Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/May 1890/Sketch of Henry R. Schoolcraft

PSM V37 D010 Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.jpg



MR. SCHOOLCRAFT was a conspicuous figure in the scientific life of the early part of the century. A pioneer in some fields, the immediate follower of the pioneers in others, he was, in all the branches of research to which, he gave attention, earnest, ready, diligent, sagacious, original, and modest. As among his titles to be remembered, the biographer who prefaces his Personal Memoirs names the early period at which he entered the field of observation in the United States as a naturalist; the enterprise he manifested in exploring the geography and geology of the Great West; and his subsequent researches as an ethnologist in investigating the Indian languages and history. "To him we are indebted for our first accounts of the geological constitution and the mineral wealth and resources of the great valley beyond the Alleghanies, and he is the discoverer of the actual source of the Mississippi River in Itasca Lake. For many years, beginning with 1817, he stirred up a zeal for natural history from one end of the land to the other, and, after his settlement in the West, he was a point of approach for correspondents"—on these topics and for all the Indian tribes.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was born in Albany County, N.Y., March 28, 1793, and died in Washington, D. C, December 10, 1864. He was the descendant, in the third generation, of an Englishman, James Calcraft, who, having served with credit in the armies of the Duke of Marlborough, came to America in the reign of George II, in the military service, and was present at operations connected with the building of Forts Anne, Edward, and William Henry. After these campaigns he settled in Albany County as a land-surveyor, married, and in his old age conducted a large school—the first English school that was taught in that frontier region. In connection with this incident his name became changed to Schoolcraft. He died at the age of one hundred and two years. John, his third son, was a soldier under Sir William Johnson. Lawrence, John's son, distinguished himself during the siege of Fort Stanwix. He was afterward director of the glassworks of the Hon. Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, at Hamilton, near Albany; and established the manufacture of glass in western New York.

Henry Schoolcraft spent his childhood and youth in Hamilton, cultivated poetry, and maintained an excellent standing in scholarship. At an early age he manifested a taste for mineralogy and natural science, which were then (about 1808) almost unknown in the country; formed the beginnings of collections; and organized an association for mental improvement. He investigated the drift stratum of Albany County as seen in the bed of Norman's Kill; and afterward, while living at Lake Dunmore, Vt., put himself under the teaching of Prof. Hall, of Middlebury College; added chemistry, natural philosophy, and medicine to his studies; erected a chemical furnace, and went into experimenting; and picked up a knowledge of Hebrew, German, and French. He began writing for books and periodicals in 1808—contributing, among other things, papers on the Burning Springs of western New York, and on archaeological discoveries that had been made in Hamburg, Erie County. In the last paper, which was published at Utica in 1817, he pointed out the necessity of discriminating between the antique French and European, and the aboriginal period, in American antiquity. He was engaged for a time in directing the building of works connected with his father's glass-making enterprises in Vermont, New Hampshire, and western New York. The ideas and knowledge gained in these operations supplied the material for his proposed work on Vitreology, or the application of chemistry to glass-making, the publication of which was begun in 1817. The supervision of these works required the making of considerable journeys, and these created in him the desire to travel through the wilds of the "Far West," which then hardly extended beyond the Missouri River.

He made some "preliminary explorations" to his contemplated journey in western New York in 1816 and 1817, and started from Olean on the Alleghany River for a journey down the Ohio and up the Mississippi in 1818. A large company of intending emigrants had gathered there waiting for the season to open, and Schoolcraft took passage in the first ark. Arrived at Pittsburg, he stopped to explore the geology of the Monongahela Valley, and was greatly interested in the rich coal and iron beds. He stopped to visit the Grave Creek mound and the ancient works at Marietta. At Louisville he found "organic remains" of several species in the limestone rocks of the falls, and published anonymously in the paper some notices of its mineralogy. At the month of the Cumberland River he exchanged the ark for a keelboat or barge, with which, propelled by poles pushing on the bottom, he made from three to ten miles a day against the swift current of the Mississippi to Herculaneum, Mo. On this voyage he traveled over a large part of the west bank on foot, and gleaned several facts in its mineralogy and geology which made it an initial point in his future observations. He spent three months in examining the lead mines, personally visiting every mine or digging of consequence in the Missouri country and tracing its geological relations into Arkansas. Hearing of syenite suitable for millstones on the St. Francis, he visited that stream and discovered the primitive tract; and he pushed his examinations west beyond the line of settlement into the Ozark Mountains. He now determined to call the attention of the Government to the importance of its taking care of its domain in the mines, and with this purpose packed his collections and took passage in the new steamer St. Louis for New Orleans. Hence, having inquired into the formation of the delta of the Mississippi, he sailed by brig for New York. He opened his collections and invited examination of them, published a book on the mines and physical geography of the West and a letter on its resources, and went to Washington to present his views on the care of the mines to the officers of the Government. While he was looking for a secretary within whose purview the matter fell, Mr. Calhoun invited him to accompany General Cass, Governor of Michigan, as naturalist and mineralogist on an expedition to explore the sources of the Mississippi and to inquire into the supposed value of the Lake Superior copper mines. He accepted the position, though the compensation was small, because, he says, "it seemed to be the bottom step of a ladder which I ought to climb."

Mr. Schoolcraft left New York in March, 1820, reached Niagara Falls on the 1st of May, and Detroit by steamer a week later. While waiting for the completion of arrangements for embarkation, he attended to the correspondence which had been provoked by the publication of his work on the mines and the resultant awakening of interest in the varied resources of the Mississippi Valley and the subject of geographical and geological explorations. He determined to reply to all letters that appeared to be honest inquiries for geographical facts, "which I only, and not books, could communicate." The route of the expedition "lay up the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers and around the southern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior to Fond du Lac, thence up the St. Louis River in its rugged passage through the Cabotian Mountains to the Savannah summit which divides the Great Lakes from the Mississippi Valley. The latter was entered through the Cantaguma or Sandy Lake River. From this point the source of the Mississippi was sought up rapids and falls and through lakes and savannahs, in which the channel winds. We passed the inlet of Leech Lake, which was fixed upon by Lieutenant Pike as its probable source, and traced it through Little Lake Winnipeg to the inlet of Turtle Lake in upper Red Cedar or Cass Lake in latitude 47°. On reaching this point the waters were found unfavorable to proceeding higher. The river was then descended to the falls of St. Anthony, St. Peter's, and Prairie du Chien. From the latter point we ascended the Wisconsin to the portage into Fox River, and descended the latter to Green Bay." At this point the expedition was divided. The party to which Mr. Schoolcraft was attached proceeded to Chicago, thence traced the eastern coast of Michigan, and rejoined the other party, which had gone north to trace the shores to Michilimackinack. About four thousand miles were traversed. Reports were made to the Government by Mr. Schoolcraft on the mineralogy and geology of the region; on the copper deposits of Lake Superior; on the botany, fresh-water conchology, zoölogy, and ichthyology; soil, productions, and climate received attention; and the Indian tribes were subjects of observation by General Cass. "In short, no exploration had before been made which so completely revealed the features and physical geography of so large a portion of the public domain." A new interest in mineralogy and geology was awakened by this expedition, and Mr. Schoolcraft's narrative of it was hurried into press under the pressure of the public clamor for its results. The book was published in May, 1821.

Mr. Schoolcraft shortly afterward embarked, with General Cass, on another expedition. The route lay. from the present site of Toledo, up the Miami of the lakes, down the Wabash and Ohio to Shawneetown, overland across the "knobs" and prairies, taking a famous locality of fluor-spar on the way, to St. Louis; thence up the Illinois to the rapids and on horseback to Chicago, stopping to find the fossil tree in the bed of the Des Plaines. In Chicago, a treaty was made with the Pottawattamies for the surrender of about five million acres of land, to which Mr. Schoolcraft should have given his signature among the others, but he was too ill—"did not, indeed, ever expect to make another entry in a human journal." The incidents and observations of the journey have been published as Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley. In the next year (1822) Mr. Schoolcraft was appointed Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie, of which he says, giving his reasons for accepting it: "I had now attained a fixed position; not such as I desired in the outset and had striven for, but one that offered an interesting class of duties, in the performance of which, there was a wide field for honorable exertion, and, if it was embraced, also of historical inquiry and research. The taste for natural history might certainly be transferred to that point, where the opportunity for discovery was the greatest." The position afforded him excellent opportunities for studying the Chippewa language and Indian mythology and superstition, characteristics, and customs, of which he made the best use. He determined to be a laborer in the new field of Indian studies. His diary during the whole term of his office shows him leading a busy and varied life. We find in it notes on his subjects of study, of his readings on various general topics, observations on the natural features of the region, remarks on mineralogical specimens, and incidents of official work.

Mr. Schoolcraft spent the winter of 1824-'25, on leave of absence, in New York, where he superintended the printing of his Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley. "Society" was much interested in Mrs. Schoolcraft, the "Northern Pocahontas," a lady of aristocratic Irish descent on one side, and tracing her ancestors on the other side to the royal house of the Chippewas, who was withal, having been educated abroad, highly accomplished and refined in her manners. She was the daughter of Mr. John Johnston, of Sault Ste. Marie, who had married the daughter of Wabojeeg, a distinguished Chippewa chieftain. In 1825 he attended a convocation of the Indian tribes at Prairie du Chien, where a treaty was signed, through which it was hoped internal disputes between the tribes might be settled by fixing the boundaries to their respective territories. In the next year he attended a similar gathering of the Chippewa tribes at Fond du Lac, where the principles of the treaty of Prairie du Chien were reaffirmed, and a new treaty was made, under which the Indians acknowledged the sovereign authority of the United States; ceded the right to explore and take away the native copper and copper ores, and to work the mines and minerals in the country; and provision was made for the education of the Indians and their advancement in the arts. The system of Indian boundaries established by these treaties was completed by the treaty of Butte des Morts, August, 1827. The three treaties embodied a new course and policy for keeping the tribes in peace, and were founded "on the most enlarged consideration of the aboriginal right of fee simple to the soil." In 1827 he was elected a member of the Legislative Council of the newly organized Territory of Michigan—an office which was not solicited, and was not declined. As a member of this body during four sessions, he directed his attention to the incorporation of a historical society; to the preparation of a system of township names derived from the aboriginal languages; and to some efforts for bettering the condition of the natives.

A proposition was made to Mr. Schoolcraft in 1828 to go as one of the scientific corps of an exploring expedition which the Government contemplated sending to the south seas, under the direction of the Secretary of the Navy. In his reflections on the prospects of this expedition and the acquisitions to knowledge that might be expected to accrue from it, he regarded the experiments of Dr. Maskelyn, denoting a greater specific gravity in the central portion of the globe than in its crust, as opposed to a theory that was then advocated of an interior void. Yet he thought "we are advertised, by the phenomena of earthquakes, that this interior abounds with oxygen, hydrogen gas, caloric, and sulphur, and that extraordinary geological changes are affected by their action. It does seem improbable that the proposed expedition will trace any open connection with such an interior world; but it may accumulate facts of the highest importance." There was something, however, about the getting up and organization of the expedition which he did not like, and an apprehension whether Congress would not cripple it by voting meager supplies and outfits. He declined to go.

A note from Mr. G. W. Featherstonaugh, giving a disparaging view of American scientific achievement, and inclosing the prospectus of a journal designed to correct these things, gave Mr. Schoolcraft opportunity for bearing strong tribute to the genuineness of real American scientific research. The critic's remarks might be true as to a certain class, who had not made science a study; but, if applied to the power and determination of the American mind devoted to natural history, it was "not only unjust in a high degree, but an evidence of an overweening self-complaisance, imprecision of thought, or arrogance. No trait of the American scientific character has been more uniformly and highly approbated by the foreign journals of England, France, and Germany than its capacity to accumulate, discriminate, and describe facts. For fourteen years past, Silliman's Journal of Science, though not exclusively devoted to natural sciences, has kept both the scientific and the popular intelligent mind of the public well and accurately advised of the state of natural science the world over. Before it, Bruce's Mineralogical Journal, though continued but for a few years, was eminently scientific; and Cleaveland's Mineralogy has had the effect to diffuse scientific knowledge not only among men of science, but other classes of readers. In ornithology, in conchology, and especially in botany, geology, and mineralogy, American mind has proved itself eminently fitted for the highest tasks."

The Michigan Historical Society was founded, chiefly through Mr. Schoolcraft's instrumentality, in 1828, and the Algic Society on February 28, 1832. The latter organization had in view the reclamation of the Indians, and, connected with, this, the collection and dissemination of information respecting their language, history, traditions, customs, and character; their numbers and condition; the geological features of their country, and its natural history and productions. It also proposed some definite means of action for furthering the moral instruction of the Indians, and for helping the missionaries in all work for their benefit. As president of this society, Mr. Schoolcraft was asked to lecture on the grammatical construction of the Algonquin languages as spoken by the Northwestern tribes, and to procure a lexicon of it; also to deliver a poem on the Indian character at the annual meeting of 1833. Other literary efforts of this period were, an address before the Historical Society of Michigan in 1830, and an address, in 1831, before the Detroit Lyceum, on the natural history of the Territory. In the summer of 1832 Mr. Schoolcraft, under a commission from the Government, organized and commanded an expedition to the country upon the sources of the Mississippi River. The primary object of the expedition was to extend to the Indians living north of St. Anthony's Falls the measures previously taken with those south of that point, to effect a pacification; also, to endeavor to ascertain the actual source of the river. He ascended the St. Louis from Lake Superior to Sandy Lake summit, and passed thence direct to the Mississippi six degrees below the central island in Cass Lake, which was till then the ultimate point of geographical discovery. Thence he went up the river and its lakes, avoiding too long circuits of the stream by portages, to the junction of the two branches, where by the advice of his Indian guide he took the left-hand, or Plantagenian branch, to Lake Assawa, its source. Thence he went by portage, a distance of "twelve resting-places," to Itasca Lake, which he struck within a mile of its southern extremity. The lake was judged to be about seven miles in length, by one or two broad; "a bay, near its eastern end, gave it somewhat the shape of the letter y." The discoverer returned, through the stream and its lakes, to St. Peter's.

The narrative of this expedition was published in 1834; and was republished, with the account of the expedition of 1820, in 1853, under the title, Narrative of an Exploratory Expedition to the Sources of the Mississippi River in 1820, completed by the Discovery of its Origin in Itasca Lake in 1832. The whole of Mr. Schoolcraft's earlier life and work up to this time is recorded, mostly from day to day, in his Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, etc., 1812 to 1842, a book having "the flavor of the time, with its motley incident on the frontier, with Indian chiefs, trappers, government employe's, chance travelers, rising legislators, farmers, ministers of the gospel, all standing out with more or less of individuality in the formative period of the country." This book abounds with evidence of Mr. Schoolcraft's scientific and literary activity, as well as of his efficiency in work in whatever field. As early as 1820 we find a letter from Amos Eaton, asking him for information for the second edition of his Index to Geology, respecting the secondary and alluvial formations and the strata of the Rocky Mountains. Dr. Samuel Mitchell writes him, in 1821, about the shells and other specimens he has sent, including a "sandy fungus," and inviting specimens for the cabinet of the Emperor of Austria. Profs. Silliman and Hall acknowledge the value of his examination of the mining regions of Missouri; Prof. Silliman asks for articles for his journal; and Sir Humphry Davy thinks his book would sell well in England. Prof. Cleaveland writes him, in 1827, that he is about preparing a new edition of his work on mineralogy, and solicits the communication of new localities. In the same year Mr. Schoolcraft himself writes that the collection he made in Missouri, etc., in 1819, appears to have had an effect on the prevalent taste for those subjects, "and at least it has fixed the eyes of naturalists on my position on the frontiers." Mr. Peter S. Duponceau addresses him, in 1834, on the structure of the Indian languages, "in terms which are very complimentary, coming, as they do, as a voluntary tribute from a person whom I never saw, and who has taken the lead in investigations on this abstruse topic in America." He pronounces Mr. Schoolcraft's book on the Chippewa languages one of the most philosophical works on the Indian languages which he has ever read. In another letter Mr. Duponceau acknowledges having used Mr. Schoolcraft's grammar, giving due credit, in preparing a prize essay for the Institute of France, on the grammatical structure of Indian languages. Dr. Thomas H. Webb, of Providence, in 1835, notifies him of his election as an honorary member of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and asks about aboriginal inscriptions on rocks. The Massachusetts Historical Society, in 1836, asks him to proceed with his work on the Ojibway language, complete it, and let the society publish it. John J. Audubon asks for aid in preparing his work on American quadrupeds. There are numerous notices of specimens that have been sent to Mr. Schoolcraft to pass upon, and solicitations from persons representing the principal magazines, to contribute of the results of his researches.

A new disposition of official posts having been made, Mr. Schoolcraft transferred his residence in 1837 to Michilimackinac or Mackinaw. Thence he removed, in 1841, to New York, where he expected to find the surroundings more favorable to the collation and publication of the results of his observations on the red race, whom he "had found in many traits a subject of deep interest; in some things wholly misunderstood and misrepresented; and altogether an object of the highest humanitarian interest." But the publishers were not yet prepared in their views to undertake anything corresponding to his ideas. In the next year he carried out a long-deferred purpose of visiting England and continental Europe, attending the British Association at Manchester. On his return he made a tour through western Virginia, Ohio, and Canada. In 1875 he was appointed by the Legislature of New York as a commissioner to take the census of the Indians of the State, and collect information concerning the Six Nations. The results of this investigation were embodied in his Notes on the Iroquois, a second enlarged edition of which was published in 1847. The latter part of his life was spent in the preparation—under an act passed by Congress in 1847—of an elaborate work on all the Indian tribes of the country, based upon information obtained through the reports of the Indian Bureau. This work—which was published in six quarto volumes—is described in Duyckink's Cyclopædia of American Literature as covering a wide range of subjects in the general history of the race; their traditions and associations with the whites; their special antiquities in the several departments of archaeology in relation to the arts; their government, manners, and customs; their physiological and ethnological peculiarities as individuals and nations; their intellectual and moral cultivation; their statistics of population; and their geographical position, past and present.

Mr. Schoolcraft became interested in religion at an early period in his career, and his journals show him ever more earnestly co-operating in local religious movements; furthering the progress of missionary effort among the Indians, by whatever denomination; laboring for the promotion of temperance among them; and taking the lead in whatever might contribute to their well-being or to the repression of wrong against them. His literary activity was prolific, and appears to have.been nearly evenly divided between poetry, Indian lore and ethnology, and the objects of his explorations and scientific investigation. Besides books of poems and the narratives already named, he published Algic Researches, a collection of Indian allegories and legends (1839); Oneota, or the Characteristics of the Red Race in America (1844-'45), republished in 1848 as The Indian and his Wigwam; Report on Aboriginal Names and the Geographical Terminology of New York (1845); Plan for investigating American Ethnology (1846); The Red Race of America (1847); A Bibliography of the Indian Tongues of the United States (1849); and American Indians, their History, Condition, and Prospects (1850). He received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Geneva in 1846; and was a member of many learned societies