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Sketch of the Potawatomi ~ Introduction

The Potawatomi men race up the hill to kill a bear that is attacking the camp.

The Potawatomi men race up the hill to kill a bear that is attacking the camp.

Of the ancient civilizations we know but little. The beginnings of the Egyptians, the Etrurians, the Grecians, the Romans, and even the Milesians, are either entirely shrouded in the dark shadows of the far distant past, or are only lit up by the feeble rays afforded by uncertain fables or mythical traditions. Even far beyond these, great peoples lived, whose existence and civilization are testified to, by broken monuments and ruined architecture, widely scattered, especially over Arabia, and some parts of Africa, while in our own country and particularly in Yucatan, we see by their works that nations have lived of whom we know absolutely nothing as to whence they came or whither they have gone.

Geologists tell us of older peoples who occupied many portions of our globe, whose times they have divided into different ages, as the stone age, the bronze age, and the iron age, because of the materials which they used in their arts, but of their coming and their going they can tell us nothing, except that they existed one after another and ceased to be. Whence came the mound-builders of our own land, or those who worked the copper mines of Lake Superior, or those whose old inscriptions are found on the great stones of New Mexico, or when they disappeared, none can tell; they lived, made their record, and are gone, all else is as silent and as dark as the tomb that covers them. Yet, in all these records history is written, dim and. shadowy though it be, still it is history, and we seize upon each sentence of it as upon a precious treasure, and we ponder it and strain our eyes to find more than it really tells, but the misty veil of antiquity hangs over it, and finally we turn away unsatisfied.

When America was first visited by Europeans, at least those who recorded what they saw, it was occupied by barbarous tribes, some much more advanced than others, but still all were barbarians. Tradition, among the more advanced, pretended to tell how their ancestors had come from more northern climes, till finally they settled in the milder countries of Mexico or Peru, where they attained a sort of semi-civilization far in advance of the wilder nations, either to the north or south of them, but whether their ancestors were the mound-builders or the copper-workers, who once lived where we live, and were driven away by fierce northern hordes, more athletic-than they, or peacefully left the land in search of a climate less rigorous, we can never know, nor can we satisfy ourselves of the degree of credence which we should place in their own traditions as told by their old men to the first Europeans who saw them, and by whom their stories have been handed down to us.

We do know, certainly, that when the Atlantic coast was first visited by white men, who have transmitted to us accounts of what they saw, they found here tribes of Indians who subsisted principally by fishing and the chase, although they practiced agriculture to a limited extent, for they supplied the first immigrants to New England with corn from their hidden stores. The early explorers occasionally found the same grain cultivated in the valley of the Mississippi, and Lewis and Clarke procured supplies of it on the Upper Missouri. Still their agriculture was too limited to have had much influence on the density of population; and without the cultivated products of the soil no country can sustain a large population of men, if we except some tropical countries where spontaneous fruits are in perpetual season, and even there the aboriginal population was found to be very sparse as compared with countries where agriculture furnishes the principal sustenance to man.

From the changes which had recently taken place among the original inhabitants of this country, when they were first discovered, as told by their old men, and also from the changes which occurred after their discovery, but before the exterminating influence of civilization bore upon them, we may safely assume that national and even tribal formations had been quite recent, yet recent as they no doubt were, we know almost nothing of them, While we know that some nations became totally extinct by reason of aboriginal warfare alone, we cannot point to a single instance of the birth and growth of any native tribe, unless the uniting of the remnants of several broken tribes into one, may be so considered.

At last we are forced back to the conclusion that it is only comparatively in modern times and of civilized communities that history, whether written in books or among the rocks, tells us of the origin of nations. To this we can mention one notable exception. By divine interposition, we are told of the beginning and of the progress, and by profane history of the final extinction of one of the great ancient nations of the earth. There we are told of its founder, Abraham, of its struggles, of its triumphs and its misfortunes, of its victories and its defeats, of its pure worship and its gross idolatry, and of its final extinction as a nation under the Roman Empire.

Necessarily, the history of the aborigines of this country is confined to the period since their first discovery by the educated man, and to the few uncertain traditions told by them of their comparatively very recent times, and most of these traditions as handed down to us are purely of a mythological character, and serve to teach us of the nature of the imagination or mental condition of the native rather than of actual facts that had gone before. Nor do those who have made the study of the native American a specialty seem to have given that study the form of connected history to any large degree, and lie that would inform himself of such history must gather it from a thousand different sources, picking up a grain here and there, as he can find it.