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My First Winter at the Foot of Lake Superior

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians
 

My first winter at the foot of Lake Superior--Copper mines--White fish--A poetic name for a fish--Indian tale--Polygamy--A reminiscence--Taking of Fort Niagara--Mythological and allegorical tales among the aborigines--Chippewa language--Indian vowels--A polite and a vulgar way of speaking the language--Public worship--Seclusion from the world.


1822. Oct. 1st. Copper Mines of Lake Superior.--On the 8th of May last, the Senate of the United States passed a resolution in these words:--

"Resolved, that the President of the United States be requested to communicate to the Senate, at the commencement of the next session of Congress, any information which may be in the possession of the government, derived from special agents or otherwise, showing the number, value, and position of the copper mines on the south shore of Lake Superior; the names of the Indian tribes who claim them; the practicability of extinguishing their title, and the probable advantage which may result to the Republic from the acquisition and working these mines."

The resolution having been referred to me by the Secretary of War, I, this day, completed and transmitted a report on the subject, embracing the principal facts known respecting them, insisting on their value and importance, and warmly recommending their further exploration and working1.

4th. White Fish Fishery.--No place in America has been so highly celebrated as a locality for taking this really fine and delicious fish, as Saint Mary's Falls, or the Sault2, as it is more generally and appropriately called. This fish resorts here in vast numbers, and is in season after the autumnal equinox, and continues so till the ice begins to run. It is worthy the attention of ichthyologists. It is a remarkable, but not singular fact in its natural history, that it is perpetually found in the attitude of ascent at these falls. It is taken only in the swift water at the foot of the last leap or descent. Into this swift water the Indians push their canoes. It requires great skill and dexterity for this. The fishing canoe is of small size. It is steered by a man in the stern. The fisherman takes his stand in the bows, sometimes bestriding the light and frail vessel from gunwale to gunwale, having a scoop-net in his hands. This net has a long slender handle, ten feet or more in length. The net is made of strong twine, open at the top, like an entomologist's. When the canoe has been run into the uppermost rapids, and a school of fish is seen below or alongside, he dexterously puts down his net, and having swooped up a number of the fish, instantly reverses it in water, whips it up, and discharges its contents into the canoe. This he repeats till his canoe is loaded, when he shoots out of the tail of the rapids, and makes for shore. The fish will average three pounds, but individuals are sometimes two and three times that weight. It is shad-shaped, with well-developed scales, easily removed, but has the mouth of the sucker, very small. The flesh is perfectly white and firm, with very few bones. It is boiled by the Indians in pure water, in a peculiar manner, the kettle hung high above a small blaze; and thus cooked, it is eaten with the liquid for a gravy, and is delicate and delicious. If boiled in the ordinary way, by a low hung pot and quick fire, it is soft and comparatively flabby. It is also broiled by the inhabitants, on a gridiron, after cutting it open on the back, and brought on the table slightly browned. This must be done, like a steak, quickly. It is the most delicious when immediately taken from the water, and connoisseurs will tell you, by its taste at the table, whether it is immediately from the water, or has lain any time before cooking. It is sometimes made into small ovate masses, dipped into batter, and fried in butter, and in this shape, it is called petite pate. It is also chowdered or baked in a pie. It is the great resource of the Indians and the French, and of the poor generally at these falls, who eat it with potatoes, which are abundantly raised here. It is also a standing dish with all.

A Poetic Name for a Fish.--The Chippewas, who are ready to give every object in creation, whose existence they cannot otherwise account for, an allegorical origin, call the white fish attikumaig, a very curious or very fanciful name, for it appears to be compounded of attik, a reindeer, and the general compound gumee, or guma, before noticed, as meaning water, or a liquid. To this the addition of the letter g makes a plural in the animate form, so that the translation is deer of the water, an evident acknowledgment of its importance as an item in their means of subsistence. Who can say, after this, that the Chippewas have not some imagination?

Indian Tale.--They have a legend about the origin of the white fish, which is founded on the observation of a minute trait in its habits. This fish, when opened, is found to have in its stomach very small white particles which look like roe or particles of brain, but are, perhaps, microscopic shells. They say the fish itself sprang from the brain of a female, whose skull fell into these rapids, and was dashed out among the rocks. A tale of domestic infidelity is woven with this, and the denouement is made to turn on the premonition of a venerable crane, the leading Totem of the band, who, having consented to carry the ghost of a female across the falls on his back, threw her into the boiling and foaming flood to accomplish the poetic justice of the tale.

17th. Polygamy.--This practice appears to be less common among the Chippewas than the more westerly tribes. An instance of it came to my notice to-day, in a complaint made by an Indian named Me-ta-koos-se-ga, i.e. Smoking-Weed, or Pure Tobacco, who was living with two wives, a mother and her daughter. He complained that a young woman whom he had brought up had left his lodge, and taken shelter with the family of the widow of a Canadian. It appears that the old fellow had been making advances to this girl to become his third wife, and that she had fled from his lodge to avoid his importunities.

18th. Historical Reminiscences.--This day sixty-three years ago, General Wolf took Quebec, an event upon which hinged the fall of Canada. That was a great historical era, and it is from this date, 1759, that we may begin to date a change in the Indian policy of the country. Before that time, the French, who had discovered this region of country and established trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes, were acknowledged supreme by the natives. Since this event, the English rule has been growing, and the allegiance of the tribes has been gradually strengthened and fixed. It is not a light task to change habits of political affiance, cemented by so many years. The object which is only sought so far as the tribes fall within the American lines, may, however, be attained by a mild, consistent, and persevering course of policy. Time is a slow but sure innovator. A few years will carry the more aged men, whose prejudices are strongest, to their graves. The young are more pliant, and will see their interests in strengthening their intercourse with the Americans, who can do so much to advance them, and probably long before half another period of sixty-three years is repeated, the Indians of the region will be as firmly attached to us as they ever were to the French or the English.

            Never to doubt, and never to despair,
            Is to make acts what once but wishes were. ALGON.

26th. Allegorical and Mythological Tales.--"I shall be rejoiced," observed Governor C., in a letter of this day, in reply to my announcement of having detected fanciful traditionary stories among the Chippewas, "to receive any mythological stories to which you allude, even if they are enough to rival old Tooke in his Pantheon." He had put into my hands, at Detroit, a list of printed queries respecting the Indians, and calls me to remember them, during my winter seclusion here, with the knowledge of the advantages I possess in the well-informed circle of the Johnston family.

25th. Chippewa Language.--There is clearly a polite and a vulgar way of speaking the language. Tradition says that great changes have taken place, and that these changes keep pace with the decline of the tribe from their ancient standard of forest morals and their departure from their ancient customs. However this may be, their actual vocabulary is pretty full. Difficulties exist in writing it, from the want of an exact and uniform system of notation. The vowels assume their short and slender as well as broad sounds. The language appears to want entirely the consonant sounds of f, l, r, v, and x. In conjugating their verbs, the three primary tenses are well made out, but it is doubtful how much exactitude exists in the forms given for the oblique and conditional tenses. If it be true that the language is more corrupt now than at a former age, it is important to inquire in what this corruption consists, and how it came about. "To rescue it," I observe at the close of a letter now on my table to his Excellency Governor C., transmitting him a vocabulary of one hundred and fifty words, "To rescue it from that oblivion to which the tribe itself is rapidly hastening, while yet it may be attempted, with a prospect of success, will constitute a novel and pleasing species of amusement during the long evenings of that dreary cold winter of which we have already had a foretaste."

31st. Public Worship.--As Colonel Brady is about to leave the post for the season, some conversation has been had about authorizing him to get a clergyman to come to the post. It is thought that if such a person would devote a part of his time as an instructor, a voluntary subscription could be got among the citizens to supply the sum requisite for his support. I drew up a paper with this view this morning, and after handing it round, found the sum of ninety-seven dollars subscribed--seventy-five dollars of which are by four persons. This is not half the stipend of "forty pounds a year" that poor Goldsmith's brother thought himself rich upon; and it is apprehended the colonel will hardly find the inducement sufficient to elicit attention to so very remote a quarter.

Nov. 1st. We have snow, cold, and chilly winds. On looking to the north, there are huge piles of clouds hanging over Lake Superior. We may say, with Burns,

            "The wintry wind is gathering fast."

This is a holiday with the Canadian French--"All Saints." They appear as lively and thoughtless as if all the saints in the calendar were to join them in a dance. Well may it be said of them, "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

20th. Seclusion from the World realized.--We are now shut out from the world. The season of navigation has closed, the last vessel has departed. Philosophers may write, and poets may sing of the charms of solitude, but when the experiment comes to be tried, on a practical scale, such as we are now, one and all, about to realize, theories and fancies sink wonderfully in the scale. For some weeks past, everything with the power of motion or locomotion has been exerting itself to quit the place and the region, and hie to more kindly latitudes for the winter. Nature has also become imperceptibly sour tempered, and shows her teeth in ice and snows. Man-kind and bird-kind have concurred in the effort to go. We have witnessed the long-drawn flight of swans, brant, and cranes, towards the south. Singing birds have long since gone. Ducks, all but a very few, have also silently disappeared, and have probably gone to pick up spicy roots in the Susquehannah or Altamaha.

Prescient in the changes of the season, they have been the first to go. Men, who can endure greater changes and vicissitudes than all the animal creation put together, have lingered longer; but at last one after another has left Pa-wa-teeg, till all who can go have gone. Col. Brady did not leave his command till after the snow fell, and he saw them tolerably "cantoned." The last vessel for the season has departed--the last mail has been sent. Our population has been thinned off by the departure of every temporary dweller, and lingering trader, and belated visitor, till no one is left but the doomed and fated number whose duty is here, who came here to abide the winter in all its regions, and who cannot, on any fair principle or excuse, get away. They, and they alone, are left to winter here. Of this number I am a resigned and willing unit, and I have endeavored to prepare for the intellectual exigencies of it, by a systematic study and analysis of the Indian language, customs, and history, and character. My teachers and appliances are the best. I have furnished myself with vocabularies and hand-books, collected and written down, during the season. I have the post library in my room, in addition to my own, with a free access to that of "mine host" of the Emerald Isle, Mr. Johnston, to while away the time. My huge Montreal stove will take long billets of wood, which, to use the phraseology of Burns, "would mend a mill." The society of the officers and their families of the garrison is at hand. The amusements of a winter, in this latitude, are said to be rather novel, with their dog trains and creole sleighs. There are some noble fellows of the old "North West" order in the vicinity. There are thus the elements, at least, of study, society, and amusement. Whatever else betide, I have good health, and good spirits, and bright hopes, and I feel very much in the humor of enjoying the wildest kind of tempests which Providence may send to howl around my dwelling.

We have, as the means of exchanging sentiment, one English family of refinement and education, on the American side of the river, and two others, an English family and the Hudson Bay House in charge of a Scotch gentleman, on the Canada shore. We have the officers attached to a battalion of infantry, most of them married and having their ladies and families with them, and about a dozen American citizens besides, engaged in traffic and other affairs. These, with the resident metif population of above 300 souls, and the adjacent Indian tribes, constitute the world--the little isolated world--in which we must move for six months to come. About fifty miles off, S.E., is the British post of Drummond Island, and about forty west of the latter, the ancient position and island settlement of Michilimackinack, that bugbear to children in all our earlier editions of Webster's Spelling Book.

All the rest of the United States is a far-off land to us. For one, I draw around my fire, get my table and chair properly located, and resort to my books, and my Indian ia-ne-kun-o-tau-gaid let the storm whistle as it may.

25th. Zimmerman may write as much as he pleases about solitude. It is all very well in one's study, by his stove, if it is winter, with a good feather bed, and all comforts at hand; but he who would test his theories should come here. It is a capital place, in the dead of winter, for stripping poetic theories of their covering.


1: See Public Doc. No. 365, 2d Sess., 17th Congress.

2: This word is pronounced as if written so, not soo. It is a derivative, through the French, from the Latin saltus.


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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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