Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Through the Eighteenth-Century Midwest with This Guy Named Sabrevois, Part Five

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

Sabrevois concludes his jaunt around the Great Lakes with a description of the Maumee River, which he follows to its headwaters at Kekionga and then across that portage to the Wabash. The Maumee was quite shallow, which may explain why it was an expensive water transport route in the early modern era, and it presented “continuous marshes” for the first 20 or 30 miles upstream from Lake Erie. It was, however, richly populated with waterfowl, so much so that in the spring “one cannot sleep on account of the noise made by their cries” (p. 375). Halfway up the river, 60 or 70 miles from its mouth, Sabrevois points out The Glaize, “the place of clay,” where bison used the clay banks as a wallow. 75 years later the Northwest Indian confederacy would build its settlements, plant its crops, and hold its meetings at this site; its occupation by Anthony Wayne (1794) dealt the confederation a heavy blow.

At the head of the Maumee River, 60 leagues (approximately 120 miles) from Lake Erie, was the town of the Miamis, the principal members of the Miami confederacy. Sabrevois puts their population at “400 men,” which, assuming he means “fighting men,” translates to a total population (including old men, women, and children) of 1,600 – 2,000. Across a three-league portage from the Maumee flowed the headwaters of the Wabash River, which Sabrevois here confuses with the Ohio. This is understandable if one knows that colonial French cartographers referred to the lower Ohio River as the Wabash. On the actual Wabash River resided the Weas, who by Sabrevois's reckoning were the larger part of the Miami confederacy: 1,000 – 1,200 men, or 4,000 – 6,000 people overall, residing in five towns (Ouiatenon, Peticotia, Les Gros, Peangnichia, and one other). He does not mention that the Weas and Miamis were offshoots of the neighboring Illini, or that by 1718 they outnumbered their “elder” brethren to the west.

Sabrevois was perhaps tiring by this point in his memoir, because his descriptions of the Miamis' and Weas' lifeways are repetitive and reminiscent of his descriptions of other Lakes Indians. Both peoples raised corn and other crops, both adorned themselves with vermillion, both preoccupied themselves with “gaming and dancing” (375). In both nations women wore ample clothing and men very little - presumably Sabrevois refers to summer attire. Regarding the Miamis, Sabrevois adds that the men wore many tattoos, that men's and women's garments were principally of deerskins rather than cloth, and that men punished adultery by cutting off their wives' noses. The author notes that only the Miamis had this punishment for adultery, and only applied it to women, though we may note that the Chickasaws had a similar practice by the 1760s – perhaps Chickasaw men borrowed it from their Miami allies? Sabrevois, who is uninterested in gendered violence, presumably includes this detail to let travelers know when they are in Miami communities rather than Illini or Wea ones. Of the Weas, the lieutenant says that their fields were very extensive and that one of their towns had a fortified enclosure with a very clean interior, covered in a layer of sand “like the Tuileries” (376).

Sabrevois's choice of ethnological details helps explain the purposes this memoir was to serve. The lieutenant was writing not as an ethnographer but as an imperial functionary, and he intended, I think, for his document to be used by other French colonists, especially traders and officials. In discussing various Indian nations he provides details of clothing, tattoos, and games not to provide local color, but to help French travelers distinguish between Indian nations whose people physically resembled one another and often spoke similar languages. Such distinctions were important for Europeans who needed to know whether or not the people they were visiting were French allies. Sabrevois counts the male population of each Indian nation as a kind of military inventory, to let French officials know how many gunmen they could potentially raise if those nations became wartime allies. Sabrevois's interest in Indian subsistence and food supplies, finally, was not intended as a reflection on Native Americans' civility, but rather an indication of how easily various communities could feed French travelers. In sum, his memoir is an instrument of empire: a device allowing officials and traders to operate more freely in territory claimed by the French monarchy, describing waterways and available food supplies (both domesticated and wild), identifying distinctions between different Indian nations with whom one might wish to trade (or whom one should avoid), and counting Native American men who might rally to the French colors in wartime.

Such is the case with nearly all historical documents; the purpose for which they were written is vastly different from the purposes to which the historian wishes to put them. Such is arguably the case with all writing: the author cannot know or control his or her readers' interaction with their finished work. Would Jacques-Charles Sabrevois have been amused, puzzled, or horrified by the uses to which later ethnohistorians have put his memoir? And does it really matter?


Jennifer said...

There is a line from a Wilco song called "What Light" that says "And if the whole world's singing your song and all of your pictures have been hung just remember what was yours is everyone's from now on." So from a consumers point of view now, authorial intent doesn't matter. However, I think from an academic view it does. Why the author wrote an document is as important as the piece itself. What was he trying to convey and why? What's the purpose.

Jennifer said...

Here's the video I was talking about