COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



Intermediate Tribes — Their Wigwams and their Hunting Excursions — Dress and Cut of their Hair — The Pawnees — The Osages — Their Roguery — Matrimonial customs — Accomplished Mourners — Their Superstitions — The Indian Figure — The ‘Pawnee Picts' — Wild Tribes — Census — The Comanches — Their Range — Their Sobriety — Their Chiefs, etc. -- Female Chastity — Comanche Marriage — Costumes — Horsemanship — Comanche Warfare — Predatory Forays — Martial Ceremonies — Treatment of Captives — Burial and Religious Rites.

     THE tribes inhabiting near the borders of the frontier Indians differ from those that range the far-western prairies in several traits of general character. The former have their fixed villages, and, for the most part, combine the pursuits of agriculture and the chase. They form, indeed, a sort of intermediate class between the frontier and the wild tribes, resembling the one or the other in all important particulars. I will merely notice in this place a few of the characteristics by which the more conspicuous of these tribes are distinguished.

     Their village wigwams differ from the lodges of the wilder tribes, in their being

Page 300 — THE PAWNEES.

much more substantial, and usually covered with grass and earth instead of skins. The Indians commonly remain in their villages during the inclement portion of the winter; yet most of them spend the early spring upon the Prairies in buffalo-hunting; as well as such portions of the summer and autumn as are not occupied in the cultivation and gathering of their crops, which they secure in caches till their return.

     In dress they differ but little from the wilder tribes, except that, having more communication with the whites, they make greater use of our fabrics — blankets, coarse cloths, calicoes and the like. Their most striking peculiarity consists in the cut of their hair. Most of them, instead, like the Indians of the Plains, of wearing the hair long, trim and arrange it in the most fantastic style. In the care bestowed upon this part of their toilet, they cannot be excelled by the most soigneux of civilized dandies. They shave a large portion of the head, but leave a fanciful lock upon the crown as a scalp-crest (an indispensable trophy for the enemy), which is in general gorgeously bedecked with painted feathers and gewgaws.

     The Pawnees, who now have their principal village on the Loup Fork of the Platte river, are perhaps the most famous of these tribes. Small bands of their war-parties roam on foot through every portion of the Prairies, often to the Mexican frontier, though they generally contrive to return well mounted.

Page 301 — THE OSAGES.

When upon these expeditions, they may properly enough be considered the Ishmaelites of the Prairies — their hands are against every man, and every man’s hand is against them. They will skulk about in the vicinity of a prize of mules or horses for several days unsuspected, till a favorable opportunity offers to pounce upon them.

     This nation is divided into four principal bands, the Grand Pawnees (or Grand Pans, as called by the Canadians), the Republics, the Mahas or Loups, and the Tapage or Noisy Pawnees. Their relatives, the Rickaras, are now considered a distinct tribe.

     The Osages are at present the most important western branch of the Dahcotah stock, after the Sioux. There are two bands of them, the Big and Little Osages. Though the Pawnees stand most prominent as prairie marauders, these are unsurpassed in simple rogueries. Expertness at stealing appears indeed to constitute a part of their faith, and an all-important branch of education, in which degrees are conferred in true ‘academic order;’ for I have been assured, that, in their councils, the claims of the candidates to the honors of rogueship are duly considered, and to the most proficient is awarded an honorary badge — the right to wear a fancy feather stuck athwart his scalp-crest.

     The habitudes of the Osages do not appear to have undergone any material change, notwithstanding the exertions of the government and the missionaries to civilize and to chris-


tianize them. Some of their matrimonial customs are very curious and rather peculiar. The eldest daughter seems not only ‘heiress apparent,’ but, when married, becomes absolute owner of the entire property and household of her parents — family and all. While single, however, she has no authority, but is herself held as a piece of merchantable property, estimated somewhat as in civilized life, in proportion to her ‘charms,’ and to the value of her ‘hereditaments.’ She is therefore kept under the strictest watch by her parents, that she may not diminish her worth by any improper conduct.

     When some warrior ‘beau’ has taken a fancy to the heiress and wishes to possess her and her estate of sisters, dogs, rugs and household, he takes his finest horses, (and if she be a ‘belle’ he need not attempt it unless he have some of the noblest), and tying them at her lodge door departs without saying a word; leaving them, like a slow-match, silently to effect his purpose. After the ‘pretender’ has disappeared, the matron of the premises and her lord inspect the valuables, the ‘demure damsel’ barely venturing a sly peep through some crevice of the wigwam. If the offer be found unworthy, the horses are sent back to the owner as silently as they came, or maybe with some apology, provided he be a warrior whom they are afraid of offending. But if accepted, the father takes instead some of his own horses and ties them at the door of the proposer, as a token of admission. If the


parties be without horses some other valuables are employed in lieu. After this the marriage is solemnized with a joyous fete and their primitive ceremonies.

     But now the son-in-law is fully indemnified for his heavy ‘disbursement’ in the purchase of his bride; for he at once becomes possessor of the entire wealth of his father-in-law — master of the family-lodge and all the household: if there be a dozen younger daughters, they are all his de droit — his wives or slaves as we may choose to consider them: in fact, the ‘heiress’ herself seems in the same predicament, and the wife among them all who may have the tact to gain the husband’s affections, generally becomes mistress of the ‘harem.’ From the refuse of this estate of ‘fair ones’ the indigent warriors and inferior Indians who are not able to purchase an ‘heiress’ are apt to supply themselves with wives upon a cheaper scale.*

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* The custom of taking all the sisters of a family is also said to be common among the Kansas, Omahas and other kindred tribes; indeed it appears to have prevailed from the earliest ages among all the Dahcotah family as well as many Algonquins and most other tribes about the great Lakes. Mons. La Salle, in his trip from these to the Mississippi in 1763, remarks of the savages of those regions: “They marry several Wives, and commonly all Sisters, if they can, thinking they agree better in their Family.” Hennepin, Charlevoix and others speak of the same custom. Murray also mentions something of the kind among the Pawnees. Forbes alludes to the same in California, But I am uninformed, whether, in these several instances, the husband’s right was only de facto, or de jure as among the Osages, to all the younger sisters.

     The Osages bury their dead according to the usual Indian mode; and, though it seems always to have been the custom among most


savage nations, to keep up a chorus of hideous cries and yells for a long while after the death of a relative, yet the Osages are by far the most accomplished mourners of them all. Being once encamped near a party of them, I was wakened at the dawn of day by the most doleful, piteous, heart-rending howls and lamentations. The apparently distressed mourner would cry with a protracted expiration till completely out of breath. For some instants he seemed to be in the very last agonies: then he would recover breath with a smothered, gurgling inspiration: and thus he continued for several minutes, giving vent to every variety of hideous and terrific sounds. Looking around, I perceived the weeper standing with his face towards the faint gleam which fitted from the still obscured sun. This was perhaps his idol; else he was standing thus because his deceased relation lay in that direction. A full ‘choir’ of these mourners (which is always joined by the howls and yelps of their myriads of dogs), imparts the most frightful horror to a wilderness camp.

     It is considered among these as well as other ‘crying’ tribes, quite a merit to be a graceful weeper: it becomes even a profitable vocation to those whose eyes and lungs are most capacious of such things. If you tell an Osage that you have lost a kinsman or friend for whom you wish him to mourn, he will undertake the service for a trifling reward — and acquit himself with more ‘credit’ — more to the spirit than the best tragic


actor. He will mimic every exterior indication of grief and the most heart-felt wailing, till the tears trickle in torrents down his cheeks.

     The Osages seem generally to worship a good and evil spirit, and to believe in the most usual Indian paradise. No people can have more implicit faith in witchcraft and all kinds of sorcery and superstitions — such as holding converse with deceased friends or relations — appointing a time to die, etc.: and instances are related of their fancying themselves thus called to the world of spirits, which would so powerfully affect the imagination as to cause them to pine away, and sometimes die even to the appointed day.

     Owing partially, no doubt, to the burdensome life they lead, the squaws of all the tribes are, for the most part, much more inclined to corpulency than the men. They are generally chubby and ill-favored, while the males are usually tall, erect, well-turned and active. For their proverbial straightness, however, the Osages are perhaps more famous than any of the other prairie Indians.

     The Wacoes, Witchitas and their kindred tribes on Red River, are, for the most part, a very indigent race. They are chiefly remarkable for their profuse tattooing, whereby they have sometimes acquired the title of ‘Pawnee Picts:’ the females particularly make a perfect calico of the whole under-jaw, breast and arms, and the mammae are fancifully ornamented with rings and rays. The tattoo, in fact, seems to constitute the chief female or-


nament of these tribes; for their only gown consists of about a yard and a half of strouding, or else a small dressed skin, suspended from the waist, and constituting a sort of primitive petticoat The upper portion of the body remains uncovered, except by a blanket or small skin, thrown loosely over the shoulders. The men are often without any other vesture than the flap, and sometimes a buffalo rug or blanket.

     As the remaining tribes of this intermediate class present few or no distinctive characteristics, we will pass at once to the consideration of the wild tribes proper of the Great Western Prairies.* These neither cultivate the soil nor live in fixed villages, but lead a roving life in pursuit of plunder and game, and without ever submitting themselves to that repose — to those fixed habits, which must .always precede any progress in civilization. But as the Comanches are the only tribe of these ‘wandering Arabs’ of the Plains which

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* The population of the intermediate tribes is estimated, according to the Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, for 1842, as follows: Pawnees, 12,500 souls (though some experienced traders rate them at only about 5,000); Rickaras, 1,200; Chippewas, Potawatomies and Ottawas, 2,298; Sacs and Foxes, 2,348; Winnebagoes, 2,183; Iowas, 470; Poncas, 800; Omahas,. 1,600; Otoes and Missouries, 931; Kansas, 1,588; Osages, 4,102 ; — besides of Caddoes and Inyes about 500; Wacoes, Witchitas, Towockanoes, Towyashes and Keechyes, 1,000; who maintain themselves chiefly in Northern Texas. The wild tribes proper of the Prairies, are, the Comanches, consisting of about 10,000 souls; Kiawas, 2,000; Apaches, 100; Arrapahoes, 2,000; Chayennes, 2,000; besides many others to the north and westward, who rarely descend within the regions to the notice of which these pages are confined. As these tribes would doubtless average at least three-fifths females, they could hardly turn out one-fifth of their numbers in warriors, though this is the usual rule of estimating them by men of Indian experience.


present any distinguishing features of interest — any prominent points of national character — the remarks that follow will be devoted almost exclusively to them.

     The relationship of the Comanches to the Snakes or Shoshonies, shows them to have descended from the north: in fact, it is but half a century since their range was from the Arkansas river northward; but at present this stream is their ultima Thule. Yet they even now acknowledge no boundaries, but call themselves the lords of the entire Prairies — all others are but ‘tenants at will.’ They lead a wandering sort of life, betaking themselves whithersoever the seasons or the habits of the buffalo, their chief object of pursuit, may lead them. Although during summer they are not unfrequently found as far north as the Arkansas river, their winters they usually pass about the head branches of the Brazos and Colorado rivers of Texas.

     In their domestic habits, these Indians, for the most part, resemble the other wild tribes; yet in some respects they differ materially. One of the most interesting traits of difference is to be found in their distaste for ardent spirits: but few of. them can be induced to taste a drop intoxicating liquors; thus forming an exception, I believe, to the entire race of the ‘red man,’ who appears to have a constitutional appetite for strong drinks. The frontier as well as the prairie tribes — the Mexican as well as the Mountain Indians — all are equally slaves to their use.


     The Comanches are divided into numerous petty bands, each under the control of its own particular chief. When a chief becomes old and care-worn, he exercises but the civil authority’ of his clan; while his son, if deemed worthy, otherwise some distinguished brave, assumes, by ‘common consent,’ the functions of war-chief. As is the case with all barbarous tribes, their chiefs assume every judicial and executive authority. Complaints are made to them and sentence summarily pronounced, and often as summarily executed. For most offences, the chief, if he considers his authority sufficiently well established, freely uses the rod upon his subjects. He rarely attempts this, however, upon noted warriors or ‘braves,’ whose influence and resentment he may have reason to fear. The punishment of murder among these, as among most of the savage nations, devolves upon the bereaved relatives, who are free to pursue and punish the perpetrators according to their own liking, which is seldom short of death. But the offended party, if disposed to compromise, has also the privilege of accepting a commutation and releasing the murderer.

     The husband seems to have complete power over the destinies of his wife and children. For adultery, his punishment is most usually to cut off the nose or ears,* or

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* This custom was perhaps once quite extensive. It prevails among the Creeks to the present day, and was anciently practised by other southern nations; and “Among the Miamis,” says Father Charlevoix, “the Husband has a right to cut off his wife’s nose if she runs away from him."


both; and he may even take the life of his unfaithful wife with impunity. The squaw who has been mutilated for such a cause, is ipso facto divorced, and, it is said, for ever precluded from marrying again. The consequence is, that she becomes a confirmed harlot in the tribe. Owing in part, no doubt, to such severity in their customs, the Comanche squaws have ever been noted for their chastity. This may result also, in some degree, from the circumstance, that the Comanche husbands, fathers and brothers, seldom or never subject their wives, daughters and sisters, to that debasing traffic practised among so many of the northern nations.

     Like the other wild tribes, the Comanches tolerate polygamy, the chiefs and braves sometimes taking as many as eight or ten wives at a time. Three is considered the usual number, however, for ‘subjects’ or common warriors, and nine for the chiefs. Their marriage ceremonies vary in different bands; but the following has been represented as the most usual. Unlike most other tribes, the consent of the maiden has to be obtained. This done, the lover, from apparent delicacy, goes not to the father of his intended, but, in accordance with a custom which prevails among some other tribes, communicates his desire to an uncle or other aged relative,who enters into the marriage contract. The parties, however, are not yet fully betrothed; but, as a test of the submission of the bride to the service of her proposed lord, the latter ties his riding-


horse at her lodge door. If she turn him loose, she has resolved finally to reject him; but if she lead him to the caballada, it is an unequivocal agreement to take the charge of his horses and other property; and the marriage is soon concluded. The ‘uncle’ now communicates the engagement to the chief; who causes the ‘bans’ to be published, that no other wooer may interfere. As the horse is with them the type of every important interest, the bridegroom next proceeds to kill the least valuable one that he is possessed of; and, taking out the heart, hangs it at the door of his betrothed, who takes and roasts it, and then dividing it into two parts, each eats a ‘half; which perfects the bond of wedlock. The heart of the buffalo or other animal may perhaps be substituted, if the bridegroom has not a superabundance of horses. Should the circumstances of the parties admit of it, the marriage is usually celebrated with feasting and dances; though, in general, the Comanches are less fond of dancing than most other Indians.

     The Comanche dress consists of the usual leggins, moccasins, flap and blanket or robe. Many wear in addition a kind of leathern jerkin, or tight jacket closed before. Their moccasins differ from those of other tribes, by having a lengthy tassel of leathern fringes attached to the heels, which trail the ground as they walk. Instead of this fringe, the tassel sometimes consists of the tail of a polecat or some other animal. When he can pro-


cure it, the young warrior is wont to wear a mantle and leggins of strouding. Both of these articles, according to the ‘latest fashions,’ should be one-half red, the other blue. The bi-colored mantle, as well as the blanket or buffalo rug, is carelessly thrown over the shoulders, and must be long enough to drag the ground; for they seem to have an instinct for the ‘regal grandeur of a sweeping gown.’

     Though all the far-western Indians wear their hair long, the Comanche seems to take most pride in the voluminousness of his ‘tresses,’ and the length of his queue, which is sometimes eked out with buffalo or other hair, till its tip reaches the ground, and is bedaubed with gum, grease and paint, and decorated with beads and other gewgaws. We are not to think that foppery and coxcombry are generated exclusively in civilized life. I am sure I never saw a vainer creature than a Comanche brave in full costume, of dress, trinkets and paint He steps as if he disdained the very ground upon which he walks.

     The dress of the Comanche squaw is usually a kind of loose gown or tunic of leather, or cotton if it can be procured, which hangs from the shoulders and is bound around the waist with a girdle; thus presenting a resemblance in its appearance to our ordinary female costume. They wear moccasins, to which short leggins are attached, and which constitute a sort of leathern hose. They are not permitted to wear long hair: that ‘manly’ prerogative would be degraded by such an


association. It is therefore kept docked so as scarcely to reach the shoulders.

     A style of dress similar to that of the Comanche females, is worn by those of most of the erratic tribes. The squaws of the north usually embroider their leathern frocks in a fanciful manner with colored porcupine quills and beads, and bedeck the borders with rattling shells, tags, hawk-bells, and the like. Such as have the fortune to marry Canadian or American trappers, are those who usually dress most gaily.

     The prairie Indians generally are an equestrian race; yet in horsemanship the Comanches stand decidedly pre-eminent and can only be equalled by the Northern Mexicans, and perhaps the Arabs. Like the latter, they dote upon their steeds: one had as well undertake to purchase a Comanche’s child as his favorite riding-horse. They have a peculiar mark for their animals: every one which has pertained to them may always be recognized by a slit in the tip of each ear; a practice apparently universal among all their tribe.

     In their warlike expeditions they avail themselves of their equestrian skill with wonderful success. As they always fight on horseback, they depend chiefly upon the charge, at which they use their arrows and javelins* with wonderful efficacy. On such occasions a Comanche will often throw himself upon

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* The Comanches employ usually short-handed javelins or lances, declaring, like the Spartan mother, that cowards only need long weapons.


the opposite side of his charger, so as to be protected from the darts of the enemy; and, while clinging there, he will discharge his arrows with extraordinary dexterity from underneath his horse’s neck. Different from the ‘prowling’ tribes, they seldom attack at night, or in timbered or rough regions; for they would then be unable to manoeuvre their coursers to advantage.

     Although not meriting the title of brave Indians, they are held by the Mexicans as the most valiant of their border: but when they come in contact with Americans or any of our frontier tribes, they generally appear timid and cowardly. Their predatory forays are therefore directed mostly westward. They make continual inroads upon the whole eastern frontier of Mexico, from Chihuahua to the coast; driving off immense numbers of horses and mules, and killing the citizens they may encounter, or making them prisoners — particularly the females and boys. Of the latter they make slaves, to perform such menial service as usually pertains to the squaws, particularly the herding of the stock. It is perhaps this alleviation of their labor by slaves, that has contributed to elevate the Comanche women above those of many of the northern tribes. Of their female captives they often make wives; a fate which has befallen some of those taken from Texas.

     Strange as it may appear, their captives frequently become attached to their masters and to the savage life, and with difficulty are


induced to leave them after a few years' captivity. In fact, these prisoners, it is said, in time often turn out to be the most formidable savages. Combining the subtlety of the Mexican with the barbarity of the Indian, they sometimes pilot into their native frontier and instigate horrid outrages. The department of Chihuahua has been the greatest sufferer from their inroads.

     But, though at continual war with the south of the republic, for many years the Comanches have cultivated peace with the New Mexicans — not only because the poverty of the country offers fewer inducements for their inroads, but because it is desirable, as with the interior Mexican tribes, to retain some friendly point with which to keep an amicable intercourse and traffic. Parties of them have therefore sometimes entered the settlements of New Mexico for trading purposes; while every season numerous bands of New Mexicans, known as Comancheros, supplied with arms, ammunitions, trinkets, provisions and other necessaries, launch upon the Prairies to barter for mules, and the different fruits of their ravages upon the South.

     This powerful nation, combined with the petty southern tribes, has also waged an almost unceasing warfare upon Texas, ever since her independence. War-parties have frequently penetrated to the very heart of the settlements, perpetrating murderous outrages, and bearing away into captivity numerous women and children. They have entered


the city of Austin, then the seat of government, in open day; and, at other times, have been known to descend to the very seacoast, committing many frightful depredations. “On the 8th of August, 1840,” writes a friend who resided at Linnville, on Matagorda Bay, “several hundred Comanches came down from the mountains, and charged upon us without the least notice. They burned and made a perfect destruction of the village and everything pertaining to it.”

     Besides continual hostilities with Mexico and Texas, the Comanches are at war with most of the Indians of the Mexican interior, as also .with the tribes of the more northern prairies — and particularly the Arrapahoes and Chayennes, with whom they have many bloody rencounters. But they generally remain on friendly terms with the petty tribes of the south, whom, indeed, they seem to hold as their vassals.

     As these Indians always go to war on horseback, several days are often spent previous to a campaign in equestrian exercises and ceremonies, which seem partly to supply the place of the war-dance of other tribes; though they sometimes join in preparatory dances also. It is not an unusual custom, when a campaign is in agitation, for a band of about twenty Comanche maidens to chant, for three nights in succession, the victories of their ancestors, the valor of their brothers and contemporaries, and the individual prowess of all such young warriors as they consider should engage in


the contemplated enterprise: and all those designated by the serenading band are held as drafted for the campaign. Fired by the encomiums and excitations of the ‘fair cantatrices,’ they fly at once to the standard of their favorite chief: and the ceremony is concluded by a war-dance.

     Upon their return from a successful expedition, the ‘war-worn corps’ halts on some elevation at a distance from the village, and a herald is sent forward to announce their arrival. Thereupon, one of their most respectable and aged matrons issues forth to receive them, carrying with her a very long-handled lance kept for the purpose. On the top of this the victorious Indians fasten all the scalps they may have taken, so arranged that each shall be conspicuous. The matron squaw then approaches the wigwams, holding her scalpgarnished lance high in the air, and chanting some favorite war-legend. She is soon joined by other squaws and Indian lasses, who dance around as the procession moves through the entire circuit of the village. If the victory has been brilliant, the dancing and feasting are apt to be kept up for several days, all parties joining in the general jubilee.

     If the conquerors bring any prisoners with them, these have to encounter the scourgings and insults of the squaws and children. Each seems entitled to a blow, a kick, a pinch, a bite, or whatever simple punishment they may choose to inflict upon the unfortunate captives. This done, they are delivered


over to the captors as slaves, and put to the service and drudgery of the camp.

     After their first entrance it seems rare for them to treat their captives with much cruelty: though an instance was related to me by some Mexican prisoners, of a very barbarous massacre which they witnessed during their captivity. Two white men, supposed to be Texans, were tied to a stake, and a number of their marksmen, retiring to a distance and using the naked bodies of their victims as targets, began wantonly to fire at them, and continued their horrid sport, until some fatal ball put an end to their suffering! The capture of these had probably been attended with some aggravating circumstances, which induced the savages to resort to this cruel method of satiating their revenge.

     If a campaign has been unsuccessful the warriors separate upon their return, and drop into the village one by one. Nothing is now heard for several days, but the wailings and howlings of the bereft relatives and friends. They will also scarify their arms and legs, and subject themselves to other carnal mortifications of the most powerful character. On these occasions their previous captives, and particularly such as may belong to the nation of their victorious enemy, are sure to be roughly treated, and sometimes massacred by the enraged relatives of the slain.

     When a Comanche dies, a similar course of mourning is practised; and he is usually wrapped in his robes and in-


terred with most of his “jewelry’ and other articles of esteem; accompanying which, it is said an awl and some moccasin leather is generally added, as a provision, it would appear, for his use during his long journey to the ‘happy hunting ground’ beyond the grave. They also kill fire favorite horses of the deceased, which are often buried by his side, doubtless with the same object.

     The religious notions, of the Comanches resemble, in most particulars, those of the other prairie tribes; yet they appear to have an occasional peculiarity. Some say the dry buffalo head or cranium is their idol. True it is that they show it great reverence, and use it in many of their mystic ceremonies. The Pawnees also hold these buffalo heads, with which the plains are strewed, in great reverence; and usually for many leagues around, these sculls are set up facing towards their villages, in the belief that the herds of buffalo will thus be conducted by them into their neighborhood. Of the Comanches the sun is no doubt the principal deity. When preparing for a campaign, it is said they do not fail to place their arms betimes every morning on the east side of their lodges, that they may receive the blessing of the fountain of light at his first appearance. This indeed seems the usual time for offering their devotions to the sun, of many tribes of the American aborigines.


southwestern-style woven rope chain

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