Native Americans, c.1600

"The country was inhabited by numerous tribes or clans of Native Americans. The number of Native Americans, at the time the English settled among them, has only been estimated. They likely did not exceed one hundred and fifty thousand within the thirteen original states.

In their physical character, the different Indian tribes, within the boundaries of the United States, were nearly the same. Their persons were tall, straight, and well proportioned. Their skins were red, or of a copper brown; their eyes black; their hair long, black, and coarse. In constitution, they were firm and vigorous, capable of sustaining great fatigue and hardship.

As to their general character, they were quick of apprehension. At times they were friendly, and even courteous. In council, they were distinguished for gravity and eloquence; in war, for bravery and address. When provoked to anger, they were sullen and retired; and when determined upon revenge, no danger would deter them; neither absence nor time could cool them. If captured by an enemy, they never asked life; nor would they betray emotions of fear, even in view of the of the tomahawk or burning torch.

They had no books or written literature, except crude hieroglyphics; and education among them was confined to the arts of war, hunting, fishing, and the few manufacturing which existed among them, in most of which every male was more or less instructed. Their language was rude, but. sonorous, metaphorical, and energetic, and well suited to the purposes of public speaking. Their arts and manufactures were confined to the construction of wigwams, bows and arrows, wampum ornaments, stone hatchets, mortars for pounding corn; to the the dressing of skins, weaving of course mats from the bark of trees, or a course sort of hemp, etc.

Their agriculture was small in extent, and the article they cultivated were few in number. Corn, beans, peas, potatoes, melons, and a few others of a similar kind, were all. Their skill in medicine was confined to a few simple prescriptions and operations. Both the cold and warm bath were often applied, and a considerable number of plants were used with success. For some diseases they knew no remedy; in which case they resorted to their pow wow, or priest, who undertook the removal of the disease by means of sorcery. It may be remarked, however, that the diseases to which the Indians were liable were few, compared with those which prevail in modern society.

The employments of the men were principally hunting, fishing, and war. The women dressed the food, took charge of' the domestic concerns, tilled their narrow and scanty fields, and performed almost all. the drudgery connected with their household affairs.

The amusements of the men were principally leaping, shooting at marks, dancing, gaming, and hunting, in all of which they made the most violent exertions. Their dances were usually performed round a large fire. In their war dances, they sung or recited the feats which they or their ancestors had achieved; represented in a manner in which they performed, and in which they wrought themselves up to an inexpressive degree of martial enthusiasm. The females occasionally joined in some of these sports, but had none peculiar to themselves.

Their dress was various. In summer they wore little besides a covering about the waist; but in winter they clothed themselves in the skins of wild beasts. They were exceedingly fond of ornaments. On days of show and festivity, their sachems wore mantles of deerskin, embroidered with white beads or copper; or they were painted with various devices. Hideousness was the object aimed at in painting themselves. A chain of fish bones about the neck, or the skin of a wild cat, was the sign of royalty.

For habitations, the Indians had weekwams, or wigwams, as pronounced by the English. These originally consisted of a strong pole, erected in the center, around which, at the distance of ten or twelve feet other poles were driven obliquely into the ground, and fastened to the center pole at the top. Their coverings were of mats, or barks of trees, well adjusted, so as to render them dry and comfortable.

Their domestic utensils extended not beyond a hatchet of stone, a few shells and sharp stones which they used for knives, stone mortars for pounding corn, and some mats and skins, upon which they slept. They sat, and ate, and lodged, on the ground. With shells and stones they scalped their enemies, dressed their game, cut their hair, etc. They made nets of thread twisted from the bark of Indian hemp, or of the sinews of the moose and deer. For fish hooks, they used bones which were bent.

Their food was of the coarsest and simplest kind—the flesh, and even the entrails—of all kinds of wild beasts and birds; and, in their proper season, green corn, beans, peas, etc., which they cultivated, and other fruits, which the country spontaneously produced. Flesh and fish they roasted on a stick, or broiled on the fire. In some instances they boiled their meat and corn by putting hot stones in water. Corn they parched, especially in the winter; and upon this they lived, in the absence of other food.

The money of the Indians, called wampum, consisted of small beads wrought from shells, arid strung on belts, and in chains. The wampum of the New England Indians was black, blue, and white. That of the Six Nations was of a purple color. Six of the white beads, and three of black or blue, became of the value of a penny. A belt of wampum was given as a token of friendship, or as a seal or confirmation of a treaty.

There was little among them that could be called society. Except when roused by some strong excitement, the men were generally indolent, taciturn, and unsocial. The women were too degraded and oppressed to think of much besides their toils. Removing, too, as the seasons changed, or as the game grew scarce, or as danger from a stronger tribe threatened, there was little opportunity for forming those local attachments, and those social ties, which spring from a long residence in a particular spot. Female beauty had little power over the men; and all other pleasures gave way to the strong impulses of public festivity, or burning captives, or seeking revenge, or the chase, or war, or glory.

Early historians asserted that war was the favorite employment of the Indians of North America. It roused them from the lethargy into which they fell when they ceased from the chase, and furnished them an opportunity to distinguish themselves—to achieve deeds of glory. Their weapons were bows and arrows headed with flint or other hard stones, which they discharged with great precision and force. The southern Indians used targets made of bark; the Mohawks clothed themselves with skins, as a defense against the arrows of their enemies. When they fought in the open field, they rushed to the attack with incredible fury; arid, at the same time, uttered their appalling war-whoop. Those whom they had taken captive they often tortured with every variety of cruelty, and to their dying agonies added every species of insult. If peace was concluded on, the chiefs of the hostile tribes ratified the treaty by smoking, in succession, the same pipe, called the calumet, or pipe of peace.

The government of the Indians, in general, was an absolute monarchy, though it varied in different tribes. The will of the sachem was law. In matters of moment, he consulted his councilors; but his decisions were final. War and peace, among some tribes, seem to have been determined in a council formed of old men, distinguished by their exploits. When in council, they spoke at pleasure, and always listened to the speaker with profound and respectful silence.

When propositions for war or peace were made, or treaties proposed to them by the colonial governors, they met the ambassadors in council, and, at the end of each paragraph or proposition, the principal sachem delivered a short stick to one of his council, intimating that it was his duty to remember that paragraph. This was repeated, until every proposal was finished; they then retired, to deliberate among themselves. After their deliberations were ended, the sachem, or some councilors to whom he had delegated this office, replied to every paragraph, in its turn, with an exactness scarcely exceeded in written correspondence.

The religious notions of the natives consisted of traditions, mingled with many superstitions. Like the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, Hindus, etc., they believed in the existence of two Gods: the one good, who was the superior, and whom they styled the Great or Good Spirit; the other, evil. They worshipped both; and of both formed images of stone, to which they paid religious homage. Besides these, they worshipped various other deities, fire, water, thunder, anything which they conceived to be superior to themselves, and capable of doing them injury. The manner of worship was to sing and dance round large fires. Besides dancing, they offered prayers, and sometimes sweet scented powder. In Virginia, the Indians offered blood, deer's suet, and tobacco. Of the creation and the deluge they had distinct traditions.

Marriage among them was generally a temporary contract. The men chose their wives agreeably to fancy, and put them away at pleasure. Marriage was celebrated, however, with some ceremony, and, in many instances, was observed with fidelity; not infrequently it was as lasting as life. Polygamy was common among them. Their treatment of females was cruel and oppressive. They were considered by the men as slaves, and often treated, as such. Those forms of decorum between the sexes, which lay the foundation for the respectful and gallant courtesy with which women are treated in modern society, were unknown among them. Of course females were not only required to perform severe labor.

The rites of burial among the Indians, varied but little throughout the continent.They generally dug holes in the ground, with sharpened stakes. In the bottom of the grave were laid sticks, upon which the corpse, wrapped in skins and mats, was deposited. The arms, utensils, paints, and. ornaments of the deceased, were buried with him or her, and a mound of earth raised over their grave. Among some tribes in New England, and among the Five Nations, the dead were buried in a sitting posture, with their faces towards the east. During the burial they uttered the most lamentable cries, and continued their mourning for several days.

The origin of the Indians had been involved in much obscurity for many years. The opinion accepted today, through genetic research, is that they originated in Asia, and that at some former period, not now to be ascertained, they emigrated from Asia to America, over which, in succeeding years, their descendants spread. This opinion is rendered is also supported probable by the fact, that the figure, complexion, dress, manners, customs, of the nations of both continents, are very similar. That they might have emigrated from the eastern continent is evident, since, at latitude 66° in Alaska, the two continents are not more than forty miles distant from each other, and between them are two islands less than twenty miles distant from either shore [known as the Land Bridge today]."


— A History of the United States, by Charles A. Goodrich, 1857 (edited)


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