The ALPLM’s unexpected connection to one of the earliest Native American poets

11/17/2023 cbw

By Michelle Miller

The ALPLM has many surprising historical items, collected over our long history. These items tell unique stories, and sometimes those stories are unexpected ones.

One such item in the Manuscripts Department is a thin brown book filled with handwritten prose and poetry. The front cover notes that the book is “Original Poetry by Mr. and Mrs. H. R. Schoolcraft.” The book, which is all in the handwriting of Henry R. Schoolcraft, gives a brief introduction to the author of most of the contents – the “Mrs. Schoolcraft” of the title – and to her life and times, providing context for the poems within.

Cover of book of poetry, which reads “Original Poetry by Mr. & Mrs. H. R. Schoolcraft” (ALPLM). Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, circa mid-1820s (Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)   

“Mrs. H.R. Schoolcraft” was born Jane Johnston, and was also known by her Ojibwe name Bamewawagezhikaquay, which translates as “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.” Born around 1800, she was the daughter of Ozhaguscodaywayquay (also called Susan), an Ojibwe leader and daughter of a war chief, and John Johnston, a fur trader of Scots-Irish ancestry.

Growing up near Sault Ste. Marie, then an active fur-trading community, Jane existed between British-American and Ojibwe cultures. She was well educated, and spoke and wrote both English and Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language). When she was about 23 years old, she married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a white Indian agent and anthropologist who worked for the United States government. The Schoolcrafts had four children, though two died very young.

Henry and Jane both published poems and other writings in their handwritten magazine, The Literary Voyager, which they shared locally in 1826 and 1827. Because of this, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft was one of the earliest known Native American writers to publish their literary work. Her identity as a native woman was an essential part of her writing. Her writings drew heavily from her Ojibwe culture and her upbringing, and some were written in Anishinaabemowin as well as English. She was also one of the first to write down certain songs and stories that had been part of Ojibwe oral traditions, and she translated some into English.

Ojibwa village at Sault Ste. Marie in 1846 by Paul Kane (Royal Ontario Museum)

Though Jane’s poetry speaks to topics that would be familiar to anyone today – family and friends, joy and grief, nature and faith and society – it also gives a window into her unique perspective as a Native American woman and the world she inhabited. Jane lived in a time in which many Native Americans were faced with displacement and violence, and some of her poems touch directly on the fears and challenges created by American expansion.

The first stanza of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s “To the Pine Tree, on first seeing it on returning from Europe”, written in Anishinaabemowin. (ALPLM)

The small brown book in the Manuscripts department is one of the only remaining collections of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s poems, some of which can’t be found anywhere else. Henry Schoolcraft created the book from existing poems, possibly after Jane’s death in 1842. Since there is no clear connection to Illinois history, how it ended up in our collection is a mystery we are still working to solve . It was found in the Manuscripts collection with no information about its origin and cataloged for researchers in 2002. Shortly after, it was used by Robert Dale Parker, an English professor from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to prepare his edition of Jane’s poems, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.

Though some of Jane’s poems are more than 200 years old, they are still touching and emotional works that resonate today. Importantly, her writings also allow us to understand the life of an Ojibwe woman from that place and time in her own expressive words. One poem, written after the loss of an aunt, reflects neatly on Jane’s own life and legacy:

By reading by reflection taught
Good will and sense inspired her thought,
Nor was the fire that warmed her breast,
All buried there, or unexprest

Finding aid for ALPLM’s collection of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft poetry.

For more information:

Miller is the ALPLM’s manuscripts librarian.

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