The Remarkable Johnston Women of Sault Ste Marie
Early 19th century history is filled with men of consequence. But in an era when most women were expected to remain at home and focus on domestic chores, few females made their marks, especially in the areas of trade, diplomacy and the arts. Exceptions can be found in the remarkable Johnston women of Sault Ste Marie.
Ferment in the Sault
Sault Ste Marie lies at the northern most point of the state of Michigan across the St Mary’s river from Canada. As a border region, the sault (which means rapids) underwent its share of turmoil in the late 18th and early 19th century. The ferment was caused in part by the coming together of fur trappers from Britain and the United States with the Native American peoples of the region.
The region was originally inhabited by the Sioux, but the Ojibwe people, also called the Chippewa, had arrived in the mid-eighteenth century after migrating westward along the St Lawrence Seaway and up the length of Lake Huron to the St Mary’s River, which connects Lake Huron to Lake Superior. By the time the fur trappers arrived in 1790’s, the area was an Ojibwe stronghold. One of those fur trappers was an enterprising young man from County Antrim, Ireland named John Johnston.
A Headstrong Woman
As an independent trader, Johnston was attempting to compete with the British North West Company, which had established a trading post on the north side of the St Marys River. All of the European traders were reliant on the native Ojibwe to show them the best places to trap, but for an independent trader like Johnston good relations with the native Ojibwe were essential. For that reason, in 1792 he befriended the local tribal chief and asked for the hand of his daughter in marriage. Her name was Ozhaguscodaywayquay, which Johnston, for obvious reasons, substituted with the much easier to pronounce Susan, something, one can safely assume, she did not accept without objection.
Susan was headstrong. Even as a teenager, when twenty-nine-year-old Johnston married her, she had her own way of doing things. She resisted sleeping with him and ran away, enraging her father who threatened to kill her if she didn’t cooperate. Grudgingly, she gave in, and came to accept her new husband, but on her own terms.
When Johnston was away on expeditions she may have taken lovers. Johnston, a kind and reasonable man, apparently didn’t object too much. Many marriages between whites and Native Americans at the time were regarded more as business relationships than love matches, and it certainly appears Susan and John Johnston saw it that way. Theirs was a relationship based on pragmatism, and together they were able to achieve great things.
The Johnstons built a thriving trading post in Sault Ste Marie. Their home can still be seen there today.
Sault Ste Marie is a cross-border city with jurisdictions on both sides of the US-Canada border. The US jurisdiction is the smaller of the two with a present-day population of 14,144. Founded in 1668 by French missionaries, it is the fourth oldest European city in the US west of the Appalachians, and the oldest town in the state of Michigan. But it didn’t really get on its feet until John and Susan Johnston established their trading post there in the 1790’s.
The Johnston’s entertained a steady stream of trappers, explorers, traders and government dignitaries. Susan honed her skills as an ambassador. Important men sought her out as a go-between. When her husband was away, which was often, it was she who provided the advice and guidance men of consequence needed to penetrate the vast wilderness to the north and west.
In 1812 war broke out between the United States and Great Britain. In the border regions of Michigan the situation was murky. Technically, John Johnston resided within the United States, but he still considered himself a subject of Great Britain, so when war broke out, he took a hundred men and went to the relief of the British garrison at Mackinac Island. In retaliation American troops descended on Sault Ste Marie and burned his trading post.
Ahead of the attack, Susan Johnston gathered up her children and fled into the forest, taking a good many of the family’s possessions with her. When it was over, rather than seeking revenge, she brought a female’s perspective to the situation and sought restraint. It was an experience that would serve her well eight years later when animosities flared again and put her people squarely in the crosshairs of the Americans.
It happened when a young Ojibwe warrior took exception to the tone that an American interpreter had used with him during negotiations over establishing a garrison on Ojibwe land. As a thumb in the eye to the Americans, the petulant warrior raised a British flag on American soil, which provoked the Americans to take up arms. Seeing the situation about to spin out of control, Susan Johnston gathered the Ojibwe leaders and counseled them to disavow the actions of the young hothead, which they did. Then she went further.
She advised the Ojibwe leaders to make a formal apology to the Americans, warning them that if they failed to do so bad feelings would fester, which could turn out badly for the Native Americans.
They took her advice. The chiefs met with the Americans, made a formal apology and worked out a treaty, granting a parcel of land for the garrison. To underscore their commitment, Susan Johnston invited the Americans to dinner that night. Friendly relations were restored and the seeds were planted for the next phase in the story of the remarkable Johnston women of Sault Ste Marie.
At dinner that night Jane Johnston, Susan and John’s oldest daughter made the acquaintance of a young geologist named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was on an expedition to seek the source of the Mississippi River. Jane Johnston played the piano and engaged the twenty-seven-year-old Schoolcraft in lively and intelligent conversation.
After their meeting, Schoolcraft completed his expedition then returned home to New York where he published a book recounting the details of his journey into the interiors of Wisconsin and Minnesota and his relationship with the Native American people there. Based on the success of Schoolcraft’s book, the governor of Michigan made him the new Indian agent for Sault Ste Marie. Schoolcraft returned to the home of John and Susan Johnston in 1822 and married Jane Johnston a year later.
As a member of the Johnston household, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft became acquainted with the Ojibwe folklore of his mother-in-law Susan Johnston. Later, he compiled a collection of that folklore, calling it Algic Researches. The book became a bestseller and made its way into the hands of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who used it as the basis for his hugely popular poem The Song of Hiawatha published in 1855. But Schoolcraft could not have achieved his literary success without the help of his wife
Jane knew well the classics of European literature from her father’s library. Half Ojibwe, she also knew the folk tales of her people. She was fluent in both English and Ojibwe and could write in both languages. Together with her husband, she founded a magazine called Literary Voyager in 1826 and contributed poetry and stories to it, a groundbreaking achievement. Today she is regarded as the first Native American literary writer, the first published Native American poet, and the first writer to publish Native American folklore.
In 1833 the territory for Schoolcraft’s Department of Indian affairs was expanded, and Henry and Jane moved to Mackinac Island. In 1839 Henry became the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Also during that time he became a member of the Board of Regents of the fledgling University of Michigan and established the university’s financial organization. In 1841 the Schoolcrafts moved to New York City.
In 1842, while on a trip to Canada to visit her sister, Jane Schoolcraft (née Johnston) took ill and died. She had been preceded in death by her father John Johnston (1828) and her mother Susan Johnston (1840).
With that, the bright light cast by the remarkable Johnston women of Sault Ste Marie went out, but their legacy lives on. Their courage is reflected in all the women of later generations who reached beyond their stations to make their marks, unapologetically, in a world dominated by men.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Good Hart, MI
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Peshtigo, WI
My American Odyssey Route Map
Soetebier, Virginia M. Woman of the Green Glade: The Story of an Ojibway Woman on the Great Lakes Frontier, The McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, 2000
Five Ojibwe chiefs, Public domain
European fur traders trading with the Ojibwe 1777, a print by William Faden, Public domain
Fur trader, Public domain
Statue of young Susan Johnston, Malcolm Logan
Johnston home, Malcolm Logan
John Johnston, River of History Museum
Portrait of Susan Johnston at age 40, River of History Museum
Portrait of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Public domain
Frederick Remington illustration for Song of Hiawatha, Public domain
Schoolcraft home, Malcolm Logan