The Trip to Hiawatha

Alice Longfellow 1890The Longfellow party arrived by rail in the hamlet of Desparats, Ontario, where Ojibwe in full regalia paddled them to an island in Lake Huron. What was to be a visit with the Longfellows had turned into a full-blown festival, an idea instigated at least in part by a Canadian Railway executive by the name of L. O. Armstrong (who may have married into the Ojibwe). The center of the festival would be a production of the poem, starring Kabaoosa as Hiawatha. Most of the participants were, like Kabaoosa, descendants of Shingwaukonce’s band, who by the mid-19th century had migrated from the immediate Sault Ste. Marie area to Sugar Island or across the St. Mary’s River to Canada at the mouth of the Garden River.

Perhaps in summer, with wild game and produce abundant, Alice and her sisters could not perceive just how poor the Indians were—victimized as they’d been by treaties and policies that pushed them onto marginal lands. What they did see was a production bursting with drama and pride, from the opening moments when a band of braves rushed down the hillside in front of the audience, outfitted in war paint and feathers, until the close when Hiawatha paddled off, west, into the setting sun.

What was to have been a four or five day visit with the Ojibwe turned into two weeks in which the Longfellows were treated to feasts, singing, dancing and a trip up the St. Mary’s to Garden River to view the home of the deceased Buhkwujjenene. The climax was a ceremony, presided over by Kabaoosa, to adopt the Boston visitors into the tribe. Her hand in Kabaoosa’s, Alice stood beside a bonfire that shot sparks into the black Northwoods night and became Odenewasenoquay—“the first flash of lighting.”When she returned to Boston, Alice wrote about her journey, an account published in the 1901 Riverside edition of The Song of Hiawatha. One of the moments she chose to describe proves she understood the bittersweet undercurrent of the visit. The incident happened after a Sunday service at the missionary church. An old Ojibwe man stood up and welcomed the strangers whose “father had written in poetry the legends of his people.”

The man then produced a large silver medal given to his ancestors by King George III as a pledge that their rights should be respected. “[The King] told us that as long as the sun shone the Indians should be happy, but I see the sun still shining, and I do not think Indians always happy,” he said.

That summer of 1900 marked the first of many subsequent Hiawatha performances—51 the next summer and 62 the summer after that. The production traveled to Europe once, and to Boston in 1903—where Alice entertained the cast at Craigie House. Eventually, railway entrepreneurs brought the show to Petoskey, where the cast from Garden River came down every August to perform it throughout the month, a tradition that lasted into the 1930’s.Simultaneously for many years, the Garden River Ojibwe performed a community Hiawatha pageant. Betty Lou Shingwauk Grawbarger, Chief Shingwauk’s great-granddaughter, and a cousin of Kabaoosa, recalls watching the production with her grandmother on the banks of the Garden River. Betty Lou says the story of the Longfellows’ visit has been forgotten in Garden River, but not the present Alice Longfellow sent afterwards. It’s a 16-foot-tall triplicate stained-glass window that depicts an angel in moccasins standing on a globe. To this day, the window shines down on the congregation of St. John’s Anglican Church in Garden River.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous


    Noah (my nine year-old) and I just finished reading The Song of Hiawatha. What a beautiful treat to read this to him tonight before bed. Many thanks.
    Kate Bassett

  • Lissa Edwards


    Thank you–and wonderful to hear from you. Sometime I want to take a field trip up there to see that window. The descendants of Chief Shingwaukonce are still very much alive, proud and ready to tell great tales.


  • scout

    I’ve been researching my great-grandfather who was widely known for his knowledge of Indian music at the turn of the century. It appears that Alice Longfellow had a log cabin on Lake Huron’s Longfellow Island. Someday I would like to visit this area but want to gather all the information possible, including if this cabin still exists, before venturing out.
    I have more information on the cabin and a moving description of how my great grandfather got involved in the music while residing at that cabin. I’d be interested in any information that you might have and would be more then happy to share what I have.

  • Anonymous


    I’d suggest contacting the Alpena public library. They have an outstanding history collection and staff historians who can probably help you out. Would much enjoy discussing your project when you are ready to do so. Please give a call: 231-941-5318.
    Jeff Smith, Editor

  • Valerie Lambright

    Have you done any further research on the play?