March is Women’s History month–a perfect time to recognize one of the state’s earliest multi-cultural authors. Jane Schoolcraft was a skilled 19th century writer, whose accomplishments are overshadowed by her more-famous husband, Henry.
Born in 1800 at Sault Ste Marie, Jane was the third child of the union of an Ojibwa woman and an Irish father. Jane’s mother, Oshauguscodawaqua (which means â€œwoman of the green prairieâ€) was descended from a venerate Indian family; her father, John Johnston, immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1762.
Married in the early 1790s, the Johnsons settled in Sault Ste. Marie after the birth of their first son in 1793. According to one historian, the Johnson household, which eventually included eight children, â€œwas known for its hospitality to strangers and its evening of storytelling.â€ John Johnson’s desire to have his children read and Oshauguscodawaqua’s skills at telling stories inspired Jane to start writing poetry. However, Jane’s â€œmain motivation to produce literatureâ€ came after she met Henry Schoolcraft. Geologist, explorer and Indian agent, Schoolcraft settled in Sault Ste. Marie in 1822. The following year, Jane and Henry were married.
The early years were among the happiest of the Schoolcraft marriage. Both Jane and Henry worked together collecting stories and writing poetry for publication. As her husband’s responsibilities (including becoming a member of the Michigan territorial government) took him from home for long stretches of time, their union suffered. The mother of three children by 1830, Jane also struggled when her husband began questioning her Native American heritage. Henry faulted Jane for lacking a â€œproperâ€ upbringing because her mother was not Euro-American. Jane consoled herself by writing devotional poetry, before turning to other topics, including questioning the Euro-American notions of a â€œproperâ€ woman’s role. Jane also told one traveling author that women were â€œmore valued in Indian culture than they were in white culture.â€
In 1833 the Schoolcrafts moved to Mackinac Island. Although she continued to write, the stresses of family life took their toil. An addiction to opium may have led to Jane’s premature death in 1842. Although Henry was in Europe when his wife died, he wrote their fifteen-year-old daughter that the news was â€œheart rending.â€ Jane Schoolcraft was buried in Ancaster, Ontario, where she had been visiting her sister when she died. For unknown reasons, Henry refused his mother-in-law’s request to have Jane’s remains re-interred in Sault Ste. Marie.
To learn about other women in Michigan’s past, visit www.michiganhistorymagazine
Photo credit: Cover of The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. Robert Dale Parker, Editor (University of Pennsylvania Press). Looks like an interesting book:
Introducing a dramatic new chapter to American Indian literary history, this book brings to the public for the first time the complete writings of the first known American Indian literary writer, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (her English name) or Bamewawagezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name), Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky (1800-1842). Beginning as early as 1815, Schoolcraft wrote poems and traditional stories while also translating songs and other Ojibwe texts into English. Her stories were published in adapted, unattributed versions by her husband, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a founding figure in American anthropology and folklore, and they became a key source for Longfellow’s sensationally popular The Song of Hiawatha.