General Customs and Peculiarities of North American Indians

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Religion, Weapons, Ware Fare, Lodgings, Dress of the Indians

“Yet simple nature to his hope has given,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven;
Some safer world, in depths of wood embraced,
Some happier island in the watery waste.” Pope.

The Indians, before receiving instruction from Europeans, generally believed in the existence of a Supreme Deity, embodying a principle of universal benevolence, and that to him their gratitude was due for all natural benefits.

Womans Elk Dress
Womans Elk Dress

On the other hand, they stood in fear of a spirit of evil, whose influence upon human affairs they considered as being more direct and familiar. To this being, known among many tribes as Hobamocko, much more assiduous devotion was paid than to the Great Spirit, it being far more essential in their view to deprecate the wrath of a terrible enemy, than to seek the favor of one already perfectly well disposed towards his creatures. Besides these two superior deities, a sort of fanciful mythology, not unlike that of many ancient Eastern nations, invested every notable object with its tutelary divinity, and bestowed on each individual his guardian spirit.

A general idea that the good would be rewarded, and the bad punished, was entertained. Far away to the warm South-west, a pleasant land was fabled, in which the hunter, after death, should pursue his favorite employment, in the midst of abundance, and a stranger for ever to want or fear;

“Where everlasting Autumn lies On yellow woods and sunny skies.”

Their heaven was as far removed from the sensual paradise of the Mahometans, as from the pure abstractions of an enlightened religion. Ease, comfort, and a sufficiency for the natural wants, seemed all-sufficient to these simple children of nature, to render an eternity delightful.

The description handed down to us of the Indian pow wows or conjurers, and their medicine-men, derive an additional piquancy and interest from the fact, that those who detail them were generally as superstitious as the poor natives themselves. We might cite pages in which the necromantic performances of the red men are spoken of with all the pious horror that would naturally be excited by what were considered the direct operations of the devil, as displayed in the works of his children. Winslow, taking occasion to explain the meaning of the word “Paniese,” often applied to notable warriors in New England, says, “The Panieses are men of great courage and wisdom, and to these also the devil appeareth more familiarly than to others, and, as we conceive, maketh covenant with them to preserve them from death by wounds with arrows, knives* hatchets, &c.”

The works of the learned divine, Cotton Mather, are filled with similar extravagances.

These powwows, says Gookin, “are partly wizards and witches, holding familiarity with Satan, that evil one; and partly are physicians, and make use, at least in show, of herbs and roots for curing the sick and diseased. These are sent for by the sick and wounded; and by their diabolical spells, mutterings, exorcisms, they seem to do wonders. They use extraordinary strange motions of their bodies, insomuch that they sweat until they foam; and thus they continue for some hours together, stroking and hovering over the sick. These powwows are reputed, and I conceive justly, to hold familiarity with the devil.”

Their Weapons, And System of War Fare

Wherever the Indians have enjoyed free intercourse with the whites, they have been no less eager to adopt than apt to acquire the use of their more efficacious weapons. It is of the primitive instruments for offense or defense that we shall now speak. Scattered over the whole country, even at the present day, small triangular bits of wrought flint, quartz, or other stone are turned up by the plough, or seen lying on the surface of the ground. These arrow-heads, with occasionally one of a larger size, which might have served for a lance, a stone tomahawk, a rude pestle, or the fragment of a bowl of the same material, constitute almost the only marks now visible, in the thickly settled Eastern states, of the race that formerly inhabited them. The opening of a tomb sometimes brings to light other relics, and various specimens of native art have been preserved among us from generation to generation, as curious relics of antiquity; but until we arrive at the Western tumuli, (commencing at the state of New York) we find but slight impressions upon soil at the hands of the red men, and the few and simple articles to which we have alluded, constitute the” most important productions of their skill, except those formed from a perish able material.

How the arrow and lance heads could have been attached with any degree of firmness to the wood, seems almost incomprehensible. Captain Smith describes a species of glue which assisted in accomplishing this object, but the shank or portion of the stone that entered the wood is in some of the specimens so short and ill defined, that it seems impossible that it should have been held firm in its place by such means. The arrow-heads were chipped into shape, presenting something the same surface as a gun-flint, while the tomahawks and pestles, being of a less in tractable material, were ground smooth, and some of them were highly polished. A handle was commonly affixed to the ” torn-hog ” or tomahawk by inserting it in a split sapling, and waiting for the wood to grow firmly around it; after which, it was cut off at the requisite length.

The Indian bow was shorter than that formerly used in England, and was so stiff as to require great strength or skill to bend it. It became a much more effective weapon after the introduction of steel or iron arrowheads, which quickly superseded those of stone. Clubs, sometimes armed with flints, with the bow and tomahawk, constitute the principal weapon of the race. Daggers of flint or bone, and shields of buffalo hide, were in use among some of the Western tribes.

Divided into innumerable petty nations, nearly the whole Indian population lived in a state of insecurity, from the constant hostility, which prevailed between different tribes. So strong a clannish spirit as they all exhibited has seldom been noticed in any country, and the bitterest hatred was inherited by every individual towards the members of an unfriendly tribe. War, as in most nations, whether barbarous or enlightened, was ever esteemed the most honor able employment. The manner in which hostilities were conducted will appear by a detail of some of the more noted Indian wars, as given in the ensuing chapters of this work. The whole was a system of stratagem and surprise; a pitched battle in an open field was almost unknown, and greater honor was ascribed to the chief who, by a night attack, destroyed his enemies at a disadvantage, and brought away their scalps in triumph, without loss to his own people, than to deeds involving the greatest personal exposure. The remorseless cruelty with which women and children were destroyed in the heat of conflict, has furnished a theme for many a tale of horror.

Previous to a declaration of war against another tribe, the chief men and councilors of the nation were in the habit of holding solemn consultations, accompanied by numerous fantastic ceremonies. When fully resolved upon hostilities, the first step was to secure the assistance of as many of the neighboring tribes as possible, for which purpose ambassadors were sent, to set forth the advantages of the union, and to cement a treaty by exchange of wampum. When all was ready, a hatchet or other weapon, painted red, was sent as intimation to the enemy of what was in store. We are told that the reception of this ominous token frequently excited such rage in the minds of those to whom it was sent, ” that in the first transports of their fury, a small party of them would issue forth, with out waiting for permission from the elder chiefs, and, slaying the first of the offending nation they met, cut open the body, and stick a hatchet, of the same kind as that they had just received, into the heart of their slaughtered foe.”

When, weary with the war, either party desired to terminate hostilities, the message was sent under the protective influence of the calumet, or pipe of peace, which, like a flag of truce among other nations, every where secured the person of those who bore it. This pipe, so widely celebrated, and of such universal use, was most elaborately carved and bedecked. Each nation had its own peculiar style of ornament for this all-important symbol, which was known to all the neighboring tribes. A solemn and ceremonious smoking of the calumet formed the token of ratification to every treaty. When used at the conclusion of a peace, the painted hatchet was buried in the ground, and belts of wampum, so figured and arranged as to commemorate the essential articles of the pacific agreement, were presented, to be kept as a perpetual memorial.

The treatment of captives exhibited the opposite extremes of cruelty and kindness. Greatly to the credit of the race, it was observed that, in most instances, white women who fell into their hands met with no outrage or indignity. They were generally kindly treated, and every respect was paid to their feelings. The men taken prisoners of war, were either adopted to supply the place of those who had fallen in battle, in which case they were to undertake all the responsibilities, and were entitled to all the privileges of the one in whose place they stood, or they were solemnly devoted to death, by the most refined and cruel torments that diabolical ingenuity could devise.

On such occasions, all his native powers of stoical endurance were called forth on the part of the doomed warrior. When told what was the fate before him, he would briefly express his satisfaction; and when led to the stake, and subjected to every torture, by fire and mutilation, he would maintain a proud composure, recounting his exploits, and the injuries which he had inflicted upon his tormentors in former battles, taunting them with their unskilfulness in the art, and describing the superior manner in which he and his friends had tortured their relatives. Not infrequently the rage of the surrounding company would be so excited by these expressions of contempt, and by their in ability to break the warrior s spirit, that some of them would rush upon him, and dispatch him at once by a blow of the tomahawk.

Homes of the Indians

Ojibway wigwam. Leech Lake, Minnesota, 1896.
Plate 6b – Ojibway wigwam. Leech Lake, Minnesota, 1896.

The habitations and clothing of the Indians varied greatly with the temperature of the climate. In the warm regions of the South, a slight covering proved sufficient, while to resist the severity of a New England winter very efficient precautions were taken. The usual manner of building their wigwams was by fixing a row of poles firmly in the ground, in the form of a circle, and then bending and confining the tops together in the centre. A hole was left for the smoke of the fire to escape, at the top of the cabin; every other part being warmly and closely covered with matting. A tight screen hung over the doorway, which was raised when any one entered, and then allowed to fall into its place.

A species of matting was prepared by peeling the bark from trees, and subjecting it, packed in layers, to a heavy pressure. With this material, or with mats woven from rushes, &c., the walls of the huts were so closely thatched, as to effectually resist wind and weather.

Some of these wigwams were of great size, being from fifty to a hundred feet in length, but the generality were of dimensions suitable to a single family. Their bedding consisted of mattresses disposed in bunks attached to the walls, or upon low movable couches. Bear and deerskins furnished additional covering. Their other furniture and household utensils were simple in the extreme. Clay or earthen pots, wooden platters, bowls and spoons, and pails ingeniously fashioned of birch bark, served their purpose for cookery and the table. They were skilled in basket making.

In many of their towns and villages, the wigwams were set in orderly rows, with an open space or court near the centre; while the whole was surrounded by a strong palisade, having but one or two narrow entrances. For spirited descriptions and sketches of the modern Indian towns of the extreme “West, the reader is referred to the valuable works of Mr. George Catlin. In many respects it will be perceived that old customs are still observed.

Dress of the Indians

Womans Elk Dress
Womans Elk Dress

The clothing of the Indians consisted mostly of skins, dressed with no little skill. Leggins of deer skins, with a hand s breath of the material hanging loose at the side seam, and often highly ornamented with fringe and embroidery; moccasins of buck, elk, or buffalo skin; and a garment of various fashion, from a simple cincture about the loins, to a warm and ornamental mantle or coat, completed the equipment of the men.

Very rarely, even in our own times, do we find Indians who are willing to submit to the restraining and inconvenient dress of the whites. They have always been accustomed to leave the thigh bare, and about the neck they can endure none of the clumsy and disagreeable bandages in such universal use among civilized nations. “Those who wear shirts,” says Carver, ” never make them fast, either at the wrist or collar; this would be a most insufferable confinement to them.”

The women wore a short frock, reaching to the knees; their covering for the legs and feet were similar to that worn by the men. In some portions of the country, very beautiful specimens of ornamental mantles, covered with neatly arranged feathers, were seen and described by early writers. Colored porcupine quills were in general use, both for stitching and ornamenting the clothing and other equipments of the Indian.

A fondness for gay colors and gaudy ornaments has ever been conspicuous in the whole race. From pocone and other roots, a brilliant red paint or dye was prepared, with which, and with other pigments as charcoal, earths, and extracts from the barks of certain trees they painted their bodies, in different styles, either to make a terrible impression on their enemies, or simply to bedeck them selves in a becoming manner in the eyes of their friends. The usual savage custom of wearing pendants at the ears was common. The cartilage was frequently stretched and enlarged by weights, and by winding it with brass wire, until it nearly reached the shoulder. Tattooing was practiced by some nations, but not so systematically, or to so great an extent as has been observed among the savages of warmer climates, where little clothing is worn.

Ornaments of the Indians

One of the most noted species of ornament, which answered all the purpose of a circulating medium among the Eastern Indians, was wampum. This consisted of small circular bits of seashell, smoothly ground and polished, with a hole drilled through the centre of each, by which it might be strung, or attached ornamentally to the belt or other parts of the dress. The ” qua-hog ” or round clam furnished the principal material for this coin, the variegated purple portions of the shell being much the most valuable. The great labor in preparing it was the boring, which was effected by a sharp flint. “When we consider the slow nature of such a process, we can scarce credit the accounts given of the immense quantities of wampum that were procured by the white colonists, while it retained its value, in exchange for European commodities, or which were exacted as tribute, in atonement for national offences.

“The wompompeague,” says Gookin, ” is made principally by the Block Islanders and Long Island Indians. Upon the sandy flats and shores of those coasts the wilk shells are found. With this wompompeague they pay tribute, redeem captives, satisfy for murders and other wrongs, purchase peace with their potent neighbors, as occasion requires; in a word, it answers all occasions with them, as gold and silver doth with us. They delight much in having and using knives, combs, scissors, hatchets, hoes, guns, needles, awls, looking-glasses, and such like necessaries which they purchase of the English and Dutch with their peague, and then sell them their peltry for their wompeague.”

The principal articles of food used by the aborigines of the present United States, were the products of the chase, fish, beans, some species of squashes and pumpkins, and maize or Indian corn. Wild rice, growing in rich, wet land in the interior of the country, furnished a wholesome and easily gathered supply of farinaceous food to the tribes of the temperate portion of the United States. Shellfish were a very important addition to the resources of those who dwelt near the seacoast, and in the interior, various species of wild roots, and certain nutritious bark supplied the failure of the cultivated crop, and furnished the means to eke out a subsistence when the hunt was unsuccessful or the last year s stores had been consumed before the sea son of harvest.

To effect a clearing, and to secure a crop with such rude implements of stone as they possessed, appears to us almost an impracticable undertaking; but we are assured, by early writers, that they obtained as large a yield from a given spot of ground as can be produced by the assistance of all modern conveniences and contrivances. Two dishes, greatly in vogue among the Indians, have maintained their popularity among their European successors. Green corn, the ripening of which was celebrated by a national dance, is sought as eagerly as when it supplied a grateful refreshment to the red men, emaciated, as Smith describes them, by the spring diet of fish and roots. A preparation, de nominated “Succotash,” consisting of maize, boiled with beans, and flavored with fat bear’s meat, or fish, still remains (with the substitution of pork for wild meats) a favorite dish in New England. Carver says that, as prepared by the natives, it was “beyond comparison delicious.”

It is singular that the use of milk should have been entirely unknown before the advent of the whites, although there were various animals in the country from which it might have been procured. This fact has been adduced as a strong argument against the hypothesis that immigrants from the nomadic tribes of Tartary have mingled with the red race in comparatively modern times. If the ferocity or wildness of the buffalo, deer, or elk, had at first seemed to render their domestication impracticable, yet it is not probable that so important an article of subsistence would have been not only disused, but entirely forgotten, until many generations had passed away.

With the foregoing brief sketch of some of the more marked Indian traits and peculiarities, we will dismiss this portion of our subject; and, dealing no more in generalities, proceed to take up the history of various tribes and nations, somewhat in the order of the dates of their first intercourse with Europeans. We need make no apology for the omission of many minor clans, or for avoiding that particularity, in the delineation of private character, which belongs rather to biography than to general history.


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MLA Source Citation:

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 20 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/general-customs-and-peculiarities-of-north-american-indians.htm - Last updated on Feb 18th, 2013


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