Schoolcraft Daze

On May 4, 2014 · 1 Comments

Now where were we before I took off for a couple of weeks on my Riverboat Adventure? I believe I was discussing Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and various places named in his honor scattered through the Upper-Midwest of the United States, principally Michigan and Minnesota.

I learned long ago that leaving things unsaid could be a risk because the 12MC audience has become so adept at guessing where I’m heading that reader comments anticipate future topics. Sure enough, Twelve Mile Circle’s own County Counter Extraordinaire, Fritz Keppler, nailed it when he said "Schoolcraft also had his hand in naming a number of counties in Michigan, drawing on a variety of sources."

I’d observed the same trend as each new Michigan county revealed itself in Every County.


HenryRSchoolcraft1855
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain

I’ll not talk much about the life of Schoolcraft since I discussed him in the prior article. Rather, I’ll focus on some of the placenames he coined. Schoolcraft created all sorts of pseudo-Indian neologisms by combining Native American words or phrases, often Ojibwe/Algonquin, with classic Greek, Latin or Arabic roots.

I first encountered Schoolcraft’s craft (I knew I had to work that in somewhere) in reference to Lake Itasca — the generally accepted source of the Mississippi River — quite a number of years ago. One of his traveling companions, the Rev. William T. Boutwell, told a story years after the fact about a canoe trip the two took together. Schoolcraft asked Boutwell how to say "headwaters" in various classic languages and Boutwell could remember only the Latin variant, veritas (truth) and caput (head). Schoolcraft discarded the first three letters from veritas and the last three from caput and coined Itasca. One source notedIt is lucky Mr. Boutwell did not think of the Greek for ‘head waters,’ or Itasca may have been named Lake Hydrocephalus.” Schoolcraft later recounted a completely concocted story tying Itasca to some Native American legend, however the Boutwell explanation called him out on it.

Ten Michigan counties bore Schoolcraft’s neologisms. I attempted to determine their etymology although, frankly, maybe only Schoolcraft himself knew for sure. Some of the words or parts of words might have simply sounded "Indian enough" without further explanation necessary. I used Native American Placenames of the United States as a reference unless otherwise noted.

Alcona: The county itself said the name vaguely translated to "the fine and excellent plain" combining Arabic and two different Native American words. Also the county originally had a genuine Native name, "Negwegon," a Chippewa chief. That apparently wasn’t good enough so Schoolcraft created his own fake name.

Allegan: It may translate roughly from "Lake of the Algonquins" although I noticed other explanations floating through the Intertubes.

Alpena: A vaguely Native American word akin to "a good partridge country."

Arenac: From "arena," the Latin word for sand plus an Algonquian word for land. Sandy Land.

Iosco: Supposedly meaning "water of light." Schoolcraft published stories based on various Native legends. Iosco was a name he coined for one of the heroes.

Kalkaska: Thought to be an Algonquin amalgamation for "burned over."


Islands Lookout from Alligator Hill
Islands Lookout from Alligator Hill by jimflix! on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
This location in Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore is in Leelanau County

Leelanau: Schoolcraft sometimes generically named Native American women Leelinau in the stories he published. Supposedly it meant "delight of life."

Lenawee: Signifying "men" or "the people" and probably from the Shawnee "lenawai."

Oscoda: The combination of two Ojibwa words, ossin meaning stone and muskoda meaning prairie.

Tuscola: Tusco meaning warrior or Tusci meaning level land are both possibilities.

One wonders why Schoolcraft felt he needed to manufacture words when there were perfectly fine Native American options available. He probably thought he was performing a good deed, preserving vestiges of Native culture within familiar and palatable Old World wrappers. Certainly he felt a sense of cultural superiority:

In 1832 he founded the Algic Society — the first use of his neologism that combined "Algonquian" and "Atlantic" — "for encouraging missionary efforts in evangelizing the north western tribes, and promoting education, agriculture, industry, peace and temperance, among them." By this time Schoolcraft openly subscribed to the popular belief that America’s aboriginal population was in a degenerate or "fallen," moral state, but he also insisted that the data on language and legends that he was gathering and publishing indicated the Indians’ potential for salvation.

I think that provided a succinct explanation. Schoolcraft’s sense of moral superiority — so common during that period in history — compelled him to reject Native American phrases in their undiluted form, and instead create what he’d likely consider improvements.

On May 4, 2014 · 1 Comments

One Response to “Schoolcraft Daze”

  1. Drake T says:

    I know nothing of Schoolcraft beyond your writing and nothing of the general context of the quote pasted above, but I would like to suggest a little bit of caution in drawing too big of a conclusion on his opinions on cultural superiority. He may very well thought as you proposed, but basing that opinion strictly from the quote, “by this time Schoolcraft openly subscribed to the popular belief that America‚Äôs aboriginal population was in a degenerate or ‘fallen,’ moral state…” This word choice, even today, would be a fair summary of a good number of Christians who subscribe to the concept of Original Sin, that is to say the vast majority of what is considered mainstream Christianity. The common belief amongst most Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, many Protestants) is that man is “fallen” or in a state that requires salvation. This theological observation is in no way limited to North American aboriginals.
    Love the blog!

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