The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849

The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849

The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849

The Ojibwe Journals of Edmund F. Ely, 1833-1849


Twenty-four-year-old Edmund F. Ely, a divinity student from Albany, New York, gave up his preparation for the ministry in 1833 to become a missionary and teacher among the Ojibwe of Lake Superior. During the next sixteen years, Ely lived, taught, and preached among the Ojibwe, keeping a journal of his day-to-day experiences as well as recording ethnographic information about the Ojibwe. From recording his frustrations over the Ojibwe's rejection of Christianity to describing hunting and fishing techniques he learned from his Ojibwe neighbors, Ely's unique and rich record provides unprecedented insight into early nineteenth-century Ojibwe life and Ojibwe-missionary relations. Theresa M. Schenck draws on a broad array of secondary sources to contextualize Ely's journals for historians, anthropologists, linguists, literary scholars, and the Ojibwe themselves, highlighting the journals' relevance and importance for understanding the Ojibwe of this era.


On July 5, 1833, a young divinity student and teacher of vocal music bade farewell to his colleagues and friends of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York, and set out for a new life as a missionary teacher to the Ojibwe of western Lake Superior. He traveled by rail, canal, stage, steamship, schooner, canoe, and even by foot, finally reaching his assigned destination, Sandy Lake on the Upper Mississippi River, on September 19. He was to spend the next sixteen years living and working among a people he most often described as “poor heathen,” a people his strong religious convictions told him needed to be led to Jesus Christ and eternal salvation.

Edmund Franklin Ely was born on August 3, 1809, in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, the eldest of four sons of Judah Ely (1780–1826) and Lucia Sisson (1791–1830). In 1824 his family moved to Geauga County, Ohio, following his maternal grandparents, who had moved there two years earlier. Young Frank, as he was called by his family, did not remain long on the family farm, and by the end of 1825, at the age of sixteen, he appears to have gone to Rome, New York, perhaps to the home of his father’s great-uncle, Rev. Henry Ely, a retired pastor of the Congregational Church in North Killingworth, Connecticut.

Religion played an important part in the lives of these New England natives. The Ely genealogy contains numerous names of “Deacons” as well as a few “Reverends,” indicating an active participation in the church. Most were Congregationalists or Presbyterians, but Methodist societies were grow-

1. Ely, Records of the Descendants, 43; 226–27.

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