hastily sketched the conversation which I
afterwards read for their amusement. But the whole was in reality a
bitter satire on their language and sentiments, although it was not
so designed by me, nor received by them. I several years afterwards
saw the sketch of this conversation among my papers, and was
forcibly struck with this reflection.
Let me revert to some of the topics of conversation introduced in
the circles where I have visited this day, or in my own room. It is
Goldsmith, I think, who says that our thoughts take their tinge from
contiguous objects. A man standing near a volcano would naturally
speak of burning mountains. A person traversing a field of snow
would feel his thoughts occupied with polar scenes. Thus are we here
thrown together. Ice, snow, winds, a high range of the thermometer,
or a driving tempest, are the almost ever present topics of remark:
and these came in for a due share of the conversation to-day. The
probability of the ice in the river's breaking up the latter part
of April, and the arrival of a vessel at the post early in
May!--the dissolution of the seventeenth Congress, which must
take place on the 4th of March, the character and administration of
Governor Clinton (which were eulogized), were adverted to.
In the evening I went, by invitation, to Mr. Siveright's at the
North West House. The party was numerous, embracing most of the
officers of the American garrison, John Johnston, Esq., Mr. C.O.
Ermatinger, a resident who has accumulated a considerable property
in trade, and others. Conversation turned, as might have been
expected, upon the topic of the Fur Trade, and the enterprising men
who established, or led to the establishment of, the North West
Company. Todd, Mackenzie, and M'Gillvray were respectively
described. Todd was a merchant of Montreal, an Irishman by birth,
who possessed enterprise, courage, address, and general information.
He paved the way for the establishment of the Company, and was one
of the first partners, but died untimely. He possessed great powers
of memory. His cousin, Don Andrew Todd, had the monopoly of the fur
trade of Louisiana.
M'Gillvray possessed equal capacity for the trade with Todd, united
to engaging, gentlemanly manners. He introduced that feature in the
Company which makes every clerk, at a certain time, a partner. This
first enabled them successfully to combat the Hudson's Bay Company.
His passions, however, carried him too far, and he was sometimes
Sir Alexander Mackenzie was at variance with M'Gillvray, and they
never spoke in each other's praise. Mackenzie commanded great
respect from all classes, and possessed a dignity of manners and
firmness of purpose which fitted him for great undertakings. He
established the X.Y. Company, in opposition to the North West.
29th. The days are still very short, the sun having but just
passed the winter solstice. We do not dine till four; Mr. Johnston,
with whom I take my meals, observing this custom, and it is dark
within the coming hour. I remained to family worship in the evening.
30th. Read the articles in the "Edinburgh Review" on Accum's
work on the adulteration of food, and Curran's Life by his Son.
Accum, it is said, came to England as an adventurer. By assiduity
and attention, he became eminent as an operative chemist, and
accumulated a fortune. Curran was also of undistinguished parentage.
His mother, in youth, seems to have judged rightly of his future
Mr. Johnston returned me "Walsh's Appeal," which he had read at my
request, and expressed himself gratified at the ability with which
the subject is handled. Captain Clarke, an industrious reader on
local and general subjects, had come in a short time before.
Conversation became general and animated. European politics, Greece,
Turkey, and Russia, the state of Ireland, radicalism in England, the
unhappy variance between the king and queen, Charles Fox, &c., were
successively the subjects of remark. We adjourned to Mr. Johnston's.
In the evening I went into my office and wrote to Mr. Calhoun, the
Secretary of War, recommending Captain H.'s son William, for the
appointment of a cadet in the Military Academy1.
31st. Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely
seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike,
or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If
an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were
suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the
difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the
utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical
structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as
the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and
admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few,
if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and
present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the
On going to dine at the usual hour, I found company invited, among
whom were some gentlemen from Upper Canada. Conversation rolled on
smoothly, and embraced a wide range of topics. Some of the dark
doings of the North West Company, in their struggle for exclusive
power in the Indian country, were mentioned. Nobody appeared to
utter a word in malice or ill will. Dark and bright traits of
individual character and conduct floated along the stream of
conversation, without being ruffled with a breeze. In the evening I
attended a party at the quarters of one of the officers in the fort.
Dancing was introduced. The evening passed off agreeably till the
hour of separation, which was a few minutes before twelve. And thus
closed the year eighteen hundred and twenty-two.
1: The appointment was made.
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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the
Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851
Years with the Indians