When I was growing up out on the farm with my grandparents, we used to play a card game called “Authors.” It’s been too many years ago for me to remember just exactly how the game was played, but for some reason the game was firmly planted in my mind. Each card featured a famous author from out of the past, such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Underneath of the author’s portrait was a list of four book titles that each one of them wrote.
Underneath of Longfellow’s picture was one poem that has stuck in my noggin – “The Song of Hiawatha.” So, imagine my excitement when I recently had to travel to nearby Hiawatha in northeast Kansas.
Hiawatha dates back to 1857 and has always been the Brown County seat. The town is at the intersection of highways 36 and 73, positioned between the Kickapoo, Ioway and Sac & Fox reservations. The main street, Oregon Street, runs east and west and was named for none other than the Oregon Trail. East and west streets north of Oregon Street were named for the Indian tribes living north of the Oregon Trail, and streets south of Oregon were named for the tribes living south of the trail.
On the historic courthouse square, the beautiful ornate “Old Town Clock” has stood beside Oregon Street since 1891. The building with the clock is known today as the Frances Sewell Plamann History Center and is the home of City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce.
Naturally, my curiosity got the best of me, wondering if the town was named on behalf of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.” So, I made inquiries and sure enough, much to my delight, it was indeed named for the native American brave in Longfellow’s poem.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a commanding figure in the cultural life of 19th century America. Born in Portland, Maine in 1807, he became a national literary figure by the 1850s and a world-famous personality by the time of his death in 1882.
He was a traveler, a linguist and a romantic who identified with the great traditions of European literature and thought. At the same time, he was deeply rooted in American life and history, which charged his imagination with untried themes and made him ambitious for success.
“The Song of Hiawatha” is an 1855 epic poem with native American characters. The epic relates the fictional adventures of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and the tragedy of his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. Events in the story are set in the
Pictured Rocks area on the south shore of Lake Superior.
Longfellow drew some of his material for The Song of Hiawatha based on oral traditions from his friendship with Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah, who would often visit at Longfellow’s home. He also had frequent encounters with Black Hawk and other Sauk people on Boston Common, and drew from the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnographer and United States Indian agent.
The name Hiawatha was derived from a historical figure associated with the League of the Iroquois, then located in New York and Pennsylvania.
By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous,
And before him, through the sunshine,
Westward toward the neighboring forest
Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo,
Passed the bees, the honey-makers,
Burning, singing in the sunshine.
Bright above shone the heavens,
Level spread the lake before him;
From its bosom leaped the sturgeon,
Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine.
Reference: 2014 Hiawatha Resident Guide, Nebraska City News, and “The Song of Hiawatha,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at email@example.com or 816-896-3592.