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Natural History of the North-West

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Natural history of the north-west--Northern zoology--Fox--Owl--Reindeer--A dastardly attempt at murder by a soldier---Lawless spread of the population of northern Illinois over the Winnebago land--New York Lyceum of Natural History--U.S. Ex. Ex.--Fiscal embarrassments in the Department--Medical cause of Indian depopulation--Remarks of Dr. Pitcher--Erroneous impressions of the Indian character--Reviews--Death of John Johnston, Esq.

1828. July 24th. The ardor with which I thought it proper to address myself to the Indian duties of my office, did not induce me, by any means, to neglect my correspondence or the claims of visitors to Elmwood.

This day Lt. Col. Lindsay and Capt. Spotts, U.S.A., being on court martial duty at Fort Brady, paid their respects to me, and the Col. expressed his pleasure and surprise at the taste, order, and disposition of the grounds and the Agency.

Nor did the official duties of my position interfere with the investigation of the natural history of the country.

A large box of stuffed birds and quadrupeds, containing twenty-three specimens of various species, was sent to the Lyceum of Natural History at New York, in the month of April. Mr. William Cooper writes, under this date, that they have been received and examined. "The lynx appears to be the northern species, different from that common in this part of the country, and very rarely seen here even in the public collections. Several of the birds, also, I had never had an opportunity of examining before. The spruce partridge, Tetrae Canadensis, is very rare in the United States. There is no other species in this city besides yours. It was entirely unknown to Wilson; but it is to appear in the third vol. of Bonaparte's continuation of Wilson, to be published in the ensuing autumn. The circumstance of its being found in the Michigan Territory, is interesting on account of the few localities in which this bird has been found in our boundaries. The three-toed woodpecker, Picus tridactylus, was equally unknown to Wilson, and the second volume of Bonaparte, now about to be issued, contains an elegant figure and history of this bird, which also inhabits the north of Europe and Asia. The other birds and quadrupeds of your collection, though better known, were very interesting, as affording materials for the history of their geographical distribution, a subject now become exceedingly interesting. The plover of the plain is the turnstone, strepsilus interpres.

"The large fish is one of the genus Amia, and Dr. Dekay is inclined to think it different from the A. caloa found in our southern rivers, but of much smaller size. The tortoises belong to three species, viz., T. scabra, T. pieta, and T. serpentina. It is the first information I have obtained of their inhabiting so far to the north-west. There are also others found in your vicinity, which, if it would not be asking too much, I should be much pleased if you could obtain for the Lyceum."

"I hope you will excuse me, if I take the liberty to recommend to you, to direct your observation more particularly to those birds which come to you in winter, from the north, or in any direction from beyond the United States territory. It is among these that you may expect to find specimens new to our ornithology.

"The beautiful Fringilla, which you sent to us a few years since, is figured and described from your specimen, and in an elegant manner, in the volume just about to be published of Bonaparte's work."

Mr. G. Johnston of La Pointe, Lake Superior, writes: "Since I had the honor of receiving a printed letter from the Lyceum of Natural History, I have been enabled to procure, at this place, two specimens of the jumping mouse.

"The history the Indians give of its habits is as follows: It burrows under ground, and in summer lives on the bark of small trees. It provides and lays up a store of corn, nuts, &c., for winter consumption. It also climbs and lives in hollow parts of trees. It is also possessed of a carnivorous habit, it being peculiarly fond of burrowing in old burying places, where it lives, principally on the corpse. It is never seen in winter."

There is something in the northern zoology besides the determination of species, which denotes a very minute care in preparing animals for the particular latitudes the several species are designed for, by protecting the legs and feet against the power of intense cold. And the dispersion and migration of birds and quadrupeds are thus confined to general boundaries. The fox, in high northern latitudes, is perfectly white except the nose and tips of the ears, which are black, and the hair extends so as to cover its nails. The various kinds of owls, and the Canada jay, which winter in these latitudes, have a feathery, half-hairy protection to the toes. The American species of the reindeer, which under the name of cariboo, inhabits the country around the foot of Lake Superior, has its hoof split in such a manner that it, in fact, serves as a kind of snow shoe, spreading quite thin over about forty superficial inches, which enables it to walk on the crusted snow.

29th. Dr. William Augustus Ficklin, of Louisiana (Jackson), recalls my attention to the U.S. Exploring Expedition, the programme of which embraces my name. "You will want a physician and surgeon attached to the expedition. Is the place yet filled?" My acquaintance with this young gentleman, then a lad at his father's house, in Missouri, recalls many pleasing recollections, which gives me every inducement to favor his wishes.

August 2d. Mr. Robert Irwin, Junr., of Green Bay, writes that a most diabolical attempt was recently made at that place, a few days ago, to take the life of Maj. Twiggs, by a corporal belonging to his command. The circumstances were briefly these: About two o'clock in the afternoon, the major had retired to his room to repose himself. Soon after the corporal entered the room so secretly that he presented a loaded musket within a few inches of his head, and, as Providence would have it, the gun missed fire. The noise awoke the major, who involuntarily seized the muzzle, and, while looking the fellow full in the face, he cocked the gun and again snapped it; but it missed fire the second time. With that the major sprang up in bed and wrenched the gun out of the assassin's hands, and with the breech knocked the fellow down, fracturing his skull so much that his life was for many days despaired of.

4th. Gov. Cass, who has proceeded to Green Bay as a Commissioner for treating with the Indians, writes: "I am waiting here very impatiently for arrivals from the Indian country. But nothing comes, as yet, except proof stronger and stronger of the injustice done to the Winnebagoes by the actual seizure of their country." To repress this spirit of the people of northern Illinois, much time and negotiation was required. By his knowledge of the Indian and frontier character, an arrangement was at length concluded for the occupation of the Rock River and Galena country.

23d. An official letter of the New York Lyceum of Natural History expresses their thanks for recent donations. Dr. Van Rensselaer says: "Your birds, reptiles, and quadrupeds have been most graciously received.... The expedition to the South Seas (heretofore noticed in this journal) will afford a field for some naturalist to labor in. Dr. Dekay intends to apply for the situation. We are at present engaged in drawing up some instructions for the naturalist (whoever he may be), which we shall hand to Mr. Southard, who is now here and has requested it. We trust the expedition will add something to our knowledge as well as to our pecuniary wealth."

27th. Fiscal--Something has been out of kelter at Washington these two years with regard to the rigid application of appropriations, at least in the Indian Department. We have been literally without money, and issuing paper to public creditors and employees. Surely a government that collects its own revenues should never want funds to pay its agents and officers.

Mr. Trowbridge writes: "The money pressure is nearly or quite over in New York, but we feel it here in a dreadful degree. The want of public disbursements this year, upon which we have always rested our hopes with so much confidence, added to the over-introduction of goods for a year or two past, has produced this state of things, and I sometimes think that there will be no great improvement in this generation."

29th. Medical Causes of Depopulation.--The causes of Indian depopulation are wars, the want of abundance of food, intemperance, and idleness. Dr. Pitcher, in a letter of this date, says: "In your note (to 'Sanillac') on the subject of the diminution in numbers of our aboriginal neighbors, you have seized upon the most conspicuous, and, during their continuance, the most fatal causes of their decline. With the small-pox you might, however, associate the measles, which, in consequence of their manner of treating the fever preceding the eruption, viz., the use of vapor and cold baths combined, most commonly tends to a mortal termination. To these two evils, propagated by the diffusion of a specific virus, may be added the prevalence of general epidemics, such as influenza, &c., whose virulence expends its force without restraint upon the Indians. They are not (as you are aware) a people who draw much instruction from the school of experience, particularly in the department of medicine, and, when by the side of this fact you place the protean forms which the diseases of epidemic seasons assume, the inference must follow that multitudes of them perish where the civilized man would escape (of which I could furnish examples).

"It is the province of the science of medicine to preserve to society its feeble and invalid members, which, notwithstanding the war it wages upon the principle of political economists, augments considerably the sum of human life. The victims of the diseases of civilization do not balance the casualties, &c. of a ruder state of society, as may be seen by inspecting the tables of the rates of mortality for a century past.

"I will suggest to you the propriety of improving this opportunity for setting the public right on one point, and that is the effects of aboriginal manners upon the physical character. For my part, I have long since ceased to believe that they are indebted to their mode of life for the vigor, as a race, which they exhibit, but that the naturally feeble are destroyed by the vicissitudes to which they are exposed, and which, in part, gives them an appearance, hardy and athletic, above their civilized neighbors."

Erroneous impressions of Indians.--Maj. Whiting, of Detroit, says (27th inst.): "I dare say I may find many things which will suit our purposes well. Something new and genuine is what we want, and the source gives assurance these things all bear that character. It is time the public should know that neither ladies nor gentlemen who have never crossed the lakes or the Alleghany, can have any but vague ideas of the children of the forest. An Indian might not succeed well in portraying life in New York, because he does not read much, and would have to trust pretty much, if not altogether, to imagination; but his task would differ only in degree from that of the literary pretender who has never traveled West beyond the march of fresh oysters (though by the way, these have been seen in Detroit), and yet thinks he can penetrate the shadows and darkness of the wilderness. They put a hatchet in his hand, and stick a feather in his cap, and call him 'Nitche Nawba.' If I recollect right, in Yamoyden a soup was made of some white children. Indians have not been over dainty at times, and no doubt have done worse things; but on such occasions their modus operandi was not likely to be so much in accordance with the precepts of Madam Glass."

Reviews.--"I read over your last article in the N.A., and thought it had rather less point and connection than you had probably given it; but it still has much to recommend it. The remarks on language were more intelligible to me than any I have before seen, and have given me many clues which I have vainly sought for in preceding dissertations of the kind."

Sept. 22d. This day the patriarch of the place, John Johnston, Esq., breathed his last. He had attained the age of sixty-six. A native of the county of Antrim, in the north of Ireland; a resident for some thirty-eight years of this frontier; a gentleman in manners; a merchant, in chief, in the hazardous fur trade; a man of high social feelings and refinements; a cotemporary of the long list of men eminent in that department; a man allied to bishops and nobles at home; connected in marriage with a celebrated Chippewa family of Algonquins; he was another Rolfe, in fact, in his position between the Anglo-Saxon and the Indian races; his life and death afford subjects for remark which are of the deepest interest, and would justify a biography, not a mere notice. I wrote a brief sketch for the New York Albion, and transmitted copies of the paper to some of his connections in Ireland.

His coming out from that country was during the first presidency of Washington, and a few years before the breaking out of the Irish Rebellion. He had a deep sense of his country's injuries, and of the effect of the laws which pressed so heavily on her energies, political and commercial; but was entirely loyal, and maintained the highest tone of loyalism in argument. He saw deeply the evils, but not the remedy, which he thought to lay rather in future and peaceful developments.

He suffered greatly and unjustly in the war of 1812, in which his place was pillaged by the American troops, and some forty thousand dollars of his private property destroyed, contrary to the instructions of the American commandant. Low-minded persons who had been in his service as clerks, and disliked his pretensions to aristocracy, were the cause of this, and piloted the detachment up the river. He was, however, in nowise connected with the North-west Company, far less "one of its agents." He was a civil magistrate under Gov.-Gen. Prevost, and was honestly attached to the British cause, and he had never accepted any office or offers from the American government. The Canadian British authorities did not, however, compensate him for his losses, on the ground of his living over the lines, at a time, too, when Gen. Brock had taken the country and assumed the functions of civil and military governor over all Michigan. The American Congress did not acknowledge the obligation to sustain the orders to respect private property, the Chairman of the Committee of Claims reporting that the actors "might be prosecuted," and the old gentleman's last years were thus embittered, and he went down to the grave the victim of double misconceptions--leaving to a large family of the Indo-Irish stock little beyond an honorable and unspotted name.

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

Thirty Years with the Indians


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