Shingwauk’s Reading: Dighton Rock and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Troubled Ethnology

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Place of Stone

In the summer of 1839, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the superintendent of Indian affairs for the Michigan territory, arrived at his post at Michilimackinac, the island on the strait between lakes Michigan and Huron. Schoolcraft had been active in ethnology and philology in the United States for almost two decades, and the publication of his two-volume Algic Researches that same year secured his reputation as an authority on Native American oral traditions and beliefs.[i] He was carrying a copy of Antiquitates Americanae, which he had just reviewed for The American Biblical Repository. Its interpretation of Dighton Rock as a Norse inscription had not impressed him, and he was curious about what he might learn of its markings from an Indigenous perspective. No one else publishing on Native American culture likely had as much experience as Schoolcraft did in the “picture writing” of Native Americans, and for Dighton Rock he wanted to hear from the most authoritative Ojibwa man he knew on that subject. Shingwauk was a prominent political and spiritual figure among the Ojibwa around the American post at nearby Sault Ste. Marie.[ii] He was now living on the Canadian side of the border, at St. Mary’s, and Schoolcraft sent him an invitation to visit so that he could show him the drawings in Antiquitates Americanae. [iii]

After almost 180 years, Shingwauk’s interpretation remains the only firmly documented “reading” of Dighton Rock by an Indigenous authority. While Shingwauk’s recognition of the Dighton Rock markings as Indigenous can be accepted, his interpretation remains contestable. Shingwauk was an Ojibwa from the upper Great Lakes, not a member of a New England Indigenous community, but his reading is most problematic because it came to us through Schoolcraft, who repeatedly revised his own opinion of Dighton Rock.

Schoolcraft’s writings on Dighton Rock, and on Native Americans in general, must be placed in the context of evolving theories and practices of ethnology and the emergence of American anthropology, and especially in the context of the ferment of debate about Native American origins. Twelve tumultuous years also transpired in Schoolcraft’s life, between securing Shingwauk’s interpretation in 1839 and publishing it in 1851. To understand Shingwauk’s reading of Dighton Rock, then, we need to begin by understanding the life of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, his intellectual milieu, his marriage into a prominent Ojibwa family, and his struggles with competing ideas about, and evidence of, American antiquity.

  • • •

Born in 1793 in upstate New York, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was privately tutored in chemistry, geology, and mineralogy while receiving what Richard G. Bremer has called a “smattering” of a formal education.[iv] Schoolcraft’s life was marked by repeated efforts to secure (and retain) political appointments and favors. He attached himself as a mineralogist to the 1820 expedition of Lewis Cass, who served as governor of the Michigan territory from 1813 to 1831 and was appointed governor of the Northwest Territory in 1818. Cass’s expedition was to reconnoiter what is now northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Schoolcraft recounted his experiences traveling with Chippewa guides and meeting a variety of peoples, including Dakota, with whom the Chippewa were sporadically at war, in Narrative Journal of Travels through the Northwestern Regions of the United States (1821).

Cass became a close friend and mentor to Schoolcraft. In 1823 Cass published Inquiries Respecting the History, Traditions, Languages, Manners, Customs, Regions, etc., of the Indians which demonstrated his considerable knowledge of Indigenous cultures and languages.[v] In 1830 Cass publicly reversed his position on allowing the tribes of the Old Northwest to remain on their lands. He now supported Andrew Jackson’s plan for the forcible relocation west of the Mississippi of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes in favor of Anglo-American settlement (and would be appointed Jackson’s Secretary of War, with oversight of Indian matters). A polygenist, Cass expressed some of the lowest possible opinions of Native Americans. The two races on the continent, whites and Indian, Cass wrote, “cannot exist in contact, independent of each other.” [vi] Cass believed in a divinely ordained destiny, and offered a racialized interpretation of Noah’s curse on Canaan (“God shall enlarge Japheth”) in Genesis 9: “the race of pale men should increase and multiply, and they did increase and multiply.”[vii] Schoolcraft for his part advocated Indian removal as early as 1829.[viii] Arranging and encouraging the removal of tribes from the Old Northwest would become Schoolcraft’s objective as an Indian agent and superintendent in the 1830s.

Schoolcraft expressed his own low estimation of Indigenous people in his 1821 Narrative Journal: “The savage mind, habituated to sloth, is not easily roused into a state of moral activity, and is not at once capable of embracing and understanding the sublime truths and doctrines of the evangelical law.”[ix] He found the songs and dances of “untutored savages” to be “particularly tedious, and it is a severe tax upon one’s patience to sit and be compelled, in order to keep their good opinions, to appear pleased with it.”[x] One aspect of Indigenous culture that did impress him was pictographic communication. On decamping one morning in northern Minnesota, the Chippewa (Ojibwa) in his party left a glyphic message on birch-bark, which was inserted in a pole and left for other tribal members to find.[xi] The message conveyed information about events on their journey and their anticipated arrival at Sandy Lake in three days. Schoolcraft was depicted as a figure with a hammer. (Earlier in the journey, his Chippewa companions had called him Paw-gwa-be-caw-e-ga, which Schoolcraft said meant “destroyer of rocks,” a name inspired by his method of gathering mineral samples.[xii]) “I had no previous idea of the existence of such a medium of intelligence among the northern Indians,” Schoolcraft confessed. “All the travellers of the region, are silent on the subject…[H]ere was a historical record of passing events, as permanent certainly as any written record among us, and full as intelligible to those for whom it was intended.”[xiii] Later, Schoolcraft’s party encountered a birch-bark message left by a party of Dakota who had hoped to negotiate peace with the Chippewa.[xiv] The Dakota message showed that Indigenous peoples who spoke completely different languages were able to communicate through pictographic conventions.

Schoolcraft’s recording of Indigenous pictographic writing

Schoolcraft’s response revealed his lack of reading, as by 1820 there had been several examples of such pictography in antiquarian and scientific literature.[xv] The birch-bark messages nevertheless indicated to him the essential intelligence and capability of Indigenous people. Rich oral traditions were another surprise. He recounted two legends in Narrative Journal, but the breadth and depth of traditions only became clear after he secured (with Cass’s help) his appointment as the U.S. Indian agent at Sault Ste. Marie in 1822. Schoolcraft boarded with John Johnston, a prosperous Irish fur trader who had married the daughter of a prominent Ojibwa leader, Waubojeeg (the White Fisher). In 1823, Schoolcraft married the trader’s daughter, Jane, who brought with her a substantial dowry of 2,000 pounds, or about 10,000 dollars.[xvi] An additional asset was Jane’s knowledge of Ojibwa culture. Jane and her siblings gathered, translated into English and vetted for Schoolcraft the traditional knowledge of the many Ojibwa visitors to the Johnston home, which was the center of social life in the community. The English traveller Anna Brownell Jameson met the Schoolcrafts at Michilimackinac in 1838 and found a close friend in Jane: “The most delightful as well as the most profitable hours I spend here, are those passed in the society of Mrs. Schoolcraft. Her genuine refinement and simplicity, and native taste for literature, are charming…While in conversation with her, new ideas of the Indian character suggest themselves; new sources of information are opened to me, such as are granted to few…”[xvii] Schoolcraft had long harbored literary as well as political ambitions, and Ojibwa traditions promised publishing success that to date had been denied to him, not to mention had impoverished him. Schoolcraft was determined to accomplish with Native American lore what James Macpherson had with (alleged) Celtic oral traditions in Poems of Ossian. As he never mastered Ojibwa and was a stranger to the community, Schoolcraft would not have managed on his own the access he enjoyed to Indigenous culture that Jane and her family provided.[xviii]

In 1827 Henry and Jane Schoolcraft were devastated by the death from croup of their child, Willy, after only a day of illness.[xix] While two more children followed, their relationship, which appears to have been a close and happy one, never recovered from the loss. Schoolcraft took refuge in a forthright embrace of Presbyterianism. He ascribed the death of Willy to God’s punishment for their “idolatry” in loving Willy too much.[xx] The following years were especially hard on Jane; he questioned her upbringing and moved the family to Michilimackinac so the children could attend a Presbyterian school. As a “half-breed” Jane was shunned there by White women, and Henry lost most of their money—Jane’s dowry money—in land speculation when real estate values collapsed around Detroit as part of the larger 1837 financial crisis.[xxi]

After his embrace of Presbyterianism, Schoolcraft believed Christianity held out the only hope of salvation for the Ojibwa and other Indigenous peoples. His religion became the lens through which he viewed their cultures, but his faith at least may have saved him from a serious scholarly misstep. Although polygenism (already present in his friend Cass’s worldview) enjoyed a resurgence of scientific respectability among Schoolcraft’s peers in the 1840s, he could never accept the idea that Indians were a distinct human species. Schoolcraft remained firm to the Biblical model of an Edenic origin and a post-Deluge global diaspora by the progeny of Noah. Schoolcraft’s faith did mean he could accept racial degeneration as an explanation for the condition and character of Indigenous peoples, as he found and judged them.[xxii]

  • • •

In 1837 Schoolcraft secured his appointment as superintendent of Indian affairs for the Michigan territory and published a highly favorable review of Albert Gallatin’s landmark work on Indigenous languages, “A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes of North America,” which dominated the second volume of Archaeologia America of 1836.[xxiii] The review allowed Schoolcraft to argue the value of philology over the object-based epistemology of archaeology in understanding the Indigenous past: “By far the most enduring ‘monuments’ which our native tribes possess, are to be sought in the sounds and syntax of their languages.”[xxiv]

Schoolcraft’s choices in labeling Indigenous languages (and the people that spoke them) are an unappreciated aspect of how he interpreted American antiquity. He differed with Gallatin’s nomenclature; Schoolcraft had an established habit of attempting to impose his own terminology and ignoring or disparaging the work of predecessors. In his first major article on Indigenous language and culture in 1828, a review of J. C. Beltrami’s La Découverte des Sources du Mississippi, et de la Rivière Sanglante (which Schoolcraft could not have read, as he did not know any European language other than English), he called the compound structure of Chippewa words “transpositive” and asserted the term was provided by the “older philosophers.”[xxv] This was ten years after Peter Stephen Du Ponceau had introduced the definitive term, “polysynthetic.”[xxvi] Du Ponceau for his part admired the materials on the Chippewa language in Schoolcraft’s Narrative of an Expedition through the Upper Mississippi to Itasca Lake (1834), informing a friend, “his description of the composition of words in the Chippewa language is the most elegant that I have yet seen. At the same time he appears to be (as far as his book shews) a selfish, morose man…It seems he wishes to occupy the whole ground alone.”[xxvii] In “Synopsis,” Gallatin introduced “Algonquin-Lenape” for what is now generally called Algonquian. Schoolcraft in his review called it a “compromise term.”[xxviii] He imposed mid-review his own term, Algic, which he explained was an adjective “derivative from Algonquin, and is introduced for brevity’s sake.”[xxix]

In 1839, Schoolcraft formally introduced his term in Algic Researches. He gave a peculiar explanation for Algic: “Derived from the words Alleghany and Atlantic, in reference to the race of Indians anciently located in this geographical area, but who, as expressed in the text, had extended themselves, at the end of the 15th century, far towards the north and west.”[xxx] Equally curious, he lumped Iroquoian speaking groups (“Tuscaroras, Iroquois and Wyandots”) into “a generic language, which we shall denominate Ostic.” He contended his renaming of the recognized Iroquoian group derived from the Algic word Oshtegwon, “a head, &c.”[xxxi] Schoolcraft’s explanations of his Algic and Ostic terminology are unconvincing, Ostic least of all. He also created the term Abanic for Siouxan languages and claimed it denoted “occidental. From Kabeyun the west.”[xxxii] This etymology was even less credible than the ones he offered for Algic and Ostic.

Schoolcraft’s coining of labels was not unlike C. S. Rafinesque’s eccentric contemporary efforts, for example calling the Huron and Iroquois the Ongwi in The American Nations (1836).[xxxiii] Schoolcraft was playing subtextual word games, constructing esoteric meanings beneath his exoteric nomenclature. Schoolcraft had wondered aloud about Sioux origins in Narrative Journals, calling them “a distinct race of people” and comparing them to the Chinese, especially in the sound of their language (how much Chinese had Schoolcraft heard?).[xxxiv] Schoolcraft apparently then looked southwards in Asia for his Sioux root stock, as his Abanic may have been inspired by abangan, a Javanese term that was short for wong abangan, “red people.” Schoolcraft’s knowledge of abangan would have been unusually early, but its use would have been consistent with ideas of a transpacific south Asian origin of the Mound Builders, who were Malays according to Samuel Latham Mitchill and Hindus or southern Tartars according to Caleb Atwater.[xxxv]

Daniel Garrison Brinton, who Franz Boas would identify as a co-founder of American anthropology, would reject Schoolcraft’s “manufactured” term Algic, insisting there was “no occasion to accept it” in lieu of Algonkin.[xxxvi] As for how Schoolcraft actually manufactured it, we have met already a term suspiciously similar in Charles Vallancey’s ideas. Schoolcraft shared Vallancey’s fascination with the Ossian poems, and as Vallancey contended in Grammar, the Algonquin name derived from the Irish “cine algan, or algan cine, i.e. the noble tribe,” which in turn derived from the Phoenician al gand gins.[xxxvii] This correlation between Schoolcraft’s Algic and Vallancey’s algan might be coincidental, given that both men were working from the same inspiration of Algonquin/Algonkin. However, Schoolcraft most certainly got his term Ostic from the literature devoted to allegedly brutish Old World peoples and their possible connections to New World Indians. Both Buffon and Strahlenberg called a warlike subgroup of Tartars the Ostiaks; Strahlenberg pronounced them “one of the most stupid Nations in Siberia.”[xxxviii] Schoolcraft would incorporate Strahlenberg’s illustrations into volume 1 of his magnum opus, the six-volume Congressional report, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851–1857), and essentially agreed with Strahlenberg’s assertion (seconded by Benjamin Smith Barton) that languages were key to linking Native Americans to Asiatic source populations.

Leaving the Abanic Sioux to the west, Schoolcraft organized the Indigenous people of eastern North America into two clashing, contrasting races, Algics and Ostics, for in his assessment language was equated with race. Schoolcraft’s conception of Native American origins agreed with the predominant multiple-migration displacement scenario, in which a more advanced people arrived first, only to be displaced by brutish hordes. Schoolcraft regardless was largely in sympathy with Barton’s ideas of Native Americans as degenerated descendants of the Mound Builders. Barton’s conviction that Native Americans could be traced back across the Bering Strait to Biblical lands, through alleged traces of Persian in their language, was echoed in Schoolcraft’s proposal the Algic were descended from “a race of shepherds or pastoral nomades” while the Ostic were “from a line of adventurers and warlike plunderers.” The Algic race was “mild and conciliating,” the Ostic “fierce and domineering.”[xxxix] Algic pictographs, or “hieroglyphics,” bore “quite a resemblance to the Egyptian” and the language was “of a strongly Semitic cast.” [xl] Schoolcraft’s assurance that Algic was Semitic undermined his purported linguistic expertise. He might have subscribed to the Lost Tribes origins of Native American, a conviction that was widely held in the Lake Superior region, where Schoolcraft served as an Indian agent and superintendent, and suggests the wide influence of the trader James Adair’s The History of the American Indians of 1775. In travelling the region in the 1850s, Johann Georg Kohl would remark: “It is very curious that I meet so many persons here still adhering to the belief in the Jewish descent of the Indians, not merely among the American clergy, but also among the traders and agents.”[xli] Schoolcraft at this point was also a cultural degenerationist and environmental determinist. In Algic Researches he wondered if the Algics rather than not having advanced at all in fact “fell back…It may be doubted whether the very fact of the immensity of an unoccupied country, spread out before a civilized or half civilized people, with all its allurements of wild game and personal independence, would not be sufficient, in the lapse of a few centuries, to throw them back into a complete state of barbarism.”[xlii]

Schoolcraft did not engage directly the Mound Builders mystery in Algic Researches, but in his 1839 review of Antiquitates Americanae he rejected the idea anyone other than Native Americans was responsible for the mounds. In Algic Researches he implicitly identified the Mound Builders as ancestors of the Algics, who had entered the modern boundaries of the United States from the southwest and were “followed by the Ostic, the Muskogee and the Tsallanic [Cherokee] hordes.” The Ostics, in the first wave, were the invaders by whom the Algics “were driven, scattered, and harassed, and several of the tribes not only conquered, but exterminated.”[xliii] After driving off the Algics, the Ostics initially occupied the Ohio valley before assuming “a most commanding and central position in Western New-York.”[xliv] Schoolcraft’s pre-Columbian history of North America, as conveyed in Algic Researches, was a narrative of ceaseless conquest and displacement, with his “warlike and jealous” Iroquoian Ostics the progenitors of territorial change.[xlv] As for cultural change, there was none, except in the direction of degeneration…


[i]. According to A. Irving Hallowell, Schoolcraft’s reputation “as an authority on American Indian myths, legends, and tales was established” by Algic Researches. Hallowell and Schoolcraft, “Concordance of Ojibwa Narratives,” 139.

[ii]. Shingwauk is sometimes referred to as Shingwaukonse (The Little White Pine). Schoolcraft in volume 1 of Historical and Statistical Information called him both Chinguak and Shingwaukönse. Shingwauk’s descendants, Fred Pine and Dan Pine, explained to Thor Conway that he had a personal shamanic name, Sah-Kah-Odjew-Wahg-Sah, meaning “Sun Rising Over the Mountain,” that conveyed to him the power of the moment of sunrise. He would be called Shingwauk from noon to early evening, and then the diminutive Shingwaukonse from early evening to sunset to indicate the sun’s waning power. Conway, Spirits on Stone, 91–94; Chute, Legacy of Shingwaukonse, 22–24.

[iii]. For Schoolcraft’s full discussion of Dighton Rock and Shingwauk’s interpretation, see Historical and Statistical Information, 1:108–120. For the life of Shingwauk(onse) up to his interpretation of Dighton Rock, see Chute, Legacy of Shingwaukonse, 1–90.

[iv]. For Schoolcraft’s early life in upstate New York, see Bremer, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, 4–15.

[v]. Wilcox and Fowler, “Beginnings of Anthropological Archaeology,” 129.

[vi]. Cass, “Art. III,” 94. The unsigned article is attributed to Cass by Bieder in Science Encounters the Indian, 154. See Dippie, Vanishing American, 35–36, for Cass’s early career.

[vii]. Cass, “Art. III,” 107.

[viii]. Bremer, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, 190.

[ix]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 92.

[x]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 186.

[xi]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 211–12.

[xii]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 166.

[xiii]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 212–13.

[xiv]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 282.

[xv]. Examples of pictographs had been published as early as 1724 by Lafitau, who included an illustration of dendroglyphs in Moeurs, 3:38. Bray’s “Observations” appeared in Archaeologia in 1782. Fred E. Coy, Jr. shows dendroglyphs were well known in eighteenth-century America, in “Dendroglyphs of the Eastern Woodlands,” 3–16, in Diaz-Granados and Duncan, ed., Rock-Art of Eastern North America. As noted in Chapter 4, George Washington was familiar with them. See also Bohaker, “Indigenous Histories,” for a discussion of “non-alphabetic semiotic systems.”

[xvi]. Bremer, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, 96–97.

[xvii]. Jameson, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, 394.

[xviii]. For Schoolcraft’s indebtedness to his wife Jane and her family, see Mumford, “Mixed-Race Identity,” 12–13. Bieder notes that linguist Peter Stephen Du Ponceau was impressed with Schoolcraft’s apparent expertise in Chippewa in his Narrative of 1834, assuming he had been fluent for a long time. But as an Indian agent and superintendent he always employed interpreters, and relied on his wife Jane and brother-in-law, George Johnston, for vocabulary. (Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 158)

[xix]. Bremer, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, 101.

[xx]. Mumford, “Mixed-Race Identity,” 19.

[xxi]. Mumford, “Mixed-Race Identity,” 19–20.

[xxii]. Schoolcraft may be a textbook example of the “overwhelming majority of Whites who remained orthodox Christians,” for whom Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideas about humanity “had to be grafted onto or reconciled with the traditional scriptural history or be rejected,” according to Berkhofer. “Degeneration therefore remained a powerful analytical tool in White discussion of the Indian well into the nineteenth century for the orthodox, scholar and non-scholar alike, even for those persons called the founders of modern American ethnography.” Berkhofer, White Man’s Indian, 37–38.

[xxiii]. Schoolcraft, “Art. II. Archaeologia Americana,” Although unsigned, the style is unmistakably Schoolcraft’s, and the reviewer’s use of the term “Algic” can only point to Schoolcraft.

[xxiv]. Schoolcraft, “Art. II. Archaeologia Americana,” 35.

[xxv]. Schoolcraft, “La Découverte des Sources du Mississippi,” 104.

[xxvi]. For Du Ponceau, see “Report of the historical and literary committee to the American Philosophical Society. Read, 9th January, 1818,” quoted by Haas, “Grammar or Lexicon?,” 239–40.

[xxvii]. Peter Stephen Du Ponceau to Edwin James, Nov. 10, 1834, quoted in Bremer, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, 237–38.

[xxviii]. Schoolcraft, “Art. II. Archaeologia Americana,” 39.

[xxix]. Schoolcraft, “Art. II. Archaeologia Americana,” 44.

[xxx]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:12–13.

[xxxi]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:13.

[xxxii]. Ibid.

[xxxiii]. Rafinesque, American Nations, 24.

[xxxiv]. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal, 309–10.

[xxxv]. The first edition of the standard Javanese-Dutch dictionary in 1847 defined abang as “red.” (Ricklefs, “The Birth of the Abangan,” 36–37). An 1858 missionary report mentioned the “ ‘red population’ (bangsa abangan).” (40)

[xxxvi]. Brinton, Myths of the New World, 27.

[xxxvii]. Vallancey, Grammar, iv.

[xxxviii]. Buffon, Histoire naturelle, 3: 378–379. Strahlenberg, Historico-Geographical Description, 4.

[xxxix]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:16–17.

[xl]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:25.

[xli]. Kohl, Kitchi-Gami, 134.

[xlii]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:25–26.

[xliii]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:21.

[xliv]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:21–22.

[xlv]. Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, 1:22.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: