Visiting Sault Sainte Marie

Few cities are more closely connected to Marquette’s history than Sault Sainte Marie. Just as Negaunee and Ishpeming play a key role in Marquette’s history because they are the source of the iron ore shipped out of Marquette’s harbor, so the Sault is where the ore has to pass through the locks to reach its destination in the major cities on the lower Great Lakes. As a result, in 1855, the Sault locks began construction under the guidance of Charles Harvey, who would also found Marquette’s neighboring city, Harvey, Michigan.

Sault Sainte Marie’s history is long and fascinating. Marquette is not even half as old since it was founded in 1849, while the Sault dates to 1688 when Father Jacques Marquette established a mission there, making it the first permanent European settlement in Michigan. The Sault remained a significant gathering place for the Chippewa (Ojibwa) whom Father Marquette came to convert to Christianity throughout the eighteenth century, but its real history begins in the nineteenth.

I recently visited Sault Sainte Marie for a book fair at Island Books and Crafts where I got to spend time with ten of my fellow Michigan authors. I also used this trip as an opportunity to see the sites and do some research for an upcoming book I plan to write.

China from Ireland owned by the Johnstons.

One of the places I visited were the historic homes on the waterfront. The first of these homes belonged to John Johnston, an Irishman who settled in the Sault in 1796 as a fur trader. Johnston married Oshahguscodaywayquay, the daughter of a local Chippewa chief. She took the English name Susan and went to live in Johnston’s home but all her life she retained her Native clothing and she would only speak her native tongue, although she understood French and English. She and Johnston would raise a family of four sons and four daughters.

Johnston, being British, sided with the British in the War of 1812, leading a group of men from the Sault to Mackinac Island to aid the British. In retaliation, the Americans went to the Sault and burned down his home as well as the Northwest Fur Company offices. After the war, Johnston tried to receive compensation, but since the Sault became American territory and he had fought against them, he never received compensation. Not surprisingly, he also never applied for American citizenship.

Dining room of the Johnston home.

The Chippewa were not pleased by the Americans moving into the Sault and were planning to attack General Cass who was sent to Fort Brady to claim it for the Americans. He took down the last British flag to fly on American soil there. Fortunately, Susan Johnston was wiser than the Chippewa men and she persuaded them not to attack the Americans, thus saving many lives on both sides. Cass, who would later become Governor of Michigan, always afterwards said he owed her his life.

Spinning wheel in the Johnston home.

The Johnston’s daughter, Jane, was highly educated and made trips to Europe with her father. When Henry Schoolcraft came to the Sault as the Indian agent, he became familiar with the Johnston family and eventually married Jane. Schoolcraft had a job to do in treating with the Chippewa, but Susan Johnston took him under her wing, making him sympathetic and interested in the Chippewa and their culture. Schoolcraft would eventually write down many of the stories he heard from his wife Jane about the legends of Hiawatha, a book that would influence Longfellow’s famous poem of the same name.

Henry Schoolcraft’s Office

Of course, Bishop Baraga also resided in the Sault and would have known the Johnstons and Schoolcrafts. Baraga had come to Upper Michigan as a missionary to the Native Americans from his native Slovenia. He became known as the snowshoe priest because he would travel across the Upper Peninsula and even into Wisconsin and Minnesota by snowshoe to preach the gospel. After many years of missionary work, he was appointed the first Bishop of the Marquette diocese. The diocese’s see was Sault Sainte Marie, and there a house was built for Baraga which he called his palace since he had long slept in rude little huts or lived with fellow priests, but now he had his own house. He resided there for only two years, 1864-1866, before it was decided to move the see to Marquette as a more central location for the diocese. Baraga would die in Marquette in 1868 and be buried there in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

The Bishop Baraga Home as viewed from the Tower of History.

Overall, Sault Sainte Marie is full of history. There are many other museums to visit including the Valley Ship Museum, the Tower of History, the River History Museum, the Chippewa Historical Society, and the campus of Lake Superior State University, built where once Fort Brady stood.

I’m sure I’ll be making many more trips to this place where three Great Lakes meet and history is very much part of the present.

St. Mary’s Church as viewed from the Tower of History. This church is on the same property where the proto-cathedral stood – the first cathedral of the Diocese of Marquette before the see was moved to Marquette and St. Peter’s Cathedral there.

View of the Saint Mary’s River taken from the Tower of History

Interior of the Baraga Home

Interior of the Baraga Home

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6 Comments on “Visiting Sault Sainte Marie”

  1. ellenandjim Says:

    I enjoyed reading this. You showed the place is thick with history, and unexpected revealing history at that.


    • Thanks, Ellen. Glad you like it. It is very full of history and played a key role in our nation’s history. It’s said that the North won the Civil War because of the iron ore that came out of the Upper Peninsula that was used to make cannons, ships, etc., and the same is true for the wars that followed.

  2. Diane Says:

    Fascinating blog. I was particularly interested in Susan–I won’t even attempt her native name–Johnston, the daughter of the Chippewa chief who married John Johnston, but wouldn’t abandon her native dress or language. It’s fascinating that she acted as a bridge between the two cultures–I am surprised she is not more widely known. She’s worth a novel in her own right. In any case, I’m glad to learn about a region I know little about.


    • Glad you found it interesting, Diane. Susan Johnston is a fascinating woman. I could write much more about her certainly. Her daughter Jane is better known because of the Hiawatha legends.

  3. donnawinters Says:

    Tyler,

    Great article! Brought back memories of trips Fred and I made to the Sault to visit many of the places you named in your article. While there, I bought the book about the Johnstons and soon after, read their story. So fascinating. Looking forward to what you will say in your upcoming title.

    Right now, with the blazing hot temperatures here, Fred and I long for the cooling breezes off the shipping canal or Lake Superior, or Lake Michigan. Just the other day Fred said that he misses the Great Lakes. I do too, but not enough to move back or to drive 1700 miles. There’s a price to pay no matter which edge of the country you live on.


    • Thanks for the comment, Donna. I bought a book about the Johnstons too and look forward to learning more about them. Will keep my book title/topic under wraps until I know if I can make a go of it. It’s 84 here today – I think only the 2nd day this year over 80. It’s been 60s and rainy a lot but now I think summer is finally here. That said, I was good with 60s and rain. We miss you and Fred!


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