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The soil of the colony of Louisiana had been, from time immemorial, tenanted by an infinite number of small insignificant Indian tribes, the mere recapitulation of which would uselessly occupy more than one page. Suffice it to say, that they had a very similar appearance, like twins fresh from the womb of nature. There were, it is true, some differences in their dialects — some varieties in their customs, laws, and manners — merging, however, in the same uniformity of savage existence and of confirmed barbarism. In the dark twilight of uncivilized ignorance in which they lived, the distinctive shades existing between their moral, intellectual, and physical features were hardly perceptible, and are certainly not of sufficient importance to attract the notice and to call for the investigation of the historian. De minimis non curat historia. But an exception is to be made in favor of the three most important nations of that country, on account of their numbers, of their power, and of the considerable and direct influence which they exercised over the destinies of the colony. These nations are the Natchez, the Choctaws, and the Chickasaws.
In 1722, the Natchez could bring into the field six hundred warriors. The time, however, was not far distant, p287 when they could have set on foot four thousand able-bodied men. But from different causes acting with frightful rapidity, their population had been dwindling away, and they seemed to be incompetent to arrest the gradual destruction of their race. If vague and indistinct tradition is to be believed, the cradle of the Natchez nation was somewhere near the sun, whence they came to Mexico; which country was their resting-place for some centuries. But they were probably driven from it in consequence of civil wars in which they were defeated. Some of the depositaries of their legendary lore even said, that their nation had been one of those that aided Cortez in overthrowing the empire of Montezuma. But soon perceiving that the Spaniards were disposed to exercise over them a tyranny worse than the one from which they had sought to escape by breaking the power of the great Aztec emperor to whom they were subjected, they determined to seek another clime, where they might enjoy in peace and in perfect freedom their ancient nationality. They followed the rising sun from east to west, and came to those beautiful hills in Louisiana, which they selected for their new home. In those days, the country which they occupied extended from Manchac to Wabash, and they could boast of five hundred Suns, or members of the royal family. Now, in 1722, they were confined to a contracted territory and to a few villages, the principal of which was situated •three miles from Fort Rosalie, on a small water-course, at the distance of •about two miles and a half from the Mississippi. The other villages were within a short distance of the principal one, where resided the sovereign.
Their government was a perfect Asiatic despotism. Their sovereign was styled the Great Sun, and on his death, it was customary to immolate in his honor a considerable p288 number of his subjects. The subordinate chiefs of the royal blood were called Little Suns, and when they also paid the inevitable tribute due to nature, there was, according to their dignity and the estimation they were held in, a proportionate and voluntary sacrifice of lives. The poor ignorant barbarians who thus died for their princes, did it cheerfully, because they were persuaded that, by escorting them to the world of spirits, they would, in recompense for their devotion, be entitled to live in eternal youth and bliss, suffering neither from cold, nor from heat, hunger, thirst, or disease, and rioting in the full gratification of all their tastes, desires, and passions. These frequent hecatombs of human beings were one of the causes, it is said, which contributed to a rapid diminution of that race. But as this sanguinary custom appears to have been very ancient, and almost coeval with their formation into national existence, how is it that they should ever have swelled up to be such a powerful and numerous tribe as they are represented to have been at one time? It is alledgedº that the other causes of destruction were, — a state of constant warfare, the prevalence of affections of the chest or lungs in the winter, and the invasion of the small-pox.
The Natchez were of a light mahogany complexion, with jet-black hair and eyes. Their features were extremely regular, and their expression was intelligent, open and noble. They were tall in stature, very few of them being under •six feet, and the symmetry of their well-proportioned limbs was remarkable. The smallest Natchez that was ever seen by the French was •five feet in height: considering himself a dwarf, and, therefore, an object of contumely, he always kept himself concealed. Their whole frame presented a beautiful development of the muscles, and men were not seen p289 among them, either overloaded with flesh, or almost completely deprived of this necessary appendage to the human body — no bloated, fat-bellied lump of mortality contrasting in bold relief with a thin and lank would‑be representative of a man. The sight was never afflicted by the appearance of a hunchback or some other equally distorted wretch, such as are so often observed among the European race. In common with all the aborigines of Louisiana, they were flat-headed — which was a peculiar shape they liked, and into which they took care to mold the skulls of their offspring when in their infancy. The women were not as good-looking as the men, and were generally of the middle size. The inferiority of the female sex to the male, with regard to the beauty of personal appearance, is a remarkable fact among all the Indian tribes, and is, no doubt, to be attributed to the state of degradation in which their women are kept, and to the painful labors to which they are subjected.
The Natchez had shown a good deal of acute invention in providing themselves with all the implements necessary to their wants. To cut down timber, they had flint axes ingeniously contrived, and to sever flesh, either raw or cooked, they had knives made up of a peculiar kind of keen-edged reed, called conchac. They used for their bows the Acacia wood, and their bow-strings were made either with the barks of trees, or the skins of animals. Their arrows, made of reed, were winged with the feathers of birds, and when destined to kill buffaloes, or deer, their points were armed with sharp pieces of bone, and particularly of fish-bone. They understood the art of dressing, or preparing buffalo, deer and beaver skins, and those of other animals, so as to provide themselves with very comfortable clothing for the winter, and they used, as awls for sewing, small thin bones, which they took from the legs of p290 herons. Their huts were made of rude materials, such as rough timber and a combination of mud, sand, and Spanish moss worked together into a solid sort of mortar and forming their walls, to which they gave a thickness of •four inches. The roofs were of intermingled grass and reeds, so skillfully put together, that these roofs would last twenty years without leaking. The huts were square, and usually measured •fifteen feet by fifteen; — some, however, such as those of the chiefs, had •thirty feet square, and even more. They had no other aperture, for egress or ingress, or for admitting light, than a door which generally was •two feet wide by four in height. The frames of the beds of the Natchez, which rose •two feet from the floor, were of wood, but the inside was a soft and elastic texture of plaited or weaved up reeds: and those unsophisticated sons of nature had, to rest during the day, nothing but hard and low wooden seats, with no backs to lean against.
Their agriculture, before they became acquainted with the French, who taught them the use of wheat and flour, was limited to the cultivation of corn, which they knew how to grind with a wooden apparatus. Their women had arrived at considerable proficiency in the manufacturing of earthenware, and they made all sorts of pots, pitchers, bottles, bowls, dishes and plates bearing designs, among which it is pretended that Grecian letters and Hebrew characters are plainly to be discovered.b Their crockery was generally of a reddish color. They also excelled in making sieves, bottles, and winnowing fans. With the bark of the linden or lime-tree, they made very beautiful nets to catch birds or fish. They knew how to dye skins in several colors, of which those they liked best were the white, the yellow, the red, and the black, and their taste was to use them in alternate stripes. The skins thus dyed, particularly p291 that of the porcupine, they embroidered with considerable art, and the drawings were somewhat of a gothic character. They also made bed-coverings and cloaks with the bark of the mulberry-tree, and with the feathers of turkeys, ducks, and geese. Like the other Indians, the Natchez had not carried very far the science of navigation, and to cross rivers, they had imagined to scoop the trunks of trees, which they shaped into canoes. Some of their largest canoes measured •forty feet in length by four in width: they were generally made to carry twelve persons, and were exceedingly light. These boats were propelled by the means of paddles •six feet long.
During the summer, men and women were always half naked and bare-footed, except when traveling. Then they would wear shoes made of the skin of the deer. For ornaments, they wore rings or painted bones through their ears and noses, and in the shape of bracelets round their arms and legs. They were also very fond of painted glass-beads, which they interwove in their hair, or carried round their necks in the shape of collars, to which they added the teeth of alligators, or the claws of wild beasts. These same painted glass-beads they also used in ornamenting their leather garments, and they composed with them fanciful embroideries. The vermilion with which they painted their bodies was one of their favorite embellishments, together with the hieroglyphic figures, or crude heraldic devices, with which they used to impregnate their skins from head to foot. On being made acquainted with those small bells with which mules are decorated, they became very fond of having them about their persons in as great profusion as they could, and were delighted with the merry ringing which attended the slightest of their motions. They shaved the back part of their heads in the manner p292 practiced by the religious orders among the Roman Catholics, leaving in the midst of the crown five or six locks of hair, wherewith to tie feathers. The rest of the hair was clipped round, friar-like, with the exception of a long twisted tuft which was left dangling down on the left shoulder, and at the extremity of which feathers were fastened on feast days. The sovereign wore round the head a net-work of black thread, to which adhered a diadem of white feathers •eight inches in height on the forehead, and dwindling down to four behind. It was surmounted by a tuft of fur, out of which shot up a small crest of horse-hair, •one inch and a half in height, and painted red:— it had a picturesque effect.
As soon as a child was born, the mother rose up, and going to the next stream, washed it thoroughly. Then she came back to her hut, and placed the child in its cradle, which was usually •two feet and a half long, by eight or nine inches in width, and six inches in height. The cradle made of reeds was very light, hardly weighing •two pounds, and was always placed on the very bed of the mother, so that she might conveniently nurse her child. The motion of the cradle was not sideways, as of those used by Europeans, and which must produce the unpleasant sensation experienced in a ship rolling at sea, but forward and backward like one of our modern rocking-chairs. The most watchful maternal care was bestowed upon the children, who were never allowed to stand on their legs before they were strong enough to make the attempt without too much effort, and they were allowed free access to their milk diet from the parental breast as long as they pleased, unless the mother's health, or her peculiar situation, should have prevented its continuance. Every day, they were rubbed with oil, to render their limbs p293 more flexible, and to prevent the bites of flies or mosquitoes.
When boys reached their twelfth year, they were committed to the charge of the oldest man of their respective families, who was called "the Ancient." He undertook to superintend their education, and to impart to them all necessary knowledge and desired qualifications. Under his tuition, they learned to swim, to run, to jump, to wrestle, and they received from his lips those moral lessons or precepts which were to regulate their behavior, when they should be grown into manhood. A bunch of hay, as big as the fist, was generally put at the top of a stick, as a target at which they shot with their arrows. The most successful carried the prize, and received the praise which the ancient usually awarded him: and as a pre-eminent distinction, he was styled the Young Warrior. The next one in skill was called the Apprentice Warrior. It is to be remarked that blows were never given to boys as a corrective, but only moral means were resorted to, and appeals were made to their feelings of pride or of shame. The most profound respect was paid to the oldest member of every family — to the ancient, whose decisions were supreme, and received with the most implicit obedience. Thus the head of a family was called father by all its members, however distant their blood relations might have been to him: and whenever these Indians meant to speak of him from whom they really derived their existence, they used to say, my true father, in contradistinction to the word father applied to the chief of the family. In old times, a similar respect was paid by our Caucasian race to the experience and dignity of age, but now it is a custom, the breach of which is much more faithfully adhered to than the observance.
p294 When three years old, the children of both sexes were every morning, summer or winter, taken to some stream to bathe in, and in this way they learned how to swim, and at the same time they fortified their bodies so as to endure with ease the hardships to which they would be exposed in the course of their lives. But as it is the case with all the Indians of North America, the men were educated to be only warriors and hunters, and the women to do all the work and drudgery which were necessary for the comfort of their own existence and that of the lordly sex which kept them sunk down to a state of profound inferiority. In one thing, however, they were superior to more civilized nations — quarrels and fights were exceedingly rare among them. The penalty for such transgressions was to live for a certain time in utter seclusion, apart from the rest of the tribe, the culprits being considered as having forfeited their character, and as being unworthy of associating with decent and respectable people. The fear of the infliction of such a disgrace had always proved to be a very effective preventive. In fact, the education which the Natchez received made them so cautious of trespassing on each other's rights, that the few penal laws which existed among them had seldom to be enforced.
As they were ignorant of the art of writing, their history consisted of tradition handed down from one generation to another; but in order to secure to it as much authenticity as possible, a certain number of their most intelligent, discreet, and trustworthy young men were selected to be educated in the knowledge of their traditionary lore, which they were taught and sworn to respect as sacred, to preserve with religious fidelity, and to transmit in their turn to their successors, with exact minuteness. They were called the repositories of the voice of the past, of the ancient word; and from time to p295 time they were requested to recite before the old men of the nation what had been deposited, and was to be treasured up in their memory, in order that it might be ascertained whether they would make themselves guilty either of omissions arising from design, oblivion, indifference, and carelessness, or of additions and interpolations proceeding from the exuberance of fancy, or from the pruriency of invention. This shows a respect for historical truth which can not be too highly commended, and which ought to be set up as an example deserving of imitation by our modern recorders of events.
The Natchez had two languages; — which peculiarity existed also among the Peruvians. One was called the vulgar, that is, the dialect reserved for the common people, who were permitted to speak to no other. The other one was used altogether by the nobles and by the women. Both these languages were said to be very rich, and had no affinity to each other. For instance, he who would have wished to bespeak the attention of a plebeian, would have said "aquenan," listen, and to a noble, "magnani," which has exactly the same meaning; to a plebeian, "tachte cabanacte," is it thou? and to a noble, "apape-gouya-iche;" to a plebeian, "petchi," sit down, and to a noble, "caham." In the language of the vulgar, "coustine" signified spirit, and tchite meant great. In the language of the nobles, the word "coyocop" meant spirit, and cliquip great. These examples are sufficient to show the want of analogy which existed between these two languages. The women, as I have already said, spoke the language of the nobles, but with an affected and quaint pronunciation, totally different from that of the men. The French, who associated more with the women than with the other sex, had taken their pronunciation; which circumstance p296 provoked a rebuke addressed to one of them by a Natchez magnate: "Since thou hast the pretension to be a man," said the chief to the Frenchman, "why dost thou lisp like a woman?"
The Natchez believed in a Supreme Creator of the universe, and they designated him by the name of Coyocop chile, which meant, Coyocop, spirit; chile, infinitely great. They thought that, as they expressed it, "all they saw, all they might see, and all they were not able to see," proceeded from him — that he was so good and kind that he could not do harm if he wished; that mere conception and volition on his part had been sufficient to generate every thing; that there were however subordinate spirits, called Coyocop techou, who were perpetually standing in his presence, and implicitly obeying his mandates like slaves; that every thing which was bad and calamitous in this world was produced by evil spirits as invisible as the air in which they lived; that these evil spirits formerly had a chief who worked so much mischief, that the Great Spirit had chained him in a dark cell, since which time the evil spirits, his subjects, were not so constantly bent upon doing injury, particularly when they were softened by respectful prayers. Whenever the Natchez wished for rain or fair weather, they had recourse to fasting, and frequently on such occasions their sovereign, the Great Sun, would, during nine consecutive days, abstain from meat and fish, and liv altogether on a little boiled corn. He would also take particular care, during all that time, to have no intercourse of any kind with his wives. The Natchez believed in a deluge which had destroyed mankind with the exception of a few people, who had taken refuge on a high mountain, and who had repeopled the earth.
According to the religious creed of the Natchez, p297 Great Spirit had molded the first man out of the same kind of clay with which they made their crockery, and being satisfied with his work, had breathed life into it. As to woman, they did not know exactly how she had been created. There were various traditions on this subject. One of them reported, that a short time after the first man was gifted with existence, he was taken with a violent fit of sneezing, when something in the shape of a woman, as big as the thumb, bolted from his nose, and on falling on the ground, kept on dancing with extreme velocity until it grew into the present size of the female sex.
Many centuries before the Natchez came to the banks of the Mississippi, they were living in a condition of almost brutish ignorance, when there appeared among them a man and a woman who had descended from the sun. They were clothed all over with light, and looked so dazzlingly bright that no human eye could long dwell upon their forms. This man told them that from the realms of the sun he had seen that they were the miserable victims of anarchy, because they had no master, and did not know how to govern themselves, while every one of them, although incapable of self-government, thought that he was competent to rule over the rest of his race. Wherefore, he had taken the determination to come down upon earth to teach the Natchez how to live. His moral precepts were few in number, and suited to the circumstances of the people he intended to legislate for. The most important ones were, not to kill any human being except in self-defense; to be satisfied with the possession of one's own wife, and not to covet that of any other man; never to tell a lie; never to be inebriated; and never to take the property of another. He also strongly recommended generosity, p298 charity, and the distribution of one's goods among the destitute.
This man spoke with such authority that he produced the deepest impression on the Natchez. While he was reposing with his wife in the hut to which they had conducted him, the old men of that nation met in a solemn conclave in the dead of night, and the next morning they went in great ceremony to the wonderful stranger to propose to him to be their sovereign. He refused at first, saying, he knew he would not be obeyed, and that, much to his regret, this want of obedience would be death to all the Natchez. But yielding at last to repeated solicitations, he accepted on the following conditions: that the Natchez would emigrate to a better country, which he would point out to them; that they would live strictly according to the laws to be established by him, and that their sovereigns would forever be of his race. "If I have," said he, "any male and female issue, there shall be no intermarriage among them, they being brothers and sisters. But they shall be permitted to wed from the bulk of the people. The first-born of my sons shall be my successor, and then the son of his eldest daughter, or in case he should have no daughter, the son of his eldest sister, or in his default, the eldest son of the nearest female relation of the sovereign, and so on in perpetuity."
Then he went into the minutest details concerning the laws of succession to the throne, and provided for all possible contingencies. He called down fire from the sun, and ordered that it should be eternally kept up with walnut wood, stripped of its bark, in two temples, to be built at the two farthest extremities of the country to be occupied by the Natchez. According to his instructions, a body of eight men was selected out of the nation as ministers or priests for each temple. p299 Their duty was to watch in turn the sacred fire, and on its being extinguished, the guardian then on the watch was to be punished with death. The mysterious law-giver that had come from the sun, predicted the most awful calamities to the Natchez, if the sacred fire was ever allowed to go out entirely in both temples. Should it be extinguished in one, the guardians were to relight it by hurrying to the other temple. But they were not to be allowed to borrow the sacred fire peaceably. They were to fight for the holy spark, and were not to carry it away before shedding blood in the contest, on the floor of the temple, as a sort of propitiatory offering to the evil spirits.
Implicit obedience was sworn to all the mandatory dispositions of the new sovereign, and he signified that he wished to be called "thé," which meant "thee." He lived to very old age, saw the children of his grandchildren, and was the author of all the institutions which prevailed among the Natchez, until that nation was destroyed. He certainly was, in the most emphatic sense of the word, their supreme legislator, their Lycurgus. After his death his children were called suns, on account of their origin. He established no sacrifices, no libations, no offerings. The only worship which he prescribed, if it can be so called, was the keeping of the sacred fire, and one of the first duties of the Great Sun was to watch over the strict fulfillment of this charge, and to visit one of the temples every day for this purpose.
The Natchez had great national festivals, which partook of a religious and political character. These festivals were religious in one sense, as being instituted with the object of returning thanks to the Creator for his manifold benefits; and they were also essentially of a political nature, as they were the only sources of the revenue of p300 the sovereign; because, although despotic in his authority, and the absolute master of the lives and property of his subjects, he never imposed taxation nor levied contribution, and he remained satisfied with the presents which were made to him on these great festivals.
For the Natchez, the year opened in March, and was divided into thirteen moons. The thirteenth moon was added to make the course of that planet correspond with that of the sun, and to complete the year. On every new moon a great feast was celebrated, and took its name from the fruits which had been gathered, from the game which had been pursued, or from the usual occupations of the people during the preceding moon. Thus, the year began in March with the celebration of the moon of the deer. It was the most joyous and the most important celebration. There was rehearsed a sort of dramatic performance, recalling the memory of an historical event which had left a deep impression upon the Natchez.
In days of old, a Great Sun, having heard the uproar of a sudden tumult in his village, issued precipitately from his dwelling, to appease what he supposed to be a quarrel among his people, and fell into the hands of a hostile nation, by which his capital had been surprised. But the Natchez recovering from their astonishment and dismay, came in time to the rescue, delivered their sovereign, and put to flight their enemies with immense slaughter. In commemoration of this honorable event in their history, their warriors, at the beginning of every year, in the moon of the deer, would divide themselves into two bodies, made distinct by the colors of their feathers. Those who represented the Natchez, wore white feathers, and those who acted the enemy, sported red feathers. Both these troops put themselves in ambuscade near the residence of the sovereign. The p301 enemies, commanded by the Great Chief of the Warriors, who was always the most distinguished general of the tribe, some such thing as an Alexander, a Caesar, a Bonaparte, or a Wellington, were the first to issue from their place of concealment, and approached with slow steps the house of the Great Sun, but shouting all the while to the full top of their voices, and distorting their bodies into every sort of fantastic contortions. Then the Great Sun came out full dressed, but rubbing his eyes as if just awaking. The foes, shouting their death-cry, threw themselves upon him and carried him away.
In their turn, the Natchez came rushing on, and encountered their enemies with terrific howls and shrieks, making an appalling compound of all the tones and exclamations expressive of fear, anger, despair and revenge. Then followed, during half an hour, a scene of mimic warfare, in which both parties displayed all the stratagems they could invent, and all the military skill they possessed. During all that time, prodigies of valor were performed by the Great Sun, who stoutly defended himself with a wooden tomahawk. The enemies by whom he was enveloped, fell in heaps under his simulated blows, and strewed the ground with their corpses. At last, the Natchez succeeded in routing the hostile warriors, whom they pursued to a considerable distance; and delighted with such a complete and glorious victory, they returned to their village, bearing aloft in triumph their sovereign, making the welkin ring with their joyous shouts, which were merrily responded to by the echoes of their hills. The old men, the women and children came forward to meet the returning host, and joined with noisy demonstrations in the general jubilation. The French writers report that the spectacle of this mimic battle was exceedingly interesting, p302 and that it was so true to nature in all its incidents, and produced such a complete illusion, that no one could witness it without the liveliest excitement.
The Great Sun, being escorted back to his dwelling, retired to rest, and while he was reposing, his subjects, who feigned to be ignorant whether he was wounded or not, rambled about the village, uttering groans and plaintive sighs. After the lapse of about half an hour, the Great Sun came out, bareheaded, and without his crown. He was joyfully and respectfully saluted with shouts and every demonstration of enthusiastic greeting. But profound silence ensued among the people, when they saw their sovereign advancing in the direction of the temple. When in front of the edifice, he bowed with profound reverence, as if in adoration. Then he gathered dust, which he threw back over his head, and turned successively to the four quarters of the world in repeating the same act of throwing dust. After this, he looked fixedly at the temple, extended both his arms horizontally, as motionless as a statue, and praying all the while. His subjects observed the deepest silence while this was going on; and on his returning to his house, the groans of his people recommenced, and ceased only when he reappeared with the royal diadem round his temples. Then, his throne, which was a stool •four feet high, decorated with curious devices, and covered with a fancifully painted skin, was brought before his door. On his taking his seat, his warriors threw over his shoulders a choice buffalo hide, and under his feet a carpet of costly furs. The rest of his subjects and the women presented him also with various offerings, according to their means. This was the first tribute of the year paid to the sovereign.
When this ceremony was over, the princes of the royal blood, called the Little Suns, entered the palace p303 with the Great Sun. On this occasion, if there were strangers of distinction in the village, they were invited to dine with the sovereign. In the evening, dances were executed round the royal dwelling, which was built on an artificial mound, measuring •eight feet in height by sixty feet square.
The second moon, which corresponded with our month of April, was called the moon of strawberries. The women and children gathered a considerable quantity of this fruit, and did not fail to present to the Great Sun his full share of the harvest. On that occasion, the warriors tendered him a liberal offering of wild ducks, which were smoked for preservation. This was the second tribute.
The third moon, in the month of May, was called the moon of old corn, in which they feasted on the balance of corn remaining from the preceding year, after having paid to their sovereign what they considered his due. This was the third tribute.
The fourth moon, or June, was called the moon of water-melons. To the Great Sun was offered a large supply of this fruit, and of fish caught in the Mississippi, and carefully pickled. This was the fourth tribute.
The fifth moon, or the month of July, was called the moon of peaches. Then, the sovereign received his provision of wild grapes and peaches. It was his fifth tribute.
The sixth moon, or the month of August, was called the moon of blackberries. Full baskets of this fruit were laid before the Great Sun, and he was abundantly supplied with every kind of domestic fowl. It was the sixth tribute. Every one of those moons was attended with feastings and rejoicings.
The seventh moon, or the month of September, was p304 the moon of new corn, the celebration of which consisted in eating in common, with certain religious ceremonies, a quantity of corn which had been planted and cultivated to that effect. To plant that corn, a space of uncleared, virgin land was selected and prepared for cultivation by the warriors, who used fire to kill the trees, and to remove the grass, furz, canes, or other vegetable rubbish which might encumber the ground. On the land being ready, the corn had to be planted by the warriors, under the command of the war-chief. None were allowed to work in the sacred field but the warriors, and it would have amounted to profanation, deserving of death, for any other person to join in that labor. When this corn began to ripen, the warriors chose a well-shaded spot, where they constructed a barn in the shape of a large round tower. They called it "Momo ataop," which signified, barn of value. When the barn was filled up with the new corn, the sovereign was informed of that fact, and fixed the day on which, in his presence, it was to be eaten in common. Then, temporary huts, made for the occasion, with the lopped off branches of trees, with sweet-smelling grass, fresh leaves, and green moss, were erected for the Great Sun, and all his people, to protect them against the inclemencies of the weather, during the feast, which always lasted several days. At dawn, on the day appointed, all the old men and the adults, the women and children, departed with the necessary utensils, to make the required preparations. The war-chief placed sixteen warriors, among whom were eight veterans, at the door of the sovereign, and eight others at regular intervals of one hundred paces each, from the royal dwelling to the place of rendezvous. Their duty was to act as sedan-bearers to Great Sun. After making these dispositions, the war-chief went to the meeting-place, where, p305 putting himself at the head of the rest of the warriors, he patiently waited for the arrival of the sovereign.
Now, the royal sedan is at the door of the palace. Its four arms are painted red, and its body is richly decorated with fancifully painted and embroidered deer-skins, with leaves of the magnolia, and with garlands of white and red flowers. Out comes the sovereign in full dress, and with all the marks of his dignity. The sixteen warriors, stationed at his door, utter successive shouts as loud as human lungs will allow. The eight warriors who are placed at a distance of one hundred steps, repeat these shouts with the same vehemence, which shouts are almost instantaneously transmitted from throats to throats to the place where the people are congregated, and where they are informed in this way of the coming of their sovereign. On his issuing from his door, the eight old veterans lift him up into the sedan supported by the eight other warriors, who depart with him full speed, and run as fast as they can. At every hundred steps, the sovereign finds a fresh relay of eight men, and travels with the greatest rapidity, followed by those who have successively borne him, and who utter deafening shouts, which are nothing, however, to those bellowed forth, when he appears in sight of the whole nation assembled. He is first carried in triumph round the barn, which he salutes respectfully with three howls, to which the people respond with nine distinct and measured howls. Then he ascends his throne, and familiarly converses with his nobles. During that time, what is called new fire, is made by rubbing two sticks together. Every other kind of fire would be looked upon as profane. When all is ready, the war-chief presents himself before the throne of the Great Sun, and says to him, "Speak — I wait for thy command." Then the Great Sun rises, p306 bows reverentially to the four quarters of the world, beginning with the East. He next raises his hands and eyes toward heaven and says, "Let the corn be distributed." The war-chief thanks him with one prolonged howl, the princes and princesses with three howls, and the common people with nine, with the exception of the women and children, who observe a profound silence.
After a certain lapse of time, when it is supposed that the repast is prepared, the word-bearer, or chancellor of the Great Sun, says to the master of ceremonies: "See if the victuals are properly cooked." Then, two dishes of corn are brought to the Great Sun, who goes out of his hut, presents them to the four quarters of the world, and sending one of them to the war-chief, says, Pachcou, eat, — a command which his subjects joyfully and eagerly obey. The warriors eat first, then the young men and boys, and next, the women and young girls. When the warriors have done, they form themselves into two opposite bands, occupying two sides of a square fitted up for the occasion, and they sing with alternate choruses during about half an hour. Those songs are always of a warlike character. The war-chief puts an end to that concert, by striking with his tomahawk the red post which is erected in the midst of the square, and which is called the Warrior's post. Then begins what may be called the declamation scene, which is opened by the war-chief. With an emphatic tone he relates his exploits, and boasts of the number of foes he has killed. He concludes by making an appeal to the bystanders in confirmation of the truth of his assertions, to which they assent with a loud ululatus or howl. All the warriors follow the example of their chief, according to their rank, and like him recite their heroic deeds. In their turn, the young men are allowed p307 to strike the painted post, and to say, than what they have done (their military career not having yet begun), but what they intend to do. The youths that speak well are encouraged with a howl from the warriors, who, when they disapprove, show it by hanging down their heads, and remaining silent. The desire to elicit the approbation of their superiors excites the warmest emulation among the young men, and taxes to the utmost all the energies of their minds.
When night comes, two hundred torches made of dry reeds, and frequently renewed, illumine the square, where the Indians dance until daylight. There is great monotony in these dances. A man sits down with a large kettle in which there is a little water, and which is covered over with deer-skin drawn as tight as possible. With one hand, he holds the kettle between his legs, and with the other he beats time on this kind of rude drum. The women form a circle round him at a certain distance from each other, and have their hands thrust into a ring of feathers which they twirl round their wrists, while they move in cadence from left to right. The men form another circle next to the one of the women, and keep at a distance of •six feet from each other. Every one of them has his chichicois, with which he keeps time. The chichicois is a sort of oblong gourd bored at both extremities: through these holes a stick is run, the longest outside part of which serves as a handle. In the gourd there are small stones, or dry beans, which, when shaken, produce a considerable noise. As the women turn in dancing from left to right, the men move from right to left. The dancers, when fatigued, withdraw, and are often replaced by others. In proportion as the number of dancers increases or diminishes, the circles grow larger or smaller.
The next day, the Indians do not leave their huts p308 before they are summoned out by the Great Sun, who, at nine o'clock, makes his appearance on the public square, and where, having promenaded for some time with the war-chief, he orders the kettle-drum to be beaten. Then the warriors come out of their huts, and form themselves into two bands, to play at tennis. The one, with white feathers, is headed by the Great Sun, and the other, with red ones, by the war-chief. The game is: for one party to drive the tennis ball in the direction of the hut of the Great Sun, so as to make it strike the hut, and for the other party to oppose it, and to push the same ball toward the dwelling of the war-chief, with a similar intent. The contest generally lasts two hours, and is at an end when the ball strikes either hut. Then come war-dances; and in the evening, to refresh their wearied limbs, the people amuse themselves with bathing. This feast continues until the corn is eaten up, with the exception of what is reserved for the Great Sun, who alone has the privilege of carrying some of it away. It constitutes the seventh tribute.
October is the moon of the turkeys; November, the moon of the buffaloes; then follow the moon of the bears, the moon of the geese, the moon of the chestnuts, and the moon of the walnuts. On each of these moons, the Great Sun receives his monthly tribute.
There were some very remarkable traits in the national character of the Natchez, among which was the pre-eminence allowed to the male over the female sex. In all assemblies, either public or private, even in the privacy of the family circle, the youngest boys had the precedency over the oldest women, and when all the members of one family sat down to their meals, a boy, two years old, received his food before his mother was helped. Whatever impression this circumstance may have produced on the temper of the Natchez women, it p309 is certain that so much docility was inculcated by education into their minds, that a quarrel between husband and wife would have been looked upon as something monstrous.
If the women were docile and very industrious, they were, according to our standard of morality, extremely addicted, when unmarried, to the lowest profligacy. Strange to say, this profligacy was a merit in the estimation of the Natchez. Thus, all their women, while single, were allowed to sell their favors; and she who had acquired the wealthiest marriage portion by this abominable traffic, was looked upon as having the most attraction, and as being far superior to all the females of her tribe. She became an object of competition, and received the homages of the loftiest and most renowned warriors. However, as soon as they were married, these professed courtesans were immediately transformed into as many Lucretias, and both husband and wife became patterns of fidelity. They said, in explanation of this change in their conduct, "that having solemnly given away their persons, they had no longer a right to dispose as they pleased of that which they had pledged to another." The married woman being thus so remarkable for fidelity, industry, and docility, matrimonial happiness was as common among the Natchez as it is rare among other people, and although they had the right of repudiation, they very seldom exercised it; — a thing which is not to be wondered at, since no one must be supposed to be willing to renounce the sweet slumbers which he enjoys under the soft rays of a perpetual honey-moon.
Marriages were never contracted without the unanimous assent of the elder members of the two families. When that was obtained, the two heads of the families, or the two ancients, or fathers, as they were called, met p310 and settled their preliminary conditions. The young people were never forced into alliances against their will, but at the same time they could not gratify their inclination without its being approved by those members of their families to whom they owed respect and obedience. It was thought that no one had a right to introduce into a family a member that would not be acceptable. It is clear that the philosophy of elopements was not understood by those barbarians, and was reserved for a more refined state of civilization.
When a marriage had been determined upon, the head of the family of the bride, the ancient, went with her and her whole family to the residence of the bridegroom, who there stood surrounded also by his own family. The oldest man on the side of the bridegroom welcomed his compeer in age on the side of the bride, with this brief salutation, Cabanacte," is it thou? "Manatte" — yes, answered the other. "Petchi" — sit down, replied the first. Then the whole assembly took seats, and the most grave and profound silence followed the laconic dialogue which I have related. After a lapse of a quarter of an hour, the oldest man rose, and ordering those who were to be united to stand before him, he addressed to them an allocution, in which he recapitulated all the duties they voluntarily assumed, and gave them abundant and wholesome advice. When this sermon was over, the father of the bridegroom handed to his son the present which he was to make to the family of his future wife, and the father of the bride stepped forward and put himself by the side of his daughter. Then the bridegroom said to the bride, "Wilt thou have me for thy husband?" She answered, "With all my heart; love me as much as I love thee, for thou art and thou shalt be my only love." When these words were uttered, the bridegroom held p311 over the head of his bride the gift which he presented to her family, and said: "I love thee; therefore do I take thee for my wife: and here is the present with which I buy thee from thy parents." Then he delivered the present to the father of the bride.
The bridegroom wore a tuft of feathers at the top of the plaited lock of hair which fell down on his left shoulder, and at the lower end of which was tied an oak twig with its leaves. In his left hand he held a bow and arrow. The tuft of feathers was an emblem of the power and command which he had the right to exercise in his household; the oak twig signified that he was not afraid of going to the woods in quest of game; the bow and the arrows meant that he would always be ready to meet a foe, and to defend his wife and children.
The bride had in her left hand a green twig of the laurel tree, and in her right hand an ear of corn. The laurel twig signified that she would preserve her fame ever fair, and smelling as sweet as the laurel leaf; the ear of corn meant that she would know how to prepare it for her husband's food, and to fulfill the other duty imposed upon her as a loving and a dutiful wife.
When the bridegroom and the bride had exchanged the words which I have recited in the preceding paragraphs, the bride dropped the ear of corn which she held in her right hand, and tendered that hand to the bridegroom, who took it and said, "I am thy husband." She replied, "I am thy wife." Then the bridegroom went round, and grasped the hand of every member of the family of his wife. When this was over, he took her by the arm and led her to every member of his own family, to whom she was introduced by him, and with whom she shook hands. In conclusion, he walked with p312 her to his bed, and said to her, "Here is our bed; keep it undefiled."
Does not the simple relation of their marriage rites carry the mind back to those antique customs which Herodotus has described in such bewitching style? Are they not impregnated with the soft graces of the poetry of Greece? — and, at the same time, do they not assume a character of scriptural austerity and beauty! To me the whole scene is redolent with the atmosphere of Arabia, and conjures up in my imagination the glows and tints of the patriarchal days so beautifully described in the Holy Book.
The nation of the Natchez was composed of three classes: the Great Sun, or the sovereign, and the Little Suns who constituted the nobility; then came the men of consideration or gentry. The plebeians were known under the appellation of "miche quipy," or the stinking. The Natchez, in order to be sure that their sovereigns should always be of the blood of the man who had come from the sun to civilize them, had established as a fundamental law of their national polity, that the right of succession to the throne should be imparted to the men only through the female line. Thus the female descendants of a Great Sun always remained noble, and retained the privilege of giving birth to the sovereign; but the grandson of a Great Sun was no more than a man of consideration, and his great-grandson became a plebeian — one of the stinking — while nobility was perpetual in the female line. After some generations the nobles, although from the same parent stock, were not related at all, or not at least within those degrees which prevented matrimonial alliances; and yet they could not intermarry on account of two fundamental laws: one prescribing that none of the nobility should be put to death, and the other ordaining p313 that, after the death of a male or female noble, his wife or her husband should be immolated. The nobles were therefore obliged to abstain from marrying among their equals; which obligation was revolting to the pride of many. There are very few women who have not a leaning to aristocracy, and this may be owing to the innate distinction of their nature. Thus it appears that this custom, which forced them to marry among the plebeians, or stinking, had become offensive to their proud and delicate nostrils. Le Page du Pratz relates a singular attempt made by one of them to produce a revolution, or a change in the organic laws of her tribe.
Le Page du Pratz had lived eight years in the French settlement near the Natchez, and had become well known among those Indians, who held him in high esteem. One day a female Sun entered his room with her daughter, a girl of eighteen; she locked the door carefully, and sat down for a few minutes in deep and dignified silence. Le Page, knowing the gravity of Indian manners, wondered all the while at the meaning of this mysterious visit, but said nothing, and patiently waited for the communication which would be made at last. After having rested in silence as long as she thought becoming, she rose and thus addressed Le Page: "We all know, and I know better than any body else, that thou art a true man; that falsehood abideth not in thy heart, and that thy tongue hateth the profusion of words. Thou speakest our language. We love thee as a brother, and we regret that thou art not one of our Suns. I have matters of deep import to communicate — wherefore open thy ears and thy heart to receive the impression of my words. But close thy mouth, and never trust to the winds what I am to say to thee in secrecy!" Here she stopped again, and after p314 a short silence observed, as if in doubt, "But shall I be listened to?" Now she remained mute for a considerable time, and seemed buried in profound meditation. Le Page, whose mind was teeming with conjectures about this strange scene, broke the silence he had preserved so far, and said, "My ears are open as thou wishest, and yet I hear nothing but the whistling of the wind."
Then she resumed her discourse in this manner: "My daughter, whom thou seest here, is young; but if she has the weak body of a woman, she has the strong mind of a man. Therefore, knowing that her lips are sealed, I have not feared to bring her with me, and to let her hear my words to thee. When thy countrymen speak, I listen, because although many are light-headed, some are wise and know much. I have heard them say that some of our customs are bad and wrongful; that in their country the noble marries with the noble, and the ignoble with the ignoble, and that each class fares the better for it; that it is cruel to force the wife to die with her husband, and the husband with the wife; that the Great Spirit, whose laws the French follow as they are communicated to them by the 'speaking bark' which he gave them, frowns on such a barbarous custom; that it is an error to believe that husband and wife can continue to live as such in the world of spirits, because spirits have no solid bodies and no sexes, wherefore they can not cohabit and procreate; and that it is foolish in the Natchez to believe that they will have there the same pleasures and avocations which they pursue here. I have pondered on their remarks concerning these matters and many others, and I think they talk with wisdom. Our customs are bad, and lead to the destruction of our race. But how are we to change them? Who will have the energy and power to p315 make the attempt, and to crush all opposition? Therefore have I come to thee whom I love, trust, and respect. Marry my daughter; she is the nearest of kin to the Great Sun, and thy son, if she brings one to thee, will be our sovereign on a future day. Educated by thee, and supported by the French, he will have the mind, the will, and the power to change those laws which you look upon as nefarious."
Le Page was taken by surprise, and at first was at a loss for an answer. He knew that there are certain propositions of which women never forgive the rejection; and as he was not willing to incur deadly hostility, he sought to frame an answer which would make his refusal palatable. "Thy daughter," said he, "is as fair as the rainbow, and my heart leaps toward her. But far away, at the place where I was born, is a blue-eyed woman, to whom I am married, and to whom I must return as soon as I can. While she lives, the God whose laws I obey, forbids that I should take unto my bosom another wife. It is an obstacle, as thou seest, which can not be removed. Therefore, be satisfied with my thanks and my gratitude." The old female Sun listened with evident disappointment, and hung down her head as if in sorrow; but she gave no sign of ill-feeling or resentment. Saluting Le Page with truly royal dignity, and putting meaningly her index on her lips, she departed with her daughter. This anecdote has a raciness which vouches for its authenticity, and is an interesting illustration of the ideas which were originating from the association of the Natchez with the French.
The Natchez, when they had causes of war, pursued, before they began hostilities, a certain preliminary course, which, being almost general among the Indian tribes, must be looked upon as proceeding from a custom p316 which must have been their law of nations. The old warriors composed what was called the council of war, to deliberate on that question. If they came to the conclusion that their nation had been injured, they sent an embassy to seek redress. If that redress was granted, they smoked the calumet of peace, which was a pipe ornamented with a variety of decorations, and with feathers of the white eagle set in the shape of a fan. If satisfaction was refused, the ambassadors speedily returned home, and the warriors assembled for the war-dance, a ceremony during which they smoked the calumet of war, which was shaped like the calumet of peace, but with the exception, that its ornaments and colors were different, and that its fan was composed of the feathers of the flamingo. Their warriors were divided into three classes: the true warriors, or those whose courage had been tried on all occasions, and had invariably been found the same at all times; the ordinary warriors; and the apprentice warriors, or young men, who were beginning their military career. A formal declaration of war consisted in a hieroglyphic picture, executed in a rude manner, and left by the nation declaring war, near the principal village of the nation against which war was declared. It was intended, I suppose, for some such manifesto as is published in our days, on the like occasions, by the civilized nations of Christendom.
When war was resolved on, they painted their bodies in various colors, so as to make themselves as frightfully-looking devils as possible, and prepared for battle by feasting: a practice which they held in common with the Spartans. On a day solemnly fixed, they gathered in circles round all the delicacies which they could command, such as fish, deer, buffalo, or bear meat, either fresh or smoked, and particularly a roasted p317 dog, which was a dish as much esteemed by them as a roasted peacock by the Romans: corn was liberally used, and was dressed in various ways, of which the most relished was one which is still in fashion among the old French population of Louisiana, and which is called "sagamité." They drank on this occasion an exhilarating beverage, which consisted in a fermented liquor, made with the leaves of the Cassia berry-tree. To this feast the warriors always came fully equipped, and with their weapons in the best order. Before the warriors partook of the repast set before them, the oldest among them, so old as to be incapable of active service in the field, holding the calumet of war in his right hand, made a speech, in which he recited his exploits, and exhorted his companions to emulate his deeds. One of them once concluded his address in this way: I give it as a sample of this kind of oratory.
"Now, my brothers," said he, "depart with confidence. Let your courage be mighty, your hearts big, your feet light, your eyes open, your smell keen, your ears attentive, your skins proof against heat, cold, water, and fire. If the enemy should be too powerful, remember that your lives are precious, and that one scalp lost by you is one cause of shame brought upon your nation. Therefore, if it be necessary, do not hesitate to fly, and in that case, be as wary as the serpent, and conceal yourselves with the skill of the fox, or of the squirrel. But although you run away, do not forget that you are men, that you are true warriors, and that you must not fear the foe. Wait awhile, and your turn will come. Then, when your enemy is in your power, and you can assail him with advantage, fling all your arrows at him, and when they are exhausted, come to close quarters, strike, knock down, and let your tomahawks be drunk with blood."
p318 This rough kind of eloquence seldom failed to provoke enthusiastic shouts. Satisfied with the effect he had produced, the orator filled the calumet of war with tobacco, drew a puff, and passed the instrument to the war-chief, from whom it circulated among the rest of the warriors. When this was over, the war-chief cut a slice of the roasted dog, the other warriors did the same, and ate while they walked very fast, to signify that a good warrior ought not to stop even to take his food, that he ought to be constantly in motion, and ever watchful like a dog. Then they sat down and began their repast in earnest. But a young man, who was placed in ambuscade at a distance of two hundred or three hundred steps, suddenly shouted the death-cry; spontaneously all the warriors seized their weapons, and ran to the spot from which issued the shout. When they came to it, the same young warrior repeated the same shriek, to which all the warriors responded in the same manner.
Then, they came back together to continue the repast which they had abandoned, but hardly were they at it, when another young man repeated the same operation, which produced the same effects. After several interruptions of this kind, which were intended as practical lessons, the war beverage, composed, as I have already said, with the leaves of the cassia berry-tree, was introduced, to the great satisfaction of the warriors, who partook very freely of the intoxicating liquor. When the eating and drinking was over, the warriors planted the war-post, which was painted red, and the top of which was shaped so as to represent the head of a man. Every warrior, in his turn, rushed furiously at the post and struck it with his tomahawk, in uttering the death-cry. He then recited his exploits with emphasis, and insulted the war-post, which represented p319 the enemy. He concluded his taunting speech with a tremendous howl, which was answered by the other warriors. When every one of them had gone through this monotonous exhibition, they began the war-dance, which they executed in their war-dress, and with all their weapons about their persons. While the warriors were thus engaged, the rest of the nation assumed the garb of affliction, and observed a strict fast. The war feast lasted three days: after which, the warriors marched against the enemy with all the provisions prepared for them by their wives.
Pitched battles among the Indians were of rare occurrence. War with them consisted in ambuscades and surprises. They delighted in picking up some stragglers from the nation against which they were warring — poor wretches who, while fishing, hunting, or engaged in some other peaceful avocations, were startled by the unexpected and terrific whoop of an unmerciful foe. But the greatest of all exploits for them, was, to surprise a village at night, to kill and scalp all the men, to burn down to the ground all the habitations, and to carry away all the women and children, when they did not kill them on the spot, while intoxicated with rage and with the reeking vapors of indiscriminate slaughter. Then, as a recording monument, and in glorification of what they had done, they nailed to a tree a hieroglyphic picture with two bloody arrows, forming the St. Andrew's cross. After this, they retreated from the enemy's territory with the utmost speed, and had recourse to every stratagem to conceal the route they took, in order to escape pursuit. They made slaves of their prisoners when those prisoners were women and children, and they cropped short the hair of such as were thus reduced to slavery. But when it was a man whom they carried back to their homes, their triumph p320 was complete, because the whole tribe was to be entertained with the spectacle of the torments to be inflicted on the prisoner.
On the day fixed for this exhibition, of which the Indians were as fond as the Romans were of the fights of their gladiators, or of the mutilation of human beings by wild beasts in the arena, above which sat sovereignty in the imperial shape of a Caesar, two posts, •ten feet long, were driven into the ground; another post was placed transversely at the distance of •two feet from the soil, and another, transversely also, at the distance of •five feet from the one below. Then the arms and legs of the patient were tied to the four right angles which were thus formed. Before this was done, however, the warrior whose prisoner he was, stunned him with the blow of a wooden tomahawk, and raised his scalp. A large fire was made up, and every one, lighting a long reed, applied it some part of the prisoner's body. It was then that the Indians taxed their ingenuity to inflict the keenest torment, and he who succeeded in extracting from the sufferer a cry, or any demonstration of pain, was rapturously applauded. But this satisfaction was very seldom obtained. Commonly, the patient displayed unbroken fortitude, and the impassibility of inanimate matter. Far from weeping or begging for mercy, he sang as if in defiance of his enemies, heaped upon them every opprobrious epithet that he thought calculated to kindle their fury, and never ceased to provoke their resentment until death stopped his voice. It sometimes happened that some tender-hearted woman, wishing to put an end to his prolonged agony, gave him a blow which cheated his tormentors of their prey. Not unfrequently also, a young widow, whose mate had died in the war, took him for her husband, and thus saved him from the horrible death to which he was destined.
p321 The Indians understood the art of making fortifications sufficiently strong to resist the means of assault which were brought to bear upon them. Trunks of trees, of a circumference of •six feet, were driven five or six feet into the ground, leaving •ten feet out with sharpened tops. The joints of these posts were strengthened inside by the application of other posts of the diameter of •one foot. This wooden wall was protected outside by towers erected at the distance of forty steps from one another. Its inside was supported by an elevation or bank of earth •three feet wide by three in height, which bank was lined, to keep the earth compact, with green branches and leaves serried together by strong stakes. They showed great intelligence in opening loopholes; and all along their walls, about •five feet above the parapet of earth of which I have spoken, they had a sort of pentice made with branches and splinters of wood, as a protection against grenades. In the center of the fort, they planted a tree, the branches of which had been lopped off at •about nine inches from the trunk, so that they might serve to go up to the top, where, when necessary, the Indians placed a sentinel to watch the movements of the enemy. Round this tree, or ladder, they constructed several cabins, or sheds, as an asylum for the women and children against falling arrows. Round the fort were several fortified houses, which were its outposts and dependencies: they were useful in times of peace, as relieving the fort from many of its encumbrances; but when a serious attack was made, they were generally abandoned after a short resistance. If you cut the wicker strings which bind the hoop of a barrel, and if you fling that hoop on the ground, the figure which it will form, when both extremities of the hoop lie apart and get loose from each other, will represent the fort and its entrance. This p322 entrance always fronted some strong from which water was procured, and was defended by a truncated tower. In cases of extreme danger, this passage was blocked up with every kind of briers and thorny shrubs.
When a nation was so badly defeated that it feared entire destruction, it applied to another nation, the mediation of which it invoked, through ambassadors who carried presents. If the victor rejected this mediation, the conquered nation abandoned its territory, and incorporated itself with the nation for whose protection it had sued.
I have already said that the Indians, although generally brave, were extremely economical of their lives. In imitation of Diomedes and Ulysses before the walls of Troy, and of other heroes elsewhere, they delighted in murdering their enemies when asleep, but yet, in spite of all their prudence, some of them were killed occasionally; and then they were scalped, when possible, by their own companions, who were anxious not to leave in the hands of their enemies such trophies and proofs of victory. There was another circumstance which contributed to render their wars less destructive than ours, and which would throw some embarrassment in the way of our modern generals. Thus, when the party that had gone on a war expedition returned home with the loss of some warriors, the war-chief paid an indemnity to their families. A very humane and considerate provision for barbarians to think of, and a powerful check on the wanton sacrifice of lives by military leaders.
The Indians were not free from some of those vices which are so prevalent among us, and which a high state of moral and intellectual cultivation has failed so far to eradicate. For instance, gamesters, although held in bad repute, were common among them; and p323 there was one particular game which they preferred above all others. It could be played by two only; one darted a long pole, in the shape of a bishop's cross, and at the same time, before the pole fell to the ground, hurled down on its edge, in the same direction, a heavy circular stone in the shape of a wheel, while the other player also flung his pole. He whose pole was nearest to the stone when it stopped rolling, won a point, and had the throwing of both pole and stone, which was a great advantage, as he could measure their velocity so as to make them meet. As it is with us, the Indians generally began playing for trifles, but when excited, they raised their stakes, and ended often by losing all their worldly possessions. Human nature is always the same at bottom, however modified it may be at the surface, whether it remains in the original nakedness of barbarism, or conceals itself under the varied garments of civilization.
The women also had their game, but it was a very innocent one, because they never staked any thing for fear of offending their husbands. They played three by three, with three pieces of differently painted reeds, •nine inches long, with one side flat and the other convex. One of the players held the three pieces in her open palm; one of the other players struck them with a small rod. They fell to the ground, and if two of the reeds had their convex sides up, it constituted the winning of a point. This certainly was a very sinless way for the Indian ladies of fashion to while away a wearisome hour.
The French, so famous for their politeness, were struck with the innate courtesy of the Indians, and have expressed their admiration in pages which are now lying before us. If an Indian met a Frenchman, he went up to him, took and squeezed his hand, and with p324 a gentle inclination of the head, exclaimed, "Is it thou, my friend?" and if he had nothing to say worthy of utterance, he passed on without indulging in idle conversation — a proof of infinite good sense, and a thing well deserving of imitation.
Should an Indian overtake a Frenchman in walking, he never would pass before him, and would patiently follow behind at some distance. But if in a hurry, he would deviate from the path, take a long circuit so as to keep out of the stranger's sight, and come back to his direct way at a considerable distance ahead.
On their receiving a visit, they shook the visitor's hand, and after a few words of greeting, they invited him to sit down, generally on a bed used for this purpose. Then a profound silence was observed, until the visitor, after a few minutes of restore, thought proper to speak. After he had spoken, the wife of the person who was visited brought what victuals she might have ready, and her husband said to the visitor, "eat." It was necessary to taste of every thing that was presented, otherwise it would have been looked upon as a demonstration of contempt or fastidiousness.
However numerous the Indians might be when they met to converse, there was but one who spoke at a time, and he was never interrupted. In their public councils, the greatest decorum prevailed, and each one in his turn, if he chose, addressed the meeting, which was composed of as good listeners as any orator might wish for. When a question had been discussed, and had to be put to the vote, a quarter of an hour was allowed for silent meditation, and then the sense of the assembly was taken. The impetuous volubility of the French was to them a matter of surprise; and they could not help smiling when they saw the French talk together with such vehement gesticulations, all of them p325 speaking at the same time, and none of them listening. Le Page du Pratz relates with great simplicity of heart, that he had remarked the smile which flitted on the lips of the Indians on such occasions, and that for more than two years he had inquired of the Indians for the cause of it, without obtaining any other answer than this one — "What is it to thee? It does not concern thee." At last, one of them yielding to his solicitations, said, "My friend, do not be angry then, if I tell thee the truth, which by thy importunity is forced out of me. If we smile when we see the French talk together, it is because we are exceedingly amused, and because they put us in mind of a cackling flock of frightened geese."
If the French admitted that the Indians were as polite as themselves, it can not be denied that these barbarians were also more careful observers of the rules of hygiene than their mercurial pale-faced brothers. For instance, they never could be persuaded to eat of the skillfully-made dishes of the French, because they said that they were afraid of the ingredients which entered into their composition. They never ate salad nor any thing raw or uncooked except ripe fruit, and they never could relish wine. Unfortunately, these men who were so remarkable for their enlightened sobriety in every thing else, could not resist the fatal allurements of brandy, known in their language as the fire liquor, and they thoroughly despised the French for mixing it with water.c
In one respect, they were superior to every nation of antiquity, or of modern times. They ate only when they were hungry, and therefore had no fixed hour for their meals, nor did they eat together, the promptings of their stomach not being the same with all. The only exception was, when a feast was given: then the men ate p326 by messes or companies, all out of the same dish, and the women, adults, and children stood apart, doing the same among themselves. When the Indians were sick, they refrained to the last moment from calling a physician to their aid, and behaving with as much sense as could have possessed the seven wise men of Greece put together, they abstained from their ordinary food, and lived entirely on gruel water.d
But, in some of the preceding pages, I have been describing manners common to all the Indians. I return to the Natchez in particular. The temple of the village where their sovereign resided, was built near a small stream, on a mound •eight feet high. This temple was •thirty feet square. The corner posts were of •one foot and a half diameter, and of •one foot for the other posts. The space between the posts was filled up by a mud wall •nine inches thick. To secure the solidity of the edifice, the posts, which were •twenty feet long, were driven •ten feet into the ground, leaving therefore an elevation of ten feet from the floor to the ceiling. The apsis of the temple fronted the east: the inside was divided into two unequal compartments, by a thin wall running from east to west. In the largest room there was a table or altar, •six feet in length by two in width, and four feet in height. It supported a reed-basket, or coffin, in which were deposited the bones of the last Great Sun. There also the eternal and sacred fire was kept. In the small room, there were sundry small objects of adoration, the nature of which the Indians never would explain to the European visitors, and which the eye could not ascertain on account of the darkness of the room. The roof of the temple went tapering up, and its apex was only •six feet long. There, sat three wooden birds, twice as large as a common goose. Their p327 feathers were painted white, with a sprinkling of red. These birds faced the East.
The plebeians were not permitted to enter the temple. It was accessible only to the Suns or nobles, and to such strangers of distinction as were permitted to visit it with the express consent of the Great Sun, who was both the Sovereign and the High Priest of the nation.
The sacred fire was fed by the eight guardians of the temple, with the wood of the white walnut, stripped of its bark. The logs were •eight inches in diameter, by eight feet in length. Death to the guilty guardian, or guardians, was the consequence of the extinguishment of the fire.
No nation on the face of the globe ever had more respect for the dead than the Indians of America, and particularly the Natchez. At their funerals, they gave undoubted signs of the truest and most unbounded grief for the departed. They did not, like the Greeks and Romans, practice the usage of burning the dead bodies, so as to keep their ashes in sculptured urns, to be preserved under the domestic protection of household gods. But they temporarily placed the dead in coffins made of reeds, where the necessary process of decomposition was to be undergone, and on which they continued for some time to deposit articles of food as a tribute of love and remembrance, and as a demonstration of their willingness still to minister to wants, which unfortunately no longer existed. When nothing but the dry bones remained, they were transferred to wicker coffers, which were laid up in small temples or private chapels. These temples of the dead were hardly distinguishable from the ordinary dwellings of the Indians, except it be by the wooden imitation of a human head hanging over the door. Nothing can exceed the veneration which p328 they entertained for the cherished relics of their ancestry; and more than one Indian nation, when emigrating, carried away the parental bones, to which they clung with an intenseness of passion, hardly to be conceived in these our days of worldly philosophy.
Who cares now for the dead, except the surgeon, for dissecting purposes, or the sexton, for his fee? Who cares for the dead in this utilitarian age? To what practical use can they be turned, except to make coat buttons, or knife handles, or whistles, with their bones? Who thinks of the dead, except it be to reflect on the direful necessity they impose upon us, of having unhealthy grave-yards, and to devise the means of stripping these places of solemn repose of their frigid aspect, and to convert them into pleasure-gardens, where the tombs, or what purports to be such, are decked in gay colors, pagan ornaments, and a meretricious look: and instead of teaching morality and religion, leave the mind of the visitor free to discuss its ordinary pursuits of pleasure or of gain, and invite the lover's hand to snatch the rose growing out of his father's dust, to present it to his lady love, who stands by, and smiles on the profane donation. Fy! Who cares for the dead? Is it he who sells his ancestral portraits at the auctioneer's shop, or inventories the very sheets of the death-bed, to ascertain their value, and to secure the strict distribution of every dime of their worth among the greedy claimants? There is a land where I have descended into family vaults, in which a solitary lamp cast a dubious light, making darkness visible. There lay, in august repose, twenty generations, side by side. There, the imposing severity of the marble monuments, and the austere-looking statues of the departed, sleeping so solemnly on the top of their own tombs. — There, the soul-moving records of the past, often chiseled by p329 the hand of genius. — There, the time-honored inscriptions. — There, that peculiar smell which reminds one of breathing the atmosphere of antiquity. — There, every thing impressive, awfully monitory, and Christian-like! There, profane thought was put to flight, and mundane mirth was chilled into reverential sobriety! As I came out with a heart overflowing with emotion, and my sight rested on the moss-covered, swallow-tenanted turrets of the family mansion, where, for centuries, the same race of people had dwelt in joy or sorrow, my eyes became suffused with involuntary tears, and this indistinct and half-muttered expression of my feelings rose up to my lips: "Blessed be the land where there are such connecting links between the dead and the living!"
In 1725, Stung Serpent, of whom I have spoken when relating the first expedition of Bienville against the Natchez, in 1716, departed from his beautiful native hills overhanging the bed of the father of rivers, and went on his final pilgrimage to the world of spirits. The better to illustrate the manners, laws, and customs of the Natchez, I shall recite what occurred on that occasion. Although I shall confine myself to a strict historical narrative, I believe it will be found not destitute of dramatic and romantic interest.
Stung Serpent being dangerously ill, the chief of the guardians of the temple came to Fort Rosalie to inform the French of this fact, and to let them know that the Great Sun, the brother of Stung Serpent, according to a mutual promise not to survive one another, had determined to redeem his pledge to the dying man. This was a startling information, because the death of these two chiefs at the same time, was calculated to be a heavy blow to the nation on account of the number of victims that would be sacrificed in their honor. The p330 commander of Fort Rosalie, accompanied by Le Page du Pratz and others, hastened to the chief village, to inquire into the circumstances of the case. They found the Great Sun in his hut, and with him they went to visit Stung Serpent. It soon became evident to the French, that the sick prince had breathed his last. But the Great Sun was still in doubt, and when the French were preparing to retire, he stopped Le Page by the arm, and said: "Ouitigui-tlatagoup-coheyogo" — "is he dead truly? What dost thou say?" Le Page answered, "Noco," "I do not know" — in order to prolong an illusion which he did not wish suddenly to destroy.
The French accompanied the Great Sun back to his dwelling, into which he invited them. As soon as he crossed his threshold, he exclaimed, "My brother is dead" — and he squatted down with his head sunk on his breast, and his hands covering his eyes. On hearing these words, the Great Sun's wife uttered fearful shrieks, which were echoed all round, and went multiplying through the village, every hut resounding with wailings and lamentations. Then, muskets were fired to notify the neighboring villages, which in their turn answered the firing. A short time after, the Great Sun's word-bearer, or chancellor, came in and wept. The Great Sun raised his head and looked meaningly at his wife, who threw water on the hearth and extinguished the fire. At this sight, the word-bearer saluted the Great Sun with a howl, and departed. As soon as he was out of the hut, he uttered a frightful shriek, which was taken up by all the people of the village, and it went on wildly spreading from echo to echo, through every village. The shriek of the word-bearer had given the Natchez to understand that the Great Sun had ordered the fire of his own hearth to be extinguished, and therefore that every other fire was to p331 be put out: which portended the approaching death of the sovereign. Hence this universal lamentation.
Le Page du Pratz, who, for several years, had been on a footing of intimacy with the Stung Serpent and with the Great Sun, approached that sovereign, who was still squatting on the floor, and tapping him on the shoulder, said, "Hast thou ceased to be a man since thy brother's death? Thy people inform us that thou art resolved to put an end to thy life, through grief, and because thou art too weak to bear thy loss with the heart of a warrior. Thy French friends can not believe that thou art such a coward. Tell them, therefore, that thy people do not understand thee rightly. Swear to us that they are mistaken, and that thou shalt not commit the vile suicide which they suspect." The Great Sun looked up at Le Page, and answered calmly:— "Rest assured that I no longer think of it. Farewell, then, and sleep in peace. The night steals upon us apace." However, there was something in his eye which contradicted his words, and the French, not altogether trusting to his declaration, left at his door a soldier to watch his doings. They went back to the Stung Serpent's dwelling, and they found his corpse stretched in pomp and in full dress on his bed. His face was painted with vermilion, his feet were encased in beautifully embroidered moccasons, and his head was encircled with the crown of white and red feathers, as a prince of the royal blood. His weapons were suspended all round his bed, and consisted of a double-barreled gun, a pistol, a bow, a quiver full of arrows, and a tomahawk. There were also to be seen, ostentatiously displayed, all the calumets of peace which had been tendered to him during his lifetime, to sue for his mercy or protection. At the head of his bed, stood a red pole supporting a chain made of reeds, painted red, p332 and composed of forty-six rings. The rings meant the number of foes he had killed in war.
All the people composing the household of the prince, stood round him in the attitude of mourners. At certain hours, as if he had been alive, food was brought to him: and as, of course, it remained untasted, his body servant would, every time, break out into the same monotonous lamentation: "Why," said he, "wilt thou not accept of our offerings? Dost thou no longer relish thy favorite dishes? Hast thou any reason to be displeased with us, and dost thou reject our services as disagreeable to thee? Ah! thou dost not speak to us as it was thy wont. Wherefore, thou must be dead. Well, then, all is over — our occupation is gone — and since thou leavest us, we will follow thee to the land of spirits." He concluded every time this expostulation with the Indian death-cry, which was repeated by all the people present, and which, from mouth to mouth, outside of the hut, was to be heard swelling up in the distance, leaping from village to village, and ending with one appalling chorus, which congealed the blood within the heart. There also stood in the hut of the Stung Serpent, besides his favorite wife, a second one, whom he used to keep in another village — his wood-bearer — his physician — his body-servant — his pipe-bearer — and some old women. They were all destined to be strangulated at his funeral, to keep company with the dead in the other world, whither he had gone.
A woman of noble birth, who had carried on an amour with Stung Serpent, whom she had not been able to marry, since, as it will be recollected, the nobles could not marry any one of their class, put herself voluntarily among the number of those who were to accompany the dead to the world of spirits. She was called by the French "La Glorieuse," or "the proud," on p333 account of her majestic figure, of the haughty expression of her face, and because she consented to hold intercourse with none of the French except those of noble birth. She was acquainted with the virtues of a great many medicinal plants, and this female Esculapius had saved the lives of many of the sick among the French. The Stung Serpent's favorite wife seeing how sadly impressed the French were with the spectacle which was offered to them, addressed them in these terms: "Chiefs and nobles of France, I see how much you regret my husband. Truly, his death is of much consequence for the French as well as for our nation, because he carried them all in his heart. Whenever the French chiefs spoke to him, their words dwelt forever in his ears. He trod the same path with the French, and he loved them more than his own self. Now, he has ascended to the world of spirits; in two days I shall be with him, and tell him that I have seen your hearts grow heavy at the sight of his dead body. When I am gone, Frenchmen, remember that my children are orphans, remember that you have loved their father, and let the dew of your friendship fall plentifully on the children of him who has always been the friend of the French." After this speech, she resumed her seat with dignified composure.
The night being far advanced, the French retired to a lodge which had been prepared for them, but they requested the servants of the Great Sun to watch him closely, and if they saw any thing suspicious, to give them timely information. At daybreak, a breathless messenger, trembling with agitation, rushed into the apartment where the French slept, woke them up, and told them that the Great Sun was attempting his life. Hastily dressing themselves with such of their clothes as they could put their hands on in the dark, they ran p334 to the Great Sun's dwelling. There, every thing was in the wildest uproar and confusion. The presumptive heir to the throne was struggling with the sovereign, and trying to wrest from his hands the gun with which, it appears, he had shown the intention to put an end to his life. A number of nobles and men of consideration, whom the excess of fear seemed to have palsied into a trance, stood looking on without daring to interfere. Le Page went up to the Great Sun, laid his hand gently on the gun, and said, "What! yesterday the noble sovereign of the Natchez swore to me, his friend, that he would not kill himself; that he was a man, and that I might rely on his word. To‑day, what has become of that word? What has become of that man? Art thou both a liar and a coward? Speak!" At these words he dropped the gun, stared at Le Page with a vacant look, then rubbed his eyes as if awaking from a dream; and as if consciousness had suddenly returned, he extended his hand to him, covered his face and wept.
When the nobles saw the success obtained by Le Page, they advanced one after the other to shake him by the hand, but without uttering one word. The silence became so deep that, although the room was crowded to suffocation, the light buzzing of a fly would have been heard.
Looking round, Le Page saw that the wife of the Great Sun still continued to be in a state of great perturbation. He approached her and inquired if she was sick. She answered, "yes;" and then sinking her voice into a whisper, she said: "Stay awhile with us. If not, my husband dies, and then woe to the Natchez. Remain by his side, for it is to thy voice alone that he listens. Thy voice is weighty, and at the same time it is as pointed as an arrow. Who would have dared to speak to him as thou didst? Who would have succeeded p335 half so well? But he knows thee to have been the true friend of his brother, and to be now his own best friend. We all respect thee, for thou art not eternally laughing, as the French always do. When thou spokest to the Great Sun, didst thou observe how all eyes feasted on thee, and how all ears drank thy words? Yes; thy words have all been garnered up in our hearts."
In compliance with this touching appeal, Le Page du Pratz moved silently to the side of the Great Sun, who extended his hand to him, and said in a loud voice so as to be heard by the whole assembly, "My friend, there is so much grief in my heart that my eyes, although open, have not seen that the French were standing up. My mouth has forgotten to invite them to sit down. What will they think of this churlish want of courtesy? I pray thee to excuse me with them, and to tell them to take seats."
Le Page answered that no apology was necessary; that the French were well acquainted with his good breeding, and would leave him for the present to enjoy the rest of which it was evident that he stood in need. "But," added he, "I shall cease to be thy friend, if thou dost not order fire to be lighted on thy hearth, and if thou dost not command the same to be done in the dwelling of every one of thy people. If thou compliest with my request, I shall stay to be present at the funeral of thy brother; and when it is over, I must insist on thy coming to my house to break the fast of grief and eat the meal of consolation." The Great Sun pressed the hand of Le Page in silent acquiescence, and drawing himself up to his full height, looked round with inexpressible majesty, and said: "Since the chiefs and nobles of France love me and wish me to live, be it so; my life is safe in my own p336 keeping; let all the fires be relighted. I will wait until natural death reunites me to my brother. I am old and can not tarry long. In the mean time, I will walk in the path of the French. Had it not been for them, I should have been now with my brother, and to do me honor, the hills of the Natchez would have been strewed with the dead."
Emboldened by their success, the French strongly remonstrated against the absurd, inhuman, and fatal custom so long observed by the Natchez, to sacrifice so many lives on the death of one of their chiefs. But all that they obtained was, that the number of victims should be restricted to the two wives of the dead chief, to his physician, his word-bearer, his body-servant, his pipe-bearer, and some old women. "All the people composing my brother's household must die," said the Great Sun, "because they are his meat and victuals. It can not be otherwise." On that day, an old woman who was called the wicked, and who had committed some crime or other, was put to death, and a plebeian chid was strangled by its own father and mother. Strange to say, this horrible crime raised the murderers above the class of the stinking, to which they belonged, and transformed them into nobles. On that day also there was twice, in the morning and in the evening, a minute rehearsal of the tragedy which was to be acted on the day of the funeral. Thus, the grand master came out in full official costume from the hut of Stung Serpent, accompanied by the two widows, the word-bearer, the pipe-bearer, the physician, the body-servant, and the old women who were destined to die. They moved in solemn procession, each of the victims being attended by eight of his nearest kinsmen or relations, whose duty it was to put them to death. One carried an uplifted tomahawk, with which he now and p337 then threatened to strike the victim; — another one, the mat on which the doomed was to sit down; — a third, the rope for strangling; — the fourth, carried the deer skin which was to be thrown over the head and shoulders of the victim; — the fifth, a wooden bowl with five or six large pills of tobacco, which were administered to the patient before undergoing strangulation; — the sixth, a small earthen bottle containing a pint of water, which the victim was allowed to drink to facilitate the passage of the pills. The two other persons who followed, were destined to put themselves on the right and left of the poor suffering wretch, in order to draw the rope tight, and to make the operation as quickly effective as possible.
The eight persons who attended in this way every one of the victims, became nobles; and therefore to be one of them was an advantage which was much coveted. Those executioners and future nobles walked two by two in the rear of the victims, whose hair was painted red, and who held in the right hand the shell of a river muscle, usually measuring •seven inches in length by three or four in breadth. As to the executioners, they wore red feathers tied to the long tuft of plaited hair which hung down on their left shoulder, and their hands were painted red. On reaching the public square where the temple stood, the persons who were to die, and their executioners, shouted together the death-cry; — every victim put himself on his mat and executed on it the death dance, while the executioners did the same round them. It was the most appalling spectacle that the imagination could conceive. After each rehearsal, the procession returned in the same order to the hut of the deceased.
On that day, a half serious, half ludicrous accident took place. An Indian, named Ette-Actal, was led to p338 the Great Sun, under the escort of thirty men. This Indian had married a female Sun, and on her death, his fate was to be sacrificed, according to the good old custom of his nation. But Ette-Actal's mind happened to be in advance of the age in which he lived, and he thought that to run away and to save his life, was a philosophical innovation to which it might be profitable to call the attention of the Natchez, and of which, at any rate, he ought to make the experiment. Putting into action his ideas of reform, he took to his canoe and paddled lustily down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he placed himself under the protection of Bienville of whom he became the voluntary slave. But the love of country was strong in him, and now and then, he obtained permission to visit his friends and relations among the Natchez, after he felt assured that from the lapse of time since the funeral of his wife, and on account of the situation he occupied in relation to Bienville, the governor of Louisiana, he had no longer any thing to fear from his countrymen. But now that Bienville had been recalled to France, and that the presence of Ette-Actal in the village of the Natchez had reminded them of the old debt he had omitted to pay, they had arrested him with the intention of putting him to death at the funeral of the Stung Serpent.
When this Indian found himself a prisoner in the hut of the deceased, without any hope of escape, he began to give the most unequivocal signs of despair. At this sight, the favorite wife of Stung Serpent strode up haughtily to him, and said: "Art thou not a warrior?" "Yes," answered he, with a fresh gush of tears. "And yet thou weepest," continued she. "Is life so dear to thee? If it be so, it is not meet that shouldst come with us. Hence — begone — go, thou coward, and live among women." "Certainly," exclaimed Ette-Actal, p339 "life is dear to me, and I wish to keep it for my own uses and purposes, and I should be happen to live among women, as thou sayest, in the hope of leaving a large posterity of children." Greatly incensed at this cynical retort, the princess repeated with increased vehemence: "Hence, cowardly dog! It is not decent that thou shouldst pollute us with thy company in our way to the world of spirits. Thy soul belongs to the earth, and there let it rot with thy body. Hence — let me not see thee again!" Never was order obeyed with more alacrity, and Ette-Actal vanished with the rapidity of lightning. But on that day, three decrepit old women, who were related to him by blood, and whose infirmities had disgusted them with life, offered to die in his place, and that substitution was accepted. This voluntary sacrifice of these three kinswomen of Ette-Actal's, not only secured to him his life for the future, but from a plebeian, or stinking, that he was, raised him to be a man of consideration. Thus, being borne onward by the tide of fortune, says Le Page du Pratz, Ette-Actal became insolent, like an upstart that he was, and availing himself of the instructions he had received among the French, he went on cheating his countrymen without stint, and showed himself a most accomplished rogue.
On the day of the funeral, the French proceeded to the dwelling of the Great Sun, to pay him a ceremonial visit; and Stung Serpent's favorite wife, knowing that they were there, came to bid them a last adieu. She had brought her children with her, and she addressed them in these words in the presence of the French:— "The death of your father is a severe loss. He tarries for me to accompany him to the world of spirits, and I must not keep him waiting long. I am anxious to depart, because since my husband's death, I walk on this p340 earth with a heavy step. With regard to you, my children, you are very young, and you have before you a long path, through which you must journey with prudence in your minds, and boldness in your hearts, taking care not to tear your feet with the brambles of duplicity, and the sharp-edged flints of dishonesty. I leave to you the keys, bright as you see, and free from rust, of the inheritance of your father, and of my own worldly possessions. Take them: you will find our coffers full of corn. Never speak with an evil tongue of the French: walk in their path without deceit, as your father and myself have done: treat them, and love them as we have. Be true to them, and they will supply your wants: — if they do not, abstain from complaint, and wait until justice opens their hearts to your merits. They were the friends of your father; therefore, if they wrong you, let forgiveness tread on the heels of the offense. And you, French chiefs, continue to befriend the Natchez: be liberal and kind to them: do not be too harsh, and too exacting in your barters and exchanges with your red brothers, and look with the eye of the dove on the errors which they may commit." Perceiving that one of the French was so moved, that tears came into his eyes, she said, — "Do not weep: — it is womanly — although you may well regret the loss of such friends as my husband and myself. Instead of weeping, let us feast together. So far, I have never tasted meat with the French, because it would not have been becoming in a woman: but I am at liberty to do so, now that I am going to the world of spirits." And turning to her attendants "Let victuals be brought plentifully," she said, "Stung Serpent's wife and the French chiefs must eat together, before parting forever." The French were struck with admiration at the surprising firmness, the extraordinary elevation of p341 sentiments, the queen-like dignity of manner displayed by this woman, and they wondered at the infinite tact and skill with which she was contriving to secure for her children their protection and friendship.
The temple, the hut of the Stung Serpent, and that of the Great Sun, were situated in front of a public square, which was in the center of the village. On the day of the funeral, the French took their stand on the artificial mound on which the hut of the Great Sun was built; and from that elevated position they had a full view of all the ceremonies. The Great Sun did not make his appearance, and remained wrapped up in the privacy of grief. At the hour appointed for the obsequies, the master of the ceremonies, with a semi-crown of red feathers on his brows, presented himself at the door of the Great Sun. He held in his right hand a pole in the shape of a bishop's cross, from the head of which hung down a garland of black feathers. The upper part of his body was painted red, with the exception of his arms; which signified that his hands were never dipped in blood. He wore from his waist to his knees, a sort of half tunic, which was ornamented with alternate rows of white and red feathers. After having taken the commands of the Great Sun for the ceremony, the grand master went to the dwelling of Stung Serpent, which he saluted with a howl, in token of respect, and he then shouted the death-cry, which was echoed back by the whole village. The corpse of Stung Serpent, carried on a litter by eight men, of whom six were the guardians of the temple, came out in state. The grand master of ceremonies took the lead, followed by the oldest warrior of the nation, who carried on a pole the chain of reeds which recorded the number of men killed in battle by Stung Serpent. In the other hand, he held a calumet of war, as a sign of p342 the princely dignity of the deceased. Then came the body:— after which, the victims. The whole train went three times round the dwelling of Stung Serpent, and then proceeded direct toward the temple, describing a series of small intersecting circles, so that if their steps had been imprinted on the ground, they would have formed to the eye something like a chain of rings, extending from the dwelling of Stung Serpent to the temple. Every time the carriers of Stung Serpent had completed one ring, and were entering into another, the man whom I have mentioned as having strangled his child, threw down its corpse, so that the dead body of Stung Serpent should pass over it, and picking it up again by one foot, he continued the same operation until the funeral train reached the temple. By this hellish deed the unnatural father became a member of the nobility.
When the procession arrived at the temple, the tragedy which had been rehearsed twice on the preceding day, was acted in earnest, and the victims were put to death according to the programme. The body of Stung Serpent was deposited inside of the temple on the right, and his two wives slept in the same tomb. La Glorieuse, or the proud, was buried outside of the temple, to the right, and the word-bearer to the left. The other bodies were transported to the villages to which they respectively belonged. To conclude the ceremony according to the ancient rites of the tribe, fire was set to the dwelling of Stung Serpent, and it was burnt to the ground.
The French wended their way back to Fort Rosalie, reflecting and commenting on the strange scenes to which they had stood witnesses. One of them, Philippe de Chamilly, a beardless officer, celebrated for the recklessness of his disposition, the sprightliness of his p343 conversation, the exuberance of his animal spirits, but who, under apparent thoughtlessness and the utmost carelessness of deportment, concealed steadiness of purpose, well-digested plans of ambition, and the keen-sighted, far-seeing sagacity of a shrewd and strong mind, had remained moody and silent. It was so foreign to his habits, that it struck his companions, who rallied him on his extraordinary taciturnity, and asked him whether he had been crossed by the apparition of Stung Serpent's ghost. "No," said he, "gentlemen; it would not have produced such a painful impression upon me as the daily demonstration of a fact which puzzles my philosophy. How is it that man never obeys the impulses of his heart without doing something which his reason reprobates, as calculated to interfere with his welfare, his safety, and prosperity? Although my assertion is not conducive to morality, and although I confess that it sounds like a libel on the divine goodness, yet, as I do not stand here in the pulpit of theology, or do not speak from the mountain as a lawgiver, I do affirm, much to my regret, that according to my short experience, a man who begins his career has to choose between these two guides — the heart and the head. They never agree; and one leads to ruin as surely as the other to success in this world, however different it may be after death. For instance, when we interfered to prevent that mahogany-looking blockhead of a barbarian, the Great Sun, from butchering half of his people in honor of his dead brother, and persuaded him not to commit suicide, which would have been also a death-warrant for a good many of his subjects, we acted according to the dictates of our hearts. We have been sentimental and romantic, to be sure, but have we behaved with common sense? We lay our hands on our hearts, and we say with self-complacency — p344 what generous, noble, humane fellows we are! But what says reason, that sound little politician we have in the head? It cries out to us, ye are fools! and is it not true? Is it not our interest to destroy, or to weaken as much as we can, those untamable wild beasts, who have to this day so materially interfered with our purposes of colonization, and who may one day lap our blood like tigers, if they ever have a favorable opportunity? Which of us is simple enough to believe that those Indians do not see, with secret but deadly hostility, our gradual encroachments on their lands? Do you think that they do not feel that their existence and ours can not continue long side by side, and that one must, sooner or later, make way for the other? If this be the decree of fate, why not facilitate its execution, and thereby avert the dangers and bloodshed which may be the result of our maudlin generosity or bastard humanity, so suicidal for us, and so fruitless for those it was intended to benefit. What course then had we to pursue on this occasion? Why — a plain one — it was, in order to diminish the number of our enemies, to encourage those stupid savages in their nefarious practices, to stimulate their pride, and to show great admiration at the magnanimous courage with which they are ever ready to sacrifice themselves on the tombs of their chiefs. We ought to have assisted in tying the ropes round the necks of half of those red devils, and in making the other half pull the murderous strings, while we should have stood by enjoying the joke and cracking our sides with laughter. Such would have been the policy of Louis the XIth, a pretty wise statesman of ours, who said, that 'the smell emanating from the corpse of a foe was the sweetest of perfumes.' O, shame! This would have been cruel and barbarous! I do not deny it. But, finally, to achieve the destruction p345 of those people must be the inevitable consequence of the position you have assumed toward them. A man, if he be not a fool, must be a logician in virtue, or in crime. If he makes up his mind to rob and oppress, he ought, in self-defense, to take away life from the oppressed, when he can turn his victim to no better use. Mark the words of him whom you take for a thoughtless, inexperienced stripling. As we have acted with Christian charity, and obeyed the heart, we may be rewarded for it in the kingdom of bliss above; but as we have disregarded the head, and been politically foolish, we shall be punished and suffer for it on this side of the grave. So the conclusions of my speech keep tune with its premises. But a truce to my gravity — Fort Rosalie is in sight. Supper, thank God, a French supper — not an Indian one, must be ready. I cheerfully drop the soothsayer to be no more than a boon companion over a merry cup." Four years had hardly elapsed, before the prediction was accomplished. The white flag was pulled down from Fort Rosalie by the hand of an Indian warrior, and the whole French colony at Natchez was visited with complete destruction.
The advanced state of the medical art, which is presumed always to keep pace with the other arts and sciences, may therefore be received as a criterion of the degree of civilization to which nations have arrived. If we judged of the Natchez by that test, we might be tempted to believe and to say, without much sarcastic exaggeration, that the French could hardly claim any superiority in that respect over those barbarians. For many diseases to which the Natchez were subject, their physicians were quite as skillful as the French, if not more so. If they were powerless against the small-pox, by which they were threatened to be annihilated, and which was a recent European importation p346 against which, until lately, they had never felt the necessity of guarding themselves, they did not, it may be justly observed, show themselves more ignorant than our modern physicians, who, in spite of their profound studies, and of the written information which comes to them from every part of the world, and from the experience of so many centuries, are invariably bewildered and miserably impotent, whenever humanity is attacked by one of those unknown diseases which, from time to time, are so suddenly and so mysteriously generated. The Natchez understood the art of blood-letting and scarifying in many ways, not omitting the application of the moxa, just as well as any Esculapius of the present day, although not exactly by the same process. The system of hydropathy was not unknown, and cold bathing and vapor-baths were much in practice. In provoking perspiration, in using frictions, in administering drastics, and in applying other devices of the healing art, they were not so inferior to our race as might at first be thought by those learned men who hold their diplomas from the medical faculties of London and Paris.
It may not be without interest to enumerate here a few of their remedies. Thus, in cases of diarrhea and dysentery, they used with much effect a kind of bread made with the pounded fruit of the persimmon-tree, which they dried up either in an oven or by exposure to the sun. They had discovered the balsam of the copal-tree to be an excellent febrifuge. First purging the patient, they administered to him ten or twelve drops of this balsam several times a day, and an hour or two before the patient had eaten anything. If they were troubled with ulcers, wounds, sores, &c., they applied for several days on the diseased parts a poultice of the ground ivy, well pounded, and afterward they p347 washed and dressed those wounds, ulcers, &c. With the balsam of copal, which was also very powerful in the affections of the chest and bowels, in cases of obstructions, of relaxations, &c. &c. In fact, it was for the Indians a universal panacea, and like good wine, it is said to have gladdened the heart. Another febrifuge of great virtue and as efficacious as quinine, was the red grain of the magnolia. The grain of the wax-tree boiled in water gave an astringent beverage which produced all the good effects of ipecacuanha. For ordinary cuts or gashes, the root of the cotton-tree afforded them a precious remedy. If they suffered from the stomach, they took, as tea, an infusion of the leaves of the cassia berry-tree. If they had the tooth-ache, they chewed a piece of "bois d'amourette," or of the acacia, and the pain was gone; so that dentists would have starved among them. With the leaves of the elder and with hog's lard they relieved their pains, when proceeding from piles; and no ague could resist one or two purgatives, followed by a strong decoction of the Liane barbue, or bearded withwind.
When the Natchez wished to perspire, so as to cure a cold, or to re‑establish the functions of the skin, they drank hot infusions of the China radix. It is said that an infusion of the root of the same plant was also used by them as a specific to prevent the hair from falling, or to make it grow again with more profusion than ever. I here mention the fact for the benefit of those who are threatened with baldness. The leaves of the China radix were likewise employed in the curing of wounds.
The Natchez were acquainted with the medicinal qualities of sassafras, sarsaparilla, and maiden-hair. But their most powerful sudorific was the plant called by the French plat de bois.
They possessed an antidote against the bite of the p348 rattlesnake. It consisted in chewing the onion or root of a plant which the Indians called oudla-coudlo-gouille, and the French l'herbe à serpent à sonnettes, or rattle-snake plant, which is a literal translation of the Indian appellation. After having chewed the onion, they applied the residue to the wound. The poison was promptly checked, and the patient recovered entirely in four or five hours. An application to the forehead of the pounded green leaves of the ground ivy cured every headache. The old colonists used to extract from it a salt, which they put in arquebusade water, and it was thought to be an infallible remedy for the megrim.º Those Indians astonished the French by their rapid cures of the most dreadful wounds produced by fire-arms. One of their curative ingredients was the plant known to this day in Louisiana as the Choctaw root. They possessed the most invaluable secrets to cure the dropsy, the sciatica, and the fistula lachrymalis. I could name many other diseases which, if what is reported to be taken as true, they could master better than if they had studied old Hippocrates. This sketch is sufficient, however, to show what proficiency those Indians had attained in the healing art, the most important of all to mankind. It certainly speaks much in favor of their powers of observation, of investigation and of discrimination: that they should have arrived at discovering more than three hundred medical plants, of which the king's commissary, De la Chaise, sent a collection to France with a memoir written on the subject by Le Page du Pratz. The physicians ranked very high among the Natchez, and were looked upon as inspired. Those people believed, that for every disease the Great Spirit had provided a remedy in the shape of a plant, and that he never refused to point it out to the physician, when supplicated in the proper manner. p349 Hence, if they awarded the most liberal fees to the physician in cases of success, they frequently put him to death, when his patient did not recover, on the ground that it must have been his fault if he did not find out the curing remedy.
When the French became acquainted with that interesting nation, it is said it had much degenerated from its former state of power, population, and civilization. The Natchez were then thought to be in the last stage of decline, and doomed to approaching and inevitable destruction. They knew it, and crouched gloomily under that fatality which, in the days of antiquity, hung with such terrific perseverance over certain individuals, certain families, and even whole nations. A century had hardly elapsed, when the sacred fire being accidentally extinguished, the guardians concealed the fact to escape death, and relighted the altar with profane and ordinary fire. A short time after, the same accident happened in the other temple, and on this being discovered, fire was procured, according to the old custom, from the first temple. But it was profane fire; so that the nation was thus deprived of that celestial flame which their great lawgiver and first sovereign had brought down with him from the Sun. The sacrilegious guardian of the sacred fire, who had concealed truth, being on his death-bed, and racked with remorse, made at last the awful confession of his guilt — a confession which sounded in the ears of the Natchez as their death-knell. From the day when they had lost the fire from the sun, calamities on calamities had rained down on their tribe; and although they had sought to remedy the evil, by taking fire from a tree struck and ignited by lightning, they felt that their prosperity was withering and fast dropping its yellow leaves, and that there would soon remain nothing but its naked and lifeless p350 trunk to blacken and rot away under the wrath of heaven. Nothing could wipe away from their souls the belief that the entire annihilation of their race was at hand; and their tradition said that the guilty guardian, who had to answer for the destruction of a whole nation, was locked up by the Great Spirit in one of those large mounds which are to this day to be seen in the vicinity of the present city of Natchez.e There he is doomed to languish forever, and to be eternally barred from entering the world of spirits, unless he can make fire with two dry sticks, which he is ever rubbing together with desperate eagerness. Now and then a light smoke issues from the sticks — the wretch rubs on with increased and lightning rapidity; — and just as a bright spark begins to shoot up, the sluices of his eyes open against his will, and pour out a deluge of tears, which drown the nascent fire. Thus he is condemned to a ceaseless work, and to periodical fits of hope and despair. It is Ixion's ever-rolling rock, or the bottomless tun of the Danaides.
The Choctaws occupied a very large territory between the Mississippi and the Tombecbee rivers, from the frontiers of the Colapissas and of the Biloxis, on the shores of lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne, up to the frontiers of the Natchez, of the Yazoos, and of the Chickasaws. They owned more than fifty important villages, and it was said that at one time, they could have brought into the field twenty-five thousand warriors. Chacta, Chatka, or Choctaw, spelling it according to the various pronunciations, means charming voice in the Indian dialect. It appears that the Choctaws had a great aptitude for music and singing. Hence the name that was given to them. Very little is known about their origin, although some writers pretend that they came from the province of Kamtschatka. It is p351 said that they suddenly made their appearance, and rapidly overran the whole country. That appearance was so spontaneous, that it seemed as if they had sprung up from the earth like mushrooms. With regard to their manners, their customs, and their degree of civilization, it is sufficient to say, that they had many characteristic traits in common with the other Indian nations. However, they were much inferior to the Natchez in many respects. They had more imperfect notions of the divinity, and were much more superstitious. They were proverbially filthy and stupid in the estimation of all who knew them, and they were exceedingly boastful, although notoriously less brave than any other of the red tribes.
What the Choctaws were most conspicuous for, was their hatred of falsehood and their love of truth. Tradition relates that one of their chiefs became so addicted to the vice of lying, that, in disgust, they drove him away from their territory. In the now parish of Orleans, back of Gentilly, there is a tract of land, in the shape of an isthmus, projecting itself into Lake Pontchartrain, not far from the Rigolets, and terminating in what is called "Pointe aux herbes," or herb point. It was there that the exiled Choctaw chief retired with his family and a few adherents, near a bayou which discharges itself into the lake. From that circumstance, this tract of land received, and still retains the appellation of "Chef Menteur," or "Lying Chief."
The Chickasaws ruled over a fertile region, which extended from the Mississippi to the Tombecbee, in the upper part of the state of Mississippi, and near the frontiers of the present state of Tennessee. They numbered from two to three thousand warriors, and were by far the most warlike of all the Louisiana tribes. They had numerous slaves, well-cultivated fields, and numerous p352 herds of cattle. They never deviated in their attachment to the English, and they became exceedingly troublesome to the French. With some shades of difference, they had, on the main, the invariable and well-known attributes of the Indian character. Therefore, to pursue the subject into further details would, perhaps, be running the danger of falling into the dullness of monotonous and uninteresting description. Suffice it to say, that they were the Spartans, as the Natchez were the Athenians, and the Choctaws the Boeotians of Louisiana.
a Among Gayarré's sources for the customs of the Natchez (especially their immolation ritual at the death of a Great Sun), as well as for the career of Ette-Actal covered in this chapter is the Travels of Jean-Bernard Bossu, useful excerpts of which are onsite in an English translation by William Kernan Dart.
b The ways in which human beings make simple scratches or marks on stone or ceramic are, perforce, not very many. It is not surprising then that native American pictographs or mere pottery decoration might look just like Hebrew and Greek; here, for example, are some sample Greek letters: Ι, Ο, Χ, Τ, Γ; and some sample Hebrew: כ, ם, ר. No serious scholar or even rational investigator believes that the Natchez Indians spoke Hebrew or Greek, nor for that matter the Chickasaws; but as a popular belief, often spurred by the desire to give America an ancient pedigree, this foolishness is far from dead: see the Red Bird Petroglyphs, for example.
c There is fire in brandy in English as well; the word brandy is derived from Dutch brandewijn, "burnt" (i.e., distilled) wine. And for the record, I think anyone who dilutes good brandy with water should be taken out and scalped.
e The Natchez mounds are still to be seen, and may be visited; for photos and fairly detailed information, see this page of the U. S. National Park Service site on the Indian Mounds of Mississippi.
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History of Louisiana
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