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A Pic-nic Party at the Foot of Lake Superior

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

A pic-nic party at the foot of Lake Superior--Canoe--Scenery--Descent of St. Mary's Falls--Etymology of the Indian names of Sault Ste. Marie, and Lake Superior--The wild rice plant--Indian trade--American Fur Company--Distribution of presents--Death of Sassaba--Epitaph--Indian capacity to count--Oral literature--Research--Self-reliance.

1822. August 20th. I Went with a pic-nic to Gross Cape, a romantic promontory at the foot of Lake Superior. This elevation stands on the north shore of the straits, and consequently in Canada. It overlooks a noble expanse of waters and islands, constituting one of the most magnificent series of views of American scenery. Immediately opposite stands the scarcely less elevated, and not less celebrated promontory of Point Iroquois, the Na-do-wa-we-gon-ing, or Place of Iroquois Bones, of the Chippewas. These two promontories stand like the pillars of Hercules which guard the entrance into the Mediterranean, and their office is to mark the foot of the mighty Superior, a lake which may not, inaptly, be deemed another Mediterranean Sea. The morning chosen to visit this scene was fine; the means of conveyance chosen was the novel and fairy-like barque of the Chippewas, which they denominate Che-maun, but which we, from a corruption of a Charib term as old as the days of Columbus, call Canoe. It is made of the rind of the betula papyracea, or white birch, sewed together with the fine fibrous roots of the cedaror spruce, and is made water-tight by covering the seams with boiled pine rosin, the whole being distended over and supported by very thin ribs and cross-bars of cedar, curiously carved and framed together. It is turned up, at either end, like a gondola, and the sides and gunwales fancifully painted. The whole structure is light, and was easily carried by two men on their shoulders; yet will bear a weight of more than a ton on the water. It is moved with cedar paddles, and the Canadians who managed it, kept time in their strokes, and regulated them to the sonorous cadence of some of their simple boat songs. Our party consisted of several ladies and gentlemen. We carried the elements of a pic-nic. We moved rapidly. The views on all sides were novel and delightful. The water in which the men struck their paddles was pure as crystal. The air was perfectly exhilarating from its purity. The distance about three leagues. We landed a few moments at Point aux Pins, to range along the clean sandy shore, and sandy plains, now abounding in fine whortleberries. Directly on putting out from this, the broad view of the entrance into the lake burst upon us. It is magnificent. A line of blue water stretched like a thread on the horizon, between cape and cape, say five miles. Beyond it is what the Chippewas call Bub-eesh-ko-be, meaning the far off, indistinct prospect of a water scene, till the reality, in the feeble power of human vision, loses itself in the clouds and sky. The two prominences of Point Iroquois and Gross Cape are very different in character. The former is a bold eminence covered with trees, and having all the appearance of youth and verdure. The latter is but the end, so to say, of a towering ridge of dark primary rocks with a few stunted cedars. The first exhibits, on inspection, a formation of sandstone and reproduced rocks, piled stratum super stratum, and covered with boulder drifts and alluvion. The second is a massive mountain ridge of the northern sienite, abounding in black crystaline hornblende, and flanked at lower altitudes, in front, in some places, by a sort of trachyte. We clambered up and over the bold undulations of the latter, till we were fatigued. We stood on the highest pinnacle, and gazed on the "blue profound" of Superior, the great water or Gitchegomee of the Indians. We looked down far below at the clean ridges of pebbles, and the transparent water. After gazing, and looking, and reveling in the wild magnificence of views, we picked our way, crag by crag, to the shore, and sat down on the shining banks of black, white, and mottled pebbles, and did ample justice to the contents of our baskets of good things. This always restores one's spirits. We forget the toil in the present enjoyment. And having done this, and giving our last looks at what has been poetically called the Father of Lakes, we put out, with paddles and song, and every heart beating in unison with the scene, for our starting-point at Ba-wa-teeg, or Pa-wa-teeg, alias Sault Ste. Marie. But the half of my story would not be told, if I did not add that, as we gained the brink of the rapids, and began to feel the suction of the wide current that leaps, jump after jump, over that foaming bed, our inclinations and our courage rose together to go down the formidable pass; and having full faith in the long-tried pilotage of our guide, Tom Shaw, down we went, rushing at times like a thunderbolt, then turned by a dab of the pole of our guide, on a rock, shooting off in eschelon, and then careering down another schute, or water bolt, till we thus dodged every rock, and came out below with a full roaring chorus of our Canadians, who, as they cleared the last danger, hoisted our starry flag at the same moment that they struck up one of their wild and joyous, songs.

22d. I have questioned the Indians closely for the names of Sault Ste. Marie and Lake Superior. They are destined to hold an important rank in our future geography. But the result is not agreeable to preconceived poetic notions. When the French first came to these falls, they found the Chippewas, the falls signifying, descriptively, Shallow water pitching over rocks, or by a prepositional form of the term, at the place of shallow water, pitching over rocks. Such is the meaning of the words Pa-wa-teeg and Pa-wa-ting. The terms cover more precisely the idea which we express by the word cascade. The French call a cascade a Leap or Sault; but Sault alone would not be distinctive, as they had already applied the term to some striking passes on the St. Lawrence and other places. They therefore, in conformity with their general usage, added the name of a patron saint to the term by calling it Sault de Ste. Marie, i.e. Leap of Saint Mary, to distinguish it from other Leaps, or Saults. Now as the word Sainte, as here used, is feminine, it must, in its abbreviated form, be written Ste. The preposition de (the) is usually dropped. Use has further now dropped the sound of the letter l from Sault. But as, in the reforms of the French dictionary, the ancient geographical names of places remain unaffected, the true phraseology is SAULT STE. MARIE.

Having named the falls a Sault, they went a step further, and called the Odjibwa Indians who lived at it, Saulteurs, or People of the Sault. Hence this has ever remained the French name for Chippewas.

In the term Gitchegomee, the name for Superior, we have a specimen of their mode of making compounds. Gitche signifies something great, or possessing the property of positive magnitude. Gomee is itself a compound phrase, denoting, when so conjoined, a large body of water. It is the objective member of their term for the sea; but is governed by its antecedent, and may be used in describing other and minor, even the most minute liquid bodies, as we hear it, in the compound term mushkuagomee, i.e. strong drink. Under the government of the term gitchee, it appears to express simply the sense of great water, but conveys the idea, to the Indian mind, of sea-water. I have cast about, to find a sonorous form of elision, in which it may come into popular use, but find nothing more eligible than I-go-mee, or Igoma. A more practical word, in the shape of a new compound, may be made in Algoma, a term in which the first syllable of the generic name of this tribe of the Algonquin stock, harmonizes very well with the Indian idea of goma (sea), giving us, Sea of the Algonquins. The term may be objected to, as the result of a grammatical abbreviation, but if not adopted practically, it may do as a poetical synonym for this great lake. Such is, at least, the result of a full discussion of these names, with the very best speakers of the language.

30th. The Wild Rice Plant.--Having received a request for some of this native grain to send abroad, and knowing that the smoked rice, such as the Indians usually bring in, will not germinate, I this day dispatched my interpreter in a canoe, with some Indians, to the northern shores of the straits to gather some of it for seed; the result was successful. This plant may be deemed a precious gift of nature to the natives, who spread over many degrees of northern latitude. They call it mon-o-min, a compound descriptive phrase, which differs only from their name for the zea maize in putting an o--the third syllable--for the imperative future in dau.

Sept. 1st. Indian Trade.--Congress has provided a code of laws to regulate this, the object of which is a good one, and the provisions of the various enactments appear to be founded on the highest principles of justice and benevolence. It is still a question, it appears to me, whether some of these provisions do not merely sanction by the forms of law what was formerly done, not always well, without it, and whether the measure of protection which they afford to the tribes against the cupidity of the whites is very efficacious. It was heretofore pretended by the British traders that all this country belonged to Great Britain, and they told the Indians that the war of 1812 would settle all this. It did so; but, contrary to their wishes and the predictions to the Indians, it settled it precisely on the basis of the treaty of 1783, which ran the boundary line through the straits of Saint Mary's and Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods. As soon as the smoke of the war cleared off, namely, in 1816, Congress enacted that British traders and capital should be excluded from the American lines, that no British subjects should receive licenses to trade, and that all such persons who went inland in subordinate capacities should be bonded for by the American traders who employed them. This law seemed to bear particularly on this section of country, and is generally understood to have been passed to throw the old North West Company, and other British traders, trading on their own account, out of this hitherto very lucrative branch of trade. John Jacob Astor, of New York, went immediately to Montreal and bought out all the posts and factories of that company, situated in the north-west, which were south of the lines. With these posts, the factors, trading clerks, and men were, as a matter of course, cast on the patronage and employment of that eminent German furrier. That he might cover their employment, he sent an agent from Montreal into Vermont to engage enterprising young men, in whose names the licenses could be taken out. He furnished the entire capital for the trade, and sent agents, in the persons of two enterprising young Scotch gentlemen, from Montreal and New York to Michilimackinack, to manage the business. This new arrangement took the popular name of the American Fur Company. In other respects, except those related, the mode of transacting the trade, and the real actors therein, remained very much as they were. American lads, whose names were inscribed in the licenses at Michilimackinack, as principals, went inland in reality to learn the business and the language; the engagees, or boatmen, who were chiefly Canadians or metifs, were bonded for, in five hundred dollars each. In this condition, I found things on my arrival here. The very thin diffusion of American feeling or principle in both the traders and the Indians, so far as I have seen them, renders it a matter of no little difficulty to supervise this business, and it has required perpetual activity in examining the boats and outfits of the traders who have received their licenses at Mackinack, to search their packages, to detect contraband goods, i.e. ardent spirits, and grant licenses, passports, and permits to those who have applied to me. To me it seems that the whole old resident population of the frontiers, together with the new accessions to it, in the shape of petty dealers of all sorts, are determined to have the Indians' furs, at any rate, whether these poor red men live or die; and many of the dealers who profess to obey the laws wish to get legally inland only that they may do as they please, law or no law, after they have passed the flag-staff of Sainte Marie's. There may be, and I trust there are, higher motives in some persons, but they have not passed this way, to my knowledge, the present season. I detected one scamp, a fellow named Gaulthier, who had carried by, and secreted above the portage, no less than five large kegs of whisky and high wines on a small invoice, but a few days after my arrival. It will require vigilance and firmness, and yet mildness, to secure anything like a faithful performance of the duties committed to me on a remote frontier, and with very little means of action beyond the precincts of the post, and this depends much on the moral influence on the Indian mind of the military element of power.

6th. First Distribution of Presents.--In fulfilment of a general declaration of friendly purposes, made on my opening speech to the Chippewas in July last, the entire home band of St. Mary's, men, women, and children, were assembled on the green in front of my office, this morning, to receive a small invoice of goods and merchandise, which were distributed amongst them as presents. These goods were the best that could be purchased in the Detroit market, and were all of the best description; and they were received with a lively satisfaction, which betokened well for my future influence. Prominent among the pleased recipients were the chiefs of the village, Shin-ga-ba-was-sin, the Image Stone, She-wa-be-ke-tone, the Man of Jingling Metals, Kau-ga-osh, or the Bird in Eternal Flight, Way-ish-kee, or The First Born Son, and two or three others of minor note. Behind them were the warriors and young men, the matrons and maids; and peppered in, as it were, the children of all ages. All were in their best attire. The ceremony began by lighting the pipe, and having it passed by suitable officials to the chiefs and warriors in due order, and by placing a pile of tobacco before them, for general use, which the chiefs with great care divided and distributed, not forgetting the lowest claimant. I then stated the principles by which the agency would be guided in its intercourse with them, the benevolence and justice of the views entertained by their great father, the President, and his wishes to keep improper traders out of their country, to exclude ardent spirits, and to secure their peace and happiness in every practicable way. Each sentence, as it was rendered into Indian, was received with the response of Hoh! an exclamation of approbation, which is uttered feebly or loud, in proportion as the matter is warmly or coldly approved. The chiefs responded. All looked pleased; the presents were divided, and the assembly broke up in harmony and good will. It does seem that, according to the oriental maxim1, a present is the readiest door to an Indian's heart.

25th. The Indian mind appears to lack the mathematical element. It is doubtful how far they can compute numbers. The Chippewas count decimally, and after ten, add the names of the digits to the word ten, up to twenty; then take the word for twenty, and add them as before, to thirty; and so on to a hundred. They then add them to the term for a hundred, up to a thousand.

They cannot be made to understand the value of an American dollar, without reducing it to the standard of skins. A striking instance of this kind happened among the Potowattomies at Chicago last year (1821). The commanding officer had offered a reward of thirty dollars for the apprehension of a deserter. The Potowattomies pursued and caught him, and received a certificate for the reward. The question with them now was, how much they had got. They wished to sell the certificate to a trader, and there were five claimants. They sat down and counted off as many racoon skins. They then made thirty equal heaps, substituting symbols for skins. Taking the store price of a racoon at five skins to the dollar, they then found they had received the equivalent of one hundred and fifty racoons, and at this price they sold the order or certificate.

26th. Death of Sassaba,2 or the Count.--This chief, who has from the day of our first landing here, rendered himself noted for his sentiments of opposition to the Americans, met with a melancholy fate yesterday. He was in the habit of using ardent spirits, and frequently rose from a debauch of this kind of two or three days' continuance. Latterly he has exhibited a singular figure, walking through the village, being divested of every particle of clothing except a large gray wolf's skin, which he had drawn over his body in such a manner as to let its tail dangle down behind. It was in this unique costume that I last saw him, and as he was a tall man, with rather prominent features, the spectacle was the more striking. From this freak of dress he has been commonly called, for some time, My-een-gun, or the Wolf. He had been drinking at Point aux Pins, six miles above the rapids, with Odabit and some other boon companions, and in this predicament embarked in his canoe, to come to the head of the portage. Before reaching it, and while still in the strong tide or suck of the current, he rose in his canoe for some purpose connected with the sail, and tipped it over. Odabit succeeded in making land, but the Count, his wife and child, and Odabit's wife, went over the rapids, which was the last ever seen of them. Sassaba appeared to me to be a man of strong feelings and an independent mind, not regarding consequences. He had taken a deep prejudice against the Americans, from his brother having been shot by his side in the battle under Tecumseh on the Thames. This appeared to be the burden of his complaints. He was fond of European dress, and articles of furniture. It was found that he had in his tent, which was of duck, a set of silver tea and tablespoons, knives, forks, cups and saucers, and a tea tray. Besides his military coat, sword, and epaulets, and sash, which were presented to him, he had some ruffled linen shirts, gloves, shoes and stockings, and an umbrella, all of which were kept, however, in the spirit of a virtuoso, and he took a pride in displaying these articles to visitors.

Many a more worthless man than Sassaba has had his epitaph, or elegiac wreath, which may serve as an apology for the following lines:--

The Falls were thy grave, as they leapt mad along, And the roar of their waters thy funeral song: So wildly, so madly, thy people for aye, Are rapidly, ceaselessly, passing away. They are seen but a moment, then fade and are past, Like a cloud in the sky, or a leaf in the blast; The path thou hast trodden, thy nation shall tread, Chief, warrior, and kin, to the Land of the Dead; And soon on the lake, or the shore, or the green, Not a war drum shall sound, not a smoke shall be seen.

27th. Oral Literature of the Indians.--"I am extremely anxious," writes a friend, "that Mr. Johnston and his family should furnish full and detailed answers to my queries, more particularly upon all subjects connected with the language, and, if I may so speak, the polite literature of the Chippewas (I write the word in this way because I am apprehensive that the orthography is inveterately fixed, and not because I suppose it is correct)3. There is no quarter from which I can expect such full information upon these topics as from this. I must beg you to aid me in the pursuit. Urge them during the long winter evenings to the task. The time cannot be more profitably or pleasantly spent, and, as I am told you are somewhat of an aboriginal scholar, you can assist them with your advice and judgment. A perfect analysis of the language is a great desideratum. I pray you, in the spring, to let me have the fruits of their exertions."

With a strong predisposition to these inquiries, with such additional excitement to the work, and with the very highest advantages of interpretation and no little fixity of application from boyhood, it must go hard with me this winter if I do not fish up something from the well of Indian researches and traditionary lore.

            Go, student, search, and if thou nothing find,
            Go search again; success is in the mind.--ALGON.

28th. The right spirit, humble yet manful.--A young man of purpose and some talent, with considerable ambition, who is diligently seeking a place in the world, writes me from Detroit to-day, in this strain: "True it is, I have determined to pass the winter either in New York or Washington, probably the latter place. But, my dear sir, my hope of doing anything for myself in this world is the faintest possible, and I begin to fatigue with the exertion. If I do not succeed this winter in obtaining something permanent4, I shall probably settle down, either in this place or somewhere in New York, a poor devil!--from all which, and many other things, 'good Lord deliver us!' Farewell; my best wishes be with you this winter, to keep you warm. I shall expect next spring to see you an accomplished nichee5" [Ne-je].

1: "Let thy present go before thee."--Proverbs of Solomon.

2: The word means finery.

3: I had written, announcing the word Od-jib-wa to be the true Indian pronunciation, and recommending its adoption.

4: He did succeed at W.

5: A term signifying, in the Chippewa, my friend, but popularly used at the time to some extent at Detroit to denote an Indian.

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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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