Early September 1825 was a stormy time. We know this through the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first Indian agent of the Lake Superior region. He neglected to make a journal entry on September 9, 1825 because â??The excitement of getting backâ?|[home]â?|and finding all well drove away almost all other thoughts.â??
He finally arrived at his beloved Elmwood estate in Sault Ste. Marie after an over two month journey south into Wisconsin territory. He and his party of voyageurs left Mackinac Island July 1 and made the difficult journey to Prairie Du Chein on the Mississippi River to settle territorial disputes among the tribes of the region.
Schoolcraft found a â??very large number of the various tribes assembled.â?? (Image 1 above) He asserted, â??No such gathering of the tribes had ever before occurredâ??. The banks of the Mississippi were lined with tents and wigwams â??for miles above and below the town.â??
The trip back to the Sault was made along the same route they had traveled on the way out. Schoolcraft wanted to go back straight north by way of the Chippewa River then along the south shore of Lake Superior, but abandoned that plan because he could find no one willing to take him that way. A year earlier an American trader named Finley and three Canadian voyageurs were murdered by a Chippewa war party along his proposed route back. The lingering fear caused by the incident was still strong and Americans avoided travel through that area.
By the end of August, Schoolcraftâ??s party was drifting down the Fox River. He described the waterway as â??serpentine, almost without parallel; it winds about like a string that doubles and redoubles and its channel is choked with fields of wild rice.â?? A heavy shower at three in the morning on the 27th delayed the partyâ??s departure until sunrise. The day turned out to be hot â??beyond any experience on the journey.â??
Schoolcraft was suffering from homesickness when he wrote, â??Why should I relate to you our dull progress through fields of riceâ??through intricate channels, and amidst myriads of ducks and wild water fowl?â?? The heat rendered him pensive, apathetic and listless. â??My thoughts are employed on home. A thousand phantoms passed through my head. I tried to imagine how you were employed at this moment, whether busy, or sick in your own room. It would require a volume to trace my wandering thoughts. Let it suffice that another day is nearly gone, and it has lessened the distance which separated us, about seventy miles.â??
The homesick traveler made it to Mackinac in early September. On Monday morning, the 5th, only a good dayâ??s journey lay between him and reunion with his wife, Jane, and his young son, Willy. Schoolcraft rose at seven, had breakfast and spent time ordering provisions for the Indian Agency. After lunch he went to his camp, anxious to set out for home. He arrived to find two of his men â??ill with fever and augueâ?? and three others â??much intoxicated.â?? To add to his woes, â??the atmosphere was very cloudy and threatening.â??
Schoolcraft decided to wait until the weather looked more agreeable and ordered his men to be ready at two the next morning. The party finally set out from Mackinac at half past six after a thick fog had lifted. They reached Goose Island in a light head wind in about three hours, then made it to Outard Point (in the Les Cheneaux Island chainâ?|Image 2), â??But could go no further from the increased violence of the wind.â?? An early autumn gale was settling over the Upper Great Lakes.
The evening of the 6th saw Schoolcraft camped on Outard Point waiting for the regular diurnal drop in the wind. â??I expected the wind would fall with the sun,â?? he wrote, â??but, alas! It blows stronger than ever.â?? He had no recourse but to wait. â??I feel solitary. The loud dashing of the waves on shore, and the darkness and dreariness of allâ?| conspire to give a saddened train to my reflections.â??
Heavy rain and gale force winds pummeled the party all night into the next morning. The rain was driven right through Schoolcraftâ??s tent. Soaked and shivering, he looked out and beheld â??a wide vista of white foaming surge as far as the eye could reach.â?? The storm continued to increase, forcing his party to move their tents and belongings back among the stunted, scrub trees of the little island. Schoolcraft termed it â??a real equinoxial storm.â?? â??My ears were stunned,â?? he noted, â??with the incessant roaring of the water and the loud murmuring of the wind among the foliage.â?? All he could do was sit in his tent, wrapped in a cloak to keep out the damp, chilly air.About two in the afternoon on the 7th, he set out to view the â??angry vistaâ?? and catch some hopeful sign that the tempest was winding down. He returned disheartened. â??It seemed as if the lake was convulsed to its bottom,â?? he wrote.
An hour later, a transient glimmer of sunshine appeared and buoyed his hopes. The wind also seemed to die down a bit and Schoolcraft ordered his party to prepare for departure. The canoe was moved inland to a quiet bay and as it was being loaded, â??a most portentous cloud gathered in the west, and the wind arose more fierce than before.â?? Reconciled to his fate, Schoolcraft pitched his tent, sat down and waited and waited some more. â??Up to a late hour at night,â?? he recounted, â??the elemental war continued, and, committing myself to the Divine mercy, I put out my candle and retired to my pallet.â??
The next morning the stranded traveler pushed his way through the â??spruce and bramblesâ?? of his encampment to get a view of the open lake. Nothing much had changed. â??Lake Huronâ?|stillâ?|[had]â?|the pouts.â?? Schoolcraft did notice the wind had shifted. The waves were now coming directly from the west. It was a sign that the storm had passed off to the northeast and would eventually clear the area entirely. He did not want to take the time for that to happen. He devised a risky plan to cast off with a â??close-reefedâ?? sail into the wind and waves to Point Detour. His voyageur guides thought the plan too hazardous. However, â??their habitual sense of obedienceâ?? led them to comply. At ten in the morning they set off, â??not without imminent hazardâ?? and made their way to the Capes of St. Marys.
The party â??literally went â??on the wings of the wind.â?? We had reefed our sail to less than four feet,â?? recounted Schoolcraft, â??and I put an extra man with the steersman. I do not think myself to have ever run such hazards. I was tossed up and down like Sancho Panza on the blanket.â?? After three hours and twenty minutes of this punishment, the crew took shelter behind the small Isle St. Vital. The party had lunch and â??put out before the galeâ?? again. They arrived safely at De Tour and sailed into St. Marys Straits.
The beleaguered crew came upon the anchored schooner Harriet soon after entering the protected water. A passenger on the Harriet had just visited the Johnstonâ??s two days earlier and told Schoolcraft all was well on the home front. The captain of the vessel presented them with some whitefish. â??The delicious fish is always a treat to me,â?? wrote Schoolcraft, â??but was never more so than on the present occasion.â??
The tired, wet and cold traveler set up camp on an island opposite St. Josephâ??s Island. He warmed himself by the fire and reflected on the good news he received about his family. â??I feel quite re-invigorated,â?? he penned just before retiring for the night. The next day the crew sped the last forty miles to the Sault.
Travel back in Upper Michiganâ??s pioneer days was not for the timid, impatient or faint of heart.