A Michigan Boyhood


Whether or not they survived to tell about it, the French filtered more and more deeply into the back country; and if some of them had their troubles with the Indians, some of them got the Indians to help them. Father Marquette, the saintlike little Jesuit who went the length of Lake Michigan and down into the Illinois country for the greater glory of God, had Indian helpers, and when he fell mortally ill on his way back toward Michilimackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, it was his Indian helpers who made his last moments easy, buried him on a sandy promontory, put up a cross to mark his grave, and then slipped away northward to bear news of his passing. Later on they returned to collect his bones and take them back to the straits for Christian burial. (The towns of Ludington and Frankfort today have heated argument about the site of his death. One marker identifies the place at the entrance to the Ludington harbor, and another marker makes similar identification at the entrance to the Frankfort harbor; and learned expositions support each claim.) Obviously, not all the Indians were hostile; in a noncommittal way, some of them were quite friendly.

These Michigan Indians after all were not quite like the tribes farther eat. They lacked the incredible, breathtaking ferocity of the Iroquois, for instance; and although as primitive men they carried their passions near the surface and were quite capable of putting captured enemies into the fire if the mood possessed them, they never quite made a hideous ritual out of it in the Iroquois manner, deriving ecstasies from the infliction of pain and going to fantastic lengths to prolong the victims’ suffering so that the general orgy that followed the final gasp might have maximum dimensions. They were tough enough, to be sure. The Chippewa actually muscled the Sioux tribes out of the western Lake Superior country, and under the Ottawa chief Pontiac various associated tribes nearly drove the British out of the whole Great Lakes area, destroying the forts at St. Joseph and Michilimackinac and laying a long siege to the fort at Detroit. Later on, when the Americans fought the British for possession of the lakes country, the Indians fought effectively on the British side, overwhelming the outpost at Chicago and slaughtering its garrison, and committing a famous massacre of prisoners along the river Raisin in southeastern Michigan. Anyone who fought these Indians knew that he had been in a war.

Yet the memory of terror, the ever-present dread of the sudden blow in the darkness—the blend of fear and hatred that led otherwise well-intentioned Christian men to believe that the God of love would be pleased if all Indians were exterminated outright—never quite became part of the Michigan heritage. The American settlers dispossessed the tribesman as completely here as anywhere else, but they did not slaughter him while they were doing it. They did not have to; they were not afraid of him, and if the red man was there to be trodden on, he did not have to be kicked first.

Probably there were two reasons for this. To begin with, white settlement came mostly after the Indians’ power had been broken. There were very few whiteman’s towns or farms until Pontiac and the baleful chief Tecumseh had been beaten, and hardly any of the men who made productive clearings in the wilderness ever had to worry about people who might come at them out of the darkness with scalping knives and fire arrows. The long haunted years known to the settlers in Massachusetts and Virginia were not duplicated here.

Even more important was the fact that here the white man reduced the Indian to impotence simply by touching him. The newcomers corrupted him not by intent but just by living beside him. Indian society began to come unravelled not long after Etienne Brulé went to whatever fate he finally got, and it kept on unravelling until it fell completely apart. Exposure to the complexities of European civilization was too much for it. The red man had to adjust every aspect of his life to a scale of values he could neither understand nor control, and it was too much for him. He could not make the adjustment, and he could not conceivably keep from trying to make it.

This was so because the white men offered, for a price, material goods that the Indian wanted—things like knives and hatchets made of steel in place of implements of chipped stone; brass kettles in place of birch-bark buckets; needles and fishhooks and awls made of metal instead of splintered bone; woolen cloth for blankets and clothing instead of crudely dressed skins or mats woven of pounded bark fibers; guns and bullets and gunpowder to replace bows and arrows. Along with these riches, offering life a dimension primitive man had not dreamed of before, there were brandy and rum, strengthened by abominable additives until they almost reached the level of outright poison, which passed into common speech under the accurately descriptive name of firewater. No power on earth could keep the Indian from trying to get these things once he got acquainted with them, and he was willing to pay any price that might be demanded.