Shingaba W’Ossin, Chippewa Chief

Shingaba W'Ossin, Chippewa Chief
Shingaba W’Ossin, Chippewa Chief

Shingaba W’Ossin, or Image Stone, was a Chippewa, and first chief of his band. In summer, he lived on the banks of the St. Mary’s, at the outlet of Lake Superior in winter, he retired with his band to his hunting-grounds. Fish was his food in summer; in winter, he subsisted on the carcasses of animals, whose fur was the great object of his winter’s toils, it being the medium of exchange with the traders for blankets, strouds, calico, ammunition, vermilion, &c., and such articles of necessity or of ornament, as he and his people required.

Shingaba W’Ossin was one of the most influential men in the Chippewa nation. He was deservedly esteemed, not only by the Indians, but by the whites also, for his good sense, and respectful and conciliating deportment. In his person he was tall, well proportioned, arid of a commanding and dignified aspect. In council, he was remarkable for a deliberate and thoughtful manner; in social intercourse, no less so for his cheerfulness. He was disposed to be familiar, yet never descended to frivolity. He was of the totem of the Crane, the ancient badge of the chiefs of this once powerful band.

War is the glory of the Indian. He who dissuades from war is usually regarded as a coward; but Shingaba W’Ossin was the uniform advocate of peace, yet his bravery was never questioned Perhaps his exemption from the imputation of cowardice was owing to his having, when but a youth, joined several war parties against the Sioux, those natural and implacable enemies of Ins people, to reach whom he had to travel at least five hundred miles. He is said to have distinguished himself at the great battle on the St. Croix, which terminated the feud between the Chippewas and the Foxes. In that battle he fought under the northern Alaric, Waab-Ojeeg.

We hope to be excused for introducing, in this place, some remarks upon this extraordinary chieftain, especially as the few incidents we shall use are from our own work, published in 1827.

We made our voyage up Lake Superior in 1826. So late as that, the name of Waab-Ojeeg was never spoken but in connection with some tradition exemplifying his great powers as a chief and warrior. He was a man of discretion, and far in advance of his people in those energies of the mind which command respect, wherever and in whomsoever they are found. He was, like Pontiac and Tecumthe, exceedingly jealous of the white man. This jealousy was manifested when the hand of his daughter, O-shaw-ous-go-day-may-gua, was solicited by Mr. Johnson, the accomplished Irish gentleman, who resided so many years after at the Sault de St. Mary, and who was not better known for his intelligence and polished manners, than for his hospitality. He lived long enough to merit and receive the appellation of Patriarch of the Sault. This gentleman was a native of Dublin or Belfast, in Ireland. In the course of his travels, he arrived at Montreal, when he determined to ascend the great chain of lakes to the head waters of Lake Superior. On arriving at Michael’s Island, he heard of Waab-Ojeeg, whose village lay across the strait which divides the island from the main. He made him a visit. Being well received, he remained some time, formed an attachment to his daughter, and solicited permission to marry her. Waab-Ojeeg replied to his request thus: “White man, I have noticed your behavior. It has been correct. But, white man, your color is deceitful. Of you, may I expect better things? You say you are going to return to Montreal go; and if you return, I shall be satisfied of your sincerity, and will give you my daughter.” Mr. Johnson, being honest in his professions, went to Montreal, and returned, when the chief fulfilled his promise. The amiable, excellent, and accomplished Mrs. Schoolcraft, wife of Henry R. Schoolcraft, Esq., so favorably known as a tourist and mineralogist, and a family of as interesting children as we met with in our travels, are the fruits of this marriage.

Waab-Ojeeg used to stimulate his warriors to battle by singing a favorite war song. Doubtless Shingaba W’Ossin, on the memorable occasion referred to, felt the stirring influence of this song. We received the following translation of it from Mr. Johnson, to whom the Chippewa language was quite familiar.

On that day when our heroes lay low, lay low,
On that day when our heroes lay low;
I fought by their side, and thought, ere I died,
Just vengeance to take of the foe, the foe,
Just vengeance to take of the foe.

On that day when our chieftains lay dead, lay dead,
On that day when our chieftains lay dead;
I fought hand to hand, at the head of my band,
And here on my breast have I bled, have I bled,
And here on my breast have I bled.

Our chiefs shall return no more, no more,
Our chiefs shall return no more;
And their brothers in war, who can’t show scar for scar,
Like women their fates shall deplore, deplore,
Like women their fates shall deplore.

Fine winters in hunting we’ll spend, we’ll spend,
Fine winters in hunting we’ll spend;
Then our youth grown to men, to the war lead again,
And our days like our fathers we’ll end, we’ll end,
And our days like our fathers we’ll end.

It is “not surprising that, under such a leader, Shingaba W’Ossin should acquire fame sufficient to make good his claims to bravery in after life. Thus fortified at the point where the Indian, no less than the white man, is peculiarly sensitive, he could counsel his band to cultivate peace, and attend to the more important concerns of hunting, without the danger of losing his influence over them. ” If my hunters,” he would say, “will not take the game, but will leave the chase and join the war parties, our women and children must suffer. If the game is not trapped, where will be our packs of furs? And if we have no furs, how shall we get blankets? Then when winter comes again, we shall perish ! It is time enough to fight when the war drum sounds near you when your enemies approach then it is I shall expect to see you painted for war, and to hear your whoops resound in the mountains; and then you will see me at your head with my arm bared

‘Just vengeance to take on the foe.’ ”

Besides thus wisely counseling his people to live in .peace, and follow the chase, he gave much of his time to attending the public councils convened under the authority of our government. These councils, in those regions especially, had for their principal object the adjustment of boundaries between the tribes encroachments upon each others territory being the principal cause of war. Councils of pacification were held in 1825, at Prairie du Chi en, on the Upper Mississippi; at the Fond du Lac Superior, in 1826; and at the Butte des Morts, on the Fox river of Lake Michigan, in 1827. Shingaba W’Ossin attended each of these councils, and signed the treaties. We were present at the two last, and witnessed the good conduct and extraordinary influence of the subject of this brief memoir. At the council of Fond du Lac, Shingaba W’Ossin was the first to respond to the commissioners. He spoke as follows :

“My relations Our fathers have spoken to us about the line made at the Prairie. With this I and my band are satisfied. You who live on the line are most interested. To you I leave the subject. The line was left unfinished last summer, but will be finished this.

“My relations The land to be provided for my half-breeds, I will select. I leave it to you to provide your reserves for your own.

“My friends Our fathers have come here to establish a school at the Sault. Our great father over the hills (meaning the President of the United States) has said this would be well. I am “willing. It may be a good thing for those who wish to send their children.

“My brothers Our fathers have not come here to speak hard words to us. Do not think so. They have brought us bread to eat, clothing to wear, and tobacco to smoke.

“My brothers Take notice. Our great father has been at much trouble to make us live as one family, and to make our path clear. The morning was cloudy. The Great Spirit has scattered those clouds. So have our difficulties passed away.

“My friends Our fathers have come here to embrace their children. Listen to what they say. It will be good for you. If you have any copper on your lands, I advise you to sell it. It is of no use to us. They can make articles out of it for our use. If any one has any knowledge on this subject, I ask him to bring it to light.

“My brothers Let us determine soon. We, as well as our fathers, are anxious to go home.”

This talk was taken down as it was interpreted, and in the words of the interpreter. A good deal of the speaker’s style is no doubt lost. Critics tell us that Pope, in his admirable translation of Homer, has failed to show the father of poetry to his readers in his original costume. It is not surprising, therefore, that an Indian interpreter should make the Indian talk like a white man. There is enough in this address of the old chief, however, to show that he was a man of sense and discretion. A few explanatory remarks may make this more apparent. The ” line,” to which he referred, was the proposed boundary between the Sioux and Chippewas. He and his band, living five hundred miles from it, were not so immediately interested as were those bands who bordered it. Hence, although he and his band were satisfied with it, he referred it to his ” relations,” who were more immediately concerned, and whose peace and lives depended upon its suitable and harmonious adjustment, to decide for themselves.

The next subject was one of great importance to the whole Chippewa nation. It had for some time engaged the attention of Shingaba W’Ossin; and the proposition originated with him. It was, that reservations of land should be laid off in the most genial and productive situations, and assigned to the half-breeds, to be cultivated by them. The wisdom and humanity of the measure will appear, when the reader is informed that, almost the whole country of the Chippewas is sterile, and that scarcely any vegetables do, or can grow in it. The soil is cold and barren; and winter pervades so much of the year, that if seed of any kind be sown, except in the most favorable situations, the frosts overtake and destroy the hoped for increase before it arrives at maturity. The Chippewas suffer greatly by reason of their climate, and when, from any cause, they fail in their hunts, many of them perish with cold and of starvation. The frequent recurrence of this calamity led Shingaba W’Ossin to consider how it might be provided against. He saw the military gardens at the Sault, and those of Mr. John son, producing, by the culture that was bestowed upon them, large crops of potatoes and other roots. It occurred to him, that, if the half-breeds of his nation could be induced to profit by such examples, they might husband away these products of the earth, and when the dreaded famine should threaten them, they could retire to the neighborhood of those provisions and be preserved. In pursuance of his earnest entreaties, and seeing in the plan every thing to recommend it, and nothing to oppose it, the commissioners inserted an article in the treaty making the provision, and accompanied it with a schedule of the names of those half-breeds that were given in by the chiefs of the various bands, and who, it was intended, should engage in this new employment. The persons, to whom it was proposed to make these grants, were prohibited the privilege of conveying the same, without the permission of the. President of the United States.

This article in the treaty was not ratified by the Senate. So the old chief was saved the trouble of selecting situations of the half-breeds of his band; as were his ” relations,” to whom he left it to “provide reserves” for theirs.

Shingaba W’Ossin was the patron of the school that has since been established at the Sault for the education of Indian children, and advised that the thousand dollar annuity, the only annuity that the tribe receives, should be appropriated for its support. It was accordingly done. He was not an advocate for school knowledge in his own family, but remarked that some of the Chippewas might profit by it. In this he gave proof of his disinterestedness.

The largest mass of virgin copper, of which we have any know ledge, is in the Chippewa country. It is supposed to weigh from twenty-five hundred to three thousand pounds. The existence of this mass, and the fact that pieces of copper were brought in by the Indians who assembled from many parts of their country to attend the council, induced the belief that the country abounded in this metal. The commissioners endeavored to obtain all the knowledge they could on this subject, and their inquiries were responded to by Shingaba W’Ossin, in the manner as indicated in his talk.

It may not be out of place to remark, that this huge specimen of virgin copper lies about thirty-five miles above the mouth of the Ontonagon of Lake Superior; and on the west bank of that river, a few paces only above low water mark. An intelligent gentleman, who accompanied a party sent by the commissioners from the Fond du Lac, for the purpose of disengaging this specimen of copper from its bed, and transporting it down the lakes to the Erie Canal, and thence to New York and Washington, says : ” It consists of pure copper, ramified in every direction through a mass of stone (mostly serpentine, intermixed with calcareous spar) in veins of one to three inches in diameter; and in some parts exhibiting masses of pure metal of one hundred pounds weight.”

It was found impossible, owing to “the channel of the river being intercepted by ridges of sandstone, forming three cataracts, with a descent in all, of about seventy feet,” to remove this great national curiosity. Specimens were broken from it, some of which we ascertained were nearly as pure as a silver dollar, losing, in fusion, a residuum of only one part in twenty-seven. Evidences were disclosed, in prying this rock of copper from its position, con firming the history of the past, which records the efforts of companies to extract wealth from the mines that were supposed to abound there. These evidences consisted in chisels, axes, and various implements which are used in mining. It is highly probable that this copper rock may have once been of larger dimensions since those who worked at it, no doubt, took away specimens, as have all persons who have since visited it.

It was in reference to the wish of the commissioners to obtain every possible information respecting the existence of copper in the Chippewa country, that Shingaba W’Ossin w r as induced to say ” If any one has any knowledge on this subject, I ask him to bring it to light.” In doing this, as will be seen in the sequel, he placed himself above the superstitions of his people, who regard this mass of copper as a manitou.

Being weather bound at the portage of Point Kewewena, we had an opportunity of observing the habits of Shingaba W’Ossin; and occasionally to hear him talk. During this time, the old chief made frequent visits to our tent, always in company with a young Indian who attended him. At this time he was a good deal concerned about a blindness which threatened him. He spoke principally of this, but never without saying something in favor of his attendant. Among other things, he said “Father, I have not the eyes I once had. I now am old. I think soon this great world will be hid from me. But the Great Spirit is good. I want you, father, to hear me. This young man is eyes to me, and hands too. Will you not be good to him?” At each visit, however, inflamed as were the old chief’s eyes, he would, like other Indians, be most grateful for a little whisky; and like them, too,’ when he tasted a little, he wanted more. It is impossible to conceive the ratio with which their wants increase, after a first taste. The effects are maddening. Often, to enjoy a repetition of the beverage, have instances occurred, in which life itself has been taken, when it stood between the Indian and this cherished object of his delight. Shingaba W’Ossin would indulge in the use of this destructive beverage, occasionally; but even when most under its influence, he was harmless so generally had the kindly feelings taken possession of him. On the occasion referred to, we found him to be gentle, obliging, and free from all asperities of manner or temper. He was then in his sixty-third year, and used to assist in the management of his canoe, and in all the business connected with the prosecution of his voyage. He kept company with us to the Fond du Lac; not always, however, encamping where we did. The old man and his party partook of our refreshments; and when he would meet with any of his people who had been taking fish, he never failed to procure some, and always divided his good luck with us appearing happy to have something to offer in return for our attentions to him.

Shingaba W’Ossin’s father was named Maid-0-Saligce. He was the chief and chronicler of his tribe. With him died much of their traditionary information. He was also noted for the tales which he related for the amusement of the young. But he was a voluptuary. He married four wives, three of whom were sisters. By these wives he had twenty children. Each of the male children, in time, deemed himself a legitimate chief, and attached to himself some followers. Political divisions were the consequence. The harmony of the band was thus destroyed, and the posterity of the ancient chief scattered along the waters of the St. Mary’s.

The superior intellect of Shingaba W’Ossin, in these times of contention for the supremacy, became manifest. He secured the respect and confidence of his band, and was at last acknowledged as the Nittum, or first man. His band became more and more attached to him, until, on all hands, the choice was admitted to be well ordered, and that he upon whom it had fallen, merited the distinction. Having secured the general confidence, he counseled his charge in all their trials, and enabled them to overcome many difficulties, whilst by his kindness and general benevolence of character, he made himself beloved. He was on all occasions the organ for expressing the wants and wishes of his people, and through him, also, they received both presents and advice from the officers and agents of our government.

During the late war, in 1813, Shingaba W’Ossin went to York, in Canada, and had an interview with Proctor and Tecumthe. Nothing is known of the object or result of this interview, except that one of his brothers joined the British, and fought and fell in the battle of the Thames in Upper Canada. His death was deeply lamented by Shingaba W’Ossin so much so as to induce the belief that he counseled, or at least acquiesced in, his joining the British standard.

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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