by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER -- No. 27.


WHEN we were about to start on our way up the river from the village of the Puncahs, we found that they were packing up all their goods and preparing to start for the prairies, farther to the West, in pursuit of baffaloes, to dry meat for their winter's supplies. They took down their wigwams of skins to carry with them, and all were hat to the ground and everything packing up ready for the start. My attention was directed by Major Sanford, the Indian Agent, to one of the most miserable and helpless looking objects that I ever had seen in my life, a very aged and emaciated man of the tribe, who he told me was be exposed.

The tribe were going where hunger and dire necessity compelled them to go, and this pitiable object, who had once been a chief, and a man of distinction in his tribe, who was now too old to travel, being reduced to mere skin and bones, was to be left to starve, or meet with such death as might fall to his lot, and his bones to be picked by the wolves ! I lingered around this Poor old forsaken patriarch for hours before we started, to indulge the tears of sympathy which were flowing for the sake of this goer benighted and decrepit old man, whose worn-out limbs were no longer able to support him; their kind and faithful offices having long since been performed, and his body and his mind doomed to linger into the withering agony of decay, and gradual solitary death. I wept, and it was a pleasure to weep, for the painful looks, and the dreary prospects of this old veteran, whose eyes were dimmed, whose venerable locks were whitened by an hundred years, whose limbs were almost naked, and trembling as he sat by a small fire which his Friends had left him, with a few sticks of wood within his reach and a buffalo's skin stretched upon some crotches over his head. Such was to be his only dwelling, and such the chances for his life, with only a few half-picked bones that were laid within his reach, and a dish of water, without weapons or means of any kind to replenish them, or strength to move his body from its fatal locality. In this sad plight I mournfully contemplated this miserable remnant of existence, who had unluckily outlived the fates and accidents of wars to die alone, at death's leisure. His friends and his children had all left him, and were preparing in a little time to be on the march. He had told them to leave him, "he was old", he said, "and too feeble to march." "My children", said he. "our nation is poor, and it ·is necessary that you should all go to the country where you can get meat, -- my eyes are dimmed and my strength is no more; my days are nearly all numbered, and I am a burthen to my children -- I cannot go, and I wish to die. Keep your hearts stout, and think not of me; I am no longer good for anything." In this way they had finished the ceremony of exposing him, and taken their final leave of him. I advanced to the old man, and was undoubtedly the last human being who held converse with him. I sat by the side of him, and though he could not distinctly see me, he shook me heartily by the hand and smiled, evidently aware that I was a white man, and that I sympathized with his inevitable misfortune. I shook hands again with him, and left him, steering my course towards the steamer which was a mile or more from me, and ready to resume her voyage up the Missouri.

This cruel custom of exposing their aged people, belongs, I think, to all the tribes who roam about the prairies, making severe marches, when such decrepit persons are totally unable to go, unable to ride or to walk, -- when they have no means of carrying them. It often becomes absolutely necessary in such cases that they should be left; and they uniformly insist upon it, saying as this old man did, that they are old and of no further use -- that they left their fathers in the same manner -- that they wish to die, and their children must not mourn for them.

From the Puncah village, our steamer made regular progress from day to day towards the mouth of the Teton, from where I am now writing; passing the whole way a country of green fields, that come sloping down to the river on either side, forming the loveliest scenes in the world.

From day to day we advanced, opening our eyes to something new and more beautiful every hour that we progressed, until at last our boat was aground; and a day's work of sounding told us at last, that there was no possibility of advancing further, until here should be a rise in the river, to enable the boat to get over the bar. After laying in the middle of the river about a week, in this unpromising dilemma, Mr. Chouteau started off twenty men on foot, to cross the plains for a distance of 200 miles to Laidlaw's Fort, at the mouth of Teton river. To this expedition, I immediately attached myself; and having heard that a numerous party of Sioux were there encamped, and waiting to see the steamer, I packed on the backs, and in the hands of several of the men, such articles for painting, as I might want; canvass, paints, and brushes, with my sketch-book slung on my back, and my rifle in my hand, and I started off with them.

We took leave of our friends on the boat, and mounting the green bluffs, steered our course from day to day over a level prairie, without a tree or a bush in sight, to relieve the painful monotony, filling our canteens at the occasional little streams that we passed, kindling our fires with dried buffalo dung, which we collected on the prairie, and stretching our tired limbs on the level turf whenever we were overtaken by night.

We were six or seven days in performing this march; and it gave me a good opportunity of testing the muscles of my legs, with a number of half-breeds and Frenchmen, whose lives are mostly spent in this way, leading a novice, a cruel, and almost killing journey. Every rod of our way was over a continuous prairie, with a verdant green turf of wild grass of six or eight inches in height; and most of the way enameled with wild flowers, and filled with a profusion of strawberries.

For two or three of the first days, the scenery was monotonous, and became exceedingly painful from the fact, that we were (to use a phrase of the country) "out of sight of land", I. e. out of sight of anything rising above the horizon, which was a perfect straight line around us, like that of the blue and boundless ocean. The pedestrian over such a discouraging sea of green, without a landmark before or behind him; without a beacon to lead him on, or define his progress, feels weak and overcome when night falls; and he stretches his exhausted limbs, apparently on the same spot where he has slept the night before, with the same prospect before and behind him; the same grass, and the same wild flowers beneath and about him; the same canopy over his head, and the same cheerless sea of green to start upon in the morning. It is difficult to describe the simple beauty and serenity of these scenes of solitude, or the feelings of feeble man, whose limbs are toiling to carry him through them -- without a hill or tree to mark his progress, and convince him that he is not, like a squirrel in his cage, after all his toil, standing still. One commences on peregrinations like these, with a light heart, and a nimble foot, and spirits as buoyant as the very air that floats along by the side of him; but his spirit soon tires, and he lags on the way that is rendered more tedious and intolerable by the tantalizing mirage that opens before him beautiful lakes, and lawns, and copses; or by the looming of the prairie ahead of him, that seems to rise in a parapet, and decked with its varied flowers, phantom-like, flies and moves along before him.

I got on for a couple of days in tolerable condition, and with some considerable applause; but my half-bred. companions took the lead at length, and left me with several other novices far behind, which gave me additional pangs; and I at length felt like giving up the journey, and throwing myself upon the ground in hopeless despair. I was not alone in my misery, however, but was cheered and encouraged by looking back and beholding several of our party half a mile or more in the rear of me, jogging along, and suffering more agony in their new experiment than I was suffering myself. Their loitering and my murmurs, at length, brought our leaders to a halt, and we held a sort of council, in which I explained that the pain in my feet was so intolerable, that I felt as if I could go no further; when one of our half-breed leaders stepped up to me, and addressing me in French, told me that I must "turn my toes in" as the Indians do, and that I could then go on very well. We halted a half-hour, and took a little refreshment, whilst the little Frenchman was teaching his lesson to the rest of my fellow novices, when we took up our march again; and I soon found upon trial, that by turning my toes in, my feet went more easily through the grass; and by turning the weight of my body more equally on the toes (enabling each one to support its proportionable part of the load, instead of throwing it all on to the joints of the big toes, which is done when the toes are turned out); I soon got relief, and made my onward progress very well. I rigidly adhered to this mode, and found no difficulty on the third and fourth days, of taking the lead of the whole party, which I constantly led until our journey was completed.

On this journey we saw immense herds of buffaloes; and although we had no horses to run them, we successfully approached them on foot, and supplied ourselves abundantly with fresh meat. After travelling for several days, we, came in sight of a high range of blue hills in distance on our left, which rose to the height of several hundred feet above the level of the prairies. These hills were a conspicuous landmark at last, and some relief to us. I was told by our guide, that they were called the Bijou Hills, from a Fur Trader of that name, who had had his trading-house at the foot of them on the banks of the Missouri river, where he was at last destroyed by the Sioux Indians.

Not many miles back of this range of hills, we came in contact with an immense saline, or "salt meadow", as they are termed in this country, which turned us out of our path, and compelled us to travel several miles out of our way, to get by it; we came suddenly upon a great depression of the prairie, which extended for several miles, and as we stood upon its green banks, which were gracefully sloping down, we could overlook some hundreds of acres of the prairie which were covered with an incrustation of salt, that appeared the same as if the ground was everywhere covered with snow.

These scenes, I am told are frequently to be met with in these regions, and certainly present the most singular and startling effect, by the sudden and unexpected contrast between their snow-white appearance, and the green fields that hem them in on all sides. Through each of these meadows there is a meandering small stream which arises from salt springs, throwing out in the spring of the year great quantities of water, which flood over these meadows to the depth of three or four feet; and during the heat of summer, being exposed to the rays of the sun, entirely evaporates, leaving the incrustation of muriate on the surface, to the depth of one or two inches. These places are the constant resort of buffaloes, which congregate in thousands about them, to lick up the salt; and on approaching the banks of this place we stood amazed at the almost incredible numbers of these animals, which were in sight on the opposite banks, at the distance of a mile or two from us, where they were lying in countless numbers, on the level prairie above, and stretching down by hundreds, to lick at the salt, forming in distance, large masses of black, most pleasingly to contrast with the snow white, and the vivid green, which I have before mentioned.

After several days toil in the manner above-mentioned, all the way over soft and green fields, and amused with many pleasing incidents and accidents of the chase, we arrived, pretty well jaded, at Fort Pierre, mouth of Teton River, from whence I am now writing; where for the first time I was introduced to Mr. MCKENZIE (of whom I have before spoken), to Mr. Laidlaw, mine host, and Mr. Halsey, a chief clerk in the establishment; and after, to the head chief and dignitaries of the great Sioux nation, who were here encamped about the Fort, in six or seven hundred skin lodges, and waiting for the arrival of tire steamer, which they had heard, was on its way up the river, and which they had great curiosity to see.

After resting a few clays, and recovering from the fatigues of my journey, having taken a fair survey of the Sioux village, and explained my views to the Indians, as well as to the gentlemen whom I have above named; I commenced my operations with the brush, and first of all painted the portrait of the head-chief of the Sioux (the one horn), whom I have before spoken of. This truly noble fellow sat for his portrait, and it was finished before any one of the tribe knew anything of it; several of the chiefs and doctors .were allowed to see it, and at last it was tallied of through the village; and of course, the greater part of their numbers were at once gathered around me. Nothing short of hanging it out of doors on the side of my wigwam, would in any way answer them; and here I had the peculiar satisfaction of beholding, through a small hole I had made in my wigwam, the high admiration and respect they all felt for their chief, as well as the very great estimation in which they held me as a painter and a magician, conferring upon me at once the very distinguished appellation of Ee-cha-zoo-kah-ga-wa-kon (The Medicine Painter).

After the exhibition of this chief's picture; there was much excitement in the village about it; the doctors generally took a decided and noisy stand against the operations of my brush; haranguing the populace, and predicting bad luck, and premature death, to all who submitted to so strange and unaccountable an operation! My business for some days was entirely at a stand for want of sitters; for the doctors were opposing me with all their force; and the women and children were crying, with their hands over their mouths, making the most pitiful and doleful laments, which I never can explain to my readers; but for some just account of which, I must refer them to my friends McKinzie and Halsey, who overlooked with infinite amusement, these curious scenes and are able, no doubt, to give them with truth and effect to the world.

In this sad and perplexing dilemma, this noble chief stepped forward, and addressing himself to the chiefs and the doctors, to the braves and to the women and children, he told them to be quiet, and to treat me with friendship; that I had been travelling a great way to see them, and smoke with them; that I was great medicine, to be sure; that I was a great chief, and that I was the friend of Mr. Laidlaw and Mr. McKenzie, who had prevailed upon him to sit for his picture, and fully assured him that there was no harm in it. His speech had the desired effect, and I was shaken hands with by hundreds of their worthies, many of whom were soon dressed and ornamented. prepared to sit for their portraits.

The first who then stepped forward for his portrait was Ee-ah-sa-pa (The Black Rock) chief of the Nee-caw-wee-gee band, a fall and fine looking man, of six feet or more in stature; in a splendid dress, with his lance in his hand; with his pictured robe thrown gracefully over his shoulders, and his head-dress made of war-eagles' quills and ermine skins, falling in a beautiful crest over his back, quite down to his feet, and surmounted on the top with a pair of horns denoting him (as I have explained in former instances) head leader or war-chief of his band.

This man has been a constant and faithful friend of Mr. McKenzie and others of the Fur Traders, who held him in high estimation, both as an honourable and valiant man, and an estimable companion.

The next who sat to me was Tehan-dee, Tobacco, a desperate warrior, and represented to me by the traders, as one of the most respectable and famous chiefs of the tribe. After him sat Toh-ki-ee-to, (The Stone With Horns), Chief of the Yank-ton band, and reputed the principal and most eloquent orator of the nation. The neck, and breast, and shoulders of this man, were curiously tattooed, by pricking in gunpowder and vermilion, which in this extraordinary instance, was put on in such elaborate profusion as to appear at a little distance like a beautifully embroidered dress. In his hand he held a handsome pipe, the stem of which was several feet long, and all the way wound with ornamented braids of the porcupine quills. Around his body was wrapped a valued robe, made of the skin of the grizzly bear, and on his neck several strings of wampum, an ornament seldom seen amongst the Indians in the Far West and the North. I was much amused with the excessive vanity and egotism of this notorious man, who, whilst sitting for his picture, took occasion to have the interpreter constantly explaining to me the wonderful effects which his oratory had at different times produced on the minds of the chiefs and people of his tribe.

He told me, that it was a very easy thing for him to set all the women of the tribe to crying: and that all the chief listened profoundly to his voice before they went to war; and at last, summed up by saying, that he was "the greatest orator in the Sioux nation", by which he undoubtedly meant the greatest in the world.

Besides these distingues of this great and powerful tribe, I painted in regular succession, according to their rank and standing, Wan-ee-ton, chief of the Susseton band; Tah-zee-kah-da-cha (The Torn Belly), a brave of the Yancton band; Ka-pes-ka-day (The Shell), a brave of the O-gla-la band; Wuk-mi-ser (Corn), a warrior of the Nee-cow-ee-gee band; Cha-tee-wah-nee-chee (No Heart), chief of the Wah-nee-watch-to-nee-nah band; Mah-to-ra-rish-nee-eeh-ee-rah (The Grizzly Bear That Runs Without Regard), a brave of the Onc-pa-pa band; Mah-to-chee-ga (The Little Bear), a distinguished brave; Shon-ka (The Dog), chief of the Ca-za-zhee-ta (bad arrow points) band; Tah-teck-a-da-hair (The Steep Wind), a brave of the same band; Hah-ha-ra-pah (The Elk's Head), chief of the Ee-ta-sip-shov band ; Mah-to-een-nah-pa (The White Bear That Goes Out), chief of the Blackfoot Sioux band; Shon-ga-ton-ga-chesh-en-day (The Horse Dung), chief of a band, a great conjuror and magician.

The portraits of all the above dignitaries can be always seen, as large as life, in my very numerous Collection, provided I get them safe home; and also the portraits of two very pretty Sioux women. Wi-looh-tah-eeh-tehah-ta-mah-nee (The Red Thing That Touches In Marching), and, Tehon-su-mons-ka (The Sand Bar). The first of these women, is the daughter of the famous chief called Black Rock, of whom I have spoken, and whose portrait has been given. She is an unmarried girl, and much esteemed by the whole tribe, for her modesty, as well as beauty. She was beautifully dressed in skins, ornamented profusely with brass buttons and beads. Her hair was plaited, her ears supported a great profusion of curious beads -- and over her other dress she wore a handsomely garnished buffalo robe.

So highly was the Black Rock esteemed (as I have before mentioned), and his beautiful daughter admired and respected by the Traders, that Mr. MCKENZIE employed me to make him copies of their two portraits, which he has hung up in Mr. Laidlaw's trading-house, as valued ornaments and keepsakes.

The second of these women was very richly dressed, the upper part of her garment being almost literally covered with brass buttons; and her hair, which was inimitably beautiful and soft, and glossy as silk; fell over her shoulders in great profusion, and in beautiful waves, produced by the condition in which it is generally kept in braids, giving to it, when combed out, a waving form, adding much to its native appearance, which is invariably straight and graceless.

This woman is at present the wife of a white man by the name of Chardon, a Frenchman, who has been many years in the employment of the American Fur Company, in the character of a Trader and Interpreter; and who by his bold and dating nature, has not only carried dread and consternation amongst the Indian tribes wherever he has gone; but has commanded much respect, and rendered essential service to the Company in the prosecution of their dangerous and critical dealings with the Indian tribes. I have said something of this extraordinary man heretofore, and shall take future occasion to say more of him. For the present, suffice it to say, that although from his continual intercourse with the different tribes for twenty-five or thirty years, where he had always been put forward in the front of danger--sent as a sacrifice, or forlorn hope; still his cut and hacked limbs have withstood all the blows that have been aimed at them; and his unfaltering courage leads him to "beard the lion in his den", whilst his liberal heart, as it always has, deals out to his friends (and even to strangers, if friends are not by) all the dear earnings which are continually bought with severest toil, and at the hazard of his life.

I acknowledge myself a debtor to this good hearted fellow for much kindness and attention to me whilst in the Indian country, and also for a superb dress and robe, which had been manufactured and worn by his wife, and which he insisted on adding to my Indian GALLERY since her death, where it will long remain to be examined.

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