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Appointed an Agent of Indian Affairs for the United States at Saint Mary's

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Appointed an agent of Indian affairs for the United States at Saint Mary's--Reasons for the acceptance of the office--Journey to Detroit--Illness at that point--Arrival of a steamer with a battalion of infantry to establish a new military post at the foot of Lake Superior--Incidents of the voyage to that point--Reach our destination, and reception by the residents and Indians--A European and man of honor fled to the wilderness.

1822. At length Congress passed an act, which left Mr. Calhoun free to carry out his intentions respecting me, by the creation of a separate Indian agency for Florida. This enabled him to transfer one of the western agencies, namely, at Vincennes, Indiana, where the Indian business had ceased, to the foot of the basin of Lake Superior, at the ancient French village of Sault de Ste. Marie, Michigan. Had not this act passed, it would have been necessary to transfer this agency to Florida, for which Mr. Gad Humphreys was the recognized appointee. Mr. Monroe immediately sent in my nomination for this old agency to the Senate, by whom it was favorably acted on the 8th of May. The gentleman (Mr. J.B. Thomas, Senator from Illinois) whose boat I had been instrumental in saving in my descent of the Ohio in the spring of 1818, I believe, moved its confirmation. It was from him, at any rate, that I the same day obtained the information of the Senate's action.

I had now attained a fixed position; not such as I desired in the outset, and had striven for, but one that offered an interesting class of duties, in the performance of which there was a wide field for honorable exertion, and, if it was embraced, also of historical inquiry and research. The taste for natural history might certainly be transferred to that point, where the opportunity for discovery was the greatest. At any rate, the trial of a residence on that remote frontier might readily be made, and I may say it was in fact made only as a temporary matter. It was an ancient agency in which General Harrison had long exercised his superior authority over the fierce and wild tribes of the West, which was an additional stimulus to exertion, after its removal to Lake Superior.

I called the next day on Mr. Calhoun, to express my obligation, and to request instructions. For the latter object, he referred me to General Cass, of Detroit, who was the superintendent of Indian affairs on the North-Western frontier, and to whom the policy of pushing an agency and a military post to that point is, I believe, due.

I now turned my face to the North, made a brief stay in New York, hurried through the western part of that State to Buffalo, and ascended Lake Erie to Detroit. At this point I was attacked with fever and ague, which I supposed to have been contracted during a temporary landing at Sandusky. I directed my physician to treat it with renewed doses of mercury, in quick succession, which terminated the fever, but completely prostrated my strength, and induced, at first tic douloureux, and eventually a paralysis of the left cheek.

The troops destined for the new post arrived about the beginning of July. They consisted of a battalion of the 2d Regiment of Infantry, under Colonel Brady, from garrison duty at Sackett's Harbor, and they possessed every element of high discipline and the most efficient action, under active officers. Brady was himself an officer of Wayne's war against the Indians, and had looked danger steadily in the face on the Niagara frontier, in the Late War. In this condition, I hastily snatched up my instructions, and embarked on board the new steamer "Superior," which was chartered by the government for the occasion. It was now the 2d of July.

Before speaking of the voyage from this point, it may be well to refer to another matter. The probability of Professor Douglass publishing the joint results of our observations on the expedition of 1820, appeared now unfavorable. Among the causes of this, I regarded my withdrawal to a remote point as prominent but not decisive. Two years had already elapsed; the professor was completely absorbed in his new professorship, in which he was required to teach a new subject in a new language. Governor Cass, who had undertaken the Indian subject, had greatly enlarged the platform of his inquiries, which rendered it probable that there would be a delay. My memoir on the geology and mineralogy only was ready. Dr. Barnes had the conchology nearly ready, and the botany, which was in the hands of Dr. Torrey, was well advanced. But it required a degree of labor, zeal, and energy to push forward such a work, that admits of no abatements, and which was sufficient to absorb all the attention of the highest mind; and could not be expected from the professor, already overtasked.

Among the papers which were put in my hands at Detroit, I found a printed copy of Governor Cass's Indian queries, based on his promise to Douglass, by which I was gratified to perceive that his mind was earnestly engaged in the subject, which he sought a body of original materials to illustrate. I determined to be a laborer in this new field.

Our voyage up Lake Huron to Michilimackinack, and thence east to the entrance of the Straits of St. Mary's, at Detour, was one of pleasant excitement. We ascended the straits and river, through Muddy Lake and the narrow pass at Sailor's Encampment, to the foot of the great Nibeesh1 rapids. Here the steamer came to anchor from an apprehension that the bar of Lake George2 could not be crossed in the existing state of the water.

It was early in the morning of the 6th of July when this fact was announced. Colonel Brady determined to proceed with his staff in the ship's yawl, by the shorter passage of the boat channel, and invited me to a seat. Captain Rogers, of the steamer, himself took the helm. After a voyage of about four or five hours, we landed at St. Mary's at ten o'clock in the morning. Men, women, children, and dogs had collected to greet us at the old wharf opposite the Nolan House--the ancient "chateau" of the North-West Company. And the Indians, whose costume lent an air of the picturesque to the scene, saluted us with ball, firing over our heads as we landed. The Chemoquemon had indeed come! Thus the American flag was carried to this point, and it was soon hoisted on a tall staff in an open field east of Mr. Johnston's premises, where the troops, as they came up, marched with inspiring music, and regularly encamped. The roll of the drum was now the law for getting up and lying down. It might be 168 or 170 years since the French first landed at this point. It was just 59 since the British power had supervened, and 39 since the American right had been acknowledged by the sagacity of Dr. Franklin's treaty of 1783. But to the Indian, who stood in a contemplative and stoic attitude, wrapped in his fine blanket of broadcloth, viewing the spectacle, it must have been equally striking, and indicative that his reign in the North-West, that old hive of Indian hostility, was done. And, had he been a man of letters, he might have inscribed, with equal truth, as it was done for the ancient Persian monarch, "MENE, MENE, TEKEL."

To most persons on board, our voyage up these wide straits, after entering them at Point de Tour, had, in point of indefiniteness, been something like searching after the locality of the north pole. We wound about among groups of islands and through passages which looked so perfectly in the state of nature that, but for a few ruinous stone chimneys on St. Joseph's, it could not be told that the foot of man had ever trod the shores. The whole voyage, from Buffalo and Detroit, had indeed been a novel and fairy scene. We were now some 350 miles north-west of the latter city. We had been a couple of days on board, in the area of the sea-like Huron, before we entered the St. Mary's straits. The Superior, being the second steamer built on the Lakes3, had proved herself a staunch boat.

The circumstances of this trip were peculiar, and the removal of a detachment of the army to so remote a point in a time of profound peace, had stimulated migratory enterprise. The measure was, in truth, one of the results of the exploring expedition to the North-West in 1820, and designed to curb and control the large Indian population on this extreme frontier, and to give security to the expanding settlements south of this point. It was in this light that Mr. Calhoun, the present enlightened Secretary of War, viewed the matter, and it may be said to constitute a part of his plan for throwing a cordon of advanced posts in front of the wide area of our western settlements. From expressions heard on our route, the breaking up in part of the exceedingly well-quartered garrison of Madison barracks at Sackett's Harbor, N.Y., was not particularly pleasing to the officers of this detachment, most of whom were married gentlemen, having families, and all of whom were in snug quarters at that point, surrounded as it is by a rich, thriving, farming population, and commanding a good and cheap market of meats and vegetables. To be ordered off suddenly a thousand miles or more, over three of the great series of lakes, and pitched down here, on the verge of the civilized world, at the foot of Lake Superior, amid Indians and Indian traders, where butchers' meat is a thing only to be talked about, and garden vegetables far more rare than "blackberries," was not, certainly, an agreeable prospect for officers with wives and mothers with babies. It might, I am inclined to think from what I heard, be better justified on the grounds of national than of domestic policy. They determined, however, on the best possible course under the circumstances, and took their ladies and families along. This has given an air of gayety and liveliness to the trip, and, united with the calmness of the season, and the great novelty and beauty of the scenery, rendered the passage a very agreeable one. The smoothness of the lakes, the softness and purity of the air, the wild and picturesque character of the scenes, and the perfect transparency of the waters, have been so many themes of perpetual remark and admiration. The occasional appearance of the feather-plumed Indian in his sylph-like canoe, or the flapping of a covey of wild-fowl, frightened by the rushing sound of a steamboat, with the quick pulsation of its paddle-strokes on the water, but served to heighten the interest, and to cast a kind of fairy spell over the prospect, particularly as, half shrouded in mist, we passed among the green islands and brown rocks, fringed with fir trees, which constituted a perfect panorama as we entered and ascended the Straits of the St. Mary's.

We sat down to our Fourth-of-July dinner on board the Superior, a little above the Thunder Bay Islands, in Lake Huron, and as we neared the once sacred island of Michilimackinack, and saw its tall cliffs start up, as it were by magic, from the clear bosom of the pellucid lake, a true aboriginal, whose fancy had been well imbued with the poetic mythology of his nation, might have supposed he was now, indeed, approaching his fondly-cherished "Island of the Blest." Apart from its picturesque loveliness, we found it, however, a very flesh and blood and matter-of-fact sort of place, and having taken a pilot on board, who knew the sinuosities of the Saint Mary's channel, we veered around, the next day, and steered into the capes of that expanded and intricate strait, where we finally anchored on the morning denoted, and where the whole detachment was quickly put under orders to ascend the river the remainder of the distance, about fifteen miles, in boats, each company under its own officers, while the colonel pushed forward in the yawl. It was settled, at the same time, that the ladies and their "little ones" should remain on board, till matters had assumed some definite shape for their reception.

We were received by the few residents favorably, as has been indicated. Prominent among the number of residents who came to greet us was Mr. John Johnston, a gentleman from the north of Ireland, of whose romantic settlement and adventures here we had heard at Detroit. He gave us a warm welcome, and freely offered every facility in his power to contribute to the personal comfort of the officers and their families, and the general objects of the government. Mr. J. is slightly lame, walking with a cane. He is of the medium stature, with blue eyes, fair complexion, hair which still bears traces of its original light brown, and possesses manners and conversation so entirely easy and polite as to impress us all very favorably.

Colonel Brady selected some large open fields, not susceptible of a surprise, for his encampment. To this spot, as boat after boat came up, in fine style, with its complement of men from the steamer, the several companies marched down, and before nightfall, the entire command was encamped in a square, with their tents handsomely pitched, and the whole covered by lines of sentinels, and under the exact government of troops in the field. The roll of the drum which had attracted but little attention on the steamer, assumed a deeper tone, as it was re-echoed from the adjoining woods, and now distinctly announced, from time to time, the placing of sentinels, the hour for supper, and other offices of a clock, in civil life. The French population evinced, by their countenances and gestures, as they clustered round, a manifest satisfaction at the movement; the groups of Indians had gazed in a sort of silent wonder at the pageant; they seemed, by a certain air of secrecy and suspicion, to think it boded some evil to their long supremacy in the land. Night imperceptibly threw her dark mantle over the scene; the gazers, group by group, went to their lodges, and finally the sharp roll of the tattoo bid every one within the camp to his tent. Captain Alexander R. Thompson, who had claimed the commandant as his guest, invited me also to spend the night in his tent. We could plainly hear the deep murmur of the falls, after we lay down to rest, and also the monotonous thump of the distant Indian wabeno drum. Yet at this remote point, so far from the outer verge of civilization, we found in Mr. Johnston a man of singular energy and independence of character, from one of the most refined circles of Europe; who had pushed his way here to the foot of Lake Superior about the year 1793; had engaged in the fur trade, to repair the shattered fortunes of his house; had married the daughter of the ruling Ogima or Forest King of the Chippewas; had raised and educated a large family, and was then living, in the only building in the place deserving the name of a comfortable residence, with the manners and conversation of a perfect gentleman, the sentiments of a man of honor, and the liberality of a lord. He had a library of the best English works; spent most of his time in reading and conducting the affairs of an extensive business; was a man of social qualities, a practical philanthropist, a well-read historian, something of a poet, and talked of Europe and its connections as things from which he was probably forever separated, and looked back towards it only as the land of reminiscences.

1: This name signifies strong water, meaning bad for navigation, from its strength. Here Nebeesh is the derogative form of Nebee, water.

2: The depth of water on this bar was then stated to be but six feet two inches.

3: The first steamer built on the Lakes was called the "Walk-in-the-Water," after an Indian chief of that name; it was launched at Black Rock, Niagara River, in 1818, and visited Michilimackinack in the summer of that year.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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