University of Nebraska Press has just published The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely. The diary is said to provide an ‘unprecedented insight into early nineteenth-century Ojibwe life and Ojibwe-missionary relations’ - the Ojibwe being among the largest groups of native Americans north of Mexico. At £49/$65 the new book is a bit pricey, but some extracts from Ely’s diaries can be read freely online thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Edmund Franklin Ely was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, in 1809. As a young divinity student in Albany, he taught music and became the leader of the choir of the Fourth Presbyterian Church to help with his expenses. But, in 1833, he managed to get an appointment with the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions whose missionaries were working with native Americans, as well as overseas.
Ely left New York to travel a 1,000 miles west to Lake Superior, where he would stay, serving with Ojibwe missions in Wisconsin and Minnesota, for the next 16 years. The Ojibwe, or Chippewa, who lived along the northern shore of Lake Huron, and both shores of Lake Superior, spoke a form of Algonquian, and are now considered one of the largest groups of Native Americans-First Nations north of Mexico.
Ely married Catherine Bissell (whose mother was a half-blood Chippewa Indian) in 1835 and they are said to have had 13 children. In 1849 he left the mission field but remained living in the area, in St. Paul, and then Oneota (now part of Duluth), where he served as postmaster for six years, and as a St. Louis County commissioner in 1861 and 1862. In 1873, the family moved to California, and Ely died in 1882, two years after his wife.
Ely left behind diaries covering more than 20 years of his life, the first of which was written in 1933 during his journey west from Albany to the Indian country. Most of the content of these diaries has now been edited by Theresa M. Schenck and published for the first time by University of Nebraska Press as The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849.
The publisher’s abstract states: ‘Twenty-four-year-old Edmund F. Ely, a divinity student from Albany, New York, gave up his preparation for the ministry in 1833 to become a missionary and teacher among the Ojibwe of Lake Superior. During the next sixteen years, Ely lived, taught, and preached among the Ojibwe, keeping a journal of his day-to-day experiences as well as recording ethnographic information about the Ojibwe. From recording his frustrations over the Ojibwe’s rejection of Christianity to describing hunting and fishing techniques he learned from his Ojibwe neighbors, Ely’s unique and rich record provides unprecedented insight into early nineteenth-century Ojibwe life and Ojibwe-missionary relations.’
The manuscripts are held by Northeast Minnesota Historical Center at the University of Minnesota, and consist of twenty separate volumes. Further details about the diaries can be found in the new book’s introduction (freely available on the University of Nebraska Press website): ‘A few were written by candlelight during canoe trips, others in the comfort of Ely’s lodge. Some parts are faint and written over in blue. A few pages are so faded that they cannot even be read. For the first four years the journals were kept meticulously; they are thorough accounts of the day-to-day activities of Ely and the people with whom he interacted. Thereafter it seems that he maintained his journals somewhat sporadically or only for specific occasions. They nevertheless present a unique picture of a missionary’s life, his reflections on the state of his soul, and his observations of a people little known at the time.’
A few extracts from Ely’s diaries can be found on the web, in articles made available by the Minnesota Historical Society: Roy Hoover’s To Stand Alone in the Wilderness - Edmund F. Ely Missionary, and Grace Lee Nute’s The Edmund Franklin Ely Papers. There are also a few extracts to be found with the information on the University of Nebraska Library about the Ely collection.
Here are a few extracts taken from the above sources.
5 November 1833
‘This evening, the Frenchmen & Indian Girls, have had a dance in Mr Aitken’s Room. Mr Davenport played the Violin for them. Their feet are happily well inured to hardships - or Else, one would suppose, from the Modus operandi, that they would raise some blisters - not to mention the consequences to’ the floor on which they Jump.’
8 January 1834
‘Today Mr A. started off - 2 Horse trains for Fondulac & is to follow in the Morning with a Dog train.’
26 February 1834
‘Was much amused, this evening, in the wigiwam, to hear a Child 3 Yrs old, sing several of Our Indian Hymns - in tunes whh the Children have learned from me. This family left here last fall & went down the river. The Child has learned them of its Br. & Sister.’
8 February 1834
‘As I walked past, some cried out ‘Nogomota’ - (let us sing). I went into the room & Commenced Singing, when all flocked in & joined in the hymn, spent some time thus - read a short chapter . . . & concluded with prayer.’
23 April 1834
‘Two Indians, who arrived from their hunt last night - made it [the traverse] this P. M. in a very Small Canoe. These men brought in 3 or $400 worth of furs, the result of the Spring Hunt.’
26 April 1834
‘This afternoon, an Indian came to the House (who had previously given to Mr [William] Davenport’s man, the result of his hunt -) who had taken a credit last fall, - & instead of paying his credit, wanted to trade the amo of his Pack. Mr D. told him he must pay his credit - the Indian refused. [the Indian] raised himself up his knife in his hand. Mr D. caught a lance, which was at hand, & told the Ind. to be peacable, or consequences might follow. The Ind. was intimidated, & put by his knife, after waiting an hour or more, & seeing that Mr D. was not to be moved, the Ind. settled his business & - went off. It is a common thing - for some Stubborn Ind to endeavor to intimidate the traders [by] drawing their knives, & the only way is, for the trader to show them, that he is not afraid of him. . . let an Indian see that you are perfectly calm & determined, & he will quail before you.’
7 March 1835
‘As an example of Indian providence - I will note a statement just made me by Osana Amik. Two or three lodges hunted - together. There were 5 Men - 6 Women & 6 Children (mostly small). Between the 15th Nov. & 15th Jan they have Killed 13 Moose 9 Bears & 2 Deer - not Counting Hedge Hogs - Rabbits & pheasants & furred Game.
13 Moose - Equal to 13 Common horses
9 Bears [ - Equal to ] 9 Small-Hogs
2 Deers [- Equal to ] 1 large do
when I passed them (to Yellow Lake) I bot some meat at one lodge - but at another of the lodges found them hungry & gave them part of my Meat, & other things, on my return I bot more meat. They came in from their hunt hungry & are now at the Lake depending on the fishing.’
29 March 1854
‘B. & Slaughter started early to watch their corners - (accompanied by 11 resolute follow[er]s - ) The Surveyor was closely followed by Stinson & Thompson with about 25 men. They were armed with Pistols… They took Perry’s & Barrett’s, who have claims on the Mineral Range. Chase, who also has a claim on the range, had taken a [blank in MS] claim directly back of the townsite, remarked to me that he supposed he could not hold his without fighting for it. I told him if he would give it up to me, I would go on to it - as I presumed they would acknowledge my right to preempt it. He agreed to it. He is to have an undivided fourth - (or 40 acres) which he is to pay for, & help me put up a shanty - on it. I went with him immediately and commenced a shanty - while at work the Surveyor came - running the Section line - northward & on my East line. He noted every street in his field book - thus considering it a town site - Stinson & Thompson with their retinue - were close at hand. The North line of the section was then run out to the lake - & the two parties marched out - side by side with the surveyor - who closed his days work at the Lake. The line is to be corrected back to the N. & S. line before the section is considered as surveyed - consequently no demonstration was made to take possession by the Messrs Stinson & Thompson & Co. The excitement was very great - & very plain talk dealt off to S. & T. B. & S. & party are determined - & will fight terribly if encroached upon. Blood will most certainly be spilled.
30 March 1854
‘Began to snow last night. Has continued to snow heavily all day. About 8 inches has fallen - Equal to 1 foot dry snow. No surveying today - all quiet.’
31 March 1854
‘Forest loaded with snow. Went to work on the shanty. Have got up all the timbers. No Surveying - too much snow on the timber - considerable excitement among the Miners & other claim holders concerning the course of Messrs S. & Thompson. B. & Slaughter will receive some very important accessions, when the Survey commences again. We learn there is a party - close at hand - from St. Paul - feel rather impatient for their arrival.’