Today in 1864, Henry Schoolcraft died

Dec 10, 2015

Portrait of Henry Schoolcraft painted by Maria Louisa Wagner in 1852.
Credit Clements Library, University of Michigan

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft did as much as anyone else to make Michigan a state. As the U.S. Indian agent, he negotiated a treaty with tribes up north, who gave up millions of acres of land in the deal.

Schoolcraft married Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, a poet who was half Ojibwe. But he still thought of Indians as savages and that it was his job to lift them out of their “barbaric” state, according to Eric Hemenway.

Hemenway is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians who works in cultural preservation.

“It’s really difficult to think about, in this day and age, that these are government policies aimed at an indigenous population,” Hemenway says. “But this was commonplace in the early 1800s.”

At a beach near Harbor Springs, he can show you the spot where tribal chiefs met 180 years ago and departed in canoes to meet Schoolcraft and negotiate the 1836 treaty. What they feared most was being forced to leave Michigan, which did not happen, even though Schoolcraft was in favor of removal.

In addition to his political dealings with tribes, Henry Schoolcraft was also an authority on Indian culture. He published a number of volumes of Native American legends and history, including Algic Researches, Chippewa legends from the south shore of Lake Superior. These were used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he wrote The Song of Hiawatha.

Eric Hemenway says Schoolcraft’s writings are invaluable for studying Indian culture in the region.  But he thinks Schoolcraft published mainly to advance his political career.

“He was just a very ambitious individual,” says Hemenway. “He knew he had something special in collecting these stories because nobody else was really doing that in the Great Lakes like he was. And he had an in that not a lot of other white males had, and that was a native bride.”

The home Schoolcraft built in Sault Ste. Marie was restored to its original appearance in 1979 and is open for tours. The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum occupies the Indian Dormitory Schoolcraft had built.