Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Through the 18th-Century Midwest with Monsieur Sabrevois, Part Three

(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Leaving Detroit, however reluctantly*, our guide to the early eighteenth-century Midwest takes us up the Detroit River into the heart of the Great Lakes region: Lake Huron, the Mackinac Strait, and Lake Michigan. Twelve leagues (24-36 miles) above Detroit, Sabrevois pauses to point out a town of 250-400** Mississaugas, members of the Anishinaabe ethnic group, residing on an island in the Detroit River. Thirty-eight leagues further, off the eastern shore of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, he notes another village of Odawas on an island at the mouth of Saginaw Bay. Both of these communities raise crops, presumably with corn as their main staple; both hunt and fish; and both, like the Odawas and Potawatomis at Detroit, make “a great many bark canoes” for transportation (p. 370). These vessels, constructed of birch bark on a light cedar wood frame, are sometimes considered stereotypical Native American vessels, but in the 1700s their use was confined to the Anishinaabeg. In The Eagle Returns (Michigan State University Press, 2012, pp. 7-9), Matthew Fletcher notes that these canoes were up to 30 feet long and could carry hundreds of pounds of cargo, and allowed the Odawas (whose name means “traders”) to travel hundreds of miles to trade. Sabrevois provides an additional detail here about canoe manufacture: both genders contributed to the finished product, with men cutting the bark and fashioning the frames and women sewing and gumming the hulls. The canoes thus represented a familial and communal effort, and one may presume the Anishinaabeg considered them an important part of their overall wealth.

Sabrevois bypasses the Indian towns and French settlement at Michilimackinac - “it would be possible, if one desires, to dispense with going” there, he writes (371), and so he does. His memoir proceeds instead to La Bay, known today as Green Bay, Wisconsin, which French missionaries and traders had been visiting for over 80 years. Its Indian residents in 1718 were the Ho-Chunk, known to their enemies as the Winnebagos (a derisive term, translatable as “stinkers”); the Menominees or Folles Avoines (“wild rice people”); the Sauk, who built their settlements on the Fox River 15-18 leagues (30-50 miles) above the Bay; and the Fox or Mesquakie Indians, “Renards” as the French called them, another 18 leagues further upriver, toward the Fox-Wisconsin River portage. He estimates these nations' respective populations, or at least that of their communities in eastern Wisconsin, at 300-500 each for the Ho-Chunk and Menominees, 400-600 Sauks, and 2000-2500 Mesquakies. The first three of these nations, Sabrevois asserts, have lifeways and languages similar to the Odawas', a curious assertion given that the Ho-Chunks belonged to a different language family (Siouan) from most of the other Lakes Indians'. I can think of two explanations for this discrepancy: either Sabrevois was misinformed, or the Ho-Chunks, a relatively small Indian nation by this time, learned to speak one of the more common Algonquian languages in order to communicate with their neighbors. If the second is true, I suspect the language they learned was Odawa, given the Odawas' extensive trading connections.
The most distinctive Indian group in the Green Bay region, according to Sabrevois, was the Fox or Mesquakie nation, whose language bore little resemblance to the Anishinaabe languages, though it was similar to those of the Kickapoos and Mascoutens (or Fire People). The Fox sustained their larger population with “extraordinary crops of Indian corn” and an “abundance of meat and fish” (371-372). Most likely they ranged into central Wisconsin, an ecological boundary zone (ecotone) between woodland and grassland, to hunt. They were less reliant on European trade than their neighbors to the east, at least as far as one can tell from their sartorial habits: Mesquakie men wore garments of fur and hide, while women wore a combination of woven blankets (as wraps) and deerskin waistcloths. One should note that they did fringe these waist-cloths with small metal bells or ornaments, obtained from the French in trade. Does Sabrevois mention, by the way, that France has just fought a war with the Mesquakies, in which its Indian allies slew or enslaved 1,000 Foxes near Detroit, and which ended with the capture of the principal Fox town in Wisconsin? He does not, except to note that the Mesquakies' towns are “well fortified” (371). Since the first Fox War ended in a treaty (1716) guaranteeing peaceful trade with the French, Sabrevois was presumably writing under the assumption that the Mesquakies were now friends and trading partners. However, this assumption would not last another decade.

Coming next: the tattooed multitudes of northern Illinois.

* Sabrevois was fired as commandant of Detroit for executing several Lakes Indians who had traded with the English.

** The author has estimated Indian population figures by multiplying Sabrevois's estimate of the number of men in each community or nation by 4-5. Sabrevois estimates that in the Wisconsin Indian towns women outnumbered men by 4 to 1, which may be slightly exaggerated.

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