Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Indian In His Wigwam
Characteristics of The Red Race of America
From Original Notes and Manuscripts
By Henry R. Schoolcraft
New York
Dewitt & Davenport
Tribune Buildings

This is a lengthy book and covers many of the Red Race who are not native to New York State. Pertinent parts of the book will be posted. abjerry

Character of the Red Man of America.



INQUIRY I.-What kind of a being is the North American Indian ?-Have we judged rightly of him ?-What are his peculiar traits, his affections, and his intellectual qualities ?1-Is he much influenced by his religion, his mode of government, and his complicated language.

My earliest impressions of the Indian race, were drawn from the fireside rehearsals of incidents which had happened during the perilous times of the American revolution; in which my father was a zealous actor, and were all inseparably connected with the fearful ideas of the Indian yell, the tomahawk, the scalping knife, and the fire brand. In these recitals, the Indian was depicted as the very impersonation of evil-a sort of wild demon, who delighted in nothing so much as blood and murder. Whether he had mind, was governed by any reasons, or even had any soul, nobody inquired, and nobody cared. It was always represented as a meritorious act in old revolutionary reminiscences, to have killed one of them in the border wars, and thus aided in ridding the land of a cruel and unnatural race, in whom all feeling's of pity, justice, and mercy, were supposed to be obliterated. These early ideas were sustained by printed narratives of captivity and hair-breadth escapes of men and women from their clutches, which, from time to time, fell into my hands, so that long before I was ten years old, I had a most definite and terrific idea impressed on my imagination of what was sometimes called in my native precincts, " the bow and arrow race."

To give a definite conception of the Indian man, there lived in my native valley, a family of Indians of the Iroquois stock, who often went off their people in the west, and as often returned again, as if they were a troop of genii, or the ghosts of the departed, who came to haunt the nut wood forests, and sub-vallies of the sylvan Tawasenthaw, which their ancestors had formerly possessed; and to which they still claimed some right. In this family, which was of the Oneida tribe, and consisted of the husband and wife, with two grown up sons, I first saw those characteristic features of the race,-namely, a red skin, with bright black eyes, and black straight hair. They were mild and docile in their deportment, and were on friendly terms with the whole settlement, whom they furnished with neatly made baskets of the linden wood, split very thin, and coloured to impart variety, and with nice ash brooms. These fabrics made them welcome guests with every good housewife, who had forgotten the horrific stories of the revolution, and who was ever ready to give a chair and a plate, and a lodging place by the kitchen fire, to poor old Isaac and Anna, for so they had been named. What their original names were, nobody knew ; they had lived so long in the valley that they spoke the Dutch language, and never made use of their own, except when talking together; and I recollect, we thought it a matter of wonder, when they discoursed in Indian, whether such a guttural jargon, could possibly be the medium of conveying any very definite ideas. It seemed to be one undistinguished tissue of hard sounds, blending all parts of speech together.

Had the boys of my own age, and I may say, the grown people, stopped to reflect, and been led to consider this family and their race in America, independently of their gross acts, under the strong excitements of war and revenge, goaded by wrongs, and led on by the class of revolutionary Tories, more implacable than even themselves, we must have seen, in the peaceable lives, quiet manners, and benevolent dispositions of these four people, a contradiction to, at least, some part, of the sweeping conclusions above noticed. But no such thoughts occurred. The word. " Indian," was synonymous then, as perhaps now, with half the opprobrious epithets in the dictionary. I recollect to have myself made a few lines, in early life, on the subject, which ran thus:-
Indians they were, ere Colon crossed the sea,
And ages hence, they shall but Indians be.
Fortunately I was still young when my sphere of observation was enlarged, by seeing masses of them, in their native forests; and I, after a few years, assumed a position as government agent to one of the leading tribes, at an age when opinions are not too firmly rooted to permit change. My opinions were still, very much however, what they had been in boyhood. I looked upon them as very cannibals and blood-thirsty fellows, who were only waiting- a good opportunity to knock one in the head. But I regarded them as a curious subject of observation. The remembrance of poor old Isaac, had shown me-that there was some feeling and humanity in their breasts, I had seen many of them in my travels in the west, and I felt inclined to inquire into the traits of a people, among- whom my duties had placed me. I had, from early youth, felt pleased with the study of natural history, and I thought the Indian, at least in his languages, might be studied with something of the same mode of exactitude. I had a strong propensity, at this time of life, for analysis, and I believed that something like an analytical process might be applied to enquiries, at least in the department of philology. Whenever a fact occurred, in the progress of my official duties, which I deemed characteristic, I made note of it, and in this way preserved a sort of skeleton of dates and events, which, it was believed, would be a source of useful future reference. It is, in truth, under advantages of the kind, that these remarks are commenced.

The author has thrown out these remarks, as a starting point. He has made observations which do not, in all respects, coincide with the commonly received opinions, and drawn some conclusions which are directly adverse to them. He has been placed in scenes and circumstances of varied interest, and met with many characters, in the course of four and twenty years' residence and travel in the wilds of America, who would have struck any observer as original and interesting. With numbers of them, he has formed an intimate acquaintance, and with not a few, contracted lasting friendships. Connected with them by a long residence, by the exercise of official duties, and by still more delicate and sacred ties, he has been regarded by them as one identified with their history, and received many marks of their confidence.

The Indians, viewed as a distinct branch of the human race, have some peculiar traits and institutions, from which their history and character may be advantageously studied. They hold some opinions, which are not easily discovered by a stranger, or a foreigner, but which yet exert a powerful influence on their conduct and life. There is a subtlety in some of their modes of thought and belief, on life and the existence of spiritual and creative power, which would seem to have been eliminated from some intellectual crucible, without the limits of their present sphere. Yet, there is much relative to all the common concerns of life, which is peculiar to it. The author has witnessed many practices and observances, such as travellers have often noticed, but like others, attributed them to accident or to some cause widely different from the true one. By degrees, he has been admitted into their opinions, and if we may so call it, the philosophy of their minds; and the life of an Indian no longer appears to him a mystery. He sees him acting, as other men would act, if placed exactly in his condition, prepared with the education the forest has given him, and surrounded with the same wants, temptations and dangers.

The gentler affections are in much more extensive and powerful exercise among the Indian race, than is generally believed, although necessarily developed with less refinement than in civilized society. Their paternal and fraternal affections, have long been known to be very strong, as well as their veneration for the dead. It has been his province in these departments, to add some striking examples of their intensity, of feeling and affection, and truthfulness to nature.

The most powerful source of influence, with the Red man, is his religion. Here is the true groundwork of his hopes and his fears, and; it is believed, the fruitful source of his opinions and actions. It supplies the system of thought by which he lives and dies, and it constitutes, indeed, the basis of Indian character. By it he preserves his identity, as a barbarian, and when this is taken away, and the true system substituted, he is still a Red Man; but no longer, in the popular sense, an Indian-a barbarian, a pagan.

The Indian religion is a peculiar compound of rites, and doctrines, and observances, which are early taught the children by precept and example. In this respect, every bark-built village is a temple, and every forest a school. It would surprise any person to become acquainted with the variety and extent to which an Indian is influenced by his religious views and superstitions. He takes no important step without reference to it. It is his guiding motive in peace and in war. He follows the chace under its influence, and his very amusements take their tincture from it. To the author, the facts have been developing themselves for many years, and while he is able to account for the peculiar differences between the conduct of Indians and that of white men, in given eases, he can easily perceive, why the latter have so often been unable to calculate the actions, of the former, and even to account for them, when they have taken place. It may be here remarked, that the civilized man, is no less a, mysterious and unaccountable being to an Indian, because his springs of action are alike unintelligible to him.

If the following pages shall afford the public any means of judging of the Red Race, with greater accuracy, he hopes they may lead to our treating them with greater kindness and a more enlarged spirit of justice. The change which has been wrought in his own mind, by the facts he has witnessed, has been accompanied by a still more important one, as to their intellectual capacities and moral susceptibilities, and their consequent claims on the philanthropy of the age. As a class of men, it is thought their native speakers, without letters or education, possess a higher scope of thought and illustration, than the corresponding class in civilized life. This may be accounted for, perhaps, from obvious external causes; without impugning the actual native capacity of the lower, although educated classes of civilized life. Still, it is a very striking fact, and one which has very often forced itself on the attention of the author. The old idea that the Indian mind is not susceptible of a high, or an advantageous developement, rests upon questionable data. The two principal causes, which have prolonged their continuance in a state of barbarism, on this continent, for so long a period, are a false religion, and false views of government.

The first has kept lack social prosperity and impeded the rise of virtue. With respect to government, during all the time we have had them for neighbours, they may be said to have had no government at all. Personal independence, has kept the petty chiefs from forming confederacies for the common good. Individuals have surrendered no part of their original private rights, to secure the observance of the rest. There has been no public social organization, expressed or implied. The consequence has been that the law of private redress and revenge prevailed. In the only two cases where this system was departed from, in North America, namely that of the Azteck empire, and of the Iroquois confederacy, there was no lack of vigour to improve. The results were a constantly increasing power, and extending degree of knowledge up to the respective eras of their conquest. It was not want of mental capacity, so much as the non-existence of moral power, and of the doctrines of truth and virtue, that kept them back ; and left our own wandering tribes, particularly, with the bow and the spear in their hands. He believes, that their errors, in these particulars, may be pointed out, without drawing conclusions adverse to their political or social prosperity, under better auspicies, and without attributing such failures to mental imbecility.

The mode of recording thought, among these tribes, by means of pictorial signs, and mnemonic symbols, has attracted particular attention, and gives the author hopes, that he has been enabled to collect, and bring forward, a body of facts, in this department, which will recommend themselves by their interest and novelty. Confidence, inspired by long residence in their territories, revealed to him another trait of character, in the existence among them of a traditionary imaginative lore, which is repeated from father to son, and has no small influence upon their social condition. It is in these two departments, that, he believes, he has opened new and important means of judging of the Indian character, and discovered the sources of views and opinions, on many subjects, which had escaped previous inquirers.

There is one more point, to which he will here invite a momentary attention, and which, although not usually enumerated as among the practical causes that influenced Indian society and character, is yet believed to exercise a strong, though silent sway, both upon the question of the mental character, and its true development. The author alludes to the topic of their languages. Some of the most venerated writers present a theory of the origin of national government languages and institutions, difficult or impossible to be conformed with the nature of man in society, and unsupported by such evidence as their doctrines require. Such, he regards, the theory of the " social compact," except it be viewed in the most undefined and general sense possible. Such, also, is the theory of the origin and improvement of languages. The system of government, generally prevailing- among the Indian tribes, is indeed so simple and natural, under their circumstances, that it is thought no person would long seek for the traces of any great legislator, giving them laws in any past period. When, however, we consider the curious structure of their languages; we find an ingenuity and complexity, far surpassing any theory to be discovered in that of the modern languages of Europe, with, perhaps, some exceptions in the Basque and Majyer, and even beyond any thing existing in the Greek. As the latter has long been held up as a model, and the excellencies of its plan attributed to some unknown, but great and sagacious, learned and refined mind, we might feel justified in assigning the richness of forms, the exceeding flexibility, and the characteristic beauties and excellencies of the Indian tongues, to a mind of far superior wisdom, ingenuity, and experience. Yet how perfectly gratuitous would this be ! All history bears testimony against the human invention and designed alteration of language ; and none but a mere theorist can ever embrace the idea that it is, or ever was, in the power of any man, to fabricate and introduce a new language, or to effect a fundamental change in the groundwork of an existing one. This, at least, is the decided opinion of the author, and he firmly believes, that whoever will contemplate the subject, amidst such scenes as he has been accustomed to, will inevitably come to the same conclusion. He has seen changes in dialects commenced and progressive, and indications of others going on, but these owed their origin, and impulse to accidental circumstances, and were not the result of any plan or design. They were the result of necessity, convenience, or caprice. These three causes, that is to say, necessity convenience and caprice, if properly examined and appreciated in their influence, and traced with care to their effects, will develop the origin of many things, whose existence has been sought at too great a distance, or amidst too much refinement.

Books, and the readers of books, have done much to bewilder and perplex the study of the Indian character. Fewer theories and more observation, less fancy and more fact, might have brought us to much more correct opinions than those which are now current. The Indian is, after all, believed to be a man, much more fully under the influence of common sense notions, and obvious every-day motives of thought and action, hope and fear, than he passes for. If he does not come to the same conclusions, on passing questions, as we do, it is precisely because he sees the premises, under widely different circumstances. The admitted errors of barbarism and the admitted truths of civilization, are two very different codes. He is in want of almost every source of true knowledge and opinion, which we possess. He has very imperfect notions on many of those branches of knowledge in what we suppose him best informed. He is totally in the dark as to others. His vague and vast and dreamy notions of the Great Author of Existence, and the mode of his manifestations to the human race, and the wide and complicated system of superstition and transcendental idolatry which he has reared upon this basis, place him, at once, with all his sympathies and theories, out of the great pale of truth and civilization. This is one of the leading circumstances which prevents him from drawing- his conclusions as we draw them. Placed under precisely similar circumstances, we should perhaps coincide in his opinion and judgments. But aside from these erroneous views, and after making just allowances for his ignorance and moral depression, the Indian is a man of plain common sense judgment, acting from what he knows,, and sees, and feels, of objects immediately before him, or palpable to his view. If he sometimes employs a highly figurative style to communicate his thoughts, and even stoops, as we now know he does, to amuse his fire-side circle with tales of extravagant and often wild demonic fancy, he is very far from being a man who, in his affairs of lands, and merchandize, and business, exchanges the sober thoughts of self preservation and subsistence, for the airy conceptions of fancy. The ties of consanguinity bind him strongly. The relation of the family is deep and well traced amongst the wildest tribes, and this fact alone forms a basis for bringing him back to all his original duties, and re-organizing Indian society. The author has, at least, been thrown into scenes and positions, in which this truth has strongly presented itself to his mind, and he believes the facts are of a character which will interest the reader, and may be of some use to the people themselves so far as affects the benevolent plans of the age, if they do not constitute an increment in the body of observational testimony, of a practical nature from which the character of the race is to be judged.

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