Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"The Invasion" by Janet Lewis. Or How the Americans Took Over Michigan.

The Invasion, A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St Mary's (University of Denver Press, 1932) by Janet Lewis  recounts the early history of  St, Mary's near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

John Johnston
In 1790 John Johnston, an Irish man from a well off family, came to Canada seek his fortune as a fur trader. He heard about the opportunities in Michigan. In 1791 Johnston arrived in Michigan, aged 29.

The Ojibway would sell their furs to the trading company, then be sold liquor until drunk. When sobriety returned, they discovered they had nothing left. One brutal winter day an Ojibway came to Johnson's door. He and his family were starving and unsheltered after he fell victim to the above trick.

Johnson invited him to share what he had. His guest turned out to be an important chief, Wabojeeg, or White Feather. The deal was made that White Feather would return the next season with furs to repay Johnson.

née Susan Johnston

Johnston wanted to marry the daughter of White Feather, The Woman of the Glade. White Feather agreed that Johnston could marry her if after checking over women from his own race he still preferred her. White Feather also required that Johnston consent to a marriage in the European tradition: one wife forever.

Johnston took the furs to Toronto and returned the next spring ready to marry Woman of the Glade. Johnson showed her the greatest respect and thoughtfulness, and after a shaky start "Susan" took on the role of wife and soon after mother being called  Neenay, or mother. She preferred to speak Ojibway and to follow the old ways. Late in life she became a Christian.

Johnston built up a successful business and he recreated an Irish manor in the wilderness. His daughters were cultured and elegant, speaking three languages. The children had all the benefits of a good education.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

Their daughter Jane married Henry Schoolcraft, an Indian adviser who documented the First People's stories, language, and way of life, in a more or less accurate manner. Find his works at Project Guttenberg here. Jane was the first female Native American poet.

Schoolcraft wrote of the Johnston family, "I have in fact stumbled, as it were, on the only family in Northwest America who could in Indian lore have acted as my guide, philosopher, and friend."

Another daughter married a Presbyterian minister. Their son George became a translator for Lewis Cass who was a general in the War of 1812 and later territorial and state governor.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
In the early years of the 19th c the First Nation people were offered treaties,  negotiated by Schoolcraft and Cass, that allowed them to continue to hunt and fish the land. But the Americans were becoming greedy for land under the pressure to expand. The Treaty of 1836 removed the natives all together from their traditional lands, ending their way of life. Another aspect of the Americanization of Michigan was a shift to the marginalization of mixed blood (Metis')  families like the Johnston family. Whereas John and Susan  enjoyed a high status in society, their grand children were written off as "half-breeds."

I have written about another Metis' family, the Riley brothers, the post found here. John Riley's bible has been handed down in my husband's family. His brother James appears in The Invasion. He was Lewis Cass's translator when Cass searched for the source of the Mississippi River. And he was the translator when Cass made his 1812 treaty with the Ojibway, explaining that the territory had changed from French to British to American control and that the Americans would purchase the land that had previously been purchased by the British.

Janet Lewis knew the granddaughter of Johnston. Lewis was a poet, and her writing is quite elegant. She deftly covers all the major events found in the historical documents from the time.

"There were calm days of summer when the water seemed as tranquil as water in a china cup..."

Janet Lewis is the author of the  novel The Wife of Martin GuerreThis 16th c. story of a man returned from war, discovered to be an imposter after having been accepted by the wife, inspired the movie The Return of Martin Guerre with Gerald Depradieu and later Sommerby with Richard Gere.

Lewis wrote a libretto based on The Invasion for Bain Murray called The Legend: The Story of Neenay, an Ojibway War Chief's Daughter and the Irishman John Johnson.

For more history on the area and the War of 1812 read Sault Ste Marie and the War of 1812

A nice article on Jane Johnston and her family can be found here and her obituary here.

One of the stories Lewis recounts is the history of John Tanner, a European who at age 7 was captured and raised as an Ojibway then returned to the European world. Tanner drifted between the two cultures unsuccessfully. He was accused of the murder of James Schoolcraft, the brother of Henry Schoolcraft who married Jane Johnston. An article on Tanner by John T. Fierst is found here.

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