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Trip to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Trip to Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi--Large assemblage of tribes--Their appearance and character--Sioux, Winnebagoes, Chippewas, &c.--Striking and extraordinary appearance of the Sacs and Foxes, and of the Iowas--Keokuk--Mongazid's speech--Treaty of limits--Whisky question--A literary impostor--Journey through the valleys of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers--Incidents--Menomonies--A big nose--Wisconsin Portage.

June 23d. The whole village was alive with the excitement of the surrendery of the murderers. The agency office had been crowded with spectators during the examination; and both white and red men saw in their voluntary delivery into the hands of the agent, an evidence of the power of the government in watching over and vindicating the lives and interests of its citizens in the wildest wilderness, which was gratifying to all.

To Gitche Iauba, the chief at the bay of Kewywenon, in Lake Superior, who had been instrumental in producing the delivery, I presented a silver medal of the first class, with a written speech approbatory of the act, and complimentary of himself. In the meantime, my preparations for attending the general convocation of tribes, at Prairie du Chien, were completed. I placed the agency under the charge of Captain N. S. Clark, 2d Infantry, who had satisfactorily and ably performed its duties during my absence at New York. I had selected a delegation of the most influential chiefs to attend the contemplated council. And all things being ready, and my canoe-allege in the water, with its flag set, I embarked for the trip on the 24th. I descended the straits that day, and having turned Point Detour reached Michilimackinack the next morning. The party from Detroit had reached that point the same morning, after traversing the Huron coasts for upwards of 300 miles, in a light canoe. Congratulations on the success that had attended the demand for the Chippewa murderers, awaited me. Some practical questions, deemed indispensable respecting that transaction, required my immediate return to St. Mary's, which was effected on the 27th, and I again embarked at St. Mary's on the 28th, and rejoined the party at Mackinack on the 30th. The distance traversed is about ninety miles, which was four times passed and repassed in six days, a feat that could only have been accomplished in the calms of summer.

We finally left Mackinack for our destination on the Mississippi, on the 1st of July. The convocation to which we were now proceeding was for the purpose of settling internal disputes between the tribes, by fixing the boundaries to their respective territories, and thus laying the foundation of a lasting peace on the frontiers. And it marks an era in the policy of our negotiations with the Indians, which is memorable. No such gathering of the tribes had ever before occurred, and its results have taken away the necessity of any in future, so far as relates to the lines on the Mississippi.

We encountered head winds, and met with some delay in passing through the straits into Lake Michigan, and after escaping an imminent hazard of being blown off into the open lake, in a fog, reached Green Bay on the 4th. The journey up the Fox River, and its numerous portages, was resumed on the 14th, and after having ascended the river to its head, we crossed over the Fox and Wisconsin portage, and descending the latter with safety, reached Prairie du Chien on the 21st, making the whole journey from Mackinack in twenty-one days.

We found a very large number of the various tribes assembled. Not only the village, but the entire banks of the river for miles above and below the town, and the island in the river, was covered with their tents. The Dakotahs, with their high pointed buffalo skin tents, above the town, and their decorations and implements of flags, feathers, skins and personal "braveries," presented the scene of a Bedouin encampment. Some of the chiefs had the skins of skunks tied to their heels, to symbolize that they never ran, as that animal is noted for its slow and self-possessed movements.

Wanita, the Yankton chief, had a most magnificent robe of the buffalo, curiously worked with dyed porcupine's quills and sweet grass. A kind of war flag, made of eagles' and vultures' large feathers, presented quite a martial air. War clubs and lances presented almost every imaginable device of paint; but by far the most elaborate thing was their pipes of red stone, curiously carved, and having flat wooden handles of some four feet in length, ornamented with the scalps of the red-headed woodpecker and male duck, and tail feathers of birds artificially attached by strings and quill work, so as to hang in the figure of a quadrant. But the most elaborately wrought part of the devices consisted of dyed porcupines' quills, arranged as a kind of aboriginal mosaic.

The Winnebagoes, who speak a cognate dialect of the Dacotah, were encamped near; and resembled them in their style of lodges, arts, and general decorations.

The Chippewas presented the more usually known traits, manners and customs of the great Algonquin family--of whom they are, indeed, the best representative. The tall and warlike bands from the sources of the Mississippi--from La Point, in Lake Superior--from the valleys of the Chippewa and St. Croix rivers, and the Rice Lake region of Lac du Flambeau, and of Sault Ste. Marie, were well represented.

The cognate tribe of the Menomonies, and of the Potawattomies and Ottowas from Lake Michigan, assimilated and mingled with the Chippewas. Some of the Iroquois of Green Bay were present.

But no tribes attracted as intense a degree of interest as the Iowas, and the Sacs and Foxes--tribes of radically diverse languages, yet united in a league against the Sioux. These tribes were encamped on the island, or opposite coast. They came to the treaty ground, armed and dressed as a war party. They were all armed with spears, clubs, guns and knives. Many of the warriors had a long tuft of red-horse hair tied at their elbows, and bore a neck lace of grizzly bears' claws. Their head-dress consisted of red dyed horse-hair, tied in such manner to the scalp lock as to present the shape of the decoration of a Roman helmet. The rest of the head was completely shaved and painted. A long iron shod lance was carried in the hand. A species of baldric supported part of their arms. The azian, moccason and leggins constituted a part of their dress. They were, indeed, nearly nude, and painted. Often the print of a hand, in white clay, marked the back or shoulders. They bore flags of feathers. They beat drums. They uttered yells, at definite points. They landed in compact ranks. They looked the very spirit of defiance. Their leader stood as a prince, majestic and frowning. The wild, native pride of man, in the savage state, flushed by success in war, and confident in the strength of his arm, was never so fully depicted to my eyes. And the forest tribes of the continent may be challenged to have ever presented a spectacle of bold daring, and martial prowess, equal to their landing.

Their martial bearing, their high tone, and whole behavior during their stay, in and out of council, was impressive, and demonstrated, in an eminent degree, to what a high pitch of physical and moral courage, bravery and success in war may lead a savage people. Keokuk, who led them, stood with his war lance, high crest of feathers, and daring eye, like another Coriolanus, and when he spoke in council, and at the same time shook his lance at his enemies, the Sioux, it was evident that he wanted but an opportunity to make their blood flow like water. Wapelo, and other chiefs backed him, and the whole array, with their shaved heads and high crests of red horse-hair, told the spectator plainly, that each of these men held his life in his hand, and was ready to spring to the work of slaughter at the cry of their chief.

General William Clark, from St. Louis, was associated with General Cass in this negotiation. The great object was to lay the foundation of a permanent peace by establishing boundaries. Day after day was assigned to this, the agents laboring with the chiefs, and making themselves familiar with Indian bark maps and drawings. The thing pleased the Indians. They clearly saw that it was a benevolent effort for their good, and showed a hearty mind to work in the attainment of the object. The United States asked for no cession. Many glowing harangues were made by the chiefs, which gave scope to their peculiar oratory, which is well worth the preserving. Mongazid, of Fond du Lac, Lake Superior, said: "When I heard the voice of my Great Father, coming up the Mississippi Valley calling me to this treaty, it seemed as a murmuring wind; I got up from my mat where I sat musing, and hastened to obey it. My pathway has been clear and bright. Truly it is a pleasant sky above our heads this day. There is not a cloud to darken it. I hear nothing but pleasant words. The raven is not waiting for his prey, I hear no eagle cry--'Come, let us go. The feast is ready--the Indian has killed his brother.'"

When nearly a whole month had been consumed in these negotiations, a treaty of limits was signed, which will long be remembered in the Indian reminiscences. This was on the 19th of August (1825), vide Indian Treaties, p. 371. It was a pleasing sight to see the explorer of the Columbia in 1806, and the writer of the proclamation of the army that invaded Canada in 1812, uniting in a task boding so much good to the tribes whose passions and trespasses on each other's lands keep them perpetually at war.

            'Tis war alone that gluts the Indian's mind,
                As eating meats, inflames the tiger kind. HETH.

At the close of the treaty, an experiment was made on the moral sense of the Indians, with regard to intoxicating liquors, which was evidently of too refined a character for their just appreciation. It had been said by the tribes that the true reason for the Commissioners of the United States government speaking against the use of ardent spirits by the Indians, and refusing to give them, was not a sense of its bad effects, so much, as the fear of the expense. To show them that the government was above such a petty principle, the Commissioners had a long row of tin camp kettles, holding several gallons each, placed on the grass, from one end of the council house to the other, and then, after some suitable remarks, each kettle was spilled out in their presence. The thing was evidently ill relished by the Indians. They loved the whisky better than the joke.

Impostor.--Among the books which I purchased for General Cass, at New York, was the narrative of one John Dunn Hunter. I remember being introduced to the man, at one of my visits to New York, by Mr. Carter. He appeared to be one of those anomalous persons, of easy good nature, without much energy or will, and little or no moral sense, who might be made a tool of. It seems no one at New York was taken in by him, but having wandered over to London, the booksellers found him a good subject for a book, and some hack there, with considerable cleverness, made him a pack-horse for carrying a load of stuff about America's treatment of the Indians. It was called a "captivity," and he was made to play the part of an adventurer among the Indians--somewhat after the manner of John Tanner. C. reviewed the book, on our route and at the Prairie, for the North American, in an article which created quite a sensation, and will be remembered for its force and eloquence. He first read to me some of these glowing sentences, while on the portages of the Fox. It was continued, during the leisure hours of the conferences, and finally the critique was finished, after his visiting the place and the person, in Missouri, to which Hunter had alluded as his sponsor in baptism. The man denied all knowledge of him. Hunter was utterly demolished, and his book shown to be as great a tissue of misrepresentation as that of Psalmanazar himself.

August 21st. The party separates. I had determined to return to the Sault by way of Lake Superior, through Chippewa River. But, owing to the murder of Finley and his men at its mouth in 1824, I found it impossible to engage men at Prairie du Chien, to take that route. I determined therefore to go up the Wisconsin, and by the way of Green Bay. For this purpose, I purchased a light canoe, engaged men to paddle it, and laid in provisions and stores to last to Green Bay. Having done so, I embarked about 3 o'clock P.M., descending the majestic Mississippi, with spirits enlivened by the hope of soon rejoining friends far away. At the same time, Mr. Holliday left for the same destination in a separate canoe. On reaching the mouth of the Wisconsin, we entered that broad tributary, and found the current strong. We passed the point of rocks called Petite Gres, and encamped at Grand Gres.

Several hours previous to leaving the prairie, a friend handed me an enveloped packet, saying, "Read it when you get to the mouth of the Wisconsin." I had no conception what it related to, but felt great anxiety to reach the place mentioned. I then opened it, and read as follows: "I cannot separate from you without expressing my grateful acknowledgments for the honor you have done me, by connecting my name with your Narrative of Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley, &c." Nothing could have been more gratifying or unexpected.

22d. A fog in the valley detained us till 5 o'clock A.M. After traveling about two hours, Mr. Holliday's canoe was crushed against a rock. While detained in repairing it, I ordered my cook to prepare breakfast. It was now 9 o'clock, when we again proceeded, till the heat of noon much affected the men. We pushed our canoes under some overhanging trees, where we found fine clusters of ripe grapes.

In going forward we passed two canoes of Menomonies, going out on their fall hunt, on the Chippewa River. These people have no hunting grounds of their own, and are obliged to the courtesy of neighboring nations for a subsistence. They are the most erratic of all our tribes, and may be said to be almost nomadic. We had already passed the canoes, when Mr. Lewis, the portrait painter, called out stoutly behind us, from an island in the river. "Oh! ho! I did not know but there was some other breaking of the canoe, or worse disaster, and directed the men to put back. See, see," said he, "that fellow's nose! Did you ever see such a protuberance?" It was one of the Menomonies from Butte des Morts, with a globular irregular lump on the end of his nose, half as big as a man's fist. Lewis's artistic risibles were at their height, and he set to work to draw him. I could think of nothing appropriate, but Sterne and Strasbourg.

23d. A heavy fog detained us at Caramani's village, till near 6 A.M. The fog, however, still continued, so thick as to conceal objects at twenty yards distance. We consequently went cautiously. Both this day and yesterday we have been constantly in sight of Indian canoes, on their return from the treaty. Wooden canoes are exclusively used by the Winnebagoes. They are pushed along with poles.

We passed a precipitous range of hills near Pine Creek, on one of which is a cave, called by our boatmen L'diable au Port. This superstition of peopling dens and other dark places with the "arch fiend," is common. If the "old serpent" has given any proofs to the French boatmen of his residence here, I shall only hope that he will confine himself to this river, and not go about troubling quiet folks in the land of the Lakes.

At Pine River we went inland about a mile to see an old mine, probably the remains of French enterprise, or French credulity. But all its golden ores had flown, probably frightened off by the old fellow of L'diable au Port. We saw only pits dug in the sand overgrown with trees.

Near this spot in the river, we overtook Shingabowossin and his party of Chippewas. They had left the prairie on the same day that we did, but earlier. They had been in some dread of the Winnebagoes, and stopped on the island to wait for us.

In passing the channel of Detour, we observed many thousand tons of white rock lying in the river, which had lately fallen from the bank, leaving a solid perpendicular precipice. This rock, banks and ruins, is, like all the Wisconsin Valley rocks, a very white and fine sandstone.

We passed five canoes of Menomonies, on their way to hunt on Chippewa River, to whom I presented some powder, lead, and flour. They gave me a couple of fish, of the kind called pe-can-o by the Indians.

24th. We were again detained by the fog, till half past five A.M., and after a hard day's fatiguing toil, I encamped at eight o'clock P.M. on a sandy island in the centre of the Wisconsin. The water in the river is low, and spreads stragglingly over a wide surface. The very bed of the river is moving sand. While supper was preparing, I took from my trunk a towel, clean shirt, and cake of soap, and spent half an hour in bathing in the river upon the clean yellow sand. After this grateful refreshment, I sank sweetly to repose in my tent.

25th. The fog dispersed earlier this morning than usual. We embarked a few minutes after four A.M., and landed for breakfast at ten. The weather now, was quite sultry, as indeed it has been during the greater part of every day, since leaving Tipesage--i.e. the Prairie. Our route this day carried us through the most picturesque and interesting part of the Wisconsin, called the Highlands or River Hills. Some of these hills are high, with precipitous faces towards the river. Others terminate in round grassy knobs, with oaks dispersed about the sides. The name is supposed to have been taken from this feature1. Generally speaking, the country has a bald and barren aspect. Not a tree has apparently been cut upon its banks, and not a village is seen to relieve the tedium of an unimproved wilderness. The huts of an Indian locality seem "at random cast." I have already said these conical and angular hills present masses of white sandstone, whereever they are precipitous. The river itself is almost a moving mass of white and yellow sand, broad, clear, shallow, and abounding in small woody islands, and willowy sandbars.

While making these notes I have been compelled to hold my book, pencil and umbrella, the latter being indispensable to keep off the almost tropical fervor of the sun's rays. As the umbrella and book must be held in one hand, you may judge that I have managed with some difficulty; and this will account to you for many uncouth letters and much disjointed orthography. Between the annoyance of insects, the heat of the sun, and the difficulties of the way, we had incessant employment.

At three o'clock P.M. we put ashore for dinner, in a very shaded and romantic spot. Poetic images were thick about us. We sat upon mats spread upon a narrow carpet of grass between the river and a high perpendicular cliff. The latter threw its broad shade far beyond us. This strip of land was not more than ten feet wide, and had any fragments of rock fallen, they would have crushed us. But we saw no reason to fear such an event, nor did it at all take from the relish of our dinner. Green moss had covered the face of the rock, and formed a soft velvet covering, against which we leaned. The broad and cool river ran at our feet. Overhanging trees formed a grateful bower around us. Alas, how are those to be pitied who prefer palaces built with human hands to such sequestered scenes. What perversity is there in the human understanding, to quit the delightful and peaceful abodes of nature, for noisy towns and dusty streets.

            "To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
                One native charm than all the gloss of art."

At a late hour in the evening we reached the Wisconsin portage, and found Dr. Wood. U.S.A., encamped there. He had arrived a short time before us, with four Indians and one Canadian in a canoe, on his way to St. Peter's. He had a mail in his trunk, and I had reasons to believe I should receive letters, but to my sore disappointment I found nothing. I invited Dr. Wood to supper, having some ducks and snipes to offer in addition to my usual stock of solids, such as ham, venison and buffalo tongues.

1: Sin, the terminal syllable, is clearly from the Algonquin, Os-sin, a stone. The French added the letter g, which is the regular local form of the word, agreeably to the true Indian.

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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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