Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Volume II

Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Volume II

by George Catlin

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Volume 2 of the classic account of life among Plains Indians; ceremonies, hunt, warfare, etc. Total in set: 312 plates.


Volume 2 of the classic account of life among Plains Indians; ceremonies, hunt, warfare, etc. Total in set: 312 plates.

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Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Volume II

Written during Eight Years' Travel (1832-1839) amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America

By George Catlin

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1973 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15679-8


LETTER—No. 32.


THE readers, 1 presume, will have felt some anxiety for me and the fate of my little craft, after the close of my last Letter; and I have the very great satisfaction of announcing to them that we escaped snags and sawyers, and every other danger, and arrived here safe from the Upper Missouri, where my last letters were dated. We, (that is, Ba'tiste, Bogard and I,) are comfortably quartered for awhile, in the barracks of this hospitable Cantonment, which is now the extreme Western military post on the frontier, and under the command of Colonel Davenport, a gentleman of great urbanity of manners, with a Roman head and a Grecian heart, restrained and tempered by the charms of an American lady, who has elegantly pioneered the graces of civilized refinements into these uncivilized regions.

This Cantonment, which is beautifully situated on the west bank of the Missouri River, and six hundred miles above its mouth, was constructed some years since by General Leavenworth, from whom it has taken its name. Its location is very beautiful, and so is the country around it. It is the concentration point of a number of hostile tribes in the vicinity, and has its influence in restraining their warlike propensities.

There is generally a regiment of men stationed here, for the purpose of holding the Indians in check, and of preserving the peace amongst the hostile tribes. I shall visit several tribes in this vicinity, and most assuredly give you some further account of them, as fast as I get it.

Since the date of my last epistles, I succeeded in descending the river to this place, in my little canoe, with my two men at the oars, and myself at the helm, steering its course the whole way amongst snags and sand-bars.

Before I give further account of this downward voyage, however, I must recur back for a few moments, to the Teton River, from whence I started, and from whence my last epistles were written, to record a few more incidents which I then overlooked in my note-book. Whilst painting my portraits amongst the Sioux, as I have described, I got the portrait of a noble Shienne chief, by the name of Nee-hee-o-ee-woo-tis, the wolf on the hill (PLATE 115). The chief of a party of that tribe, on a friendly visit to the Sioux, and the portrait also of a woman, Tis-see-woo-na-tis (she who bathes her knees, PLATE 116). The Shiennes are a small tribe of about 3000 in numbers, living neighbours to the Sioux, on the west of them, and between the Black Hills and the Rocky Mountains. There is no finer race of men than these in North America, and none superior in stature, excepting the Osages; scarcely a man in the tribe, full grown, who is less than six feet in height. The Shiennes are undoubtedly the richest in horses of any tribe on the Continent, living in a country as they do, where the greatest herds of wild horses are grazing on the prairies, which they catch in great numbers and vend to the Sioux, Mandans and other tribes, as well as to the Fur Traders.

These people are the most desperate set of horsemen, and warriors also, having carried on almost unceasing wars with the Pawnees and Blackfeet, "time out of mind." The chief represented in the picture was clothed in a handsome dress of deer skins, very neatly garnished with broad bands of porcupine quill-work down the sleeves of his shirt and his leggings, and all the way fringed with scalp-locks. His hair was very profuse, and flowing over his shoulders; and in his hand he held a beautiful Sioux pipe, which had just been presented to him by Mr. M'Kenzie, the Trader. This was one of the finest looking and most dignified men that I have met in the Indian country; and from the account given of him by the Traders a man of honour and strictest integrity. The woman was comely, and beautifully dressed; her dress of the mountain-sheep skins, tastefully ornamented with quills and beads, and her hair plaited in large braids, that hung down on her breast.

After I had painted these and many more, whom I have not time at present to name, I painted the portrait of a celebrated warrior of the Sioux, by the name of Mah-to-chee-ga (the little bear), who was unfortunately slain in a few moments after the picture was done, by one of his own tribe; and which was very near costing me my life for having painted a side view of his face, leaving one-half of it out of the picture, which had been the cause of the affray; and supposed by the whole tribe to have been intentionally left out by me, as "good for nothing." This was the last picture that I painted amongst the Sioux, and the last, undoubtedly, that I ever shall paint in that place. So tremendous and so alarming was the excitement about it, that my brushes were instantly put away, and I embarked the next day on the steamer for the sources of the Missouri, and was glad to get underweigh.

The man who slew this noble warrior was a troublesome fellow of the same tribe, by the name of Shon-ka (the dog). A "hue and cry" has been on his track for several months; and my life having been repeatedly threatened during my absence up the river, I shall defer telling the whole of this most extraordinary affair, until I see that my own scalp is safe, and I am successfully out of the country. A few weeks or months will decide how many are to fall victims to the vengeance of the relatives of this murdered brave; and if I outlive the affair, I shall certainly give some further account of it.

My voyage from the mouth of the Teton River to this place has been the most rugged, yet the most delightful, of my whole Tour. Our canoe was generally landed at night on the point of some projecting barren sand-bar, where we straightened our limbs on our buffalo robes, secure from the annoyance of mosquitos, and out of the walks of Indians and grizzly bears. In addition to the opportunity which this descending Tour has afforded me, of visiting all the tribes of Indians on the river, and leisurely filling my portfolio with the beautiful scenery which its shores present—the sportsman's fever was roused and satisfied; the swan, ducks, geese, and pelicans—the deer, antelope, elk, and buffaloes, were "stretched" by our rifles; and some times—" pull boys! pull!! a war party! for your lives pull! or we are gone!"

I often landed my skiff, and mounted the green carpeted bluffs, whose soft grassy tops, invited me to recline, where I was at once lost in contemplation. Soul melting scenery that was about me! A place where the mind could think volumes; but the tongue must be silent that would speak, and the hand palsied that would write. A place where a Divine would confess that he never had fancied Paradise—where the painter's palette would lose its beautiful tints—the blood-stirring notes of eloquence would die in their utterance—and even the soft tones of sweet music would scarcely preserve a spark to light the soul again that had passed this sweet delirium. I mean the prairie, whose enamelled plains that lie beneath me, in distance soften into sweetness, like an essence; whose thousand thousand velvet-covered hills, (surely never formed by chance, but grouped in one of Nature's sportive moods)—tossing and leaping down with steep or graceful declivities to the river's edge, as if to grace its pictured shores, and make it "a thing to look upon." I mean the prairie at sun-set; when the green hill-tops are turned into gold—and their long shadows of melancholy are thrown over the valleys—when all the breathings of day are hushed, and nought but the soft notes of the retiring dove can be heard; or the still softer and more plaintive notes of the wolf, who sneaks through these scenes of enchantment, and mournfully how—1——s, as if lonesome, and lost in the too beautiful quiet and stillness about him. I mean this prairie; where Heaven sheds its purest light, and lends its richest tints—this round-topp'd bluff, where the foot treads soft and light—whose steep sides, and lofty head, rear me to the skies, overlooking yonder pictured vale of beauty—this solitary cedar-post, which tells a tale of grief—grief that was keenly felt, and tenderly, but long since softened in the march of time and lost. Oh, sad and tear-starting contemplation! sole tenant of this stately mound, how solitary thy habitation! here Heaven wrested from thee thy ambition, and made thee sleeping monarch of this land of silence.

Stranger! oh, how the mystic web of sympathy links my soul to thee and thy afflictions ! I knew thee not, but it was enough; thy tale was told, and I a solitary wanderer through thy land, have stopped to drop familiar tears upon thy grave. Pardon this gush from a stranger's eyes, for they are all that thou canst have in this strange land, where friends and dear relations are not allowed to pluck a flower, and drop a tear to freshen recollections of endearments past.

Stranger ! adieu. With streaming eyes I leave thee again, and thy fairy land, to peaceful solitude. My pencil has faithfully traced thy beautiful habitation; and long shall live in the world, and familiar, the name of "Floyd's Grave."

Readers, pardon this digression. I have seated myself down, not on a prairie, but at my table, by a warm and cheering fire, with my journal before me to cull from it a few pages, for your entertainment; and if there are spots of loveliness and beauty, over which I have passed, and whose images are occasionally beckoning me into digressions, you must forgive me.

Such is the spot I have just named, and some others, on to which I am instantly transferred when I cast my eyes back upon the enamelled and beautiful shores of the Upper Missouri; and I am constrained to step aside and give ear to their breathings, when their soft images, and cherished associations, so earnestly prompt me. "Floyd's Grave" is a name given to one of the most lovely and imposing mounds or bluffs on the Missouri River, about twelve hundred miles above St. Louis, from the melancholy fate of Serjeant Floyd, who was of Lewis and Clark's expedition, in 1806; who died on the way, and whose body was taken to this beautiful hill, and buried in its top, where now stands a cedar post, bearing the initials of his name (PLATE 118).

I landed my canoe in front of this grass-covered mound, and all hands being fatigued, we encamped a couple of days at its base. I several times ascended it and sat upon his grave, overgrown with grass and the most delicate wild flowers, where I sat and contemplated the solitude and stillness of this tenanted mound; and beheld from its top, the windings infinite of the Missouri, and its thousand hills and domes of green, vanishing into blue in distance, when nought but the soft-breathing winds were heard, to break the stillness and quietude of the scene. Where not the chirping of bird or sound of cricket, nor soaring eagle's scream, were interposed 'tween God and man; nor aught to check man's whole surrender of his soul to his Creator. I could not hunt upon this ground, but I roamed from hill-top to hill-top, and culled wild flowers, and looked into the valley below me, both up the river and down, and contemplated the thousand hills and dales that are now carpeted with green, streaked as they will be, with the plough, and yellow with the harvest sheaf; spotted with lowing kine—with houses and fences, and groups of hamlets and villas—and these lovely hill-tops ringing with the giddy din and maze, or secret earnest whispers of lovesick swains—of pristine simplicity and virtue—wholesome and well-earned contentment and abundance—and again, of wealth and refinements —of idleness and luxury—of vice and ifs deformities—of fire and sword, and the vengeance of offended Heaven, wreaked in retributive destruction!—and peace, and quiet, and loveliness, and silence, dwelling again, over and through these scenes, and blending them into futurity!

Many such scenes there are, and thousands, on the Missouri shores. My canoe has been stopped, and I have clambered up their grassy and flower-decked sides; and sighed all alone, as I have carefully traced and fastened them in colours on my canvass.

This voyage in my little canoe, amid the thousand islands and grass-covered bluffs that stud the shores of this mighty river, afforded me infinite pleasure, mingled with pains and privations which I never shall wish to forget. Gliding along from day to day, and tiring our eyes on the varying landscapes that were continually opening to our view, my merry voyageurs were continually chaunting their cheerful boat songs, and "every now and then," taking up their unerring rifles to bring down the stately elks or antelopes, which were often gazing at us from the shores of the river.

But a few miles from "Floyd's Bluff" we landed our canoe, and spent a day in the vicinity of the "Black Bird's Grave." This is a celebrated point on the Missouri, and a sort of telegraphic place, which all the travellers in these realms, both white and red, are in the habit of visiting: the one to pay respect to the bones of one of their distinguished leaders; and the others, to indulge their eyes on the lovely landscape that spreads out to an almost illimitable extent in every direction about it. This elevated bluff, which may be distinguished for several leagues in distance (PLATE 117), has received e name of the "Black Bird's Grave," from the fact, that a famous chief of the O-mahaws, by the name of the Black Bird, was buried on its top, at his own peculiar request; over whose grave a cedar post was erected by his tribe some thirty years ago, which is still standing. The O-ma-haw village was about sixty miles above this place; and this very noted chief, who had been on a visit to Washington City, in company with the Indian agent, died of the small-pox, near this spot, on his return home. And, whilst dying, enjoined on his warriors who were about him, this singular request, which was literally complied with. He requested them to take his body down the river to this his favourite haunt, and on the pinnacle of this towering bluff, to bury him on the back of his favourite war-horse, which was to be buried alive, under him, from whence he could see, as he said, "the Frenchmen passing up and down the river in their boats." He owned, amongst many horses, a noble white steed that was led to the top of the grass-covered hill; and, with great pomp and ceremony, in presence of the whole nation, and several of the Fur Traders and the Indian agent, he was placed astride of his horse's back, with his bow in his hand, and his shield and quiver slung—with his pipe and his medicine-bag—with his supply of dried meat, and his tobacco-pouch replenished to last him through his journey to the "beautiful hunting grounds of the shades of his fathers"—with his flint and steel, and his tinder, to light his pipes by the way. The scalps that he had taken from his enemies' heads, could be trophies for nobody else, and were hung to the bridle of his horse—he was in full dress and fully equipped; and on his head waved, to the last moment, his beautiful head-dress of the war-eagle's plumes. In this plight, and the last funeral honours having been performed by the medicine-men, every warrior of his band painted the palm and fingers of his right hand with vermilion; which was stamped, and perfectly impressed on the milk-white sides of his devoted horse.

This all done, turfs were brought and placed around the feet and legs of the horse, and gradually laid up to its sides; and at last, over the back and head of the unsuspecting animal, and last of all, over the head and even the eagle plumes of its valiant rider, where altogether have smouldered and remained undisturbed to the present day.

This mound which is covered with a green turf, and spotted with wild flowers, with its cedar post in its centre, can easily be seen at the distance of fifteen miles, by the voyageur, and forms for him a familiar and useful landmark.

Whilst visiting this mound in company with Major Sanford, on our way up the river, I discovered in a hole made in the mound, by a "ground hog" or other animal, the skull of the horse; and by a little pains, also came at the skull of the chief, which I carried to the river side, and secreted till my return in my canoe, when I took it in, and brought with me to this place, where I now have it, with others which I have collected on my route.

There have been some very surprising tales told of this man, which will render him famous in history, whether they be truth or matters of fiction. Of the many, one of the most current is, that he gained his celebrity and authority by the most diabolical series of murders in his own tribe; by administering arsenic (with which he had been supplied by the Fur Traders) to such of his enemies as he wished to get rid of—and even to others in his tribe whom he was willing to sacrifice, merely to establish his superhuman powers, and the most servile dread of the tribe, from the certainty with which his victims fell around him, precisely at the times he saw fit to predict their death! It has been said that he administered this potent drug, and to them unknown medicine, to many of his friends as well as to foes; and by such an inhuman and unparalleled depravity, succeeded in exercising the most despotic and absolute authority in his tribe, until the time of his death!


Excerpted from Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Volume II by George Catlin. Copyright © 1973 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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