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Novel Reading

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Novel reading--Greenough's "Geology"--The cariboo--Spiteful plunder of private property on a large scale--Marshall's Washington--St. Clair's "Narrative of his Campaign"--Etymology of the word totem--A trait of transpositive languages--Polynesian languages--A meteoric explosion at the maximum height of the winter's temperature--Spafford's "Gazetteer"--Holmes on the Prophecies--Foreign politics--Mythology--Gnomes--The Odjibwa based on monosyllables--No auxiliary verbs--Pronouns declined for tense--Esprella's letters--Valerius--Gospel of St. Luke--Chippewayan group of languages--Home politics--Prospect of being appointed superintendent of the lead mines of Missouri.

1823. Jan. 22d. A pinching cold winter wears away slowly. The whole village seems to me like so many prescient beavers, in a vast snow-bank, who cut away the snow and make paths, every morning, from one lodge to another. In this reticulation of snow paths the drum is sounded and the flag raised. Most dignified bipeds we are. Hurrah for progress, and the extension of the Anglo-Saxon race!

I read the "Recluse," translated from D'Arlincourt's popular novel Le Solitaire, and think the commendations bestowed upon it, in the translator's preface, just in the main. It is precisely such a novel as I should suppose would be very popular in the highest circles of France, and consequently, owing to difference of character, would be less relished by the same circles in England. I suspect the author to be a great admirer of Chateaubriand's "Atala," whose death is brought to mind by the catastrophe of Elode's. Here, however, the similitude ends. There is nothing to be said respecting the comparative features of Charles the Bold and Chactas, except that the Indian possessed those qualities of the heart which most ennoble human nature.

To the readers of Scott's novels, however (for he is certainly the "Great Unknown"), this pleasing poetical romance, with all its sparkling passages, will present one glaring defect--it is not sufficiently descriptive. We rise from the perusal of it with no definite ideas of the scenery of the valley of Underlach. We suppose it to be sublime and picturesque, and are frequently told so by the author; but he fails in the description of particular scenes. Scott manages otherwise. When he sends Baillie Nicoll Jarvie into the Highlands, he does not content himself with generalities, but also brings before the mind such groups and scenes as make one fear and tremble. To produce this excitement is literary power.

23d. I devoted the time before breakfast, which, with us, happens at a late hour, to the Edinburgh Review. I read the articles on Greenough's "First Principles of Geology," and a new edition of Demosthenes. When shall we hear the last panegyric of the Grecian orator, who, in the two characteristics of his eloquence which have been most praised, simplicity and nature, is every day equalled, or excelled, by our Indian chiefs?

Greenough's Essays are bold and original, and evince no weak powers of observation and reasoning. But he is rather a leveler than a builder. It seems better that we should have a poor house over our heads than none at all. The facts mentioned on the authority of a traveler in Spain, that the pebbles in the rivers of that country are not carried down streams by the force of the current, are contradicted by all my observations on the rivers of the United States. The very reverse is true. Those streams which originate in, or run through districts of granite, limestone, graywacke, &c., present pebbles of these respective rocks abundantly along their banks, at points below the termination of the fixed strata. These pebbles, and even boulders, are found far below the termination of the rocky districts, and appear to owe their transportation to the force of existing currents. I have found the peculiar pebbles of the sources of the Mississippi as low down as St. Louis and St. Genevieve.

I resumed the perusal of Marshall's "Life of Washington," which I had laid by in the fall. Lieutenants Barnum and Bicker and Mr. Johnston came to visit me.

24th. I made one of a party of sixteen, who dined with Mr. Ermatinger. I here first tasted the flesh of the cariboo, which is a fine flavored venison. I do not recollect any wise or merry remark made during dinner, which is worth recording. As toasts show the temper of the times, and bespeak the sentiments of those who give them, a few of them may be mentioned. After several formal and national toasts, we had Mr. Calhoun, Governor Cass, General Brown, Mr. Sibley, the representative of Michigan, Colonel Brady, and Major Thayer, superintendent of the military academy. In coming home in the cariole, we all missed the balizes, and got completely upset and pitched into the snow.

25th. Mr. John Johnston returned me Silliman's Travels, and expressed himself highly pleased with them. Mr. Johnston evinces by his manners and conversation and liberal sentiments that he has passed many of his years in polished and refined circles. He told me he came to America during the presidency of General Washington, whom he esteems it a privilege to have seen at New York, in 1793. Having letters to Lord Dorchester, he went into Canada, and through a series of vicissitudes, finally settled at these falls about thirty years ago. In 1814, his property was plundered by the Americans, through the false representations of some low-minded persons, his neighbors and opponents in trade, with no more patriotism than he; in consequence of which he returned to Europe, and sold his patrimonial estate at "Craige," in the north of Ireland, within a short distance of the Giant's Causeway, and thus repaired, in part, his losses.

26th. Devoted to reading--a solid resource in the wilderness.

27th. Finished the perusal of Marshall's Washington, and took the notes contained in memorandums P. and R. The first volume of this work is intended as introductory, and contains the best recital of the political history of the colonies which I have read. The other four volumes embrace a wide mass of facts, but are rather diffuse and prolix, considered as biography, A good life of Washington, which shall comprise within a small compass all his prominent public and private acts, still remains a desideratum.

28th. Our express returned this morning, bringing me New York papers to the 11th of November. We are more than two months and a half behind the current news of the day. We have Washington dates to the 9th of November, but of course they convey nothing of the proceedings of Congress.

29th. I read St. Clair's "Narrative of his Campaign" against the Indians in 1791, and extracted the notes contained in memorandum A.A. The causes of its failure are explained in a satisfactory manner, and there is proof of Gen. St. Clair's vigilance and intrepidity. Dissensions in his camp crippled the old general's power.

30th. I took up the subject of the Indian language, after an interval of eight or nine days, and continued to transcribe into my vocabulary until after the hour of midnight. It comprises now rising of fifteen hundred words, including some synonyms.

31st. "Totem" is a word frequently heard in this quarter. In tracing its origin, it is found to be a corruption of the Indian "dodaim," signifying family mark, or armorial bearing. The word appears to be a derivative from odanah, a town or village. Hence neen dodaim, my townsman, or kindred-mark. Affinity in families is thus kept up, as in the feudal system, and the institution seems to be of some importance to the several bands. They often appeal to their "totem," as if it were a surname.

At three o'clock I went to dine at Col. Lawrence's. The party consisted of Capts. Thompson and Beal, Lieuts. Barnum, Smith, Waite, and Griswold, Mr. Johnston, Mr. Ermatinger and son, Dr. Foot and Mr. Siveright of the H.B. House. In the evening the party adjourned to Mr. Johnston's.

February 1st. Transpositive languages, like the Indian, do not appear to be well adapted to convey familiar, easy, flowing conversation. There seems to be something cumbrous and stately in the utterance of their long polysyllabic words, as if they could not readily be brought down to the minute distinctions of every day family conversation. This may arise, however, from a principle adverted to by Dr. Johnson, in speaking of the ancient languages, in which he says "nothing is familiar," and by the use of which "the writer conceals penury of thought and want of novelty, often from the reader, and often from himself." The Indian certainly has a very pompous way of expressing a common thought. He sets about it with an array of prefix and suffix, and polysyllabic strength, as if he were about to crush a cob-house with a crowbar.

2d. The languages of New Zealand, Tonga, and Malay have no declension of nouns, nor conjugation of verbs. The purposes of declension are answered by particles and prepositions. The distinctions of person, tense, and mode are expressed by adverbs, pronouns, and other parts of speech. This rigidity of the verb and noun is absolute, under every order of arrangement, in which their words can be placed, and their meaning is not helped out, by either prefixes or suffixes.

I read Plutarch's "Life of Marcellus," to observe whether it bore the points of resemblance to Washington's military character, suggested by Marshall.

3d. Abad signifies abode, in Persian. Abid denotes where he is, or dwells, in Chippewa.

I refused, on an invitation of Mr. Ermatinger, to alter the resolution formed on the seventh ultimo, as to one mode of evening's amusement.

4th. A loud meteoric report, as if from the explosion of some aerial body, was heard about noon this day. The sound seemed to proceed from the south-west. It was attended with a prolonged, or rumbling sound, and was generally heard. Popular surmise, which attempts to account for everything, has been very busy in assigning the cause of this phenomenon.

A high degree of cold has recently been experienced. The thermometer stood at 28 deg. below zero at one o'clock this morning. It had risen to 18 deg. at day-break--being the greatest observed degree of cold during the season. It did not exceed 4 deg. above zero during any part of the day.

5th. A year ago to-day, a literary friend wrote to me to join him in preparing a Gazetteer of the State of New York, to supplant Spafford's. Of the latter, he expresses himself in the letter, which is now before me, in unreserved terms of disapprobation. "It is wholly unworthy," he says, "of public patronage, and would not stand in the way of a good work of the kind; and such a one, I have the vanity to believe, our joint efforts could produce. It would be a permanent work, with slight alterations, as the State might undergo changes. My plan would be for you to travel over the State, and make a complete geological, mineralogical, and statistical survey of it, which would probably take you a year or more. In the mean time, I would devote all my leisure to the collection and arrangement of such other materials as we should need in the compilation of the work. I doubt not we could obtain the prompt assistance of the first men in the State, in furnishing all the information required. Our State is rapidly increasing in wealth and population, and I am full in the faith that such a work would sell well in different parts of the country."

6th. I did nothing to-day, by which I mean that it was given up to visiting and talking. It is Dr. Johnson, I think, who draws a distinction between "talk and conversation." It is necessary, however, to assign a portion of time in this way. "A man that hath friends must show himself friendly," is a Bible maxim.

7th. The garrison library was this morning removed from my office, where it had been placed in my charge on the arrival of the troops in July, the state of preparations in the cantonment being now sufficiently advanced to admit its reception. A party of gentlemen from the British garrison on Drummond Island came up on a visit, on snow shoes. The distance is about 45 miles.

8th. I commenced reading Holmes on "The Fulfilment of the Revelation of St. John," a London work of 1819. The author says "that his explanation of the symbols is founded upon one fixed and universal rule--that the interpretation of a symbol is ever maintained; that the chronological succession of the seals, trumpets, and vials is strictly preserved; and that the history contained under them is a uniform and homogeneous history of the Roman empire, at once comprehensive and complete."--Attended a dining-party at Mr. Johnston's.

9th. Continued the reading of Holmes, who is an energetic writer, and appears to have looked closely into his subject. The least pleasing trait in the work is a polemic spirit which is quite a clog to the inquiry, especially to those who, like myself, have never read the authors Faber, Cunningham, and Frere, whose interpretations he combats. For a clergyman, he certainly handles them without gloves.

10th. The principal Indian chief of the vicinity, Shingabawossin, sent to inquire of me the cause of the aerial explosion, heard on the 4th. At four I went to dine with Mr. Ermatinger on the British shore.

11th. I did something, although, from the round of visiting and gayety which, in consequence of our Drummond Isle visitors, has existed for a few days, but little, at my vocabulary. At half-past four, I went to dine with Lieutenants Morton and Folger in the cantonment. The party was nearly the same which has assembled for a few days, in honor of the foreign gentlemen with us. In the evening a large party, with dancing, at Mr. Johnston's.

12th. I read Lord Erskine's Letter to Lord Liverpool on the policy to be pursued by Great Britain in relation to Greece and Turkey. The arguments and sentiments do equal credit to his head and heart, and evince no less his judgment as a statesman, than they do his taste and erudition as a scholar. This interesting and valuable letter breathes the true sentiments of rational liberty, such as must be felt by the great body of the English nation, and such as must, sooner or later, prevail among the enlightened nations of the earth. How painful to reflect that this able appeal will produce no favorable effect on the British ministry, whose decision, it is to be feared, is already made in favor of the "legitimacy" of the Turkish government!

At four o'clock, I laid by my employments, and went to dine at the commanding officer's quarters, whence the party adjourned to a handsomely arranged supper table at Capt. Beal's. The necessity of complying with times and occasions, by accepting the current invitations of the day, is an impediment to any system of intellectual employment; and whatever the world may think of it, the time devoted to public dinners and suppers, routs and parties, is little better than time thrown away.

            "And yet the fate of all extremes is such;
            Books may be read, as well as men, too much."

13th. I re-perused Mackenzie's "History of the Fur Trade," to enable me more fully to comprehend the allusions in a couple of volumes lately put into my hands, on the "Disputes between Lord Selkirk and the North West Company," and the "Report of Trials" for certain murders perpetrated in the course of a strenuous contest for commercial mastery in the country by the Hudson's Bay Company.

Finding an opportunity of sending north, I recollected that the surveyors of our northern boundary were passing the winter at Fort William, on the north shore of Lake Superior; and wrote to one of the gentlemen, enclosing him some of our latest papers.

14th. The gentlemen from the neighboring British post left us this morning. I devoted the day to my Indian inquiries.

15th. I commenced a vocabulary of conversation, in the Odjibwa.

17th. Native Mythology.--According to Indian mythology, Weeng is the God of sleep. He has numerous emissaries, who are armed with war clubs, of a tiny and unseen character. These fairy agents ascend the forehead, and knock the individual to sleep. Pope's creation of Gnomes, in the Rape of the Lock, is here prefigured.

18th. It has been said that the Indian languages possess no monosyllables. This remark is not borne out with regard to the Chippewa. Marked as it is with polysyllables, there are a considerable number of exceptions. Koan is snow, ais a shell, mong a loon, kaug a porcupine, &c. The number of dissyllables is numerous, and of trisyllables still more so. The Chippewa has no auxiliary verbs. The Chippewa primitive pronouns are, Neen, Keen, and Ween (I, Thou, He or She). They are rendered plural in wind and wau. They are also declined for tense, and thus, in the conjugation of verbs, take the place of our auxiliary verbs.

19th. Resumed the perusal of Holmes on "Revelations." He establishes a dictionary of symbols, which are universally interpreted. In this system, a day signifies a natural year; a week seven years; a month thirty years; a year a period of 360 years. The air means "church and state;" waters, "peoples, multitudes, tongues;" seven, the number of perfection; twelve, totality or all; hail storms, armies of northern invaders. If the work were divested of its controversial character, it would produce more effect. Agreeably to this author, the downfall of Popery will take place about the year 1866.

20th. I read "Esprella's Letters on England," a work attributed to Southey, whose object appears to have been to render English manners and customs familiar in Spain, at a time when the intercourse between the two countries had very much augmented, and their sympathies were drawn together by the common struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte.

21st. I commenced "Valerius, a Roman Story." In the evening the commanding officer (Col. L.) gave a party, in honor of Washington's birthday. That the time might not be wholly anticipated, dancing was introduced to give it wings, and continued until two o'clock of the morning of (the actual birthday) the twenty-second.

22d. Finished "Valerius." This is an interesting novel on the Waverley plan, and must certainly be considered a successful attempt to familiarize the class of novel-readers with Roman history and Roman domestic manners. The story turns on the persecution of the Christians under Trajan. The expression "of a truth," which is so abundantly used in the narrative, is a Scripture phrase, and is very properly put into the mouth of a converted Roman. I cannot say as much for the word "alongst" used for along. There are also some false epithets, as "drop," for run or flow, and "guesses" for conjectures. The only defect in the plot, which occurs to me, is, that Valerius, after his escape with Athanasia from Ostium, should have been landed safely in Britain, and thus completed the happiness of a disconsolate and affectionate mother, whom he left there, and who is never afterwards mentioned.

23d. From the mention which is made of it in "Valerius," I this day read the Gospel of Luke, and truly am surprised to find it so very important a part of the New Testament. Indeed, were all the rest of the volume lost, this alone would be sufficient for the guidance of the Christian. Divines tell us that Luke was the most learned of the evangelists. He is called "the beloved physician," by St. Paul. His style is more descriptive than the other evangelists, and his narrative more clear, methodical, and precise, and abounds equally with sublime conceptions1.

24th. Mr. Harman, from a long residence in the Indian country, in high northern latitudes, was qualified by his opportunities of observation, to speak of the comparative character of the Indian language in that quarter. He considers them as radically different from those of the Algonquin stock. The group which may be formed from his remarks, will embrace the Chippewayans, Beaver Indians, Sicaunies, Tacullies, and Nateotetains. If we may judge of this family of dialects by Mackenzie's vocabulary of the Chippewayan, it is very remote from the Chippewa, and abounds in those consonantal sounds which the latter studiously avoids.

Harman says, "The Sicaunies bury, while the Tacullies burn their dead." "Instances of suicide, by hanging, frequently occur among the women of all the tribes, with whom I have been acquainted; but the men are seldom known to take away their own lives."

These Indians entertain the same opinions respecting the dress of the dead, with the more southerly tribes. "Nothing," he says, "pleases an Indian better than to see his deceased relative handsomely attired, for he believes that they will arrive in the other world in the same dress with which they are clad, when they are consigned to the grave."

27th. Our second express arrived at dusk, this evening, bringing papers from the seaboard to the 14th of January, containing the President's message, proceedings of Congress, and foreign news, up to that date. A friend who is in Congress writes to me--"We go on slowly, but so far very harmoniously, in Congress. The Red Jackets2  are very quiet, and I believe are very much disposed to cease their warfare against Mr. Monroe, as they find the nation do not relish it."

Another friend at Washington writes (15th Dec.): "The message of the President you will have seen ere this reaches you. It is thought very well of here. He recommends the appointment of a Superintendent of the Western Lead Mines, skilled in mineralogy. If Congress should make provision for one, it is not to be doubted who will receive the situation. In fact, in a conversation a few days since with Mr. C., he told me he had you particularly in view when he recommended it to the President."

28th. Wrote an application to the Postmaster General for the appointment of S.B. Griswold as postmaster at this place3.

1: This opinion was thrown out from mere impulse, on a single perusal, and so far as it may be regarded as a literary criticism, the only possible light in which it can be considered, is vaguely hazarded, for I had not, at that time, read the other Gospels with any degree of care or understanding, so as to be capable thereby of judging of their style or merits as compositions. Spiritually considered, I did not understand Luke, or any of the Evangelists, for I regarded the Gospels as mere human compositions, without the aid of inspiration. They were deemed to be a true history of events, interspersed with moral axioms, but derived no part of their value, or the admiration above expressed, as revealing the only way of salvation through Christ.

2: Opponents of the then existing administration, who looked to Gen. Cocke, of Tennessee, as a leader.

3: Mr. G. was appointed.

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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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