Friday, July 15, 2016


By John Fierst

Of the four lithographs that the Clarke Library recently added to its collection of Native American prints, the one entitled “Tshusick,” was painted by the American portraitist Charles Bird King.  “Tshusick” is a portrait of an Ojibwe woman who visited Washington D.C. in the winter of 1826-1827.  King’s portrait of Tshusick was reproduced in McKenney and Hall’s 1836 History of the Indian Tribes of North America, along with a description of her visit to the Capital.

In 1826 this remarkable woman traveled, on foot, from snowbound Michigan to Washington, hoping to meet the first lady, John Quincy Adam’s wife Louisa.  She knew the first lady’s sister Harriet, who was married to George Boyd, the U.S. Indian agent on Mackinac Island.  Tshusick, ragged and worn from her journey, found her way to the home of Thomas McKenney, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  She explained to McKenney that she had recently lost her husband and that she had come to Washington to be instructed and baptized in the religion of the white people.  She convinced him of the truth of her story by answering questions about persons McKenney knew in Detroit. 

According to James Hall, who wrote the sketch that accompanied Tshusick’s portrait, McKenney “conducted her to a neighboring hotel, secured her an apartment, and placed her under the especial care of the hostess.”  Later he provided her with blue and scarlet cloth, feathers, beads, and other "finery," etc. and Cinderella-like Tshusick created the outfit she is shown wearing in Charles Bird King’s painting.  She was “introduced in due form at the presidential mansion, where she was received with great kindness.”  Louisa Adams apparently was delighted to hear fresh news of her sister Harriet.  Tshusick was then introduced to many of McKenney’s friends and to others “whose patronage might be most serviceable” to her.  Hall claimed that she was an immediate favorite, the belle of the Capital for a while. When it was time for her to depart Washington, her new friends showered her with gifts and introductions and sent her on her way.   

Just as remarkable as Tshusick herself, is the exaggerated style in which James Hall described her, an effusive style that at the same time reflected Hall's racial and class biases. Tshusick “had the unstudied grace, and her conversation the easy fluency, of high refinement,” wrote Hall.  “There was nothing about her that was coarse or common-place.  Sprightly, intelligent, and quick, there was also a womanly decorum in all her actions, a purity and delicacy in her whole air and conduct. . . . So agreeable a savage has seldom, if ever, adorned the fashionable circles of civilized life.”  By the time Hall began writing Indian biographies for his and McKenney’s History, he was already a popular writer of western tales—western in the 1820s and 30s referring to the Old Northwest, today’s Midwest.  Edward Watts (in "The Indian Hater” and Other Stories by James Hall, p. xxii) points out that Hall's style was a “smudging of fact, fiction, and narrative.”   In the case of Tshusick's biography, Thomas McKenney undoubtedly supplied the facts; Hall the embellishments.
Despite Tschusick’s beauty and her charm, the Cinderella-like fairytale failed to end happily. Thomas McKenney received a letter from Lewis Cass, Territorial Governor of Michigan, telling McKenny in essence that McKenny and all of Washington had been had.  Tshusick was a fraud, an "imposter."  Her husband had not died.  He was “a short squat Frenchman, who officiated as a scullion in the household of Mr. Boyd, the Indian agent at Mackinaw.”  Cass at the time was beginning to take a hard line toward Native Americans that would lead to his support for the Indian Removal Act.  In the North American Review a few months earlier, he had ridiculed British societal elites for having been taken in by John Dunn Hunter.  Cass, Hall stated, found the gullibility of his sympathetic Eastern friends amusing.   Cass held that Easterners (like Tshusick's admirers in Washington), who had little exposure to Indians, had no appreciation of the Indian's inveterate and surreptitious nature.

Unfairly, Tshusick comes to us defined by Hall, Cass, and McKenney—shaping her story to their purposes.  We do not really know how she thought or what she sensed she needed to do to survive in the era of removal.  At this distance we can only reflect on the painting Charles Bird King has left us and imagine.