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Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
Historical collections. Collections and researches made by the Michigan pioneer and historical society ... Reprinted by authority of the Board of State auditors. Volume 12
REMINISCENCES BY GEORGE JOHNSTON, OF SAULT DE STE. MARIE, 1815
In the year 1815, about the middle of June, there appeared emerging in sight, from a point at the head of the little rapids, a distance of about two miles from the falls of Ste. Marie’s, three neatly painted yawls. The leading one was well manned by eight expert oarsmen and one steersman. The other two boats had each six oarsmen and one steersman, following in the wake of the leading boat. They all were carrying at their stern the American banner, with its eagle, stripes and stars waving gracefully in the wind as the boats ascended the river, and as they passed before our house, we observed many passengers, and some apparently of note, wearing the military frock coat, and which indicated that they were officers of the United States army. They landed on the common, at the present military site of 0617 606 Fort Brady, and soon a large marquee and other tents were put up, forming a neat and orderly camp. My late father and I walked up to the new camp and soon recognized Capt. Knapp of the United States revenue cutter, and Samuel Abbott of the Island of Mackinac, and those gentlemen introduced us to Gen. Brown and to his suite of officers, and soon after the introduction my father invited the general and all the gentlemen composing the party, to our house and to what he termed his bandbox, and to render them such civilities as their rank and as gentlemen entitled them to, it being late in the afternoon when they landed. They all were invited to tea, and in the meantime the party visited the rapids and the upper end of the portage, from whence they could see the summit of Cape Iroquois, the entrance of Lake Superior. There was at this time a very large and numerous assemblage of Indians at the foot of the falls, and on an eminence was situated the ancient village of the Chippewas, considered as a metropolis during the summer months, and where the Indians living on the southern and northern shore of Lake Superior and its interior portions of the country, congregated to meet on friendly relations, and to spend their time in amusements and in the performance of their grand medicine dance, and to enjoy the abundance of the rapids, yielding such a plentiful supply of whitefish, to warrant sufficient daily food for such assemblages, and at this time the Indians were lords of the soil, free and independent, and fierce as the northern autumnal blast. At this time the Indians were numerous and yet still hostile to the Americans, from the fact of their having lost many of their friends and relatives during the war with England which broke out in 1812. Their wounds were not yet healed, nor was their aversion to the American name lessened, and at this epoch and under existing circumstances, the least pretext would have called forth the tomahawk and scalping knife to avenge the deaths of their relatives killed in the war. Agreeably to the invitation given to the general and his suite, the gentlemen made their appearance at the appointed time, and taking their seats around the table the entertainment commenced and soon after, while the gentlemen were still at the table, the late Mr. Nolin, an aged trader of over sixty years of age, was announced, and he was desired to walk into the room and take a seat; but the old gentleman appeared very much excited, and before he took his seat, related to my father in the French language, that he had come to report to him certain facts that had recently come to his knowledge through a friendly Indian woman, who had come to his house by the back way so as not to be seen by anyone in the Indian village, and whom he had left and was still waiting at his house, related and made known to him that the Indians at the village had in the course of the afternoon or immediately after Gen. Brown’s landing assembled in a secret 0618 607 council, and the result of their deliberations was to attack the Americans in the course of the night and massacre the whole of them. As the information was rather of a serious and alarming nature, the whole of which was explained and laid before General Brown, and my father offered to the general and his party a shelter in our house, and which offer the general declined accepting for the present, stating that he and his party had come to visit the entrance to Lake Superior, and as hostilities had ceased between England and her Indian allies and the United States, and that he had come in good faith and unprepared with arms, but if he had arms to arm his men and party, he would prefer remaining in his camp. We had fortunately at this time received our goods from Montreal, and over ten boxes of fine and northwest guns, designed for the Indian trade; with these we armed the general and his party of forty-five souls, and supplying them with an ample quantity of powder and balls, they set guards and occupied their tents.
I had orders from my father to take with me Mr. Holliday, then a clerk in our service, and a number of half-breeds and Canadians in our employ, and to keep a sharp lookout during the night, and to take our position between the general’s camp and the Indian village, and if any Indians dare pass us to shoot them down. We kept to our post during the night, and as the dawn of day appeared, we retired home, passing the general’s tent. I informed him that we had not discovered the least movement among the Indians of the village, but at the edges of the woods we had heard repeated sharp sounds of the Indian whistle. The Indians were no doubt aware that the general and his party were prepared to receive them and consequently gave up the attempt of the contemplated surprise and massacre. The gentlemen were all invited to take breakfast with us, upon fine bouncing whitefish, just caught by our fishermen, and while at breakfast, my father dissuaded the general and his party from visiting Lake Superior, as it was considered most prudent under existing circumstances. Soon after the general’s camp was struck down and the party were in their boats to join the revenue cutter, in waiting at Muddy Lake.
George Johnston .
In the year 1816, about the beginning of July, General McComb [Macomb] and his suite of officers arrived at this place, Sault Ste. Marie, and landed at our dock. He was accompanied by the gentlemanly Adam Stuart, Esq., the collector of customs of the Island of Mackinac. The general and his party took up their quarters at our house and were entertained by my father, John Johnston, Esq., during their stay at this place, which lasted a week.
Upon expressing a wish to visit the entrance to Lake Superior, my father ordered one of our light north canoes to be manned by nine of our best canoe men and best experienced voyageurs, and when the provision basket was well filled with eatables and the liquor case with choice wines, the canoe was launched to ascend the rapids with orders to the men to wait at the head of the rapids for the general and his party, while in the meantime the gentlemen walked up leisurely on the Portage Road, observing the falls and adjoining scenery. Soon came Le Clair, a faithful and intelligent boatman and guide, and meeting the party of gentlemen on the road, announced that the canoe was at the head of the rapids in waiting for "Mon general et pour les messieurs." My father accompanied the party to the head of the portage and saw them off, the men striking up the voyageur song. Away went the canoe, skimming the water as lightly and gracefully as a water-fowl. There happened to be at this time a large Indian camp at Point aux Pines and the Indians were numerous. The canoe arriving there with the American colours flying, and so soon Le Clair sprung to the sand beach to bring about the side of the canoe to the shore, when the warwhoop reached and assaulted their ears and simultaneously was seen infatuated and intoxicated Indians emerging from their lodges with guns and war clubs in hands, many of them stumbling on their way to the conoe; one of them, however, was not so drunk and reaching nigh to the canoe to within pistol shot and pointing his gun at the general, it fortunately snapped. The doctor accompanying the general couched himself low in the canoe, but the general sat as composedly as if nothing had happened. Le Clair as quick as thought ran toward the Indian who was deliberately priming his gun, wrested it from him, and giving him a blow on the head with the butt end of it, laid him flat upon the ground. And Le Clair immediately informed the general that it would be improper at this time to proceed to the entrance of Lake Superior, for while they would be absent the Indians would become sober and on their return be better prepared to do him and "les messieurs" serious if not fatal injury. It was therefore thought advisable to put about and return; soon we saw the canoe coming down the rapids in gallant style, men singing and in full chorus, and soon landing the general and his party on our dock. So ended the expedition.
George Johnston .
In the month of July, 1820, a number of canoes appeared ascending the river Ste. Marie, also a large Mackinac boat containing a force of twenty 0620 609 soldiers under the command of Lieut. John J. (S.) Pierce, * of the artillery, United States army, forming an escort to his Excellency, Lewis Cass, and his party. His Excellency was at this time Governor of the Territory of Michigan and bound on an expedition to discover the sources of the Mississippi. The party landed opposite the present site where Fort Brady is now situated and formed their camp on the green near the shore of the Ste. Marie river, and within gunshot of the Indian village situated on an elevated bank, and at this season of the year was well populated by the Indians who had arrived from the different regions of the country from their winter hunting excursions; and besides the local population, many little fleets of canoes having arrived from the north and southern shores of Lake Superior on their way down to visit their English father at Drummond Island, and to receive their annual presents from the British government, and this annual assemblage of Indians were now encamped on either side of the river, dotting the shores with their wigwams, and the probable assemblage of Indians at this time could not have been less than fifteen hundred men capable of bearing arms.
* John S. Pierce was a brother of President Franklin Pierce.—C. M. B.
My father, John Johnston, Esq., being absent from home, I called on his excellency, the governor, and invited him and his party to partake of the hospitalities of our home, and on the following morning I received a message from the governor desiring me to attend the contemplated council he was to hold with the Indians. I accordingly and forthwith in the company of our clerk, Mr. Holliday, repaired to his excellency’s camp, and we were requested to enter his marquee and placed on either side of his seat; soon the chiefs and head men came and took their seats on the ground, forming a semicircle in the marquee and right in front of his excellency, and soon after the chiefs and head men seated themselves, the interpreter was ordered to bring in some tobacco for the chiefs to smoke, and the interpreter, agreeably to his instructions, brought in an armful of plug tobacco and which he threw upon the ground and within the Indian circle. At this time I observed standing near the marquee door a young chief, Sessaba, dressed in full British uniform and appeared too important a character to take a seat on the ground with the elder chiefs. At this time one of the head men observed, and casting his eye on the pile of tobacco before him, I presume, said he, that this tobacco is designed for our smoking, and, drawing one of the plugs of tobacco towards him with his long pipe stem and taking it in his hand, drew his scalping knife from his belt and commenced cutting the tobacco, and at this instant, Sessaba, stepping inside the marquee, shoved the tobacco lying on the ground with his foot, and addressing himself to the head man who was cutting the tobacco, and with a frown, said to him: "How dare you accept of tobacco thrown on the ground as bones to dogs," and instantly 77 0621 610 wheeling around, he walked off towards the village and hoisted the British colors, and while the chiefs and all were amazed at Sessaba’s course it was reported to Gen. Cass that the British flag was hoisted and waving in the Indian village and so soon did the general spring to his feet, calling his interpreter to accompany him, they marched toward the village, and Lieut. Pierce and his men sprung to their arms. This broke up the council and the chiefs dispersed. The jingling of the ramrods in the muskets soon reached the ears of the women and children at the village, and the affrighted began to fly to their canoes lying on the beach, and which were shoved off; and the women and children rushing promiscuously and screaming, into the canoes and paddling off; the lamentations of the screaming women and the brawling children set the dogs howling and the river side became a perfect scene of confusion. In the meantime the British flag was hauled down by the general. At this time I walked home and I met my mother opposite my office and she, appearing much agitated, accosted me, saying: "For God’s sake, George, send instantly for the elder chiefs, for that foolish young chief, Sessaba, will bring ruin to the tribe, and get them assembled here." I immediately dispatched messengers for the chiefs and elders. And the chiefs, soon obeying the summons, were assembled in my office and I addressed them with the following words: "My friends and relatives, I am young and possess very little wisdom to give you advice at this present time; it is from you I should receive it, but on this occasion allow me to give you a few words of warning; and I do not design to be lengthy; a few words will suffice. You are all of you aware that hostilities between Great Britain and the United States have ceased. Peace now exists. The two nations are now living on friendly terms; one of your young men has misbehaved himself and has given a gross insult to the government of Michigan, a representative of the president of the United States, by hoisting the British flag on his acknowledged territory. You can not expect that the British government will sustain him in such an act. I understand that he has gone to arm himself and raise warriors; now be wise and quick and put a stop to his wild scheme and suppress the rising of your young men. The firing of one gun will bring ruin to your tribe and to the Chippewas, so that a dog will not be left to howl in your villages."
My mother at this time came in and with authority commanded the assembled chiefs to be quick, and suppress the follies of Sessaba, the chief. Shingwackhouse, the orator of the tribe, and who had been a partizan during the past war, was selected with other braves, and they had orders from the chiefs to stop Sessaba’s proceedings, and they forthwith started upon the portage road, and they met Sessaba, who, having divested 0622 611 himself of his regimentals, and now appearing painted and in war accouterments, leading a party of warriors, prepared and determined for a desperate encounter with Gen. Cass. Shingwackhouse, on meeting Sessaba, and addressing the party with him, said to them: "My friends and relatives, I am authorized by our chiefs and elders to stop your proceedings." Sessaba, instantly replying, said to Shingwackhouse, "You was a war leader when my brother fell in battle; he was killed by the Americans, and how dare you come to put a stop to my proceedings?" and raising his war-club, struck at Shingwackhouse and grazed his left shoulder and Shingwackhouse, undismayed, still kept up his oration and with his eloquence and the power vested him by the chiefs, he prevailed on the party to return quietly to their respective lodges, then situated at the head of the portage and along the shore of the falls. Soon after this a messenger sent by the chiefs, came to me and reported that Sessaba’s party had retired quietly to their respective wigwams and in the afternoon I assembled the chiefs in my office and told them it was necessary for them to make an apology to Gen. Cass, and to listen to what he had to say to them, and if they found anything adverse to their principles, it was their time to reject in a proper manner the propositions he should make to them and to this they assented; and I offered them my office as a council room and which they gratefully accepted. I then called on Gen. Cass and stated to him that the chiefs were assembled at my office and were ready to hear his words, and I suggested to the general that my office would be a convenient place to transact business in and I invited him and his suite, and repairing therein, the chiefs making an appropriate apology for the conduct of their foolish young chief, was accepted by Gen. Cass and business matters commenced and the treaty of June 16, 1820, was consummated between the parties. I recollect sending for two bottles of wine and tobacco, and those of us present pledged ourselves with the chiefs, and smoking the pipe of peace with them, ended our day’s work. *
* See appendix
George Johnston .