Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Henry Schoolcraft

Henry Schoolcraft was an important part of Michigan history, and even United States history, whether you knew it or not. That's right, I'm going a little bit into my local history! Yes, to all my national and international readers who likely number in the thousands, if not millions, I reside in the greatest of all states, Michigan. Why start with Schoolcraft of all people? Well, he's just an interesting character, so deal with it! Schoolcraft, born in Guilderland, New York in 1793 and meant to be a glass maker like his father, decided that he would instead leave for the western frontier. No, he didn't travel out to California, but the modern-day Midwest, which was the western frontier at that time. Schoolcraft was incredibly interested in geology and mineralogy, which logically led to surveying the untamed land. He set off on an expedition with a companion and set off from Potosi, Missouri all the way down to what is now Springfield, Missouri. He then went down through Arkansas, publishing books on the iron-producing potential of Missouri, and the first book detailing exploration of the Ozarks. This was big stuff at that time, and it caught the attention of Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. Calhoun recommended Schoolcraft to Lewis Cass, the Michigan Territorial Governor. Cass sent Schoolcraft on an expedition to not only explore the wilderness region around Lake Superior, but to find the source of the Mississippi river. While the expedition was successful in exploring the land surrounding Lake Superior, it was not successful in finding the source of the Mississippi, due to low water levels that kept them from traveling further upstream. Schoolcraft would redeem himself twelve years later in 1932 when his expedition was able to travel all the way up to mid-central Minnesota where he finally found the source: Lake Itasca.

Now let's go back about ten years to when Schoolcraft became US Indian agent in Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Indian agents were basically the person that would communicate with the native population on behalf of the government. Schoolcraft was in charge of all tribes in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which is not exactly a small amount of land. While stationed in Sault Ste. Marie he met Jane Johnston, the daughter of a Scotch-Irish fur trader and a prominent Ojibwe chief's daughter, Ozhaoscadaywayquay (or Susan Johnston). They soon fell in love and married, eventually having eight children. Jane had a deep knowledge of the Ojibwe language and culture and taught Schoolcraft everything she knew. This would have a lasting impact on Schoolcraft, literature, and Michigan. It was from Jane that we get the basis of the story of Hiawatha. You may recognize that name as being part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Besides inspiring a famous poem, the couple made and distributed what is believed to be the first magazine in Michigan history, The Literary Voyager. Though it only printed for one year, the magazine was distributed to most inhabitants of Sault Ste. Marie, and even people in Detroit, New York, and other eastern cities. Jane often used the pen name Leelinau when she wrote articles about the different aspects of Indian culture.

Schoolcraft became increasingly interested in the stories and lore of the native population, and with his wife's help, wrote them down into a collection. It is through his fascination with native languages and culture that Michigan received names for its counties. Seeing that Schoolcraft had been US Indian Agent, an explorer of the Michigan wilderness, a peace-keeper between the native tribes, part of the legislature for the Territory of Michigan, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, it was only logical that some parts of Michigan be named in honor of him. The names all sound like native names, but they are in fact made up words he created. He combined Latin and Arabic words and syllables with Native ones and created his own faux Indian names. There are nine counties in Michigan that are made up Indian names. See if you can guess what they are before I reveal them. Feel free to post your guesses in the comment section here or on facebook. I'll let you know what they are a little further down.

Schoolcraft eventually lost his position as US Indian Agent, but was commissioned by Congress to write a comprehensive reference on the American Indian tribes. It was eventually published in six volumes from 1851-1857. Critics loved the research and illustrations by Seth Eastman, but complained that the lack of index and organization made the volumes nearly inaccessible. Funny enough, Congress didn't request another reference guide until 1928. Jane died in 1842 and Schoolcraft later remarried a southern belle who didn't think all that highly of the black population. With the help of her husband, she published a pro-slavery book in response to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Schoolcraft himself became paralyzed in 1848 and dedicated the rest of his life to researching Indians for his comprehensive study. He died in 1864 at the age of 71. Though not all of his contributions should be remembered (pro-slavery lit), Schoolcraft helped explore the vast wilderness of the Midwest United States, kept the peace between warring tribes, and created the first comprehensive history (however unreadable) of the American Indian. Now time to reveal the counties! They were: Tuscola,  Oscoda, Lenawee, Leelanau, Kalkaska, Iosco, Arenac, Allegan, and Alcona. You may recognize Leelanau, as it was his first wife's pen name for The Literary Voyager. Today you can still see his mark on Michigan if you travel to Mackinac Island, where he set up shop for awhile and set up an Indian dormitory. Many of the legends and lore surrounding Mackinac Island can be traced back to Schoolcraft and his wive's research into the native culture. In case you were curious, both Schoolcraft College and Schoolcraft county are named after him. Surprise!

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