The True Story of Who Inspired Longfellow's Hiawatha
|Nicholas E. Barron||Mar 20, 2019|
"The Song of Hiawatha," the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is an iconic piece of 19th century American literature.
For over 150 years, most believed that the writing of a man named Henry Rowe Schoolcraft inspired Longfellow to write Hiawatha.
But that wasn't true. At least, not entirely true.
In this article, we learn the actual identity of the writer whose work Longfellow relied upon while writing Hiawatha. And we discover that this barely known writer deserves more than recognition for inspiring Hiawatha.
She deserves to be recognized as a pioneer in American and Native American literature.
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Jane Meets Henry
Jane Johnston was born in 1800, the third-oldest child of a Scotch-Irish man and an Ojibwe woman.
The Ojibwe were a Native American tribe in the upper Great Lakes region of North America.
Jane’s father, John, had come to the area as a fur trader. Her mother was the daughter of an Ojibwe chief. They were married in the late 1700s and soon settled in Sault Ste. Marie, in what is today the eastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It’s there that their daughter, Jane, was born.
The Johnston household was as literary and well-read as could have been expected on the American frontier. John, a successful businessman and leader in the community, maintained a library of about a thousand books, written in English and French. It’s from these books that Jane and her siblings learned to read and write.
At age 15, Jane started writing poetry. She wrote in both English and her mother’s native language, Ojibwe. Along with penning original pieces, Jane wrote in English Ojibwe stories that had been passed down verbally through the generations.
When Jane was 22, a man arrived in Sault Ste. Marie. The man was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. He led a group of U.S. soldiers, and he was tasked by the governor of the Michigan Territory with helping bring the isolated village into the fold of the expanding United States.
Schoolcraft became, the moment he arrived, the most powerful white man in the Sault, replacing the previously most-powerful white man, Jane’s father, John. But there’s no evidence of discord between John and Henry. The Johnston’s welcomed Schoolcraft to Sault Ste. Marie.
Jane was an intelligent, charming, and beautiful woman. She loved to read and write, passions that she shared with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. And Jane’s family’s prominence ensured that she interacted with Schoolcraft.
All of these factors combined so that Jane and Henry married in 1823. It was a union that would produce critical literary contributions.
A Winter Activity
Sault Ste. Marie winters are marked by short days, long nights, and plenty of cold and snow.
To pass the time in the winter of 1826-1827, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft put together a literary magazine. He titled the hand-written magazine, “Literary Voyager,” or, in Ojibwe, “The Muzzeniegun.” Henry's writing comprised most of the magazine’s contents, but he did include some of Jane’s poems.
Henry distributed “Literary Voyager” among his friends in Sault Ste. Marie, and he sent copies to fellow U.S. Indian agent and future mayor of Detroit, MI, Charles Christopher Trowbridge. Trowbridge was so impressed with Jane’s poems that he wrote to Henry saying he had shared her work with others, including the governor of the Michigan Territory.
While many writers today would pursue such an enthusiastic response from a well-connected individual, there’s no record that the Schoolcrafts followed up with Trowbridge regarding Jane’s poetry. And there’s no evidence that they further pursued publishing or distributing her work.
This was 1827, after all, and there wasn’t much of an established American literary business, especially for women writers. Emily Dickinson, who would later in the 19th century posthumously pave the way for many female poets, hadn’t even been born at the time that Henry included Jane’s poems in his literary magazine.
Although it appears the Schoolcrafts didn’t seek to distribute Jane’s writing further, she still wrote, at least for a few years. She penned poems and continued translating Ojibwe tales and legends into English.
But eventually, Jane stopped writing. She focused on being a wife to Henry and a mother to their three children.
And then, one May day in 1842, Jane’s sister walked into a room and discovered her sitting in a chair, dead.
By the time of her death, though, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft had already made her mark on American literature. It’s just that no one realized it.
Publishing a Book of Language
As a federal Indian agent, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft served as a representative of the U.S. Government to Native Americans in the northern Michigan Territory. This included the Ojibwe, to which his wife, Jane, belonged.
Henry learned the Ojibwe language. And he was determined to document as much as he could about the Ojibwe and other indigenous peoples.
Indeed, he published a two-volume set based on his learnings titled, Algic Researches. Algic is a term Henry made up by combining the words Atlantic and Algonquian, a Native American language group to which the Ojibwe belong.
Included in Algic Researches are Ojibwe stories, stories that were translated and written not by Henry, but by his wife, Jane. And Henry also relied on Jane’s mother and siblings for help in putting together Algic Researches.
But none of these people received bylines in the book. The only acknowledgment that Jane and her family members receive for their contributions is a note from Henry at the beginning of Algic Researches. The entry reads, “The materials of these tales and legends have been derived from the aborigines, and interpreted from their languages by various individuals, among whom it is deemed important to name the following.”
Henry does list several people as contributors to Algic Researches, including his wife. Except he followed the convention of his time by listing his wife under his name: Mrs. Henry R. Schoolcraft.
Algic Researches was published in 1839, three years before Jane’s death. The book was one of the first to ever document Native American tales and legends, even though its compiler engaged in cultural theft and plagiarism.
Even eleven years after Algic Researches was first published, there still wasn’t much material on Native American traditions and stories.
And so, if you were a white American who wanted to write a poem inspired by Native American tales, you turned to Algic Researches. That's what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did when he decided to write a poem based on a Native American legend.
Hiawatha: Birth of a Classic
In the summer of 1854, Longfellow started work on an epic poem featuring Native Americans.
On June 22 of that year, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians, which seems to me the right one and the only. It is to weave together their beautiful traditions as whole.”
In a journal entry a few days later, Longfellow marked the start of his work-in-progress, writing, "I could not help this evening making a beginning of 'Manabozho,' or whatever the poem is to be called."
The poem was published in November 1855. It was titled, “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Depiction of a scene from "The Song of Hiawatha."
Poetry critics panned the piece, but the public loved it. “The Song of Hiawatha” became immediately popular. And the poem remains an iconic piece of 19th century American literature.
Longfellow acknowledged that in writing, “The Song of Hiawatha,” he had drawn upon Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s Algic Researches. And, to this day, Henry’s book is credited as the basis for Longfellow’s famous poem.
There’s someone, though, who isn’t acknowledged as aiding Longfellow. That would be Henry’s wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.
After all, it’s Jane who contributed some of the stories that Henry included in Algic Researches, stories that Longfellow used in writing, “The Song of Hiawatha.”
But Jane deserves more than just credit for helping inspire Longfellow. After all, Jane’s American literary contributions far exceed simply inspiring another poet’s work.
Leading Literary Women
In 1767, the slave of a Boston, MA, family sent a poem and an accompanying note to the publisher of the Newport Mercury in Newport, RI.
The note begins, “Please to insert the following Lines, composed by a Negro Girl (belonging to one Mr. Wheatley of Boston).” It goes on to state that the poem to which the note was attached was inspired by a survival-at-sea tale that Wheatley had heard told by two sailors, named Hussey and Coffin, as they dined at the home of her master and his wife.
The poem was titled, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” It was printed on Dec. 21, 1767, in the Newport Mercury.
This made the slave, Phillis Wheatley, the first known African American to publish a poem. She was about 14 years old at the time.
Wheatley continued writing poetry and, unable to find anyone in the American colonies to publish them, she turned to England, where a countess agreed to pay to publish Wheatley’s first poetry collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book came out in 1773.
While Wheatley is the first published African American poet, she was not the first American woman to publish poetry. That honor belongs to Anne Bradstreet.
Bradstreet was a woman in colonial Massachusetts whose brother-in-law took her poems to England to have them published in a volume titled, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up, which was released in 1650.
The names Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet are well known, particularly to those who know the history of American literature. But the same cannot be said of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.
Even though when Jane’s husband, Henry, included some of her poems in his literary magazine in the winter of 1826-1827, he made his wife the first Native American woman to publish poetry.
So why have so few of us ever heard of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft? The answer may lie with Henry.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was born in central New York in 1767. He attended school until he was 13, and then he went to work in his father’s glassworks factory.
Schoolcraft eventually started his own factory in New Hampshire, but the venture proved unsuccessful. And so Schoolcraft declared bankruptcy and headed west.
He arrived in Potosi, Mo., in 1818. Today, Potosi is a small town about 40 minutes from where I grew up.
But in 1818, it was a growing lead-mining town. Its most prominent citizen was Moses Austin, whose son, Stephen, eventually moved to Texas, and it’s for Stephen that that state’s capital city is now named.
And Potosi, MO, in the early 19th century, was on the fringe of civilization. It’s from the town that Schoolcraft launched one of the first explorations of the Ozarks region of what is today the states of Arkansas and Missouri.
Schoolcraft published studies of that area’s lead mines, plants, and wildlife. And he hoped to be appointed a federal superintendent of Missouri’s lead district.
Instead, Schoolcraft was placed on an expedition to the upper Michigan Territory. It’s on that expedition that he met a 22-year-old Jane Johnston, a woman he soon married. And she was a woman whose literary talent and interest matched, if not exceeded, that of her husband.
Henry was a man of letters. His wife was similarly inclined and undoubtedly gifted. So why did he not push for her writing to be more widely shared? At the very least, why did he not give her full credit for her contributions to his book, Algic Researches?
The Work of Robert Dale Parker
Robert Dale Parker discusses this in his book, The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (paid link).
In researching his book, Parker reviewed much of Henry’s writing, which is preserved by the Library of Congress. The archive encompasses about 25,000 items, including letters that Jane and Henry wrote to each other.
Parker reviewed these letters, and he concludes that Jane’s and Henry’s marriage was a mostly happy one. But there isn’t much indication that Henry encouraged, or sought to promote, his wife’s literary talent.
Sure, Henry included Jane’s poems in Literary Voyager, the magazine he published in the winter of 1826-1827. But for his book, Algic Researches, he passed Jane’s writing off as his own.
Why? What motivation could Henry have had for not giving any credit to his wife?
Show Me a Hero
We don’t know what Jane thought of her husband including her writing in Algic Researches with only a passing mention of her contribution.
And Jane didn’t have an opportunity to claim credit for helping to inspire Longfellow’s Hiawatha. She had been dead for 13 years by the time that epic poem was published.
Even if she had been alive, there’s no guarantee that Jane would have spoken up. And, if she had said something, would anyone have listened?
After all, the mid-19th century wasn’t exactly a welcoming place for a woman, much less one of Native American ancestry. Few women worked outside of their homes. It would be decades before women could vote in the U.S. And Native American’s weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924.
We today may not know the names Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet if not for the contributions of others who possessed more power and privilege than those poets.
For Bradstreet, it was her brother-in-law who ensured her poems were published. And for Wheatley, it was an English countess who agreed to finance the publishing of her first poetry collection.
Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, though, didn’t reap a similar benefit. The person in the best position to ensconce Jane into the record of American literature was her husband, Henry.
But he didn’t.
It's a Mystery
Henry remarried five years after Jane’s death. His new wife, Mary Howard Schoolcraft, was a racist who published a pro-slavery novel in 1860. And her views on race led to strained relations between Henry and the biracial children he had with Jane.
Is it possible Henry kept mum about Jane’s contributions to appease his second wife?
Or maybe it was because he wanted for himself the attention and fame that Jane’s stories brought. Or perhaps the struggle to make a name for a Native American woman at that time in American history was too much for him to tackle.
It’s challenging and risky to make assumptions about people’s actions, or lack thereof, 150 years after they lived. People in the mid-19th century were as complicated as they are today.
Even with all the research that Robert Dale Parker completed for his book on Jane’s life, he cannot provide a conclusive, documented reason why Henry never told the truth about his first wife’s writing.
All we know is that Henry didn’t. And so Jane’s significance to Native American and American history went unknown and unnoticed for over 150 years.
Now we know that the first known Native American literary writer, the first known poet to pen poems in an American Indian language, and the first known Native American to put on paper traditional Native stories was a biracial Ojibwe woman.
Her name was Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.
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Sources: The True Story of Who Inspired Longfellow's Hiawatha
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