Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Johnsons

 Last year, I read Janet Lewis's novel The Invasions and enjoyed it. I had set it aside, and was not thinking about it, when I noticed in Journey to America, a collection of De Tocqueville's journals edited by J.P. Mayer, a passage of August 6, 1831, from the Sault Ste. Marie:

The Johnson family (conversation forgotten) at the camp of the Indian traders.

Now, the family of The Invasions spelled their name "Johnston". It is true that names are often misspelled, and that Tocqueville had difficulties with English orthography. Yet Johnson is not an uncommon name, and there could easily have been other Johnsons or Johnstons then living near the Sault.

If Tocqueville did speak with William Henry Johnston's family, it is curious that he did not record the conversation and make more of it, given the interest his journals show in the relations of the races. A family with a Bishop of Belfast as great-uncle, and a notable chief of the Ojibways as grandfather should have been worth recording. Sam Houston's brief marriage to the granddaughter of a Cherokee chief is mentioned in another notebook--but then perhaps Tocqueville had more time to talk with Houston.

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