HomeOntarioThe Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 9

The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 9

The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 9

Continued from The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 8.

Ojibwa Life

Shortly after the discovery of Skull Cave, Henry was approached by Menehwehna, the head war chief of the Michilimackinac Ojibwa. Menehwehna told Henry that the Ojibwa warriors who had participated in the Siege of Detroit were on their way to the island, and would be inclined to kill any Englishmen they came across. Accordingly, the chief helped Henry disguise himself as an Indian, shaving all of his head save for a scalp lock into which feathers were placed, painting his face, clothing him in a greasy deerskin shirt, and giving him a blanket to wear around his shoulders.

The Siege of Detroit.

Not long after, Henry accompanied Wawatam’s family on a fowl-hunting excursion on the shores of the northerly Saint Martin Bay. There, Wawatam’s daughter-in-law went into labour and fell very ill. In the hopes of curing her of her ailment, the men of the family, Henry included, went into the woods and caught a garter snake. That accomplished, Wawatam cut the snake’s head off and collected its lifeblood, which he subsequently diluted with water and fed to his ailing daughter-in-law. An hour later, the girl safely gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Garter snake.

In the fall, the Ojibwa of Machilimackinac fractured into a number of small bands and family units, as was customary at that time of year. Henry accompanied Wawatam’s family down Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Big Sable River, located about 150 miles from the island.

Henry and his companions, assisted by their dogs, spent that winter hunting beaver, raccoons, otter, deer, and, on two separate occasions, bear and cougar. “Had it not been for the idea of which I could not divest my mind,” Henry wrote, “that I was living among savages, and for the whispers of a lingering hope that I should one day be released from it—or if I could have forgotten that I had ever been otherwise than as I then was—I could have enjoyed as much happiness in this as in any other situation.”

Escape to Sault Ste. Marie

That spring, Henry and his adopted family returned to Michilimackinac, where other Ojibwa bands were congregated. Pontiac’s rebellion was in full swing, and members of a war party who intended to launch another assault on Fort Detroit expressed interest in eating Henry so that they might gain the courage necessary to fight the English. In order to save Henry’s life, Wawatam and his family took their English adoptee to Point St. Ignace, located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan just west of the island. There, Henry fell in with a flotilla of French-Canadian fur traders who were taking the Ojibwa wife of interpreter Jean Baptiste Cadotte, in whose house Henry had previously wintered, to her home at Sault Ste. Marie. Bidding Wawatam and his family adieu, Henry accompanied his new companions to the relative safety of Sault Ste. Marie.

No sooner had Henry arrived at his new destination than a canoe of Indians from Fort Niagara paddled up to Sault Ste. Marie. The Indians were emissaries sent by Sir William Johnson, the now-de facto commander of British troops in Canada, who invited the Ojibwa to join him and many other First Nations in a great council at Fort Niagara. The Ojibwa of Sault Ste. Marie agreed to send twenty warriors to this diplomatic gathering, and Henry, who hoped to return to English civilization, received their permission to accompany them.

The Shaking Tent

Before setting out on their voyage, the Ojibwa decided to commune with a spirit they called the ‘Great Turtle’. In order to accomplish this, they erected a conical moose-skin tent and proceeded to conduct a sacred ceremony common throughout the Algonkian world known as rite of the Shaking Tent. That night, the whole band gathered by the tent and watched as the medicine man chosen to perform this ritual emerged from his wigwam half-naked. The shaman made his way over to the tent and crawled inside.

An interpretation of the Shaking Tent.

“His head was scarcely within side when the edifice,” wrote Henry, “massy as it has been described, began to shake; and the skins were no sooner let fall than the sounds of numerous voices were heard beneath them, some yelling, some barking as dogs, some howling like wolves; and in this horrible concert were mingled screams and sobs, as of despair, anguish, and the sharpest pain. Articular speech was also uttered, as if from human lips; but in a tongue unknown to the audience. After some time these confused and frightful noises were succeeded by a perfect silence; and now a voice not heard before seemed to manifest the arrival of a new character in the tent. This was a low and feeble voice, resembling the cry of a young puppy. The sound was no sooner distinguished, than all the Indians clapped their hands for joy, exclaiming that this was the Chief Spirit, the Turtle, the spirit that never lied. Other voices which they had discriminated from time to time they had previously hissed, as recognizing them to belong to evil and lying spirits, which deceive mankind.”

Throughout the half hour that followed, a variety of songs issued from the tent, each of them sung by a different voice. Finally, once the last song died out, the medicine man called out from inside the tent that the Great Turtle was ready to answer any questions the Indians might have for him.

The band’s chief asked whether the English planned to attack them, and whether there were many English troops assembled at Fort Niagara, the site of the scheduled rendezvous. “These questions having been put by the priest,” Henry wrote, “the tent instantly shook; and for some seconds after it continued to rock so violently that I expected to see it levelled with the ground. All this was a prelude, as I supposed, to the answers to be given; but a terrific cry announced, with sufficient intelligibility, the departure of the Turtle.”

Sir William Johnson.

All of a sudden, the tent became quiet. The Ojibwa spectators waited with bated breath for the spirit’s reply. About fifteen minutes later, the tent shook again, and the tremulous voice of the Great Turtle began babbling in a language which none of the onlookers could understand. Once the spirit had delivered its incompressible report, the medicine man, who apparently understood every word, informed those assembled that the Great Turtle had flown across Lake Huron and over the easterly forest to Fort Niagara, where he found few Englishmen. He proceeded down the length of Lake Ontario and further down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, where he found a huge fleet of ships filled with British soldiers.

The chief then asked the Great Turtle whether Sir William Johnson would receive them as friends. “Sir William Johnson,” the medicine man replied, interpreting the words of the spirit, “will fill their canoes with presents; with blankets, kettles, guns, gunpowder and shot, and large barrels of rum such as the stoutest of the Indians will not be able to lift; and every man will return in safety to his family.” At this, the assemblage cheered, and many warriors declared their intention to attend the meeting at Fort Niagara.

The natives proceeded to ask the spirit questions about distant friends and the fate of sick family members. Henry himself, after presenting the Great Turtle with the customary gift of tobacco, asked whether he would ever see his native country again. The spirit replied that he would.

Continued in The Adventures of Alexander Henry the Elder: Part 10.

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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