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Close of the Winter Solstice

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Close of the winter solstice, and introduction of a northern spring--News from the world--The Indian languages--Narrative Journal--Semi-civilization of the ancient Aztec tribes--Their arts and languages--Hill's ironical review of the "Transactions of the Royal Society"--A test of modern civilization--Sugar making--Trip to one of the camps--Geology of Manhattan Island--Ontwa, an Indian poem--Northern ornithology--Dreams--The Indian apowa--Printed queries of General Cass--Prospect of the mineral agency--Exploration of the St. Peter's--Information on that head.

1823. March 1st. My reading hours, for the last few days, have been, in great part, devoted to the newspapers. So long an exclusion from the ordinary sources of information has the effect to increase the appetite for this kind of intellectual food, and the circumstance probably leads us to give up more time to it than we should were we not subject to these periodical exclusions. The great point of interest is the succession in the Presidential chair. Parties hinge upon this point. Economy and retrenchment are talismanic words, used to affect the populace, but used in reality only as means of affecting the balance of party power. Messrs. Calhoun, Crawford, and Adams are the prominent names which fill the papers.

There is danger that newspapers in America will too much supersede and usurp the place of books, and lead to a superficial knowledge of things. Gleaning the papers in search of that which is really useful, candid, and fair seems too much like hunting for grains of wheat in a chaos of chaff.

3d. Our third express went off this morning, freighted with our letters, and, of course, with our reasons, our sentiments, our thanks, our disappointments, our hopes, and our fears.

6th. I resumed the subject of the Indian language.

Osanimun is the word for vermilion. This word is compounded from unimun, or plant yielding a red dye, and asawa, yellow. The peculiar color of yellow-red is thus indicated. Beizha is the neuter verb "to come." This verb appears to remain rigid in its conjugation, the tenses being indicated exclusively by inflections of the pronoun. Thus nim beizha, I come; ningee peizha, I came; ninguh peizha, I will come. The pronoun alone is declined for past and future tense, namely gee and guh.

There does not appear to be any definite article in the Chippewa language. Pazhik means one, or an. It may be doubtful whether the former sense is not the exclusive one. Ahow is this person in the animate form. Ihiw is the corresponding inanimate form. More care than I have devoted may, however, be required to determine this matter.

Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language, seized upon, to set up the great rules of its syntax.

Verbs, in the Chippewa language, are converted into nouns by adding the particle win.

Kegido, to speak. Kegido-win, speech. This appears to be a general rule. The only doubt I have felt is, whether the noun formed is so purely elementary as not to partake of a participial character.

There are two plurals to express the word "we," one of which includes, and the other excludes, the person addressed. Neither of these forms is a dual.

Os signifies father; nos is my father; kos, thy father; osun, his or her father. The vowel in this word is sounded like the o, in note.

The language has two relative pronouns, which are much used--awanan, who; and wagonan, what. The vowel a, in these words, is the sound of a in fate.

There are two classes of adjectives, one of which applies to animate, the other to inanimate objects.

The Chippewa word for Sabbath is animea geezhig, and indicates prayer-day. There is no evidence, from inquiry, that the Indians divided their days into weeks. A moon was the measure of a month, but it is questionable whether they had acquired sufficient exactitude in the computation of time to have numbered the days comprehended in each moon. The phases of the moon were accurately noted.

8th. Professor S., of Yale College, writes to me under this date, enclosing opinions respecting my "Narrative Journal" of travels, contained in a familiar private letter from D. Wadsworth, Esq., of Hartford. They terminate with this remark: "All I regret about it (the work) is, that it was not consistent with his plans to tell us more of what might be considered the domestic part of the expedition--the character and conduct of those who were of the party, their health, difficulties, opinions, and treatment of each other, &c. As his book was a sort of official work, I suppose he thought it would not do, and I wish now, he would give his friends (and let us be amongst them) a manuscript of the particulars that are not for the public."

17th. Semi-civilization of the Mexican Tribes.--Nothing is more manifest, on reading the "Conquest of Mexico" by De Solis, than that the character and attainments of the ancient Mexicans are exalted far above the reality, to enhance the fame of Cortez, and give an air of splendor to the conquest. Superior as the Aztecs and some other tribes certainly were, in many things, to the most advanced of the North American tribes, they resemble the latter greatly, in their personal features, and mental traits, and in several of their arts.

The first presents sent by Montezuma to Cortez were "cotton cloths, plumes, bows, arrows and targets of wood, collars and rings of gold, precious stones, ornaments of gold in the shape of animals, and two round plates of the precious metals resembling the sun and moon."

The men had "rings in their ears and lips, which, though they were of gold, were a deformity instead of an ornament."

"Canoes and periogues" of wood were their usual means of conveyance by water. The "books" mentioned at p. 100, were well-dressed skins, dressed like parchment, and, after receiving the paintings observed, were accurately folded up, in squares or parallelograms.

The cacique of Zempoala, being the first dignitary who paid his respects personally to Cortez on his entry into the town, is described, in effect, as covered with a cotton blanket "flung over his naked body, enriched with various jewels and pendants, which he also wore in his ears and lips." This chief sent 200 men to carry the baggage of Cortez.

By the nearest route from St. Juan de Ulloa, the point of landing to Mexico, it was sixty leagues, or about 180 miles. This journey Montezuma's runners performed to and fro in seven days, being thirty-five to thirty-six miles per day. No great speed certainly; nothing to demand astonishment or excite incredulity.

Distance the Mexicans reckoned, like our Indians, by time, "A sun" was a day's journey.

De Solis says, "One of the points of his embassy (alluding to Cortez), and the principal motive which the king had to offer his friendship to Montezuma, was the obligation Christian princes lay under to oppose the errors of idolatry, and the desire he had to instruct him in the knowledge of the truth, and to help him to get rid of the slavery of the devil."

The empire of Mexico, according to this author, stretched "on the north as far as Panuco, including that province, but was straitened considerably by the mountains or hilly countries possessed by the Chichimecas and Ottomies, a barbarous people."

I have thought, on reading this work, that there is room for a literary essay, with something like this title: "Strictures on the Hyperbolical Accounts of the Ancient Mexicans given by the Spanish Historians," deduced from a comparison of the condition of those tribes with the Indians at the period of its settlement. Humboldt states that there are twenty languages at present in Mexico, fourteen of which have grammars and dictionaries tolerably complete. They are, Mexican or Aztec, Otomite, Tarase, Zapatec, Mistec, Maye or Yucatan, Tatonac, Popolauc, Matlazing, Huastec, Mixed, Caquiquel, Tarauma, Tepehuan, Cara.

20th. When the wind blows high, and the fine snow drifts, as it does about the vernal equinox, in these latitudes, the Indians smilingly say, "Ah! now Pup-puk-e-wiss is gathering his harvest," or words to this effect. There is a mythological tale connected with it, which I have sketched.

21st. I have amused myself in reading a rare old volume, just presented to me, entitled "A Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London, &c., by John Hill, M.D., London, 1751." It evinces an acute mind, ready wit, and a general acquaintance with the subjects of natural history, antiquities, and philosophical research, adverted to. It is a racy work, which all modern naturalists, and modern discoverers of secrets and inventions ought to read. I should think it must have made some of the contributors to the "Transactions" of the Royal Society wince in its day.

22d. Knowledge of foreign nations has increased most wonderfully in our day, and is one of the best tests of civilization. Josaphat Barbaro traveled into the East in 1436. He says of the Georgians, "They have the most horrid manners, and the worst customs of any people I ever met with." Surely this is vague enough for even the clerk who kept the log-book of Henry Hudson. Such items as the following were deemed "food" for books of travels in those days: "The people of Cathay, in China, believe that they are the only people in the world who have two eyes. To the Latins they allow one, and all the rest of the world none at all."

Marco Polo gives an account of a substance called "Andanicum," which he states to be an ore of steel. In those days, when everything relating to metallurgy and medicine was considered a secret, the populace did not probably know that steel was an artificial production. Or the mineral may have been sparry iron ore, which is readily converted into steel.

26th. It is now the season of making sugar from the rock maple by the Indians and Canadians in this quarter. And it seems to be a business in which almost every one is more or less interested. Winter has shown some signs of relaxing its iron grasp, although the quantity of snow upon the ground is still very great, and the streams appear to be as fast locked in the embraces of frost as if it were the slumber of ages. Sleighs and dog trains have been departing for the maple forests, in our neighborhood, since about the 10th instant, until but few, comparatively, of the resident inhabitants are left. Many buildings are entirely deserted and closed, and all are more or less thinned of their inhabitants. It is also the general season of sugar-making with the Indians.

I joined a party in visiting one of the camps. We had several carioles in company, and went down the river about eight or nine miles to Mrs. Johnston's camp. The party consisted of several officers and ladies from the fort, Captain Thompson1 and lady, Lieutenant Bicker and lady and sister, the Miss Johnstons and Lieutenants Smith2 and Folger. We pursued the river on the ice the greater part of the way, and then proceeded inland about a mile. We found a large temporary building, surrounded with piles of ready split wood for keeping a fire under the kettles, and large ox hides arranged in such a manner as to serve as vats for collecting the sap. About twenty kettles were boiling over an elongated central fire.

1: Killed in Florida, at the battle of Okechobbee, as Lt. Col. of the 6th U.S. Infantry.

2: Died at Vera Cruz, Mexico, as Quarter-Master U.S.A.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

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