- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
Yet somehow these copper-country Indians never took that next step. With one foot on the threshold they paused, then turned away, guided by simple inertia or by an uncanny prescience, whichever you prefer. The use of copper declined, then finally ceased altogether, as the bits of virgin metal became harder to find. The Indians made certain inventions—birch-bark canoes, frail craft indeed for the stormy lakes, but so well conceived that when the white man arrived he went on using them for centuries and still duplicates the flawless pattern in aluminum; and snowshoes, ingenious devices of rawhide thongs strung on frames of birch and ash, enabling men to travel across country in the drifted wintertime. But with things like these the Indians stopped. They remained in the Stone Age, with its simplicities, its limited horizons, and its strange, chilling mythology, which lay between an uneasy belief in magic and a groping faith (half dark suspicion and half desperate hope) that there are unseen powers all about, to be fled from or to be appealed to depending on the whim of the moment. They took the world as they found it. In the north country they remained hunters and fishermen, now and then trading furs for corn with the tribes farther south; in the lower peninsula, where soil and climate were just a little more favorable, they took to part-time farming, and in winter the men went off on hunting expeditions, and in the spring they tapped the maple trees and made sugar. Life went on without very much change, and the pines and the hardwood forests lay across the lake country like a great cool twilight, lived in but not exactly used.
Then at last the men who could use this country began to appear: Frenchmen, who filtered in here about the time when the English were looking at Virginia and Massachusetts. They hoisted the fleur de lys on the ground overlooking the rapids of the St. Marys River, while the Sun King was advancing his realm toward bankruptcy by building the ruinous palace at Versailles, and they ventured along the shingle and sand of the endless beaches and into the shallow inlets that opened the way into the unknown back country. They were eternally inquisitive, looking for furs to ornament robes and make hats for courtiers, for waterways leading to China (they thought briefly they had found one when they got to Green Bay on the western side of Lake Michigan; then they thought it lay beyond the next height of land), and as a matter of fact they were looking for something they could not have defined, because this new world promised more than it had yet delivered.
The first of them apparently was a man known as Etienne Brulé, a lieutenant of Samuel de Champlain, and he got up to the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Marys River country before any European ever stepped on Plymouth Rock. He was looking for furs, for new country, for experiences he could not have had in Europe; he found what he sought, he paid for it, and probably it was all worth it. He lived with the Indians in nameless wigwam-towns along Lake Superior, and sometimes he got on well with his hosts and sometimes he waged a one-man war against them. No one is quite sure just what became of him; the legend is that he was killed in some campfire row, and that the Indians who killed him admired his daring so much that they cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to acquire some of his virtues. His story flickers out inconclusively, somewhere between the forest and the biggest of the lakes, and if he was the first European to lose himself and to die of it in the great north country, he was far from being the last. One of the things the New World offered to the questing European was a chance to go off into nowhere and disappear.
At times it seems as if the country itself resisted the European invasion more effectively than the Indians did, although the Indians were far from passive. Men disappeared in the long forests, and all anyone ever knew about them was that they were gone forever. There was Father René Menard, for instance, a priest who established a mission on Keweenaw Bay in the year 1660; he set out one winter’s day on a trip into the trackless interior, and that was the last of him, and whether he was killed by suspicious savages or simply by winter starvation is not known. There was also the ship Griffin , built a few years after Father Menard’s disappearance by the great French explorer La Salle, who put together and launched a stout little square-rigger and sailed all the way to Green Bay. He loaded her with furs, enough to finance an ambitious venture into the Mississippi country if he could just get the cargo back to Montreal, and sent her off toward the lower lakes. The Griffin never made it, and to this day no one knows what happened to her except that she sailed off into the storms and slipped over the edge of the world —first in a long succession of ships to be lost with all hands on the Great Lakes.