by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER No. 21.


In a former Letter I gave some account of Mah-to-toh-pa (the four bears), second chief of the Mandans, whom I said I had painted at full Iength, in a splendid costume. I therein said, also, that " this extraordinary man, though second in office, is undoubtedly the first and most popular man in the nation. Free, generous, elegant,and gentlemanlyin his deportment-handsome, brave and valiant; wearing a robe on his back, with the historv of all his battles painted on it, which would fill a book of themselves if they were properly enlarged and translated."

I gave you also, in another epistle, an account of the manner in which he invited me to a feast in his hospitable wigwam, at the same time presenting mea beautifully garnished robe; and I promised to say more of him on a future occasion. My readers will therefore pardon me for devoting a Letter or two at this time, to a sketch of this extraordinary man, which I will give in as brief a manner as possible, by describing the costume in which I painted his portrait; and afterwards reciting the most remarkable incidents of his life, as I had them from the Traders and the Indian agents, and afterwards corroborated by his own words, translated to me as he spoke, whilst I was writing them down.

The dress of Mah-to-toh-pa then, the greater part of which I have represented in his full-length portrait, and which I shall now describe, was purchased of him after I had painted his picture; and every article of it can be seen in my Indian Gallery by the side of the portrait, provided Isucceed in getting them home to the civilized world without injury.

Mah-to-toh-pa had agreed to stand before me for his portrait at an early hour of the next morning, and on that day I sat with my palette of colours prepared, and waited till twelve o'clock, before he could leave his toilette with feelings of satisfaction as to the propriety of his looks and the arrangement of his equipments; and at that time it was announced, that "Mah-to-toh-pa was coming in full dress!" I looked out of the door of the wigwam, and saw him approaching with a firm and elastic step, accompanied by a great crowd of women and children, who were gazing on him with admiration, and escorting him to my room. No tragedian ever trod the stage, nor gladiator ever entered the Roman Forum, with more grace and manly dignity than did Mah-to-toh-pa enter the wigwam, where I was in readiness to receive him. He took his attitude before me, and with the sternness of a Brutus and the stillness of a statue, he stood until the darkness of night broke upon the soiltary stillness. His dress, ahich was a very splendid one, was complete in all its parts, and consisted of a shirt or tonic, leggings, moccasins, head-dress, necklace, shield, bow and quiver, lance, tobacco-sack, and pipe; robe, belt, and knife; medicine-bag, tomahawk, and war-club, or po-Ko-mo-Kon.

The shirt, of which I have spoken, was made of two skins of the mountainsheep, beautifully dressed, and sewed together by seams which rested upon the arms; one skin hanging in front, upon the breast, and the other falling clown upon the back; the head being passed between them, and they falling over and resting on the shoulders. Across each shoulder, and somewhat in the form of an epaulette, was a beautiful band; and down each arm from the neck to the hand was a similar one, of two inches in width (and crossing the other at right angles on the shoulder) beautifully embroidered with porcupine quills worked on the dress, and covering the seams. To the lower edge of these bands the whole way, at intervals of half an inch, were attached long locks of black hair, which he had taken with his own hand from the heads of his enemies whom he had slain in battle, and which he thus wore as a trophy, and also as an ornament to his dress. The front and back of the shirt were curiously garnished in several parts with Porcupine quills and paintings of the battles he had fought, and also with representations of the victims that had fallen by his hand. The bottom of the dress was bound or hemmed with ermine skins, and tassels of ermines' tails were suspended from the arms and the shoulders.

The Leggings, which were made of deer skins, beautifully dressed, and fitting tight to the leg, extended from the feet to the hips, and were fastened to a belt which was passed around the waist. These, like the shirt, had a similar band, worked with porcupine quills of richest dyes, passing down the seam on the outer part of the leg, and fringed also the whole length of the leg, with the scalp-locks taken from his enemies' heads.

The Moccasins were of buckskin, and covered in almost every part with the beautiful embroidery of porcupines' quills.

The Head-dress, which was superb and truly magnificent, consisted of a crest of war-eagles' quills, gracefully falling back from the forehead over the back pa;t of the head, and extending quite down to his feet; set the whole way in a profusion of ermine, and surmounted on the top of the head, with the horns of the buffalo, shaved thin and highly polished.

The necklace was made of fifty huge claws or nails of the grizzly bear, ingeniously arranged on the skin of an otter, and worn, like the scalp-locks, as a trophy--as an evidence unquestionable, that he had contended with and overcome that desperate enemy in open combat.

His Shield was made of the hide of the buffalo's neck, and hardened with the glue that was taken from its hoofs; its boss was the skin of a pole-cat, and its edges were fringed with rows of eagles' quills and hoofs of the antelope. His Bow was of bone, and as white and beautiful as ivory; over its back was lairl, and tirmly attached to it, a coating of deers' sinews, which gave it its elasticity, and of course death to all that stood inimically before it. Its string was three stranded and twisted of sinews, which many a time had twanged and sent the whizzing death to animal and to human victims.

The Quiver was made of a panther's skin and hung upon his back, charged with its deadly arrows; some were poisoned and some were not; they were feathered with hawks' and eagles' quills; some were clean and innocent, and pure, and others were stained all over, with animal and human blood that was dried upon them. Their blades or points were of Aints, and some of steel; and altogether were a deadly magazine.

The Lance or spear was held in his left hand; its blade was two-edged and of polished steel, and the blood of several human victims was sem dried upon it, one over the other; its shaft was of the toughest ash, and ornamented at intervals with tufts of war-eagles' quills.

His Tobacco-sack was made of the skin of an otter, and tastefully garnished mith quills of the porcupine; in it was carried his K'nick-k'neck, (the bark of the red willow, which is smoked as a substitute for tobacco), I contained also his flint and steel, and spunk for lighting His Pipe, which was ingeniously carved out of the red steatite (or pipestone), the stem of which was three feet long and two inches wide, made from the stalk of the young ash; about half its length was wound with delicate braids of the porcupine's quills, so ingeniously wrought as to represent figures of men and animals upon it. it was also ornamented with the skins and beaks of wood-peckers' heads, and the hair of the white buffalo's tail. The lower half of the stem was painted red, and on its edges it bore the notches he had recorded for the snows (or years) of his life.

His Robe was made of the skin of a young buffalo bull, with the fur on one side, and the other finely and delicately dressed; with all the battles of his life emblazoned on it by his own hand.

His Belt, which was of a substantial piece of buckskin, was firmly girded around His waist; and in it were worn his tomahawk and scalping-knife.

His Medicine-bag was the skin of a beaver, curiously ornamented with hawks' bills and ermine. It was held in his right hand, and his po-ko-moKon (or war-club) which was made of a round stone, tied up in a piece of rawhide, and attached to the end of a stick, somewhat in the form of a sling, was laid with others of his weapons at his feet.

Such was the dress of Mah-to-toh-pa when he entered my wigwam to stand for his picture; but such I have not entirely represented it in his portrait; having rejected such trappings and ornaments as interfered with the grace and simplicity of the figure. He was beautifully and extravagantly dressed; and in this he was not alone, for hundreds of others are equally elegant. In plumes, and arms, and ornaments, he is not singular; but in laurels and wreaths he stands unparalleled. His breast has been bared and scarred in defence of his country, and his brews crowned witli honours that elevate him conspicuous above all of his nation. There is no man amongst the Mandans so generally loved, nor any one who wears a robe so justly famed and honourable as that of Mah-to-toh-pa.

I said his robe was of the skin of a young buffalo bull, and that the battles of his life were emblazoned on it; and on a former occasion, that he presented me a beautiful robe, containing all the battles of his life, which he had spent two weeks' time in copying from his original one, which he wore on his shoulders.

This robe, with his tracings on it, is the chart of his military life; and when explained, will tell more of Mah-to-toh-pa.

Some days after this robe was presented, he called upon me with Mr. Kipp, the trader and interpreter for the Mandans, and gave me of each battle there pourtrayed the following history, which was interpreted by Mr. Kipp, from his own lips, and written down by me, as we three sat upon the robe. Mr. Kipp, who is a gentleman of respectability and truth ; and who has lived with these people ten years, assured me, that nearly every one of these narrations were of events that had happened whilst he had lived with them, and had been familiarly known to him; and that every word that he asserted was true.

And again, reader, in this country where, of all countries I ever was in, men are the most jealous of rank and of standing: and in a community so small also, that every man's deeds of honour and chivalry are farniliarly known to all; it would not be reputable, or even safe to life, for a warrior to wear upon his back the representations of battles he never had fought; professing to have done what every child in the village would know he never had done.

So then I take the records of battles on the robe of Mah-to-toh-pa to be matter of historical fact ; and I proceed to give them as I wrote them down from his own lips. Twelve battle-scenes are there represented, where he has contended with his enemy, and in which he has taken fourteen of their scalps. The groups are drawn according to his own rude ideas of the arts; and I proceed to describe them in turn, as they were explained to me.


I. Mah-to-toh-pa kills a Sioux chief -- the three heads represent the three Riccarees, whom the Sioux chief had previously killed. The Sioux chief is seen with war-paint black on his face. Mah-to-toh-pa is seen with the scalp of the Sioux in one hand, and his knife in the other, with his bow and quiver lying behind him.'

2. A Shienne chief, who sent word to Mah-to-toh-pa that he wished to fight him -- was killed by Mah-to-toh-pa with a lance, in presence of a large party of Mandans and Shiennes. Mah-to-toh-pa is here known by his lance with eagles' quills on it.

3. A Shienne killed by Mah-to-toh-pa after Mah-to-toh-pa had been left by his party, badly wounded and bleeding; the twenty-five or thirty foottracks around, represent the number of Shiennes, who were present when the battle took place; and the bullets from their guns represented as flying all around the head of Mah-to-toh-pa.

4. Shienne chief with war-eagle head-dress, and a beautiful shield, ornamented with eagles' quills, killed by Mah-to-toh-pa. In this battle the wife of the Shienne rushed forward in a desperate manner to his assistance; but arriving too late, fell a victim. In this battle Mah-to-toh-pa obtained two scalps.

5. Mah-to-toh-pa, with a party of Riccarees, fired at by a party of Sioux; the Riccarees fled -- Mah-to-toh-pa dismounted and drove his horse back, facing the enemy alone and killing one of them. Mah-to-toh-pa is here represented with a beautiful head-dress of war-eagles' quills, and one on his horse's head of equal beauty; his shield is on his arm, and the party of Sioux is represented in front of him by the number of horse tracks.

6. The brother of Mah-to-toh-pa killed by a Riccaree, who shot him with an arrow, and then running a lance through his body, left it there. Mah-to-toh-pa was the first to find his brother's body with the lance in it: he drew the lance from the body, kept it four years with the blood dried on its blade, and then, according to his oath, killed the same Riccaree with the same lance; the dead body of his brother is here seen with the arrow and lance remaining in it, and the tracks of the Riccaree's horses in front.

The following was, perhaps, one ofthe most extraordinary exploits of this remarkable man's life, and is well attested by Mr. Kipp, and several white men, who were living in the Mandan village at the time of its occurrence. In a skirmish, near the Mandan village, when they were set upon by their enemies, the Riccarees, the brother of Mah-to-toh-pa was missing for several days, when Mah-to-toh-pa found the body shockingly mangled, and a handsome spear left Piercing the body through the heart. The spear was by him brought into the Mandan village, where it was recognized by many as a famous weapon belonging to a noted brave of the Riccarees, by the name of Won-ga-tap. This spear was brandished through the Mandan village by Mah-to-toh-pa jwith the blood of his brother dried on its blade), crying most piteously, and swearing that he would some day revenge the death of his brother with the same weapon.

It is almost an incredible fact, that he kept this spear with great care in his wigwam for the space of four years, in the fruitless expectation of an opportunity to use it upon the breast of its owner; when his indignant soul, impatient of further delay, hurst forth in the most uncontroulable frenzy and fury; he again brandished it through the village, and said, that the blood of his brother's heart which was seen on its blade was yet fresh, and called loudly for revenge. "Let every Mandan (said he) be silent, and let no one sound the name of Mah-to-toh-pa--let no one ask for him, nor where he has gone, until you hei\r him sound the war-cry in front of the village, when he will enter it and shew you the blood of Won-ga-tap. The blade of this lance shall drink the heart's blood of Won-ga-tap, or Mah-to-toh-pa mingles his shadow with that of his brother."

With this he sallied forth from the village, and over the plains, with the lance in his hand: his direction was towards the Riccaree village, and all eyes were upon him, though none dared to speak till he disappeared over the distant grassy bluff's. He travelled the distance of two hundred miles entirely alone, with a little parched corn in his pouch, making his marches by night, and laying secreted by days, until he reached. the Riccaree village; where (being acquainted with its shapes and its habits, and knowing the position of the wigwam of his doomed enemy) he loitered about in disguise, mingling himself in the obscure throng; and at last, silently and alone, observed through the rents of the wigwam, the last motions and movements of his victim, as he retired to bed with his wife: he saw him light his last pipe and smoke it "to its end" be saw the last whiff, and saw the last curl of blue smoke that faintly steeped from its bowl -- he saw the village awhile in darkness and silence, and the embers that were covered in the middle of the wigwam gone nearly out, and the last flickering light which had been gently playing over them; when he walked softly, but not slyly, into the wigwam and seated himself by the fire, over which was hanging a large poi, with a quantity of cooked meat remaining in it; and by the side of the firP, the pipe and tobacco-pouch which had just been used; and knowing that the twilight of the wigwam was not sufficient to disclose the features of his face to his enemy, he very deliberately turned to the pot and completely satiated the desperate appetite, which he had got in a journey of six or seven days, with little or nothing to eat; and then, as deliberately, charged and lighted the pipe, and sent (no doubt, in every whiff that he drew through its stem) a prayer to the Great Spirit for a moment longer for the consummation of his design. Whilst eating and smoking, the wife of His victim, while laying in bed, several times enquired of her husband, what man it was who was eating in their lodge? To which, he as many times replied, "It's no matter; let him eat, for he is probably hungry."

Mah-to-toh-pa knew full well that his appearance would cause no other reply than this, from the dignitary of the nation; for, from an invariable custom amongst these Northern Indians, any one who is hungry is allowetl to walk into any man's lodge and eat. Whilst smoking his last gentle and tremulous whiffs on the pipe, Mah-to-toh-pa (leaning back, and turning gradually on his side, to get a better view of the position of his enemy, and to see a little more distinctly the shapes of things) stirred the ernbers with his toes (readers, I had every word of this from his own lips, and every attitude and gesture acted out wid his own limbs), until he saw his way was clear; at which moment, with his lance in his hands, he rose anti drove it through the body of his enemy, and snatching the scalp from his head, he darted from the lodge -- and quick as lightning, with the lance in one hand, and the scalp in the other, made his way to the prairie! The village was in an uproar, but he was off, and no one knew the enemy wile had struck the blow. Mah-to-toh-pa ran all niglrt, and lay close during the days; thanking the Great Spirit for strengthening his heart and His arm to this noble revenge; and prayed fervently for a continuance of his aid and protection till he should get back to his own village. His prayers were heard; and on the sixth morning, at sunrise, Mah-to-toh-pa descended the bluffs, and entered the village amidst deafening shouts of applause, while he brandished and sherved to his people the blade of his lance, with the blood of his victim dried upon it, over that of his brother; and the scalp of Won-ga-tap suspended from its handle.

Such was the feat represented by Mah-to-toh-pa on his robe -- and the lance, of which I have just spoken, is seen in the hand of his portrait, which will stand in my Gallery, and of which I have thus formerly spoken:- "The lance or spear of Mah-to-toh-pa, when he stood for his portrait, was held in his left hand ; its blade was two-edged, and of polished steel, and the blood of several human victims was seen dried upon its surface, one over the other; its shaft was of the toughest ash, and ornamented at intervals with tufts of war-eagle's quills."

In the portrait, of which I am speaking, there will be seen an eagle's quillbalanced on the hilt of the lance, severed from its original position, and loose from the weapon. When I painted his portrait, he brought that quill to my wigwam in his left hand, and carefully balancing it on the lance;he desired me to be very exact with it, to have it appear as separate from, and unconnected with, the lance; and to represent a spot of blood which was visible upon it. I indulged him in his request, and then got from him the following explanation: -- "That quill (said he) is great medicine ! it belongs to the Great Spirit, and not to me -- when I was running out of the lodge of Won-ga-tap, I looked back and saw that quill hanging to the wound in his side; I ran back, and pulling it out, brought it home in my left hand, and I have kept it for the Great Spirit to this day !" "Why do you not then tie it on to the lance again, where it came off?"

"Husk-sh (said he), if the Great Spirit had wislred it to be tied on in that place, it never would have come off; he has been kind to me, and I will not offend him."

7. A Riccaree killed by Mah-to-toh-pa in revenge of the death of a white man killed by a Riccaree in the For Traders' Fort, a short time previous.

8. Mah-to-toh-pa, or four bears, kills a Shienne chief, who challenged him to single combat, in presence of the two war-parties; they fought on horseback with guns, until Mah-to-toh-pa's powder-horn was shot away ; they tlien fought with bows and arrows, until their quivers were emptied, when they dismounted and fougnt single-hauded. The Shienne drew his knife, and Mah-to-toh-pa had left his; they struggled for the knife, which Mah-to-toh-pa wrested from the Shienne, an'd killed him with it; in the struggle, the blade of the knife was several times drawn through the hand of Mah-to-tohpa, and the blood is seen running from the wound.

This extraordinary occurrence also, was one which admits of, and deserves a more elaborate description, which I will here give as it was translated from his own lips, while he sat upon the robe, pointing to his painting of it; and at the same time brandishing the identical knife which he drew from his belt, as he was shewing how the fatal blow was given; and exhibiting the wounds inflicted in his hand, as the blade of the knife was several times drawn through it before he wrested it from his'antagonist.

A party of about I50 Shienne warriors had made an assault upon the Mandan village at an early hour in the morning, and driven off a considerable number of horses, and taken one scalp. Mah-to-toh-pa, who was then a young man, but famed as one of the most valiant of the Mandans, took the lead of a party of fifty warriors, all he could at that time muster, and went in pursuit of the enemy; about noon of the second day, they came in sight of the Shiennes; and the Mandans seeing their enemy much more numerous than they had expected, were generally disposed to turn about and return without attacking them. They started to go back, when Mah-to-toh-pa galloped out in front upon the prairie, and plunged his lance into the ground; the blade was driven into the earth to its hilt--he made another circuit around, and in that circuit tore from his breast his reddened sash, which he hung upon its handle as a flag, calling out to the Mandans, "What! have we come to this? we have dogged our enemy two days, and now when we have found them, are we to turn about and go back like cowards? Mah-to-toh-pa's lance, which is red with the blood of brave men, has led you to the sight of your enemy, and you have followed it; it now stands firm in the ground, where the earth will drink the blood of Mahto-toh-pa ! you may all go back, and Mah-to-toh-pa will fight them alone!" During this manoeuvre, the Shiennes, who had discovered the Mandans behind them, had turned about and were gradually approaching, in order to give them battle: the chief of the Shienne war-party seeing and understanding the difficulty, and admiring the gallant conduct of Mah-to-toh-pa, galloped his horse forward within hailing distance, in front of the Mandans, and called out to know " who he was who had stuck down his lance anct defied the whole enemy alone?"

"I am Mah-to-toh-pa, second in command of the brave and valiant Mandans."

"I have heard often of Mah-to-toh-pa, he is a great warrior -- dares Mah-to-toh-pa to come forward and fight this battle with me alone, and our warriors will look on?"

"Is he a chief who speaks to Mah-to-toll-pa?"

"My scalps you see hanging to my horse's bits, and here is my lance

with the ermine skins and the war-eagle's tail!"

"You have said enough."

The Shienne chief made a circuit or two at full gallop on a beautiful white horse, when he struck his lance into the ground, and left it standing by the side of the lance of Mah-to-toh-pa, both of which were waving together their little red flags, tokens of blood and defiance.

The two parties then drew nearer, on a beautiful prairie, and the two fullplumed chiefs, at full speed, drove furiously upon each other ! both firing their guns at the same moment. They passed each other a little distance and wheeled, when Mah-to-toh-pa drew off his powder-horn, and by holding it up, shewed his adversary that the bullet had shattered it to Pieces and destroyed his ammunition; he then threw it from him, and his gun also-drew his bow from his quiver, and an arrow, and his shield upon his left arm! The Shienne instantly did the same; his horn was thrown off, and his gun was thrown into the air -- his shield was balanced on his arm-his bow drawn, and quick as lightning, they were both on the wing for a deadly combat! Like two soaring eagles in the open air, they made their circuits around, and the twangs of their sinewy bows were heard, and the war-whoop, as they dashed by each other, parrying off the whizzing arrows with their shields! Some lodged in their legs and others in their arms; but both protected their bodies with their bucklers of bull's hide. Deadly and many were the shafts that fled from their murderous bows. At length the horse of Mah-to-toh-pa fell to the ground with an arrow in his heart I his rider sprang upon his feet prepared to renew the combat; but the Shienne, seeing his adversary dismounted, sprang from his horse, and driving him back, presented the face of his shield towards his enemy, inviting him to come on --a few shots more were exchanged thus, when the Shienne, having discharged all his arrows, held up his empty quiver and dashing it furiously to the ground, with his bow and his shield; drew and brandished his naked knife!

"Yesl" said Mah-to-toh-pa, as he threw his shield and quiver to the earth, and was rushing up-he grasped for his knife, but his belt had it not; he had left it at home! His bow was in his hand, with which he parried his antagonist's blow and felled him to the ground! A desperate struggle now ensued for the knife -- the blade of it was several times drawn through the right hand of Mah-to-toh-pa, inflicting the most frightful wounds,while he was severely wounded in several parts of the body. He at length succeeded however, in wresting it from his adversary's hand, and plunged it to his heart.

By this time the two Parties had drawn up in close view of each other, and at the close of the battle, Mah-to-toh-pa held up, and claimed in deadly silence, the knife and scalp of the noble Shienne chief.

9. Several hundred Minatarrees and Mandans attacked by a party of Assinneboins-all fled but Mah-to-toh-pa, who stood his ground, fired, and killed one of the enemy, putting the rest of them to flight, and driving off sixty horses ! He is here seen with his lance and shield -- foot-tracks of his enemy in front, and his own party's horse-tracks behind him, and a shower of bullets flying around his head; here he got the name of " the four hears," as the Assinneboins said he rushed on like four bears.

I0. Mah-to-toh-pa gets from his horse and kills two Ojibbeway women, and takes their scalps; done by the side of an Ojibbeway village, where they went to the river for water. He is here seen with his lance in one hand and his knife in the other--an eagle's plume head-dress on his horse, and his shield left on his horse's back. I incurred his ill-will for awhile by asking him, whether it was manly to boast of taking the scalps of women? and his pride prevented him from giving me any explanation or apology. The interpreter, however, explained to me that he had secreted himself in the most daring manner, in full sight of the Ojibbeway village, seeking to revenge a murder, where he remained six days without sustenance, and then killed the two women in full view of the tribe, and made his escape, which entitled him to the credit of a victory, though his victims were women.

A large party of Assinneboins entrenched near the Mandan village attacked by the Mandans and Minatarrees, who were driven back -- Mahto-toh-pa rushes into the entrenchment alone -- an Indian fires at him and burns his face with the muzzle of his gun, which burst -- the Indian retreats, leaving his exploded gun, and Mah-to-toh-pa shoots him through the shoulders as he runs, and kills him with his tomahawk; the gun of the Assinneboin is seen falling to the ground, and in front of him the heads of the Assinneboins in the entrenchment; the horse of Mah-to-toh-pa is seen behind him.

Mah-to-toh-pa between his enemy the Sioux, and his own people, with an arrow shot through him, after standing the fire of the Sioux for a long time alone. In this battle he took no scalps, yet his valeur was so extraordinary that the chiefs and braves awarded him the honour of a victory.

This feat is seen in the centre of the robe -- head-dress of war-eagles' quills on his own and his horse's head -- the tracks of his enemies' horses are seen in front of him, and bullets flying both ways all around him. With his whip in his hand, he is seen urging his horse forward, and an arrow is seen flying, and bloody, as it has passed through his body. For this wound, and the several others mentioned above, he bears the honourable scars on his body, which he generally keeps covered with red paint.

Such are the battles traced upon the robe of Mah-to-toh-pa (fear bears), interpreted by J. Kipp from the words of the hero while sitting- upon the robe, explaining each battle as represented.

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