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Tshusick, Ojibway Woman
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A Portion only of the history of this extraordinary woman has reached us. Of her early life we know nothing; but the fragment which we are enabled to present, is sufficiently indicative of her strongly marked character, while it illustrates with singular felicity the energy of the race to which she belongs In tracing the peculiar traits of the Indian character, as developed in many of the wild adventures related of them, we are most forcibly struck with the boldness, the subtlety, the singleness of purpose, with which individuals of that race plan and execute any design in which they may be deeply interested.
The youth of ancient Persia were taught to speak the truth. The lesson of infancy, inculcated with equal care upon the American savage, is, to keep his own counsel, and he learns with the earliest drawings of reason the caution which teaches him alike to deceive his foe, and to guard against the imprudence of his friend. The story of Tshusick shows that she possessed those savage qualities, quickened and adorned by a refinement seldom found in any of her race; and we give it as it was communicated to the writer by the gentleman who was best acquainted with all the facts.
In the winter of 1826-27, on a cold night, when the snow was lying on the ground, a wretched, ill-clad, way-worn female knocked at the door of our colleague, Colonel McKenney, then Commissioner of Indian Affairs, at the city of Washington. She was attended by a boy, who explained the manner in which she had been directed to the residence of Colonel McKenney. It seems that, while wandering through the streets of Georgetown, in search of a shelter from the inclemency of the weather, she was allured by the blaze of a furnace in the shop of Mr. Haller, a tin worker. She entered, and eagerly approached the fire. On being asked who she was, she replied, that she was an Indian, that she was cold and starving, and knew not where to go. Mr. Haller, supposing that Colonel McKenney, as Commissioner for Indian Affairs, was bound to provide for all of that race who came to the seat of government, directed her to him, and sent his boy to conduct her. On this representation the Colonel invited her into his house, led her to a fire, and saw before him a young woman, with a ragged blanket around her shoulders, a pair of man’s boots on her feet, a pack on her back, and the whole of her meager and filthy attire announcing the extreme of want. She described herself to be, what her complexion and features sufficiently indicated, an Indian, and stated that she had traveled alone, and on foot, from Detroit. In reply to questions which were put to her, for the purpose of testing the truth of her story, she named several gentlemen who resided at that place, described their houses, and mentioned circumstances in reference to their families which were known to be correct. She then proceeded, with a self-possession of manner, and an ease and fluency of language that surprised those who heard her, to narrate the cause of her solitary journey. She said she had recently lost her husband, to whom she was much attached, and that she attributed his death to the anger of the Great Spirit, whom she had always venerated, but who was no doubt offended with her, for having neglected to worship Him in the manner which she knew to be right. She knew that the red people did not worship the Great Spirit in an acceptable mode, and that the only true religion was that of the white men. Upon the decease of her husband, therefore, she had knelt down, and vowed that she would immediately proceed to Washington, to the sister of Mrs. Boyd, who, being the wife of the great father of the white people, would, she hoped, protect her until she should be properly instructed and baptized.
In conformity with this pious resolution she had immediately set out, and had traveled after the Indian fashion, not by any road, but directly across the country, pursuing the course which she supposed would lead her to the capital. She had begged her food at the farmhouses she chanced to pass, and had slept in the woods. On being asked if she had not been afraid when passing the night alone in the forest, she replied, that she had never been alarmed, for that she knew the Great Spirit would protect her.
This simple, though remarkable recital, confirmed as it was by its apparent consistency, and the correctness of the references to well-known individuals, both at Detroit and Mackinaw, carried conviction to the minds of all who heard it. The Mrs. Boyd alluded to, was the wife of a highly respectable gentleman, the agent of the United States for Indian affairs, residing at Mackinaw, and she was the sister of the lady of Mr. Adams, then President of the United States. It seemed natural that a native female capable of acting as this courageous individual had acted, should seek the protection of a lady who held the highest rank in her nation, and whose near relative she knew and respected. There was some thing of dignity, and much of romance, in the idea of a savage convert seeking, at the mansion of the chief magistrate, the pure fountain of the religion which she proposed to espouse, as if unwilling to receive it from any source meaner than the most elevated.
Colonel McKenney recognized in the stranger a person entitled alike to the sympathies of the liberal, and the protection of the government, and, in the exercise of his official duty towards one of a race over whom he had been constituted a sort of guardian, immediately received his visitor under his protection, and con ducted her to a neighboring hotel, secured her a comfortable apartment, and placed her under the especial care of the hostess, a kind and excellent woman, who promised to pay her every requisite attention.
On the following morning, the first care -of the commissioner was to provide suitable attire for the stranger, and, having purchased a quantity of blue and scarlet clothes, feathers, beads, and other finery, he presented them to her; and Tshusick, declining all assistance, set to work with alacrity, and continued to labor with out ceasing, until she had completed the entire costume in which she appears arrayed in the portrait accompanying this notice except the moccasins and hat, which were purchased. There she sits, an Indian belle, decorated by her own hands, according to her own taste, and smiling in the consciousness that a person to whom nature had not been niggard, had received the most splendid embellishments of which art was capable.
Tshusick was now introduced in due form at the presidential mansion, where she was received with great kindness; the families of the secretary of war, and of other gentlemen, invited and caressed her as an interesting and deserving stranger. No other Indian female, except the Eagle of Delight, was ever so great a favorite at Washington, nor has any lady of that race ever presented higher claims to admiration. She was, as the faithful pencil of King has portrayed her, a beautiful woman. Her manners had the unstudied grace, and her conversation the easy fluency, of high refinement. There was nothing about her that was coarse or common-place. Sprightly, intelligent, and quick, there was also a womanly decorum in all her actions, a purity and delicacy in her whole air and conduct, that pleased and attracted all who saw her. So agreeable a savage has seldom, if ever, adorned the fashionable circles of civilized life.
The success of this lady at her first appearance on a scene entirely new to her, is not surprising. Youth and beauty are in themselves always attractive, and she was just then in the full bloom of womanhood. Her age might have been twenty-eight, but she seemed much younger. Her dress, though somewhat gaudy, was picturesque, and well calculated to excite attention by its singularity, while its adaptation to her own style of beauty, and to the aboriginal character, rendered it appropriate. Neat in her person, she arranged her costume with taste, and, accustomed from infancy to active exercise, her limbs had a freedom and grace of action too seldom seen among ladies who are differently educated. Like all handsome women, be their color or nation what it may, she knew her power, and used it to the greatest advantage.
But that part of Tshusick’s story which is yet to be related is, to our mind, the most remarkable. Having attended to her personal comforts, and introduced her to those whose patronage might be most serviceable, Colonel McKenney’s next care was to secure for her the means of gratifying her wish to embrace the Christian religion. She professed her readiness to act immediately on the subject, and proposed that the Colonel should administer the rite of baptism he being a great chief, the father of the Indians, and the most proper person to perform this parental and sacerdotal office. He of course declined, and addressed a note to the Reverend Mr. Gray, Rector of Christ Church, in Georgetown, who immediately called to see Tshusick. On being introduced to him, she inquired whether he spoke French, and desired that their conversation might be held in that language, in order that the other persons who were present might not understand it, alleging, as her reason for the request, the sacredness of the subject, and the delicacy she felt in speaking of her religious sentiments. A long and interesting conversation ensued, at the conclusion of which Mr. Gray expressed his astonishment at the extent of her knowledge, and the clearness of her views, in relation to the whole Christian scheme. He was surprised to hear a savage, reared among her own wild race, in the distant regions of the northern lakes, who could neither read nor write, speak with fluency and precision in a foreign tongue, on the great doctrine of sin, repentance, and the atonement. He pronounced her a fit subject for baptism; and accordingly that rite was administered, a few days afterwards, agreeably to the form of the Episcopalian church, in the presence of a large company. When the name to be given to the new convert was asked by Mr. Gray, it appeared that none had been agreed on; those of the wife and daughter of the then secretary of war were suggested on the emergency, and were used. Throughout this trying ceremony, she conducted herself with great propriety. Her deportment was calm and self-possessed, yet characterized by a sensibility which seemed to be the result of genuine feeling.
Another anecdote shows the remarkable tact and talent of this singular woman. On an occasion when Colonel McKenney introduced her to a large party of his friends, there was present a son of the celebrated Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Frenchman of uncommon genius and attainment. This gentleman no sooner heard Tshusick converse in his native tongue, than he laughed heartily, insisted that the whole affair was a deception, that Colonel McKenney had dressed up a smart youth of the engineer corps, and had gotten up an ingenious scenic representation for the amusement of his guests because he considered it utterly impossible that an Indian could speak the French language with such purity and elegance. He declared that her dialect was that of a well educated Parisian. We do not think it surprising that a purer French should be spoken on our frontier, than in the province of France. The language was introduced among the Indians by the priests and military officers, who were educated at Paris, and were persons of refinement, and it has remained there without change. The same state of facts may exist there which we know to be true with regard to the United States. The first emigrants to our country were educated persons, who introduced a pure tongue; and the English language is spoken by Americans with greater correctness, than in any of the provincial parts of Great Britain.
We shall only add to this part of our strange eventful history, that all who saw Tshusick at Washington, were alike impressed with the invariable propriety of her deportment; her hostess especially, who had the opportunity of noticing her behavior more closely than others, expressed the most unqualified approbation of her conduct. She was neat, methodical, and pure in all her habits and conversation. She spoke with fluency on a variety of subjects, and was, in short, a most graceful and interesting woman. Yet she was a savage, who had strolled on foot from the borders of Lake Superior to the American capital.
When the time arrived for Tshusick to take her departure, she was not allowed to go empty handed. Her kind friends at Washington loaded her with presents. Mrs. Adams, the lady of the President, besides the valuable gifts which she gave her, entrusted to her care a variety of articles for her young relatives, the children of Mr. Boyd, of Mackinaw. It being arranged that she should travel by the stage coaches as far as practicable, her baggage was carefully packed in a large trunk; but as part of her journey would be through the wilderness, where she must ride on horse back, she was supplied with the means of buying a horse; and a large sack, contrived by herself, and to be hung like panniers across the horse, was made, into which all her property was to be stowed. Her money was placed in a belt to be worn round her waist; and a distinguished officer of the army, of high rank, with the gallantry which forms so conspicuous a part of his character, fastened with his own hand this rich cestus upon the person of the lovely tourist.
Thus pleasantly did the days of Tshusick pass at the capital of the United States, and she departed burdened with the favors and good wishes of those who were highest in station and most worthy in character. On her arrival at Barnum’s hotel in Baltimore, a favorable reception was secured for her by a letter of introduction. Mrs. Barnum took her into her private apartments, detained her several days as her guest, and showed her the curiosities of that beautiful city. She then departed in the western stage for Frederick; the proprietors of the stages declined receiving any pay from her, either for her journey to Baltimore, or thence west, so far as she was heard of.
Having thus, with the fidelity of an impartial historian, described the halcyon days of Tshusick, as the story was told us by those who saw her dandled on the knee of hospitality, or fluttering with childlike joy upon the wing of pleasure, it is with pain that we are obliged to reverse the picture. But beauties, like other conquerors, have their hours of glory and of gloom. The brilliant career of Tshusick was destined to close as suddenly as that of the conqueror of Europe at the field of Waterloo.
On the arrival of the fair Ojibway at Washington, Colonel McKenney had written to Governor Cass, at Detroit, describing, in glowing language, the bright stranger who was the delight of the higher circles at the metropolis, and desiring to know of the Governor of Michigan her character and history. The reply to this prudent inquiry was received a few days after the departure of the subject of it. The governor, highly amused at the success of the lady’s adventure, congratulated his numerous friends at Washington, on the acquisition which had been gained to their social circle, and, in compliance with the request of his friend, stated what he knew of her. She was the wife of a short squat Frenchman, who officiated as a scullion in the household of Mr. Boyd, the Indian agent at Mackinaw, and who, so far from having been spirited away from his afflicted wife, was supporting her absence without leave with the utmost resignation. It was not the first liberty of this kind she had taken. Her love of adventure had more than once induced her to separate for a season the conjugal tie, and to throw herself upon the cold charity of a world that has been called heartless, but which had not proved so to her. She was a sort of female swindler, who practiced upon the unsophisticated natures of her fellow men, by an aboriginal method of her own invention. Whenever stern necessity, or her own pleasure, rendered it expedient to replenish her exhausted coffers, her custom had been to wander off into the settlements of the whites, and, under a disguise of extreme wretchedness, to recite some tale of distress; that she had been crossed in love; or was the sole survivor of a dreadful massacre; or was disposed to embrace the Christian religion; and such was the effect of her beauty and address, that she seldom failed to return with a rich booty. She had wandered through the whole length of the Canada to Montreal and Quebec; had traced the dreary solitudes of the northern lakes, to the most remote trading stations; had ascended the Mississippi to the falls of St. Anthony, and had followed the meanders of that river down to St. Louis, comprising, within the range of her travels, the whole vast extent of the northern and north-western frontier, and many places in the interior. Her last and boldest attempt was a masterpiece of daring and successful enterprise, and will compare well with the most finished efforts of the ablest impostors of modern times.
It will be seen that Tshusick had ample opportunities for obtaining the information which she used so dexterously, and for beholding the manners of refined life, which she imitated with such success. She had been a servant in the families of gentlemen holding official rank on the frontier, and, in her wanderings, been entertained at the dwellings of English, French, and Americans, of every grade. Her religious knowledge was picked up at the missionary stations at Mackinaw, and from the priests at Montreal; and her excellent French resulted partly from hearing that language well spoken by genteel persons, and partly from an admirable perception and fluency of speech that are natural to a gifted few, and more frequently found in women than in men. Although an impostor and vagrant, she was a remarkable person, possessing beauty, tact, spirit, and address, which the highest born and loveliest might envy, and the perversion of which to purposes of deception and vice affords the most melancholy evidence of the depravity of our nature.
Tshusick left Washington in February, 1829, and in the month of June following, Colonel McKenney’s official duties required him to visit the north-western frontier. On his arrival at Detroit, he naturally felt some curiosity to see the singular being who had practiced so adroitly on the credulity of himself and his friends, and the more especially, as he learned that the presents with which she had been charged by the latter, had not been delivered. On inquiry, he was told she had just gone to Mackinaw. Proceeding on his tour, he learned at Mackinaw that she had left for Green Bay; from the latter place she preceded him to Prairie du Chien; and when he arrived at Prairie du Chien, she had just departed for St. Peters. It was evident that she had heard of his coming, and was unwilling to meet him; she had fled before him, from place to place, probably alone, and certainly with but slender means of subsistence, for more than a thousand miles, giving thus a new proof of the vigilance and fearlessness that marked her character.
In reciting this singular adventure, we have not been able to avoid entirely the mention of names connected with it, but we have confined ourselves to those of persons in public life, whose stations subject them, without impropriety, to this kind of notice. The whole affair affords a remarkable instance of the benignant character of our government, and of the facility with which the highest functionaries may be approached by any who have even a shadow of claim on their protection. Power does not assume, with us, the repulsive shape which keeps the humble at a distance, nor are the doors of our rulers guarded by tedious official forms, that delay the petitions of those who claim either mercy or justice.
The beautiful stories of Elizabeth, by Madame Cottin, and of Jeannie Deans, by Scott, are both founded on real events, which are considered as affording delightful illustrations of the heroic self-devotion of the female heart; of the courage and enthusiasm with which a woman will encounter danger for a beloved object. Had the journey of Tshusick been undertaken, like those alluded to, to save a parent or a sister, or even been induced by the circumstances which she alleged, it would have formed a touching incident in the history of woman, little inferior to any which have ever been related. She came far, and endured much; emerging from the lowest rank in society, she found favor in the highest, and achieved, for the base purpose of plunder, the success which would have immortalized her name, had it been obtained in a virtuous cause.
This remarkable woman is still living, and, though broken by years, exhibits the same active and intriguing spirit which distinguished her youth. She is well known on the frontier; but, when we last heard of her, passed under a different name from that which we have recorded.
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