- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The demanded price, of course, consisted of furs. The Indian set out to get the furs, and that was what turned his life upside-down. He became a hired hand for the invaders, and so passed from his own society into theirs before he knew that anything was happening to him; he was the market for the factories of England and France, and at the same time he was the source of supply for an industry that reached from the uncombed trader at Michilimackinac to the richest shops in London and Paris, with a vast network of warehouses and middlemen and cargo vessels lying between. Stone Age man abruptly found himself part of an infinitely complex society, no single phase of which lay within the range of anything he could hope to comprehend. What men made or bought and sold on the far side of an ocean he had never seen laid down the conditions of his existence. Over many centuries he had adjusted himself to the mysterious wilderness where he lived, and suddenly the ways of life and the habits of mind that came out of that adjustment meant nothing at all. Without wanting anything of the kind to happen, he had become part of a culture that had no more than a temporary, marginal place for men like him, and there was no way on earth for him to get out of it.
For several generations the process was gradual, almost imperceptible, and it was fairly painless. The seasons came and went as they always had, the canoe brigades came and went with dripping paddles and red-sashed voyageurs, and the Indian went up the rivers and into the forests to exercise his skills, so on the surface nothing much had changed; yet there was some premonition of disaster, or men like Pontiac and Tecumseh could never have persuaded the tribes to take to the warpath. The warpath was followed, and it led to utter defeat, and shortly after this several things happened, the sum of them meaning outright catastrophe. The Michigan country became trapped out, so that the furs that were the price of life became harder and harder to get. At the same time the fashions that dictated the scope and speed of the fur trade began to change. At the moment when beaver and marten pelts became ruinously scarce they became worth less and less, and the Indian was pauperized through no fault of his own. When white men took the trouble to offer advice, they told the Indian that he must take up the white man’s way—that is, he must work for wages at whatever jobs might be available, or he must become a farmer and produce crops for a market that was erratic and as mysterious as the market for furs.
Not many jobs were available at that moment in the land of the Great Lakes, and there was little in the red man’s background to fit him for any of them. He could become a hanger-on around the docks of the new seaports, helping to load cordwood on steamboats, or he could do odd jobs here and there—for a storekeeper, perhaps, or a mill owner, or someone similar—but such work was scanty and seasonal, and there was nothing in the Indian’s frame of reference to give it any meaning. Farming was not much better. The Indian knew how to cultivate the garden plot that provided him with corn and beans and squash to supplement his diet of fish and game, but raising crops for the market was something else again. Most of the country he was supposed to farm was covered with trees, and when the trees were removed, this timber country offered some of the poorest farming land in North America, as a great many white farmers learned to their cost a little later.
So there was little for the Indian to do except go to seed, which mostly he did with bewildered resignation. He had solved the problem of life in the wilderness, which is to say that he had worked out a culture that enabled him to keep his self-respect and put him in rough harmony with the world he lived in. Now life presented him with problems that were not only beyond solution but beyond his understanding.
At this point the white man stepped up the pace. What he proposed to conquer was not the Indian but the wilderness. He was attacking the earth itself, and his only real concern with the Indian was to keep him from being an obstacle. To be sure, by the second decade of the nineteenth century the Indian in the Michigan country was dying on the vine; but the Americans who had designs on the land had intricate laws concerning the land and its use, and these laws required the composition and registration of numerous pieces of paper. Land titles, in short, had to be cleared. The Indian had never heard of such things, but according to the white-man’s law the red man held the title to all of this land, and he had to be persuaded to surrender it. And in the years just before and shortly after 1820 Lewis Cass took care of that.