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Murder of Soan-ga-ge-zhick

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Murder of Soan-ga-ge-zhick, a Chippewa, at the head of the falls--Indian mode of interment--Indian prophetess--Topic of interpreters and interpretation--Mode of studying the Indian language--The Johnston family--Visits--Katewabeda, chief of Sandy Lake--Indian mythology, and oral tales and legends--Literary opinion--Political opinion--Visit of the chief Little Pine--Visit of Wabishkepenais--A despairing Indian--Geography.

1822. July 26th. A tragic occurrence took place last night, at the head of the portage, resulting in the death of a Chippewa, which is believed to be wholly attributable to the use of ardent spirits in the Indian camps. As soon as I heard the facts, and not knowing to what lengths the spirit of retaliation might go, I requested of Colonel Brady a few men, with a non-commissioned officer, and proceeded, taking my interpreter along, to the spot. The portage road winds along about three-fourths of a mile, near the rapids, and all the way, within the full sound of the roaring water, when it opens on a green, which is the ancient camping ground, at the head of the falls. A footpath leads still higher, by clumps of bushes and copsewood, to the borders of a shallow bay, where in a small opening I somewhat abruptly came to the body of the murdered man. He was a Chippewa from the interior called Soan-ga-ge-zhick, or the Strong Sky. He had been laid out, by his relatives, and dressed in his best apparel, with a kind of cap of blue cloth and a fillet round his head. His lodge, occupied by his widow and three small children, stood near. On examination, he had been stabbed in several places, deeply in both thighs. These wounds might not have proved fatal; but there was a subsequent blow, with a small tomahawk, upon his forehead, above the left eye. He was entirely dead, and had been found so, on searching for him at night, by his wife. It appeared that he had been drinking during the evening and night, with an Indian half-breed of the Chippewa River, of the name of Gaulthier. This fellow, finding he had killed him, had taken his canoe and fled. Both had been intoxicated. I directed the body to be interred, at the public charge, on the ancient burial hill of the Chippewas, near the cantonment. The usual shroud, on such occasions, is a new blanket; a grave was dug, and the body very carefully dressed, laid in the coffin, beside the grave. Before the lid was fastened, an aged Indian came forward, and pronounced a funeral oration. He recited the traits of his character. He addressed the dead man direct. He told him that he had reached the end of his journey first, that they should all follow him soon to the land of the dead, and again meet. He gave him directions for his journey. He offered a brief admonition of dangers. He bid him adieu. The brother of the deceased then stept forward, and, having removed the head-dress of the slain man, pulled out some locks of hair as a memento. The head-dress was then carefully replaced, the lid of the coffin fastened, and the corpse let down into the ground. Two stout poles were then laid over the open grave. The brother approached the widow and stood still. The orator then addressed a few words to both, telling the survivor to perform a brother's part by the widow. He then took her by the hand, and led her carefully across the open grave, over the two poles. This closed the ceremony, and the grave was then filled, and the crowd of white and red men dispersed. At night a small flickering fire was built by the Indian relatives of the murdered man, at the head of the grave.

27th. Making inquiries respecting the family of Soan-ga-ge-zhick, in order to direct some provisions to be issued to them, I learned that the widow is a prophetess among her people, or in other words a female Jossakeed, and is supposed to have much influence in this way. This denotes that the prophetic office is not, as has been supposed, confined to males. I cannot better indicate the meaning of the word Jossakeed than to say that it is a person who makes oracular responses from a close lodge of peculiar construction, where the inmate is supposed to be surrounded by superhuman influences, which impart the power of looking into futurity. It is, manifestly, the ancient office of a seer, and after making interrogatories about it, from persons supposed to be best acquainted with the manners and customs of the people, the existence of such an order of persons among them offers a curious coincidence with one of the earliest superstitions of mankind. I further learn that there is nothing hereditary in the descent of such priestly functions; that any one, who acquires a character for sanctity or skill therein among the bands, may assume the duties, and will secure a rank and respect in proportion to his supposed skill therein. Having spoken of descent, it is added, by my informants, that the widow of Strong Sky, is a granddaughter of the noted war-chief Wabodjeeg1, of Chegoimegon, Lake Superior, who, some half a century ago, had obtained a high reputation with his people for his military skill and bravery, in the war against the Ottogamies and Sioux. They talk of him as having been a sort of Rajah, who could at any time get men to follow him.

28th. I have had an interview to-day with Ka-ba-konse (Little Hawk), brother of the murdered Strong Sky.

It does not seem possible to obtain much information respecting their secret beliefs and superstitions direct from the Indians. The attempts I have made thus far have, at least, been unsuccessful, partly, perhaps, because the topic was not properly apprehended by them, or by my ordinary office interpreter, who, I find, is soon run a-muck by anything but the plainest and most ordinary line of inquiry. A man of the Indian frontiers, who has lived all his life to eat and drink, to buy and sell, and has grown old in this devotion to the means necessary to secure the material necessaries of life is not easily roused up to intellectual ardor. I find this to be the case with my present interpreter, and he is, perhaps, not inferior to the general run of paid interpreters. But as I find, in my intercourse, the growing difficulties of verbal communication with the Indians on topics at all out of the ordinary routine of business, I begin to feel less surprised at the numerous misapprehensions of the actual character, manners, and customs of the Indians, which are found in books. I speak as to the communication of exact ideas of their beliefs. As to literal exactitude in such communications, my inquiries have already convinced me that there must be other and higher standards than a hap-hazard I-au-ne-kun-o-tau-gade, or trade interpreter, before the thing can be attempted. Fortunately, I have, in my kind and polite friend Mr. Johnston, who has given me temporary quarters at his house, and the several intelligent members of his family, the means of looking deeper into the powers and structure of the language, and am pressing these advantages, amidst the pauses of business, with all my ardor and assiduity.

The study of the language, and the formation of a vocabulary and grammar have almost imperceptibly become an absorbing object, although I have been but a short time at the place, and the plan interests me so much, that I actually regret the time that is lost from it, in the ordinary visits of comity and ceremony, which are, however, necessary. My method is to interrogate all persons visiting the office, white and red, who promise to be useful subjects of information during the day, and to test my inquiries in the evening by reference to the Johnstons, who, being educated, and speaking at once both the English and Odjibwa correctly, offer a higher and more reliable standard than usual.

Mr. Johnston's family consists of ten persons, though all are not constantly present. He is himself a native of the county of Antrim, in the north of Ireland, his father having possessed an estate at Craige, near the Giant's Causeway. He came to America in the last presidential term of General Washington, having a brother at that time settled at Albany, and after visiting Montreal and Quebec, he fell into company with the sort of half-baronial class of north-west fur traders, who struck his fancy. By their advice, he went to Michilimackinack and Lake Superior, where he became attached to, and subsequently married the younger daughter of Wabojeeg, a northern Powhatan, who has been before mentioned. There are four sons and four daughters, to the education of all of whom he has paid the utmost attention. His eldest son was first placed in the English navy, and is now a lieutenant in the land service, having been badly wounded and cut in the memorable battle with Commodore Perry on Lake Eric, in 1813. The next eldest is engaged in commerce. The eldest daughter was educated in Ireland, and the two next at Sandwich, near Detroit. These constituted the adults; there are two sons and a daughter, still in their school-days. All possess agreeable, easy manners and refinement. Mrs. Johnston is a woman of excellent judgment and good sense; she is referred to on abstruse points of the Indian ceremonies and usages, so that I have in fact stumbled, as it were, on the only family in North West America who could, in Indian lore, have acted as my "guide, philosopher and friend."

30th. I received yesterday a second visit from Ka-ta-wa-be-da, or the Broken Tooth chief of Sandy Lake, on the Upper Mississippi, who is generally known by his French name of Breshieu, and at the close of the interview gave him a requisition on the commissary for some provisions to enable him to return to his home. The Indians must be led by a very plain path and a friendly hand. Feeling and preference are subsequent manifestations. I took this occasion to state to him the objects and policy of the government by the establishment at these falls of a post and agency, placing it upon its true basis, namely, the preservation of peace upon the frontiers, and the due observance, by all parties, of the laws respecting trade and intercourse with the tribes, and securing justice both to them and to our citizens, particularly by the act for the exclusion of ardent spirits from the Indian country. By the agency, a door was opened through which they could communicate their wishes to the President, and he was also enabled to state his mind to them. All who opened their ears truly to the voice of their American father would be included among the recipients of his favors. He felt kindly to all, but those only who hearkened to his council would be allowed, as he had been, to share in the usual privileges which the agency at this place secured to them. Having drawn his provisions, and duly reflected on what was said by me, he returned to-day to bid me adieu, on his setting out to go home, and to express his thanks for my kindness and advice. The old chief, who has long exercised his sway in the region of Sandy Lake, made a well-considered speech in reply to mine of yesterday, in which he took the ground of neutrality as between the United States and Great Britain, and averred that he had ever been the friend of the white race and of traders who came into the country, and declared himself the friend of peace.

At the conclusion of this interview, I gave him a small sea-shell from my cabinet, as a mark of my respect, and a token which would remind him of my advice. I remembered that the Indians of the continent have always set a high value on wampum, which is made solely from sea-shells, and have attributed a kind of sacredness for this class of productions.

31st. Indian Mythology.--Nothing has surprised me more in the conversations which I have had with persons acquainted with the Indian customs and character, than to find that the Chippewas amuse themselves with oral tales of a mythological or allegorical character. Some of these tales, which I have heard, are quite fanciful, and the wildest of them are very characteristic of their notions and customs. They often take the form of allegory, and in this shape appear designed to teach some truth or illustrate some maxim. The fact, indeed, of such a fund of fictitious legendary matter is quite a discovery, and speaks more for the intellect of the race than any trait I have heard. Who would have imagined that these wandering foresters should have possessed such a resource? What have all the voyagers and remarkers from the days of Cabot and Raleigh been about, not to have discovered this curious trait, which lifts up indeed a curtain, as it were, upon the Indian mind, and exhibits it in an entirely new character?

August 1st. Every day increases the interest which the question of the investigation of the Indian languages and customs assumes in my mind. My facilities for pursuing these inquiries and for the general transaction of the official business has been increased this day by my removing into a new and more convenient office, situated some ninety or a hundred yards west of my former position, but on a line with it, and fronting, like the former room, on an ancient green on the river's banks. The St. Mary's River is here about three-fourths of a mile wide, and the green in front of my office is covered with Indian lodges, and presents a noble expanse. I have now a building some thirty-six feet square, built of squared timber, jointed with mortar and whitewashed, so as to give it a neat appearance. The interior is divided into a room some twenty feet by thirty-six, with two small ante-rooms. A large cast iron Montreal stove, which will take in three feet wood, occupies the centre. The walls are plastered, and the room moderately lighted. The rear of the lot has a blacksmith shop. The interpreter has quarters near by. The gate of the new cantonment is some three hundred yards west of my door, and there is thus brought within a small compass the means of transacting the affairs of the agency during the approaching and expected severe winter. These are the best arrangements that can be made, better indeed than I had reason to expect on first landing here.

3d. I wrote to-day to Dr. Hosack, expressing my thanks for the extract of a letter, which he had enclosed me from Sir Humphrey Davy, dated London, March 24th, 1822, in which this eminent philosopher expresses his opinion on my Narrative Journal, a copy of which Dr. Hosack had sent him. "Schoolcraft's Narrative is admirable," observes Sir Humphrey Davy, "both for the facts it develops, and for the simplicity and clearness of the details. He has accomplished great things by such means, and offers a good model for a traveler in a new country. I lent his book to our veteran philosophical geographer, Major Kennel, who was highly pleased with it. Copies of it would sell well in England."

A friend sends me a prospectus for a paper under the title of "Washington Republican," which has just been established at the seat of government, earnestly advocating the election of John C. Calhoun for the presidency in 1824.

4th. A chief of a shrewd and grave countenance, and more than the ordinary cast of thought, visited me this morning, and gave me his hand, with the ordinary salutation of Nosa (my father). The interpreter introduced him by the name of Little Pine, or Shingwalkonee, and as a person of some consequence among the Indians, being a meta, a wabeno, a counselor, a war chief, and an orator or speaker. He had a tuft of beard on his chin, wore a hat, and had some other traits in his dress and gear which smacked of civilization. His residence is stated to be, for the most part, on the British side of the river, but he traces his lineage from the old Crane band here. I thought him to be a man of more than the ordinary Indian forecast. He appeared to be a person who, having seen all the military developments on these shores during the last month, thought he would cross over the channel with a retinue, to see what the Chemoquemon2 was about. He had also, perhaps, a shrewd Indian inkling that some presents might be distributed here during the season.

10th. A strange-looking Indian came in from the forest wearing an American silver medal. He looked haggard and forsaken. It will be recollected by those who have read my Narrative Journal of the expedition of 1820, that Governor Cass became lost and entangled among the sharp mountainous passes of the River Ontonagon, in his attempts to reach the party who had, at an early part of the day, gone forward to the site of the Copper Rock; and that he bestowed a medal on a young Chippewa, who had rendered his party and himself services during its stay on that river. This individual was among the earlier visitors who presented himself at my office. He recognized me as one of the party on that occasion. He was introduced to me by the name of Wabish-ke-pe-nace, or the White Bird, and seemed to rouse up from a settled look of melancholy when referring to those events. It appears that his conduct as a guide on that occasion had made him unpopular with the band, who told him he had received an honor for that which should be condemned. That it was a crime to show the Americans their wealth, and the Great Spirit did not approve it. His dress had something wild and forlorn, as well as his countenance.

17th. A week or two ago, an Indian, called Sa-ne-baw, or the Ribbon, who encamped on the green in front of my office, fell sick. I requested Dr. Wheaton to visit him, but it did not appear that there was any disease of either an acute or chronic character which could be ascertained. The man seemed to be in a low desponding state. Some small medicines were administered, but he evinced no symptoms of restoration. He rather appeared to be pining away, with some secret mental canker. The very spirit of despair was depicted in his visage. Young Wheaton, a brother of the Doctor, and Lieutenant C. Morton, United States Army, visited him daily in company, with much solicitude; but no effort to rally him, physically or mentally, was successful, and he died this morning. "He died," said the former to me, "because he would die." The Indians seem to me a people who are prone to despond, and easily sink into frames of despair.

I received a letter to-day from the veteran geographer, Mr. W. Darby, of Philadelphia, brought by the hands of a friend, a Mr. Toosey, through whom he submitted to me a list of geographical and statistical queries relating to some generic points, which he is investigating in connection with his forthcoming Gazetteer of the United States.

1: White Fisher. The fisher is a small furred animal resembling the mustela.

2: Chemoquemon, an American; from Gitchee great, moquemon a knife.

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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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