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 3)

May 7, 2013

Note:  This is the third 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.   

Douglass Houghton (1809-1845) was the naturalist and physician for the expedition. While traveling with Schoolcraft’s lead group, he expressed frequent concern for Allen and the soldiers as they fell behind (painted by Alva Bradish, 1850; Wikimedia Commons).

Schoolcraft’s original book takes up the first quarter of the pages in the 1958 edition of Narrative of an Expedition, edited by Phillip P. Mason.  The rest of the pages are six appendixes including the journals of Douglass Houghton the surgeon and geologist, W.T. Boutwell the missionary, and Allen.  Of the four, Schoolcraft’s provides the blandest reading.  His positive, official spin on everything offers little glimpse into his psyche.  In contrast, Houghton gives us a unique account of smallpox vaccinations, botany, and geology. Boutwell gives us detailed descriptions of Ojibwe religious practices through his zealous missionary filter.  His frequent complaints about mosquitoes, profane soldiers, Indian drumming, and voyageur gambling ruining his Sabbaths are very humorous to those who aren’t sympathetic to his mission.

Allen’s journal is fascinating. He was sent by the War Department to record information about the geography of the country and its people for military purposes.  Officially the Ojibwe and the United States were friendly. Schoolcraft, being married into a prominent Ojibwe family at the Sault, promoted this idea.  However, a sense of future military confrontation looms over the narrative.  The Indian Removal Act was only two years old, and Black Hawk’s War broke out just as the expedition was starting out.  In 1832, lasting peace between the Ojibwe and the United States was not automatically guaranteed.

The journal reads, at times, like a post-modern anti-colonial novel complete with Allen as the villainous narrator looking to get rich off Lake Superior copper and making war plans against Leech Lake.  However, Allen’s writing style allows the reader in as Schoolcraft’s doesn’t, and he shows himself to be thoughtful and observant.

Allen’s primary objective was to protect Schoolcraft and show the Ojibwe that the United States could easily deliver soldiers to their remotest villages.  This mission proved difficult from the beginning.  Once they left Lake Superior and reached the Fond du Lac portages, it became evident that Allen’s soldiers had no canoe experience and could not keep up with Schoolcraft’s mix-blooded voyageurs.  Schoolcraft never seems overly concerned about this, and much of Allen’s narrative is about his men painfully trying to catch up while the Ojibwe and mix-blooded guides laugh at their floundering techniques for getting through rapids.

Through all the hardship, though, Allen did complete the journey to Elk Lake (Itasca) and back down the Mississippi to Fort Snelling.  His map of the trip was praised back east as a great contribution to world geography, and Schoolcraft used it to illustrate the published narrative.  However, it was the final stretch through the St. Croix and Brule, after Schoolcraft had already declared the expedition a success, where things really got bad for the soldiers.

Continued from Part 2:

Section of Allen’s map showing the St. Croix to Brule portage.  Note Gaa-bimabi’s (Keppameppa’s) village on Whitefish Lake near present-day Gordon, Wisconsin. (Reproduced by John Lindquist).

At this point, Allen and his men have fallen multiple days behind Schoolcraft.  They have no knowledge of the country save a few rough maps and descriptions. Their canoes are falling apart, and they are physically beaten from their difficult journey up the St. Croix.  In theory, the portage over the hill to the Brule should be an easy one given the fact they have little food and supplies left to carry.  However, the men are demoralized and ready to quit.  Little do they know, the darkest days of their journey are still to come.


Doc. 323, pg. 61


Doc. 323, pg. 62


Doc. 323, pg. 63
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 completed…


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