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Incidents of the Summer During the Establishment of the New Post at St. Mary's

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Incidents of the summer during the establishment of the new post at St. Mary's--Life in a nut-shell--Scarcity of room--High prices of everything--State of the Indians--Their rich and picturesque costume--Council and its incidents--Fort site selected and occupied--The evil of ardent spirits amongst the Indians--Note from Governor De Witt Clinton--Mountain ash--Curious superstitions of the Odjibwas--Language--Manito poles--Copper--Superstitious regard for Venus--Fine harbor in Lake Superior--Star family--A locality of necromancers--Ancient Chippewa capital--Eating of animals.

1822. July 7th. We left our pallets at the sound of the reveille, and partook of a rich cup of coffee, with cream, which smoked on the camp breakfast-board of our kind entertainer, Captain Thompson1. The ladies and children came up from the steamer, under due escorts, during the day, and were variously accommodated with temporary quarters. Dr. Wheaton and lady, Captain Brant, quartermaster, and myself, were received eventually at the table of Mr. Johnston. Captain Brant and myself hired a small room hard by for an office to be used between us. This room was a small log tenement, which had been occupied by one of Mr. J.'s hands. It was about twelve by fourteen feet, with a small window in front and in rear, and a very rural fire-place in one corner. It is astonishing how much comfort can be enjoyed in a crowded and ill-fitted place on a pinch. We felicitated ourselves at even this. We really felt that we were quite fortunate in getting such a locality to hail from. Captain N.S. Clark got an adjoining tenement, of similar construction and use, but much larger, for his numerous family. Some of the ladies took shelter at the domicil of an intelligent American family (Mr. E.B. Allen's) who had preceded us a short time with an adventure of merchandise. One or two of the ladies abode temporarily in the tents of their husbands. The unmarried officers looked for nothing better than life in camp. I accepted an invitation at the mess-table of the officers. Besides this sudden influx of population, there were followers and hucksters of various hues who hoped to make their profits from the soldiery. There was not a nook in the scraggy-looking little antique village but what was sought for with avidity and thronged with occupants. Whoever has seen a flock of hungry pigeons, in the spring, alight on the leaf-covered ground, beneath a forest, and apply the busy powers of claw and beak to obtain a share of the hidden acorns that may be scratched up from beneath, may form some just notion of the pressing hurry and bustle that marked life in this place. The enhanced price that everything bore was one of the results of this sudden influx of consumers and occupants.

8th. I went to rest last night with the heavy murmuring sound of the falls in my ears, broken at short intervals by the busy thump-thump-thump of the Indian drum; for it is to be added, to the otherwise crowded state of the place, that the open grounds and river-side greens of the village, which stretch along irregularly for a mile or two, are filled with the lodges of visiting Indian bands from the interior. The last month of spring and the early summer constitute, in fact, a kind of carnival for the natives. It is at this season that the traders, who have wintered in the interior, come out with their furs to the frontier posts of St. Mary's, Drummond Island, and Michilimackinack, to renew their stocks of goods. The Indians, who have done hunting at this season, as the furred animals are now changing their hair, and the pelt becomes bad, follow them to enjoy themselves along the open shores of the lakes, and share in the good things that may fall to their lot, either from the traders at their places of outfit, from presents issued by the British or American governments at their chief posts, or from merchants in the towns, to whom a few concealed skins are still reserved to trade. An Indian's time appears to be worth but little to him at this season, if at any season. He lives most precariously on small things, such as he can pick up as he travels loitering along the lake shores, or strolls, with easy footsteps, about the forest precincts of his lodge. A single fish, or a bird or squirrel, now and then, serves to mitigate, if it does not satisfy, hunger. He has but little, I am told, at the best estate; but, to make amends for this, he is satisfied and even happy with little. This is certainly a philosophic way of taking life, but it is, if I do not mistake it, stoic philosophy, and has been learned, by painful lessons of want, from early youth and childhood. Where want is the common lot, the power of endurance which the race have must be a common attainment.

9th. This day I hired an interpreter for the government, to attend at the office daily, a burly-faced, large man of some five-and-forty, by the name of Yarns. He tells me that he was born at Fort Niagara, of Irish parentage, to which an originally fair skin, blue eyes, and sandy hair, bear testimony. He has spent life, it seems, knocking about trading posts, in the Indian country, being married, has metif children, and speaks the Chippewa tongue fluently--I do not know how accurately.

The day which has closed has been a busy day, having been signalized as the date of my first public council with the Indians. It has ushered in my first diplomatic effort. For this purpose, all the bands present were invited to repair to camp, where Colonel Brady, at the appointed hour, ordered his men under arms, in full dress. They were formed in a hollow square in front of his marque. The American flag waved from a lofty staff. The day was bright and fine, and everything was well arranged to have the best effect upon the minds of the Indians. As the throng of both resident and foreign bands approached, headed by their chiefs, they were seated in the square. It was noticed that the chiefs were generally tall and striking-looking persons, of dignified manners, and well and even richly dressed. One of the chiefs of the home band, called Sassaba, who was generally known by the sobriquet of the Count, appeared in a scarlet uniform, with epaulets and a sword. The other chiefs observed their native costume, which is, with this tribe, a toga of blue broadcloth, folded and held by one hand on the breast, over a light-figured calico shirt, red cloth leggins and beaded moccasons, a belt or baldric about the waist, sustaining a knife-sheath and pouch, and a frontlet of skin or something of the sort, around the forehead, environed generally with eagles' feathers.

When the whole were seated, the colonel informed them that I had been sent by their great father the President to reside among them, that respect was due me in that capacity, and that I would now address them. I had directed a quantity of tobacco to be laid before them; and offered them the pipe with the customary ceremonies. Being a novice in addresses of this kind, I had sat down early in the morning, in my crowded log hut, and written an address, couched in such a manner, and with such allusions and appeals, as I supposed would be most appropriate. I was not mistaken, if I could judge by the responses made at the close of each sentence, as it was interpreted. The whole address was evidently well received, and responded to in a friendly manner, by the ruling chief, a tall, majestic, and graceful person named Shingabawossin, or the Image Stone, and by all who spoke except the Count. He made use of some intemperate, or ill-timed expressions, which were not interpreted, but which brought out a strong rebuke from Mr. Johnston, who, being familiar with the Indian language, gave vent in their tongue to his quick and high-toned feelings of propriety on the occasion. Colonel Brady then made some remarks to the chiefs, dictated by the position he occupied as being about to take post, permanently, in their country. He referred to the treaty of purchase made at these falls two years before by Governor Cass. He told the Indians that he should not occupy their ancient encamping and burial-ground on the hill, but would select the next best site for his troops. This announcement was received with great satisfaction, as denoted by a heavy response of approbation on the part of the Indians; and the council closed to the apparent mutual satisfaction of all. I augured well from all I heard respecting it, as coming from the Indians, and was resolved to follow it up zealously, by cultivating the best understanding with this powerful and hitherto hostile tribe, namely the Chippewas, or, as they call themselves, Od-jib-wae2. To this end, as well as for my amusement, I commenced a vocabulary, and resolved to study their language, manners, customs, &c.

10th. On examining the topography and advantages of the ground, Colonel Brady determined to take possession of a lot enclosed and dwelling, originally the property of the North West Company, and known as the Nolin House, but now the property of Mr. C.O. Ermatinger3. To this place the troops were marched, soon after the close of the Indian council mentioned, and encamped within the area. This area was enclosed with cedar pickets. The dwelling-house, which occupied an eminence some eighth of a mile below the falls, was in old times regarded as a princely chateau of the once powerful lords of the North West Fur Trade, but is now in a decayed and ruinous state. It was nick-named "Hotel Flanagan." Dilapidated as it was, there was a good deal of room under its roof, and it afforded quarters for most of the officers' families, who must otherwise have remained in open tents. The enclosure had also one or two stone houses, which furnished accommodations to the quartermaster's and subsistence and medical departments. Every nerve was now directed to fit up the place, complete the enclosure, and furnish it with gates; to build a temporary guard-house, and complete other military fixtures of the new cantonment. The edifice also underwent such repairs as served to fence out, as much as possible, the winds and snows of a severe winter--a winter which every one dreads the approach of, and the severity of which was perhaps magnified in proportion as it was unknown.

11th. What my eyes have seen and my ears have heard, I must believe; and what is their testimony respecting the condition of the Indian on the frontiers? He is not, like Falstaff's men, "food for powder," but he is food for whisky. Whisky is the great means of drawing from him his furs and skins. To obtain it, he makes a beast of himself, and allows his family to go hungry and half naked. And how feeble is the force of law, where all are leagued in the golden bonds of interest to break it! He is indeed

            "Like some neglected shrub at random cast
            That shades the steep and sighs at every blast."

12th. I received by to-day's mail a note from De Witt Clinton, Governor of New York. America has produced few men who have united civic and literary tastes and talents of a high order more fully than he does. He early and ably investigated the history and antiquities of Western New York. He views with a comprehensive judgment the great area of the West, and knows that its fertility and resources must render it, at no distant day, the home of future millions. He was among the earliest to appreciate the mineralogical and geographical researches which I made in that field. He renewed the interest, which, as a New Yorker, he felt in my history and fortunes, after my return from the head of the Mississippi in 1820. He opened his library and house to me freely; and I have to notice his continued interest since my coming here. In the letter which has just reached me, he encloses a favorable notice of my recent Narrative of the Expedition to the Sources of the Mississippi, from Sir Humphrey Davy. If there were nothing else, in such a notice from such a source but the stimulus it gives to exertion, that alone is worth to a man in my position "pearls and diamonds."

Colonel Brady, who is active in daily perambulating the woods, to make himself acquainted with the environs, seeking, at the same time, the best places of finding wood and timber, for the purposes of his command, brought me a twig of the Sorbus Americana, a new species of tree to him, in the American forest, of which he asked me the name. This tree is found in occasional groups extensively in the region of the upper Lake latitudes, where it is called the mountain ash. In the expedition to the sources of the Mississippi in 1820, it was observed on the southern shores of Lake Superior, which are on the average a little north of latitude 36 deg. 30'. This tree does not in these straits attain much size; a trunk of six to eight inches diameter is large. Its leaves, flowers, and fruit all tend to make it a very attractive species for shade and ornament. It must have a rich soil, but, this requisite granted, it delights in wet moist lands, and will thrive with its roots in springy grounds.

15th. One of the curious superstitions of the Chippewas, respecting the location of spiritual existences, revealed itself to-day. There is quite an eminence nearly a mile back of the new cantonment, which is called La Butte de Terre by the French, and Wudjuwong4, or Place of the Mountain, by the natives. This eminence is covered with a fine growth of forest trees, and lies in the track of an ancient Indian hunting path. About half way between the brow of the hill and the cantonment, there formerly stood a large tree of this species, partly hollow, from the recesses of which, Indian tradition says, there issued, on a calm day, a sound like the voice of a spirit or monedo. It resembled the sounds of their own drum. It was therefore considered as the residence of some powerful spirit, and deemed sacred. To mark their regard for the place, they began to deposit at its foot bows and twigs of the same species of tree, as they passed it, from year to year, to and from their hunting-grounds. These offerings began long before the French came to the country, and were continued up to this time. Some years ago, the tree had become so much decayed that it blew down during a storm, but young shoots came up from its roots, and the natives continued to make these offerings of twigs, long after the original trunk had wholly decayed. A few days ago, Colonel Brady directed a road to be cut from the cantonment to the hill, sixty feet wide, in order to procure wood from the hill for the garrison. This road passed over the site of the sacred tree, and the men, without knowing it, removed the consecrated pile of offerings. It may serve to show a curious coincidence in the superstitions of nations, between whom, however, there is not the slightest probability of national affiliation, or even intercourse, to remark that this sacred manito tree was a very large species of the Scottish rowan or mountain ash.

16th. I this day left the mess-table of my kind friends, the officers of the second infantry, and went to the hospitable domicil of Mr. Johnston, who has the warm-hearted frankness of the Irish character, and offers the civilities of life with the air and manner of a prince. I flatter myself with the opportunity of profiting greatly while under his roof, in the polished circle of his household, and in his ripe experience and knowledge of the Indian character, manners, and customs, and in the curious philosophical traits of the Indian language. It is refreshing to find a person who, in reference to this language, knows the difference between the conjugation of a verb and the declension of a noun. There is a prospect, at least, of getting at the grammatical principles, by which they conjoin and build up words. It has been intolerable to me to converse with Indian traders and interpreters here, who have, for half their lives, been using a language without being able to identify with precision person, mood, tense, or any of the first laws of grammatical utterance.

17th. It is customary with the Chippewas at this place, when an inmate of the lodge is sick, to procure a thin sapling some twenty to thirty feet long, from which, after it has been trimmed, the bark is peeled. Native paints are then smeared over it as caprice dictates. To the slender top are then tied bits of scarlet, blue cloth, beads, or some other objects which are deemed acceptable to the manito or spirit, who has, it is believed, sent sickness to the lodge as a mark of his displeasure. The pole is then raised in front of the lodge and firmly adjusted in the ground. The sight of these manito poles gives quite a peculiar air to an Indian encampment. Not knowing, however, the value attached to them, one of the officers, a few days after our arrival, having occasion for tent poles, sent one of his men for one of these poles of sacrifice; but its loss was soon observed by the Indians, who promptly reclaimed it, and restored it to the exact position which it occupied before. There is, in fact, such a subtle and universal belief in the doctrine and agency of minor spirits of malign or benignant influence among the Indians who surround the cantonment, or visit the agency, and who are encamped at this season in great numbers in the open spaces of the village or its vicinity, that we are in constant danger of trespassing against some Indian custom, and of giving offence where it was least intended. It is said that one cause of the preference which the Indians have ever manifested for the French, is the respect which they are accustomed to pay to all their religious or superstitious observances, whereas an Englishman or an American is apt, either to take no pains to conceal his disgust for their superstitions, or to speak out bluntly against them.

18th. Sulphuret of Copper.--I received a specimen of this mineral, which is represented to have been obtained on the Island of Saint Joseph's, in these straits (Saint Mary's). It has the usual brass yellow color of the sulphurets of this metal, and furnishes a hint for seeking that hitherto undiscovered, but valuable species of the ore in this vicinity. Hitherto, we have found the metal chiefly in the native form, or in the condition of a carbonate, the first being a form of it which has not in Europe been found in large quantities, and the second not containing a sufficient per centage to repay well the cost of smelting.

20th. Superstitious regard for Woman.--Some of the rites and notions of these northern barbarians are curious. The following custom is stated to me to have been formerly prevalent among the Chippewas: After their corn-planting, a labor which falls to the share of the women, and as soon as the young blades began to shoot up from the hills, it was customary for the female head of the family to perform a circuit around the field in a state of nudity. For this purpose, she chose a dark evening, and after divesting herself of her machecota, held it in her hands dragging it behind her as she ran, and in this way compassed the field. This singular rite was believed to protect the corn from blight and the ravages of worms and vermin, and to insure a good crop. It was believed that neither worms nor vermin could cross the mystic or enchanted ring made by the nocturnal footsteps of the wife, nor any mildew or canker affect the growing stalks and ears.

21st. Grand Island, in Lake Superior, lies transversely in the lake, just beyond the termination of the precipitous coast of the Pictured Rocks. Its southern end is crescent-shaped, and forms a singularly fine harbor for vessels, which will one day be appreciated. The Indian band occupying it was formerly numerous. There are many stories still current of their former prowess and traits of hospitality and generosity, and of the skill of their old seers, and divining-men, i.e. Jossakeeds. Its present Indian population is reduced to forty-six souls, of whom ten are men, sixteen women, and twenty children. Of the men, nine are married, one of whom has two wives, and there are two widows.

Of this band the Star family, so called, have long possessed the chieftainship, and are remarkable on several accounts. There are eleven children of them now living, five of whom are males, all by one mother, who is still living. Sabboo is the principal man. The South Bird, his elder, and the ruling chief, has removed to Bay de Nocquet. At this island, story says, formerly lived the noted warrior and meta, Sagima; and it was also, according to Indian mythology, the residence of Mishosha, who owned a magic canoe, that would shoot through the water by uttering a charmed word.

22d. I have heard much of the ancient Chippewa capital of La Pointe, as the French call it, or Chegoimegon, in Lake Superior, situated near its west end, or head. The Chippewas and their friends, the old traders and Boisbrules, and Canadians, are never tired of telling of it. All their great men of old times are located there. It was there that their Mudjekewis, king or chief ruler, lived, and, as some relate, that an eternal fire was kept up with a sort of rude temple service. At that place lived, in comparatively modern times, Wabojeeg and Andaigweos, and there still lives one of their descendants in Gitchee Waishkee, the Great First-born, or, as he is familiarly called, Pezhickee, or the Buffalo, a chief decorated with British insignia. His band is estimated at one hundred and eighteen souls, of whom thirty-four are adult males, forty-one females, and forty-three children. Mizi, the Catfish, one of the heads of families of this band, who has figured about here this summer, is not a chief, but a speaker, which gives him some eclat. He is a sort of petty trader too, being credited with little adventures of goods by a dealer on the opposite, or British shores.

23d. There are few animals which the Indians reject as food. On this subject they literally fulfil the declaration of Paul, "that every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused;" but I fear the poor creatures, in these straits, do anything but show the true spirit of thanksgiving in which the admonition is given. There is nothing apparently in the assertion respecting Indians distinguishing between clean and unclean beasts; I have heard, however, that crows and vultures are not eaten, but, when they are pushed by hunger, whatever can sustain life is taken.

The truth is, the calls of hunger are often so pressing to these northern Indians, that anything in the shape of animal fibre, that will keep soul and body together, is eaten in times of their greatest want. A striking instance of this kind has just occurred, in the case of a horse killed in the public service. The animal had, to use the teamster's phrase, been snagged, and was obliged to be shot. To prevent unpleasant effects in hot summer weather, the carcass was buried in the sand; but as soon as the numerous bands of Indians, who are encamped here, learned the fact, they dug up the animal, which was, however, nowise diseased, and took it to their camp for food.

1: This officer fell at the battle of Ochechubby, in Florida, as colonel of the sixth infantry, gallantly leading his men to battle.

2: This word has its pluraling thus, Od-jib-waeig.

3: For the property thus taken possession of, the United States Government, through the Quartermaster's Department, paid the claimant the just and full amount awarded by appraisers.

4: Wudijoo, a mountain--ong denotes locality.

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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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