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Odd Wisconsin Archive

American Hegemony, 1820-Style

Although Wisconsin became legally part of the United States at the end of the American Revolution, in practice it remained a Canadian outpost for another generation. This only changed with the War of 1812, and after the war the U.S. sent an expedition across the northern lakes to make sure that Indian nations understood that their homelands were now being colonized by Washington rather than London.

Future Wisconsin governor James Doty (1799-1865), hardly out of his teens at the time, was appointed secretary of this 1820 expedition. It was headed by Michigan territorial governor Lewis Cass (1782-1866) and ordered to visit the Lake Superior Ojibwe bands, examine the natural features of the western Great Lakes, and, if possible, locate the source of the Mississippi River. Between May and August, 1820, the party traveled more than 1,000 miles in canoes and on foot from Detroit, around Michigan into Lake Superior, across the Upper Penninsula past Chequamegon Bay, through the forest to Sandy Lake, Minn. They returned down the Mississippi, across Wisconsin, and back through Mackinac to Detroit (map). Doty kept the expedition's official diary, which we are streaming out each day on our Historic Diaries Web pages.

On June 16, 1820, he described a dramatic confrontation at Sault St. Marie in which Cass tried to single-handedly impose American authority on local Ojibwe leaders. Only the intervention of an Ojibwe matriarch saved the lives of Doty, Cass, and the other American envoys.

For 60 years the Ojibwe at the Sault had traded and allied themselves militarily with the British, and they had no sympathy with the American newcomers. When Doty visited in June of 1820, 60 to 70 warriors and their families were camped there. The U.S. exploring party, in contrast, had only about a dozen soldiers and a handful of Indian hunters and guides.

Gov. Cass convened the local chiefs and explained that, under the treaty, the site now belonged to the U.S. rather than the British and that a fort would soon be built on it. As customary, he offered gifts and a ceremonial pipe to the Ojibwe leaders, but some of them kicked the presents aside and refused to smoke with the Americans. One of their leaders, named Sas-Sa-Ba, had lost a brother while fighting the U.S. during the War of 1812. He turned his back on Cass, went to his own lodge a short distance away, and raised the British flag in defiance. Cass followed him alone and, in Doty's words, "jerked down the flag, and treading it on the ground told him the United States could crush him and his nation in the same way."

The Ojibwe leaders were insulted and outraged, and they vowed to destroy the Americans that very night. The expedition's Indian guides and hunters would not join the plan, but they also refused to shoot their brothers; they vowed to simply stand aside if an assault came.

That evening the handful of Americans lay down with loaded rifles, expecting to be attacked. But during the night Susan Johnston, the Ojibwe wife of the fur trader at the Sault, John Johnston, visited the warriors' lodges. She was the daughter of Lake Superior chief Waubejeeg (White-fisher), had married John Johnston about 1790 on Madeline Island, and moved with him to the Sault in 1793. On the night of June 16-17, 1820, she persuaded the warriors that it would not be in their interests to attack U.S. officials. A few yards away, Doty recorded, "Every one lay with his fire arms beside him, but no disturbance was made." Without Johnston's diplomacy, it's likely that Cass, Doty, and the other members of the expedition would all have been killed before dawn.

Among them was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), who would go on to be one of 19th-c. America's most popular writers on Indian life. Two years later he was appointed U.S. Indian agent at the Sault and became intimate with the Johnston family. Fur trader John Johnston was an Irish immigrant, and he sent his metis (mixed-race) daughters back to Europe for schooling. One of them was Obahbahmwawageezhagoquay, whose name meant "The Sound That Stars Make Rushing through the Sky." She was 20 years old at the time of the expedition's visit and had already traveled to London, Dublin, and Liverpool. In 1823 she and Schoolcraft married, and over the next two decades she and her mother supplied much of the information for his well-known books.

Years later the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1887-1882) read Schoolcraft's works and in his famous 1855 book, The Song of Hiawatha, took many details from Schoolcraft's writings. This carried Susan and Jane Johnston's Ojibwe heritage anonymously into millions of American schoolrooms over the next century, as generations of young students read and memorized portions of the poem.

:: Posted in Curiosities on June 19, 2008

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