Friday, November 23, 2012

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Jacques-Charles Sabrevois

For the next few blog entries, I am going to take my readers on a tour of the Midwestern United States, at a time when the region was considerably less dull than we believe it to be today. Our tour guide will be Jacques-Charles Sabrevois, a French military officer who served as the commandant of French Detroit, and who in 1718 either wrote or helped write a "Memoir on the Savages of Canada as Far as the Mississippi River," which nineteenth-century researchers found in the French colonial archives in Paris and reprinted in volume 16 of the Collections of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Sabrevois's memoir, which I first encountered in the footnotes to Richard White's Middle Ground (1991), appears brief and superficial on first glance, but it is actually full of ethnohistorical detail for those who pay close attention to it.


Sabrevois begins his memoir at Niagara, where the French were in the process of establishing a fort and trading post, and carries his account thence to Lake Erie and the Detroit River, where we will end this first entry. Like most Europeans who have traveled through western New York, he of course mentions Niagara Falls, "the grandest sheet of water in the world" (364), but his chief interest in these first couple of pages is a small Seneca village located on the portage road around the falls. Like the rest of the Five Nations Iroquois, this Seneca community derived most of its subsistence from agriculture – the "Three Sisters" of corn, beans, and squash, plus peas and melons – but also obtained European goods, like ammunition and mitasses(cloth leggings), by working for hire. In return for helping to move French trade goods up the portage road and French furs and pelts down it, the local Senecas earned French merchandise. The Great Peace which the French and their Great Lakes Indian allies had concluded with the Iroquois (1701) allowed some Iroquois to become middlemen in the Lakes fur trade, and apparently it turned some of them into employees of French voyageurs.

(Our guide also tells us that this village consisted of "ten cabins," which recalls a point raised by Daniel Richter in Ordeal of the Longhouse (1992): by the 18th century, the Iroquois had stopped living in multi-family longhouses and had moved into smaller cabins, suggesting a more family-oriented than clan or lineage-oriented society.)

Casting his gaze southward and westward, Sabrevois notes the "abundance of game" south of Lake Erie, including herds of bison, an animal whose range extended well eastward of the Mississippi River.  He mentions some of the water routes connecting the Great Lakes to the "Auyo" (Ohio) or Beautiful River, including the Genesee (which approaches the headwaters of the Allegheny, though Sabrevois seems a bit confused about this) and the "Sandosquet" (Sandusky), which is separated from the southward-flowing Scioto by a one-mile portage. Our narrator has heard that bison and other game animals are so plentiful on the banks of the Ohio River that one must drive them off with gunfire if one wants to walk along the shore. He is equally interested in the uses to which the Indians put these rivers: the Odawas, Potawatomis, and Huron-Wyandots who live near Detroit use the Sandusky, Scioto, and Ohio Rivers as war corridors, descending the latter two waterways in "canoes of elm bark" (364) to attack the Cherokees, Shawnees, and "Tetes Plattes" (presumably Chickasaws or Choctaws) living near the Tennessee River. This came as news to me; I knew that the Iroquois made war on the southern Indians during this era, but not that the Hurons and Anishinaabeg did so. I suppose the 1701 peace treaty between the Five Nations and the Lakes Indians encouraged warriors from the latter nations, formerly used to fighting the Iroquois, to find alternative adversaries.

Reaching the western end of Lake Erie, Sabrevois mentions the abundance of fish, including 5-foot-long sturgeon, off Point Pelee, and the large population of raccoons on the western Erie islands – presumably they swam there, but I wouldn't put it past raccoons to build boats - as well as the many turkeys that roost on the Ile aux dirdes near Detroit. On a similar trip an Anglo-American traveler would preoccupy himself with soil fertility and the species of trees (supposedly clues to the quality of the underlying soil) he encountered, but Sabrevois does so only when discussing the farmland around Detroit. Otherwise he is interested in subjects that would interest a traveler and trader rather than a developer: what game one could catch, what rivers one might follow, and the habits of the Indians with whom one might trade. To that latter subject I shall devote more attention in my next entry on Sabrevois's memoir.