Forty years before Lewis and Clark, a shoemaker named Carver set out from the Straits of Mackinac to find the Northwest Passage. Why haven’t you heard of him?
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After days floating on the cobalt, emerald and steely swells of Lakes Huron and Michigan bound for the Straits of Mackinac from Fort Detroit, Jonathan Carver must have become accustomed to the fresh, organic and faintly fishy scent of water. An aroma purified of humans and their business.
So the waft of humanity that greeted the stocky, 56-year-old Carver when he arrived at Fort Michilimackinac’s water gate on a late-August day in 1766, had to have been jolting. Gamey smoke swirled from the Indian campfires around the fort. Fur traders loading their canoes with pelts bound for Montreal reeked of stale rum breath. Stench rolled in waves from summer-hot pit latrines. The 50 British soldiers of the 60th Regiment of Foot who guarded the fort stunk and so did their heavy redcoats and gathered-at-the neck white blouses.
Perhaps Carver also sniffed the scent of desperate ambition as he looked up into the face of the 6-foot-tall (towering for that era) Governor Commandant of the fort, Robert Rogers. Rogers was a man with a problem. The former French and Indian War hero, famed for forming the elite assault corps Rogers Rangers, was out of money, and his once brilliant reputation was tarnished by debt. Rogers’s solution? To accomplish the feat that had defied explorers for centuries: find the Northwest Passage. Carver was to be cartographer on the expedition.
If a waterway connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, known as the Northwest Passage, did exist it would open up a trade route to China, provide access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fur and, legend had it, lead to mountains and cities rich with gold. In the words that Rogers wrote to the man he’d charged with commanding the expedition, James Tute, those lucky enough to find the passage would come to:
“an Inhabited Country, and great Riches … From this Town the Inhabitants carry their Gold near two Thousand Miles to Traffick with the Japancies, and it’s said they have some kind of Beasts of Burden.”
Rogers’s post at the windblown Fort Michilimackinac, perched on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, seemed well suited to seeking the Northwest Passage. At least that’s what England’s King George hoped when he appointed Rogers Governor Commandant of Michilimackinac, a title that extended from the fort to include Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior. From Michilimackinac exploratory parties could head north to Lake Superior and on to the Hudson Bay, where it was believed there might be accessible “communication” with the Pacific Ocean. And from Michilimackinac, it was only a paddle across Lake Michigan to rivers that led to the Mississippi—where current thought said one would also find the headwaters of a river that stretched to the Pacific.
If Rogers succeeded in finding the Northwest Passage, the English Crown would, or at least Rogers hoped would, reimburse him for his expenses. On top of expenses, the English Parliament promised to reward anyone who found the Northwest Passage 20,000 pounds sterling. But there would be no up front money, as Rogers found on a trip to London in 1765, where he was granted a visit with the king to plead for funding. Rogers would be forced to use his own money and many promissory notes to foot the cost of the expedition. It would be the biggest bet of his life.
Carver was simply coasting in the tailwind of Rogers’s bluster of ego and power. A French and Indian War hero himself, though with hardly the reputation of Rogers, at midlife Carver was faced with the prospect of making a mundane living—the self-taught cartographer was probably a shoemaker by trade—to support his wife and seven children in Massachusetts. Or, he could sign on with Rogers’s expedition for the adventure of a lifetime. At the very least, Rogers promised that the work would pay 8 shillings a day, a salary Carver would receive upon his return.
Carver would leave ahead of the party to reach the Mississippi headwaters in time to scout them before winter set in.
He was to rendezvous with Tute, second in command James Goddard and the rest of the party, at St. Anthony’s Falls on the Mississippi—the present day site of Minneapolis-St. Paul—before winter.
Rogers was to catch up later, if the expedition proved promising.
On September 3, just five days after arriving at Fort Michilimackinac, Carver set out, joining a party of fur traders paddling across Lake Michigan. Besides his provision, Carver packed a small Union Jack to attach to his canoe. It was evidence of his sincere belief that he was bringing the king’s goodwill to the Indians.
If Carver’s muscles ached as he maneuvered his canoe toward Green Bay, if he worried about the months, maybe years, it would be before he saw his family again, perhaps the feelings were outweighed by his thrill at heading into a vast wilderness known to Europeans only through the maps and writings of a relative handful of French explorers, missionaries and fur traders. And what if it was he who was to discover the headwaters of the Northwest Passage—that great river Rogers called the “Ouragon” in his petition to the British government for funding?
But even Rogers’s formidable ego couldn’t will a river that stretches from coast to coast into existence. So the expedition would have been a complete failure, except that Carver brought a wide-eyed appreciation to the land that he traversed as a foreigner. In this pristine country, he found adventure, primeval nature and even the supernatural. Carver kept a careful journal along the way, making notes not only worthy of a cartographer but also of an ethnologist, geologist, botanist and historian.
Within the first weeks of his journey, Carver fended off a marauding band of Indians. On the Mississippi, near the mouth of the St. Croix River, he mediated a peace settlement between the Sioux—Indians he called the Naudowessies—and a party of armed Ojibwe ready to attack them. At St. Anthony’s Falls he watched a young Winnebago fly into religious ecstasy over the beauty of the falls. When Tute and the rest of the expedition failed to rendezvous with Carver before winter, the cartographer wintered with the Sioux, learning their language and making copious notes about their culture.
In the spring, Carver journeyed with the tribe to a cave, in what is now Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, noting ancient hieroglyphics on the walls. Then he watched as the Sioux buried their dead, transported from their winter settlement, near the mouth of the cave. Carver’s eyewitness account of the sacred place was rendered more valuable after the cave was destroyed during the construction of the railroad in 1869.
In the spring of 1767 Carver finally met up with Tute, Goddard and the rest of the party at Prairie du Chien in what is now Wisconsin—only to find that they were as low on supplies as he was. The three decided to change the expedition’s course and head north for Grand Portage on Lake Superior, in the hopes that Rogers could get supplies to them there. From Grand Portage they planned to explore the possibilities of a Northwest Passage via Hudson Bay.
At Grand Portage the party waited anxiously for the traders they hoped would replenish their dwindling provisions. When the traders didn’t come, a Cree priest (called Killinistinoes by Carver) encamped with his tribe near them, offered to confer with the Great Spirit to find out the traders’ whereabouts. Carver watched as the shaman, wrapped in an elk skin and surrounded by torches, writhed and talked in tongues until he foamed at the mouth. The shaman then predicted that a canoe would arrive the next day bringing not the traders, but news of the traders. To Carver’s astonishment, that is precisely what happened.
When the traders themselves finally arrived several days later, they brought only a message from Rogers that he was out of money. Carver returned to Michilimackinac, paddling the northern perimeter of Lake Superior to the St. Mary’s River and into Lake Huron.
On September 24, 1767, from inside the stockades of Fort Michilimackinac Carver wrote to his wife Abigail:
“… I have two hundred pounds sterling due to me from the crown, which I shall have in the spring. Give my compliments to all friends and acquaintances. I am, My dear, your’s forever, Jonathan Carver.
Fort Michilimackinac today. Photo by Kelly Rewa.
The money was never to be. Rogers was far from convincing England to ante up money for his expedition. In fact, he was under scrutiny by British officials who believed he was involved in a treasonous plot with the French to turn his Michilimackinac into a French colony. On December 6, 1767, Commandant Rogers was arrested at his own fort. In the spring, as Rogers was taken to Montreal for trial, Carver returned to Massachusetts, penniless.
In February of 1769, Carver sailed for England to beg for the money he believed was due him. He never saw his wife or children again. Living in poverty in England he married a widow, though he’d never divorced Abigail, and had two more children. In 1778 he published a book Travels Through the Interior Parts of America In the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. In the book Carver barely mentions Tute, Rogers and Goddard, writing as if the expedition was his own idea. He never mentioned Rogers’s imprisonment and reduced what must have been a dismal winter of 1767–68 to descriptions of fishing for “trouts” on the ice at the Straits of Mackinac.
In Montreal, Rogers was found not guilty, though he was essentially a ruined man. Tute faded from history, and Carver died just over a year after the book was published, in January 1780, without seeing its profits.
Nevertheless, Travels lived on in numerous printings and translations. Less than 40 years later, Thomas Jefferson referenced it in preparation for sending Lewis and Clark on their way to find a Northwest Passage. But by the late 19th century, historians had come to scorn the book; they believed Carver had made up most of it and plagiarized other portions.
Carver’s honor was restored at the beginning of the 20th century when the journals he kept on his expedition and then used to write the book, were found in the British Museum. The book’s 18th-century London editor is now credited with adding the portions that appear plagiarized from the writings of earlier explorers.
But Carver and his book have another enduring claim to fame. Travels was the first time the word Oregon—as in Rogers’s “River Ouragon” but with a new spelling—was ever published. Eventually, Carver’s word became a part of the American lexicon. There was no transcontinental river, of course, but the word Oregon was easily adapted to a trail.
You Say Ourigan, I Say Oregon
Jonathan Carver was the first person to use the word Oregon in a book, but Robert Rogers gets credit for coining the word—or so says Ives Goddard, a linguist at the Smithsonian Institution, and Thomas Love, an anthropology professor at Linfield College in Oregon. Writing in the Oregon Historical Quarterly in 2004, the pair point to Rogers’s use of the word that would evolve into its current spelling in his 1765 petition to the British government for an expedition to search for the Northwest Passage—a river he called the Ouragon. Goddard and Love believe Roberts came up with the word by taking a mutation of an Algonquian word for Beautiful River and using it for the Belle Riviere, shown stretched from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Pacific on a map in the 1758 book, Histoire de La Louisiane by Antoine-Simone Le Page Du Pratz. In Rogers’s instructions to Tute, written from his post at Fort Michilimackinac in September of 1766, he used the word numerous times, spelling it Ourigan, Ouragan and Ouregan.
Jonathan Carver’s “Travels Through America 1766-1768, An Explorers Portrait of the American Wilderness,” edited by Norman Gelb. 1993, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
“Treason? At Michilimackinac: The Proceedings of a General Court Martial held at Montreal in October 1768 for the Trial of Major Robert Rogers,” Edited by David A.Armour. 1967 Mackinac State Park Commission.
“Oregon Geographic Names,” Seventh Edition, 2003, Lewis A, McArthur & Lewis L. McArthur.
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2, 2004. “Oregon, the Beautiful,” Ives Goddard and Thomas Love.
The Boston Chronicle, 1768, microfilm, The Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
For more than 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history of Northern Michigan. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.