FOR the purpose of a somewhat more discriminating notice of the Indian tribes beyond our western border — for it is to those I intend my remarks, in these pages, to be strictly confined — I will distinguish them, according to the prevailing classification of the West, as ‘Frontier’ or ‘Border Indians,’ which title includes those occupying that district lying west of and immediately adjoining Arkansas and Missouri, and known as the Indian Territory; and the ‘Wild Tribes’ or ‘Prairie Indians,’ by which are meant those who are found west of the others, and who range those immense
plains, from the borders of the Indian Territory to the Rocky Mountains. Of these I will speak in their order.
The most important of the frontier tribes, as is well known, are the Cherokees, Choctaws and Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, Shawnees, Delawares, etc. It is equally well known that most of these tribes were removed from within the States, not less because of the vicious propensities which they contracted and the imposition to which they were continually exposed, than on account of the difficulty of maintaining peaceful relations between them and our own citizens, while they remained in their midst. Their situation within the States certainly presented quite an anomaly in government — independent powers within the limits of others claiming sovereign jurisdiction.
A mistaken philanthropy — mistaken for want of a full knowledge of all the bearings of the subject — among some people, has occasioned much censure upon this branch of the policy of our government. But were we to take into consideration the treatment of other nations towards the aborigines of America, that of the United States, when placed in contrast, would certainly present a very benevolent aspect. They have always been removed by their own consent; obtained through their chiefs and councils; and have not only been given equal amounts of land, west of the border, but have generally been removed and furnished a year’s subsistence
at the expense of the government, and received valuable equivalents beside, in utensils and other necessaries, and in regular annuities. These are sums, generally in money, annually paid, for a series of years, to the several tribes, proportioned usually to the size of the tribe and the amount of territory acquired from it. This institution of annuities, however, though intended as the most charitable, has doubtless been the most injurious branch of the policy of the United States towards the Indians. Being thus afforded the means of living without much labor, they have neglected manufactures, and even agriculture, to a considerable degree, and many of them have acquired confirmed habits of indolence and dissipation; and now that their annuities are growing short; they are being left destitute, without the energy, the industry, or the means wherewith to procure a livelihood.
But; notwithstanding the constant efforts the general government to make them comfortable, and the immense sums of money which have been paid them, and their being located in regions far better suited to their wants and their habits of life than those they abandoned, many of them appear greatly dissatisfied with the change and with the government; which seems painfully demonstrative of that perverse, restless disposition, which appears ever to have characterized the conduct of half-civilized nations.
One ostensible reason for their unwilling-
ness to remove, has been a reluctance to abandon their native homes and the ‘graves of their fathers.’ Many fabulous legends are told of the attachment of the Indian to his native soil, yet but few who are acquainted with their habitudes, will place much stress on this. Their own traditions, as well as experience, have shown, that, when left to themselves, they incline to migrate; of which the Azteques of Mexico, and the Osages, with others of our border, afford striking examples: in fact; there is scarcely a tribe on the frontier which has not its traditions of migrations at some period. The Shawnees say their forefathers emigrated from the south to the regions north of the Ohio — the Creeks, as well as many of the Choctaws, that they were originally from west of the Mississippi — besides many other cases.
But; with regard to this passage of our country’s history, I will merely say, in addition, that, so far as I am able to judge, the condition of the ‘red man’ has been very materially bettered by the change. The lands they at present occupy are, for the most part, of a more fertile character than those which they have left. The climate is equally, or perhaps more healthy, in general; notwithstanding the dreadful mortality which afflicted many of them shortly after their removal — a calamity which was attributable, primarily, to the change of climate, as well as to the change of habits which their new dwelling-places involved; and secondarily, to the too abundant use of
spirituous liquors, with which they were frequently provided by both native and white peddlers and traders, before any measures, efficient enough to check the evil, were taken either by themselves or by the general government. But; although the latter cause still prevails to some degree, I have little doubt that the average mortality among the frontier tribes, at present, is less than it was before their removal.
To each tribe has generally been granted a greater number of acres, with definite metes and boundaries, than had been ceded by them east of the Mississippi. It is deemed unnecessary, however, to swell this brief notice with a statement of the several amounts of land given to each tribe, and their localities, as these may be seen with sufficient accuracy and definiteness by consulting the map which accompanies this work.
The lands of each tribe are the property of the Indian commonwealth; and, therefore, even among the most civilized of them, the settler has a title only in his improvement, which he holds by occupancy, and can sell at pleasure. To prevent collisions in improvements, the first occupant is entitled to a certain distance in every direction. Among the Cherokees, no one can build within a quarter of a mile of the house or field of another: so, to extend their possessions, the more wealthy sometimes make several isolated improvements, scattered in different directions, within half a mile of each other.
The game in the interspersed forests having now become scarce, and that of the western prairies being too remote, the frontier Indians have generally turned their attention to agriculture, and to the raising of stock; and most of them have large numbers of horses, cattle, and hogs.
Some of these Indians, particularly of the southern nations, have very extensive farms: but the mass of their population extend their culture no further than they seem compelled by necessity. The traveller, passing through the Cherokee Nation, is struck with the contrast between an occasional stately dwelling, with an extensive farm attached, and the miserable hovels of the indigent, sometimes not ten feet square, with a little patch of corn, scarce large enough for a family garden. In fact, among all the tribes who have no slaves, what little there is of cultivation, is mostly the work of the women. Scattered through the country, one continually encounters dilapidated huts with trifling improvements, which have been abandoned by the owners for some fancy they may have taken to some other location at a distance, better adapted, as they think, to the promotion of their comfort, and upon which they may live with less labor.
Most of the labor among the wealthier classes of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, is done by negro slaves; for they have all adopted substantially the Southern system of slavery. Some individuals of these nations own over fifty slaves each:
but they are the only slaveholders of the frontier tribes, except very few among the Shawnees.
With some tribes, and particularly among the lower classes of the Creeks, they are inclined to settle in ‘towns,’ as they call them, — making large fields, which are cultivated in common, and the produce proportionally distributed. But these ‘towns’ are rather settlements than villages, being but sparse clusters of huts without any regularity. Indeed, there is not, I believe, a regularly laid out town in all the Indian country, nor a place that could even merit the name of a village; except Doaksville near Fort Towson, and perhaps Park Hill in the Cherokee Nation.
Besides agriculture, most of the frontier tribes attend a little to manufactures, though with no greater energy. The women have generally learned to spin, weave and sew, at which they occupy themselves, occasionally, during recess from the labors of the field. But very few of the men acquire mechanical arts or follow trades of any kind: their carpenter, wheelwright and smith work is done by a few mechanics provided the several tribes in accordance with treaty stipulations. To each tribe is furnished in particular one or more blacksmiths from the United States.
These frontier Indians for the most part live in cabins of logs, like those of our backwoods settlers; and many of them are undistinguishable, except in color, language, and to some degree in costume, from the poorer
classes of their white neighbors. Even in dress and language the more civilized are fast conforming to the latter. In many families, especially of the Cherokees, the English tongue only is spoken; and great numbers of these, as well as of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, dress according to the American fashions: but the ruder portions of even these, the most enlightened nations, as is also the case with nearly all of the northern tribes, wear the hunting-shirt, sometimes of buckskin, but now more commonly of calico, cotton plaid or linsey. Instead of using hats, they wreathe about their heads a fancy-colored shawl or handkerchief. Neither do the women of these classes wear bonnets, but leave their heads exposed, or protected only with a shawl, somewhat after the manner of the Mexican females; to the lower classes of whom, indeed, the mixed-bloods of these Indians bear a strong resemblance. Their most usual dress is a short petticoat of cotton goods, or as frequently with the tribes of the north, of coarse red or blue broad-cloth.
The literary opportunities afforded to the border tribes are so important in their consequences as to deserve some notice. To each tribe has been granted, by the United States, a school fund, generally somewhat proportioned to the extent of the tribe. The Cherokees and Choctaws seem to have availed themselves of this provision to the greatest advantage. These funds are for the most part invested in American stocks, and the proceeds
appropriated to educational uses, establishing schools, etc.* The tuition is, I believe, in every case, free to the Indians; and yet it is painful to know that comparatively few of the common classes will send their children.
The most extensive literary institution which has ever been in operation, for the benefit of the ‘red man,’ was the ‘Choctaw Academy,’ established in Kentucky, and supported by a common fund of several different tribes. It was not as successful, however, as was anticipated by its projectors; and is now being transferred and merged into an academy near Fort Towson, in the Choctaw country, wholly supported out of the Choctaw fund. This Academy proved very unsatisfactory to many of the tribes concerned. They said, with apparent justice, that their boys, educated there, forgot all their customs, their language, their relatives, their national attachments; and, in exchange, often acquired indolent and effeminate, if not vicious habits; and were ren-
dered unfit to live among their people, or to earn a maintenance by labor. There seems but little doubt that the funds of each tribe might be employed to a much better advantage in their own country. The influence of the institutions would there be more likely to extend to all classes; and by gradual, the only practicable means, a change might be wrought upon the nation.
It is one of the calamities incident to the state of ignorance in which most of these poor Indians remain, and their close, indeed political connection with the more civilized people of the United States, that they are continually preyed upon by the unprincipled harpies who are ever prowling through their country, ready to seize every opportunity of deceiving and defrauding them out of their money or effects.*
The most depraving agencies employed to this end are the ministration of intoxicating drinks, and gaming, of both which the Indians are passionately fond, and by which they are frequently robbed of their money as soon almost as received.
Apart from the usual games at cards, dice, etc., the Indians of the border have some peculiar games of their own, as well at cards as otherwise. Among these the most celebrated is the ‘Ball Play’, which resembles, in some respects, the old-fashioned game of bandy. The wagers are usually laid upon beating the majority of a given number, a dozen or more of these games; and large amounts in horses, blankets, and other goods, and even money, are frequently staked upon the result.
Besides the ball play, dancing is a most favorite amusement of these tribes, indeed of all the frontier as well as prairie Indians. They formerly had many kinds of dances, — the green-corn dance, the medicine, the eagle, the scalp and the war dances. But these are now only practised by the ruder portions of the border nations and the less improved tribes; among whom may still be witnessed frequently their genuine aboriginal frolics.
The green-corn dance generally lasts seve-
ral days, commencing when the new crop begins to ripen. A large arbor of green branches is usually prepared, and numerous parties of both sexes dance in a body to their native songs and rude instrumental music, accompanied by their monotonous “heh! heh! heh!” with a chorus of yells at intervals; and their movements are attended with the most comical gesticulations. Having passed through a course of ‘purifications by drinking a decoction of certain stimulant herbs, prepared by their medicine-men, and put out all the fires, they strike fire anew by rubbing sticks together; and a quantity of corn, pulse and other fruits of the season, being cooked with the ‘new fire,’ the dance is closed with a general feast. Each family, as it is said, then takes a supply from the ‘new breed’ of fire. A more interesting and salutary influence of this custom, which is said to prevail among some tribes at this festival, is the cancelling or composing of all old difficulties and disputes.
The most advanced of these border nations, the Cherokees and the united tribes of the Choctaws and Chickasaws, have adopted systems of government, which are based upon the constitutions of our States. The Cherokee being the most complete, some account of it may not be out of place in this connection.
A council or convention of the wise men of the nation was convened on the first of July, 1839 who framed a constitution, somewhat resembling one previously established in the ‘Old Nation,’ of which the following are the
general features. The three powers, legislative, executive and judicial, are distinguished and established. The legislative consists of a National Committee and Council. The former is composed of two and the latter of three members from each of the eight or ten districts into which the nation was to be divided — elected for two years by the people. They convene annually on the first Monday in October, and each house elects a presiding officer out of its own body. Bills are introduced, discussed and passed according to parliamentary usage.
The executive, called Principal Chief, and an assistant chief, are elected for four years by the people. The executive has the usual veto and pardoning power. He is assisted by an ‘Executive Council’ of five, and the common cabinet of secretaries. The judiciary consists of a Supreme and Circuit Court, and the ordinary justices of the peace. Trial by jury is secured; and the common law of England appears to have been generally adopted. Religious toleration is guarantied, but no person can hold a civil office who denies the existence of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.
According to laws subsequently enacted by the same council, the punishment for murder is death; and for an attempt to kill, a fine correspondent to the damage, for the benefit of the injured party: for rape, a hundred lashes — but for infanticide, only twenty-five to fifty! Whipping seems the punishment
for all inferior crimes; which is the same with the Choctaws and Creeks, among whom the executioners are called the ‘light-horse,’ a kind of police-guard, also formerly in use by the Cherokees, but now their place is supplied by a common sheriff and posse.
As is to be inferred from their institutions, the Cherokees stand first among the ‘red men’ in civilization, though in industry, morality, and sobriety, they are no doubt excelled by the Choctaws and Chickasaws, who are reckoned the most quiet and Christian-like Indians of the border.
No laws have yet been passed to enforce the payment of debts, except by the Cherokees; and these found it necessary to suspend their operation for two years. Even the most improved have not prohibited polygamy by any law; though, from the example of the whites and of the more civilized among them, as well as the exertions of the missionaries, it is growing out of repute with most of the border nations. It is still occasionally practised, however; and the ruder classes among them all, I believe, sometimes still take any number of wives, and divorce them at pleasure. But the more enlightened are married by preachers, or authorized civil officers.
With the united nation of Choctaws and Chickasaws, the executive power is vested in four chiefs, called in Choctaw mingoes, who are selected one from each of the districts into which the country is divided,
and of which the Chickasaw tribe constitutes one. These chiefs are vested with the usual veto and pardoning powers, and are elected for four years. Most of their other constitutional provisions resemble those of the Cherokees. The Choctaws, as well as the Creeks, punish the crime of murder with death by shooting, which is generally executed immediately after trial, by the ‘light-horse.’
It has become evident, however, that written laws and courts of justice, judges and juries, are still rather in advance of the state of civilization of the ruder classes, even among these most enlightened tribes. It has been found very difficult to bring them under their subordination. They have had, notwithstanding, a salutary effect in many cases, and especially with regard to murder. Among most of these nations (as well as the wild tribes), it was formerly the custom to leave the punishment of homicide to the relatives of the murdered. With the Choctaws and Cherokees, in particular, the entire clan or family of the murderer were held responsible for the crime; and though the real offender might escape, the bereaved family had a right to kill any one of his nearest relatives that could be found, up to the most remote kindred. There seemed no exceptions for accidental homicide, or killing in self-defence: the Mosaic precept of ‘life for life’ must be fulfilled, unless satisfactorily commuted. This savage custom had at least one salutary effect, however: the relatives themselves, instead of as-
sisting the escape, as so often occurs in civilized life, were generally the first to apprehend and bring the fugitive criminal to justice.
But among the Choctaws, at least, any one might take the place of the murderer, and in the death of the substitute the law was satisfied, and the true criminal remained exempt. An intelligent and creditable Choctaw related to me an affecting incident, for the truth of which he vouched. An Indian had remained responsible for the appearance, on a certain day, of his brother, who had killed a man. When the day arrived, the murderer exhibited some reluctance to fulfill the pledge, when the other said to him: “My brother, you are no brave — you are afraid to die — stay here and take care of my family — I will die in your place:“ whereupon he immediately attended the appointed spot, and was executed accordingly.
The highest honor known among them, in fact, being that of a ‘great brave,’ it reflected the greatest credit to meet death boldly. Instead of being visited by his tribe with infamy for the crime he had committed, it rather tended to make his name illustrious, if he met the consequences without fear or flinching: whereas, any effort to avoid death was attributed to cowardice. It would have been esteemed quite as ignominious for the murderer to flee the established forfeit of his life, as for a ‘gentleman’ under the ‘civilized code of honor,’ to back out from a duel.
But among most of the frontier, as also the
wild tribes, a commutation, though not honorable to the perpetrator, was and still is permitted, except by the Cherokees and Choctaws. Any recompense which would satisfy the bereft family, released the murderer from further penalty.
There is scarcely any temptation which the Indian tribes have to encounter so frequently, and so seriously fatal to their social improvement, as intemperance. Of this they are conscious themselves, and most of them have adopted measures for prohibiting the introduction of ardent spirits among them, and for checking the propensity to use them, with various degrees of success. Among the Choctaws, a law was passed upon this subject, which, though not entirely, was measurably successful; and the spirit which effected its passage was worthy of the most exalted state of civilization.
It seems that the tribe had generally become sensible of the pernicious influences of strong drinks upon their prosperity and happiness, and had attempted various plans for its suppression, without success. At last, it was determined by the chiefs, captains, and head men, to strike a blow which should reach the very root of the evil at once. A council was called, and many and long were the speeches which were made, and much enthusiasm was created against the monster ‘Whiskey,’ and all his brood of compound enormities. Still every one seemed loth to move his arrest and execution. Finally, a
captain of more than ordinary temerity arose, and offered a resolution that each and every individual who should thenceforward dare to introduce any of the liquid curses into their country, should be punished with a hundred lashes on his bare back, and the liquor be poured out. This was passed, after some slight changes, by acclamation: but, with a due sense of the injustice of ex-post-facto restrictions, all those who had liquors on hand were permitted to sell them. The council adjourned; but the members soon began to canvass among each other the pernicious consequences which might result from the protracted use of the whiskey already in the shops, and therefore concluded the quicker it was drank up, the more promptly would the evil be over: so, falling to, in less than two hours Bacchus never mustered a drunker troop than were these same temperance legislators. The consequences of their determination were of lasting importance to them. The law, with some slight improvements, has ever since been rigorously enforced.
Among most of the Indian tribes the daughter has very little to do with the selection of her husband. The parents usually require to be satisfied first, and their permission being secured the daughter never presumes to offer any important resistance. There is a postnuptial custom peculiar to the full-blood Indians of the Choctaws, which deserves particular notice. For years, and perhaps for life,
after the marriage of her daughter, the mother is forbidden to look upon her son-in-law. Though they converse together, he must be bidden from her by a wall, a tent, a curtain, or, when nothing else offers, by covering the eyes. During their emigration, it is said these poor superstitious matrons were put to infinite trouble so as not to infract this custom. While travelling, or in camp often without tents, ‘the mother-in-law was afraid to raise her head or open her eyes, lest they should meet the interdicted object.
It is another peculiarity, which they have in common with some of the more northern tribes, that the Choctaw wife, of the ‘old school,’ can never call her husband by name. But if they have offspring — she calls him “my son’s father;” or, more commonly using the child’s name, when, if Ok-le-no-wa, for instance, she calls the husband “Ok-le-no-wa’s father.” And yet another oddity regarding names: the ignorant Choctaw seems to have a superstitious aversion to telling his own name: indeed it appears impossible to get it from him, unless he have an acquaintance present, whom he will request to tell it for him.
In burials, the civilized Choctaws follow the customs of the whites, but the ruder classes still preserve their aboriginal usages. According to these, a painted pole with a flag is stuck up at the grave, which usually remains three months. During this period they have regular mourning exercises every morning and evening; and are always prompt to avail the themselves
at any other hour of the day, of the assistance of any friend who may visit them to help them to weep. At the end of the prescribed term, the friends of the bereft family attend a feast at their house, and, after dancing all night, the next morning visit the grave and pull down the pole; which is called ‘the polepulling.’ After this all mourning ceases, and the family is permitted to join in the usual amusements and festivities of the tribe, which was not allowable before.
Though the Creeks* are generally a very industrious people, raising an abundance of corn and vegetables, yet they are quite behind their neighbors, of whom I have been speaking, as well politically as in a social and literary view. Their executive consists of two principal chiefs, and their legislature or council of about forty minor chiefs or captains, who are also, ex officio, justices of the peace. They have no trial by jury, and their judicial proceedings are exceedingly summary — frequently without witnesses; for the warriors are generally too proud to deny a charge, lest it be construed into cowardice. Executions sometimes take place within an hour after the commencement of trial. Murder, rape and a third conviction of stealing are punished with death, usually by shooting; but, in case of homicide, if claimed by the relatives of the
deceased, the criminal is executed with the same kind of weapon, or, if possible, the very same, with which he committed the murder.
Most inferior crimes, as has been mentioned, are punished by whipping: for the first offence of stealing, fifty lashes; for the second, a hundred and ears cropped. Adultery is punished by cutting off both the nose and ears of the adulteress; but the husband has a right to say if the law shall be executed: in fact, he is generally the executioner, and that often without trial. Notwithstanding the severity of these laws, they are for the most part rigorously enforced; though a commutation satisfactory to the aggrieved is still permitted to release the offender. Their laws, in cases of accidental homicide, are still more barbarously rigid than those of the other nations.
The obsequies of the Creeks are peculiar in this, — that at the moment an Indian expires, a gun is discharged. Their graves are generally under the floors of their dwellings, and a husband’s is apt to be under the bed of his widow. The fate of the unfortunate relict is miserable enough in any country, but among the Creeks her doom is barbarously rigorous. She remains in strict mourning for four years,* with dishevelled hair and with-
out combing, — unless the relatives of the deceased interfere; whereby it is sometimes put an end to in a few months, provided the sincerity of her grief be evident and her conduct meritorious. In their mourning, however, they do not weep and cry with such clamorous vehemence as the Choctaws and others. But the Shawnees and Delawares are still more celebrated for quiet mourning. As warlike nations, they appear to disdain to mourn and wail aloud, as is the practice among the greater portion of the savage tribes.
Though these people have no family names, they generally take a kind of honorary title or sobriquet, as is also the case with the wild tribes, upon the occurrence of any important incident, or the performance of a meritorious feat. A singular mode of inheritance prevails among the Cherokees, the Creeks, and perhaps others. Though the women in other respects are mostly held as very inferior beings, the clans are all reckoned by them: the children pertain to the mother, and the estates descend through the female branch of the family. They say it is easy enough to verify the mothers of families, but it is difficult to identify the fathers.
The remaining tribes, inhabiting the more northern frontier, as well as the Seminoles who are located among the Creeks, possess so few distinct or striking characteristics, and, indeed, are mostly so few in number, that a particular notice of them seems hardly to be required. Suffice it to say, that all of them,
as I believe, still retain their ancient systems of arbitrary chiefs and councils of sages and braves, nearly in their primitive state; and that the greater portion of them live in log huts, and cultivate the soil to a considerable extent. Though the Shawnees, Delawares, and Kickapoos, are among the most agricultural of the northern Indians, yet a few of these spend the greater portion of their time on the Prairies in hunting and in trading with the wild tribes.*