Indian Stories by Great Grandma
|Great grandma said the tale about the first
white man was told to her by a
women of the "Potwami"Tribe. There being no tribe in Iowa of
that name, then or now, Pottawattamie sounds
American history suggest that the first white men in Iowa were Spanish explorers in the 1500s, but were those what the Indians saw?
The white men in this story were likely French traders instead of Spanish explorers.
The First White Men
They set up fish camp by a river that flowed into a big lake "Too far to see across". Then one day the children ran into camp yelling that strange people were coming. Young braves rushed from camp to see what was wrong. Terrified children had climbed trees to see better and were pointing toward the lake.
A short distance from the edge of the lake a strange canoe was being pulled ashore by several men with hair on their faces. The men got out and set up camp and built a fire. The Indians called them, "Men With Hairy Faces Who Have No Women," and they called the lake, "Water too wide to see across."
Several warriors from the woods watched the camp of hairy men. With darkness coming on, one brave cautiously approached the campfire. The hairy men were friendly, and pointing across the lake, signed from whence they came. They had gifts, cloth, knives, and other goods to trade, but no whiskey.
They wanted to trade for skins of deer, elk, beaver, muskrat, etc. The Indians traded for knives and what later became known as a metal hand axe, or tomahawk. The traders returned to trade again, and always treated the Indians fairly and never brought whisky.
Note: This is a summary of a much more detailed story that took Grandma nearly an hour to tell. Each time the story was a little different, but the story line consistently held to the version written above.
The place described above could have been in any great lake state on any large lake, but American and Canadian History and the geography of the area suggest where the fish camp could have been.
Every summer the men planted crops in Iowa and Illinois, then with crops in, a few braves and young men and women went to fish camp. While the fish camp crew was gone, older men and women watered and tended the crops. The fish camp crew caught and dried fish for the season, then returned home to harvest their crops.
The events in the story probably occurred in the 1600s because the likelyhood of seeing a white man before then seem exceedingly slim. A few explorers may have poked around the great lakes during the 1500s, but men in large numbers came with the founding of The Hudson Bay Trading company in 1670. After that trappers and traders spread rapidly into Ontario Province which borders on the north shore of Lake Superior.
Since the Indians in Iowa came from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, the big lake in the story could have been Lake Superior or Lake Michigan, but best bet is Lake Superior.
The Indians called it, "Water too far to see across," meaning a very big lake.
Because the traders were most likely Frenchmen from Ontario or Quebec, It was likely they would cross Lake Superior during calm summer weather to trade with Indians on the south side of the lake.
Some elements of the story in retrospect make little sense. Indian men didn't have beards, so sight of a man with hair on his face must have seemed strange. One comment in the story made little sense and that was the reference in two places to whisky. A tribe who had never seen a white man was not likely to know about whiskey. That apparent contradiction might result from a story teller somewhere up the line taking literary license. The Indians were probably exposed to whisky in the 1800s.
History suggest that Indians native to that land were primarily farmers who lived in permanent camps and farmed land near those camps. The further suggestion is that Indians either cleared land for farming or selected naturally open land, like meadows, to farm.
Typically after the crops were planted, some braves went hunting and fishing while women, children and older men tended to the crops. The fishing and hunting crews would return in time to harvest the crops.
Lake Superior, the furthest north and west is the biggest, the deepest, the coldest and the most pristine. It was named by early French explorers who labeled it "le lac superieur," meaning "the uppermost lake." The Objibwa Tribe claims the lake is protected by Nanabijou, meaning Spirit of the Deep Water.
Lake Superior is bordered on the north by Ontario, to the west by Minnesota and south by Wisconsin and Michigan. Superior at its greatest measures 350 miles long and 160 miles across, truly a lake too far to see across.