Published on October 3, 2013 by Amy
William Whipple Warren (May 27, 1825 – June 1, 1853) was an historian, interpreter, and legislator in the Minnesota Territory. Of Ojibwe and European-American descent, he lived in two cultures, so was considered an Ojibwe “relative”; he is the first historian of the Ojibwe people.
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He moved from Wisconsin to Crow Wing in present-day Minnesota in the fall of 1845. He worked as an interpreter for the fur trader Henry Mower Rice.
Bilingual and educated in the United States style, Warren started collecting stories from the oral tradition of the Ojibwe from an early age to tell their history. He used oral history to tell about the people prior to their encounter with Europeans, and combined it with documentation in the European style. After suffering from lung problems for many years, he died as a young man of 28 from tuberculosis on June 1, 1853. His history was published posthumously in 1885 by the Minnesota Historical Society. A revised, annotated edition was published in 2009.
William Whipple Warren was born at La Pointe, Michigan Territory (present-day Wisconsin), on Madeline Island. He was the son of Lyman Marcus Warren, an American fur trader, and a descendant of Richard Warren in New England, and Mary Cadotte. She was the daughter of Ikwesewe, of the high-status White Crane clan of the Anishinaabe, and her husband Michel Cadotte, a major fur trader of Ojibwe-French descent.
As the Ojibwe had a patrilineal system, children were considered to belong to their father’s clan and lines of descent. Those born to a non-Ojibwe father had no clan or formal place within the tribe, unless specifically adopted by a man of the tribe. They and their mothers could usually find protection within the tribe. Such multiracial children of the period also faced discrimination by European-American culture, which generally considered them more “Indian” than white, regardless of ancestry.
Lyman and Mary had a second son Truman (named after his brother) and daughters Julia and Mary.(The senior Truman Warren married a sister of Mary Cadotte, so the families were doubly linked. Truman Warren and his wife had twin sons Edward and George Warren, a few years younger than William.)
After attending Protestant mission schools at La Pointe and on Mackinac Island, in 1836 young Warren traveled back East with his paternal grandfather Lyman Warren to Clarkson, New York to live and attend Clarkson Academy. He next attended the Oneida Institute near Whitesboro, New York, a Presbyterian college that combined liberal and what was called industrial or crafts education. The director was Beriah Green, an abolitionist. In 1840 at the age of 15, Warren returned to his family in La Pointe.
Warren liked to sit with his mother’s people and hear the Ojibwe stories. At age 17, he started working as an interpreter, as he was bilingual. At the same time, he made notes on the stories and history of the people when he could. In the fall of 1845, he moved to Crow Wing, Minnesota to work as an interpreter for the trader Henry Mower Rice. Warren continued collecting stories and began to write a history of the Ojibwe.
A man of two cultures, he was considered a mixed-blood. “He knew he would not be considered an Indian by the Indians, nor did he dare declare himself Indian. Still the Ojibwe considered him their relative … and relied on him for his counsel and his honesty. He considered that he had a unique position for collecting and writing the history of the Ojibwe.
In 1848 Rice had Warren answering questionnaires on the Ho-Chunk and Ojibwe. The survey had been sent by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an early ethnologist and the former USSuperintendent of Indian Affairs in the region. He was collecting material for what would be his six-volume history of Native Americans, commissioned by the US Congress. Warren met Schoolcraft, who gave the young man an additional sense of how important his work was. Rice passed Warren’s work on to the Minnesota Pioneer, which in 1849 published his essays on history.
In time away from his work as an interpreter with Rice, Warren continued to collect the stories he heard. He worked to find ways to identify dates in the Ojibwe oral histories, in order to write a history that satisfied some of European-American conventions. Historians have found that his work is generally quite accurate. As the historian Theresa Schenk notes in a 2009 edition, he was “one of the first to recognize the value of oral tradition as a source for history.”
Encouraged by the reception of his work, Warren prepared A Brief History of the Ojibwas, which the Minnesota Democrat published in several installments in 1851. He used the perspective of his American education to present the stories of the Ojibwe people. He recounted their wars, political leaders and history, and always credited his sources. Most of his informants were men, as would be traditional for a young man. He felt the culture was disappearing and needed to be conveyed by its own people.
In 1851 Warren was elected as a legislator from the Minnesota Territory, serving in the Minnesota Territorial House of Representatives. Rice became a politician also, elected several years later by the state legislature as a United States Senator (1858–1863). In 1865, he ran as a candidate for governor.
William married Mathilda Aitken, August 10, 1843 at La Pointe. She was born around 1822 at Sandy Lake, Minnesota and baptized September 13, 1835 at La Pointe. Her multi-racial ancestry was similar to his: she was the daughter of William Alexander Aitken, a European-American fur trader, and Gin-gion-cumig-oke, an Ojibwe woman.
After the early death of Warren in 1853, his widow Mathilda later married Louis Fontaine. Under the Dawes Act, she was allotted land on the White Earth Reservation as “Mathilda Fontaine.” She died October 19, 1902.
Warren’s History of the Ojibway People, Based Upon Traditions and Oral Statements (1885) was published more than 30 years after his death by the Minnesota Historical Society. He was the first European-style historian of the Ojibwe people and his work is considered influential in the field. It was reprinted in 2009 in a version annotated and edited by the historian Theresa Schenk, who provides context for his work.