The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Ernest H. Rankin
Many have written of the Lewis Cass expedition to Lake Superior in 1820. Both James Duane Doty, the official secretary, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft kept journals which have been published; these have provided much source material. However, few have ever written on the basic reasons for the undertaking.
More recently, artist Robert Thom of Birmingham, Michigan, executed a series of twenty-five pictures, A History of Michigan In Paintings, and chose for one of his subjects the Cass Expedition. For the background of this particular painting he selected a scene of the Grand Portal, Pictured Rocks, as it appeared in the 1840s and similar in effect to a lithograph which is included in Part II, of Report of the Geology of the Lake Superior Land District, by Foster and Whitney, published in 1851. However, it remained to Thom, through his deep imagination and study, to fully dramatize the scene, enlarging it to a considerable extent, accentuating the great height of the limestone cliffs, the huge portals carved by the seas of Lake Superior, and above, the extensive forests of the hinterland ending abruptly at the edge of the cliff.
The legend for this painting, by Dr. F. Clever Bald, author of Michigan in Four Centuries, states, in part: “The picture shows the five-canoe flotilla after leaving Sault Ste. Marie. The canoes were cargo vessels and despite their size, 35 feet long and six feet wide, could make four miles an hour in calm water when propelled by eight paddlemen. Each canoe was fitted with a rudimentary sail to take advantage of favorable winds.”
In the painting the five craft, one under sail and all filled to the gunwales with crew and cargo, are portrayed in delicate detail under the menacing, towering cliffs, with a flight of sea gulls overhead, undoubtedly resenting the intrusion. Thom, in this painting, has brought out the massiveness of nature through the Pictured Rock scene as compared to the smallness of man who would brave the uncharted seas and the mysterious wilderness beyond.
Through pen and picture this event of the 1820s has been well delineated. However, none of the writers has laid any great stress on the reason and occasion for this enterprise — this great expedition upon the unknown waters of the largest of the Great Lakes. Its southern shore was as yet uninhabited by any white settlements, with only a few groups of Chippewa (Ojibway) Indians making their summer encampments there, usually at the mouths of the larger streams. Lewis Cass was the Governor of Michigan Territory at that time — it was to be another seventeen years before Michigan was to gain statehood — and he was duly concerned as to the full nature of the extensive region which came under his administration.
Possibly the best reason for undertaking this venture is contained in a letter by Cass addressed to John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, and dated at Detroit, November 18, 1819, as follows:
“Sir: The country upon the southern shore of Lake Superior, and upon the water communication between that lake and the Mississippi, has been but little explored, and its natural features are imperfectly known. We have no correct topographical delineation of it, and the little information we possess relating to it has been derived from the reports of the Indian traders.
“It has occurred to me that a tour through that country, with a view to examine the productions of its animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, to explore its facilities for water communication, to delineate its natural objects, and to ascertain its present and future probable value, would not be uninteresting in itself, nor useless to the government. Such an expedition would not be wholly unimportant in the public opinion, and would well accord with that zeal for inquiries of this nature which has recently marked the administration of the War Department.
“But, however interesting such a tour might be in itself, or however important in its result, either in a political or geographical point of view, I should not have ventured to suggest the subject, nor to solicit your permission to carry it into effect, were it not, in other respects, intimately connected with the discharge of my official duties.
“Mr. Woodbridge, the delegate from this territory, at my request, takes charge of this letter, and he is so intimately acquainted with the subject, and every way so competent to enter into any explanations you may require, that I shall not be compelled to go as much into detail, as, under other circumstances, might be necessary.
“The route which I propose to take, is from here to MICHILIMACKINAC, and from thence, by the Straits of St. Mary’s, to the river which contains the body of copper ore, specimens of which have been transmitted to the government, and to the extremity of Lake Superior.
“From that point, up the river which forms the water communication between that lake and the Mississippi to the latter river, and by the way of Prairie du Chien and Green Bay to Lake Michigan.
“The political objects which require attention upon this route, are:
“1st. A personal examination of the different Indian tribes who occupy the country, of their moral and social condition, of their feelings towards the United States, of their numerical strength, and of the various objects connected with them, of which humanity and sound policy require that the government should possess an intimate knowledge. We are very little acquainted with these Indians, and I indulge the expectation that such a visit would be productive of beneficial effects.
“The extract from the letter of Colonel Leavenworth, herewith enclosed, and the speech of the Winnebago Indians, transmitted to the War Department by Mr. Graham, from Rock Island, February 24, 1819, will show how much we have yet to learn respecting these tribes, which are comparatively near to us.
“2d. Another important object is, to procure the extinction of Indian titles to the land in the vicinity of the Straits of St. Mary’s, Prairie du Chien, Green Bay, and upon the communication between the two latter places.
“I will not trouble you with any observations respecting the necessity of procuring these cessions. They are the prominent points of the country, the avenues of communication by which alone it can be approached.
“Two of them, Prairie du Chien and Green Bay, are occupied by a considerable population, and the Straits of St. Mary’s by a few families. The undefined nature of their rights and duties, and the uncertain tenure by which they hold their lands, render it important that some step should be taken by the government to relieve them. I think, too, that a cession of territory, with a view of immediate sale and settlement, would be highly important in the event of any difficulties with the Indians.
“My experience at Indian treaties convinces me that reasonable cessions, upon proper terms, may, at any time, be procured. At the treaty recently concluded at Saginaw, the Indians were willing to cede the country in the vicinity of MICHILIMACKINAC [sic], but I did not feel authorized to treat with them for it.
“Upon this subject, I transmit extracts from the letters of Mr. Boyd and Col. Bowyer, by which it will be seen, that these gentlemen anticipate no difficulty in procuring these cessions.
“3d. Another important object is the examination of the body of copper in the vicinity of Lake Superior. As early as the year 1800, Mr. Tracy, then a Senator from Connecticut, was dispatched to make a similar examination. He, however, proceeded no further than Michillimackinac. Since then, several attempts have been made, which have proved abortive. The specimens of virgin copper which have been sent to the seat of government have been procured by the Indians, or by the half-breeds, from a large mass, represented to weigh many tons, which has fallen from the brow of a hill.
“I anticipate no difficulty in reaching this spot, and it may be highly important to the government to divide this mass, and to transport it to the sea board, for naval purposes.
“It is also important to examine the neighboring country, which is said to be rich in its mineral productions.
“1 should propose that the land in the vicinity of this river be purchased of the Indians. It could doubtless be done upon reasonable terms, and the United States could then cause a complete examination of it to be made.
“Such a cession is not unimportant in another point of view. Some persons have already begun to indulge in speculations upon this subject. The place is remote, and the means of communicating with it are few. By timely presents to the Indians, illegal possession might be gained, and much injury might be done, much time might elapse, and much difficulty be experienced, before such trespassers could be removed.
“4th. To ascertain the views of the Indians in the vicinity of Chicago respecting the removal of the Six Nations to that district of country. An extract from the letter of Mr. Kenzie, sub-agent at Chicago, upon this subject, will shew the situation in which this business stands.
“5th. To explain to the Indians the views of the government respecting their intercourse with the British authorities at Malden, and distinctly to announce to them that their visits must be discontinued.
“It is probable that the annunciation of the new system which you have directed to be pursued upon this subject, and the explanations connected with it, can be made with more effect by me, than by ordinary messengers.
“6th. To ascertain the state of the British fur trade within that part of our jurisdiction. Our information upon this subject is very limited, while its importance requires that it should be fully known.
“In addition to these objects I think it very important to carry the flag of the United States into those remote regions, where it has never been borne by any person in a public station.
“The means by which I propose to accomplish this tour are simple and economical. All that will be required, is, an ordinary birch canoe, and permission to employ a competent number of Canadian boatmen. The whole expense will be confined within narrow limits, and no appropriation will be necessary to defray it. I only request permission to assign to this object a small part of the sum apportioned for Indian expenditures at this place, say from 1000 to 1500 dollars.
“If, however, the government should think that a small display of force might be proper, an additional canoe, to be manned with active soldiers, and commanded by an intelligent officer, would not increase the expense, and would give greater effect to any representations which might be made to the Indians.
“An intelligent officer of engineers, to make a correct chart for the information of the government, would add to the value of the expedition.
“I am not competent to speculate upon the natural history of the country through which we may pass. Should this object be deemed important, I request that some person acquainted with zoology, botany, and mineralogy, may be sent to join me.
“It is almost useless to add that I do not expect any compensation for my own services, except the ordinary allowance for negotiating Indian treaties, should you think proper to direct any to be held, and entrust the charge of them to me.
“I request that you would communicate to me, as early as convenient, your determination upon this subject, as it will be necessary to prepare a canoe during the winter, to be ready to enter upon the tour as soon as the navigation of the lakes is open, should you think proper to approve the plan.
Very respectfully, &c.
(signed) Lewis Cass”
Calhoun sanctioned the exploration for the Government in a letter to Cass, dated January 14, 1820, at Washington, D. C.
Also of interest is Calhoun’s letter to Cass, dated February 25, 1820, in which Schoolcraft’s association with the expedition is explained:
“Sir: Mr. Schoolcraft, a gentleman of science and observation, and particularly skilled in mineralogy, has applied to me to be permitted to accompany you on your exploring tour on Lake Superior. I have directed him to report to you for that duty, under the belief that he will be highly useful to you, as well as serviceable to the government, and the promotion of science.
“You will furnish him with the necessary supplies and accommodation while employed, and every facility necessary to enable him to obtain a knowledge of the mineralogy of the country, as far as practicable.
I have, &c. (signed) J. C. Calhoun.”
Although Schoolcraft had already travelled extensively in Missouri and Arkansas this was his initiation to the Upper Great Lakes. He served as Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie from May 8, 1822 to April 17, 1841.
Cass, who wrote, “I think it very important to carry the flag of the United States into those remote regions,” has not been forgotten by the people of Marquette, Michigan, for at the northern end of Big Presque Isle, the city ’s public park, is an historical marker which reads:
ALONG THE SHORES OF
PRESQUE ISLE THE
FIRST AMERICAN FLAG
To FLOAT OVER LAKE
SUPERIOR WAS BROUGHT
BY GENERAL LEWIS CASS
GOVERNOR OF MICHIGAN
TERRITORY ON THE
22ND DAY OF JUNE 1820
This marker is of cast iron, about two feet square, and is mounted on a standard about ten feet in height. Among many other historical markers, it was erected by the Marquette County Historical Society many years ago, a mute acknowledgement of the greatness of General Lewis Cass, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and the others who accompanied them, subjecting themselves to the terrors of an unknown Gitchi Gumee!
About the Author: Until his resignation, effective October 1st, 1969, Mr. Ernest H. Ran- kin was Executive Vice President of the Marquette County Historical Society and Editor of its quarterly journal Harlow’s Wooden Man. A frequent contributor to INLAND SEAS and to Michigan journals and newspapers, he is now residing in Deming, New Mexico.