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Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Retrospect--United States Exploring Expedition to the South Sea--Humanity of an Indian--Trip to Detroit from the Icy Straits--Incidental action of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Historical Societies, and of the Montreal Natural History Society--United States Exploring Expedition--Climatology--Lake vessels ill found--Poetic view of the Indian--United States Exploring Expedition--Theory of the interior world--Natural History--United States Exploring Expedition.--History of early legislation in Michigan--Return to St. Mary's--Death of Governor De Witt Clinton.

1828. January 1st.--During ten years, omitting 1823, I had now performed, each year, a journey or expedition of more or less peril and adventure in the great American wilderness, west of the Alleghanies. I had now attained a point, ardently sought, for many years, where I was likely to be permitted to sit down quietly at home, and leave traveling to others. I had, in fact, just removed into a quiet home, a retired, convenient, tasteful, and even elegant seat, which filled every wish of retired intellectual enjoyment, where I was encompassed by books, studies, cabinets, and domestic affections. At this moment, when there appeared nothing in the prospect to call me to new fields of observation, I was elected a member of the legislative council, which opened a civic and quite different scene of duties. This step, I found, pleased my friends. The executive of the territory writes from Detroit, February 22d: "We have understood that you have been elected a member of the legislative council, and there is a prevalent wish that this report may prove true. I mention the subject now, to inform you that the council will probably be convened about the beginning of May, in order that you may make the necessary preparations for visiting this place at that time."

Feb. 5th. An exploring expedition for discoveries in the South Sea, has, for some time, been under consideration in the Senate of the United States, to be organized in the navy, and to go out under the patronage of the Secretary, Mr. Southard. Mr. G.N. Reynolds invites me to take a position in the scientific corps, to accompany it, under an official sanction.

A friend from Washington writes me (Feb. 6th), on the same topic; "Whether matrimony has stripped you of your erratic notions and habits, 'and brought you within narrower limits,' or whether the geography of the earth is no longer of interest to you, I cannot, of course, pretend to say. But considering you, as I do, a devotee to science, I had thought it possible that you might feel a desire to engage in her cause to the South, by occupying some eminent station in the expedition."

The reasons which I have mentioned, at the opening of the year, have inclined me to seek repose from further travel. Besides which, my position as a married man, and the peculiar relations I have thereby assumed, impress me, very deeply, with the opinion that my sphere of duty, whatever may be my ambition, lies nearer at home than the proposed and very attractive field of discovery. I therefore wrote declining the offer.

April 7th, A DOMESTIC CURTAIN LIFTED.--My sister Helen Margaret writes, from New York: "This afternoon, as I was sitting by the fire, having become the prey of ill health, a thought struck my mind to write a few lines to you, not, however, to give you much news, but merely to acquaint you that we are still in the land of the living, and that, though our friends are far removed, we still live among them in imagination. Yes, dear brother, believe me, my imagination has often wandered, and passed hours with you--hours, during the silence of the night, which should have been sacred to sleep.

"I have been out of health about five weeks; the complaint under which I labor is chronic inflammation of the liver, but I have, under the pain of sickness, forced my mind to forget its troubles. Most of my time, last winter, has been spent with Debby; while at home, my time has been devoted to reading, mapping, and the study of philosophy.

"Probably James has acquainted you of the illness of Margaret. She is now very low, and is, to all human appearance, soon to leave this world for a better, 'where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.' Her sufferings are great; she has not been able to sit up, more than nine minutes at one time, for two months. Her mind is calm. She is ready and willing to leave this vain world, whenever it is the will of God to take her.

"Mother's health is poor, and has been during all last winter; yet notwithstanding her daily sufferings, in her harassed body, she vigorously wrestles with ill luck. As it pains me to write, I must close with a few words. I have frequently thought, should I be bereft of my mother, what other friend, like her, would watch over the uneasy hours of sickness? What other friend would bear its petulance, and smooth its feverish pillow?"

This proved to be her last earthly message to me. She died on the 12th of April, 1829, aged twenty-three.

18th. I, this day, had an official visit from Magisaunikwa (Wampum-hair), a Chippewa Indian, who, recently, rescued the Inspector of Customs of the place, John Agnew, Esq., from drowning. This gentleman was returning from Mackinac, on the ice, with a train de glis, drawn by dogs. Having ascended the straits to the rapids of the South Nebishe channel, he found the ice faulty and rotten, and, after some exertions to avoid the bad places, fell in, with train and dogs. The struggle to get out only involved him worse, and, overcome by fatigue and false footings, he at length gave over the strife, and, but as a last resort, uttered a yell.

It chanced that Magisaunikwa was encamped in the woods, at a distance, and, with the ever ready ear of the aborigines, caught the sounds and came to his relief. By this time he had relinquished the struggle, and resigned himself to his fate. By arts known to a people who are familiar with such dangers, he rescued him from the water, but in an insensible state. He then put the body on a sled and drew it to his lodge, where he disrobed it, and, placing it before the fire, succeeded in restoring him.

I invested him with a silver medal for the act, and gave him a chief's flag, with goods and cutlery, &c. to the value of above fifty dollars.

My attention was now turned to Detroit: "You are elected," says a friend, "a member of the council. It is essential you should be here as speedily as possible. Leave everything to Audrain, and come down. You can return before the busy season."

27th. I left the Sault this day, for Detroit, to attend the Legislative Council. Patches of snow still lined the banks of the St. Mary's, and fields of ice were yet in Muddy Lake. It was not until entering the St. Clair, and passing down beyond the chilling influences of Lake Huron, that spring began to show striking evidences of her rapid advances, and on reaching Detroit, the state of horticulture and fruit trees betokened a quite different and benign climate. The difference in latitude, in this journey, is full four degrees, carrying the voyager from about 46-1/2 deg. to about 42-1/2 deg.. This fact, which it is difficult to realize from the mere inspection of maps, and reading of books, it is important at all times to bear in mind, in setting a just value on the country and its agricultural advantages.

On reaching the city, and before the organization of the legislature, I received a letter from the Hon. John Davis, President of the Massachusetts Historical Society, suggesting the publication of my researches on Indian language.

"Mr. Pickering concurs with me, that it is very desirable to have this publication effected. Some tracts of this description have been occasionally published in the collections of our society, and we have no doubt that this course would be pursued with your work, if such should be your wish, and no preferable mode of publication should occur."

29th.--I received from the Rhode Island Historical Society, a copy of their publication of Roger Williams' Key to the Indian languages. This tract was greatly needed by philologists. The language commented on is clearly of the Algonquin stock. Dr. Edwards, in his "Observations on the Mukhekanieu," demonstrates that the old Mohecan, as spoken on the Housatonic, was also of this type.

He says, indeed, that the difference in all the New England languages spoken by the nations were merely dialectic. What I have heard of Eliot's Bible of the Natic, or Massachusetts language, favors the same conclusion. All this shows that the ancestors of the present lake tribes who speak these dialects, must have overspread all New England. History is thus taught by language. The lake tribes have only this tradition respecting the fact, that they came from the East.

30th.--Dr. A.F. Homes transmits me a diploma of membership of the Montreal Natural History Society.

May 14th.--Mr. Reynolds recurs to the subject of the Ex. Expedition, which he announced to me on the 5th of February. "It is probable," he observes, "that an expedition to the South Sea will sail from the City of New York in September next. I wish, and so do several members of the national cabinet, that you would join it, and be the head of the scientific corps. Your salary shall be almost anything you ask, and your relation to the general government shall not be prejudiced by a temporary absence. The expedition will be absent about eighteen months or two years. Will you not feel some ambition in being connected with the first American expedition of discovery?"

20th.--Death is ever busy, thinning the ranks of our friends and relatives. Mr. Shearman, of N.Y., communicates the death of my niece, Margaret Catharine (S.) at Vernon, New York. She was a young lady of pleasing manners, and many fine personal and mental traits. She conversed on her fate with perfect composure, and selected hymns to be sung at her funeral.

I accomplished my passage to Detroit I think on the 21st of May, being twenty-four days from St. Mary's, without counting the trip in that season one of unusual length, and without any serious mishaps, which is, perhaps, remarkable, as all our lake vessels are ill found, and I attribute more of success to good luck, or rather Providence, than to any amount of seamanlike precaution. It is, indeed, remarkable that a hundred vessels are not every year lost on the upper lakes where one now is, by being ill supplied or equipped, or through foolhardy intrepidity.

28th.--A friend sent me the manuscript of his poem of "Sanillac" to read, and to furnish some notes. The subject of the Indian is, certainly, susceptible of being handled by the Muses, in a manner to interest and amuse; and I regard every attempt of the kind as meritorious, although it may be the lot of but few to succeed. The writer on the frontier, who fills up a kind of elegant leisure by composition, not only pleases himself, which is a thing nobody can deprive him of, but dodges the coarser amusements of bowling, whist, and other resorts for time-killing. He forgets his remote position for the time, and hides from himself the feeling of that loneliness which is best conquered by literary employment.

30th. Mr. Reynolds again writes, pressing the matter of the contemplated expedition, and the prospect it opens for discovery, and its advantage every way. He couples his offer with most liberal and exalted sentiments, and with the opinions of distinguished men, whose approval is praise. But notwithstanding all, there is something about the getting up and organization of the expedition, which I do not altogether like; and there is considerable doubt whether Congress will not cripple it, by voting meagre supplies and outfits, if they do not knock it in the head.

The expedition itself is a measure of the highest national moment, as it is connected with scientific discovery, and reflects the greatest credit on the projectors. The experiments of Dr. Maskelyn denote a greater specific gravity in the central portions of the globe, than in its crust, and consequently do not favor the theory advocated by Mr. R., of an interior void. Yet we are advertised, by the phenomena of earthquakes, that this interior abounds with oxygen, hydrogen gas, caloric, and sulphur; and that extraordinary geological changes are effected by their action. It does seem improbable that the proposed expedition will trace any open connection "with such an interior world;" but it may accumulate facts of the highest importance. I am not, therefore, insensible of the high honor of this offer, and however I may glow with the secret ardor of discovery, and the honor of place, my present engagements, domestic and public, have woven about me such a web, that it is impossible suddenly to break from it. On full consideration and reconsideration, therefore, I declined going1.

June 1st. Major Delafield, of New York, transmits a box of duplicate specimens of mineralogy from England.

"The box you forwarded for the Lyceum has not yet been sent to the rooms. The catalogue I will present in your name to-night. The several objects will prove extremely interesting. The lake tortoise we have been endeavoring to obtain for a year past, to complete a paper relative to these animals. Cooper is in Philadelphia editing the second volume of Bonaparte's Ornithology. He will be disappointed in not receiving the grosbeak2, of which I had spoken to him."

The study of Natural History presents some of the most pleasing evidences of exactitude and order, in every department of creation, and adds to life many hours of the most innocent and exalted enjoyment. It drops, as it were, golden tissues in the walks of life, which there is a perpetual enjoyment in unraveling.

10th. Mr. Reynolds writes again, without having received my last reply, respecting the exploring expedition. He says: "Mr. Southard, Secretary of the Navy, has expressed his deep regret that you will not be able to find it convenient to go on the expedition."

Mr. Reynolds again writes (June 22d): "I had a conversation to-day with the Secretary of the Navy, in relation to your joining the expedition. He informs me that the President, as well as himself, was anxious that you should do so; and that in case you did, an Assistant Agent might be appointed to do your duties, as United States Agent, and thus reserve your office until your return."

Nothing, certainly, could exceed this spirit of liberality and kind appreciation.

No reasons for altering my prior decisions appeared, however, weighty enough to change them.

July 1st.--The legislative council organized in due form, being sworn in by the governor. The first assemblage of this kind in the Territory met, I believe, four years ago. Prior to that era, the governor and judges were authorized to adopt laws from the "old" States, which led to a system rather objectionable, and certainly anomalous, so far as it made the judges both makers and expounders of the laws; for it was said, I know not how truly, that they picked out a clause here and there, to fit exigencies, or cases in hand, and did not take whole statutes. It was said that when the judges, in the exercise of their judicial functions, got to a "tight place," they adjourned the court, and devoted their legal acumen to picking out clauses from the statutes of the old States, to be adopted, in order to meet the circumstances; but these stories were, probably, to be received a little after the manner of the slanderous reports of the Van Twiller administration, of Knickerbocker memory. It is certain that their honors, Judges Woodward, Griffin, and Witherall, the latter of whom was generally voted down, have acquired no small popular notoriety as judicial and legislative functionaries, and they must figure largely in the early annals of Michigan, especially should this territory ever prove so fortunate as to have a Cervantes or an Irving for its historian.

I found the members of the council to be nearly all of the old residents of Michigan, one a Frenchman, several sent in by French votes, one or two old volunteer officers of Hull's day, one an Indian captive, and three lawyers by profession. When assembled they presented a body of shrewd, grave, common-sense men, with not much legal or forensic talent, perhaps, and no eloquence or power of speaking. There were just thirteen men, only one of whom was a demagogue, and had gained his election by going about from house to house and asking votes. The worst trait in the majority was a total want of moral courage, and a disposition to favor a negligent and indebted population, by passing a species of stop laws, and divorce laws, and of running after local and temporary expedients, to the lowering of the tone of just legislation. I had no constituents at home to hold me up to promises on these heads. I was every way independent, in a political sense, and could square my course at all times, by pursuing the right, instead of being forced into the expedient, in cases where there was a conflict between the two. This made my position agreeable.

I was appointed chairman of the committee on expenditures, and a member of the judiciary, &c. I directed my attention to the incorporation of a Historical Society; to the preparation of a system of township names derived from the aboriginal languages; and to some efforts for bettering the condition of the natives, by making it penal to sell or give them ardent spirits, and thus desired to render my position as a legislator useful, where there was but little chance of general action. As chairman of the committee on expenditures, I kept the public expenditures snug, and, in every respect, conformable to the laws of congress. The session was closed about the first of July--early enough to permit me to return to St. Mary's, to attend to the summer visits of the interior traders and Indians.

10th While engaged in the council, a friend writing from New York, who is a close watcher of political movements, alludes to the sudden and lamented death of Governor Clinton, last winter, and its effects on the political parties of that State. Heavy, indeed, is the blow that removes from the field of action a man who had occupied so wide a space in the public esteem; and long will it be till another arises to concentrate and control public opinion as he did. To me, as a personal friend, and one who early counselled and directed me in my investigations in natural history, it is a loss I feel deeply. Politicians spring up daily, but men like him, who take a wider view of things, belong to their country.

1: The expedition was, in fact, checked by various causes, and the project lingered for some years. At length, the expedition started under the orders of Captain Charles Wilkes, United States Navy.

2: A new species discovered by me at Sault St. Marie.

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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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