1820 Schoolcraft

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) was new to Michigan but not to exploration when he joined the Cass Expedition in 1820. The expedition was federally funded and its main purpose was to effectively implement federal Indian policy in the Northwest and to explore the largely unknown Lake Superior and upper Mississippi country. The expedition consisted of Cass, Alexander Ralston Chase, Commissary General; Aeneas Mackay, Commander of Soldiers; David Bates Douglass, Topographer; Schoolcraft, a Mineralogist; James Dean Doty, Official Journalist; Charles C. Trowbridge, Assistant Topographer; ten soldiers, 12 voyageurs, 10 Indians, an interpreter and a guide.


Henry Rowe SchoolcraftOn the third of May, I returned to Buffalo, and found the lake rapidly discharging its ice, which had been recently broken up by the wind. On the sixth, I embarked on board the Steam-Boat, which left Black Rock at nine in the morning, and reached Detroit on the eighth at twelve at night. . . . .

...we reached Detroit at a late hour, and without an opportunity of then witnessing the picturesque view, which the approach to that town, and the country adjacent, presents.

Detroit occupies an eligible situation on the west banks of the strait that connects Lake Erie with Lake St. Clair, at the distance of six miles below the latter, and in north latitude 42 30 according to the received observation. The town consists of about two hundred and fifty houses, including public buildings, and has a population of fourteen hundred and fifteen inhabitants, exclusive of the garrison. It enjoys the advantages of a regular plan, spacious streets, and a handsome elevation of about forty feet above the river, of which it commands the best views. Very few of the French antiquated buildings remain. There are several buildings of brick and stone, but the greatest number are painted wooden dwellings, in the style of architecture, which is prevalent in the western parts of the state of New York. An air of taste and neatness is thus thrown over the town, which superadded to its elevated situation, the appearances of an active and growing commerce, the bustle of mechanical business, its moral institutions, and the local beauty of the site, strikes us with a feeling of surprise which is the more gratifying as it was not anticipated.

The site of Detroit was occupied by an Indian village, called Teuchsa-grondie, when first visited by the French; and among the singularities of its history, we find that it is one of the most ancient European settlements in the interior of the new world, having been a stopping place for the Couriers du Bois and Jesuit Missionaries, as early as 1620. Quebec was founded in 1608; Albany, 1614. The New England Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, in 1620. Regular settlements do not appear, however, to have been made at Detroit until the commencement of the seventeenth century. Charlevoix, who landed here in June, 1721, found it the site of a French Fort called Pontchartrain, under the command of La Salle's Lieutenant, M. Tonti. He speaks of the beauty and fertility of the country in terms of highest admiration. "It is pretended," he says, "that this is the finest portion of all Canada, and really, if we may judge by appearances, natures seems to have refused it nothing that can contribute to make a country delightful; hills, meadows, fields, lofty forests, rivulets, fountains, and rivers, and all of them so excellent in their kind, and so happily blended, as to equal the most romantic wishes. The lands, however, are not all equally proper for every sort of grain, but in general are of a wonderful fertility, and I have known some produce good wheat for eighteen years in succession, without any manure. The islands seem placed in the river on purpose to enhance the beauty of the prospect; the river and lake abound in fish, the air is pure, and the climate temperate and extremely wholesome." There were then three bands of Indians located upon the west banks of the strait, between lakes Erie and St. Clair. The first on ascending, consisted of the Dionondadies, a band of Wyandots, having high pretensions to ancestry, and who were considered the radical stock of the Wyandot tribe. Between these and Fort Pontchartain, there was a settlement of Pottawattomies, and beyond the fort along the banks of Lake St. Clair, the Ottaways held possession. Charlevoix alludes to the labours of former missionaries among them, who appear to have been most successful with the Hurons, but of the French settlement which is stated to be of fifteen years standing, he adds, that "it has been reduced almost to nothing," and points out to the Dutchess de Lesdiguieres, to whom his letters are addressed, the advantages that New France would derive from a permanent settlement at that place.

The history of Detroit, during this early period is that of the territory of which it is now the capital. It was noted throughout the earliest settlements of the colonies, as the rendezvous of the Couriers du Bois, and the mart where the remote tribes of the North and West, called collectively the Far Indians by early writers, exchanged their peltries for European manufactures; and when the fall of Quebec and Montreal in 1759, added the Canadas to the British crown, Detroit was a considerable French village, defended by a stockaded fort, and surrounded with a farming population. In the year 1763, (containing then a British garrison of three hundred men, under Major Gladwyn) it was besieged by a confederacy of Indian tribes under Pontiac, an Ottaway chief, who displayed such a boldness in his designs, such skill in negociation, and such personal courage in war, as to justify us in considering him one of the greatest men which have ever appeared among the Indian tribes of North America. He was the decided and constant enemy of the British government and excelled all his contemporaries in both mental and bodily vigour. His conspiracy for making himself master of the town of Detroit, and destroying the garrison, although frustrated, is a masterpiece among Indian stratagems; and his victory over the British troops, at the battle of Bloody Bridge, stands unparalleled in the history of Indian wars, for the decision and steady courage by which it was, in an open fight, achieved.

The siege of Detroit was continued by Pontiac, for nearly twelve months together, during which time the garrison, although gallantly defended by the British commandant, had suffered severely, and the confederate Indians had been frequently on the point of carrying the town by assault. At length the approach of Gen. Bradstreet, with 3000 men, struck the Indians with consternation, and they met him with offers of peace at Miami Bay. A few days afterwards, on the eighth of August, 1764, he arrived at Detroit, and a general peace ensued. Pontiac, unable to control the events of a war in which he saw himself deserted by numbers of his followers, and unwilling to live on terms of friendship with a people to whom he had imbibed an early hatred, the consequence of his attachment to the French, fled to Illinois, where he afterwards paid the price of his enmity with his life.

After the close of Pontiac's war, Detroit enjoyed a period of tranquillity, which continued to the breaking out of the American Revolution, at the close of which, it fell by the definitive treaty of peace of 1784, under the jurisdiction of the United States. The continued hostility of the Indian tribes, however, prolonged the period of its surrender, for several years; and, according to Heriot, the transfer of authority did not take place until 1796. The intermediate time was occupied by the Indian wars, successively conducted by generals Harmer, St. Clair, and Wayne, in which the bad success of the two former, was amply compensated by the decisive campaign of the latter, who possessed the faculty of transfusing into the operations of his army, that wonderful energy, for which he was characterized. By the treaty of Greenville, of 1795, the post of Detroit was surrendered to the United States; and, from this period, there has been an American garrison kept here, with the exception of about eleven months, which elapsed between the surrender of General Hull, in 1812, and the re-occupation of the country, by general Harrison, in 1813.

The town was first incorporated by the Legislative Council and House of Representatives of the Northwest Territory, on the 18th of January, 1802.

In 1805, when it consisted, according to Heriot, of upwards of two hundred houses, it was entirely destroyed by fire, not a house being left on the plat of the old town. This presented the opportunity of widening the streets, and laying out the town upon an improved plan, by which it has been much beautified, and eventually advantaged. The old town consisted wholly of wooden buildings, very compact, with the streets only thirty feet wide, resembling, in this respect, the antique French villages in Illinois, Missouri, and Louisiana.

In 1810, the act incorporating the town was repealed.

On the 16th of August, 1812, the articles of capitulation were signed, by which the fort and town was surrendered to a British army under general Brock, who afterwards fell in the battle of Queenstown.

On the 6th of October, 1813, the town was reoccupied by a division of the American army under generals McArthur and Cass, and the latter subsequently appointed Governor of the Michigan Territory.

On the 24th of October, 1815, the town was again incorporated by the governor and judges of the territory, under the name of "the City of Detroit."

By an act of Congress, passed January 11th, 1805, it is declared to be the seat of the Territorial Government, until Congress shall otherwise direct.

The ordinance of Congress of 1787, prohibits slavery in the territory. This ordinance had respect to all that extensive tract of then unincorporated country, lying northwest of the Ohio river, and of which the present states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois form a part.

These are some of the prominent civil and military events of which Detroit has been the theatre, and which, by eliciting, from time to time, the attention of the public, have conferred upon it a celebrity, which the most populous cities, barren of historic incident, never attain. This notoriety it has partaken of, in connexion with the surrounding country, which continued to be the rallying point of contending armies, and the scene of Indian warfare and Indian barbarity, during two of the most important campaigns of the late war. It has thus acquired an interest from the sword, which neither the pen of the poet, or the pencil of the painter, have been employed to excite.

It is gratifying, however, to behold, that Detroit does not acquire its principal charm from extraneous circumstances, and that the local beauty of the site, the fertile district of cultivated land by which it is surrounded, and the advantages it enjoys for the purposes of commerce, are calculated to arrest our admiration, and to originate a high expectation of its future destination and importance. A cursory examination of the map of the United States, will indicate its importance as a place of business, and a military depot. Situated on the great chain of lakes, connected, as they are, at almost innumerable points, with the waters of the Mississippi, the Ohio, the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, and the Red River of the North, it communicates with the ocean, at four of the most important points in the whole continent. And when these natural channels of communication shall be improved, so as to render them alike passable at all seasons of the year, the increasing products of its commerce and agriculture, will be presented with a choice of markets, at New Orleans, New York, or Montreal, an advantage derived from its singular position on the summit level in which the most considerable rivers, lakes, and streams in America, originate. It is thus destined to be to the regions of the northwest, what St. Louis is rapidly becoming in the southwest, the seat of its commerce, the repository of its wealth, and the grand focus of its moral, political and physical energies.

The time which elapsed between my arrival at Detroit on the 8th of May, and the date of our departure on the 24th, was occupied in completing the preparations for the transportation, subsistence, and safe conduct of an expedition of forty men, through a country where the woods are not always to be relied upon for game, and among Indian tribes, where a welcome reception can only be certainly ensured by a respectable display of physical power. There is, perhaps, no instance in the history of voyages or travels, where the preparations have been wholly completed within the time originally contemplated. There is always some labour, the difficulty of accomplishing which, has not been duly estimated, or some untoward circumstance, wholly unforseen, springs up to increase the number of obstacles to be surmounted, and to retard the period of departure. Hence several weeks elapsed, after the navigation of the lakes had opened, and after the time originally fixed for our departure, before we were, in reality, in a state of readiness. Our canoes, our arms, our camp and other equipage, our provisions, and the escort of soldiers destined to accompany us, all contributed to furnish causes of delay; and when no other obstacle remained, the winds blew so directly ahead, that no progress could be made against them. This delay, which was scarcely a cause of regret to any person, and from which the expedition eventually experienced not the slightest inconvenience, afforded us an opportunity of acquiring the most satisfactory knowledge of the town, the adjacent country, the climate, and the novelty of the water craft, in which we were to perform this journey; and, perhaps, this lapse cannot be more appropriately filled, than by some brief notices of such of the enumerated topics, as have not already been dwelt upon in the preliminary remarks. Among these, the Indian canoe, excited our earliest curiosity; and after examining it with scrupulous attention, and making a trial of its velocity upon the river, we were ready to say, with an eloquent writer, "that its slender and elegant form, its rapid movement, its capacity to bear burdens, and to resist the rage of billows and torrents, excited no small degree of admiration, for the skill by which it was constructed." We were struck with the difference, both as to form and materials of construction, between the canoe, by which the savages formerly navigated the Hudson, Connecticut, and Delaware, and that which is, at present, employed by the northern tribes. The former, as still remaining among us, is merely a log, which has been scooped out, and is, in every respect, analogous, according to Mr. Pennant, to the monoxyla of the ancient Germans and Gauls, and to the pine canoe of the savages of Nootka sound, except that the latter is supposed to exceed the ancient European canoe, in the elegance of its form. "The old Europeans," says Mr. Pennant, "were content if they could but float." The northwest canoe, is, on the contrary, constructed wholly of bark, cedar splints, the roots of the spruce, and the pitch of the yellow pine, productions which are common, from the frozen ocean, situated within the arctic circle, to the parallel of the forty-second degree of north latitude; and these articles are fabricated in a manner uniting such an astonishing degree of lightness, strength, and elegance, and with such a perfect adaptation to the country, and the difficulties of northern voyages, as to create a sentiment of mixed surprise and admiration. Those of the largest size, such as are commonly employed in the fur trade of the north, are thirty-five feet in length, and six feet in width, at the widest part, tapering gradually towards the bow and stern, which are brought to a wedge-like point, and turned over, from the extremities, towards the centre, so as to resemble, in some degree, the head of a violin....They are constructed of the bark of the white birch tree, (betula papyracea) which is peeled from the tree in large sheets, and bent over a slender frame of cedar ribs, confined by gunwales, which are kept apart by slender bars of the same wood. Around these the bark is sewed, by the slender and flexible roots of the young spruce tree, called wattup {watape], and also where the pieces of bark join, so that the gunwales resemble the rim of an Indian basket. The joinings are afterward luted, and rendered water tight, by a coat of pine pitch, which, after it has been thickened by boiling, is used under the name of gum. In the third cross bar from the bow, an aperture is cut for a mast, so that a sail can be employed, when the wind proves favourable. Seats for those who paddle, are made by suspending a strip of board, with cords, from the gunwales, in such a manner, that they do not press against the sides of the canoe. The Fur Companies have lately introduced the use of oars, in propelling the canoe; but the natives employ the cedar paddle, with a light and slender blade....A canoe of this size, when employed in the fur trade, is calculated to carry sixty packages of skins, weighing ninety pounds each, and provisions to the amount of one thousand pounds. This exclusive of the weight of eight men, each of whom are allowed to put on board, a bag or knapsack, of the weight of forty pounds. In addition to this, every canoe, has a quantitity of bark, wattap, gum, a pan for heating the gum, an axe, and some smaller articles necessary for repairs. The aggregate weight of all this, may be estimated at about four tons. Such a canoe, thus loaded, is paddled by eight men, at the rate of four miles per hour, in a perfect calm - is carried across portages by four men - is easily repaired at any time and at any place, and is altogether one of the most eligible modes of conveyance, that can be employed upon the lakes, while in the interior of the northwest - for river navigation, where there are many rapids and portages, nothing that has been contrived to float upon water, offers an adequate substitute. Every night the canoe is unloaded, and, with the baggage, carried ashore; and if, during the day, a storm should arise, such is the activity of the Canadian voyageurs, that ten minutes time is sufficient to effect a landing, and secure both vessel and cargo. Recommended by these advantages, we felt an avidity to test them by experience; and, after a long voyage, in which we have had occasion to complain of the confined posture of sitting, and of the frequency of injuring the canoes, by striking against hidden rocks and logs of wood, we have, nevertheless, returned, with an unaltered opinion of their superior utility and adaptation for northern voyages. Such is the vessel in which Europeans, adopting the customs of the savages, first entered the great chain of American lakes, and in which they have successively discovered, the Mississippi, - the Columbia, and the Arctic Sea; and the coincidence is deserving of remark, that is has been employed by every traveller of the region, from the time of Father Marquette, the Jesuit, to the discoveries of Sir Alexander McKenzie.

With respect to the climate of Detroit, the result of our observations will allow us to speak in a very favourable manner. Situated in the longitude of Chillicothe, in Ohio, and on the parallel of latitude which embraces Prairie du Chien, on the Mississippi, and Albany, on the Hudson, it falls under that temperate medium of climate, which is found so favourable to the cereal gramina, the grasses, and the fruit trees of the United States. This we first witnessed in the early development of spring, always one of the best tests of the benignity of a climate. On leaving Buffalo, on the 6th of May, the blossoms of the peach tree were not yet fully expanded, and the petals of the apple were just beginning to swell. On reaching Detroit, two days afterwards, the leaves of the peach blossom had fallen, and those of the apple had passed the heighth of their bloom. Gardening also, which had not commenced at Buffalo, we found finished at Detroit, and the half grown leaves of the beach, the maple, the common hickory, (juglans vulgaris), and the profusion of wild flowers on the commons, gave to the forests and to the fields the delightful appearance of spring. These facts will go farther in determining upon the differences of climate, than meteorological registers, which only indicate the state of the atmosphere, without noticing whether a corresponding effect is produced upon vegetation. During ten days of the period of our detention at Detroit, of which I kept a meteorological register, the mean daily temperature of the atmosphere, (for a period of ten days,) as indicated by a Fahrenheit thermometer, was 61. The average temperature of the whole month of May, at Albany, according to the observations of Dr. Beck, was 58.

By a journal of the weather kept at the garrison of Detroit, (Fort Shelby), in obedience to orders from the War Department, for a period of one hundred and five days, namely, from the 15th November, 1818, to the 28th February, 1819, forty days are remarked to be "clear," forty "cloudy," thirteen "variable," and twelve "cloudy, with rain or snow." The average monthly temperature as noted by a Fahrenheit thermometer during the same period, was, for November 43, December 25, January 30, and February 33. According to a meteorological journal, kept at Albany, during the same time, the average temperature of the atmosphere was in January 22, and in February 29. These facts, while they indicate a remarkable difference of climate between two places whose latitudes only vary nine minutes, are calculated to justify a remark which we have frequently heard from intelligent persons at Detroit, that they are favoured with a summer atmosphere of uncommon serenity, and that their winters are not so severe as those experienced in the same latitudes east of the Alleghany Mountains.

The winds which are expected at this season to prevail here, as in the valley of the Ohio, from the southwest, had blown from the northeast, shifting to the north and northwest, (points unfavourable to those who are ascending the lakes,) during the whole period of our stay at Detroit. This gave us no uneasiness so long as the preparations for the journey were going forward, but when, on the 23rd of May, these were completed, and the canoes ready for embarkation, all felt the utmost anxiety to proceed, and the governor, although suffering from an attack of the fever and ague, fixed the following day for our departure.

I. Day. (May 24th, 1820.) It was late in the day before our baggage could be embarked. At four o'clock in the afternoon, all was in readiness. A large concourse of people had collected upon the shore to offer us their good wishes, and to witness our departure, when, upon the word being given, the voyageurs, with one impulse, struck their paddles in the water, and instantly chanting one of their animated songs, we passed rapidly along the town, and in two hours time, landed at Grosse Point, on the west shore of Lake St. Clair, nine miles from Detroit, where it had previously been determined to encamp. To this place Governor Cass and suite, accompanied by Gen. M'Comb of the army, and a party of gentlemen and ladies from Detroit, who honoured the expedition with this mark of attention, proceeded by land. Feeling an anxiety to witness the picturesque scenery presented by the river, I embarked on board the canoes at Detroit, but had nearly repented of my choice before reaching the place of our encampment, for the wind, which gave us no inconvenience of leaving the shore, soon shifted directly ahead, and blew with such violence, that the waves broke over the canoes, and gave us a severe drenching. Immediately on leaving Detroit a canoe race, and trial of skill, was witnessed between the French voyageurs and the Indians, (who occupied a separate canoe,) of our party, in which the expertness and spirit of the latter, for sudden and short exertions, and the superiority of the former for labours long continued, were handsomely and clearly manifested. The banks of the river present a compact settlement along the American shore, in which the succession of farm houses, orchards, and cultivated fields, is in no place interrupted by forests, or even by detached copses of woods. Every thing bears the appearance of having been long settled and well improved. The soil is a deep, black alluvion, of the richest quality, and disclosing on the water's edge, pebbles of limestone, granite, and hornblende rock, mixed with silicious sand, and, in small quantity, with iron sand. Farms are laid out with a width of only four acres in front, and extending eighty acres in depth, which gives a compactness to the settlement that was formerly very advantageous in defending the early settlers against the attacks of the aborigines. The appearance of extensive orchards, the wind-mills which occupy every prominent point along the river, the clearness of the water, the woody islands in the river, already covered with green foliage, and the distant view of Detroit, every moment receding in the landscape, all served to imprint a character of mildness and beauty upon the scene, which was perhaps heightened by the reflection, that it presented the last glimpse of a refined population which we were for some time to witness. On reaching Grosse Point, we found the party, that proceeded by land, already there; several of the citizens of Detroit had previously returned, and the rest departed in the evening.

From: SCHOOLCRAFT'S NARRATIVE JOURNAL OF TRAVELS THROUGH THE NORTHWESTERN REGIONS OF THE UNITED STATES EXTENDING FROM DETROIT THROUGH THE GREAT CHAIN OF AMERICAN LAKES TO THE SOURCES OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER IN THE YEAR 1820. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1992: 48-60.

See Also:

Dictionary of American Biography.

Bremer, Richard G. Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar. Mt. Pleasant, MI: Clarke Historical Library, 1987.

Dunbar, Willis F. A New Look at Lewis Cass. Detroit Historical Society Bulletin 1971 28 (2): 4-9.

Luckingham, Bradford. Schoolcraft's Promotion of Scientific Interest in the Frontier, 1818-1822: A Note. Mid-America 1965 47 (2): 139-144.

Tomaszewski, Deidre S. Lake Superior Exploration and Mapping. Inland Seas 1999 55 (2): 106-118.