Bamewawagezhikaquay: The most famous person you never heard of.

Neil Shelton
18 Min Read

I’d like to introduce you to an extraordinary life, that of the pleasant-looking young woman in the portrait above Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, or Bamewawagezhikaquay.

On the one hand, I could tell you that much of her life was quite commonplace, at least for someone born in 1800 as she was, but in other respects, her time on earth was so unusual that one would be hard-pressed to name an equal.

But first, in order to tell you who she is, it is of necessity that I tell you about her family.

Her father, John Johnston, was born into a rather well-to-do Scotch-Irish family in the north of Ireland in 1762.  One of his cousins was a Catholic bishop, another a member of Parliament who eventually became Attorney General of Ireland.

John sought his fortune by other means.  Clearly robust and independent, he traveled in 1790 to Canada and the United States then, by canoe to Mackinac Island in what is now Michigan to become a fur trader.

There he met her mother, a young woman of the Ojibwa tribe whose name was Ozhaguscodaywayquay, which means “woman of the green prairie” and whose father, Waubojeeg, was an extremely notable chieftain of the Ojibwa in the area to the north of, and including what we now call the Great Lakes.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that she was an Indian princess. 

It is impossible to know what the resulting romance was like now, 220 years later, but we do know some rather juicy details.  Take for example, this tale of devotion: John Johnston met Waubojeeg early on and found him to be very well-connected in the Indian and mixed-race or métiscultures of the northern woods.  Waubojeeg was to prove a very valuable business ally, and with his help Johnston was able to set up a considerable trade network in the region.

It was quite common then for traders and trappers to marry Ojibwa women.  This was referred to, by the white men, as marrying in “the custom of the country”, which apparently didn’t necessarily have the same weight in their minds as marriage usually entails, and many of these women, and their children, were simply abandoned as situations changed and it became convenient.

One of these women, in fact, was Waubojeeg’s own sister, so when Johnston asked Waubojeeg to marry his daughter, the chieftain told him simply to go back to Montreal (a journey of about 800 miles by canoe).  Waubojeeg did, however, hold out some hope.  He added that if Johnston came back to Sault Ste. Marie, the following spring, then he would permit the marriage.

To his surprise, Johnston did indeed return the following spring.

Whether John’s enthusiasm came from wishing to seal himself to his benefactor, Waubojeeg, or whether he was simply smitten by the Indian maiden, it appears that no one bothered to first seek the acquiescence of Ozhaguscodaywayquay, because she was repulsed by the idea of the marriage her father had arranged for her, and after the marriage, she ran away to live with her grandparents.

Her father, apparently of the mind that a deal was a deal, found her and beat her with a stick and told her he would cut her ears off if she did not return, then took her back to Johnston.

Interestingly enough, what followed proved to be a fairly happy and affectionate union.  Johnston gave his new wife the English name of Susan, and she eventually bore him eight children including our heroine of the portrait, Bamewawagezhikaquay whose Ojibwa name means, Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.

She was, of course, also given an English name: Jane Johnston.

Jane Johnston’s life may be a little difficult for us to imagine in 21st-century America, especially given what we have come to imagine about what life in the North Woods of 1800 could have been.

In those days, there were settlements of French and British Europeans, mostly lured there by the lucrative fur business, then there were the Indians, Ojibwa, and other Chippewa for the most part, but most notable there was also a considerable community of mixed Euro-Indian households like the Johnstons and their mixed-race, or métis, offspring.

As it happened, James Johnston considered himself a gentleman and he was also an avid reader who dabbled in poetry.  It was said that he had brought with him a substantial library in a time when books were expensive and literacy, particularly in that area, was not the norm.

During the long, cold winters of the region, Johnston took it upon himself to educate his children in reading and writing, and later in English literature and composition.  At the same time, “Susan” who could understand English, but who would not speak it, taught the children to be fluent in the language of the Ojibwa.

John Johnston homesteading, homestead.
John Johnston

Ozhaguscodaywayqua, née Susan Johnston

Young Jane took a special interest in her father’s books and letters and became quite familiar with English, and to some degree American, literature.  Presumably, she also had at least some familiarity with French as one visitor to the home described the Johnston library as “…A thousand well-bound and well-selected volumes, French and English, evidently much in use, in winter especially”.

Johnston, who remained a British subject all his life, was clearly not the typical fur-trader, but it was apparent to him that marriageable bachelors of the area were considerably less refined than he, and he wanted better than this for his daughters.

Clearly, Mr. Johnston cared a great deal about his children’s education, as all but Jane were sent away for a few years of schooling in Canada or the United States.  As it happened, he made a trip back to Ireland when Jane was nine years old, and he took her with him.

The idea was that Jane would live with John’s sister, Jane Moore while she attended school, possibly never to return to the new world.  However, Jane Moore’s husband died shortly thereafter, leaving her unable to afford another person to feed, much less educate.  Jane Johnston, for her part, was of a rather delicate nature and had suffered greatly on the voyage to Ireland.  She missed her mother and her home, and so it came to pass that John came to get her and, after spending a few months in England, brought her back to Sault Ste. Marie.

Imagine if you will, the situation in which young Jane finds herself: educated and aware of the world at large, numerous visitors to the home described her as well-read, refined and ladylike.  One commenting that she “spoke English with great charm and yet with a curious accent.”

Young métis women were often said to be strikingly attractive with their high cheek-bones and warm complexions and their Indian mothers took pride in bringing them up in the customs and fashions of white girls.

Many of these young women left to marry into high stature in the more civilized worlds to the east and south, but Jane must have wondered about the likelihood that she would ever have a mate that matched her education and refinement.

Then, in the spring that Jane was 22, the new American government which was making inroads into the area sent a garrison of troops and the first federal “Indian agent” for the Michigan Territory, which contained modern-day Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota and Ohio.

Henry Schoolcraft homesteading, homestead.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft

The Johnston family took in the new agent while the troops were building a fort.

This agent was the now-famed explorer, geographer, geologist and ethnographer, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a young man of letters, thirty years old and already quite accomplished.

We can imagine how attractive both Jane and Henry must have seemed to the other, both being writers and poets and both having extensive familiarity with literature.

Take as an example this, one of many flirtatious notes between the two, from Jane to Henry:

“Miss Johnston presents her compliments to Mr. Schoolcraft, and desires to tell him that her mother, begs his acceptance of the accompanying little moccucks of maple sugar.  Miss Johnston, begs leave to remind Mr. Schoolcraft, of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio, comments on the three caskets, one of gold, one of silver and the last of lead, in one of which, the picture of Portia, is contained, he repeats:

‘So may the outward shows be least themselves; the world is still deceived by ornament.’

and as he chooses the leaden one, he says,

‘Thy plainness moves one more than eloquence.’ 

– and is, of course, fortunate in his choice.  Mr. Schoolcraft may say the same of the unornamented moccucks, they are plain, but the sweet that they contain is not the less fine, and on that account, he may be induced to accept them.”

It is no great stretch of the imagination to see that Jane means to substitute herself for the moccucks and prays that Henry choose her, the “leaden casket“.  Such modesty seems particularly fetching.

They were married the next year, 1823, and from the beginning, there seems to have been much love and affection shared between the two.

Having said that, Henry benefited greatly from the marriage and from his in-laws.  It seems curious to consider that while he was enjoying the friendship, indeed the kinship of the Ojibwa and métis societies, he was also engaged in forcing the Indians out of the region.  The reader will have little doubt of the affection between the young couple, but history shows us that Henry did take advantage of his situation ruthlessly and continuously.

For example, Jane was quite a prolific writer, and was almost singularly qualified to translate Ojibwa and Chippewa legends into English.  Henry helped her with these translations, as a mentor and publisher, and saw that many were published, but he frequently failed to give her credit.

Henry is universally credited with discovering the source of the Mississippi River, twice.  Once on his own, which proved to be incorrect, and then later when he “discovered” it again when a band of Jane’s relatives took him there at his request, although he took full credit for himself.

Because of these things, and because she was eclipsed not only by her famous husband, but also by her father, and even her mother, who was well known and regarded, Jane’s place in history has been very slight, until the recent (2007) publication, edited by Robert Dale Parker of “The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky – The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.” – University of Pennsylvania Press, in fact, she was nearly unknown.

Now however, we can credit Jane Johnston Schoolcraft as the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian (written) poet, the first known poet to write in an American Indian language (in transliteration) and the first known American Indian to write traditional Indian spoken stories.

Henry was an energetic and ambitious man; driven to make a name for himself and prolific in his writing and accomplishments.  Jane, by contrast appears to have written almost exclusively for the pleasure of writing, with no particular goals in mind with not thought of publication.  If Henry failed to give her all the credit due, neither would her work likely have survived today without his promotion.  Indeed, he seems to have been instrumental in her retelling of Native American stories which he collected and published, and which were read widely in the day.

jane Johnston Home1902 homesteading, homestead.
The Johnston Home, circa 1902.

In fact, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha borrows strongly from Henry’s Algic Researches which contains several of Jane’s works including, The Story of Corn.

Henry and Jane lived first in an addition built onto the Johnston home and later in Elmwood, a rather large home that Henry caused to be built, which he felt appropriate to his position, both in Sault Ste. Marie.  After 1833 they moved to Mackinac, which was also had a large métis community, more developed even than that of Sault Ste. Marie.

Henry and Jane had four children but only two lived to adulthood.  One babe was still-born, but their first-born, Willy was much coddled and beloved by both before he took ill and quickly died at the age of two.

In later years, Henry was occupied with affairs of state and spent much time away from home leaving the rather frail Jane with the children and an unruly staff to mind in his absence, sometimes for months on end.  This death seems to have been a cruel blow for Jane in particular who wrote several sad and beautiful poems in morning.  There is some indication that Willy’s death may have also put a strain on their relationship, but life moved on, and there was much to do.

homesteading, homestead.
Elmwood, built in 1827

Henry’s ambitions and accomplishments gained him greater influence in the Andrew Jackson administration and was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs, but in 1840, Henry got into a fierce battle with his younger brother, William and the federal government, the outcome of which resulted in his being investigated for corruption and removed from office when the Whigs came to power.

Jane, having been in poor health most of her life began using laudanum, an opium and morphine tincture to relieve her symptoms and eventually became addicted, which in turn had further ill effects on her health.

After Henry lost his position with the government, He and Jane decided to leave Mackinac Island ie for New York City, and then, without a job and needing to promote his writing, Henry decided to make a trip to Europe.  Jane, in frail heath as usual, and remembering the miserable time she had in Ireland and England, decided to stay behind once again and went to stay with her sister Charlotte in what is now Ontario in 1842, when she was 42.

There, on May 22 of that year, Charlotte found Jane sitting in a chair dead.

She was survived by two children and a large body of literature, some of which is still being discovered today.

Marker outside the Johnston home today.   As is usually the case, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is treated almost as an afterthought.
Marker outside the Johnston home today.   As is usually the case, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is treated almost as an afterthought.

Here are three Ojibwa legends translated by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft on

The Origin of the Robin

Peboan and Seegwun (Winter and Spring)

The Corn Story


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