On this day in 1793, the United States was just a fledgling nation with much unexplored land to the west. On that day, Henry Schoolcraft was born in Albany, New York. His father was a glass maker and Henry would follow in the family business for a time in his early years. At the age of 15 he became interested in geology and attended college. Soon the draw of the west enchanted him and he changed his path.
Henry is best known for his discovery of the source of the Mississippi River in Itasca, Minnesota. He also worked with the Native American Ojibwe people. He met his first wife, Jane Johnson in 1822 when he was assigned as an Indian agent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Jane was the daughter of a prominent Scots Irish fur trader and his Ojibwe wife. The fact that she was fluent in the native language, helped him to establish a good relationship with them. Jane’s Ojibwe name was Bamewawagezhikaquay (Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky). Don’t you just love the descriptive names they were given? I’ve often wondered if they were named when they were older, so they knew what they would be like or if their given name described what they would become.
In any event, Jane and Henry worked together as a team and some say they were the inspiration for Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Their partnership produced many books on native culture and language. Schoolcraft later engaged the artist, Seth Eastman as illustrator for his books. Eastman was renowned for his paintings of Native American peoples. He had painted the people and their surroundings at Fort Snelling in present day Minnesota. He also painted the Indians of the Great Plains.
Jane died in 1842 and Henry married southerner, Mary Howard. Schoolcraft didn’t anticipate the problems that would arise between her and his children. Mary was a slaveholder and didn’t believe in mixed race unions. Of course there would be conflict and the children alienated themselves from their father and his new wife.
During their years together, Mary would assist her husband in organizing the material for his books. When he became crippled with rheumatism, she became his hands. Upon his death in 1864, she donated over 200 books from his library, which had been published in 35 different Native American languages, to the Boston Athenaeum. My husband has seen some of the books from the Schoolcraft collection. He says they are as impressive as those created by Audubon during his lifetime. Schoolcraft’s contribution to American history is priceless.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY SCHOOLCRAFT!