Tree drawing

Nancy’s picture*

I guess Nicholas Cresswell drew the picture below standing in front of the tree but appended the explanation below only that evening. The journal entry is from 1775, and Nicholas and Nancy are on the Ohio frontier, deep in Indian territory.

The marks are Captain Wingimund’s, Nicholas recalls from what he was told about them by Chief White Eyes and Anderson. Unfortunately, his attention had wandered in the middle of their account.

That evening, Nicholas opens his journal at the drawing and begins: This turtle is the emblem of Wingimund’s tribe; The cross and half moons are the signs of Wingimund himself; And this is the sun…

Just here, on the original hearing, his mind had turned elsewhere. Possibly lightening followed thunder, and he thought of Nancy. Maybe one of the two men interrupted the other. Maybe the spell of the drawing awoke. Whatever the distraction, that evening Nicholas found himself hard pressed when he arrived at the sun. His account is an honest tour of the hole in his memory: horizontal lines below the sun, inclined lines at the bottom of the drawing, warriors with their backs to the sun = northward bound. The memory echoes the words he heard, but his connections make no sense.

He had a vivid moment when the explanation turned to the figures on the left: scalps and prisoners, marked as male and female. Now paying attention, Cresswell concludes: “The rough sketches of Forts in the middle are what he has helped attack, but what their names were I cannot learn.” Neither Anderson or Nancy were illuminating, and Chief White Eyes was now on the other side of the river.

An Englishman in the Colonies who did not approve of the American Revolution, Cresswell’s journal is a young man’s diary beyond the frontier of anything he has known growing up in Derbyshire.  The native Indians, of whom Nancy was one, appear to have blown his mind.

We can place the tree-drawing in history. After the French lost control of the Great Lakes region in a first global European war, Indian tribes led or inspired by Pontiac of the Ottawas attacked the English border forts around 1762-1763. Several small forts were taken and the large forts of Detroit and Pitt were besieged. We find no record of Delaware Indians in the attacks on or near Detroit. But Wingimund and Captain White Eyes are both recorded on the Indian side at the siege of Fort Pitt in the diary of Captain Trent.

Fort Pitt, modern Pittsburgh, is situated on the confluence of two rivers – and just this fort and incipient town in this sketch from 1758 is surely what we see here on Cresswell’s sketch of Wingimund’s tree drawing.

Having identified Fort Pitt we can picture Wingimund drawing the marks after 1763, perhaps twelve years before Nicholas Cresswell records them.

But the daydreaming of Nicholas, a young Englishman on holiday, has cost us dear. We are not sure about the sun, about this bird that seems to be inside the sun. Nor about the horizontal and inclining lines and their relationship with the sun and the ‘north’ spoken about by White Eyes or Anderson.

On his return to England, a curious story of make believe unfolded. Understanding what happened, we must retrieve the key already given above. Nicholas had a friend, named William Bray, a sharp man in London, a keen antiquarian. Nicholas had showed Bray the drawing in his journal and when he wrote requesting his help in finding a position, Bray explained that he was unable to help but asked if he might reprint the tree-drawing in the journal Archeologia, Nicholas was only too happy to bring to wider attention “the Indians, my favourite people.” The result was a letter by William Bray that referred to Nicholas only as a “gentleman acquaintance,” which presented a spruced up version of the drawing and made a lot of shit up.

We must picture for ourselves the correspondence between Nicholas and Bray. I assume Bray spotted the hole in the explanation at bottom right of the picture, where things went wrong at the sun due to a daydream. Bray, we must assume, pushed Nicholas for better explanations. One of the two did a bit of reading, and hit the connection with Fort Pitt and the Indian border war of 1763. Reading reports of the main action involving Pontiac, Bray and Cresswell decided that the big fort above right was Fort Detroit and other other on its left a small fort on Lake Eyrie – both connections apparently false, for we have no record of Delaware Indians involved in these attacks, although Wingimund and White Eyes are both named on the Indian side at Fort Pitt (Journal of Captain Trent).

Now with the central part of the drawing ‘correctly’ identified, Bray, it seems pushed Nicholas for even more reading of the drawing. We do not know who made the shit up, although my money is on Cresswell. I read Bray’s sin as asking for stolen goods and looking the other way as he received them. All points in the fabricated explanation can be imagined as made up in response to Bray’s questions about the horizontal and inclining lines fudged by Nicholas. Bray’s downright lie was to present what he must have known to be guesses of Cresswell as the authentic voice of Chief White Eyes.

In any case, Nicholas’ drawing from fair Elfland was published in 1781 as a letter by Willian Bray on the subject of Indian picture writing in the periodical of the society of Antiquarians, Archeologica.

As you see, Bray’s rendering has a spruced up feel, but observe too the substantial touching up in the addition of figures on the left and inclined strokes on the bottomNote also that the whole communication is now by William Bray; Nicholas Cresswell appears as: “a gentleman acquaintance” who kindly sent a copy of a personal journal maintained in Ohio some years back.

Reducing Nicholas to silent “gentleman acquaintance” and removing from the account Mr. Anderson, the Indian trader, and Nancy the Indian woman, Bray presents the drawing of Chief Wingimund from the mouth of Captain White Eyes. To the detail in Cresswell’s journal, Bray adds the following points, some perhaps credibly prized out of Cresswell many simply made up:

1. Tree situated on bank of  the Muskingham River, Ohio; the bark of the tree had been removed 1 foot square; the war marks made with charcoal and bear’s oil. This is what Nicholas recalls five years after standing before the tree in the new world. 

2. Between two rivers = Fort Pitt and incipient town, 1763. We accept this conjecture.

3. Above are represented Fort Detroit and a small fort on Lake Erie. To accept this story requires writing Wingemund and the Delaware into the story of Pontiac at Fort Detroit – it is not impossible, but counter to what is known.

4. 10 horizontal lines on far right beneath sun: the phrase in the journal ‘history of his entire warfare’ is now read biographically: it is noted that the Indians do not ‘count’ campaigns, as we do, but expeditions: these horizontal lines beneath the sun are now ‘remembered’ by Cresswell as records of individual war parties. This strikes us as simple fabrication.

The idea of biography introduced by the invention of the horizontal lines beneath the sun conjures a new horizontal story, quite absent in Cresswell’s first description of the tree-drawing. Now, Wingemund’s diagram records ten war-parties, detailing men and women scalped or captured. That is to say, Bray imposes a list – a horizontal line, so that each line beneath the sun connects one wary party with its spoils, given in the (expanded) gendered record of scalps and prisoners. We take this as gratuitous invention.

5. The inclining strokes at the bottom of the picture are multiplied and said to be Wingemund’s warriors at the time the war marks were made. This seems conjecture.

6. Their inclination is said to mean they were travelling northward. This strikes us as simple fabrication, a doing something with the leftover word in Nicholas’ memory: ‘northward’.

Bray’s remake has a suitable appendage.

7. The figures on the left hand side are increased in number but, as before, denote at once scalped or prisoner and male and female statuses. Whatever Bray and the drafter were doing, the confused result is that the Indians now denote a woman by drawing a dangly line between her legs.

Bray’s account is more than half forgery. Assuming the best intentions: Bray’s probing questions elicit reflection on the drawing that first hits gold – Fort Pitt is recognized – and then someone goes crazy in making the horizontal story shit up.

Bray’s English letter crossed the Atlantic again the next century when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft reproduced the drawing and explanation with only minor embellishment in the first volume of his Indian Tribes (1851). By the 1880s we have the curious spectacle of three learned and intelligent men, a Canon of York Cathedral, an anarchist book-dealer from Boston, and a professor in the Pennsylvania region, each independently examining Schoolcraft’s account and shaking their heads in wonder.

What each says about the picture is extraordinarily interesting. An obscure chapter in the history of science, Isaac Taylor, Francis Drake, and David Brinton were walking in an English fairy story, each had some inkling they were walking in fantasy.

Two did so in their sleep and embellished the fantasy effortlessly. Schoolcraft reproduces Bray’s account faithfully but inexplicably adds the detail that the drawing was found on the north side of the tree. Drake, who edited Schoolcraft’s six volumes on the Indian Tribes, reproduces Schoolcraft’s explanation but alters the drawing so the ‘inclined’ vertical lines that are warriors at the bottom of the picture point directly upwards, true north. Schoolcraft and Drake become co-authors of fantasy, wandering in Bray and Cresswell’s invented explanation of why Cresswell remembered the word “northward” they each add a further detail, which in each case reveals their awareness that the original explanation does not make sense.

Brinton and Taylor are radical. Both see that this explanation is largely bullshit.

Brinton’s intuition is right but he falls back on wrong reasons and rejects the drawing as well as the explanation. The drawing has been touched up, but the explanation is the forgery. Brinton’s reasoning falls foul of Schoolcraft’s confusion in dating (Chief White Eyes died in 1780, but it is the letter that was published in 1781, not the explanation of White Eyes as Schoolcraft erroneously reports).

Brinton also insists that Wingimund was the consistent friend of the Whites. Which Whites? Heckewelder is a dangerous source. When Trent’s diary was published half a century later it revealed Wingimund and White Eyes both at Fort Pitt in 1763. And Brinton surely knew that Wingimund took the British side in the Revolutionary war – the side of Nicholas Cresswell. Brinton gets wrong what is wrong and is himself not nearly right. He ends up rejecting as forgery what seems to be a copy of a copy of a genuine tree-drawing by Wingimund.

Isaac Taylor is, just cool… He reads the drawing as Tolkien might do. He is a philologist… He still gets it wrong, but what he gets right might be a genuine contribution to the reading of Nicholas Cresswell’s drawing of the drawing.

Isaac Taylor finds the drawing in Schoolcraft and includes it in his introductory discussion to his great two volume work on The Alphabet (1881).  Taylor was a great philologist, but also a committed evolutionist, and to our tastes his study is marred by a resolve to reveal the alphabetical tendency in history. What captures his attention in Schoolcraft is the account of many pictographs that have what Taylor calls ideogrammatic meaning – they communicate an abstract idea that has only arbitrary connection with the concrete picture. He quotes from Schoolcraft ideograms such as a pipe for peace and presents Wingimund’s marks as evidence of an evolutionary jump from the level of cave painting to rudimentary hieroglyphics.

Isaac Taylor’s main claim about the picture is known to be false. He says the Turtle means ‘Back again,’ a symbol for the last chapter of The Hobbit. He says the turtle, as such, is an ideogram: where all the other pictures in the drawing denote concrete things, the turtle, he says, is a concept drawn as a picture.

Taylor’s reading of the turtle is simply wrong. The Turtle is the emblem of Wingmind’s tribe among the Lenape people. Taylor’s evolutionary reading of the picture throws out the turtle with the bathwater. But the bathwater desperately needed changing, and what is so impressive about Canon Taylor, at least from the perspective we enjoy, is his willingness to throw out the entire explanation that he found in Schoolcraft, preserve the drawing, and begin over again with his own reasoning – some of which may well be a valid contribution to the lost meaning of the original drawing.

Let’s start with what Isaac Taylor accepts of Schoolcraft’s reading:

  1. Figures on the left are scalped and captured (he wisely says nothing about gender).
  2. Central pictures denote Forts Pitt, Detroit, and one on Lake Erie.
  3. Inclining strokes at bottom of picture are warriors.

Now, what Taylor invents:

  1. The turtle is an ideogram meaning ‘return’ or ‘safety.’
  2. The sun is drawn in relationship to the horizontal lines below it, which represent pathways through the sky – the gap between 6th and 6th line indicates an adventure in two stages: 6 nights and then 4.
  3. The inclination of the warriors at the bottom of the picture shows they were on the warpath.
  4. The drawing was scratched on the bark of the tree.

What Taylor passes over in silence:

  1. That the marks were made in bear’s oil and charcoal.
  2. Any sign of a northward direction.
  3. Wingemund’s own mark.

Contrast Taylor’s passing over of ‘northward’ with its daydream elaboration by Schoolcraft (‘drawing on north side of the tree’) and Drake (alters picture so inclination points true north).

Taylor’s passing over Wingemund’s mark in silence is extraordinary. At the very least, this silence compels us to ask if this pictorial proper name is an ideogram. Why does Taylor not speak of the proper name in the drawing?

Cresswell’s journal was only published in 1924. So prior to this it was not suspected how much he and Bray in England made up . Curiously, since then nobody seems to have commented on the affair. I take it this has something to do with the shadow cast by Colonel Crawford on North American memory. Heckewelder, the Moravian missionary, seared Wingimund into 19th century America with his study of friendship among the Indians through the last conversation of Wingimund and Colonel Crawford, who was burned and tortured to death in 1782. The death of Crawford became a sensation on the escape and soon published account of his companion as a captive by Wingumun’s Indians, Knight. Heckewelder, who knew Wingimund and perhaps also Crawford, lays down in no uncertain terms that Crawford was killed because of the massacre of Moravian Indians at the hands of Crawford’s companion, Williamson, and that he dies as he does because of his association with Williamson. North Americans, or at least the only book length study of the Expedition to Sandunsky (Butterfield 1873), have not come to terms with Heckwelder’s testimony. Those who saw Wingimund’s original tree drawing in Cresswell’s journal for what it was, shrugged and brushed it back under the carpet.

But there you have it, as we find the matter resolved in Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories. William Bray never really saw what Nicholas knew from the outset, that the tree-drawing was a sort of spell. Of course, Nicholas had no idea that the spell was made with this second picture, a proper name, which English philosophers soon recognized as a meaningless mark that tells a story. Wingemund’s sign is akin to the magic ring won by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, a sign of a person, who steps out from behind it to work magic.

Nicholas fell under the spell as he saw the proper name of Wingemund and could not later recall what these lines and these lines and the north had to do with the sun, which obviously came next in the sequences.

A sign of a person: the magic of the spell of the tree-drawing. A story about the sun. We can see magic at work if we read this story right, and see it remade in the pages of learned publications as the fantasy of necromancy as well. But Tolkien is right when he insists, time and again, in his 1936 lecture on Beowulf no less than On Fairy-stories, that the evidence we are dealing with here must first be read as fairy-story before reality can come into view.

* Assistant, Botten.