The Woman Behind Henry Schoolcraft

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Hidden in Minnesota’s north woods is a quiet, little state park named for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. While Schoolcraft wasn’t a Minnesota resident, he gained fame in the state for being the first white explorer to officially locate the source of the Mississippi River after the Ojibwa showed him its origins. Based on his journals, it is believed that Schoolcraft camped in this area near Grand Rapids on that famous expedition in 1832.

a few of the river at schoolcraft state park
It is believed that Henry Schoolcraft camped in this area while in search of the Mississippi River’s headwaters.

Over Schoolcraft’s life, he documented the history of Indian tribes in the United States and managed to collect hundreds of Indian legends. Less well-known in Schoolcraft’s famed history, however, is the role that his first wife Jane Johnston Schoolcraft played in his success.

jane johnston schoolcraftJane Johnston Schoolcraft was born in 1800 to an Ojibwa mother and Irish father in Michigan. Her family built a successful fur trading business and became leading citizens in both the Ojibwa and Euro-American communities.

Jane grew up learning Ojibwa traditions from her mother and her people. Closely tied to her mother’s people, they called her Bamewawagezhikaquay which translated as Woman of the Sound that Stars Make Rushing through the Sky. Jane’s father not only taught her how to read and write, but also passed on his passion for written literature, poetry and history. When she was a young woman, he took her abroad to study where she spent time in Ireland and England.

In 1822, Henry Schoolcraft came to the community of Sault Ste. Marie where Jane lived with her family. They were soon married and began working together on a magazine that focused on the Ojibwa people. Jane’s unique ability to speak both Ojibwa and English provided the opportunity to record and share the oral stories of her tribe. The magazine featured several works written by Jane under pen names, but Henry received the majority of credit for the publications. Critics now speculate over the role she played in all of Henry’s writing.

Over her short and troubled life, Jane produced a large collection of writings, poems and stories of the Ojibwa people. Her work became a key source for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Jane Johnson Schoolcraft is now recognized as the first Native American literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known American Indian poet and the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language.

To learn more about Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, visit History of American Women.

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Heidi Van Heel

Heidi Van Heel

Writer, freelancer, and believer in magic living in Minneapolis. In my free time, I love reading, exploring the great outdoors, and experimenting in the kitchen.

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