Part Two: John Johnston’s Life And Family

In 1923, Stanley Newton published, “The Story of Sault Ste. Marie and Chippewa County.” I will be doing a series of stories from his work. I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I have. – Laurie Davis

Waub-ojeeg was the most famed of the Chippewas in the north country and was the son of the celebrated Mongazid. In courage and craft, he was the true exemplar of a warlike race. Once, when Mongazid was hunting with his men near an encampment of the Sioux, the latter attacked and surprised the sleeping Chippewas at early dawn. Mongazid rushed out, shouting his name, and asked if Wabash, his mother’s son by a Sioux Chief was among the enemy. There the tall figure of his half-brother approached with hand outstretched in token of peace.

Hostilities were suspended and Wabash was invited into Mongazid’s wigwam, but at the moment of entrance he was saluted with a lusty blow from the stout war club of young Waub-ojeeg, then a boy of eight. The uncle, delighted with this display of spirit, took Waub-ojeeg in his arms and prayed to Gitchi Manito to make him a sturdy man and a great warrior. This prayer Waub-ojeeg fulfilled.

When he came to the chieftaincy he made his home at La Pointe. His wigwam was sixty feet in length, surmounted by the carved figure of an owl, the insignia of his clan, his power, and his presence, the emblem being taken down when he was absent in war or during the hunting season.

War with the Sioux and the Ottawas employed his time so he did not marry until he was thirty. Then a widow became his wife and bore him two sons. Becoming tired of the wisdom he exercised, the prerogative of a Chippewa and a Chief, he married a girl of fourteen who became the mother of six children, of whom Neengai was the eldest. 

Here the young fur trader Johnston met the Chief’s daughter, and promptly fell in love with her. When he asked Waub-ojeeg for her hand the Chief replied: “White man, your customs are not our customs. You desire our women, you take them, and when they cease to please your fancy you say they are not your wives, and you forsake them. Go back to Montreal with your load of furs, and if the pale-faced girls do not put my daughter out of your head, come here in the spring and we will talk further. You are both young, and she can wait.”

The young Irishman was impetuous with his arguments, presents, and entreaties. They were in vain, Waub-ojeeg was unswerving. Johnston went to Montreal for a lonesome winter, returned in the spring, and took the maid to be his wife. Waub-ojeeg made the bridegroom swear that he would marry her according to the law of the white man, until death.

On being escorted by her people to the bridegroom’s lodge, Neengai fled into a dark corner, rolled herself in a blanket, and refused to speak, be spoken to, or even looked upon. Johnston was more than considerate, and during the ten days she remained in his lodge he sought by every gentle means to revive her confidence and affection. At the end of that time, however, she ran away to the woods in a sudden access of fear and terror and reached her grandfather’s wigwam after a four-day fast.

Meanwhile Waub-ojeeg, at his distant hunting ground, had a premonition that all was not well with his daughter. Returning home suddenly he found the truant, gave her a sound thrashing with a stick, and threatened to cut off her ears. Then he took her back to her husband with a thousand apologies, assuring Johnston of his fatherly disapproval of her actions. Johnston soon succeeded in taming this wild fawn of the woods and brought her from La Pointe to Sault Ste. Marie.

Even here she could not overcome at once her shyness with the white man, and her longing was strong to see her people again. So her husband provided her with a schooner and a crew and sent her to her former home with Waub-ojeeg at La Pointe. A short stay there convinced her that the whites’ mode of living was the better, and the intense desire came to rejoin her mate. She returned to the Sault and lived there happily for thirty-six years, with her white husband, becoming the mother of four boys and four girls.

Mr. Johnston has been described as a vigorous and handsome man before age and infirmities came upon him. He was lively, jovial, and of excellent education. He acquired a comfortable fortune in the fur trade and lost a good deal of it in the War of 1812. His talents, good nature, wide acquaintance, and marriage with Chief Waub-ojeeg’s daughter brought him great influence in Sault Ste. Marie and its vicinity.

His wife became a Christian, and her energy, strength of mind, and descent from the ancient family of Waub-ojeeg, the White Fisher, endeared her to the northern Indians. Like her father, she possessed poetic talent, and many of the Chippewa Indian legends and traditions, we now enjoy have come down to us through her, having been translated by her daughters.

Jane, the eldest daughter of this couple, married Henry R. Schoolcraft, a noted author and historian. Her Indian name was O-bah-bahm-wah-wah-ge-zhe-go-qua, meaning “the sound the stars make, rushing through the sky.” Before she married, she visited Ireland and England with her father, and her beauty and accomplishments made a great impression there. Her sister Charlotte, described by Colonel McKenney in his “Tour to the Lakes,” as a surpassingly beautiful woman, became the wife of the Reverend Mr. MacMurray, who came to the Sault as an Episcopal missionary in 1832. The youngest daughter married James Schoolcraft, brother of Henry, at the Sault. Eliza, the remaining daughter, never married.

The oldest son, Louis, was aboard one of the British ships captured by Commodore Perry on Lake Erie in 1813. George became a soldier in the British Army. William and John were interpreters in the United States Indian Service, the latter, acting in that capacity for his brother-in-law, Henry R. Schoolcraft, Indian Agent at Sault Ste. Marie.

Many travelers have recorded the generous hospitality of the Johnston homestead in Sault Ste. Marie in the old days and the ability of its master as an entertainer. Part of the Johnston home, which was erected about 1815, is still standing, the most interesting landmark of the Sault of a century ago. At the time it was built, the house was one of the finest in the whole north country. The government road reaching westward to Fort Brady was constructed afterward, directly in front of it. The house faced the river, and a short lane from the front door led to a dock, which extended some distance into the stream. Over this dock came General Cass in 1820, to haul down the British flag, and after him came the federal troops in 1822.

Johnston built his warehouse and a carpenter shop to the west of his home. A little to the northeastward, and closer to the river,  stood his store, another warehouse, and a bunkhouse for his men. Behind his home, was a beautiful old-fashioned garden, luxuriant each summer with roses and lilacs. Alongside it was his fur press, a little to the westward his blacksmith shop, and that was the home of Mrs. Cadotte, on the site of the old French fort. In the rear of these stood the old Jesuit cemetery. The river bank to the west of the Johnston home was an Indian camping ground, while to the east it afforded pasture for his sheep. Directly east of his home, Johnston built his wine cellar, milk, ice house, and barns. 

In the back of his garden, Johnston laid out in 1816, the first street in Sault Ste. Marie, which we know as Water Street or Park Place. This street extended but a few hundred feet west from the lot on which his home was built, and this extension was intersected a few years later by the palisade of Fort Brady. South of this street lay the unfenced commons.

Here Johnston lived with his family from about 1815 until 1828, dispensing a cheery hospitality to all who came buying and selling furs and other merchandise, doctoring any ailing whites or Indians with simple remedies, often bleeding them after the fashion of the times. The kind and practical benevolence of the daughter of Waub-ojeeg matched his own. No tale of poverty or bad luck went unheeded. Johnston was the friend, confidant, and patriarch of all in this broad demesne.

Though he lived on the frontier, he maintained contact with the world outside. His house was filled with books and current publications. He brought from his former home in Ireland many of the comforts of civilization. Massive-framed portraits on the walls, and the many foreign articles about the rooms, aroused great wonder and admiration in the minds of the Indians who viewed them.

This was of course after the War of 1812, in which Johnson and Sault Ste. Marie suffered some unpleasant experiences. The British, having lost Mackinac Island by treaty after the Revolutionary War, had established about 1796, a small military post on St. Joseph’s Island, just below Lime Island on the St. Mary’s River. On the announcement of hostilities, John Johnston, although he appears to have been Collector of the fort for the U.S. Government at the time, raised, equipped, and provisioned a company of white and Indian militia here, and placed himself under the orders of the British commandant at Fort St. Joseph.

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