Artist Paul Kane Paints Indian Life Around the Great Lakes – Winter 1977

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Roy F. Fleming

In 1845 the noted Canadian painter of Indian life, Paul Kane, started out to visit the Indians of the Upper Lakes in order to make a series of paintings of the American aborigines.

Paul Kane’s book Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America. Image from Library of Congress.

“I left Toronto on the 17th of June 1845,” he tells in his illuminating book, Wanderings of an Artist among the North American Indians, “with no companions but my portfolio and box of paints, my gun and a stock of ammunition.”

Kane’s task was self-appointed. Born in 1810, he and his parents had emigrated from Cork, Ireland, to York (Toronto), Upper Canada, in 1819, where he observed with great interest the Mississagué Indians living in the neighbor-hood. It is probable that he had seen some of George Catlin’s paintings of the Indians of the United States of that period, but from whatever cause, the ambition seized him to become an artist to paint Indian life. With almost no means of livelihood he went to Europe for two years, learned to paint in oil, and returned home to York.

After slight preparation he set out as recorded above, to seek the Indian settlements on Lake Huron. Not only on this journey did he paint on canvas, but he wrote in a journal records of his travels and adventures which later formed the basis of his book, Wanderings, one of the valued classics of our Great Lakes literature.

The painter travelled north by Lake Simcoe and Orillia, to reach Georgian Bay at Coldwater, where he expected to catch the steamer Gore for Owen Sound. However, the packet had left a short time before. But our pilgrim was not to be frustrated; he hired a man with a canoe to try to catch up with the boat. “After paddling all night,” he relates, “we overtook the steamer the next morning at Penetanguishene, the Bay of the Rolling Sands.” This picturesque inlet then had a small naval depot where the dismantled remains of the two American gunboats Tigress and Scorpion could be seen lying in the shallow water by the shore.

The steamboat landed Kane in Owen Sound the same evening, June 20. There the traveller met three men who were bound for Saugeen (now Southampton), an Indian village thirty or forty miles to the west on the main shore of Lake Huron where a council of chiefs was being held to negotiate the sale of a tract of land to the Government.

Hiring an Indian to carry his pack, Kane and the men set out for Saugeen. Their journey, however, turned out to be very disagreeable as the road was scarcely more than a trail through woods and swamps, turning muddy when the rain came on in torrents. The travellers had to camp for the night with almost no shelter except trees- supperless and wet to their skins.

The next morning the men made an early start and arrived at their destination about noon, where they found a large assembly of Indians holding a religious camp meeting with boisterous singing and praying led by several Methodist preachers.

The village was at the mouth of the river also named Saugeen, the name meaning “mouth of the river,” where about two hundred Ojibway or Chippewa tribesmen lived. The site of an early battle between the tribe and the invading Mohawks was marked by a mound heaped over the slain enemies. Kane was convinced of its genuineness as he could see human bones protruding from the mound’s surface.

Oil painting of Chief Wah-Pus “The rabbit.”

The artist made a portrait of the principal Chief Maticwant or the Bow, then one of Chief Big Pike wearing his prized 1812 medal, also one of a Chief’s daughter from Lake St. Clair. The Chief from Owen Sound was present, named Wah-pus or Rabbit and his picture was also made. “He was the first Indian,” says Kane, “whose hair had been all pulled out except the scalp-lock.” Wah-pus had formerly been fierce and intemperate, but under the influence of the Methodist missionaries had become sober and of good conduct.

After remaining ten days at Saugeen, living with an Indian family, the artist returned to Owen Sound, accompanied by a young man named Dillon who was extremely desirious of going on with Kane up the Lake. After purchasing a canoe and a stock of provisions the two set out for Manitoulin Island, by way of Penetanguishene and the east shore of Georgian Bay. (This route of over two hundred-fifty miles is nearly three times as long as had the travellers gone directly north by the Indian peninsula.)

The two adventurers spent fourteen days in a most pleasant passage up the east coast among the many islands, fishing and hunting, occasionally losing their way in the multitude of wooded shores and channels. They finally came to an encampment of Indians on one of the islands on the north shore, and there Kane painted his first general scene of Indian life.

“The wigwams,” he tells, “were made of pieces of birchbark sewed together with long fibrous roots, placed over ten or twelve poles arranged in a circle.” The canoes were also made of the same bark stretched over a very light frame of split cedar laths, with great attention paid to symmetry of form. Even the “mohcocks” or boiling pots were fashioned out of birchbark.

At the foot of a deep bay off Manitoulin Island the voyagers arrived at Manitowaning, a village of about fifty log houses with an Indian Agent, doctor and blacksmith. It was the time of the annual gathering of the tribes when they should receive their treaty “presents.” Fully two thousand Indians of all ages were there waiting for the arrival of the ship with their many needs aboard- guns, ammunition, axes, knives, kettles, cloths, thread and needles.

After the vessel arrived the next day, the Indian Agent, Capt. Thos. G. Anderson, assisted by his Interpreter Chief Assikinack or Blackbird, arranged the assembly in groups with each chief sitting with his own band. Blackbird (called “Sigenock” by Kane) was noted both as a great orator and warrior of the Ottawas: he had led the Potawatomis and Ottawas in defeating the Fort Dearborn garrison, August 1812. “Sigenock went among the gathering,” Kane writes, “taking lists of names and numbers, dividing the goods with great impartiality; his voice was heard everywhere, above the universal din of tongues, and seemed to have the effect of allaying every envious and unpleasant feeling and keeping all in good humour and proper order.” Soon after the distribution of the gifts Capt. George Ironsides arrived as successor to Captain Anderson, as Indian Agent. As Ironsides was part Indian, a chief of the Wyandots and a descendant of Tecumseh, Kane included him in his series of Indian portraits.

As the government steamer Experiment arrived then at Manitowaning on its way to Sault Ste. Marie, Kane was able to arrange passage with its officer Captain Harper for himself and his canoe. The artist’s companion Dillon now concluded he had gone far enough on the excursion, so he bade farewell and returned down the Lake by the schooner which had brought the Indians their supplies.

At the Sault, Kane met with the Hudson’s Bay Co. factor Mr. Ballantyne. On learning from him that there was a great gathering of American Indians at Michilimackinac Island, at the entrance to Lake Michigan, the artist decided to go there instead of across Lake Superior as he had first planned.

On this historic island Kane found a great gathering of Indians and their families, chiefly Ojibways and Ottawas, over twenty-five hundred in number. They had come to receive their shares of the $25,000 paid annually by the American Government for lands ceded by the tribes. Kane pitched his tent in the midst of their huts, arranging it as a studio. He soon found chiefs and leaders willing to sit for their portraits.

In inducing Chief He-Devil to sit for his portrait the artist told the man that his likeness would be sent across the sea to Queen Victoria. “I have often heard of the Great Mother across the Big Water, ” said the Chief with much interest, “and if I had enough money to go I would pay her a visit; but I am now pleased that my ‘second self’ will be able to see her.”

Speaking of the liquor traffic following the annual payday at Mackinac, Kane says that many traders brought great quantities of liquors which they sold clandestinely to the Indians. Many a native who had travelled a long distance, returned home poorer than he left, his sole satisfaction being that he and his family had enjoyed a glorious bout of intoxication!

The travelling painter went from Mackinac to Green Bay, Lake Michigan, where he painted more Indian life. But as the season was getting late he returned eastward by way of Lake Erie and Niagara to Toronto. In the following year, 1846, Paul Kane passed west over Lake Huron and Lake Superior to meet the tribes in the Upper Mississippi region, then worked his way west to the Pacific coast. In all he painted hundreds of pictures and sketches of Indian life, of buffalo hunts, camp scenes, councils, fetes, and feasts.

Kane’s later years were saddened by the partial loss of his eyesight. He died in Toronto in 1871 leaving two sons and two daughters. In 1922 there was an exhibit of two hundred paintings by Kane in Winnipeg, Manitoba. One reviewer stated, “They are extremely valuable as records of a vanished life of North America, they show original and personal qualities and much genuine poetry.”

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About the Author: The author of this article, Mr. Roy F. Fleming of Ottawa, Ontario, was a Charter Member and early Trustee of the Great Lakes Historical Society. An art instructor at the Ottawa Normal School, he was also a journalist for the Ottawa Sun Times, and wrote for other newspapers as well, mainly about the Great Lakes area in which he resided.

At the time of his death in 1958, considerable material that he had compiled, including chapters for a book he had hoped to publish about the Great Lakes, was given to Inland Seas by Mrs. Fleming and their son, Mr. Bruce H. Fleming. Several other articles have been included in earlier issues of Inland Seas, selected from Mr. Fleming’s writings.


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