John Sayer’s Winter Journal (Snake River 1804-1805)

May 17, 2014

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(Click to Enlarge)

On March 8th, I posted a map visually laying out the names of Ojibwe people and certain traders and voyageurs who appeared in the journals and narratives of Perrault, Curot, Nelson, and Malhoit.  These four men traded during years of fierce competition between the North West Company (Perrault, Malhoit), and the upstart XY Company (Nelson, Curot), at the dawn of the 19th-century.  These were British companies, working on American-claimed territory, but they mostly employed French-Ojibwe mix blood and French-Canadians.  These were violent and turbulent times, but they are valuable to written history because the competition led the companies to require journals from their clerks and traders.

I recently came across the published journal of John Sayer, a prominent North West trader of this era. He wintered at Cross Lake on Snake River in 1804-05, the same winter that Francois Malhoit spent at Lac du Flambeau, and the same winter that the North West and XY began the process of combining back into one company.  I decided the names from Sayer’s journal absolutely belonged on the map.

Sayer’s journal is very similar to the others, but is probably the least interesting, and least historically-important of the five.  It records day-to-day operations of the post with little commentary.  It largely lacks the colorful stories of Perrault and Nelson, and does not reveal as much about its author as Curot’s or Malhoit’s.  In fact, for several years historians did not know Sayer had even written it.  The online version, is scanned from Five fur traders of the Northwest: being the narrative of Peter Pond and the diaries of John Macdonell. Archibald N. McLeod, Hugh Faries, and Thomas Connor (1933), and identifies the journal with Thomas Connor.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that Douglas Birk and Bruce White revealed the true identity of the journal’s author.  Birk later had it republished as John Sayer’s Snake River Journal, 1804-1805: A Fur Trade Diary from East Central Minnesota.

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Detail from map at the top of the post:  note that the black dot is at the mouth of the Snake River, while Sayer’s post was farther upstream at Cross Lake.  JS=John Sayer, MC=Michel Curot, and GN=George Nelson.

 

Surprisingly, there was very little overlap between Sayer’s names the names recorded by Michel Curot the previous winter at nearby Yellow Lake.  Pike (Brochet, presumably Ginoozhe) is the only one I saw.

Zhaagobe (Jack-o-pa, Shakopee, Chacoubai) was the name of several Ojibwe and Dakota chiefs in this part of the world. The one Sayer traded with was likely the man above, in this lithograph of a Charles Bird King revision of a James Otto Lewis portrait from the Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Charles Lippert’s Wikipedia articles are very helpful in sorting out the different Zhaagobes and Ozaawindibs (Wikimedia Images).

This gives additional support to the notion, repeated in the March 8th post, that kinship ties rather than geographic proximity is what defines a “band” in this time period.  In these journals, you see references to both chiefs and villages, but descriptions like “Tete Jaune’s Band” appear much more often than ones like “Pokegama Band.”  Undoubtedly, these definitions were still very strong in mid-18th century, which begs the question of how meaningful the categories in the Chequamegon History People Index (or for that matter, the treaties) are.

It also appears that these kinship-based bands were often affiliated with one trading company or the other, and moved according to where there was a trader.  La Plat is described by Sayer as one of “Chernier’s (XY trader) Indians,” and along with Giishkiman (Sharpened Stone), he seems to pop up at XY posts from the St. Croix, to the Chippewa River, to Lac du Flambeau.

Anyway, I get out of my league if I go too far down this “big-picture” path, so I’ll wrap it up for now.  I may revisit this section of the map if I’m ever inclined to write about Zhaagobe (Shakopee “Six”), Ozaawindib (Yellow Head), and the shifting identities of the Ojibwe and Dakota of the Snake River area, but for now I leave that in the hands of people much more qualified than myself.

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