Fear and Loathing on the Brule River: or how Lt. Allen’s canoe skills fail to convince the Ojibwe of the overwhelming military might of the United States. (Part 2)

April 19, 2013

Note:  This is the second of four posts about Lt. James Allen, his ten American soldiers and their experiences on the St. Croix and Brule rivers.  They were sent from Sault Ste. Marie to accompany the 1832 expedition of Indian Agent Henry Schoolcraft to the source of the Mississippi River.  Each of the posts will give some general information about the expedition and some pages from Allen’s journal.   

The expedition made good time along the south shore of Lake Superior, with the soldiers in the larger Mackinac boats and the rest of the group in smaller and faster canoes.  At the mouth of the Brule River, they got lucky.  They met an Ojibwe named Ozaawindib (Yellow Head) who was part of the Cass Lake band and who considered the headwaters of the Mississippi part of his hunting territory.

He agreed to guide the group all the way past Fond du Lac, across the portages to Sandy Lake, and up the Mississippi to what the Ojibwe called Omashkooz (Elk) Lake and the French called Lac la Biche.  Possibly thinking that a lake already possessing an indigenous and a European name wouldn’t need to be “discovered,” Schoolcraft renamed it Lake Itasca and told the world he had found the source of the Mississippi (Ozaawindib’s hunting camp).

  • (Side note:  if the last paragraph seemed a little cynical, I apologize.  I hate stories about “discoveries” that aren’t really discoveries.  I’m pretty sure that’s why it took me so long to read this book.  I need to get over this prejudice, or I’m going to miss something good.  Still, you won’t see many “First [insert name of WASP] to visit [insert natural feature well known to Native, nonwhite, or Catholic people]stories on this site).    

Eshkibagikoonzhe (Guelle Platte; Flatmouth), chief of Leech Lake band is a towering figure in the history of the upper Mississippi country in the early 19th century. He gave Schoolcraft and company a friendly but clear demonstration of the limits of American power (Minnesota Historical Society).

Schoolcraft’s relative ease (due to having mix-blood and Ojibwe guides and paddlers) in reaching Elk Lake caused him to remark that the Ojibwe would have to accept American authority now that Government officials and soldiers could penetrate that far into their territory.  Of particular concern to him was the Leech Lake band.  Eshkibagikoonzhe (Flat Mouth) the chief was powerful and independent, and so was the rest of the band. When the expedition returned through Leech Lake, Allen had his dozen soldiers drill and parade, but Flat Mouth put it in friendly but very clear terms.  They were guests in his house.  (The expedition’s experiences in Leech Lake are great reading.  A short rundown here wouldn’t do them justice.  Read the introduction to Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations to get a very good analysis).

Schoolcraft and company took the Crow Wing route to the Mississippi and Fort Snelling (later Minneapolis), and met with more Ojibwe and Dakota bands along the way.  He came back north through the St. Croix and Brule to Lake Superior, returned to the Sault, and sent off a positive report of an efficient and effective trip to bring the Ojibwe under American domination.  All had gone according to plan, right?  Read on.

Pee-Che-Kir: a Chippewa Chief by Charles Bird King: This image of Bizhiki (the “Pee-ghee-kee” mentioned below) was originally painted in 1824 while the Snake River chief was part of a delegation to Washington D.C.  Bizhiki (Buffalo) is a name shared with a famous contemporary, Chief Buffalo of La Pointe (Wikimedia Commons).

The journal picks up July 29, 1832 on the St. Croix River.  The expedition has already reached the source of the Mississippi, proceeded downriver to Fort Snelling (Minneapolis) and was on its way back to Lake Superior. 

These pages document Allen’s journey up the St. Croix.  Schoolcraft, along with the expedition’s interpreter and doctor, are in canoes paddled by mix-blooded voyageurs and are making good time.  The soldiers are a few days back and falling farther behind each day.  They pass through the villages of the “St. Croix band.” The St. Croix Ojibwe are not a single unit, but have several villages and camps.  Their biggest villages are at Snake River and Yellow River, but the account also mentions the small village of the prominent chief  Gaa-bimabi (Keppameppa).  This was near present-day Gordon, Wisconsin.

Section of Allen’s map showing the St. Croix around Yellow River and Namakagon River. Ottawa Lake is Lac Courte Oreilles (reproduced by John Lindquist)

At this point, Allen is becoming increasingly angry at Schoolcraft for ditching the soldiers.  As he passes through the three Ojibwe villages, his racism towards Indians shifts from a comfortable sense of superiority to a fearful paranoia.

Placeholde

Doc. 323; pg 58

pl

Doc. 323, pg. 59

pl

Doc. 323, pg. 60
Allen’s journal is part of Phillip P. Mason’s edition of Schoolcraft’s Expedition to Lake Itasca: The Discovery of the Source of the Mississippi (1958). However, these Google Books pages come from the original publication as part of the United States Congress Serial Set.

To be continued…

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