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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Pioneers of the Old Southwest

Constance Lindsay Skinner

in the
Chronicles of America edition,
Yale University Press,
New Haven, 1919

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p52  Chapter III
The Trader

The trader was the first pathfinder. His caravans began the change of purpose that was to come to the Indian warrior's route, turning it slowly into the beaten track of communication and commerce. The settlers, the rangers, the conveyors, went westward over the trails which he had blazed for them years before. Their enduring works are commemorated in the cities and farms which today lie along every ancient border line; but of their forerunner's hazardous Indian trade nothing remains. Let us therefore pay a moment's homage here to the trader, who first — to borrow a phrase from Indian speech — made white for peace the red trails of war.

He was the first cattleman of the Old Southwest. Fifty years before John Findlay,​1 one of this class of pioneers, led Daniel Boone through Cumberland  p53 Gap, the trader's bands of horses roamed the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains and his cattle grazed among the deer on the green banks of the old Cherokee (Tennessee) River. He was the pioneer settler beyond the high hills; for he built, in the center of the Indian towns, the first white man's cabin — with its larger annex, the trading house — and dwelt there during the greater part of the year. He was America's first magnate of international commerce. His furs — for which he paid in guns, knives, ammunition, vermilion paint, mirrors, and cloth — lined kings' mantles, and hatted the Lords of Trade as they strode to their council chamber in London to discuss his business and to pass those regulations which might have seriously hampered him but for his resourcefulness in circumventing them!

He was the first frontier warrior, for he either fought off or fell before small parties of hostile Indians who, in the interest of the Spanish or French, raided his pack-horse caravans on the march. Often, too, side by side with the red brothers of his adoption, he fought in the intertribal wars. His was the first educative and civilizing influence in the Indian towns. He endeavored to cure the Indians of their favorite midsummer madness, war, by inducing  p54 them to rise stock and poultry and improve their corn, squash, and pea gardens. It is not necessary to impute to him philanthropic motives. He was a practical man and saw that war hurt his trade: it endangered his summer caravans and hampered the autumn hunt for deerskins.

In the earliest days of the eighteenth century, when the colonists of Virginia and the Carolinas were only a handful, it was the trader who defeated each successive attempt of French and Spanish agents to weld the tribes into a confederacy for the annihilation of the English settlements. The English trader did his share to prevent what is now the United States from becoming a part of a Latin empire and to save it for a race having the Anglo-Saxon ideal and speaking the English tongue.

The colonial records of the period contain items which, taken singly, make small impression on the casual reader but which, listed together, throw a strong light on the past and bring that mercenary figure, the trader, into so bold a relief that the design verges on the heroic. If we wonder, for instance, why the Scotch Highlanders who settled in the wilds at the headwaters of the Cape Fear River, about 1729, and were later followed by Welsh and Huguenots, met with no opposition  p55 from the Indians, the mystery is solved when we discover, almost by accident, a few printed lines which record that, in 1700, the hostile natives on the Cape Fear were subdued to the English and brought into friendly alliance with them by Colonel William Bull, a trader. We read further and learn that the Spaniards in Florida had long endeavored to unite the tribes in Spanish and French territory against the English and that the influence of traders prevented the consummation. The Spaniards, in 1702, had prepared to invade English territory with nine hundred Indians. The plot was discovered by Creek Indians and disclosed to their friends, the traders, who immediately gathered together five hundred warriors, marched swiftly to meet the invaders, and utterly routed them. Again, when the Indians, incited by the Spanish at St. Augustine, rose against the English in 1715, and the Yamasi Massacre occurred in South Carolina, it was due to the traders that some of the settlements at least were not wholly unprepared to defend themselves.

The early English trader was generally an intelligent man; sometimes educated, nearly always fearless and resourceful. He knew the one sure basis on which men of alien blood and far separated  p56 stages of moral and intellectual development can meet in understanding — namely, the truth of the spoken word. He recognized honor as the bond of trade and the warp and woof of human intercourse. The uncorrupted savage also had his plain interpretation of the true word in the mouths of men, and a name for it. He called it the "Old Beloved Speech" and he gave his confidence to the man who spoke this speech even in the close barter for furs.

We shall find it worth while to refer to the map of America as it was in the early days of the colonial fur trade, about the beginning of the eighteenth century. A narrow strip of loosely strung English settlements stretched from the north border of New England to the Florida line. North Florida was Spanish territory. On the far distant southwestern borders of the English colonies were the southern possessions of France. The French sphere of influence extended up the Mississippi, and thence by way of rivers and the Great Lakes to its base in Canada on the borders of New England and New York. In South Carolina dwelt the Yamasi tribe of about three hundred warriors, their chief towns only sixty or eighty miles distant from the Spanish town of St. Augustine. On the  p57 west, about the same distance northeast of New Orleans, in what is now Alabama and Georgia, lay the creek nation. There French garrisons held Mobile and Fort Alabama. The creeks at this time numbered over four thousand warriors. The lands of the Choctaws, a tribe of even larger fighting strength, began two hundred miles north of New Orleans and extended along the Mississippi. A hundred and sixty miles northeast of the Choctaw towns were the Chickasaws, the bravest and most successful warriors of all the tribes south of the Iroquois. The Cherokees, in part seated within the Carolinas, on the upper courses of the Savannah River, mustered over six thousand men at arms. East of them were the Catawba towns. North of them were the Shawanoes and Delawares, in easy communication with the tribes of Canada. Still farther north, along the Mohawk and other rivers joining with the Hudson and Lake Ontario stood the "long houses" of the fiercest and most warlike of all the savages, the Iroquois or Six Nations.

The Indians along the English borders outnumbered the colonists perhaps ten to one. If the Spanish and the French had succeeded in the conspiracy to unite on their side all the tribes, a red billow of tomahawk wielders would have engulfed  p58 and extinguished the English settlements. The French, it is true, made allies of the Shawanoes, the Delawares, the Choctaws, and a strong faction of the Creeks; and they finally won over the Cherokees after courting them for more than twenty years. But the Creeks in part, the powerful Chickasaws, and the Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations, remained loyal to the English. In both North and South it was the influence of the traders that kept these red tribes on the English side. The Iroquois were held loyal by Sir William Johnson and his deputy, George Croghan, the "King of Traders." The Chickasaws followed their "best-beloved" trader, James Adair; and among the Creeks another trader, Lachlan McGillivray, wielded a potent influence.

Lachlan McGillivray was a Highlander. He landed in Charleston in 1735 at the age of sixteen and presently joined a trader's caravan as pack-horse boy. A few years later he married a woman of the Creeks. On many occasions he defeated French and Spanish plots with the Creeks for the extermination of the colonists in Georgia and South Carolina. His action in the final war with the French (1760), when the Indian terror was raging, is typical. News came that four thousand  p59 Creek warriors, reinforced by French Choctaws, were about to fall on the southern settlements. At the risk of their lives, McGillivray and another trader named Galphin hurried from Charleston to their trading house on the Georgia frontier. Thither they invited several hundred Creek warriors, feasted and housed them for several days, and finally won them from their purpose. McGillivray had a brilliant son, Alexander, who about this time became a chief in his mother's nation — perhaps on this very occasion, as it was an Indian custom, in making a brotherhood pact, to send a son to dwell in the brother's house. We shall meet that son again as the Chief of the Creeks and the terrible scourge of Georgia and Tennessee in the dark days of the Revolutionary War.

The bold deeds of the early traders, if all were to be told, would require a book as long as the huge volume written by James Adair, the "English Chickasaw." Adair was an Englishman who entered the Indian trade in 1735 and launched upon the long and dangerous trail from Charleston to the upper towns of the Cherokees, situated in the present Monroe County, Tennessee. Thus he was one of the earliest pioneers of the Old Southwest; and he was Tennessee's first author. "I  p60 am well acquainted," he says, "with near two thousand miles of the American continent" — a statement which gives one some idea of an early trader's enterprise, hardihood, and peril. Adair's "two thousand miles" were twisting Indian trails and paths he slashed out for himself through uninhabited wilds, for when not engaged in trade, hunting, literature, or war, it pleased him to make solitary trips of exploration. These seem to have led him chiefly northward through the Appalachians, of which he must have been one of the first white explorers.

A many-sided man was James Adair — cultured, for his style suffers not by comparison with other writers of his day, no stranger to Latin and Greek, and not ignorant of Hebrew, which he studied to assist him in setting forth his ethnological theory that the American Indians were the descendants of the Ten Lots Tribes of Israel. Before we dismiss his theory with a smile, let us remember that he had not at his disposal the data now available which reveal points of likeness in custom, language formation, and symbolism among almost all primitive peoples. The formidable title-page of his book in itself suggests an author keenly observant, accurate as to detail, and possessed of a  p61 versatile and substantial mind. Most of the pages were written in the towns of the Chickasaws, with whom he lived "as a friend and brother," but from whose "natural jealousy" and "prying disposition" he was obliged to conceal his papers. "Never," he assures us, "was a literary work begun and carried on with more disadvantages!"

Despite these disabilities the author wrote a book of absorbing interest. His intimate sympathetic pictures of Indian life as it was before the tribes had been conquered are richly valuable to the lover of native lore and to the student of the history of white settlement. The author believes, as he must, in the supremacy of his own race, but he nevertheless presents the Indians' side of the argument as no man could who had not made himself one of them. He thereby adds interest to those fierce struggles which took place along the border; for he shows us the red warrior not as a mere brute with a tomahawk but as a human creature with an ideal of his own, albeit an ideal that must give place to a better. Even in view of the red man's hideous methods of battle and inhuman treatment of captives, we cannot ponder unmoved Adair's description of his preparations for war — the fasting, the abstention from all family  p62 intercourse, and the purification rites and prayers for three days in the house set apart, while the women, who might not come close to their men in this fateful hour, stood throughout the night till dawn chanting before the door. Another poetic touch the author gives us, from the Cherokee — or Cheerake as he spells it — explaining that the root, chee‑ra, means fire. A Cherokee never extinguished fire save on the occasion of a death, when he thrust a burning torch into the water and said, Neetah intahah — "the days appointed him were finished." The warrior slain in battle was held to have been balanced by death and it was said of him that "he was weighed on the path and made light." Adair writes that the Cherokees, until corrupted by the French agents and by the later class of traders who poured rum among them like water, were honest, industrious, and friendly. They were ready to meet the white man with their customary phrase of good will: "I shall firmly shake hands with your speech." He was intimately associated with this tribe from 1735 to 1744, when he diverted his activities to the Chickasaws.

It was from the Cherokees' chief town, Great Telliko, in the Appalachians, that Adair explored the mountains. He describes the pass through the  p63 chain which was used by the Indians and which, from his outline of it, was probably the Cumberland Gap. He relates many incidents of the struggle with the French — manifestations even in this remote wilderness of the vast conflict that was being waged for the New World by two imperial nations of the Old.

Adair undertook, at the solicitation of Governor Glen of South Carolina, the dangerous task of opening up trade with the Choctaws, a tribe mustering upward of five thousand warriors who were wholly in the French interest. Their country lay in what is now the State of Mississippi along the great river, some seven hundred miles west and southwest of Charleston. After passing the friendly Creek towns the trail led on for 150 miles through what was practically the enemy's country. Adair, owing to what he likes to term his "usual good fortune," reached the Choctaw country safely and by his adroitness and substantial presents won the friendship of the influential chief, Red Shoe, whom he found in a receptive mood, owing to a French agent's breach of hospitality involving Red Shoe's favorite wife. Adair thus created a large pro-English faction among the Choctaws, and his success seriously impaired French prestige with all  p64 the southwestern tribes. Several times French Choctaws bribed to murder him, waylaid Adair on the trail — twice when he was alone — only to be baffled by the imperturbable self-possession and alert wit which never failed him in emergencies.

Winning a Choctaw trade cost Adair, besides attacks on his life, £2200, for which he was never reimbursed, notwithstanding Governor Glen's agreement with him. And, on his return to Charleston, while the Governor was detaining him "on one pretext or another," he found that a new expedition, which the Governor was favoring for reasons of his own, had set out to keep his Chickasaw trade and gather in "the expected great crop of deerskins and beaver . . . before I could possibly return to the Chikkasah Country." Nothing daunted, however, the hardy trader set out alone.

In the severity of winter, frost, snow, hail and heavy rains succeed each other in these climes, so that I partly rode and partly swam to the Chikkasah country; for not expecting to stay long below [in Charleston] I took no leathern canoe. Many of the broad, deep creeks . . . were unpassable to any but desperate people: . . . the rivers and swamps were dreadful by rafts of timber driving down the former and the great fallen trees floating in the latter. . . . Being forced to wade deep through cane swamps or woody thickets, it proved very  p65 troublesome to keep my firearms dry on which, as a second means, my life depended.

Nevertheless Adair defeated the Governor's attempt to steal his trade, and later on published the whole story in the Charleston press and sent in a statement of his claims to the Assembly, with frank observations on His Excellency himself. We gather that his bold disregard of High Personages set all Charleston in an uproar!

Adair is tantalizingly modest about his own deeds. He devotes pages to prove that an Indian rite agrees with the Book of Leviticus but only a paragraph to an exploit of courage and endurance such as that ride and swim for the Indian trade. We have to read between the lines to find the man; but he well repays the search. Briefly, incidentally, he mentions that on one trip he was captured by the French, who were so

well acquainted with the great damages I had done to them and feared others I might occasion, as to confine me a close prisoner . . . in the Alebahma garrison. They were fully resolved to have sent me down to Mobile or New Orleans as a capital criminal to be hanged . . . but I doubted not of being able to extricate myself some way or other. They appointed double centries over me for some days before I was to be sent down in the French King's large boat. They were strongly charged against  p66 laying down their weapons or suffering any hostile thing to be in the place where I was kept, as they deemed me capable of any mischief. . . . About an hour before we were to set off by water I escaped from them by land. . . . I took through the middle of the low land covered with briers at full speed. I heard French clattering on horseback along the path . . . and the howling savages pursuing . . ., but my usual good fortune enabled me to leave them far enough behind. . . .

One feels that a few of the pages given up to Leviticus might well have been devoted to a detailed account of this escape from "double centries" and a fortified garrison, and the plunge through the tangled wilds, by a man without a gun or knife or supplies, and who for days dared not show himself upon the trail.

There is too much of "my usual good fortune" in Adair's narrative; such luck as his argues for extraordinary resources in the man. Sometimes we discover only through one phrase on a page that he must himself have been the hero of an event he relates in the third person. This seems to be the case in the affair of Priber, which was the worst of those "damages" Adair did to the French. Priber was "a gentleman of curious and speculative temper" sent by the French in 1736 to Great Telliko to win the Cherokees to their interest.  p67 At this time Adair was trading with the Cherokees. He relates that Priber,

more effectually to answer the design of his commission . . . ate, drank, slept, danced, dressed, and painted himself with the Indians, so that it was not easy to distinguish him from the natives, — he married also with them, and being endued with a strong understanding and retentive memory he soon learned their dialect, and by gradual advances impressed them with a very ill opinion of the English, representing them as fraudulent, avaritious and encroaching people; he at the same time inflated the artless savages with a prodigious high opinion of their own importance in the American scale of power. . . . Having thus infected them . . . he easily formed them into a nominal republican government — crowned their old Archi-magus emperor after a pleasing new savage form, and invented a variety of high-sounding titles for all the members of his imperial majesty's red court.

Priber cemented the Cherokee empire "by slow but sure degrees to the very great danger of our southern colonies." His position was that of Secretary of State and as such, with a studiedly provocative arrogance, he carried on correspondence with the British authorities. The colonial Government seems, on this occasion, to have listened to the traders and to have realized that Priber was a danger, for soldiers were sent to take him prisoner. The Cherokees, however, had so  p68 firmly "shaked hands" with their Secretary's admired discourse that they threatened to take the warpath if their beloved man were annoyed, and the soldiers went home without him — to the great hurt of English prestige. The Cherokee empire had now endured for five years and was about to rise "into a far greater State of puissance by the acquisition of the Muskohge, Chocktaw and the Western Mississippi Indians," when fortunately for the history of British colonization in America, "an accident befell the Secretary."

It is in connection with this "accident" that the reader suspects the modest but resourceful Adair of conniving with Fate. Since the military had failed and the Government dared not again employ force, other means must be found; the trader provided them. The Secretary with his Cherokee bodyguard journeyed south on his mission to the Creeks. Secure, as he supposed, he lodged overnight in an Indian town. But there a company of English traders took him into custody, along with his bundle of manuscripts presumably intended for the French commandant at Fort Alabama, and handed him over to the Governor of Georgia, who imprisoned him and kept him out of mischief til he died.

As a Briton, Adair contributed to Priber's fate;  p69 and as such he approves it. As a scholar with philosophical and ethnological leanings, however, he deplores it, and hopes that Priber's valuable manuscripts may "escape the despoiling hands of military power." Priber had spent his leisure in compiling a Cherokee dictionary; Adair's occupation, while domiciled in his winter house in Great Telliko, was the writing of his Indian Appendix to the Pentateuch. As became brothers in science, they had exchanged notes, so we gather from Adair's references to conversations and correspondence. Adair's difficulties as an author, however, had been increased by a treacherous lapse from professional etiquette on the part of the Secretary: "He told them [the Indians] that in the very same manner as he was their great Secretary, I was the devil's clerk, or an accursed one who marked on paper the bad speech of the evil ones of darkness." On his own part Adair admits that his object in this correspondence was to trap the Secretary into something more serious than literary errata. That is, he admits by implication; he says the Secretary "feared" it. During the years of their duel, Adair apparently knew that the scholarly compiler of the Cherokee dictionary was secretly inciting members of this particular Lost Tribe to tomahawk the discoverer of  p70 their biblical origin; and Priber, it would seem, knew that he knew!

Adair shows, inferentially, that land encroachment was not the sole cause of those Indian war with which we shall deal in a later chapter. The earliest causes were the instigations of the French and the rewards which they offered for English scalps. But equally provocative of Indian rancor were the acts of sometimes merely stupid, sometimes dishonest, officials; the worst of these, Adair considered, was the cheapening of the trade through the granting of general licenses.

Formerly each trader had a license for two [Indian] towns. . . . At my first setting out among them, a number of traders . . . journeyed through our various nations in different companies and were generally men of worth; of course they would have a living price for their goods, which they carried on horseback to the remote Indian countries at very great expences. . . . [The Indians] were kept under proper restraint, were easy in their minds and peaceable on account of the plain, honest lessons daily inculcated on them . . . but according to the present unwise plan, two and even three Arablike peddlars sculk about in one of those villages . . . who are generally the dregs and off-scourings of our climes . . . by inebriating the Indians with their nominally prohibited and poisoning spirits, they purchase the necessaries of life at four and five hundred per cent  p71 cheaper than the orderly traders. . . . Instead of showing good examples of moral conduct, beside the other part of life, they instruct the unknowing and imitating savages in many diabolical lessons of obscenity and blasphemy.

In these statements, contemporary records bear him out. There is no sadder reading than the many pleas addressed by the Indian chiefs to various officials to stop the importation of liquor into their country, alleging the debauchment of their young men and warning the white man, with whom they desired to be friends, that in an Indian drink and blood lust quickly combined.

Adair's book was published in London in 1775. He wrote it to be read by Englishmen as well as Americans; and some of his reflections on liberty, justice, and Anglo-Saxon unity would not sound unworthily today. His sympathies were with "the principles of our Magna Charta Americana"; but he thought the threatened division of the English-speaking peoples the greatest evil that could befall civilization. His voluminous work discloses a man not only of wide mental outlook but a practical man with a sense of commercial values. Yet, instead of making a career for himself among his own caste, he made his home for over thirty years  p72 in the Chickasaw towns; and it is plain that, with the exception of some of his older brother traders, he preferred the Chickasaw to any other society.

The complete explanation of such men as Adair we need not expect to find stated anywhere — not even in and between the lines of his book. The conventionalist would seek it in moral obliquity; the radical, in a temperament that is irked by the superficialities that comprise so large a part of conventional standards. The reason for his being what he was is almost the only thing Adair did not analyze in his book. Perhaps, to him, it was self-evident. We may let it be so to us, and see it most clearly presented in a picture composed from some of his brief sketches: A land of grass and green shade inset with bright waters, where deer and domestic cattle herded together along the banks; a circling group of houses, their white-clayed walls sparkling under the sun's rays, and, within and without, the movement of "a friendly and sagacious people," who "kindly treated and watchfully guarded" their white brother in peace and war, and who conversed daily with him in the Old Beloved Speech learned first of Nature. "Like towers in cities beyond the common size of those of the Indians" rose the winter and summer houses  p73 and the huge trading house which the tribe had built for their best beloved friend in the town's center, because there he would be safest from attack. On the rafters hung the smoked and barbecued delicacies taken in the hunt and prepared for him by his red servants, who were also his comrades at home and on the dangerous trail. "Beloved old women" kept an eye on his small sons, put to drowse on panther skins so that they might grow up brave warriors. Nothing was there of artifice or pretense, only "the needful things to make a reasonable life happy." All was as primitive, naïve, and contented as the woman whose outline is given once in a few strokes, proudly and gayly penciled: "I have the pleasure of writing this by the side of a Chikkasah female, as great a princess as ever lived among the ancient Peruvians or Mexicans, and she bids me be sure not to mark the paper wrong after the manner of most of the traders; otherwise it will spoil the making good bread or homony!"

His final chapter is the last news of James Adair, type of the earliest trader. Did his bold attacks on corrupt officials and rum peddlers — made publicly before Assemblies and in print — raise for him a dense cloud of enmity that dropped oblivion  p74 on his memory? Perhaps. But, in truth, his own book is all the history of him we need. It is the record of a man. He lived a full life and served his day; and it matters not that a mist envelops the place where unafraid he met the Last Enemy, was "weighed on the path and made light."

The Author's Note:

1 The name is spelled in various ways: Findlay, Finlay, Findley.

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