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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 43

This webpage reproduces part of
Fortescue Cuming's
Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country

published in
Thwaites, Early Western Travels, Vol. IV.

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 45
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Tour to the Western Country

[258] Vol. IV
Chapter XLIV
Visit from Indian warriours — Our apprehensions — Indian manners and customs not generally known — First, Second and Third Chickasaw Bluffs, and several islands.

May 26. — We drifted forty-three miles, between five o'clock, A.M. and five o'clock P.M. — passing several islands and sand-bars, and had got between island No. 31 and Flour island, when an Indian canoe from the left shore boarded us with a chief and three warriours of the Shawanee nation.​186 They had their rifles in the boat, and their knives [259]and tomahawks in their belts, and it is my opinion that their intentions were hostile had they seen any thing worth plundering, or found us intimidated — but by receiving them with a confident familiarity, and treating them cautiously with a little whiskey, they behaved tolerably well and bartered a wild turkey which one of them had shot for some flour, though it might have been supposed that they would have made a compliment of it to us in return for our civility to them, as besides giving them whiskey to drink, we had given them good wheat loaf bread to eat, and had filled a bottle they had in their canoe with whiskey for their squaws at the camp. It is remarked, that the Indians are not in habits of generous acts, either through the niggardliness of nature, or selfish mode of bringing up; or it may be  p285 owing to their intercourse with the white hunters and traders, who take every advantage of them in their dealings, and so set them an example of selfishness and knavery, which they attempt to follow. Our skiff which had been absent with some of the passengers now coming on board, encreased our numbers so as to render us more respectable in the eyes of our troublesome visitors, and being abreast of their camp, where the party appeared pretty numerous, they shook hands with, and left us, to our great joy, as we were not without apprehension that they would have received a reinforcement of their companions from the shore, which in our defenceless state would have been a most disagreeable circumstance.

They were well formed men, with fine countenances, and their chief was well drest, having good leggins and mockasins, and large tin ear-rings, and his foretop of hair turned up, and ornamented with a quantity of beads.

Evening approaching, we plied our oars diligently, to remove ourselves as far as possible from the Indian camp before we should stop for the night, and by six [260]o'clock we had the upper end of Flour island on our right, three miles below where the Indians had left us. The river making a sudden bend here from east to south, we lost sight of the smoke of the camp, and of our apprehensions also, and about a mile farther, seeing a South Carolina and a Pittsburgh boat moored at the left bank, we rowed in and joined them. Near the landing was a newly abandoned Indian camp, the trees having been barked only within a day or two. To explain this it may be proper to observe, that the Indians, who are wanderers, continually shifting their hunting ground, form their temporary huts with two forked stakes, stuck in the ground, at from six to twelve feet apart, and from four to six feet high. A ridge pole is laid from fork to fork, and long pieces of bark stripped from the  p286 neighbouring trees, are placed on their ends at a sufficient distance below, while the other ends overlap each other where they meet at the ridge pole, the whole forming a hut shaped like the roof of a common house, in which they make a fire, and the men, when not hunting, lounge at full length wrapped in their blankets, or sit cross legged, while the women do the domestick drudgery, or make baskets of various shapes with split cane, which they do with great neatness, and a certain degree of ingenuity. If any of the men die while on an excursion, they erect a scaffold about five feet high, on which they place the corpse covered with the skin of a deer, a bear, or some other animal they have killed in hunting. The dead man's rifle, tomahawk, bow and arrows are placed along side of him on the scaffold, to which the whole is bound with strings cut from some hide. It is then surrounded with stout poles or stakes, ten to twelve feet long, drove firmly into the ground and so close to each as not to admit the entry of a small bird. Some of the female relations, are left in the hut close to the scaffold, until the excursion is [261]finished; when, ere they return home to their nation, they bury the corpse with much privacy. — I had been informed that some priest or privileged person, who was called the bone picker, was always sent for to the nation to come and cleanse the bones from the flesh even in the most loathsome state of putrefaction, that the bones might be carried home and interred in the general cemetery, but I had frequent opportunities of proving the error of this opinion. As to the women, when they die, (which is very rare, except from old age) they are buried at once on the spot, with little or no ceremony. While on the subject of Indians, it may not be amiss to mention a trait in their character, of courage and submission to their laws, of which numberless instances have happened, particularly amongst the Chocktaws on the frontier of the Mississippi  p287 Territory, and I believe common to all the Indian nations, which I do not recollect being noticed by any writer on the subject of their manners and customs. If any one maims or mutilates another, in a drunken or private fray, he must forfeit his life. A few days (or if necessary) even a few months, are allowed the offender to go where he pleases and settle his affairs, at the expiration of which it has rarely if ever happened, that he does not surrender himself at the place appointed, to submit himself to the rifle of the injured party, or one of his nearest relatives, who never fails to exact the full penalty, by shooting the criminal. This is a very common circumstance, and is an instance of national intrepidity and obedience to the laws, not excelled in the purest times of the Roman republick.187

We were now dreadfully tormented by musquitoes and gnats, particularly at night, when moored [262]to the bank. By day, while floating in the middle of the river, they were less troublesome. I would recommend it to travellers about to descended the Ohio and Mississippi, to provide themselves, previous to setting off, with musquetoe curtains, otherwise they never can reckon on one night's undisturbed repose, while on their journey, during the spring, summer or autumn.

May 27th. — We proceeded this morning early with the other two boats in company, and passing Flour island (so named from the number of flour loaded boats which formerly were thrown on it by the current and lost) the first two miles brought us abreast of the first Chickasaw Bluffs, on the left. It is a cliff of pale orange coloured clay, rising from a base of rocks on the bank of the river, and surmounted by trees. — Half a mile below, another similar cliff rises suddenly from  p288 the water's edge, the two being connected by a semicircular range of smaller ones receding from the bank, having a small willow bottom in front of them.

The river retaining its southerly course, floated us in another half league, past the beginning of island No. 34 of Cramer's Navigator, which is four miles and a half long, at the end of which, another large island (not mentioned in the Navigator, but probably included in No. 34, from which only a narrow channel separates it) begins. Two miles from hence a handsome little creek or river, about forty yards wide, joins the Mississippi from the N. E. and nearly a mile lower is another small creek from the eastward with willows at its mouth.

The second Chickasaw Bluff, which we had seen in a long reach down the river ever since we passed Flour island, commences at a mile below the last creek, on the left hand. The cliff, of a yellowish brown colour, has fallen in from the top of the bluff, which is about one hundred and fifty feet high, and immediately after is a cleft or deep fissure, through [263]which, a small creek or run enters the river. Half a mile lower down, the foundation of the cliff, formed apparently of potter's blue clay, assumes the appearance of the buttresses of an ancient fortification, projecting to support the huge impending yellowish red cliff above, the base of the whole next the water being a heap of ruins in fantastick and various forms, perpetually tumbling from the cliff, which is beautifully streaked with horizontal lines, separating the different strata of sand and clay of which it is composed.

The second bluffs are about two miles long, and form the interior of a great bend of the river, which curves from S. W. by S. to N. W. where being narrowed to a quarter of a mile wide between the bluff and the island, (on which the passengers had bestowed the name of Cuming's island)  p289 the current is so rapid and sets so strongly into the bend as to require the greatest exertion of the oars to keep the boat in the channel. The river then turns a little to the left, and keeping a W. by N. course for three or four miles, then resumes its general direction, meandering to the southward.

A mile and a half below the bluffs, island No. 35 commences, doubling over Cuming's island, whose lower point is not in sight, being concealed by No. 35. The view of the river and islands from the top of the bluff must be very fine.

No. 35 is three miles long. From the lower end of this island we saw the Third Chickasaw Bluffs bearing east about six or seven miles distant, at the end of a vista formed by the left hand channel of island No. 36, and appearing to be a little higher than the First or Second Bluffs, but without any marked particularity at that distance.188

The Editor's Notes:

186 On the Shawnee Indians, see Weiser's Journal, vol. I of this series, p23, note 13. — Ed.

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187 The Choctaws lived in what is now Mississippi, south of the more important Chickasaw tribe. Their position between the Creeks, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Spaniards, and English led to much intriguing for their alliance. The custom which Cuming here notes is verified by Mississippi historians, and was utilized by the early justices of the country. See Claiborne, Mississippi, p505. — Ed.

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188 The third Chickasaw Bluff is the place where De Soto is said to have crossed the Mississippi River. Here also it is supposed that La Salle built Fort Prud'homme on his exploration of the river in 1682. The later historic significance was overshadowed by that of Fourth Chickasaw Bluff. — Ed.

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