|Scope & Content||
Decr 8th 1833
Fort William December 8 1833
My Dear Hugh
You have often asked me for a description of the Indians that I have been amongst; and particularly my impressions at the first interview. I confess until now I was not sufficiently aware of the difference between the first impressions and those formed after we became familiar. You were right; first impressions are the only that can be satisfactory to one who wishes a correct idea of the appearance of Indians
After our arrival here Thirty Lodges of the Assiniboine Indians came in to the Am. Fur Co's Fort to trade dressed Buffalo Skins; and after finishing their trade, they came to our encampment and stopped a night with us. Their arrival being on the Sabbath I had the better opportunity of observing the difference between them and the Indians I had formerly been amongst, which resulted to the disadvantage of my new friends
At about a mile distant they first drove in sight issuing out of a little ravine where they had made a halt to paint themselves before appearing amongst "The Long Knives" as they term the Americans. They were in number about 60, all men capable of wielding the merciless tomahawk or sending the shaft of death; and woe to the retreating foe they pursued -- the deer is but little swifter and a hound not more durable than these sinewy sons of the North, who esteem a Horse fit only to pack the fruits of the chase
I might say their appearance was grand -- 'twas certainly imposing. Imagine to yourself sixty able warriors walking abreast, some with spears fantastically ornamented with scarlet cloth and the feathers of the War Eagle, others carrying the War Club not less beautiful (Horrid should I say?) and all armed with Guns or Bows and arrows.
When they advanced so near as to believe they could be heard by us; they commenced a song expressive of satisfaction at their arrival at the white man's camp -- in these songs they generally make the words to suit the occasion which one chants [spelled chaunts] and all the rest join in chorus. When they got within two hundred yards of us they swelled and ceased their song: the chief then advanced six paces in front of the war rank and at mid distance, immediately behind him stepped three or four braves who ranked next in authority. Their halt was the signal for me to approach (Mr Sublette was lying sick) -- I took my interpreter along and went up to them; I gave my hand
[Pg. Break] to the chief -- he was a fine noble looking fellow, as large as Mr Sublette, and possessed of the easy manners common to an Indian chief who ranks himself as second to none that walks the earth -- he took my hand and grasped it firmly, ejaculating How! I may here observe an Indian has no good morrow -- How dy'r or any other nonsensical greeting such as we use but if you try you will find his How delivers the heart of that pleasing sensation we feel on meeting a friend, better than our salutations. I invited them to proceed and set the example -- the march was resumed, every gun was discharged in the air, and the song recommenced which ended only when we stopped to form a circle to smoke; here the same respect to rank was observed as in the march -- the plebeians [spelled plebians] formed the outer ring, the braves an inner one and the Chief still nearer the centre -- I entered the ring and took my seat vis a vis his Greatness, my interpreter sitting to my left. A glance at the motley group was amusing -- a part of them had the face all painted vermillion except the tip of the nose, others painted with vermillion leaving little spots on the forehead and cheek which they painted lead colour; a few had their eyes painted white and the other part of the face red and others again were painted as black as a Nigger; these last having been to war and killed of the enemy, were privileged to thus paint themselves as an honorary mark of distinction between them and those who had not sought Glory in the paths of danger (-their wives and daughters have the same privilege and are more strict in its observance). Everyone paints according to his taste as you may any day see pretty girls dressed in Phila (pardon the comparison) each considering his complexion our dress. After we had lighted a few pipes of tobacco mixed with kinikinick, and had each taken a few ambrosial whiffs in dread silence, I commenced and made them a speech the substance of which was that we came here to build a Fort and trade with them, and the sole object we had in view was benefitting them (I had almost said ourselves) Yes that we came here our sole object to better their condition -- that we had a large quantity of merchandise in our boat and hoped we would find them disposed to trade with us, and reciprocate our good feelings. I then presented them with 300 loads ammunition [spelled amunition] 60 plugs tobacco a doz knives and other kickshaws, which I had brought forward as my discourse ended in order to produce effect -- I told them this was a small present as earnest [spelled ernest] of our future conduct, and which I wished them to accept as such--
[Pg. Break] My plan succeeded -- The chief sent forth a "murmur of applause" which was responded by his followers -- he then said they were poor. He was grateful for the presents and the words I had spoken which should not enter in one ear and pass out at the other -- No they would carry my words under their left arm (near the heart) and when they joined the balance of their nation they would let them hear what I had said; he then finished with fair promises. The present I gave was laid at his feet and now he commenced assisted by his commissary to distribute it amongst his followers according to their station but retained nothing for himself -- thus a chief gains popularity and influence, and if they distinguish themselves in war and use sufficient liberality amongst their adherents there is no degree of eminence in their nation to which they may not aspire. Each having received his portion they all arose and went to their several lodges which by this time had arrived.
But how shall I describe their women and the appearance of their camp? Ye gods assist me! After their Lords at a respectful distance came the women in Indian file although between each family was a space of a few yards -- The principal squaw took the lead and was followed by her joint partners in the affections of their Husband. And then their Dogs dragging along all the effects of their lodges.
They fasten together at one end 2 poles and lay them on the shoulders of the dog with a strap passing under his neck to pull by, the other end dragging the ground, and immediately behind the dog is a hoop worked like a sifter and fastened to the poles to keep them firm and apart; on this is placed 50-60 or 80 lb baggage which their poor animals haul a days march. What would you say to see a child two or three years old fastened on one of these drags enjoying his ride seemingly as much as one of our little urchins of the same age would ride in a gig or a carriage with us. The howling of the poor dogs and scolding of the women produced such a disagreeable noise that I was glad to see the place selected for the encampment and the squaws set about their several duties of unloading the dogs pitching the Lodges, collecting wood and carrying water and finally (all being arranged) sitting down on the sweet scented floors of their wigwams well arranged and provided in the short space of half an hour.
The dress of the women was well adapted to their situation -- Short frocks of antelope skin reaching just below the knee (as best adapted for walking) worked with porcupine quills -- Beaded leggings and plain mocassans comprise their dress with an envelope of Buffalo skin or a blanket
[Pg. Break] Their Lodges when erected looked really fine, and at once reminded me of days by-gone when I have seen on a handsome meadow bordering one of our enchanting mountain streams, a city (village) of Two Hundred Lodges, more gracefully proportioned than your finest houses spring up as it were by magic and one or two thousand horses feeding luxuriantly, where but an hour before the Deer startled by the tainted gale accompanying the approach of its enemy Man had fled from the pasture it had long occupied apparently secure form the stealthy step of the prowling Hunter--
An Assiniboine village although wanting in my eyes the greatest ornament -- Fine Horses, is more beautiful than you can imagine and I am certain it would make a handsomer view for those magnifying glasses at the Museum, than the arrival of the pilgrims at Mecca (I don't know if I be right in the name of this [triumphant?] ode). Some of their Lodges have painted on them the likeness of Bears pretty well executed, others Dogs, some men painted them wanting the head or the blood issuing out of the wounds -- You would avoid that Lodge I dare say -- in short you might from their hieroglyphics write a history of the nation--
Dec 8th, 1833