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Close of the Winter Solstice

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

The whole air of the place resembled that of a manufactory. The custom on these occasions is to make up a pic-nic, in which each one contributes something in the way of cold viands or refreshments.

The principal amusement consisted in pulling candy, and eating the sugar in every form. Having done this, and received the hospitalities of our hostess, we tackled up our teams, and pursued our way back to the fort, having narrowly escaped breaking through the river at one or two points.

27th. I received a letter of this date from G.W. Rodgers, a gentleman of Bradford county, Pennsylvania, in behalf of himself and associates, proposing a number of queries respecting the copper-yielding region of Lake Superior, and the requisites and prospects of an expedition for obtaining the metal from the Indians. Wrote to him adversely to the project at this time. Doubtless the plan is feasible, but the Indians are at present the sole owners and occupants of the metalliferous region.

28th. Dies natalis.--A friend editing a paper on the seaboard writes (10 Jan. 1822)--"I wish you to give me an article on the geology and mineralogy of Manhattan Island, in the form of a letter purporting to be given by a foreign traveler. It is my intention to give a series of letters, partly by myself and partly by others, which shall take notice of everything in and about the city, which may be deemed interesting. I wish to begin at the foundation, by giving a geographical and geological sketch of the island.3" He continues:--

"I have read Ontwa, the Indian poem you spoke of last summer. The notes by Gov. Cass are extremely interesting, and written in a superior style. I shall notice the work in a few days." "I inform you, in confidence, that M.E., of this city, is preparing a notice of your 'Journal' for the next number of the Repository, which will appear on the first of next month."

29th. Novelty has the greatest attraction for the human mind. There is such a charm in novelty, says Dr. John Mason Good, that it often leads us captive in spite of the most glaring errors, and intoxicates the judgment as fatally as the cup of Circe. But is not variety at hand to contest the palm?

"The great source of pleasure," observes Dr. Johnson, "is variety. Uniformity must tire at last, though it be uniformity of excellence."

April 1st. The ice and snow begin to be burthensome to the eye. We were reconciled to winter, when it was the season of winter; but now our longing eyes are cast to the south, and we are anxious for the time when we can say, "Lo, the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

The Chippewas have quite a poetic allegory of winter and spring, personified by an old and a young man, who came from opposite points of the world, to pass a night together and boast of their respective powers. Winter blew his breath, and the streams were covered with ice. Spring blew his breath, and the land was covered with flowers. The old man is finally conquered, and vanishes into "thin air."

2d. We talked to-day of dreams. Dreams are often talked about, and have been often written about. But the subject is usually left where it was taken up. Herodotus says, "Dreams in general originate from those incidents which have most occupied the thoughts during the day." Locke betters the matter but little, by saying, "The dreams of sleeping men are all made up of waking men's ideas, though, for the most part, oddly put together." Solomon's idea of "the multitude of business" is embraced in this.

Sacred dreams were something by themselves. God chose in ancient times to communicate with the prophets in dreams and visions. But there is a very strong and clear line of distinction drawn on this subject in the 23d of Jeremiah, from the 25th to the 28th verses. "He that hath a dream, let him tell a dream, and he that hath my word let him speak my word." The sacred and the profane, or idle dream, are likened as "chaff" to "wheat."

The Indians, in this quarter, are very much besotted and spell-bound, as it were, by dreams. Their whole lives are rendered a perfect scene of doubts and fears and terrors by them. Their jugglers are both dreamers and dream interpreters. If the "prince of the power of the air" has any one hold upon them more sure and fast than another, it seems to be in their blind and implicit reliance upon dreams. There is, however, with them a sacred dream, distinct from common dreams. It is called a-po-wa.

I have had before me, during a considerable part of the season, a pamphlet of printed queries respecting the Indians and their languages, put into my hands by Gov. C. when passing through Detroit in the summer. Leaving to others the subjects connected with history and traditions, &c., I have attempted an analysis of the language. Reading has been resorted to as a refreshment from study. I used to read to gratify excitement, but I find the chief pleasure of my present reading is more and more turning to the acquisition and treasuring up of facts. This principle is probably all that sustains and renders pleasurable the inquiry into the Indian language.

One of the printed queries before me is, "Do they (the Indians) believe in ghosts?" I believe all ignorant and superstitious nations believe in apparitions. It seems to be one of the most natural consequences of ignorance; and we have seen, in the history of wise and learned men, that it requires a high intellectual effort to shake this belief out of the mind. If God possessed no other way of communicating with the living, it is reasonable to believe that he would send dead men, or dead men's souls. And this is the precise situation of the only well authenticated account we have, namely, that of Saul at Endor [vide 1st Samuel, 7th to 15th verses]. The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug. Without nice attention, this word will be pronounced Chebi, or Tchebi.

Another is as follows: "Do they use any words equivalent to our habit of swearing?" Many things the Indians may be accused of, but of the practice of swearing they cannot. I have made many inquiries into the state of their vocabulary, and do not, as yet, find any word which is more bitter or reproachful than matchi annemoash, which indicates simply, bad-dog. Many of their nouns have, however, adjective inflections, by which they are rendered derogative. They have terms to indicate cheat, liar, thief, murderer, coward, fool, lazy man, drunkard, babbler. But I have never heard of an imprecation or oath. The genius of the language does not seem to favor the formation of terms to be used in oaths or for purposes of profanity. It is the result of the observation of others, as well as my own, to say, that an Indian cannot curse.

31st. The ornithology of the north is very limited in the winter. We have the white owl, the Canada jay, and some small species of woodpeckers. I have known the white partridge, or ptermigan, to wander thus far south. This bird is feathered to the toes. There are days when the snow-bird appears. There is a species of duck, the shingebis, that remains very late in the fall, and another, the ae-ae-wa, that comes very early in the spring.

The T. polyglottis, or buffoon-bird, is never found north of 46 deg. N. latitude in the summer. This bird pours forth all sorts of notes in a short space of time, without any apparent order. The thrush, the wren, the jay, and the robin are imitated in as short a time as it takes to write these words.

7th. During severe winters, in the north, some species of birds extend their migrations farther south than usual. This appears to have been the case during the present season. A small bird, yellowish and cinereous, of the grosbec species, appeared this day in the neighborhood of one of the sugar-camps on the river below, and was shot with an arrow by an Indian boy, who brought it up to me. The Chippewas call it Pashcundamo, in allusion to the stoutness of its bill, and consequent capacity for breaking surfaces4.

8th. The ice on the river still admits of the passage of horse trains, and the night temperature is quite wintry, although the power of the sun begins to be sensibly felt during the middle and after part of the day.

9th. A friend recently at Washington writes from Detroit under the date of the 12th March: "A proposition was submitted to a committee of the Senate, soon after my arrival in the city, by the Secretary of War, for the establishment of the office of Superintendent of Mines. To this office, had the project been carried into execution, you would have been appointed. But shortly before I left there, it was thought more expedient to sell all the mines than to retain them in the hands of the government. Of course, if this plan be adopted, as I think it will be, the other will be superseded." Here, then, drops a project, which I had conceived at Potosi, and which has been before my mind for some four years, and which I am still satisfied might have been carried through Congress, had I given my personal attention to the subject, during the present session. I have supposed myself more peculiarly qualified to fill the station indicated, than the one I now occupy. And I accepted the present office under the expectation that it would be temporary. When once a project of this kind, however, is superseded in the way this has been, it is like raising the dead to bring it up again; and it is therefore probable that my destiny is now fixed in the North-West instead of the South-West, for a number of years. I thought I had read Franklin's maxims to some purpose; but I now see that, although I have observed one of them in nine cases, I missed it in the tenth:--

            "He that by the plough would thrive,
                Himself must either hold, or drive."

I trusted, in the fall, that I could safely look on, and see this matter accomplished.

As to the mines, they will still require a local superintendent. They cannot be sold until there are some persons to buy, and it is not probable such extensive tracts of barren lands can be disposed of in years. Meantime, the rents of the mines are an object. The preservation of the public timber is an object. And the duties connected with these objects cannot be performed, with justice to the government, and convenience to the lessees, without a local agent. In proportion as some of the districts of mineral lands are sold, others will claim attention; and it may be, and most probably will be, years before the intention of Congress, if expressed by law, can be fully carried into effect.

Life has more than one point of resemblance to a panorama. When one object is past, another is brought to view. The same correspondent adds: "Mr. Calhoun has come to the determination to authorize you to explore the River St. Peter's this season. I think you may safely make the necessary arrangements, as I feel confident the instructions will reach you soon after the opening of the navigation."

In consequence of this intimation, I have been casting about to find some authors who treat of the region of country which embraces the St. Peter's, but with little success. Hennipin's "Discovery of a large Country in the Northern America, extending above Four Thousand Miles," I have read with care. But care indeed it requires to separate truth from error, both in his descriptions and opinions. He thinks "Japan a part of the American Continent;" and describes the Wisconsin as "navigable for large vessels above one hundred leagues." Yet, notwithstanding this gross hyberbole, he describes the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin at "half a league," which is within the actual distance. It may be admitted that he was within the Sioux country, and went up the Mississippi as high as the St. Francis.

La Hontan, whose travels were published in London only a few years after the translation of Hennipin's, is entitled, it is believed, to no credit whatever, for all he relates of personal discoveries on the Mississippi. His fiction of observations on "River La Long," is quite preposterous. I once thought he had been as far as Prairie du Chien; but think it more probable he never went beyond Green Bay.

Carver, who went from Boston to the Mississippi in the latter part of the 18th century, is not an author to glean much from. I, however, re-perused his volume carefully, and extracted notes. Some of the stories inserted in his work have thrown an air of discredit over it, and caused the whole work to be regarded in rather an apocryphal light. I think there is internal evidence enough in his narrative to prove that he visited the chief portions of country described. But he probably neglected to keep diurnal notes. When in London, starvation stared him in the face. Those in office to whom he represented his plans probably listened to him awhile, and afterwards lost sight of, or neglected him. He naturally fell into the hands of the booksellers, who deemed him a good subject to get a book from. But his original journal did not probably afford matter enough, in point of bulk. In this exigency, the old French and English authors appear to have been drawn upon; and probably their works contributed by far the larger part of the volume after the 114th page (Philadelphia ed. 1796), which concludes the "Journal." I think it questionable whether some literary hack was not employed, by the booksellers, to draw up the part of the work "On the origin, manners, customs, religion, and language of the Indians." Considerable portions of the matter are nearly verbatim in the language of Charlevoix, La Hontan, and other authors of previous date. The "vocabulary of Chippewa," so far as it is Chippewa at all, has the French or a mixed orthography, which it is not probable that an Englishman or an American would, de novo, employ.

3: Furnished the article, as desired, under the signature of "Germanicus." Vide "N.Y. Statesman."

4: This specimen was sent to the New York Lyceum, where it was determined to be an undescribed species, and named Fringilia vespertina, or evening grosbec.

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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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