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Earliest Point of French Occupancy in the Area of the Upper Lakes

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Earliest point of French occupancy in the area of the Upper Lakes--Removal of my residence from the Sault St. Marie to the island of Michilimackinack--Trip to New York--Its objects--American Philosophical Society--Michilimackinack; its etymology--The rage for investment in western lands begins--Traditions of Saganosh--Of Porlier--Of Perrault--Of Captain Thorn--Of the chief, Old Wing--Of Mudjekewis, of Thunder Bay--Character of Indian tradition respecting the massacre at old Fort Mackinack in 1763.

1833. June 1st. The cascades, or rapids of Sault de Ste. Marie, which occur at the point of the sinking of the water level between Lakes Superior and Huron, were, it seems, first visited, under the French government, by Charles Raumbault, in 1641. It appears to have been one of the earliest points occupied. In 1668, Claude D'Ablon and James Marquette established there the mission of St. Mary--since which, the place and the rapids have borne that name.

I had been a member of the first exploring expedition which the U.S. Government sent into that region in 1820. Troops landed here to occupy it in 1822, on which occasion I was entrusted by the President, with the management of Indian affairs. I had now lived almost eleven years at this ancient and remote point of settlement, which is at the foot of the geological basin of Lake Superior--a period which, aside from official duties, was, in truth, devoted to the study of the history, customs, and languages of the Indians. These years are consecrated in my memory as a period of intellectual enjoyment, and of profound and pleasing seclusion from the world. It was not without deep regret that I quitted long cherished scenes, abounding in the wild magnificence of nature, and went back one step into the area of the noisy world, for it was impressed on my mind, that I should never find a theatre of equal repose, and one so well adapted to my simple and domestic tastes and habits. For I left here in the precincts of Elmwood, a beautiful seat, which I had adorned with trees of my own planting, which abounded in every convenience and comfort, and commanded one of the most magnificent prospects in the world.

The change seemed, however, to flow naturally from the development of events. The decision once made, I only waited the entrance into the straits of a first class schooner, which could be chartered to take my collections in natural history, books, and furniture--all which were embarked, with my family, on board the schooner "Mariner" the last week in May. Captain Fowle (who met a melancholy fate many years afterwards, while a Lieutenant-Colonel on board the steamer "Moselle" on the Ohio) had been relieved, as commanding officer of the post, at the same time, and embarked on board the same vessel with his family. We had a pleasant passage out of the river and up the lake, until reaching the harbor of Mackinack, which we entered early on the morning of the 27th of May. Coming in with an easterly wind, which blows directly into it, the vessel pitched badly at anchor, causing sea-sickness, and the rain falling at the same time. As soon as it could be done, I took Mrs. S. and the children and servants in the ship's yawl, and we soon stood on terra firma, and found ourselves at ease in the rural and picturesque grounds and domicil of the U.S. Agency, overhung, as it is, by impending cliffs, and commanding one of the most pleasing and captivating views of lake scenery. Here the great whirl of lake commerce from Buffalo to Chicago, continually passed. The picturesque canoe of the Indian was constantly gliding, and the footsteps of visitors were frequently seen to tread in haste the "sacred island," rendering it a point of continual contact with the busy world. Emigrants of every class, agog for new El Dorados in the West, eager merchants prudently looking to their interests in the great area of migration, domestic and foreign visitors, with note-book in hand, and some valetudinarians, hoping in the benefits of a pure air and "white fish"--these constantly filled the harbor, and constituted the ever-moving panorama of our enlarged landscape.

The necessary repairs to the buildings were not yet completed, when I embarked about the 10th of June for New York, in order to fall in with the President's cortege to the East. About seven weeks were devoted to this excursion, during which I made an arrangement with the Harpers to publish my narrative of the expedition to Itasca Lake, the printing to be done at Detroit.

July 19th. The American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia informs me of my election as a member.

28th. I returned to Michilimackinack from my excursion to New York, and began to inquire of aged persons, white and red, as they visited the office, into the local traditions of the place.

There is a hiatus in the history of the island, extending from 1763, the date of the massacre of the British garrison on the mainland, to about 1780, the probable date of the removal of the post from the apex of the peninsula (Peekwutinong of the Indians) to the island.

The name of the place is pronounced Mish-i-nim-auk-in-ong, by the Indians, The term mishi, as heard in mishipishiu, panther, and mishigenabik, a gigantic serpent of fabled notoriety, signifies great; nim, appears to be derived from nimi, to dance, and auk from autig, tree or standing object; ong is the common termination for locality, the vowels i (second and fifth syllable) being brought into the compound word as connectives. In a language which separates all matter, the whole creation, in fact, into two classes of nouns--deemed animates and inanimates--the distinctions of gender are lost, so far as the laws of syntax are involved. It is necessary only to speak of objects as possessing and wanting vitality, to communicate to them the property named, whether it in reality possesses it in nature or not. For this purpose words which lack it in their penultimate syllables, take the consonant n to make their plurals for inanimates, and g for animates. By this simple method, the whole inanimate creation--woods, trees, rocks, clouds, waters, &c.--is clothed at will with life, or the opposite class of objects are shorn of it, which enables the speaker, whose mind is imbued with his peculiar mythology and necromancy, to create a spiritual world around him. In this creation it is known to all who have investigated the subject, that the Indian mind has exercised its ingenuity, by creating classes and species of spirits, of all imaginable kinds, which, to his fancied eye, fill all surrounding space. If he be skilled in the magic rites of the sacred meda, or jesukewin, it is but to call on these spirits, and his necromantic behest is at its highest point of energy.

In reference to this spiritual creation, the word mish signifies great, or rather big, but as adjectives are, like substantives, transitive, the term requires a transitive objective sign, to mark the thing or person that is big, hence the term michi signifies big spirit, or "fairy"--for it is a kind of pukwudjininne, and not of monetoes that are described. The terms nim and auk, dance and tree, and the local ong, are introduced to describe the particular locality and circumstances of the mythologic dances. The true meaning of the phrase, therefore, appears to be, Place of the Dancing Spirits. The popular etymology that derives the word from Big Turtle, is still farther back in the chain of etymology, and is founded on the fact that the michi are turtle spirits. This is the result of my inquiries with the best interpreters of the language. The French, to whom we owe the original orthography, used ch for sh, interchanged n for l in the third syllable, and modified the syllables auk and ong into the sounds of ack--which are, I believe, general rules founded on the organs of utterance, in their adoption by that nation of Indian words. Hence Michilimackinack. The word has, in Indian, a plural inflective in oag, which the French threw away. The Iroquois, who extended their incursions here, called it Ti-e-don-de-ro-ga.

Aug. 1st. While at Detroit (July 24th) Mr. Arthur Bronson, the money capitalist, and Mr. Charles Butler, from New York, came to that place with a large sum for investment in lands. This appeared to be the first unmistakeable sign in this quarter, of that rage for investment in western lands, which the country experienced for several years, and which, acting universally, produced in 1836 a surplus revenue to the U. S. treasury of fifty millions of dollars.

15th. Saganosh, an Ottawa chief of St. Martin's Island, visited the office with eleven followers. I asked him if any of the relatives of Gitche Naigow, of whom tradition spoke, yet lived. He pointed to his wife, and said she was a daughter of Gitche Naigow. I asked her her age. She did not know (probably fifty-five to sixty). She said her father died and was buried at the Manistee River (North), that he was very old, and died of old age--probably ninety. She said he was so old and feeble, that the last spring before his death, when they came out from their sugar camp to the open lake shore, she carried him on her back.

He had not, she said, been at the massacre of old Mackinack (described by Henry), being then at L'Arbre Croche, but he came to the spot soon afterwards. She had heard him speak of it. Says she was a little girl when the British, in removing the post from the main land, first brought over their cattle, and began to take possession of the present island of Mackinack.

The old fort on the peninsula was called Bik-wut-in-ong by the Indians, but the island always had the name of Mish-in-e-mauk-in-ong. Her father used to encamp where the village of Mackinack is now built. Her name is Na-do-wa-kwa, Iroquois woman. Thus far the wife of Saganosh. The man added that he lived on the island of Boisblanc, where he had a garden, when the English vessel arrived to take possession of Mackinack. He then went to the largest of the St. Martin's islands, where he has continued to reside to this day, with intervals of absence. He does not know his age, he may be seventy. Neither of them recollect to have heard of "Wawetum," or "Menehwehwa," mentioned by Alexander Henry1.

16th. Mr. Porlier, of Green Bay, remarks that he is now in the sixty-ninth year of his age. Fifty years ago, he says, he first came to Michilimackinack, and the post had then been removed from the main land about three years. This would place the date of the removal about 1780.

On turning to the MSS. of John Baptiste Perrault, in my possession, he says that he arrived at Mackinack on the 28th of June, 1783. That the merchants had not then completed all their buildings consequent on the removal. That the removal had taken place recently under Gov. Sinclair, a commanding officer, so called by the French, who had been relieved the preceding year by Captain Robinson. And that the 15th of July was kept as the anniversary of the removal. It is probable, therefore, that the post had been transferred in 1780 or '81.

The transfer from old to new Mackinack seems to have been gradual with the inhabitants. Among the reasons for it, I was told, was the fear of disturbance from the American war. The main reason doubtless was the superiority of the island as a strong military position against Indian attacks.

Captain Thorn told me that he had sailed to old Mackinack seven years after the massacre. The inhabitants did not go all at once. They dismantled their houses, and took away the windows, doors, &c.

Aug. 19th. Ningwegon (or the Wing) visited, with his band, consisting (by the bundles of sticks) of ten men, twelve women, and six children.

Asked him where he was when the British took possession of this island in 1812. He said at Detroit; that he had gone there previous to the taking of the fort by the party from St. Joseph's; that he remained at Detroit during the war; formed an acquaintance with Gov. Cass, who was then commanding officer at that post, and had promised that his services should be remembered2.

He said his father was a native of Detroit, having lived a little above the present site of the city. He was an Ottawa. He emigrated, with his father and grandmother, to Waganukizzi (L'Arbre Croche), when young, and he had since lived there. His father died, not many years since, a very old man, at Maskigon River. He is himself seventy-six years of age, and gray headed--the little hair he has (his head being shaved after the Indian fashion). His eyesight fails in relation to near objects, but is good in viewing distant ones. He bears his age well, looks firm, and is erect of body, face full, and voice unimpaired. He is a man above six feet in height, and well proportioned.

In speaking of the Seneca nation, he called them As-sig-un-aigs, a term by which they are distinguished from the general Algonquin term of Na-do-wa, or Iroquis.

Of the establishment of the present military post of Mackinack, he said that, when young, he had come over from the main with his father, along with the party of British officers who came to reconnoitre the place for the purpose of establishing a post on it. The party dined under the trees (pointing to some large sugar-maples then standing in the military garden, under the cliffs). The British officer, who had led the party, then asked the Indians' consent to occupy it. This was not immediately given; they took time to consider, and the removal of the fort was next year.

Presented him a nest of kettles (twelve), two pieces of factory cloth, two guns, five pounds of net-thread, and two hoes, together with a requisition for provisions.

24th. Mud-je-ke-wiss, chief of Thunder Bay, a descendant of the captor of old Mackinack, being questioned of his family, their former residence, his knowledge and remembrance of affairs at old Mackinack, replied that his father's name was Mud-je-ke-wiss; it had been Kaigwiaidosa when he had been a young man. He had lived at Mackinack, going to Thunder Bay to hunt. He died, not very old, at a treaty held on the Maumee. He (himself) had heard of the taking of old Mackinack, but was born after the removal of the post to the island, and his father died before he had instructed him. He had not heard of Wawitum, or Menehwehwa, of whom I questioned him.

This answer is a specimen of Indian caution and suspicion of white men. I knew but little of the man then, and had seen him but once or twice. He evidently "played shy," and was determined the Anglo-Saxon race should get no facts from him that might ever be told to the disadvantage of the Indians who had once, under the lead of a noted chief (Pontiac), been led, under the deception of a ball-play, to fall on the unprepared ranks of a British garrison, and stain their history with a horrible tale of blood. Henry's travels preserve the most vivid account of this massacre, for he was himself an eye witness of some of its atrocities, and was spared, by a remarkable Providence, from being one of its victims.

It was not credible that seventy years should have left so little of Indian tradition of that sanguinary event.

It is reported that letters written by Longlade, Indian interpreter at old Mackinack, at and during the era of the massacre of the English garrison, are in the possession of the Greenough family, at Green Bay. They would, perhaps, throw some light on a transaction which is by far the most tragic event of this transition period of our Indian history. By transition, I mean the era of the change from French to English supremacy.

1: Henry's Travels.

2: This chief received an annuity under the treaty of 28th March, 1836.

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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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