West of the Alleghenies Burial Customs

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The burial customs of some western Algonquian tribes were, in many respects, quite similar to those of the New England Indians. It will be recalled that soon after the Mayflower touched at Cape Cod a party of the Pilgrims went ashore and during their explorations discovered several groups of graves, some of which “had like an Indian house made over them, but not matted.” They may when erected have been covered with mats. The similarity between this early reference and the description of certain Ojibway graves, two centuries and more later, is very interesting. Writing from “American Fur Company’s trading establishment, Fond du Lac, July 30, 1826,” McKenney told of an Ojibway grave then standing at that post, near the extreme southwestern corner of Lake Superior. “The Indians’ graves are first covered over with bark. Over the grave the same shelter is made, and of the same materials, as enter into the form and structure of a lodge. Poles are stuck into the ground, and bent over, and fastened at the top; and these are covered with bark Thus the grave is inclosed. An opening is left. like that in the door of a lodge. Before this door (I am describing a grave that is here) a post is planted, and the dead having been a warrior, is painted red. Near this post, a pole is stuck in the ground, about ten feet long. From the top of this pole is suspended the ornaments of the deceased. From this, I see hanging a strand of beads, some strips of white fur, several trinkets, six bits of tobacco, that looked like quids, and a little frame of a circular form with net work, in the center of which (it being of thread) is fastened a scalp, about three inches in diameter, the hair of which is of a dark brown colour, and six inch long. In the top of the red post are three feathers.” Three days before, on July 27, McKenney entered in his journal: ” We are yet about eighteen miles from the Fond du Lac. At this place, Burnt river is a place of divination, the seat of a jongleux’s incantations. It is a circle, made of eight poles, twelve feet High, and crossing at the top, which being covered in with mats, or bark, he enters, and foretells future events!” The manner in which the bodies had been placed in the graves of the Fond du Lac cemetery was probably similar to that followed by other members of the tribe, as described by one well versed in the customs of the Ojibway : “When an Ojibway dies, his body is placed in a grave, generally in a sitting posture, facing the west. With the body are buried all the articles needed in life for a journey. If a man, his gun, blanket, kettle, fire steel, flint, and moccasins; if a woman, her moccasins, axe, portage collar, blanket and kettle.” And following this is an account of the Ojibway belief of happenings after death; how “the soul is supposed to stand immediately after the death of the body, on a deep beaten path, which leads westward.” He first comes to strawberries, which he gathers to eat on the way, and soon ” reaches a deep, rapid stream of water, over which lies the much dreaded Ko-go-gaup-o-gun or rolling and sinking bridge.” Thence, after traveling four days, and camping at night, “the soul arrives in the land of spirits,” where all is joy and happiness. A form of scaffold burial was known to the same people, but never practiced to any great extent. Such a burial was seen by McKenney standing on an island in St. Louis River, opposite the American Fur Co.’s establishment, during the summer of 1826. He wrote at that time: ” One mode of burying the dead, among the Chippeways, is, to place the coffin, or box, containing their remains, on two cross pieces, nailed, or tied with wattap to four poles. The poles are about ten feet high. They plant near these posts, the wild hop, or some other kind of running vine, which spreads over and covers the coffin. I saw one of these on the island, and as I have described it. It was the coffin of a child about four years old. I have a sketch of it. I asked the chief why his people disposed of their dead in that way? He answered, they did not like to put them out of their sight so soon by putting them under ground. Upon a platform they could see the box that contained their remains, and that was a comfort to them.” The sketch mentioned was undoubtedly drawn by J. O. Lewis and was used as an illustration in McKenney’s narrative. This is now reproduced in plate 4, a, while in b of the same plate is shown a view of the buildings of the American Fur Co. they then stood at Fond du Lac, derived from the same work and drawn by the same artist. Across the stream are the wigwams of the Indians, and near the lower right corner of the picture are two small inclosures, two small cemeteries, the smaller belonging to the Indians, the larger being reserved for the whites. Three years before McKenney visited Fond du Lac the expedition led by Maj. S. H. Long traversed the country of the Ojibway, and when describing the burial customs of the tribe it was said: “The usual mode of disposing of their dead consists in interring them. It has been observed that the Chippewa graves are always dug very deep, at least 6 or 8 feet; whereas the Dacotas make but shallow graves. Great respect is paid by the Chippewas to the corpses of their distinguished men; they are wrapped up in cloths, blankets, or bark, and raised on scaffolds. We heard of a very distinguished chief of theirs, who died upwards of 40 years since, and was deposited on a scaffold near Fort Charlotte, the former grand depot of the North-west Company. When the company were induced to remove their depot to the mouth of the Kamanatekwoya, and construct Fort William, the Indians imagined that it would be unbecoming the dignity of their friend to rest anywhere but near a fort; they therefore conveyed his remains to Fort William, erected a scaffold near it, and upon it they placed the body of their revered chief; whenever there is occasion for it they renew its shroud. As a mark of respect to the deceased, who was very friendly to white men, the company have planted a British flag over his remains, which attention was extremely gratifying to the Indians.” This would have been about 175 miles northeast of Fond du Lac, as Fort William stood on the mainland, north of Isle Royale, in Lake Superior. Fort Charlotte was at the end of Grand Portage, some 25 miles southwest of Fort William, and consequently nearer Fond du Lac. Referring to the Ojibway belief in a future state after death, the same writer remarked: “The Chippewas believe that there is in man an essence, entirely distinct from the body; they call it Ó’chéchâg, and appear to apply to it the qualities which we refer to the soul. They believe that it quits the body at the time of death, and repairs to what they term Chéké Chékchékâmé. This region is supposed to be situated to the south, and on the shores of the Great Ocean. Previous to arriving there they meet with a stream, which they are obliged to cross upon a large snake that answers the purpose of a bridge. Those who die from drowning never succeed in crossing the stream; they are thrown into it, and remain there forever. Some souls come to the edge of the stream, but are prevented from passing by the snake that threatens to devour them, these are, the souls of persons in a lethargy or trance. Being refused a passage, these souls return to their bodies and reanimate them. They believe that animals have souls, and even that inorganic substances, such as kettles, etc., have in them a similar essence. In this land of souls all are treated according to their merits. Those who have been good men are free from pain; they have no duties to perform; their time is spent in dancing and singing, and they feed upon mushrooms, which are very abundant. The souls of bad men are haunted by the phantoms of the persons or things that they have injured; thus, if a man has destroyed much property, the phantoms of the wrecks of this property obstruct his passage wherever he goes; if he has been cruel to his dogs or horses they also torment him after death, the ghosts of those whom during his lifetime he wronged are there permitted to avenge their injuries. They think that when a soul has crossed the stream it can not return to its body, yet they believe in apparitions, and entertain the opinion that the spirits of the departed will frequently revisit the abodes of their friends, in order to invite them to the other world, and to forewarn them of their approaching dissolution.” It is quite evident that the widely separated members of this great tribe held different beliefs regarding the state after death, and it would also appear that such beliefs were influenced or dictated by their natural environment. Thus in the cold, bleak forests of the north, where the winters were long and severe, they looked to the south as the home of the departed, where warmth would prevail, and where the days would be passed in dancing and singing.

Some years earlier, in 1764, an English trader described the death and burial of a child near the north shore of Lake Superior while approaching Michilimackinac. The Indians were engaged in making maple sugar when “A little child, belonging to one of our neighbours, fell into a kettle of boiling syrup. It was instantly snatched out, but with little hope of its recovery. “So long, however, as it lived, a continual feast was observed; and this was made to the Great Spirit and Master of Life, that he might be pleased to save and heal the child. At this feast, I was a constant guest; and often found difficulty in eating the large quantity of food, which, on such occasions as these, is put upon each man’s dish. The Indians accustom themselves both to eat much, and to fast much, with facility. ” Several sacrifices were also offered; among them were dogs, killed and hung upon the tops of poles, with the addition of stroud blankets and other articles. These, also, were given to the Great Spirit, in humble hope that he would give efficacy to the medicines employed. ” The child died. To preserve the body from the wolves, it was placed upon a scaffold, where it remained till we went to the lake, on the border of which was the burial-ground of the family. ” On our arrival there, which happened in the beginning of April, I did not fail to attend the funeral. The grave was made of a large size, and the whole of the inside lined with birch-bark. On the bark was laid the body of the child, accompanied with an axe, a pair of snow-shoes, a small kettle, several pairs of common shoes, its own strings of beads, and-because it was a girl-a carrying-belt and a paddle. The kettle was filled with meat. “All this was again covered with bark; and at about two feet nearer the surface, logs were laid across, and these again covered with bark, so that the earth might by no means fall upon the corpse. ” The last act before the burial, performed by the mother, crying over the dead body of her child, was that of taking from it a lock of hair, for a memorial. While she did this, I endeavoured to console her, by offering the usual arguments; that the child was happy in being released from the miseries of this present life, and that she should forbear to grieve, because it would be restored to her in another world, happy and everlasting. She answered, that she knew it, and that by the lock of hair she should discover her daughter; for she would take it with her. In this she alluded to the day, when some pious hand would place in her own grave, along with the carrying-belt and paddle, this little relic, hallowed by maternal tears.” The same writer, in recording certain beliefs of the people, said ” I have frequently inquired into the ideas and opinions of the Indians, in regard to futurity, and always found that they were somewhat different, in different individuals. Some suppose their souls to remain in this world, although invisible to human eyes; and capable, themselves, of seeing and hearing their friends, and also of assisting them, in moments of distress and danger. Others dismiss from the mortal scene the unembodied spirit, and send it to a distant world or country, in which it receives reward or punishment, according to the life which it has led in its prior state. Those who have lived virtuously are transported into a place abounding with every luxury, with deer and all other animals of the woods and water, and where the earth produces, in their greatest perfection, all its sweetest fruits. While, on the other hand, those who have violated or neglected the duties of this life, are removed to a barren soil, where they wander up and down, among rocks and morasses, and are stung by gnats, as large as pigeons.” This agrees remarkably with the later statements made by Keating, as already quoted. The scaffold burials mentioned in the preceding quotations do not appear to have been the true form so extensively used by the tribes farther west, especially up the valley of the Missouri. There a platform was constructed between four or more supports, some 6 or 8 feet above the ground, and on this platform the body was placed after being wrapped and bound with skins or some other covering. These were of a more temporary nature.



MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/west-of-the-alleghenies-burial-customs.htm - Last updated on Apr 30th, 2013


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