Hi, I'm Ana, the Ethical Systems Nerd, with the March 28th episode of Nerd Nodes.
Today is the birthday in 1793 of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, whose life's work you literally cannot avoid in the state of Michigan, where I was born and raised. Not only does Schoolcraft have a county, several townships, villages, roads, schools, a Liberty Ship and even a food court named after him, he also invented the faux Native American names which were given to 9 of Michigan's 83 counties.
We're going back to glassmaking, which we touched on in the March 21st episode. Henry Schoolcraft's career started in his family's glassmaking business, the Hamilton Glass Works, located in the company town of Hamilton, both named for the then Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The Hamilton Glass Works went through several names over the years, starting out as the Dowesburgh Glass House founded in 1785 by Jean de Neufville and his son Leonard, members of a bankruptcy-prone and scandal-prone family of bankers, currency speculators, and opportunistic war profiteers in Amsterdam. Jean had bought land in Albany years earlier, one of many property investments in the Americas, including several commodity businesses dependent on enslaved labor. Jean also worked on a secret deal with American Henry Laurens to provide Dutch loan financing to the American revolution, which would eventually lead to the Anglo-Dutch war when the British navy intercepted Henry Laurens' ship and fished a damp copy of the secret draft treaty out of the ocean nearby. Henry ended up in the Tower of London, the only American to have had that honor, and was eventually freed in a prisoner exchange. This allowed Henry to return to financing the American revolution, and also to his extremely lucrative business selling enslaved human beings. You might remember from the musical Hamilton that Henry's son John Laurens, a close friend of Hamilton, dies right at the end of the revolutionary war. John was an abolitionist who was able to convince his father to admit privately that slavery was morally wrong, but Henry Laurens was too invested in slavery, financially and socially, to ever publicly admit that slavery was ethically abhorrent, nor to ever honor his dead son's request to free any of the enslaved people who were considered the family's property.
Back to Jean de Neufville. Keeping to family tradition, Jean eventually went bankrupt and decided to make a new life on that piece of land he had previously purchased in Albany, New York. He decided to start a glass factory, one of the first in the new United States. Glassmaking seemed to be the hot, high-risk, high-reward startup idea of the late 18th century for people who could raise the capital and access the expertise. de Neufville recruited glassmakers from Germany and started the factory in Guilderlands, near Albany, which was out of the way but had access to the all important raw materials. Like many such startups, de Neufville's venture eventually failed, and he became ill and died shortly thereafter. Alexander Hamilton helped arrange a pension for his widow, perhaps in part because the family was still owed money for revolutionary war loans.
A group of investors then took over the glass factory, and eventually Hamilton and his father-in-law Philip Schuyler invested too. The town of Hamilton was set up as a classic company town, with workers being paid in script they could only spend at the overpriced company store. Henry Schoolcraft's father Lawrence, a glassmaker, was hired as superintendent, and young Henry soon joined the family business, writing his first scientific paper in 1814, with the title Vitreology. Both Henry and his father later moved around various New England glassworks, until Henry decided to pursure a different career at the age of 25. The Hamilton Glassworks would close in 1815 since the local resources it relied upon, high quality sand deposits and the trees to burn for melting it, had run out.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft started traveling west and writing about his travels, and the opportunities for economic exploitation and resource extraction from the lands he traveled to. His first trip to the Ozarks resulted in publishing "A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri", which accurately described the potential for expanding Missouri's lead mining industry, and "Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw". Many of the articles I read about these writings bemoan the disappearance of the world which Schoolcraft witnessed and explored, although of course it was writings like Schoolcraft's, combined with economic and cultural systems intended to maximize both white settlement and resource exploitation, which caused the dramatic ecosystem changes seen in the last 200 years of North American history.
Schoolcraft's reputation was made by his writings about Missouri, and he subsequently was recommended to the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, who was planning to personally lead an expedition to explore Lake Superior and find the headwaters of the Mississippi. Schoolcraft was appointed geologist to this expedition, where once again he repackaged the knowledge of local residents in formal scientific language, and no doubt added some of his own. The following year he would join a further expedition to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
It's hard to know what Schoolcraft's legacy would have been if he hadn't gone on to the next phase of his career, and perhaps his earlier works would be better known if he hadn't eclipsed them with the best career move he could have made. Schoolcraft got married to Jane Johnston. Jane's father was John Johnston who was born into a wealthy elite Protestant family in Belfast, Ireland. Not content with the opportunities made available to him courtesy of his land-owning, well-educated, ruling class family, which included an Attorney-General and a Bishop, John went to Canada and became a fur trader, an occupation which required startup capital as well as social credibility. John did what many successful European fur traders did, and married into a high status Native American family, which provided lucrative networking and trade opportunities for all involved. John and his wife Ozhaguscodaywayquay (Ozhaawashkodewekwe) moved to Sault Ste Marie and became a power couple in the cosmopolitan multi-cultural trading hub. Sault Ste Marie, formally founded in 1668, was first French, then British, and finally Canadian (or American depending on which side of the river you are on). Their oldest daughter Jane Johnston grew up fully fluent and immersed in her mother's culture and her father's large library. Jane would grow up to be a writer, poet, and translator working in both English and Ojibwe, and her marriage to Henry Schoolcraft would bring her work, indirectly, to global prominence.
Henry was appointed the U.S. Indian Agent to the Michigan territory in 1822, a job which put him in Sault Ste Marie. Henry and Jane married in 1823 and became, like her parents, another Sault Ste Marie power couple. Henry's job combined politics with cultural anthropology, and his marriage to Jane was vital for both. Henry continued traveling and writing, publishing a literary journal and building up the body of work which would eventually become his six volume "Historical and Statistical Information respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States". He also was involved in negotiating the treaty of 1836, one in which millions of acres of what is now Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan were ceded to the United States
Jane's written work sometimes appeared in the handwritten literary journals which Henry produced, and her work as a storyteller and as a translator was also often behind the scenes as a source for Henry's writing. In 2007, a bilingual book of her poetry and writing was published for the first time. Jane died in 1842, and so she never witnessed the phenomenal success enjoyed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow when he remixed her stories, by way of Henry Schoolcraft's writings, in The Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855. Henry, however, was delighted and took the opportunity to republish some of his earlier material, going so far as to dedicate his 1856 volume to Longfellow. Interestingly, it might have been Schoolcraft's idea to apply trochaic tetrameter, or the Finnish Kalevala meter, which Longfellow famously used.
As the 19th century continued, the relative tolerance of the older multicultural Sault Ste Marie changed, and mixed-race, Catholic, and Francophone residents lost status. In 1841, the Whig party came to power in the United States and as a result Henry lost his job, so Henry and Jane Schoolcraft moved to New York. After Jane died, Henry moved to Washington, D.C., where in 1847 he married a woman named Mary Howard, who was opposed to mixed-race marriages and so pro-slavery that she wrote a book about it. Unsurprisingly, Henry and Jane's surviving children, Janee and John, would stop speaking with Henry. Young John would be wounded at Gettysburg, and would die of his injuries. Henry would die six months later, at the age of 71.
Henry Schoolcraft's life connects so many strands of American history. Born right after the American revolution, which his father fought in, he would die during the American Civil War. Much of his life would be spent in service to science and knowledge, as he would have seen it, but a particular form of extractive knowledge gathering, both in its methods and in its goals. Schoolcraft's life epitomized and facilitated the ultimate American economic project with its relentless Westward pressure to settle land with white settlers, extract natural resources, appropriate Native American cultures while displacing and dispossessing Native Americans, and grow the economy without heed to the environmental or social consequences. Processes which are still taking place today, and which are within our power to stop.
The composer Modest Musorgsky was actually born on March 21st, a birthday he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach. He left us with some striking pieces of music, such as Night on Bald Mountain famously used in Disney's Fantasia. He was also apparently the inspiration for the Alexander Lemtov character in the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. In declining health, he managed to pose for one last painting before dying in 1881, on March 28th.
Explore Jane Johnston Schoolcraft's writing through Robert Dale Parker's website and edited book The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (Library Thing link).
Treaty violations and Indigenous rights are active struggles, not just history. Explore active legal battles involving treaty and rights issues intersecting with urgent climate catastrophes like Enbridge Line 3. Read As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Library Thing Link). What are the urgent issues near you? What are your economic interactions with the systems causing harm? (For example, many banks fund fossil fuel projects.)
Indigenous scientific knowledge and agricultural practices, read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Library Thing Link) and (forthcoming - preorder now to help boost) Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming by Liz Carlisle (author page link).