1830 Colton

Calvin Colton (1789-1857) was a journalist and politician. His tour was a mixture of personal observation of aboriginal life accompanied by facts relative to the origins of the Indians. He also defended the country against the written attacks of the British writers who had found very little of merit in the United States on their travels.

About the 20th of July, 1830, we embarked at Buffalo in the steam-packet, Superior, for Detroit, and made the passage in two days, skirting the southern shore, and touching at the principal ports, without remarkable incident, except an unpleasant encounter with an army of musquitos in the bay of Sandusky, which were taken on board at the port of the same name, in lieu of passengers left behind; and who audaciousness, ferocity, and blood-thirstiness, were enough to make one our of temper with the place; and which, notwithstanding all attempts to ward off their assaults, inflicted upon us many deep and annoying impressions. . . . .

Detroit has long been regarded as the limit of civilization towards the north-west - and to tell truth, there is even yet little of the character of civilization beyond it. As may be seen from the map, it rests upon the west side of the strait, or river, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie; about ten miles below that small extension of the strait, called Lake St. Clair; and twenty miles above the shore of Lake Erie, towards its western extremity. This town, or commercial port, is dignified with the name, and enjoys the chartered rights, of a city; although its population at present does not exceed three thousand. The banks of the river above and below the city are lined with a French population, descendants of the first European traders among the Indians, in that quarter; and extending from Lake Erie to Lake St. Clair, increasing in density, as they approach the town, and averaging perhaps one hundred per mile.

The city of Detroit dates its history from July 1701. At that time M. de la Motte Cadillac, with one hundred men, and a Jesuit, carrying with them everything necessary for the commencement and support of the establishment meditated, reached this place. "How numerous and diversified," says a public literary document, "are the incidents compressed with the history of this settlement! No place in the United States presents such a series of events, interesting in themselves, and permanently affecting, as they occurred, its progress and prosperity. Five times its flag has changed - three different sovereignties have claimed its allegiance, and since it has been held by the United States, is government has been thrice transferred. Twice it has been besieged by the Indians, once captured in war, and once burned to the ground."

It should be observed, that the French trading ports, on the Upper Lakes, preceded the settlement of Detroit by nearly fifty years; that as early as 1673 they had descended the Mississippi, as far as the Arkanses; and that in 1679 Robert de la Sale penetrated through the Delta of the Mississippi, and saw its waters mingle with the Gulf of Mexico. Then was the interesting and vast conception formed and matured, of establishing a cordon of posts from Quebec, by way of the Upper Lakes and the Mississippi, to the Mexican seas - an enterprise, which, considering the age and the obstacles, both physical and moral, may proudly rank with any thing done in later days.

What child, whose vernacular tongue is English, has not listened to Indian story with an intensity of interest, which he can never cease to cherish; and with expectation of something new and newer still, from the wildness and fierceness of savage enterprise? Where is the man, however grave with philosophy and bowed with the weight of years, however accustomed to things prodigious, whose ear will not bend to the promise of him, who announces an untold page of Indian warfare? He who is read in the strifes of civilized nations, can easily anticipate the modes and the results, even of Napoleon's campaigns. But he who follows the track of the savage, thirsting for blood, expects some new development of stratagem and cruelty, at every turn.

Like Tecumseh, whose name signifies a tiger crouching for his prey, a man great in council and in war; and who bore the commission of chief of the Indian forces, in the British army in the late war; - like him, the Ottawa chieftain, of the middle of the last century, gave demonstration of a spirit, which in other circumstances, might have left him a name, not inferior to Alexander, or Cesar, or Napoleon. It is sufficient to say, that in 1763, a time of profound peace, Pontiac had attained such influence and supremacy over all the Indian tribes, spread over these extensive regions, as to have united them in a grand confederacy for the instantaneous extinction of all the European posts along a thousand miles of frontier; and that he actually succeeded, so far as to cut off, almost simultaneously, nine of the twelve of these military establishments. The surprise of Michillimackinack, one of these stations, is narrated in the following manner, by the document above quoted:

"The fort was then upon the main land, near the northern point of the peninsula. The Ottawas, to whom the assault was committed, prepared for a great game of ball, to which the officers of the garrison were invited. While engaged in play, one of the parties gradually inclined towards the fort, and the other pressed after them. The ball was once or twice thrown over the pickets, and the Indians suffered to enter and procure it. Nearly all the garrison was present as spectators, and those on duty were alike unprepared, as unsuspicious. Suddenly the ball was again thrown into the fort, and all the Indians rushed after it. The rest of the tale is soon told. The troops were butchered, and the fort destroyed."

But no one stratagem of Indian warfare is like another. We only know, that eight of the other stations were annihilated nearly at the same instant. Detroit was one of the three stations successfully defended, but not without the shedding of much blood. Pontiac himself appeared before it. And so unsuspected was his stratagem, that nothing would have prevented its triumphant execution, but for the informations of a friendly Indian woman. Pontiac had negotiated a great council to be held in the fort, to which himself and warriors were to be admitted, with rifles sawed off and hid under their blankets; by which, with the tomahawk and knife, at a concerted signal from their chieftain, they were to rise and massacre the garrison. But in consequence of the advice from the woman, the garrison was prepared. Pontiac and his warriors being rebuked, were too generously dismissed, and in return for this kindness commenced and waged a most bloody war.

Pontiac, unsuccessful in his wars against these posts, nothwithstanding the great advantages he had gained, and after committing numberless and untold cruelties, (though he was not without his fits of generosity, and of what are called the noble traits of Indian character), - implacable in his hatreds and resentments; finally retired to the Illinois, in the south-west, and was there assassinated by the hand of an Indian. "The memory of this great Ottawa chief," says the document used above, and from this account is abridged, "is still held in reverence among his countrymen. And whatever be the fate, which awaits them, his name and deeds will live in their traditionary narratives, increasing in interest, as they increase in years."

Detroit, originally, and for ages a post for trade, and a garrison for its protection - having enjoyed and suffered alternately peace and war, with the aborigines and between rival civilized powers, for such a long series of years - has now become the beautiful and flourishing metropolis of a wide and interesting territory - a territory destined soon to make at least two of the most important states of the American Union. The city looks proudly across one of the noblest rivers of the continent, upon the territory of a great and rival power, and seems to say, though in such vicinty, in reference to her former exposure and painful vicissitudes: - "Henceforth I will sit in peace, and grow and flourish under the wing of this Confederate Republic." And this place, but a little while ago so distant, is now brought within four days of the city of New York - the track pursued being seven hundred and fifty miles. Here, at Detroit, some of the finest steamers in North America, come and go every day, connecting it to the east, and have begun already to search out the distant west and north.

The peninsula of Michigan, lying between the lake of the same name on the west, and Huron on the east, is one of the greatest beauties of the kind in America, if not in the world. Where can be found such a tongue of land, and of so great extent, skirted by a coast of eight hundred miles, of the purest fresh-waters seas, navigable for ships of any burthern? The climate mild and healthful, the country ascertained to be the best of land - with streams and rivers sufficient for all useful purposes - and the upland level, between the two great lakes, chequered with innumerable small lakes, or basins, of one, three, five, and ten miles in circumference, pure and clear as the fountains of Eden, and abounding with fish, as do the rivers. There is something in the character of these basins of water, and in the multitude of them, which imparts a charm to this region, altogether unrivalled. They are the sources of the rivers and smaller streams, which flow into either lake - themselves and their outlets pure as crystal. How many gentlemen of large estates, and noblemen of Europe, have undertaken to create artificial lakes, and fill them with fish - which after all their pains are doomed to the constant deposits of filth and collections of miasmata; and which may be clouded by the plunge of a frog? But in the territory of Michigan is a world of lakes, created by the hand of God, of all dimensions and shapes, just fitted for the sports of fancy, of childhood, and of youth- for the relaxations of manly toil - for the occupation of leisure; - the shores of which are overhung with beautiful and wholesome shades - and the waters deep, and so clear, that the fish cannot play in their lowest beds, without betraying their motions to the observer, floating in his bark upon the surface. The common processes of nature maintain the everlasting and perfect purity of these waters, independent of the care of man. The transparency of the waters, in those upper regions, and in the great lakes, is a marvel - an incredible wonder to those, who have been accustomed only to turbid lakes and turbid rivers.

We will not detain the reader any longer at Detroit, except to notice a remarkable instance of capital crime. On the 26th of July, during our stay at Detroit, S.G.S. received the sentence of death, from the proper tribunal, for the murder of his wife, under circumstances, aggravated by brutality and savageness, too painful for recital; and in the contemplation of which humanity shudders. The wretched man's own children were the principal witnesses, on whose testimony he had been convicted. In telling the story of their mother's dreadful end, they brought their father to the gallows. In the progress of the trial, a history of savage violence was disclosed, such, we would fain believe, as rarely passes upon the records of crime. What demon of hell can be more fatal to human happiness, and to the souls of men, than ardent spirits? The children, a son and two daughters, of adult years, testified abundantly to the natural amiableness and affectionate kindness, in the conjugal and parental relations, not only of the mother, but also of the father, in his sober moments. But when intoxicated, he seemed possessed of the furies of a more abandoned world.

As the murderer entered the place of judgment, and was conducted to the bar to receive the sentence of the law, I observed in him a noble human form, erect, manly, and dignified; of large but well proportioned stature; bearing a face and head not less expressive, than the most perfect beau ideal of the Roman; with a countenance divinely fitted for the play of virtue, of every parental and conjugal affection; and an eye beaming out a soul, which might well be imagined to have been once susceptible of the love and worship of the Eternal One - all - all - marred and spoiled by the demon of intemperance; and now, alas! allied to murder of the most diabolical cast. Rarely is seen among the sons of men a more commanding human form, or a countenance more fitly set to intelligence and virtue - made, all would say, to love and be honoured. But now what change, by the debasements of brutal appetite, and the unprovoked indulgence and instigation of a fatal passion! By what a fearful career of vice and crime, had he come to this! "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!" But when debased and ruined by vice, how like a fiend, in shape so unbefitting such a spirit! And yet, who could see the fiendly upon stamp upon this poor and wretched man? For he wept - he sobbed! His inmost soul heaved with anguish! he bore the marks of contrition. As a man, and such a man - if we could forget his crime - he was to be respected; as being in condition of suffering, he was to be pitied; and as seeming the image of repentance, heaven might forgive what man could not.

It was an awful hour, when he approached the bar even of this earthly tribunal, anticipating well his doom. For a jury of his country, as he knew, had set their seal upon it. As he entered this now awful chamber of justice, he cast his eye around upon the expecting throng, whose presence and gaze could only be a mockery of his condition; - and with the greatest possible effort for self-possession, braced his muscular energies to support his manly frame, while trembling under the tempest of passion, which agitated his soul. But the moment he was seated, all his firmness dissolved into the weakness of a child; - and he wept; - he sobbed aloud. A silence reigned through the crowd, and a thrill of sympathy seemed to penetrate every heart.

The court, unaccustomed in that land to such an office, felt themselves in a new and an awful condition, with a fellow-being arraigned at their bar, charged and convicted of a most atrocious - and in its circumstances, an unparalleled crime, and his doom suspended at that moment on their lips. Their emotions were too evident to be mistaken, and in the highest degree honourable to their hearts. "S.G.S." - the name in full being pronounced by the court, broke the awful silence of the place, - "have you any thing to say, why the judgment of the court should not now be pronounced?" The prisoner rose convulsed, and with faltering voice, and in broken accents, replied: "Nothing, if it please the court, except what I have already communicated" - and resumed his seat. Upon which a very appropriate, eloquent, and impressive address was made by the court to the prisoner, setting forth the fact and the nature of the crime, of which he stood convicted; appealing to his own knowledge for the fairness of the trial; and to his own consciousness of the justice of his doom; commending him to heaven for that clemency, which he could no longer ask of men; - and then the awful sentence was pronounced. "Any may God Almighty," said the judge, with that subdued emphasis and touching pathos, which became the responsibility of his office, and the nature of the occasion - "may God Almighty have mercy on your soul."

The prisoner, by all the testimony, was in his nature kind. He had loved his wife excessively, and loved her, strange as it may seem, unto the last. And for that very love he was the more cruel, and the greater monster. He was jealous of her fidelity, without cause. Jealousy! "tis a monster begot upon itself - born on itself." That's he, - that was Othello!" And only when intoxicated with strong drink did this terrible passion gain its dominion over him. In the moments of his sobriety, he loved and confided, and could say in company of his wife,

"My soul hath her content so absolute,

That not another comfort like to thee,

Succeeds in unknown fate."

But it would seem, that hell itself were scarcely more furious, or more terrible, than he, when the demon of ardent spirits assumed control of his passions. If demoniacs were now-a-days about, the name of that man, in such predicament and mood, were worthy to be written, as prince of the host. But in prison, and before the tribunal of justice, this wretched being, once kind in nature, and made a fiend by the abuse of his nature, stood dispossessed, the guilty and conscious murderer of her, whom he espoused in her youth and loveliness, and who was ever worthy of his love; - and whom he took to his bosom, and promised, by the light and love of heaven, to be her husband and protector.

He was executed on the 24th of September.

On the 4th of August the steam-packet, Sheldon Thomson, left Detroit for the Upper Lakes, her ultimate destination being Green Bay, with the United States Commissioners, bound on the errand heretofore alluded to, and which we shall notice again by-and-by; - three companies of troops for the frontier garrisons; - several parties of ladies and gentlemen; some in pursuit of pleasure, some of materials for science and literature; some of business; some families returning, or emigrating to those new and remote settlements; - with pigs, poultry, &c. &c. As near as we recollect, the number of souls on board, including troops, commissioners and suite, ladies and gentlemen, and the crew - was not far from two hundred and fifty.

The rarity of this expedition gave it some importance. The character of the company, but especially the objects of the mission from Government to the Indians of the North-West, magnified the interest not inconsiderably. It is true there is some sailing craft habitually employed in this line of navigation. It is also true, that one of the steam-packets of Lake Erie, ordinarily makes a trip into those remote regions, some two or three times a season; as encouragements offer. But Detroit is reckoned the common limit of the crowd, who flock to the west in the summer; and a trip beyond is quite notable, and esteemed a great treat with the curious, and with all who have a taste for novel, wild, and romantic scenery; or an ambition to see that which is seldom seen by the common herd of travellers. It is confessed, that an expedition to the North Pole, is somewhat more important to the persons concerned; - and if they have the good luck to get back again, it may be more important to the world. If Captain Symmes had lived to accomplish his expedition to the centre of the earth, that would at least have been more interesting. It is possible, it may not yet be understood, all the world over, that the earth is hollow, and to be entered by a passage towards the imaginary poles; the polar points being themselves of course in the celestial regions, and therefore unattainable to man. This important discovery was made by the above-named Captain Symmes, of Ohio, United States.

It is not pretended, that the particular expedition, which makes the subject of our story, can claim a paramount importance, with either of those just alluded to. But still it attracted considerable attention. All the newspapers of the country - at least very extensively - announced it long beforehand; - that is - the proprietors of the steam-packet took care to put it in circulation, for the greater profit of the voyage, by attracting the attention of the curious, and offering motive to the enterprising. It was by this sort of newspaper puffing, that the author was drawn into the train; as was the fact with a great portion of the company.

On the morning of the 4th of August, the city of Detroit was in no little bustle, and the wharf, along-side of which lay the Sheldon Thomson, with her signals snapping in the wind, exhibited a most busy swarm of human beings, running to and fro, in the way of preparation. At eleven o'clock A.M. the gun was fired, and the packet bore away for Lake St. Clair, under all the force of wind and steam, and with as fine a day, as the sun ever made upon the earth. Indeed the scene and the occasion were quite inspiriting; and the objects in view wore the aspect of many powerful and romantic attractions. The beautiful city of Detroit began to recede, while the packet, borne along between the Canadian shore and Hog Island, (a name, it must be confessed, ill deserved by a thing so beautiful) glided in fine style into the opening expanse of Lake St. Clair.


See Also:

Dictionary of American Biography.