Letter IV

Fort William, Dec. 8th, 1833.

(the Mouth of the Yellow Stone River, about 2000 miles above St. Louis.)


- You have often asked me for a description of the Indians that I have been amongst, and particularly my impressions at the first interview. I confess until now, I was not sufficiently aware of the difference between first impressions, and those formed after we become familiar. You were right - first impressions are the only impressions that can be satisfactory to one who wishes to have a correct idea of Indian character.

After our arrival here, thirty lodges of the Assenaboine Indians came in to the American Fur Company's Fort to trade dressed Buffalo skins, and after finishing their trade they came to our encampment, and stopped a night with us. Their arrival being on the Sabbath, I had the better opportunity of observing the difference between these and the Indians I had formerly been amongst, which resulted to the disadvantage of my new friends as you will perceive.

We discovered them at about a mile distance, issuing out of a little ravine where they had stopped to paint themselves before appearing amongst "The Long Knives," as they term the Americans. They were in number about sixty; all men capable of wielding the merciless tomahawk, or sending the shaft of death; and woe to the retreating foe they pursued - the deer is but little swifter, and a hound not more durable than these sinewy sons of the north, who esteem a horse fit only to pack the fruits of the chase. I might say their appearance was grand - 'twas certainly imposing. Imagine to yourself, sixty able warriors walking abreast, some with spears fantastically ornamented with scarlet cloth, and the feathers of the war eagle, others carrying the war club, not less beautiful, (horrid should I say?) and all armed with guns, or bows and arrows. When they advanced so near as to be heard by us, they commenced a song expressive of their satisfaction at their arrival at the white man's camp - in their songs they generally make the words suit the occasion, which one chaunts, and all the others join in chorus. When they got within two hundred yards of us they made a halt, and their song ceased; the chief then advanced six paces in front of the rear rank, and at mid distance immediately behind him stopped three or four braves, who ranked next in authority. This halt was a signal for me to approach - I accordingly took my interpreter along, and went up to them; I gave my hand to the chap, which he grasped firmly, and ejaculated how! (I may here observe an Indian has no goodmorrow how dy'e, or any of our nonsensical greetings, but if you try you will find his how! relieves the heart of that pleading sensation we feel on meeting a friend, better than our salutation). He was a fine noble looking fellow, as large as Mr. Sublette, and possessed of the easy manners common to an Indian chief, who ranks himself second to none that walks the earth. I invited them to proceed, and set the example - the march was resumed, every gun was discharged in the air, and the song recommenced, which ended only when we stopped to form a circle to smoke; here the same respect to rank was observed as in the march - the plebeians seated themselves in the outer ring - the braves in an inner one, and the chief still nearer the centre. I entered and took my seat vis a vis his greatness, my interpreter setting to my left. A glance at the motley group was amusing; their dress was plain - it was yet summer, and they had a Buffalo skin (without the hair) to protect them from the sun, as they wore no shirts - their leggins generally like their mockasons, were plain - excepting a few who had rings painted around the leggins, one leg red, the other black - recording some feats they had performed. Long fringes hanging on each side, and a few ornamented with hair, was what constituted their simple dress. They were all painted; some had the face all red except the tip of the nose, others painted with vermilion leaving little spots on the forehead and cheek, which were painted lead color, a few had their eyes painted white and all the other part red; and others again were painted as black as a negro. These last having been to war, and killed some of the enemy were privileged to paint themselves, as an honorary mark of distinction between them, and those who had not sought glory in the paths of danger (the privilege extends to their wives and daughters, who are more strict in its observance). Every one paints according to his taste, as you may any day see pretty girls dressed in Philadelphia, (pardon the comparison) each consulting his complexion. After we had lighted a few pipes of tobacco mixed with kinekinuk, and had each taken a few ambrossial whiffs in dead silence, I commenced and made them a speech, the substance of which was, that we came here to build a fort and trade with them - the sole object we had in view was benefitting them (I had almost said ourselves): yes, that we came here, our sole object to better their condition - that we had a large quantity of merchandise in our boat, and hoped we would find them disposed to trade with us, and reciprocate our good feelings. I then presented them with 300 charges ammunition, 60 plugs tobacco, a doz. knives, and other kick-shaws, which I had brought forward, as my discourse ended in order to produce effect. - I told them this was a small present as earnest of our future conduct, and which I wished them to accept as such.

My plan succeeded, the chief sent forth a murmur of applause, which was responded by his followers - he then said they were poor! He was grateful for the present, and for the words I had spoken, which should not enter our ear and pass out at the other - No! they would carry my words under their left arm (next the heart) and when they found the balance of their nation they would glad their hearts by a recital what I had said. - He then wound up by promises of lasting amity. The present was laid at the feet of the chief, and as yet untouched. He now commenced, assisted by his commissary, to distribute amongst his followers according to their station, but retained nothing for himself; and in this manner a chief gains popularity and influence, and if he distinguishes himself in war, and uses sufficient liberality amongst his adherents, there is no degree of eminence in the nation to which he may not aspire. Each having received his portion they all arose, and went to their several lodges which by this time had arrived.

After their lords, at a respective distance, came the women in Indian file, between each family a space of a few rods. The principal squaw took the lead, and was followed by her joint partners in the affections of the husband, the dogs followed dragging along all the effects of the day. They fasten together at one end two poles eight foot long - this end is tied on a little saddle fastened on the dogs shoulders, and a strap passing under the neck to haul by - immediately behind the dog, is a hoop worked like a sifter, and fastened to the poles to keep them firm and apart, on this is put 50, 60 or 80 lbs. baggage, which these poor animals haul a day's march. What would you say to see a child 2 or 3 years old fastened on one of these drags, enjoying his ride seemingly as much as one of our little urchins of the same age would a ride in a gig or carriage? The howling of the poor dogs, and scolding of the women produced such a disagreeable noise, that I was glad to see the place selected for the encampment, and the squaws set about their several duties of unloading the dogs, pitching the lodges, collecting wood and carrying water; and finally (all being arranged) sitting down on the sweet scented floors of their wigwam, raised and provided in the short space of half an hour. The dress of the women was well adapted to their situation. Short frocks of antelope skin, reaching just below the knee, (as most suitable for walking) worked with porcupine quills. Leggins of the same material, ornamented with beads, and an envelope of a Buffalo skin, or blanket to wrap in by day or sleep in by night, was all that these ladies require.

The men (and women too) are careless of their hair - it is wore long and matted - very ugly.

An Assenaboine village, though in my eyes wanting the greatest ornament, fine houses, is more beautiful than you can imagine, and I am certain it would make a handsome view through a magnifying glass at the museum, than the arrival of the Pilgrims at Mecca. Some of their lodges have painted on them the likeness of bears, wolves, dogs, or horses, and some have men with the blood issuing from the wounds, as when the owner of the lodge dealt the death blow - occasionally a man was represented "trimmed off at the shoulders," which looks awkward, as I have witnessed a moment after the operation. You would avoid that lodge, I dare say, that contained the man of blood, but nine times in ten he is the most generous and hospitable you meet.

The lodges when erected looked really fine, and at once reminded me of days by-gone, where I have seen on a handsome meadow, bordering one of our enchanting mountain streams, a village of two thousand lodges (more gracefully proportioned than your finest houses) sprung up as it were by magic, and one to two thousand horses feeding luxuriantly, where but an hour before, the deer startled by the tainted gale, announcing the approach of the enemy man, had fled from the pasture it had long occupied apparently secure from the stealthy steps of the prowling hunter.