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On February 11th, 1700, De Iberville, Bienville, Perricaul and Tonti ascended the Mississippi River as far west as the present city of Natchez. They were kindly received (so states the journalist) by the great chief, or sun, as he was termed, surrounded by six hundred of his warriors, who, according to their own account, had formerly been a great nation. On the 13th the party left Natchez and visited the villages of the Taensas, the customs and habits of who were the same as the Natchez, being evidently a branch of the latter. During their stay the sacred temple of these Indians was struck by lightning and burned to ashes. To appease the Sun God, the poor, infatuated women threw themselves, and parents, their children, into the consuming flames of the burning temple. Perricaul, who was one of the witnesses of the fearful scene, thus wrote of it: “We left the Natchez and coasted along to the right, where the river is bordered with high, gravelly banks for a distance of twelve leagues. At the extremity of these bluffs is a place called Petit Gulf, on account of the whirlpool formed by the river for the distance of a quarter league. Eight leagues higher up we came to Grand Gulf, which we passed a short distance above, on the right hand side. We landed to visit a village four leagues in the interior. These Indians are called the Taensas. We were well received, but I never saw a more sad sight, frightful and revolting spectacle than that which happened the second day, 16th of April, after our arrival in the village. A sudden storm burst upon us. The lightning struck the temple, burned all their idols and reduced the whole to ashes. Quickly the Indians assembled around, making horrible cries, tearing out their hair, elevating their hands to heaven, their tawny visages turned to ward the burning temple, invoking their Great Spirit to come down and extinguish the flames. The fathers and mothers then brought their children, and after having strangled them, threw them into the flames. M. De Iberville was horrified at seeing such a cruel spectacle, and gave orders to stop it, by forcibly taking from them the little innocents; but with all our efforts seventeen perished in this manner, and had we not restrained them, the number would have been over two hundred.”
Father Le Petit, Superior of the Jesuits, in speaking of the Natchez Indians, whom he had visited at an early day, says: “They inhabited a beautiful country, and were the only tribe that seemed to have an established worship. This temple resembled an earthen oven, or the back of a tortoise, and was one hundred feet in circumference. They entered it by one small door, and there was no window. Above, on the outside of the roof, were three wooden eagles painted red, yellow and white. In front of the door was a shed where the guardian of the temple kept watch. All around was a circle of painted pickets, capped with the skulls of their enemies who had fallen in battle. The interior was lined with shelves on which were baskets, holding the bones of their favorite followers, who had been strangled, to at tend their masters in the spirit world, made of bark, provided by the patriarchs of the tribe. No woman, except the mother and sisters of the Great Sun, was allowed to enter the sacred edifice. The common people dared only to approach the threshold. The sun was their deity; their great chief was called by the same name, and he, in turn, called the sun his brother. Every morning at dawn, attended by his retinue, the chief ascended a mound to converse with his celestial brother. As soon as the sun appeared in the heavens, the chief saluted with a long howl, and then waved his hand from east to west, and directed what course he should travel! When this personage dies, they demolish his house arid throw up a mound, and on that they build a d welling for; the brother of the sun.”
Perieault, who was at Natchez in 1703, and at which time the Great Female Sun died, says: “She was really the Great Sun in her own right. Her husband, who was not of the blood royal, was strangled by their eldest son, so that in death, as in life, he might be her submissive attendant and howl to her ghost! On the outside of her house they placed all her effects on a scaffold and on these they deposited the two corpses. They likewise put there the bodies of twelve children whom they had just strangled. These children had been brought by their parents, by order of the eldest son of the deceased, who had the right, as her successor, to put to death as many as he thought necessary to wait on her in the land of spirits. Fourteen other scaffolds were erected, decorated with vines and rude paintings. These were intended for the bodies of the victims, whose nearest relatives, dressed irresistive robes, surrounded them with looks: arid gestures expressive of satisfaction. They then in procession marched to the great square in front of the temple and began to dance. Four days thereafter they again formed in procession and began what is called the March of Death from the square to the house of the deceased. The fathers and mothers of the strangled children held the bodies in their arms. The oldest of these did not appear to be over three years. The relatives of these infants, with their hair closely shaven, began to howl in the most frightful manner. But the adults who were about to die danced around the house of the dead princess, until finally it was set on fire by her eldest son and successor. All then marched to the great temple. The parents who carried their strangled infants then threw them on the ground and began to dance. When the body of the deceased princess was deposited in the temple, the intended victims were undressed and seated on the ground. A cord with a noose was passed around each of their necks and deerskins thrown over their heads. The relatives, who were the executioners, then stood to the right and left of each victim and, at a given signal, all were strangled. The bodies were placed on scaffolds and the bones, when dry, were deposited in baskets in the temple, and constituted a sort of patent nobility. It was a privilege and an honor to die with the Sun.”
Even as late as 1730 the Natchez had their temple in which were kept their sacred fire continually burning. According to their traditions, Du Pratz says: Their territories extended to the River Manchos, or Iberville, which is about 50 leagues from the sea, to the River Wabash, which is distant from the sea about 450 leagues, and that they had about 800 suns, or princess.”
The Natchez, if tradition may be believed, also came from Mexico where they had lived for centuries; and after the fall of the Montezuma Empire, to which they were allies, they, alike, with the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Muskogee, fled from Spanish tyranny. They, too, followed the rising sun from west to east, continuing a wandering life for many years, and finally reached the Mississippi river, which they crossed, and settled at a point on the river where the city Natchez now stands, which was named for them. At that time they were a numerous people, occupying a territory extending from Natchez to Wabash, and claiming many hundred sons, or members of the royal family. In 1716, the French built. Fort Rosalie upon the bluff upon which Natchez now stands, in which they quartered a company of soldiers. In 1720, DePratz visited the Great Sun of the Natchez, and was informed by him, that the Natchez were once a great people extending over a vast region of country, and ruled by many suns; that one of the keepers of the Temple let the holy fire go out, and in his fright substituted profane fire, thus endeavoring to conceal his negligence; but which caused them to be visited by a dreadful disease which ravaged their country for many years, sweeping thousands of their people into an untimely grave. As the ancient Persians, the Natchez kept a perpetual fire burning in their Temples, which was never permitted for a moment to become extinguished. It is stated by some of the early writers, that the Taensas and Mobelians, who were eventually merged into the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, also kept a perpetual fire burning in their temples, when known by the Europeans in 1721. It is said of the Natchez, “that the sight was never shocked by .the appearance of deformity,” such as are so frequently observed among the White Race; and with equal truth, the same may be said of all the North American Indians. As all their race, so the Natchez used “the bow and arrow as their instrument of offense and defense, which they used effectively against their enemies in war, and supplying themselves with the flesh of the great variety of wild animals in which their endless forests then abounded. They were also skilled in the art of dressing the skins of animals, and thus provided themselves with comfort able clothing, suitable for both summer and winter, using as needles for sewing purposes, the sharp bones of birds, and for thread the sinews of small animals. Their houses, as those of all their race, were made of rude materials, with one door for ingress and egress, without floor or chimney, but a little hole left in the roof about the center of the room, through which the smoke might pass out, if so disposed. The Natchez women are said to have been very proficient in making earthen ware for their domestic purposes, such as pots, cups, bowls, etc.; and also very skillful in the art of dying the skins of animals, their favorite colors being red, yellow, white and black, used in alternate stripes, The men were skilled in managing their canoes, some of which measuring from twenty to thirty feet in length, by two or three in width. In short, what has been said in regard to the ancient manners and customs of the Choctaw and Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole Indians is equally applicable to the. Natchez, differing only (as all others, how ever) in their traditions of the origin of man, the flood, funeral ceremonies and burial of the dead.
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In regard to the origin of man, the tradition of the Natchez affirms that the Great Spirit molded the first man out of clay, similar to that out of which they made their earthenware, and being pleased with his work, breathed life into it. After the first man was created, he (the man) suddenly was taken with a violent paroxysm or fit of sneezing, when suddenly a strange something jumped from his nose to the ground, where it commenced to hop and dance about, growing larger and larger, until it soon assumed the form of a woman and finally grew to be a perfect woman.
They also had another tradition in substance, as follows: In ancient times a man and woman appeared among them who descended from the sun. They were so dazzlingly bright that human eyes could not look, upon them. The man informed them that he had seen their wretchedness and inability to properly govern themselves, and had been influenced through compassion to leave his bright abode in, the sun and descend to earth that he might instruct them how they might live happily. He therefore gave them some moral precepts, among the most important were, first not to kill a man. But in self-defense; second to have but one living wife; third to be truthful; fourth to, be strictly honest; fifth to be temperate; sixth to be generous; seventh to be charitable; eighth to help the poor in their distress. The stranger s appearance and moral precepts inculcated greatly impressed the Natchez, and they at once convened in solemn council during, the quiet hours of the night and resolved, upon due deliberation, to request the man to be their chief; and the next morning, with much pomp and ceremony, proceeded to the house to which the stranger and his wife had been consignee] for the night and earnestly solicited him to become their chief. He at first declined their intended honor, assigning as his reason that he knew they would not conform to his teachings, and in so doing, he was grieved to state to them, the Natchez would work their own destruction, terminating in utter extermination. But the Natchez, earnestly pressing their request, the stranger finally yielded to their solicitations, but with the following proviso: That they would emigrate to a country which he would also lead them, where they would be more prosperous and happy; and that they would strictly yield obedience to the laws and regulations he would establish, for them, and that their future chiefs should be chosen from his descendants. To all of which they acceded. He then commanded fire from the sun which he gave them with positive instructions to keep it burning in two temples by the use of walnut wood stripped of its bark as fuel, which temples were to be built at the two-extreme boundaries of the territory, to be inhabited by them. Eight men were selected by his instruction to serve as priests for each temple, whose imperative duty was to guard the sacred fire by regular turns, and death was to be the punishment of him who should, upon his watch, let the fire go out; since their mysterious law-giver and chosen chief predicted to them the most dreadful calamities if the fire ever was extinguished in both temples at the same time. And more, if by accident or otherwise, the fire should be come extinguished in one of the temples the keepers were to quickly relight it by obtaining fire from the other temple, and from” nowhere else; still the guardians of the temple in which the fire had been suffered to go out should not be permitted to obtain it from the other temple peacefully, since blood must be spilt on the floor of the temple, as an atoning sacrifice to the offended spirits; therefore, the one should resist the other in obtaining the desired fire, and the other should obtain it, even at the, cost of shedding blood. Implicit obedience was ever given to their foreign chief the Lycurgus of the Natchez who lived to an unusual old age, and made, and was ever regarded as the founder of their laws and institutions. After his death they gave his descendants the title of Suns, from their supposed origin, who ever after wards ruled, without opposition, in the inherited and promised right of their great progenitor the mysterious law giver from the sun.
Their tradition of the flood was: In ages past a mighty flood of waters destroyed mankind, but a few who escaped to a very high mountain, and by them the earth was again re-peopled. They believed in a Great Spirit, the creator and ruler of the world, whom they regarded as being so good, kind and benevolent, that it was impossible for him to do wrong or to harm anything, even if he desired to do so. They believed, however, in a multiplicity of evil spirits, by whom all evil in the world was produced; that once a mighty chief ruled over these spirits, and he committed so much mischief in the world among mankind that the Great Spirit chained him in a dark prison; and the evil spirits, his subjects, have not, since the loss of their chief, manifested so great desire to do mischief in the world, especially when humbly petitioned by respectful prayers.
They had many great national festivals, partaking much of a religious character, since they were instituted and ob served with a special view of returning thanks to the Great Spirit for his continued care and protection.
They reckoned time by moons. Their year began in March and was divided into thirteen moons; this being done that the course of that planet might correspond with that of the sun, thus completing the year. At each new moon a great feast was celebrated, which was named from the fruits peculiar to that season, or the particular game that was hunted during that moon. They celebrated the beginning of the new year (March) with the moon festival, called the deer; to them one of their greatest and most important festivals, as resting upon an ancient tradition which was: In the far distant past, a great sun, hearing an unusual tumult in a distant part of his village, hastened to the spot to learn its cause, and was taken prisoner by the warriors of a hostile nation who had made an unexpected attack upon his village, having taken it completely by surprise. His people soon recovering, however, from their momentary confusion arising from the unexpected attack, and frantic by the wild cry that was heard throughout the village that their chief had fallen into the hands of their enemies, rushed in a solid body to his rescue, and soon routed them with fearful slaughter, and rescued their chief. In commemoration of this great achievement so honorable in the archives of their nation s history, the warriors, at the new moon of the deer, engaged in a sham battle, in which the Great Sun took an active part. Dividing themselves into two companies, the one representing the warriors of the Great Sun, and the other that of the enemy, the former designated by a white feather in the head-dress, the latter by a red. They concealed themselves in ambush in close proximity to the house of the Great Sun. The warriors of the red feathers, under the leadership of a chief renowned for deeds of daring, first crept from their place of ambush and stealthily advanced toward the house of the Great Sun. As soon as they came in view, they rushed upon it with fearful yells. Then the Great Sun rushed from his house, assuming great bewilderment, as if suddenly awakened from sleep; shouting their fearful war-whoop, the assumed enemies rush upon the be wildered chieftain and triumphantly carry him off. At this juncture the warriors of the white feathers rush from their place of concealment with deafening yells to the rescue of their chief, in which were combined the wildest tones that could express the passions of the human heart, and threw themselves with terrific desperation upon the warriors of the red feather, and then and there was exhibited a wild scene of mimic warfare indescribable by words; and in which even the Great Sun himself was not an idle spectator, for his voice arose above the fearful din in words of cheer to his warriors, while his wooden tomahawk was seen gleaming in ascending and descending mimic strokes amid the struggling throng, apparently performing deeds of valor worthy the Great Sun. Finally, the warriors of the red feather seemingly began to waver, then fled in wild confusion worse confounded, hotly pursued by those of the white feather many miles; then they of the white feather returned to the village, bearing their chief amid shouts of victory and gladness. In speaking of these mimic battles, the French writers, who were eyewitnesses of the novel scene, state that they were true to nature in all their particulars, producing a complete illusion.
The second (April) was called the moon of strawberries, in which the women and children gathered this delicious fruit. The third (May) was called the moon of old corn, in which they feasted upon the corn made the year before, cooked in many different ways. The fourth (June), was called the moon of watermelons, the fifth (July) was called the moon of peaches. The sixth (August) was called the moon of blackberries. The seventh (September) was called the moon of new corn. The eighth (October) was called the moon of the turkey. The ninth (November) was called the moon of the buffaloes. The tenth (December) was called the moon of the bears. The eleventh (January) was called the moon of the geese; then followed February the moon of the walnuts, chestnuts and other nuts. At each re turns of these moons they indulge in festivals of feasting and dancing, contributing, at the same time, a full share of all the delicacies to their honored chief, the Great Sun.
That they might perpetuate the blood of the Great Suns in all its purity, as given to them by the mysterious stranger of traditional lore, the Natchez established as the fundamental law of their nation, that the right of succession to the; exalted position of Great Sun must descend to the men through the female line alone. Thus the female descend ants of the Great Sun held the title of nobility, and the honor of giving birth to the chief; and the grandson of a Great Sun held a medium place in rank, and his great grandson ranked with the common people.
- See further: The Natchez and the French