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Popular Error Respecting the Indian Character and History

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Popular error respecting the Indian character and history--Remarkable superstition--Theodoric--A missionary choosing a wild flower--Piety and money--A fiscal collapse in Michigan--Mission of Grand Traverse--Simplicity of the school-girl's hopes--Singular theory of the Indians respecting story-telling--Oldest allegory on record--Political aspects--Seneca treaty--Mineralogy--Farming and mission station on Lake Michigan.

1840. Jan. 1st. Having determined to pass another winter (some ten weeks of which are past) at Mackinack, I have found my best and pleasantest employment in my old resource, the investigation of the Indian character and history. The subject is exhaustless in every branch of inquiry, but the more it is turned over and sifted, the more cause there is to see that there is error to be encountered at almost every step. Travelers have been chiefly intent on the picturesque, and have given themselves but little trouble to investigate. The historian has had his mind full of prepossessions derived from ancient reading, and has, generally, been seated three thousand miles across the water, where the work of personal comparison was impossible. Left to the repose of himself, mentally and physically, without being placed in the crucible of war, without being made the tool of selfishness, or driven to a state of half idiocy by the use of liquor, the Indian is a man of naturally good feelings and affections, and of a sense of justice, and, although destitute of an inductive mind, is led to appreciate truth and virtue as he apprehends them. But he is subject to be swayed by every breath of opinion, has little fixity of purpose, and, from a defect of business capacity, is often led to pursue just those means which are least calculated to advance his permanent interests, and his mind is driven to and fro like a feather in the winds. This man, and that man, are continually bringing up Indians to speak for some selfish object, which, being a little out of sight, he does not perceive in its true light, but which he nevertheless is soon made to comprehend, if a public agent sets it plainly before him. But there is a perpetual watch necessary to protect him from deception, and this necessity becomes stringent in the exact proportion that a tribe has funds or treaty rights of any kind. If these attempts to make the Indian a stalking-horse for masked or misstated objects be independently met, and with just sentiments of dissent, the agent of the government is liable to calumniation, and it becomes the policy of unscrupulous men to get their affairs placed in hands having less well-defined notions of moral right, or more easily swayed in their opinions.

7th. The season of New-year has been as usual a holiday, that is to say, a time of hilarity and good wishes, with the Indians in this vicinity, numbers of which have visited the office.

20th. Some of the superstitions of the Indians are explicable only on the ground of their belief in magic. An old blind man of Grand Traverse Bay, called Ogimauwish (literally bad chief), referring to the early period of the visits of Europeans to the continent, related the following:--

When the whites first came to this country, wars and atrocious cruelties existed between the new race of men and the Indians. When this animosity began to abate, a treaty was held, which was attended by the Indians far and wide. They were told by an interpreter, one of the white men who had already learned their language, that the Indian tribes appeared, in the eyes of white men, while in action, like the beasts of the forests and the birds of prey, changing from one form to the other, and that the bullets of the foreigners had no effect on them. The reason for this exemption from harm was this:--

In those times the Indians made use of the Pazhikewash, or buffalo-weed, which is still used by some of them to this day, especially on war excursions. This made them invulnerable to balls. They made a liquor from it, and sprinkled themselves and their implements, and carried it in their meda bags. They are under the belief that this medicine not only wards off the balls and missiles, but tends to make them invisible. This, with their reliance on the guardian spirits of whom they have dreamed at their initial fasts, throws around them a double influence, making them both invisible and invulnerable.

There is a root used by the Pillagers, to which they attribute similar protecting influences, or attribute the gift of courage in war. It is called by them OZHIGAWAK.

22d. Theodoric (vide ante, April 19th,) writes me from Detroit in terms of the kindest appreciation for my kindness of him. On his arrival at Mackinack he most acceptably executed several trusts--writing a good hand, being of gentlemanly manners and deportment, and an obliging disposition, and withal a high moral tone of character--as the winter drew on, I judged he would make a good representative for the county in the legislature, and started him in political life. He received the popular vote, and proceeded to the Capitol accordingly.

He writes: "I wish to say to you that my reception here, both in my public and private capacity, has been all that my best friends could desire, and far above what I had any reason to expect. I allude to this subject because it furnishes me with an occasion to acknowledge my deep indebtedness to your kindness, and it affords me pleasure to recognize it, under God, as the chief instrument in conferring on me my present advantages. And I assure you my great and constant anxiety shall be, so to conduct myself as not to disappoint any expectations which you may have been instrumental in raising in regard to me."

28th. A zealous and pious missionary of the Church of England came to the Chippewas located on the left, or British, side of the St. Mary's River some years ago, under the patronage of the ecclesiastical authorities of Toronto. At this place he married one of the daughters of the Woman of the Green Valley (Ozhawuscodawaqua) heretofore noticed as the daughter of Wabojeeg. He now writes from Canada West: "Charlotte and myself are very much obliged to you for your kind offer of assistance, of which we will avail ourselves. Although I have now a promise of this Rectory, or I may say, a former one has been confirmed by Bishop Strachan two or three days ago."

31st. A friend--a trustee of one of the principal churches at Detroit, writes: "You may think it strange that we of the first Protestant Society of this city are not able to pay our very worthy and deserving pastor, and so it is; but it is no less strange than true! Some of our subscribers are dead; some have failed, and so they can pay nothing, and others have left the country in search of a more congenial clime, and those remaining and much difficulty in meeting their money engagements, though nearly all are in the habit of attending the preaching of this best of men, and we are driven to the necessity of making a call on you, though at a distance.

"Mr. Duffield is continuing his Sunday evening lectures, with his Thursday evening Bible class exercises, and they are constantly increasing in interest. We think him a wonder; he renders every subject he touches, simple, and gives the doctrines he treats upon, what the Scriptures pronounce them to be, 'A man, though a fool, need not err therein.'

"Our legislature is moving on slowly; the shafts of wit wielded at each other by ----, and ----, are, as the common phrase is, 'a caution;' it requires a man of more than common discernment to see their point. You have, doubtless, before this, seen the announcement of the appointment of Hastings and Stuart, as Auditor and Treasurer; what will become of the Internal Improvement system, is doubtful. Committees are now engaged in examining the Bank of Michigan, and the Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank."

Another friend, who was au fait on fiscal affairs (5th Feb.), says: "We get on quite well. The legislative committee will be compelled to state facts, and if they do nothing more they must give us a clean bill of health. I miss you much this winter, and hope, if we are spared, you will not immure yourself again so long."

The fiscal crisis that was now impending over Michigan, it was evident was in the process of advance; but it was not possible to tell when it would fall, nor with what severity. All had been over-speculating--over-trading--over-banking, overdoing everything, in short, that prudence should dictate. But the public were in for it, and could not, it seems, back out, and every one hoped for the best. My best friends, the most cautious guides of my youth, had entered into the speculating mania, and there appeared to be, in fact, nobody of means or standing, who had been proof against the temptation of getting rich soon. I "immured" myself far away from the scene of turmoil and strife, and was happy so long as I kept my eyes on my books and manuscripts.

Feb. 8th. The mission recently established by the Presbyterian Board at Grand Traverse Bay, flourishes as well as it is reasonable to expect. Mr. Johnston writes: "The chief Kosa, and another Indian, have cut logs sufficient for their houses. This finishes our pinery on this point. We cannot now get timber short of the river on the south-east side of the bay, or at the bottom of it, twelve miles distant. Mr. Dougherty has a prayer meeting on Saturday night, and Bible class on Sabbath afternoon. His meetings on Sunday are regularly attended by all the Indians who spend the winter with us; they continue to manifest a kind feeling towards us, and appear anxious to acquire useful knowledge."

March 7th. While politicians, financiers, speculators in real estate, anxious holders of bank stock, and missionaries careful of the Indian tribes are thus busy--each class animated by a separate hope--it is refreshing to see that my little daughter (Jane) who writes under this date from her school at Philadelphia, is striving after p's and g's. "I am getting along in my studies very well. I love music as much as ever. I like my French studies much. I have got all p's for my lessons, but one g. G is for good, and p for perfect." What a pity that all classes of adult men were not pursuing their g's and p's with equal simplicity of emulation and purity of purpose.

10th. Prof. L. Fasquelle, of Livingston, transmits to me a translation of the so-called "Pontiac manuscript." This document consists of an ancient French journal, of daily events during the siege of the fort of Detroit by that redoubtable chief and his confederates in 1763. It was found in the garret of one of the French habitants, thrust away between the plate and the roof; partly torn, and much soiled by rains and the effects of time.

13th. The Chippewa Indians say that the woods and shores, bays and islands, are inhabited by innumerable spirits, who are ever wakeful and quick to hear everything during the summer season, but during the winter, after the snow falls, these spirits appear to exist in a torpid state, or find their abodes in inanimate bodies. The tellers of legends and oral tales among them are, therefore, permitted to exercise their fancies and functions to amuse their listeners during the winter season, for the spirits are then in a state of inactivity, and cannot hear. But their vocation as story tellers is ended the moment the spring opens. The shrill piping of the frog, waking from his wintry repose, is the signal for the termination of their story craft, and I have in vain endeavored to get any of them to relate this species of imaginary lore at any other time. It is evaded by some easy and indifferent remark. But the true reason is given above. Young and old adhere to this superstition. It is said that, if they violate the custom, the snakes, toads, and other reptiles, which are believed to be under the influence of the spirits, will punish them.

It is remarkable that this propensity of inventing tales and allegories, which is so common to our Indians, is one of the most general traits of the human mind. The most ancient effort of this kind by far, in the way of the allegorical, is in the following words: "The Thistle that was in Lebanon sent to the Cedar, saying, give thy daughter to my son to wife: and there passed by a wild beast and trod down the Thistle." (2 Kings, xiv. 9.)

April 5th. A representative in Congress writes from Washington: "The House moves very slowly in its business--that is, the business of the nation. The principal object seems to be to make or unmake a President."

6th. The Rev. Benj. Dorr, of Christ Church, Philadelphia, commends to my attentions a Mr. Wagner, a gentleman of intelligence, refinement, and scientific tastes, who leaves that city on a tour to the lakes and St. Anthony's Falls. "His object is to see as much as possible, in one summer's tour, of our great Western World, and I hope he may stop a short time at Mackinack, that he may have an opportunity of forming your acquaintance, of seeing your beautiful island, and examining your splendid cabinet of minerals, which would particularly interest him, as he, has a taste for geological studies."

8th. Hon. A. Vanderpool, M.C. from N.Y., observes: "The Senate has, by the casting vote of the Vice President, decided in favor of the Seneca treaty, i.e., that the Indians shall be removed. Much opposition has been made to the treaty, as you will perceive from the speech of Senator Linn, which I send you."

It has been alleged against this treaty that it was carried through by the zealous efforts of the persons holding (by an old compact) the reversionary right to the soil after the Senecas should decide to leave it, and that the obvious interests of these persons produced an undue influence on this feature in the result. It is averred that the Tonewonda band of the Senecas, who hold a separate and valuable reservation on the banks of the Tonewonda River, opposed the proposition altogether, and refused to place their signatures to the instrument.

It was supposed that small Indian communities, living on limited reservations, surrounded entirely on all sides by white settlements, could not sustain themselves, but must be inevitably swept away. But the result, in the case of the Senecas and other remnants of the ancient Iroquois, does not sustain this theory. It is true that numbers have yielded to dissipation, idleness, and vice, and thus perished; but the very pressure upon the mass of the tribes, and the danger of their speedy destruction without resorting to agriculture, appear to have brought out latent powers in the race which were not believed to exist. They have taken manfully hold of the plough, cultivated crops of wheat and corn, and raised horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. They have adopted the style of houses, fences, implements, carriages, dress, and, to some extent, the language, manners, and modes of transacting business, of their neighbors. And, perceiving their ability to sustain themselves by cultivation and the arts, now turn round and solicit the protecting arms of the State and General Government to permit them to develop their industrial capacities. Too late, almost, they have been convinced of the erroneous policy of their ancestors, &c. Every right-thinking man must approve this.

May 12th. Prof. Orren Root, of Syracuse Academy, New York, appeals to me to contribute towards the formation of a mineralogical cabinet at that institution.

30th. The new farming station and mission for the Chippewas of Grand Traverse Bay is successfully established. The Rev. Mr. Dougherty reports that a school for Indian children has been well attended since November. A blacksmith's shop is in successful operation. The U.S. Farmer reports that he has just completed ploughing the Indian fields. He has put in several acres of oats, and the corn is about six inches above the ground. The Indians generally are making large fields, and have planted more corn than usual, and manifest a disposition to become industrious, and to avail themselves of the double advantage that is furnished them by the Department of Indian Affairs and by the Mission Board which has taken them in hand.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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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