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General Customs and Peculiarities of North American Indians

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It were far easier to foretell the period when the extinction of the Indian races must be consummated, and to explain the causes that must sooner or later terminate their national existence, than to trace back their early history.

Even a succinct account of the various theories, with the arguments upon which they are based, as to the probable sources whence the early inhabitants of the Western hemisphere derived their origin, would furnish matter for a volume: we shall therefore do little more than allude to the different hypotheses upon the subject, leaving the reader to follow up the inquiry, if his inclination so move him, by the examination of works especially devoted to the discussion of this vexed question.

The want of a written language among the aborigines of America; the blindness of the system of hieroglyphics used by the more advanced nations of the continent; and the wild discrepancies in their fanciful oral traditions, leave us little hope of satisfactorily elucidating the mystery by any direct information obtained from the people themselves. Analogies in physical conformation, customs, architecture, language, and religion, must form our principal clew in deciding the question of their origin.

That America was first peopled by wanderers from the Old World seems to be a conclusion to which most of those who have treated on the subject have arrived. Exclusive of the supposed necessity for maintaining the truth of Scriptural history by deducing all the races of the globe from a common ancestry, abundant facilities for an intentional or casual migration have been pointed out by geographers.

The numberless isles of the Pacific offer ready resting-places for adventurous or bewildered navigators, and might have been peopled successively by wanderers from Southeastern Asia. Some of the natives of that portion of the eastern continent possess a skill in nautical affairs which would abundantly qualify them for voyages as hazardous as any to which they would be exposed in crossing the Pacific from island to island in their swift proas. The near approach of the two grand divisions of the globe at Behring’s Straits presents still greater facilities for a pas sage from one to the other, when the waters are closed by ice, during the severe northern winter, or when they lie open, affording a free passage for canoes.

That the northeastern portions of America were visited and probably peopled, at a very early date, by adventurers from the north of Europe seems to be fully established. Many wild and improbable legends indeed exist, touching these early voyages, and we can sympathize with the manner in which the old historian of Virginian colonization dismisses the subject: ” For the stories of Arthur, Malgo, and Brandon, that say a thousand years ago they were in the north of America, or the friar of Linn, that by his black art went to the north pole in the year 1360. In that I know them not. Let this suffice.”

Modern investigation has brought to light abundant evidence of visits by the Northmen to Greenland and the neighboring American coast, at the close of the tenth and in the beginning of the eleventh centuries, and it is not improbable that intercourse had subsisted between the two countries at a much earlier period. The marked difference between the Esquimaux Indians and all other tribes of the Western continent points plainly to a separate ancestry. We shall speak more at large upon this subject when we come to treat of the natives of that vast and desolate region lying between the Canadas and the frozen seas of the North.

Vague accounts of islands or continents at the West are found in the works of many early writers. The Atlantis of Plato, the Hesperides, and a host of other uncertain fables have been tortured by ingenious antiquaries into proof of more extensive geographical knowledge than is generally attributed to the ancients.

Some theorists have indefatigably followed up the idea that we are to search for the lost tribes of Israel among the red men of America, and have found or fancied resemblances, otherwise unaccountable, between Indian and Hebrew words, ceremonies, and superstitions.

Others have exhibited equal ingenuity in carrying out a comparison between the Moors of Africa and the Americans, claiming to establish a near affinity in character and complexion between the two races. They suppose the Moorish immigrants to have arrived at the West India islands, or the eastern coast of South America, and thence to have spread over the whole continent.

However variant, in some particulars, the different nations of America may appear, there are peculiarities of language which are noticeable throughout the continent, and which would seem to prove that neither of these nations has subsisted in an entirely isolated condition.

According to Humboldt, “In America, from the country of the Esquimaux to the banks of the Orinoko, and again, from these torrid banks to the frozen climate of the Straits of Magellan, mother tongues, entirely different with regard to their roots, have, if we may use the expression, the same physiognomy. Striking analogies of grammatical construction have been recognized, not only in the more perfect languages, as that of the Incas, the Aymara, the Guarani, the Mexican, and the Cora, but also in languages extremely rude. Idioms, the roots of which do not resemble each other more than the roots of the Sclavonian and Biscayan, have resemblances of internal mechanism similar to those which are found in the Sanscrit, the Persian, the Greek, and the German languages.”

Of the primary roots of the different Indian dialects, it is said that there are four more prominent than the rest, and which can be traced over nearly the whole continent. These are the Karalit or Esquimaux (Eskimo), the Iroquois, the Lenni Lenape, and that of the Cherokees, Choctaws, and other tribes of the South.

The great body of the American aborigines, not with standing the country over which they are distributed, have many features of physical conformation in common. The exceptions to this general truth, exhibited principally in the persons of the Esquimaux, and in certain white tribes at the West, deserve a separate consideration: at present, our remarks will be confined to the red men, and particularly to those of the present United States and territories.

The appellation universally bestowed upon this people is in itself a strange misnomer, and would hardly have obtained so generally, had not the error in which it originated been one which early voyagers were slow to acknowledge.

The Americans have, indeed, usurped the name of those for whom they were so long mistaken, and whom we are now reduced to distinguish by the title of East Indians.

Native American Peculiarities

The general appearance of a North American Indian can be given in few words; the resemblance between those of different tribes with the exceptions to which we have referred being full as close as between different nations of either of the great families into which the human race has been arbitrarily divided. They are about of the aver age height which man attains when his form is not cramped by premature or excessive labor; but their erect posture and slender figure give them the appearance of a tall race. Their limbs are well formed, but calculated rather for agility than strength, in which they rarely equal the more vigorous of European nations. They generally have small feet.

The most distinguishing peculiarities of the race are, the reddish or copper color of the skin, the prominence of the cheekbone, and the color and quality of the hair. This is not absolutely straight, but somewhat wavy, and has not inaptly been compared to the mane of the horse less from its coarseness than from its glossy hue and the manner in which it hangs. Their eyes are universally dark. The women are rather short, with broader faces, and a greater tendency to obesity, than the men; but many of them possess a symmetrical figure, with an agreeable and attractive countenance.

It was formerly quite a general impression that the Indians were destitute of beards. This error resulted from the almost universal custom prevalent among them of eradicating what they esteemed a deformity. Tweezers, made of wood or muscle shells, served to pluck out the hairs as soon as they appeared; and, after intercourse with the whites commenced, a coil of spiral wire was applied to the same use. It was esteemed greatly becoming among the men to carry this operation still farther, and to lay bare the whole head, with the exception of a top-knot, or ridge like the comb of a cock, in which feathers or porcupine quills were fantastically interwoven.

Of the hideous custom of flattening the head, and the means by which it was accomplished, we shall speak when describing the tribes among whom it was practiced.

No nations on the Eastern continent approach so nearly to the American Indians, in bodily conformation, as do certain tribes of Tartars. A similarity in habits of life, in dress, festivals, and games, is also observable between the two nations. This combined with the proximity of their countries, and the ease with which a passage could be affected, would seem to afford a rational presumption as to the direct origin of no small portion of the red tribes of North America. Who can undertake to decide, however, as to what admixture of races has here taken place, or how often fresh arrivals, from different portions of Eastern Asia, have given rise to new colonies, or destroyed, by amalgamation, the distinctive characteristics of the earlier people. Above all, can we account for the wonderful remains of antiquity described in another chapter, by referring them to the same races as were found inhabiting these wilds when the white man first ventured to explore them?

The difficulty of the subject is sufficiently manifest from the contradictory conclusions drawn by laborious but dogmatic antiquaries; and still more by the doubt and uncertainty in which more candid but equally diligent laborers in the same field have confessed their researches to have resulted.

There have not been wanting those who have maintained the theory that the Indians were indigenous to America. Some who have adopted this idea consider that it involves the doctrine of a separate creation, while others, that they might not discard the ordinarily received opinion that all mankind have sprung from a single pair, place the seat of paradise somewhere upon the Western continent, and consider the Eastern nations as descendants of emigrants from America.

However interesting these speculations may prove to the antiquary, they must appear simply wearisome to the reader who is not willing to give the subject a full investigation. The two hemispheres remained sundered for so long a period, that the history of their former connection by intercourse of their respective inhabitants is now reduced to little more than speculation; and we will pass to matters of which we can speak with certainty, and which appeal more closely to our sympathies, and attract our attention with more lively interest than such groping amid the dim relics of antiquity.

A knowledge of the habits and peculiarities of the Indians can be acquired in the most pleasing manner by the perusal of their history, interspersed as it is with the quaint descriptions of old chroniclers, who wrote when the events and scenes were vividly impressed upon their minds, and before modern refinements had done away with that directness of expression which marks their narratives.

Such details make, moreover, a far stronger impression upon the memory than can be effected by a series of dry generalities. We shall therefore refer the reader to the historical portion of this work for most of the information, which we shall attempt to convey.

In this, and in the ensuing pages, we may frequently speak of usages and characteristics, as belonging to a past age, which are still to be observed among the more remote Western tribes. The difficulty of always drawing the distinction in a series of such general remarks as are here submitted, must form our excuse for such seeming anachronisms.

Native American Customs

We notice in the Indian a remarkable gravity and innate dignity, which leads him to avoid, with the most scrupulous care, all involuntary or impulsive expression of his feelings. This is not confined to the occasions upon which he calls forth his powers of endurance in suffering the most cruel torments with apparent insensibility or even with exultation, but enters into all the acts of his daily life. He betrays no unseemly curiosity or impatience under circumstances that would naturally excite both in the highest degree. Has he been long absent from home on a war-path, or on a visit to cities of the whites; has he learned some great and threatening danger, or has the intelligence reached him of the death of those whom he most values; his conduct and method of communicating his adventures or his information, are governed by the same deliberation and immobility.

Returning half famished from an unsuccessful hunt, he enters his wigwam, and sits down unquestioned, showing no symptom of impatience for food. His wife prepares his refreshment, and after smoking his pipe, and satisfying his hunger, he volunteers an account of his experience. Catlin gives a striking description of the meeting between a chief named Wi-jun-jon, who had just returned from an embassy to Washington, and his family. He landed from the steamer at his home in the far West, “with a complete suit en militaire, a colonel’s uniform of blue, presented to him by the president of the United States, with a beaver hat and feather, with epaulets of gold with sash and belt, and broadsword; with high-heeled boots with a keg of whiskey under his arm, and a blue umbrella in his hand. In this plight and metamorphose, he took his position on the bank amongst his friends his wife and other relations; not one of whom exhibited, for an half hour or more, the least symptoms of recognition, although they knew well who was before them.” The conduct of the chief was of the same character, but, half an hour afterwards, ” a gradual, but cold and exceedingly formal recognition began to take place,” after which, all went on as if he had never been absent. This strange demeanor does not, by any means, result from real indifference, but from the supposed propriety of suppressing any outbreak of emotion. No doubt all the parties to the scene above described, were in a state of the greatest curiosity and excitement, and the family doubtless felt the most exuberant joy at the reunion; but custom, or their ideas of good taste, prohibited the exhibition of a ” scene.” Those who are best acquainted with the character of the Indians agree that with them the ties of family affection are exceedingly strong and enduring. The most touching descriptions are given of the manner in which they mourn for the dead, and of the tender and faithful remembrance of lost relatives that no length of time seems to obliterate. Carver says, “I can assert that, notwithstanding the apparent indifference with which an Indian meets his wife and children after a long absence, an indifference proceeding rather from custom than insensibility, he is riot unmindful of the claims either of connubial or parental tenderness.”

The same author who had witnessed the most bloody and savage scenes of Indian warfare, and who was familiar with the cruelties and unrelenting spirit of revenge peculiar to the race, candidly bears witness to their good qualities:

“No people,” he says, “can be more hospitable, kind and free. The honor of their tribe and the welfare of their nation is the first and most predominant emotion of their hearts; and fro m hence proceed in a great measure all their virtues and their vices. , No selfish views ever influence their advice or obstruct their consultations. They are at once guided by passions and appetites, which they hold in common with the fiercest beasts that inhabit their woods, and are possessed of virtues which do honor to human nature.”

The Indians are naturally taciturn, but fond of set speeches. Their oratory is of no mean order, and is distinguished for a pithiness, a quaintness, and occasionally a vein of dry sarcasm, which have never been surpassed. We have specimens of some of their orations, upon great occasions, which are models of stirring eloquence, adorned with metaphors and similes, which breathe the true spirit of poetry.

The most pleasing traits in the character of these strange people are their reverence for age, their affection for their children, their high notions of honor, and their keen sense of justice. The great stigma upon the whole race is their deliberate and systematic cruelty in the treatment of captives. It is hard to account for this, but it really appears, upon investigation, to be rather a national custom, gradually reaching a climax, than to have arisen from any innate love of inflicting pain. It is perfectly certain that, if the children of the most enlightened nation on earth should be brought up in occasional familiarity with scenes like those witnessed at the execution of a prisoner by the American savages, they would experience no horror at the sight. We need not seek farther than the history of religious and political persecutions in Europe, or the cruelties practiced on reputed witches in our own country, to satisfy us that the character of the Indians will suffer little by comparison with that of their contemporaries of our own race.

Among some of those nations which included an extensive confederacy, where a system of government had become settled by usage, and the authority of the chief had been strengthened by long submission to him and his predecessors, an arbitrary monarchy seems to have prevailed; but among the smaller tribes, the authority of the chief was rather advisory than absolute. There was generally a king who held hereditary office, and exercised the powers of a civil governor by virtue of his descent, while to lead the warriors in battle, the bravest, most redoubted, and sagacious of the tribe was elected. These two chief offices were not unfrequently united in the same person, when the lawful sachem, from a spirit of emulation, or from natural advantages, showed himself worthy of the position.

All matters of national interest were discussed at a solemn council, consisting of the principal men of the tribe, and at which great decorum and formality were observed. As the debate proceeded, the whole conclave, whenever a remark from the orator speaking excited their approbation, would give expression to their approval by a guttural ejaculation.

A natural instinct of retributive justice ordained that the crime of murder should be punished by the hand of the deceased person’s nearest relative. An interesting incident, connected with this custom, is told in a notice of the public life of the Hon. Pierre A. Rost, of Louisiana, given in the United States Law Magazine, for March, 1852. He is here said to have been the first to suggest the propriety of interference in these matters on the part of the State Courts. In a drunken fray, an Indian had been accidentally killed. ” The relatives of the deceased were absent at the time; but they soon heard of his death, and came from the Indian Territory to exact blood for blood from the homicide. He was advised to flee, but would not, and, in blind submission to the law of the red man, agreed to deliver himself on a certain day to be shot. The Court was then sitting, and Mr. Rost proposed to the presiding judge to prevent the horrid sacrifice, by giving the victim a fair trial by jury, many members of which were known and respected by the relatives of the deceased, and impressing upon the latter the necessity of abiding by the verdict, whatever it might be.” This was done, and every thing was conducted with due form and solemnity. The Indian witnesses gave the most satisfactory answers when questioned as to their ideas of the obligation of an oath, and, after a full hearing, the defendant was acquitted. The decision was translated to the complainants, and they were told that to kill the prisoner would now be murder, and would subject them to the penalties of that crime.

“Mr. Rost then rose, and stated to the Court that the prosecutors had left their hunting-ground to come and avenge the death of their relative, as it was their duty to do; that justice had been done to the accused, but that was not sufficient. Justice must also be done to the other side; they must be indemnified for the inconvenience they had been put to, and the loss they had sustained; and, as the coffers of the treasury would not unlock at the bidding of his honor, he moved that the bar, jury, and bystanders, contribute a sufficient amount to satisfy them. This was done as soon as proposed, and the prosecutors declared themselves satisfied.”

The institution of marriage among the American Indians is by no means so restrictive a system as that adopted by enlightened nations. It is for the most part dissoluble at the pleasure of the parties, and polygamy is extensively practiced. As with other barbarous nations, the woman is compelled to undergo the drudgery of daily labor, while her lord and master lounges indolently about the village, except at times when his energies are called forth for hunting or war. When once engaged in these pursuits, his fixedness of purpose, and the readiness with which he will undergo the extremes of toil, exposure, hunger, and privation, is marvelous.

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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