Great War Dance

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Metea
Metea
A Pottawatomie Chief
Signifies Kiss me in the Pottawatimie language

I shall close this paper with an account of the great war dance which was performed by all the braves which could be mustered among the five thousand Indians here assembled. The number’ who joined in the dance was probably about eight hundred. Although I cannot give the precise day, it must have occurred about the last of August 1835. It was the last war dance ever performed by the natives on the ground where now stands this great city, though how many thousands had preceded it no one can tell. They appreciated that it was the last on their native soil that it was a sort of funeral ceremony of old associations and memories, and nothing was omitted to lend to it all the grandeur and solemnity possible. Truly I thought it an impressive scene of which it is quite impossible to give an adequate idea by words alone.

They assembled at the council-house, near where the Lake House now stands, on the north side of the river. All were entirely naked, except a strip of cloth around the loins. Their bodies were covered all over with a great variety of brilliant paints. On their faces, particularly, they seemed to have exhausted their art of hideous decoration. Foreheads, cheeks, and noses were covered with curved stripes of red or vermilion, which were edged with black points, and gave the appearance of a horrid grin over the entire countenance. The long, coarse, black hair was gathered into scalp locks on the tops of their heads, and decorated with a profusion of hawk’s and eagle’s feathers, some strung together so as to extend down the back nearly to the ground. They were principally armed with tomahawks and war clubs. They were led by what answered for a band of music, which created what may be termed a discordant din of hideous noises produced by beating on hollow vessels and striking sticks and clubs together. They advanced, not with a regular march, but a continued dance. Their actual progress was quite slow. They proceeded up and along the bank of the river, on the north side, stopping in front of every house they passed, where they performed some extra exploits. They crossed the North Branch on the old bridge, which stood near where the railroad bridge now stands, and thence proceeded south along the west side to the bridge across the South Branch, which stood south of where Lake street bridge is now located, which was nearly in front and in full view from the parlor windows of the Sauganash Hotel. At that time, this was the rival hotel to the Tremont, and stood upon the same ground lately occupied by the great Republican wigwam where Mr. Lincoln was nominated for the presidency, 80 feet south of the S.E. corner of Lake and Market streets. It was then a fashionable boarding house, and quite a number of young married people had rooms there. The parlor was in the second story fronting west, from the windows of which the best view of the dance was to be obtained, and these were filled with ladies so soon as the dance commenced. From this point of view my own observations were principally made. Although the din and clatter had been heard for a considerable time, they did not come into view from this point of observation till they had proceeded so far west as to come on a line with the house, which was before they had reached the North Branch bridge. From that time on, they were in full view all the way to the South Branch bridge, which was nearly before us, the wild band, which was in front as they came upon the bridge, redoubling their blows to increase the noise, closely followed by the warriors, who had now wrought themselves into a perfect frenzy.

The morning was very warm, and the perspiration was pouring from them almost in streams. Their eyes were wild and bloodshot. Their countenances had assumed an expression of all the worst passions which can find a place in the breast of a savage-fierce anger, terrible hate, dire revenge, remorseless cruelty-all were expressed in their terrible features. Their muscles stood out in great hard knots, as if wrought to a tension, which must burst them. Their tomahawks and clubs were thrown and brandished about in every direction, with the most terrible ferocity, and with a force and energy which could only result from the highest excitement, and with every step and every gesture, they uttered the most frightful yells, in every imaginable key and note, though generally the highest and shrillest possible. The dance, which was ever continued, consisted of leaps and spasmodic steps, now forward and now back or sideways, with the whole body distorted into every imaginable unnatural position, most generally stooping forward, with the head and face thrown up, the back arched down, first one foot thrown far forward and then withdrawn, and the other similarly thrust out, frequently squatting quite to the ground, and all with a movement almost as quick as lightning. Their weapons were brandished as if they would slay a thousand enemies at every blow, while the yells and screams they uttered were broken up and multiplied and rendered all the more hideous by a rapid clapping of the mouth with the palm of the hand.

To see such an exhibition by a single individual would have been sufficient to excite a sense of fear in a person not over nervous. Eight hundred such, all under the influence of the strongest and wildest excitement, constituting a raging sea of dusky, painted, naked fiends, presented a spectacle absolutely appalling.

When the head of the column had reached the front of the hotel, leaping, dancing, gesticulating, and screaming, while they looked up at the windows with hell itself depicted on their faces, at the “chemokoman squaws” with which they were filled, and brandishing their weapons as if they were about to make a real attack in deadly earnest, the rear was still on the other side of the river, two hundred yards off; and all the intervening space, including the bridge and its approaches, was covered with this raging savagery glistening in the sun, reeking with steamy sweat, fairly frothing at the mouths as with unaffected rage, it seemed as if we had a picture of hell itself before us, and a carnival of the damned spirits their confined, whose pastimes we may suppose should present some such scenes as this.

At this stage of the spectacle, I was interested to observe the effect it had upon the different ladies who occupied the windows almost within reach of the war clubs in the hands of the excited savages just below them. Most of them had become accustomed to the sight of the naked savages during the several weeks they had occupied the town, and had even seen them in the dance before, for several minor dances had been previously performed, but this far excelled in the horrid anything ‘which they had previously witnessed. Others, however, had but just arrived in town, and had never seen an Indian before the last few days, and knew nothing of our wild western Indians but what they had learned of their savage butcheries and tortures in legends and in histories. To those most familiar with them, the scenes seemed actually appalling, and but few stood it through and met the fierce glare of the savage eyes below them without shrinking. It was a place to try the human nerves of even the stoutest, and all felt that one such sight was enough for a lifetime. The question forced itself on even those who had seen them most, what if they should, in their maddened frenzy, turn this sham warfare into a real attack? How easy it would be for them to massacre us all, and leave not a living soul to tell the story. Some such remark as this was often heard, and it was not strange if the cheeks of all paled at the thought of such a possibility. However, most of them stood it bravely, and saw the sight to the very end; but I think all felt relieved when the last had disappeared around the corner as they passed down. Lake Street, and only those horrid sounds which reached them told that the war dance was still progressing. They paused in their progress, for extra exploits, in front of Dr. John T. Temple’s house, near the north-east corner of Lake and Franklin streets, then in front of the Exchange Coffee House, a little further east on Lake street; and then again in front of the Tremont, then situated on the north-west corner of Lake and Dearborn streets, where the appearance of the ladies in the, windows again inspired them with new life and energy. From thence they passed down to Fort Dearborn, where they concluded their performance in the presence of the officers and soldiers of the garrison, where we will take a final leave of my old friends, with more good wishes for their future welfare than I really dare hope will be realized human nerves of even the stoutest, and all felt that one such sight was enough for a lifetime. The question forced itself on even those who had seen them most, what if they should, in their maddened frenzy, turn this sham warfare into a real attack? how easy it would be for them to massacre us all, and leave not a living soul to tell the story. Some such remark as this was often heard, and it was not strange if the cheeks of all paled at the thought of such a possibility. However, most of them stood it bravely, and saw the sight to the very end; but I think all felt relieved when the last had disappeared around the corner as they passed down. Lake street, and only those horrid sounds which reached them told that the war dance was still progressing. They paused in their progress, for extra exploits, in front of Dr. John T. Temple’s house, near the north-east corner of Lake and Franklin streets, then in front of the Exchange Coffee House, a little further east on Lake street; and then again in front of the Tremont, then situated on the north-west corner of Lake and Dearborn streets, where the appearance of the ladies in the, windows again inspired them with new life and energy. From thence they passed down to Fort Dearborn, where they concluded their performance in the presence of the officers and soldiers of the garrison, where we will take a final leave of my old friends, with more good wishes for their future welfare than I really dare hope will be realized.



MLA Source Citation:

Caton, John Dean. The last of the Illinois, and a sketch of the Pottawatomies published Chicago. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/great-war-dance.htm - Last updated on Feb 23rd, 2013


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