Discover your family's story.

Enter a grandparent's name to get started.

Start Now

Indian Pictographs

Discover your
family's story.

Enter a grandparent's name to get started.

choose a state:
Start Now
Atotarho, the First Iroquois Ruler - Plate 70

Atotarho, the First Iroquois Ruler – An example of an Indian Pictograph

Indian pictographs – scrolls and devices, rudely cut or painted on wood, rocks, or the scarified trunks of trees, and even songs recorded by this method – are well known traits of our Native American tribes. Nothing, indeed, is more common. It was thought due to the character of the tribes to examine the subject, with a view to determine the system of symbols, if system it may be called; and to discover the rules by which the symbols are to be interpreted.

Perhaps the art merits the term of picture writing or Petrogylphs if found on stone. It offers, at least, a new point of comparison and resemblance between our wild hunter tribes and other ancient nations, and particularly the more advanced communities of Mexico and Peru. If we mistake not, the system is radically the same. Both are largely mnemonic, and it is essential to their explanation that the interpreter be acquainted, not only with the characteristic points and customs of their history, but with their peculiar mythology, idolatry, and mode of worship. It is certainly the only method these tribes possess of communicating ideas. But whatever rank may be assigned the system, the topic is curious and important in considering the mental capacities of the race; and it could not well be omitted in any enlarged view of them.

Indian Pictographs Symbols

Preliminary Considerations of Indian Pictographs Symbols

Pictorial and symbolical Representations constitute one of the earliest observed traits in the Customs and Arts of the American Indians. This Art found to assume a systematic Form, among the rude Hunter Tribes of North America, in the year 1820, when it was noticed on the Source of the Mississippi. This Instance given, with a Drawing. The Hint pursued.

The practice of the North American tribes, of drawing figures and pictures on skins, trees, and various other substances, has been noticed by travelers and writers from the earliest times. Among the more northerly tribes, these figures are often observed on that common substitute for the ancient papyrus among these nations, the bark of the betula papyracea, or white birch: a substance possessing a smooth surface, easily impressed, very flexible, and capable of being preserved in rolls. Often these devices are cut, or drawn in colors, on the trunks of trees, more rarely on rocks or boulders, when they are called muzzinabiks. According to Golden and Lafitou, records of this rude character were formerly to be seen, on the blazed surface of trees, along the ancient paths and portages leading from the sources of the rivers of New York and Pennsylvania which flow into the Atlantic, and in the Valley of the St. Lawrence. Pictorial drawings, and symbols of this kind, are now to be found only on the unreclaimed borders of the great area west of the Alleghanies and the Lakes; in the wide prairies of the West; or along the Missouri and the Upper Mississippi. It is known that such devices were in use, to some extent, at the era of the discovery, among most of the tribes situated between the latitudes of the capes of Florida and Hudson s Bay, although they have been considered as more particularly characteristic of the tribes of the Algonquin type. In a few instances, these simple pictorial inscriptions have been found to partake of a monumental cast, by being painted or stained on the faces of rocks, or on large loose stones on the banks of streams; and still more rarely, devices were scratched or pecked into the surface, as is found on Cunningham s Island, in Lake Erie, and in the Valley of the Alleghany, at Venango. Those who are intent on observations of this kind will find figures and rude inscriptions, at the present time, on the grave-posts which mark the places of Indian sepulture at the West and North. The tribes who rove over the western prairies, inscribe them on the skins of the buffalo. North of latitude 42, the southern limit of the birch, which furnishes at once the material of canoes, wigwams, boxes, and other articles, and constitutes, in fact, the Indian paper, tablets of hard-wood are confined to devices which are hieratic, and are employed alone by their priests, prophets, and medicine-men; and these characters uniformly assume a mystical or sacred import. The recent discovery, on one of the tributaries of the Susquehanna, of an Indian map drawn on stone, with intermixed devices, a copy of which appears in the first volume of the collections of the Historical Committee of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, proves, although it is thus far isolated, that stone was also employed in that branch of inscription. This discovery was in the area occupied by the Lenapees, who are known to have practised the art, which they called Ola Walum.

Colden, in his history of the Five Nations,1 informs us that when, in 1696, the Count de Frontenac marched a well-appointed army into the Iroquois country, with artillery and all other means of regular military offense, he found, on the banks of the Onondaga, now called Oswego River, a tree, on the trunk of which the Indians had depicted the French army, and deposited two bundles of cut rushes at its foot, consisting of 1434 pieces; an act of symbolical defiance on their part, which was intended to inform their Gallic invaders that they would have to encounter this number of warriors. In speaking, in another passage, of the general traits of the Five Nations, he mentions the general custom prevalent among the Mohawks going to war, of painting with red paint on the trunk of a tree, such symbols as might serve to denote the object of their expedition. Among the devices was a canoe pointed towards the enemy’s country. On their return, it was their practice to visit the same tree, or precinct, and denote the result pictographically; the canoe being, in this case, drawn with its bows in the opposite or home direction. Lafitou, in his account of the nations of Canada, makes observations on this subject which denote the general prevalence of the custom in that quarter. Other writers, dating as far back as Smith and De Bry, bear testimony to the existence of this trait among the Virginia tribes. Few have, however, done more than notice it, and none are known to have furnished any amount of connected details.

A single element in the system attracted early notice. I allude to the institution of the Totem, which has been well known among the Algonquin tribes from the settlement of Canada. By this device, the early missionaries observed that the natives marked their division of a tribe into clans, and of a clan into families, and the distinction was thus very clearly preserved. Affinities were denoted and kept up; long after tradition had failed in its testimony. This distinction, which is marked with much of the certainty of heraldic bearings as known in the feudal system, was seen to mark the arms, the lodge, and the trophies of the North American chief and warrior. It was likewise employed to give identity to the clan of which he was a member, on his ad-je-dá-tig, or grave-post. This record went but little farther in communicating information; a few strokes or geometric devices were drawn on these simple monuments, to denote the number of men he had slain in battle.

It has not been suspected, in any notices to which I have had access, that there was what may be called a pictorial alphabet, or a series of homophonous figures, in which, by the juxtaposition of symbols representing acts, as well as objects of action, and by the introduction of simple adjunct signs, a series of disjunctive, yet generally connected ideas, were denoted; or that the most prominent incidents of life and death could be recorded so as to be transmitted from one generation to another, as long, at least, as the monument and the people endured. Above all, it was not anticipated that there should have been found, as will be observed in the subsequent details, a system of symbolic notation for the songs and incantations of the Indian medas and priests, making an appeal to the memory for the preservation of language and musical notes.

Persons familiar with the state of the western tribes of this continent, particularly in the higher northern latitudes, have long been aware that the songs of the Indian priesthood and wabenoes, were sung from a kind of pictorial notation, made on bark.

It is a fact which has often come to the observation of military officers performing duties on those frontiers, and of persons exercising occasional functions in civil life, who have passed through their territories. But there is no class of persons to whom the fact of such notations is so well known, as the class of Indian traders and interpreters who visit or reside a part of the season at the Indian villages. I have never conversed with any of this latter class of persons, to whom the fact of such inscriptions, made in various ways, was not so familiar as in their view to excite no surprise, or seldom to demand remark.

My attention was first called to the subject in 1820. In the summer of that year I was a member of the United States exploring expedition to the sources of the Mississippi. At the mouth of the small river Huron, on the banks of the Lake Superior, there was an Indian grave fenced around with saplings, and protected with much care. At its head stood a post, a tabular stick, upon which was drawn the figure of the animal which was the symbol of the clan to which the deceased chief belonged. Strokes of red paint were added, to denote either the number of war parties in which he had been engaged, or the number of scalps he had actually taken from the enemy. The interpreter who accompanied us, and who was himself of part Indian blood, gave the latter, as the true import of these marks.

On quitting the river St. Louis, which flows into the head of the lake at the Fond du Lac, to cross the summit dividing its waters from those of the Mississippi, the way led through dense and tangled woods and swamps, and the weather proved dark and rainy, so that, for a couple of days together, we had scarcely a glimpse of the sun.

Elements of Picture Writing - Plate 47

Elements of Picture Writing – Plate 47

The party consisted of sixteen persons, with two Indian guides; but the latter, with all their adroitness in threading the mazes of the wilderness, were completely lost for nearly an entire day. At night, during the bewilderment, we lay down on ground elevated but a few inches above the level of a swamp. The next morning, as we prepared to leave the camp, a small strip of birch bark, containing devices, was observed elevated on the top of a split sapling, some eight or ten feet high. One end of this pole was thrust firmly into the ground, leaning in the direction we were to go. On going up to this object, it was found, with the aid of the interpreter, to be a symbolic record of the circumstances of our crossing this summit, and of the night s encampment at this spot. Each person was appropriately depicted, distinguishing the soldiers from the officer in command, and the latter from the savans of the party. The Indians themselves were depicted without hats; a hat being, as we noticed, the general symbol for a white man or European. The entire record, of which a figure is annexed, (Plate 47, fig. D) accurately symbolized the circumstances; and they were so clearly drawn, according to their conventional rules, that the intelligence would be communicated thereby to any of their people who might chance to wander this way. This was the object of the inscription. The scroll was interpreted thus:

Fig. No. 1 represents the subaltern officer in command of the party of the United States troops. He is drawn with a sword to denote his official rank. No. 2 denotes the person who officiated in quality of secretary. He is represented as holding a book; the Indians having understood him to be an attorney. No. 3 denotes the geologist and mineralogist of the party. He is drawn with a hammer. Nos. 4 and 5 are attaches; No. 6, the interpreter.

The group of figures marked 9, represents eight infantry soldiers, each of whom, as shown in group No. 10, was armed with a musket. No. 15 denotes that they had a separate fire, and constituted a separate mess. Figs. 7 and 8 represent the two Chippewa guides, the principal of whom, called Chamees, or the Pouncing-hawk, led the way over this dreary summit. These are the only human figures depicted on this unique bark-letter, who are drawn without the distinguishing symbol of a hat. This was the characteristic seized on by them, and generally employed by the tribes, to distinguish the Red from the White race. Figs. 11 and 12 represent a prairie hen, and a green tortoise, which constituted the sum of the preceding day s chase, which were eaten at the encampment. The inclination of the pole was designed to show the course pursued from that particular spot: there were three hacks in it below the scroll of bark, to indicate the estimated length of this part of the journey, computing from water to water; that is to say, from the head of the portage Aux Couteaux, on the St. Louis river, to the open shores of Sandy Lake, the Ka-ma-ton-go-gom-ag, or Comtaguma of the Odjibwas.

The story was thus briefly and simply told; and this memorial was set up by the guides to advertise any of their countrymen, who might chance to wander in that direction, of the adventure for it was evident, both from the course taken, and the dubiousness which had marked the prior day s wanderings, that they regarded our transit over this broad savannah in this light.

Before we had penetrated quite to this summit, we came to another evidence of their skill in this species of knowledge, consisting of one of those contrivances which they denominate Man-i-to-wa-tig, or sacred structures. On reaching this spot, our guides shouted, whether from superstitious impulse, or the joy of having found the spot, we could not tell: we judged the latter. It consisted of eight poles, of equal length, shaved smooth and round, painted with yellow ochre, and set so as to enclose a square area. It appeared to have been one of those rude temples, or places of incantation or worship, known to the medas or priests, where certain rites and ceremonies are per formed. But it was not an ordinary medicine lodge. There had been far more care in its construction.

On reaching the village of Sandy Lake, on the upper Mississippi, the figures of animals, birds, and other devices, were found on the rude coffins or wrappings of their dead, which were scaffolded around the precincts of the fort, and upon the open shores of the lake. Similar devices were also observed here, as at other points in this region, upon their arms, war-clubs, canoes, and other pieces of movable property, as well as upon their grave-posts.

Elements of Picture Writing - Plate 48

Elements of Picture Writing – Plate 48

In the descent of the Mississippi, we observed pictorial devices painted on a rock, below and near the mouth of Elk River, and at a rocky island in the river, at the Little Falls. In the course of our descent to the Falls of St. Anthony, we observed another bark-letter, (A, Plate 48) as the party now began to call these inscriptions, suspended on a high pole, on an elevated bank of the river, on its west shore. At this spot, where we encamped for the night, and which is just opposite a point of highly crystallized hornblende rock, which, from this rude memorial, we called the Peace Rock, there were left standing the poles or skeletons of a great number of Sioux lodges. On inspecting this scroll of bark, we found it had reference to negotiations for bringing about a permanent peace between the Sioux and Chippewas. A large party of the former, from St. Peters, headed by their chief, had proceeded thus far, in the hope of meeting the Chippewa hunters, on their summer hunt. They had been countenanced or directed in this step by Colonel Leavenworth, the commanding officer of the new post, just then about to be erected. The inscription, which was read off at once by the Chippewa chief Babesacundabee, who was with us, told all this; it gave the name of the chief who had led the party, and the number of his followers, and imparted to that chief the first assurance he had that his mission, for the same purpose, from the sources of the Mississippi, would be favorably received by the Sioux. This scroll, denoting the same art to be possessed by the Dacota family of tribes, is described in Plate 48.

After our arrival at St. Anthony s Falls, it was found that this system of picture writing was as familiar to the Dacotah, as we had found it among the Algonquin race. At Prairie du Chien, and at Green Bay, the same evidences were observed, in their memorials of burial, among the Menomonies and the Winnebagoes; at Chicago among the Pottawatomies, and at Michillimackinac, among the Chippewas and Ottawas who resort, in such numbers, to that Island. While at the latter place, I went to visit the grave of a noted chief of the Menomonie tribe, who had been known by his French name of TOMA, i. e., Thomas. He had been buried on the hill west of the village; and on looking at his Ad-je-da-tig or grave-post, it bore a pictorial inscription of this kind, commemorating some of the prominent achievements of his life.

These hints served to direct my attention to the subject, when I returned to the country in an official capacity, in 1822. It was observed that the figures of a deer, a bear, a turtle, and a crane, according to this system, stand respectively for the names of men, and preserve the language very well, by yielding to the person conversant with it the corresponding words, of Addick, Muckwa, Mickenack, and Adjeejauk. Marks, circles, dots, and drawings of various kinds, were employed to symbolize the number of warlike deeds. Adjunct devices appeared to typify or explain adjunct acts. The character itself, they called KEKEEWIN. If the system went no farther, the record would yield a kind of information both gratifying and useful to a people without letters. There was abundant evidence in my first year s observation, to denote that this mode of communication was in vogue generally and well understood by the northern tribes, for burial, and what may be called geographical purposes; but it hardly seemed susceptible of a farther or extended use. A personal acquaintance with one of their Medas named SHINGWAUKONCE, a man of much intelligence, and well versed in their customs, religion, and history, denoted a more enlarged application of it. I observed in the hands of this man a tabular piece of wood, covered over on both sides with a series of devices cut between parallel lines, which he referred to, as if they were the notes of his medicine and mystical songs. I heard him sing these songs, and observed that their succession was, to a great extent, fixed and uniform. By cultivating his acquaintance, and by suitable attentions and presents, such as the occasion rendered proper, he consented to explain the meaning of each figure, the object symbolized, and the words attached to each symbol. By this revelation, which was made with closed doors, I became, according to his notions, a member or initiate of the Medicine Society, and also of the Wabeno Society. Care was taken to write each sentence of the songs and chants in the Indian language, with its appropriate devices, and to subjoin a literal translation in English. When this had been done, and the system considered, it was very clear that the devices were mnemonic that any person could sing from these devices, very accurately, what he had previously committed to memory, and that the system revealed a curious scheme of symbolic notation.

All the figures thus employed as the initiatory points of study, related, exclusively, to either the medicine dance, or the wabeno dance; and each section of figures related, exclusively, to one or the other. There was some intermixture or commingling of characters, as the class of subjects was sometimes common to each. It was perceived, subsequently, that the pictographic signs permitted a classification of symbols, applied to the war-songs, to hunting, and to other specific topics. The entire inscriptive system, reaching from its first rudimental characters in the ad-je-da-tig, or grave-board, to the extended scroll of bark, covered with the secret arts of their magicians, jossa-keeds, and prophets, derived a new interest from this feature. Much comparative precision was imparted to interpretations in the hands of the initiated, which before, or to others, had very little. An interest was thus cast over it distinct from its novelty; and, in truth, the entire pictorial system was invested with a character of investigation, which promised both interest and instruction.

It has been thought that a simple statement of these circumstances would best answer the end in view, and might well occupy the place of a more formal or profound introduction. In bringing forward the elements of the system, after much reflection, it is thought, however, that a few remarks on the general character of this art may not be out of place: for, simple as it is, we perceive in it the native succedaneum for letters. It is not only the sole graphic mode they have for communicating ideas, but it is the mode of communicating all classes of ideas commonly entertained by them. So considered, it reveals a new and unsuspected mode of obtaining light on their opinions of a deity, of the structure or cosmogony of the globe, of astronomy, of the various classes of natural objects, their ideas of immortality and a future state, and the prevalent notions of the union of spiritual and material matter. So wide and varied, indeed, is the range opened by the subject of pictography, that we may consider the Indian system of figure-writing as the thread which ties up the scroll of the Red Man’s views of life and death; that it reveals the true theory of his hopes and fears, and denotes the relation he bears, in the secret chambers of his own thoughts, to his Maker. What a stoic and suspicious temper would often hold him back from uttering to another, and what limited language would sometimes prevent his fully revealing, if he wished, symbols and figures can be made to represent and express. The Indian is not a man prone to describe his god, personal or general, but he is ready to depict him by a symbol. He may conceal, under the figures of a serpent, a turtle, or a wolf, wisdom, strength, or malignity; or convey, under the picture of a sun, the idea of a Supreme, All-seeing Intelligence. But he is not prepared to discourse upon these things. What he believes on this head he will not declare to a white man or a stranger. His happiness and success in life are thought to depend upon the secrecy of that knowledge of the Creator and his system, in the Indian view of benign and malignant agents. To reveal this to others, even to his own people, is, he believes, to expose himself to the counteracting influence of other agents known to his subtle scheme of necromancy and superstition, and to hazard success and life itself. This conduces to make the Red Man eminently a man of fear, suspicion, and secrecy. But he cannot avoid some of these disclosures in his pictures and figures. These figures represent ideas whole ideas, and their juxtaposition or relation on a scroll of bark, a tree, or a rock, discloses a continuity of ideas. This is the basis of the system.

Picture-writing is indeed the literature of the Indians. It cannot be interpreted, however rudely, without letting one know what the Red Man thinks and believes. It shadows forth the Indian intellect, standing in the place of letters for the unishinaba.2 It shows the Native American, in all periods of our history, both as he was and as he is; for there is nothing more true than that, save and except the comparatively few instances where they have truly embraced experimental Christianity, there has not been, beyond a few customs, such as dress and other externals, any appreciable and permanent change in the Indian character since Columbus first dropped anchor at the Island of Guanahana.


  1. London Edition, 1747, page 190. 

  2. A generic term, denoting the common people of the Indian race. 

Submit a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest


Share This

Share this post with your friends!