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Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER—No. 52.


Soon after the date of my last Letter, written at St. Peters, having placed my wife on board of the steamer, with a party of ladies, for Prairie du Chien, I embarked in a light bark canoe, on my homeward course, with only one companion, Corporal Allen, from the garrison; a young man of considerable taste, who thought he could relish the transient scenes of a voyage in company with a painter, having gained the indulgence of Major Bliss, the commanding officer, with permission to accompany me.

With stores laid in for a ten days' voyage, and armed for any emergency—with sketch-book and colours prepared, we shoved off and swiftly glided away with paddles nimbly plied, resolved to see and relish everything curious or beautiful that fell in our way. We lingered along, among the scenes of grandeur which presented themselves amid the thousand bluffs, and arrived at Prairie du Chien in about ten days, in good plight, without accident or incident of a thrilling nature, with the exception of one instance which happened about thirty miles below St. Peters, and on the first day of our journey. In the after part of the day, we discovered three lodges of Sioux Indians encamped on the bank, all hallooing and waving their blankets for us to come in, to the shore. We had no business with them, and resolved to keep on our course, when one of them ran into his lodge, and coming out with his gun in his hand, levelled it at us, and gave us a charge of buck-shot about our ears. One of them struck in my canoe, passing through several folds of my cloak, which was folded, and lying just in front of my knee, and several others struck so near on each side as to spatter the water into our faces. There was no fun in this, and I then ran my canoe to the shore as fast as possible—they all ran, men, women, and children, to the water's edge, meeting us with yells and laughter as we landed. As the canoe struck the shore, I rose violently from my seat, and throwing all the infuriated demon I could into my face-thrusting my pistols into my belt—a half dozen bullets into my mouth—and my double-barrelled gun in my hand—I leaped ashore and chased the lot of them from the beach, throwing myself, by a nearer route, between them and their wigwams, where I kept them for some time at a stand, with my barrels presented, and threats (corroborated with looks which they could not misunderstand) that I would annihilate the whole of them in a minute. As the gun had been returned to the lodge, and the man who fired it could not be identified, the rascal's life was thereby probably prolonged. We stood for some time in this position, and no explanation could be made, other than that which could be read from the lip and the brow, a language which is the same, and read alike, among all nations. I slipped my sketch-book and pencil into my hand, and under the muzzle of my gun, each fellow stood for his likeness, which I made them understand, by signs, were to be sent to "Muzzabucksa" (iron cutter), the name they gave to Major Talliafferro, their agent at St. Peters.

This threat, and the continued vociferation of the corporal from the canoe, that I was a "Grande Capitaine," seemed considerably to alarm them. I at length gradually drew myself off, but with a lingering eye upon the sneaking rascals, who stood in sullen silence, with one eye upon me, and the other upon the corporal; who I found had held them at bay from the bow of his canoe, with his musket levelled upon them—his bayonet fixed—his cartouch box slung, with one eye in full blaze over the barrel, and the other drawn down within two parts of an inch of the upper corner of his mouth. At my approach his muscles were gradually (but somewhat reluctantly) relaxed. We seated ourselves, and quietly dipped our paddles again on our way.

Some allowance must be made for this outrage, and many others that could be named, that have taken place amongst that part of the Sioux nation; they have been for many years past made drunkards, by the solicitations of white men, and then abused and their families also; for which, when they are drunk (as in the present instance), they are often ready, and disposed to retaliate and to return insult for injuries.

We went on peaceably and pleasantly during the rest of our voyage having ducks, deer, and bass for our game and our food; our bed was generally on the grass at the foot of some towering bluff, where, in the melancholy stillness of night, we were lulled to sleep by the liquid notes of the whip-poor-will; and after his warbling ceased, roused by the mournful complaints of the starving wolf, or surprised by the startling interrogation, "who! who! who!" by the winged monarch of the dark.

There is a something that fills and feeds the mind of an enthusiastic man, when he is thrown upon natural resources, amidst the rude untouched scenes of nature, which cannot be described; and I leave the world to imagine the feelings of pleasure with which I found myself again out of the din of artful life, among scenes of grandeur worthy the whole soul's devotion, and admiration.

When the morning's dew was shaken off, our coffee enjoyed—our light bark again launched upon the water, and the chill of the morning banished by the quick stroke of the paddle, and the busy chaunt of the corporal's boat-song, our ears and our eyes were open to the rude scenes of romance that were about us—our light boat ran to every ledge—dodged into every slough or cut-off to be seen—every mineral was examined—every cave explored—and almost every bluff of grandeur ascended to the top. These towering edifices of nature, which will stand the admiration of thousands and tens of thousands, unchanged and unchangeable, though grand and majestic to the eye of the passing traveller, will be found to inspire new ideas of magnitude when attempted to be travelled to the top. From the tops of many of them I have sketched for the information of the world, and for the benefit of those who travel much, I would recommend a trip to the summit of "Pike's Tent" (the highest bluff on the river), 100 miles above Prairie du Chien; to the top also of "La Montaigne qui tromps a l'eau"—the summit of Bad Axe Mountain—and a look over Lake Pepin's turretted shores from the top of the bluff opposite to the "Lover's Leap," being the highest on the lake, and the point from which the greater part of its shores can be seen.

Along the shores of this beautiful lake we lingered for several days, and our canoe was hauled a hundred times upon the pebbly beach, where we spent hours and days, robbing it of its precious gems, which are thrown tip by the waves. We found many rich agates, carnelians, jaspers, and porphyrys. The agates are many of them peculiarly beautiful, most of them water-waved—their colours brilliant and beautifully striated. "Point aux Sables" has been considered the most productive part of the lake for these gems; but owing to the frequent landings of the steam-boats and other craft on that point, the best specimens of them have been picked up; and the traveller will now be best remunerated for his trouble, by tracing the shore around into some of its coves, or on some of its points less frequented by the footsteps of man.

The Lover's Leap, is a bold and projecting rock, of six or seven hundred feet elevation on the East side of the lake, from the summit of which, it is said, a beautiful Indian girl, the daughter of a chief, threw herself off in presence of her tribe, some fifty years ago, and dashed herself to pieces, to avoid being married to a man whom her father had decided to be her husband, and whom she would not marry. On our way, after we had left the beautiful shores of Lake Pepin, we passed the magnificent bluff called "Pike's Tent," and undoubtedly, the highest eminence on the river, running up in the form of a tent; from which circumstance, and that of having first been ascended by Lieutenant Pike, it has taken the name of Pike's Tent, which it will, doubtless, for ever retain.

The corporal and I run our little craft to the base of this stupendous pyramid, and spent half a day about its sides and its pinnacle, admiring the lovely and almost boundless landscape that lies beneath it.

To the top of this grass-covered mound I would advise every traveller in the country, who has the leisure to do it, and sinew enough in his leg, to stroll awhile, and enjoy what it may be difficult for him to see elsewhere.

"Cap au l'ail" (Garlic Cape), about twenty miles above Prairie du Chien is another beautiful scene—and the "Cornice Rocks," on the West bank, where my little bark rested two days, till the corporal and I had taken bass from every nook and eddy about them, where our hooks could be dipped. To the lover of fine fish, and fine sport in fishing, I would recommend an encampment for a few days on this picturesque ledge, where his appetite and his passion will be soon gratified.

Besides these picturesque scenes, I made drawings also of all the Indian villages on the way, and of many other interesting points, which are curious in my Collection, but too numerous to introduce in this place.

In the midst, or half-way of Lake Pepin, which is an expansion of the river of four or five miles in width, and twenty-five miles in length, the corporal and I hauled our canoe out upon the beach of Point aux Sables, where we spent a couple of days, feasting on plums and fine fish and wild fowl, and filling our pockets with agates and carnelions we were picking, up along the pebbly beach; and at last, started on our way for the outlet of the lake, with a fair North West wind, which wafted us along in a delightful manner, as I sat in the stern and steered, while the corporal was "catching the breeze" in a large umbrella, which he spread open and held in the bow. We went merrily and exultingly on in this manner, until at length the wind increased to anything but a gale; and the waves were foaming white, and dashing on the shores where we could not land without our frail bark being broken to pieces. We soon became alarmed, and saw that our only safety was in keeping on the course that we were running at a rapid rate, and that with our sail full set, to brace up and steady our boat on the waves, while we kept within swimming distance of the shore, resolved to run into the first cove, or around the first point we could find for our protection. We kept at an equal distance from the shore—and in this most critical condition, the wind drove us ten or fifteen miles, without a landing-place, till we exultingly steered into the mouth of the Chippeway river, at the outlet of the lake, where we soon found quiet and safety; but found our canoe in a sinking condition, being half full of water and having three of the five of her beams or braces broken out, with which serious disasters, a few rods more of the fuss and confusion would have sent us to the bottom. We here laid by part of a day, and having repaired our disasters, wended our way again pleasantly and successfully on.

At Prairie du Chien, which is near the mouth of the Ouisconsin River, and 600 miles above St. Louis, where we safely landed my canoe, I found my wife enjoying the hospitality of Mrs. Judge Lockwood, who had been a schoolmate of mine in our childhood, and is now residing with her interesting family in that place. Under her hospitable roof we spent a few weeks with great satisfaction, after which my wife took steamer for Dubuque, and I took to my little bark canoe alone (having taken leave of the corporal),—which I paddled to this place, quite leisurely—cooking my own meat, and having my own fun as I passed along.

Prairie du Chien has been one of the earliest and principal trading posts of the Fur Company, and they now have a large establishment at that place; but doing far less business than formerly, owing to the great mortality of the Indians in its vicinity, and the destruction of the game, which has almost entirely disappeared in these regions. The prairie is a beautiful elevation above the river, of several miles in length, and a mile or so in width, with a most picturesque range of grassy bluffs encompassing it in the rear. The Government have erected there a substantial Fort, in which are generally stationed three or four companies of men, for the purpose (as at the Fall of St. Anthony) of keeping the peace amongst the hostile tribes, and also of protecting the frontier inhabitants from the attacks of the excited savages. There are on the prairie some forty or fifty families, mostly French, and some half-breeds, whose lives have been chiefly spent in the arduous and hazardous occupations of trappers, and traders, and voyageurs; which has well qualified them for the modes of dealing with Indians, where they have settled down and stand ready to compete with one another for their shares of annuities, &c. which are dealt out to the different tribes who concentrate at that place, and are easily drawn from the poor Indians' bands by whiskey and useless gew-gaws.

The consequence of this system is, that there is about that place, almost one continual scene of wretchedness, and drunkenness, and disease amongst the Indians, who come there to trade and to receive their annuities, that disgusts and sickens the heart of every stranger that extends his travels to it.

When I was there, Wa-be-sha's band of the Sioux came there, and remained several weeks to get their annuities, which, when they received them, fell (as they always will do), far short of paying off the account, which the Traders take good care to have standing against them for goods furnished them on a year's credit. However, whether they pay off or not, they can always get whiskey enough for a grand carouse and a brawl, which lasts for a week or two, and almost sure to terminate the lives of some of their numbers.

At the end of one of these a few days since, after the men had enjoyed their surfeit of whiskey, and wanted a little more amusement, and felt dis-posed to indulge the weaker sex in a little recreation also; it was announced amongst them, and through the village, that the women were going to have a ball-play!

For this purpose the men, in their very liberal trades they were making and filling their canoes with goods delivered to them on a year's credit, laid out a great quantity of ribbons and calicoes, with other presents well adapted to the wants and desires of the women; which were hung on a pole resting on crotches, and guarded by an old man, who was to be judge and umpire of the play which was to take place amongst the women, who were divided into two equal parties, and were to play a desperate game of ball, for the valuable stakes that were banging before them.

In the ball-play of the women, they have two balls attached to the ends of a string, about a foot and a half long, and each woman has a short stick in each hand, on which she catches the string with the two balls, and throws them, endeavouring to force them over the goal of her own party. The men are more than half drunk, when they feel liberal enough to indulge the women in such an amusement; and take infinite pleasure in rolling about on the ground and laughing to excess, whilst the women are tumbling about in all attitudes, and scuffling for the ball. The game of "hunt the slipper," even, loses its zest after witnessing one of these, which sometimes last for hours together; and often exhibits the hottest contest for the balls, exactly over the beads of the men; who, half from whiskey, and half from inclination, are laying in groups and flat upon the ground.

Prairie du Chien is the concentrating place of the Winnebagoes and Menomonies, who inhabit the waters of the Ouisconsin and Fox Rivers, and the chief part of the country lying East of the Mississippi, and West of Green Bay.

The Winnebagoes are the remnant of a once powerful and warlike tribe, but are now left in a country where they have neither beasts or men to war with; and are in a most miserable and impoverished condition. The numbers of this tribe do not exceed four thousand; and the most of them have sold even their guns and ammunition for whiskey. Like the Sioux and Menomonies that come in to this post, they have several times suffered severely with the small-pox, which has in fact destroyed the greater proportion of them.

The reader will see the portrait of an old chief, who died a few years since; and who was for many years the head chief of the tribe, by the name of Naw-kaw (wood). This man has been much distinguished in his time, for his eloquence; and he desired me to paint him in the attitude of an orator, addressing his people.

Also shown is a distinguished man of the Winnebago tribe, by the name of Wah-chee-hahs-ka (the man who puts all out of doors), commonly called the "boxer." The largest man of the tribe, with rattle-snakes' skins on his arms, and his war-club in his hand. (1)

The reader will also see a warrior, Kaw-haw-ne-choo-a; and another, Wa-kon-zee-kaw (the snake), both at full length; and fair specimens of the tribe, who are generally a rather short and thick-set, square shouldered set of men, of great strength, and of decided character as brave and desperate in war.

Besides the chief and warriors above-named, I painted the portraits of Won-de-tow-a (the wonder), Wa-kon-chash-kaw (he who comes on the thunder), Nau-naw-pay-ee (the soldier), Span-e-o-nee-kaw (the Spaniard) Hoo-wan-ee-kaw (the little elk), No-ah-choo-she-kaw (he who breaks the bushes), and Naugh-haigh-ke-kaw (he who moistens the wood), all distinguished men of the tribe; and all at full length, as they will be seen standing in my Collection.


Like the Winnebagoes, are the remnant of a much more numerous and independent tribe, but have been reduced and enervated by the use of whiskey and the ravages of the small-pox, and number at this time, something like three thousand, living chiefly on the banks of Fox River, and the Western shore of Green Bay. They visit Prairie du Chien, where their annuities are paid them; and they indulge in the bane, like the tribes that I have mentioned.

Of this tribe, I have painted quite a number of their leading characters, and at the head of them all, Mah-kee-me-teuv (the grizzly bear), with a handsome pipe in his band; and by the side of him his wife Mecheet-e-neuh (the wounded bear's shoulder). Both of these have died since their portraits were painted. This dignified chief led a delegation of fifteen of his people to Washington City, some years since, and there commanded great respect for his eloquence, and dignity of deportment.

Also shown is the portrait of Chee-me-na-na-quet (the great cloud), son of the chief—an ill-natured and insolent fellow who has since been killed for some of his murderous deeds. Another is the portrait of a fine boy, whose name is Tcha-kauks-o-ko-maugh (the great chief). This tribe living out of the reach of buffaloes, cover themselves with blankets, instead of robes, and wear a profusion of beads and wampum, and other trinkets.

Another picture is of Coo-coo-coo (the owl), a very aged and emaciated chief, whom I painted at Green Bay, in Fort Howard. He had been a distinguished man, but now in his dotage, being more than 100 years old and a great pet of the surgeon and officers of the post.

Yet another picture shows two Menominee youths at full length, in beautiful dresses, whose names I did not get—one with his war-club in his hand, and the other blowing on his "courting flute," which I have before described.

In addition to these I have painted of this tribe, and placed in my Collection, the portraits of Ko-man-i-kin-o-shaw (the little whale); Sha-wa-no (the South); Mash-kee-wet (the thought); Pah-shee-nau-shaw (—); Au-nah-quet-o-hau-pay-o (the one sitting in the clouds); Auh-ka-na-paw-wah (earth standing); Ko-man-ni-kin (the big wave); 0-ho-pa-sha (the small whoop); Au-wah-shew-kew (the female bear); and Chesh-ko-tong (he who sings the war-song).

It will be seen by the reader, from the above facts, that I have been laying up much curious and valuable record of people and customs in these regions; and it will be seen at the same time, from the brief manner in which I have treated of these semi-civilized tribes, which every body can see, and thousands have seen, that my enthusiasm, as I have before explained, has led me more into minuteness and detail amongst those tribes which are living in their unchanged native modes, whose customs I have been ambitious to preserve for ages to come, before the changes that civilized acquaintance will soon work upon them.

The materials which I am daily gathering, however, are interesting; and I may on a future occasion use them—but in an epistle of this kind, there is not room for the incidents of a long voyage, or for a minute description of the country and the people in it; so, what I have said must suffice for the present. I lingered along the shores of this magnificent river then, in my fragile bark, to Praire du Chien—Dubuque—Galena, to Rock Island, and lastly to this place.

During such a Tour between the almost endless banks, carpeted with green, with one of the richest countries in the world, extending back in every direction, the mind of a contemplative man is continually building for posterity splendid seats, cities, towers and villas, which a few years of rolling time will bring about, with new institutions, new states, and almost empires; for it would seem that this vast region of rich soil and green fields, was almost enough for a world of itself.

I hauled my canoe out of the water at Dubuque, where I joined my wife again in the society of kind and hospitable friends, and found myself amply repaid for a couple of weeks' time spent in the examination of the extensive lead mines; walking and creeping through caverns, some eighty or one hundred feet below the earth's surface, decked in nature's pure livery of stalactites and spar—with walls, and sometimes ceilings, of glistening massive lead. And I hold yet (and ever shall) in my mind, without loss of a fraction of feature or expression, the image of one of my companions, and the scene that atone time was about him. His name is Jeffries. We were in "Lockwood's Cave," my wife and another lady were behind, and be advancing before me; his ribs, more elastic than mine, gave him entrance through a crevice, into a chamber yet unexplored; lie dared the pool, for there was one of icy water, and translucent as the air itself. We stood luckless spectators, to gaze and envy, while he advanced. The lighted flambeau in his band brought the splendid furniture of this tesselated palace into view; the surface of the jostled pool laved his sides as he advanced, and the rich stalagmites that grew up from the bottom reflected a golden light through the water, while the walls and ceiling were hung with stalactites which glittered like diamonds.

In this wise he stood in silent gaze, in awe and admiration of the hidden works of Nature; his figure, as high as the surface of the water, was magnified into a giant—and his head and shoulders not unfit for a cyclop. In fact, be was a perfect figure of Vulcan. The water in which he stood was a lake of liquid fire—he held a huge hammer in his right hand, and a flaming thunderbolt in his left, which he had just forged for Jupiter. There was but one thing wanting, it was the "sound of the hammer!" which was soon given in peals upon the beautiful pendents of stalactite and spar, which sent back and through the cavern, the hollow tones of thunder.

A visit of a few days to Dubuque will be worth the while of every traveller; and for the speculator and man of enterprize, it affords the finest field now open in our country. It is a small town of 200 houses, built entirely within the last two years, on one of the most delightful sites on the river, and in the heart of the richest and most productive parts of the mining region; having this advantage over most other mining countries, that immediately over the richest (and in fact all) of the lead mines; the land on the surface produces the finest corn, and all other vegetables that may be put into it. This is certainly the richest section of country on the Continent, and those who live a few years to witness the result, will be ready to sanction my assertion, that it is to be the mint of our country.

From Dubuque, I descended the river on a steamer, with my bark canoe laid on its deck, and my wife was my companion, to Camp Des Moines, from whence I am now writing.

After arriving at this place, which is the wintering post of Colonel Kearney, with his three companies of dragoons, I seated my wife and two gentlemen of my intimate acquaintance, in my bark canoe, and paddled them through the Des Moine's Rapids, a distance of fourteen miles, which we performed in a very short time; and at the foot of the Rapids, placed my wife on the steamer for St. Louis, in company with friends, when I had some weeks to return on my track, and revert back again to the wild and romantic life that I occasionally love to lead. I returned to Camp Des Moines, and in a few days joined General Street, the Indian Agent, in a Tour to Ke-o-kuck's village of Sacs and Foxes.

Colonel Kearney gave us a corporal's command of eight men, with horses, &c. for the journey; and we reached the village in two days' travel, about sixty miles up the Des Moines. The whole country that we passed over was like a garden, wanting only cultivation, being mostly prairie, and we found their village beautifully situated on a large prairie, on the bank of the Des Moines River. They seemed to be well supplied with the necessaries of life, and with some of its luxuries. I found Ke-o-kuck to be a chief of fine and portly figure, with a good countenance, and great dignity and grace in his manners.

General Street had some documents from Washington, to read to him which he and his chiefs listened to with great patience; after which he placed before us good brandy and good wine, and invited us to drink, and to lodge with him; he then called up five of his runners or criers, communicated to them in a low, but emphatic tone, the substance of the talk from the agent, and of the letters read to him, and they started at full gallop—one of them proclaiming it through his village, and the others sent express to the other villages, comprising the whole nation. Ke-o-kuck came in with us, with about twenty of his principal men—he brought in all his costly wardrobe, that I might select for his portrait such as suited me best; but at once named (of his own accord) the one that was purely Indian. In that be paraded for several days, and in it I painted him at full length. He is a man of a great deal of pride, and makes truly a splendid appearance on his black horse. He owns the finest horse in the country, and is excessively vain of his appearance when mounted, and arrayed, himself and horse, in all their gear and trappings. He expressed a wish to see himself represented on horseback, and I painted him in that plight. He rode and nettled his prancing steed in front of my door, until its sides were in a gore of blood I succeeded to his satisfaction, and his vanity is increased, no doubt, by seeing himself immortalized in that way. After finishing him, I painted his favourite wife (the favoured one of seven), his favourite boy, and eight or ten of his principal men and women; after which, he and all his men shook hands with me, wishing me well, and leaving, as tokens of regard, the most valued article of his dress, and a beautiful string of wampum, which he took from his wife's neck.

They then departed for their village in good spirits, to prepare for their fall hunt.

Of this interesting interview and its incidents, and of these people, I shall soon give the reader a further account, and therefore close my note-book for the present. Adieu.

(1) This man died of the small-pox the next summer after this portrait was painted. Whilst the small-pox was raging so bad at the Prairie, he took the disease, and in a rage plunged into the river, and swam across to the island where he dragged his body out upon the beach, and there died, and his bones were picked by dogs, without any friend to give him burial.