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Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith in Fur Trade Era costume Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith

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John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era

John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era

Now available on CD, singers/songwriters Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith relate the life of John Johnston (1762-1828), an Irishman who came to the Lake Superior frontier in the early 1790's.  Through his business as an independent fur trader and his marriage to the daughter of a powerful Ojibwa chief, John Johnston came to play a prominent role in the development of this part of the Old Northwest Territory.

We have a few samples for you to listen to below. To hear more tracks, go to CD Baby.


Easy Come, Easy Go

Raised in Belfast, Ireland, John Johnston developed the tenacity to deal with life's ebb and flow.  “Easy Come, Easy Go” is an overview of John's life and his ability to build success from life's misfortunes.

lo-fi: dial-up


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Inn Of The Wilderness

Raised to appreciate a genteel culture that valued a well-crafted home and grounds, fine food, furnishings, literature and education, John brought his values with him and created an island of civility in the wilderness of the northwest frontier.  Visitors were openly welcomed to Johnston's "Inn of the Wilderness" at the foot of the Sault rapids, no matter what their position or wealth.


Sweet Willy, My Boy

The uniqueness of these lyrics is that they were written by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, a daughter of John and Susan, about the death (at age 4) of her son, William Henry Schoolcraft, from the croup.  The quality of her poetry reflects the level of education that the Johnston children were provided.  The poem articulates the feelings of loss for a loved one that transcend time and place.


Testing The Waters

John benefited from his marriage to Susan (Ozhaaishkodewikwe) by joining an extensive tribal network that secured trade with neighboring Indian groups.  Interracial marriages were important for business and settlement, but one downside was that children of mixed blood faced considerable prejudice.  It was the European perception that they were intellectually inferior and lacking in motivation.  In this “land of the free” they faced many hurdles to success in the new economic environment which did not value native skills.  “Testing the Waters” deals with this prejudice that is lessening over the generations.


Susan's Song

In this Fur Trade Era, life in the wilderness was fraught with accidents and complications, while communication was poor and slow.  Women usually stayed at home while men went to trade, hunt, and travel.  “Susan's Song” reflects on the many times Susan was left to deal with the business and children while John was away.  Her strength was her ability to accept life as it came.



This song is a celebration of the work and skills of the voyageurs.  Although most of these young men remain anonymous, their stories continue to live on.


Sweet River of Life

Susan Johnston, an entrepreneur in her own right, successfully managed a sugar bush and fishing business.  She produced as much as 3500 pounds of maple sugar candy per year, which was then sold in Detroit.  Her successful sugar bush provided income enough to send her four youngest children to school in Montreal after John's death.  “Sweet River of Life” describes the method of making sugar before metal kettles were available.

lo-fi: dial-up


hifi: broadband


Baby's Comin' Hornpipe

All children are drummed into this world listening to the heartbeats of their mother, and they are cherished in all cultures.  During this era large families were the norm; John and Susan themselves had eight children.  The melody of this song originated in Great Britain and is a Sheffield hornpipe from the 1720s.  John may have heard such music in his early life or during a later visit to Belfast.


Canot du Maître

This song describes the 35- to 40-foot long Montreal Canoe, one of the most important contributions of the Native people to the fur trade.  The refrain is one example of hundreds of songs that voyageurs sang to pace their paddling and keep up their morale.  In fact, the ability to sing was one of the requirements for being hired as a voyageur.


Lullaby (Goodbye to John)

John spent years of distress at having lost his home and his business to American soldiers and politics in the war of 1812.  He sought recompense for his losses from the U.S. Government through letters and travel to plead his case.  Although in failing health, he made a final trip to New York in 1828.  While on the journey, he contracted typhus and, although he returned home, he died soon after in the company of his family.