- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The men of the Cass expedition, of course, were no mystics, but hardheads who had gone out to count and measure, and to those tasks they devoted themselves. Even so, young Henry Rowe Schoolcraft seems to have been a little touched. Schoolcraft went along as a mineralogist, tapping stones with a hammer and collecting fragments for the Secretary of War, and when he wrote his famous narrative telling what had been seen and done, he was wholly matter-of-fact; too much so, for he had an epic to write, and he composed a War Department report. Yet he seems to have been smitten, somewhere along the way, by a deep feeling for the Indians who lived in this land, and later on he became an Indian agent, established himself at Sault Ste. Marie, and spent most of his time collecting Indian legends and the wordof-mouth tales that passed for Indian history. He got a great tangle of them, and the poet Longfellow eventually read what Schoolcraft wrote down and out of it made the poem Hiawatha . This may have been no favor for generations of schoolchildren, who had to read it when they would have preferred to be doing something else, but in a way it was one of the by-products of the odyssey of Lewis Cass.
The men Cass led never lost sight of the fact that their trip into this unknown country would eventually be the means of its transformation. Sooner or later these men in their canoes were going to pull many men after them, and they were well aware of it. The wilderness was to be conquered; this particular bit of earth, craggy and hungry as it might seem, was about to be feshaped, and when the budding scientists in the party made their notes about soils and rocks and plants and temperatures, they were thinking of people who someday would come here to make homes. These later-comers would need to know how to use this country.
That was where the emphasis lay. This country was going to be used; and if this was the case, it was above all things necessary to know about the Indians. Were the British authorities in western Canada in fact inciting them to resist the venturesome Americans—present at that time mostly as fur traders—and if so, how could this be stopped? How many military posts, situated precisely where, would be needed to control the red man and thwart the scheming Briton? Finally, how could the red man be induced to surrender the title to his homeland?
That the Indian’s way of life was doomed had been recognized from the very start. President James Monroe had spoken on the subject in a recent message to Congress.
“Independent savage communities,” he said, “cannot long exist within the limits of a civilized population.… To civilize them, and even to prevent their extinction, it seems to be indispensable that their independence as communities should cease and that the control of the United States over them should be complete and undisputed.”
The Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, who took a much more relaxed view of the proper scope of the authority of the federal government in 1820 than he could take a few years later, had given Cass instructions stressing the importance of working on the Indians so that they would give up their lands to the whites. Calhoun pointed out that speedy settlement of the lower peninsula of Michigan was both inevitable and desirable, and he emphasized the obvious: “This can best be effected by an entire extinguishment of the Indian title.”
Entire extinguishment was attained without great delay. Cass had already persuaded the Indians to give up their claim to land around Saginaw Bay. On this trip westward he got title to land on the American side of the St. Marys rapids, and Fort Brady was before long built at Sault Ste. Marie; gifts, oratory, and a subtle reminder that the Americans held all of the high cards seemed to be all that was needed, and in the years that followed Cass’s great trip more cessions of title were painlessly negotiated. By 1840, or thereabouts, the Indians had given away the entire state of Michigan. Their independence as communities had ceased, as President Monroe said it should; the Indian’s fate was settled, and the wilderness was doomed, windy pine woods, veins of copperbearing quartz, mountains of iron ore, and all.
As far as the Indian was concerned, the process was relatively humane. A few red men were transplanted bodily to new reservations in the unsettled West, but mostly the Michigan Indians stayed where they were, groping helplessly to grasp the white-man’s way, losing their old culture, and finding the new culture hard to assimilate. There were schools and missions here and there to help them, and annual payments from the federal government, and by and large the business was done without the brutality observed in so many other parts of America. After all, these had mostly been friendly Indians.
To be sure, they paid a price. There is a story, probably apocryphal but significant nonetheless, about a United States senator who was running for re-election a few years ago. According to this story, the senator got to a small north-country town one evening, and just before he was led into a hall to make a campaign speech, the local party chairman gave him a briefing about issues that were on people’s minds locally.