Schoolcraft College — The Name and its Significance
In the gallery of great men of the nineteenth century America, one man rose to quiet heights as a pioneer, a man of vision and foresight, a man who devoted himself to the art and spirit of learning and to the fostering of culture - Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Born in 1793 in the Manor of Rensselaer, a small village west of Albany, New York, Schoolcraft displayed the initiative, capacity and ingenuity that were to shape his later life. He supplemented his public school education with outside studies of his own: reading from the classics, learning French from a tutor and then teaching himself German and Hebrew. He later published a newspaper and magazine, both of which included his verse and essays, all by the time he was fifteen years. Upon being graduated from public school, Schoolcraft had planned to continue his education at Union College in Schenectady but when the time came, his family was financially unable to send him. He thereupon took the position of superintendent of a glass factory in Geneva, New York, while continuing his studies at home with a tutor. From there he moved to Salisbury, Vermont, where he accepted a similar position. He might have remained in the glass industry if an influx of British glass had not forced them into bankruptcy. Thus in 1817 at the age of twenty-four and spurred by accounts of opportunities in the West, Schoolcraft traveled to Missouri and the beginnings of a new life.
Ethnologist and Educator
Schoolcraft maintains a prominent position among the pioneers and builders of America’s intellectual climate. His works in ethnology add an important segment to the folklore of America and filled a gap in the overall information of the aborigines of the continent. Little was known in this country, or the rest of the world, of the American Indian: his origin, customs, legends, language, manners. Schoolcraft was to clarify this. After a second trip through the midwest as geologist and mineralogist for the Department of War, he realized that someone had to study the Indian and his world before we could civilize and educate him. Schoolcraft’s plans to act were formulated after participating in a treaty council held in Chicago where he had the good fortune to see Indians of many American nations and observe their “eloquence and serenity.” Accepting a position as Indian agent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, he commenced, assiduously, to collect and record the life of the Ojibwa Indians, the tribe inhabiting the area around the Sault. His enthusiasm led him to organize the Algic Society, for rehabilitation purposes, and to publish Algic Researches, a text perpetuating knowledge that probably would have been lost had it not been for Schoolcraft’s efforts. Like the monks of Iceland who preserved and recorded Norse mythology from oblivion, Schoolcraft preserved the “dark and dawn of North America” as he called the period of the American aborigine.
The effects of his momentous efforts in ethnology were not overlooked. In France, M. Duponceau, a noted linguist, wrote asking Schoolcraft for permission to incorporate his findings on the Indian in a new linguistic study that Duponceau was compiling. The book won international acclaim as well as the Volney Prize granted by the French Institute. Duponceau credits the winning of the award to the section on Schoolcraft’s studies of the American Indian. As a result Schoolcraft was asked to join many learned international societies, acknowledging his position in the world’s intelligentsia.
Schoolcraft has also left his mark as an educator and a vital figure in American education. His studies on the middle west were already known to the American public for their literacy, historic and geological merit. To these were added his extensive works on the American Indian. Shortly after arriving at the Sault as Indian agent he opened schools to educate the Indians. Once this was under way he became a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Michigan. In this position he was instrumental in saving the state university from financial disaster. He is also credited with establishing and contributing to the first common school journal in the United States, The Journal of Education. Recognition must also be given him for publishing the first literary magazine in Michigan, The Souvenir of the Lakes.
Probably the most important contribution Schoolcraft made was the essential role he played in the creation of The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This poem “which has made the English critics shout for joy that at length there was an American poem” had immediate and tremendous success. From the time of publication, 1855, the poem has become a part of the cultural background of every English speaking school child and considered a world classic. Of Schoolcraft’s contribution Longfellow states: “…I have woven the curious Indian legends drawn chiefly from the various and valuable writings of Mr. Schoolcraft to whom the literary world is greatly indebted for his indefatigable zeal in rescuing from oblivion so much of the legendary lore of the Indians.”
A noted pamphleteer, George Austin, also writes of the man:
In bringing these curious traditions to light, valuable as an historical index to the character of the tribes, as well as for their invention, Mr. Schoolcraft ought ever to merit and receive the grateful remembrance of the reading portion of the public. He it was who first called attention to this department of our national literature, and without his poetical interest in the subject, very much of the material which he preserved would probably have been lost, - and, - we speak from knowledge, - the poem of Hiawatha would never have been written.
Schoolcraft was certainly a leading literateur and educator of his day on the frontier where he helped and encouraged others.
Scientist and Historian
Schoolcraft was also known as a capable man of science. While in the Vermont factory he experimented with and perfected glass. During his first trip West his knowledge of mineralogy and geology enabled him to be more than a casual observer. Upon his return to New York from this trip, he published his findings in A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri, a work hailed by scientists as the first reliable study of the scientific resources of the Missouri Valley. The book was brought to the attention of the Secretary of War, John Calhoun, who offered Schoolcraft the position of mineralogist for a governmental expedition into the midwest. On this trip he discovered Lake Itasca, one of the sources of the Mississippi River. When he returned from the trip he wrote Narrative Journals of Travels which marked him as an explorer as well as a writer.
From his expeditions throughout the midwest and from his many years as Indian agent in northern Michigan, it is evident nothing escaped the man. He collected many samples of the flora and wildlife, rocks and minerals which he sent to schools or other worthy institutions. He explored the caves of the area returning with relics of earlier civilizations. And finally, he kept complete records of the weather conditions of the Sault, giving us insight into the weather patterns of that area. These findings he shared with his fellow Americans in articles published by The American Journal of Science, American Geology as well as many other periodicals.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, writer, historian, scientist, educator, was a credit to Michigan and to his country. Today there are large quantities of his work preserved at the Library of Congress and at The Smithsonian Institute. Here in Michigan the man’s work can be found in the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library and at the University of Michigan and at Sault Ste. Marie. A Historical Society of Michigan has restored Schoolcraft’s home to the original condition of the time when he occupied it. We cannot judge Schoolcraft as a great scholar or as a great representative of American scholarship but as a great representative of the American spirit that made American scholarship and eventual reality. For his was a poor scholastic background, but he was a true scholar. “No man ever had more love of learning or belief in it or vision for it or courage or worked more tirelessly in its behalf.”
Written by: Mary J. Toomey