Chapter VII. Sault St. Marie . . .

From: At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in Europe (1856)
Author: Margaret Fuller Ossoli
Published: and Company 1856 Boston


  NINE days I passed alone at Mackinaw, except for occasional visits from kind and agreeable residents at the fort, and Mr. and Mrs. A. Mr. A., long engaged in the fur-trade, is gratefully remembered by many travellers. From Mrs. A., also, I received kind attentions, paid in the vivacious and graceful manner of her nation.

  The society at the boarding-house entertained, being of a kind entirely new to me. There were many traders from the remote stations, such as La Pointe, Arbre Croche,—men who had become half wild and wholly rude by living in the wild; but good-humored, observing, and with a store of knowledge to impart, of the kind proper to their place.

  There were two little girls here, that were pleasant companions for me. One gay, frank, impetuous, but sweet and winning. She was an American, fair, and with bright brown hair. The other, a little French Canadian, used to join me in my walks, silently take my hand, and sit at my feet when I stopped in beautiful places. She seemed to understand without a word; and I never shall forget her little figure, with its light, but pensive motion, and her delicate, grave features, with the pale, clear complexion and soft eye. She was motherless, and much left alone by her father and brothers, who were boatmen. The two little girls were as pretty representatives of Allegro and Penseroso as one would wish to see.

  I had been wishing that a boat would come in to take me to the Sault St. Marie, and several times started to the window at night in hopes that the pant and dusky-red light crossing the waters belonged to such an one; but they were always boats for Chicago or Buffalo, till, on the 28th of August, Allegro, who shared my plans and wishes, rushed in to tell me that the General Scott had come; and in this little steamer, accordingly, I set off the next morning.

  I was the only lady, and attended in the cabin by a Dutch girl and an Indian woman. They both spoke English fluently, and entertained me much by accounts of their different experiences.

  The Dutch girl told me of a dance among the common people at Amsterdam, called the shepherd’s dance. The two leaders are dressed as shepherd and shepherdess; they invent to the music all kinds of movements, descriptive of things that may happen in the field, and the rest were obliged to follow. I have never heard of any dance which gave such free play to the fancy as this. French dances merely describe the polite movements of society; Spanish and Neapolitan, love; the beautiful Mazurkas, &c., are war-like or expressive of wild scenery. But in this one is great room both for fun and fancy.

  The Indian was married, when young, by her parents, to a man she did not love. He became dissipated, and did not maintain her. She left him, taking with her their child; for whom and herself she earns a subsistence by going as chambermaid in these boats. Now and then, she said, her husband called on her, and asked if he might live with her again; but she always answered, No. Here she was far freer than she would have been in civilized life. I was pleased by the nonchalance of this woman, and the perfectly national manner she had preserved after so many years of contact with all kinds of people.

  The two women, when I left the boat, made me presents of Indian work, such as travellers value, and the manner of the two was characteristic of their different nations. The Indian brought me hers, when I was alone, looked bashfully down when she gave it, and made an almost sentimental little speech. The Dutch girl brought hers in public, and, bridling her short chin with a self-complacent air, observed she had bought it for me. But the feeling of affectionate regard was the same in the minds of both.

  Island after island we passed, all fairly shaped and clustering in a friendly way, but with little variety of vegetation. In the afternoon the weather became foggy, and we could not proceed after dark. That was as dull an evening as ever fell.

  The next morning the fog still lay heavy, but the captain took me out in his boat on an exploring expedition, and we found the remains of the old English fort on Point St. Joseph’s. All around was so wholly unmarked by anything but stress of wind and weather, the shores of these islands and their woods so like one another, wild and lonely, but nowhere rich and majestic, that there was some charm in the remains of the garden, the remains even of chimneys and a pier. They gave feature to the scene.

  Here I gathered many flowers, but they were the same as at Mackinaw.

  The captain, though he had been on this trip hundreds of times, had never seen this spot, and never would, but for this fog, and his desire to entertain me. He presented a striking instance how men, for the sake of getting a living, forget to live. It is just the same in the most romantic ns the most dull and vulgar places. Men get the harness on so fast, that they can never shake it off, unless they guard against this danger from the very first. In Chicago, how many men live who never found time to see the prairies, or learn anything unconnected with the business of the day, or about the country they were living in!

  So this captain, a man of strong sense and good eyesight, rarely found time to go off the track or look about him on it. He lamented, too, that there had been no call which induced him to develop his powers of expression, so that he might communicate what he had seen for the enjoyment or instruction of others.

  This is a common fault among the active men, the truly living, who could tell what life is. It should not be so. Literature should not be left to the mere literati,—eloquence to the mere orator. Every Cæsar should be able to write his own commentary. We want a more equal, more thorough, more harmonious development, and there is nothing to hinder the men of this country from it, except their own supineness, or sordid views.

  When the weather did clear, our course up the river was delightful. Long stretched before us the island of St. Joseph’s, with its fair woods of sugar-maple. A gentleman on board, who belongs to the Fort at the Sault, said their pastime was to come in the season of making sugar, and pass some time on this island,—the days at work, and the evening in dancing and other amusements. Work of this kind done in the open air, where everything is temporary, and every utensil prepared on the spot, gives life a truly festive air. At such times, there is labor and no care,—energy with gayety, gayety of the heart.

  I think with the same pleasure of the Italian vintage, the Scotch harvest-home, with its evening dance in the barn, the Russian cabbage-feast even, and our huskings and hop-gatherings. The hop-gatherings, where the groups of men and girls are pulling down and filling baskets with the gay festoons, present as graceful pictures as the Italian vintage.

  How pleasant is the course along a new river, the sight of new shores! like a life, would but life flow as fast, and upbear us with as full a stream. I hoped we should come in sight of the rapids by daylight; but the beautiful sunset was quite gone, and only a young moon trembling over the scene, when we came within hearing of them.

  I sat up long to hear them merely. It was a thoughtful hour. These two days, the 29th and 30th August, are memorable in my life; the latter is the birthday of a near friend. I pass them alone, approaching Lake Superior; but I shall not enter into that truly wild and free region; shall not have the canoe voyage, whose daily adventure, with the camping out at night beneath the stars, would have given an interlude of such value to my existence. I shall not see the Pictured Rocks, their chapels and urns. It did not depend on me; it never has, whether such things shall be done or not.

  My friends! may they see, and do, and be more; especially those who have before them a greater· number of birthdays, and of a more healthy and unfettered existence!

  I should like to hear some notes of earthly music to-night. By the faint moonshine I can hardly see the banks; how they look I have no guess, except that there are trees, and, now and then, a light lets me know there are homes, with their various interests. I should like to hear some strains of the flute from beneath those trees, just to break the sound of the rapids.


When no gentle eyebeam charms;
No fond hope the bosom warms;
Of thinking the lone mind is tired,—
Nought seems bright to be desired;

Music, be thy sails unfurled;
Bear me to thy better world;
O’er a cold and weltering sea,
Blow thy breezes warm and free.

By sad sighs they ne’er were chilled,
By sceptic spell were never stilled;
Take me to that far-off shore,
Where lovers meet to part no more;
There doubt and fear and sin are o’er,
The star of love shall set no more.

  With the first light of dawn I was up and out, and then was glad I had not seen all the night before, it came upon me with such power in its dewy freshness. O, they are beautiful indeed, these rapids! The grace is so much more obvious than the power. I went up through the old Chippeway burying-ground to their head, and sat down on a large stone to look. A little way off was one of the home-lodges, unlike in shape to the temporary ones at Mackinaw, but these have been described by Mrs. Jameson. Women, too, I saw coming home from the woods, stooping under great loads of cedar-boughs, that were strapped upon their backs. But in many European countries women carry great loads, even of wood, upon their backs. I used to hear the girls singing and laughing as they were cutting down boughs at Mackinaw; this part of their employment, though laborious, gives them the pleasure of being a great deal in the free woods.

  I had ordered a canoe to take me down the rapids, and presently I saw it coming, with the two Indian canoe-men in pink calico shirts, moving it about with their long poles, with a grace and dexterity worthy fairy-land. Now and then they cast the scoop-net;—all looked just as I had fancied, only far prettier.

  When they came to me, they spread a mat in the middle of the canoe; I sat down, and in less than four minutes we had descended the rapids, a distance of more than three quarters of a mile. I was somewhat disappointed in this being no more of an exploit than I found it. Having heard such expressions used as of “darting,” or “shooting down,” these rapids, I had fancied there was a wall of rock somewhere, where descent would somehow be accomplished, and that there would come some one gasp of terror and delight, some sensation entirely new to me; but I found myself in smooth water, before I had time to feel anything but the buoyant pleasure of being carried so lightly through this surf amid the breakers. Now and then the Indians spoke to one another in a vehement jabber, which, however, had no tone that expressed other than pleasant excitement. It is, no doubt, an act of wonderful dexterity to steer amid these jagged rocks, when one rude touch would tear a hole in the birch canoe; but these men are evidently so used to doing it, and so adroit, that the silliest person could not feel afraid. I should like to have come down twenty times, that I might have had leisure to realize the pleasure. But the fog which had detained us on the way, shortened the boat’s stay at the Sault, and I wanted my time to walk about.

  While coming down the rapids, the Indians caught a white-fish for my breakfast; and certainly it was the best of breakfasts. The white-fish I found quite another thing caught on the spot, and cooked immediately, from what I had found it at Chicago or Mackinaw. Before, I had had the bad taste to prefer the trout, despite the solemn and eloquent remonstrances of the habitués, to whom the superiority of white-fish seemed a cardinal point of faith.

  I am here reminded that I have omitted that indispensable part of a travelling journal, the account of what we found to eat. I cannot hope to make up, by one bold stroke, all my omissions of daily record; but that I may show myself not destitute of the common feelings of humanity, I will observe that he whose affections turn in summer towards vegetables, should not come to this region, till the subject of diet be better understood; that of fruit, too, there is little yet, even at the best hotel tables; that the prairie chickens require no praise from me, and that the trout and white-fish are worthy the transparency of the lake waters.

  In this brief mention I by no means mean to give myself an air of superiority to the subject. If a dinner in the Illinois woods, on dry bread and drier meat, with water from the stream that flowed hard by, pleased me best of all, yet at one time, when living at a house where nothing was prepared for the table fit to touch, and even the bread could not be partaken of without a headache in consequence, I learnt to understand and sympathize with the anxious tone in which fathers of families, about to take their innocent children into some scene of wild beauty, ask first of all,” Is there a good table?” I shall ask just so in future. Only those whom the Powers have furnished small travelling cases of ambrosia, can take exercise all day, and be happy without even bread morning or night.

  Our voyage back was all pleasure. It was the fairest day. I saw the river, the islands, the clouds, to the greatest advantage.

  On board was an old man, an Illinois farmer, whom I found a most agreeable companion. He had just been with his son, and eleven other young men, on an exploring expedition to the shores of Lake Superior. He was the only old man of the party, but he had enjoyed most of any of the journey. He had been the counsellor and playmate, too, of the young ones. He was one of those parents—why so rare?—who understand and live a new life in that of their children, instead of wasting time and young happiness in trying to make them conform to an object and standard of their own. The character and history of each child may be a new and poetic experience to the parent, if he will let it. Our farmer was domestic, judicious, solid; the son, inventive, enterprising, superficial, full of follies, full of resources, always liable to failure, sure to rise above it. The father conformed to, and learnt from, a character he could not change, and won the sweet from the bitter.

  His account of his life at home, and of his late adventures among the Indians, was very amusing, but I want talent to write it down, and I have not heard the slang of these people intimately enough. There is a good book about Indiana, called the New Purchase, written by a person who knows the people of the country well enough to describe them in their own way. It is not witty, but penetrating, valuable for its practical wisdom and good-humored fun.

  There were many sportsman stories told, too, by those from Illinois and Wisconsin. I do not retain any of these well enough, nor any that I heard earlier, to write them down, though they always interested me from bringing wild, natural scenes before the mind. It is pleasant for the sportsman to be in countries so alive with game; yet it is so plenty that one would think shooting pigeons or grouse would seem more like slaughter, than the excitement of skill to a good sportsman. Hunting the deer is full of adventure, and needs only a Scrope to describe it to invest the Western woods with historic associations.

  How pleasant it was to sit and hear rough men tell pieces out of their own common lives, in place of the frippery talk of some fine circle with its conventional sentiment, and timid, second-hand criticism. Free blew the wind, and boldly flowed the stream, named for Mary mother mild.

  A fine thunder-shower came on in the afternoon. It cleared at sunset, just as we came in sight of beautiful Mackinaw, over which a rainbow bent in promise of peace.

  I have always wondered, in reading travels, at the childish joy travellers felt at meeting people they knew, and their sense of loneliness when they did not, in places where there was everything new to occupy the attention. So childish, I thought, always to be longing for the new in the old, and the old in the new. Yet just such sadness I felt, when I looked on the island, glittering in the sunset, canopied by the rainbow, and thought no friend would welcome me there; just such childish joy I felt to see unexpectedly on the landing the face of one whom I called friend.

  The remaining two or three days were delightfully spent, in walking or boating, or sitting at the window to see the Indians go. This was not quite so pleasant as their coming in, though accomplished with the same rapidity; a family not taking half an hour to prepare for departure, and the departing canoe a beautiful object. But they left behind, on all the shore, the blemishes of their stay,—old rags, dried boughs, fragments of food, the marks of their fires. Nature likes to cover up and gloss over spots and scars, but it would take her some time to restore that beach to the state it was in before they came.

  S. and I had a mind for a canoe excursion, and we asked one of the traders to engage us two good Indians, that would not only take us out, but be sure and bring us back, as we could not hold converse with them. Two others offered their aid, beside the chief’s son, a fine looking youth of about sixteen, richly dressed in blue broadcloth, scarlet sash and leggins, with a scarf of brighter red than the rest, tied around his head, its ends falling gracefully on one shoulder. They thought it, apparently, fine amusement to be attending two white women; they carried us into the path of the steamboat, which was going out, and paddled with all their force,—rather too fast, indeed, for there was something of a swell on the lake, and they sometimes threw water into the canoe. However, it flew over the waves, light as a sea-gull. They would say, “Pull away,” and” Ver’ warm,” and, after these words, would laugh gaily. They enjoyed the hour, I believe, as much as we.

  The house where we lived belonged to the widow of a French trader, an Indian by birth, and wearing the dress of her country. She spoke French fluently, and was very ladylike in her manners. She is a great character among them. They were all the time coming to pay her homage, or to get her aid and advice; for she is, I am told, a shrewd woman of business. My companion carried about her sketch-book with her, and the Indians were interested when they saw her using her pencil, though less so than about the sun-shade. This lady of the tribe wanted to borrow the sketches of the beach, with its lodges and wild groups, “to show to the savages,” she said.

  Of the practical ability of the Indian women, a good specimen is given by McKenney, in an amusing story of one who went to Washington, and acted her part there in the “first circles,” with a tact and sustained dissimulation worthy of Cagliostro. She seemed to have a thorough love of intrigue for its own sake, and much dramatic talent. Like the chiefs of her nation, when on an expedition among the foe, whether for revenge or profit, no impulses of vanity or wayside seductions had power to turn her aside from carrying out her plan as she had originally projected it.

  Although I have little to tell, I feel that I have learnt a great deal of the Indians, from observing them even in this broken and degraded condition. There is a language of eye and motion which cannot be put into words, and which teaches what words never can. I feel acquainted with the soul of this race; I read its nobler thought in their defaced figures. There was a greatness, unique and precious, which he who does not feel will never duly appreciate the majesty of nature in this American continent.

  I have mentioned that the Indian orator, who addressed the agents on this occasion, said, the difference between the white man and the red man is this: “The white man no sooner came here, than he thought of preparing the way for his posterity; the red man never thought of this.” I was assured this was exactly his phrase; and it defines the true difference. We get the better because we do

“Look before and after.”

But, from the same cause, we

“Pine for what is not.”

  The red man, when happy, was thoroughly happy; when good, was simply good. He needed the medal, to let him know that he was good.

  These evenings we were happy, looking over the old-fashioned garden, over the beach, over the waters and pretty island opposite, beneath the growing moon. We did not stay to see it full at Mackinaw; at two o’clock, one night, or rather morning, the Great Western came snorting in, and we must go; and Mackinaw, and all the north-west summer, is now to me no more than picture and dream:—

“A dream within a dream.”

  These last days at Mackinaw have been pleasanter than the “lonesome” nine, for I have recovered the companion with whom I set out from the East,—one who sees all, prizes all, enjoys much, interrupts never.

  At Detroit we stopped for half a day. This place is famous in our history, and the unjust anger at its surrender is still expressed by almost every one who passes there. I had always shared the common feeling on this subject; for the indignation at a disgrace to our arms that seemed so unnecessary, has been handed down from father to child, and few of us have taken the pains to ascertain where the blame lay. But now, upon the spot, having read all the testimony, I felt convinced that it should rest solely with the government, which, by neglecting to sustain General Hull, as he had a right to expect they would, compelled him to take this step, or sacrifice many lives, and of the defenceless inhabitants, not of soldiers, to the cruelty of a savage foe, for the sake of his reputation.

  I am a woman, and unlearned in such affairs; but, to a person with common sense and good eyesight, it is clear, when viewing the location, that, under the circumstances, he had no prospect of successful defence, and that to attempt it would have been an act of vanity, not valor.

  I feel that I am not biased in this judgment by my personal relations, for I have always heard both sides, and though my feelings had been moved by the picture of the old man sitting down, in the midst of his children, to a retired and despoiled old age, after a life of honor and happy intercourse with the public, yet tranquil, always secure that justice must be done at last, I supposed, like others, that he deceived himself, and deserved to pay the penalty for failure to the responsibility he had undertaken. Now on the spot, I change, and believe the country at large must, erelong, change from this opinion. And I wish to add my testimony, however trifling its weight, before it be drowned in the voice of general assent, that I may do some justice to the feelings which possess me here and now.

  A noble boat, the Wisconsin, was to be launched this afternoon, the whole town was out in many-colored array, the band playing. Our boat swept round to a good position, and all was ready but—the Wisconsin, which could not be made to stir. This was quite a disappointment. It would have been an imposing sight.

  In the boat many signs admonished that we were floating eastward. A shabbily-dressed phrenologist laid his hand on every head which would bend, with half-conceited, half-sheepish expression, to the trial of his skill. Knots of people gathered here and there to discuss points of theology. A bereaved lover was seeking religious consolation in—Butler’s Analogy, which he had purchased for that purpose. However, he did not turn over many pages before his attention was drawn aside by the gay glances of certain damsels that came on board at Detroit, and, though Butler might afterwards be seen sticking from his pocket, it had not weight to impede him from many a feat of lightness and liveliness. I doubt if it went with him from the boat. Some there were, even, discussing the doctrines of Fourier. It seemed pity they were not going to, rather than from, the rich and free country where it would be so much easier, than with us, to try the great experiment of voluntary association, and show, beyond a doubt, that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” a maxim of the “wisdom of nations,” which has proved of little practical efficacy as yet.

  Better to stop before landing at Buffalo, while I have yet the advantage over some of my readers.


To see your cousin in her country home,
If at the time of blackberries you come,
“Welcome, my friends,” she cries with ready glee,
The fruit is ripened, and the paths are free.
But, madam, you will tear that handsome gown;
The little boy be sure to tumble down;
And, in the thickets where they ripen best,
The matted ivy, too, its bower has drest.
And then, the thorns your hands are sure to rend,
Unless with heavy gloves you will defend;
Amid most thorns the sweetest roses blow,
Amid most thorns the sweetest berries grow.”

If, undeterred, you to the fields must go,
You tear your dresses and you scratch your hands;
But, in the places where the berries grow,
A sweeter fruit the ready sense commands,
Of wild, gay feelings, fancies springing sweet,—
Of bird-like pleasures, fluttering and fleet.

Another year, you cannot go yourself,
To win the berries from the thickets wild,
And housewife skill, instead, has filled the shelf
With blackberry jam, “by best receipts compiled,—
Not made with country sugar, for too strong
The flavors that to maple-juice belong;
But foreign sugar, nicely mixed ‘to suit
The taste,’ spoils not the fragrance of the fruit.”

“ ‘Tis pretty good,” half-tasting, you reply,
“I scarce should know it from fresh blackberry.
But the best pleasure such a fruit can yield,
Is to be gathered in the open field;
If only as an article of food,
Cherry or crab-apple are quite as good;
And, for occasions of festivity,
West India sweetmeats you had better buy.”

Thus, such a dish of homely sweets as these
In neither way may chance the taste to please.

Yet try a little with the evening-bread;
Bring a good needle for the spool of thread;
Take fact with fiction, silver with the lead,
And, at the mint, you can get gold instead;
In fine, read me, even as you would be read.

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