Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians
by George Catlin
(First published in London in 1844)
FORT MOULTRIE, SOUTH CAROLINA.
Since the date of my last Letter, I have been a wanderer as usual, and am now at least 2000 miles from the place where it was dated. At this place are held 250 of the Seminolees and Euchees, prisoners of war, who are to be kept here awhile longer, and transferred to the country assigned them, 700 miles West of the Mississippi, and 1400 from this. The famous Os-ce-o-la is amongst the prisoners; and also Mick-e-no-pah, the head chief of the tribe, and Cloud, King Phillip, and several others of the distinguished men of the nation, who have celebrated themselves in the war that is now waging with the United States' Government.
There is scarcely any need of my undertaking in an epistle of this kind, to give a full account of this tribe, of their early historyof their former or present locationor of their present condition, and the disastrous war they are now waging with the United States' Government, who have held an invading army in their country for four or five years, endeavouring to dispossess them and compel them to remove to the West, in compliance with Treaty stipulations. These are subjects generally understood already (being matters of history), and I leave them to the hands of those who will do them more complete justice than I could think of doing at this time, with the little space that I could allow them; in the confident hope that justice may be meted out to them, at least by the historian, if it should not be by their great Guardian, who takes it upon herself, as with all the tribes, affectionately to call them her "red children."
For those who know nothing of the Seminolees, it may be proper for me here just to remark, that they are a tribe of three or four thousand; occupying the peninsula of Floridaand speaking the language of the Creeks, of whom I have heretofore spoken, and who were once a part of the same tribe.
The word Seminolee is a Creek word, signifying runaways; a name which was given to a part of the Creek nation, who emigrated in a body to a country farther South, where they have lived to the present day; and continually extended their dominions by overrunning the once numerous tribe that occupied the Southern extremity of the Florida Cape, called the Euchees; whom they have at last nearly annihilated, and taken the mere remnant of them in, as a part of their tribe. With this tribe the Government have been engaged in deadly and disastrous warfare for four or five years; endeavouring to remove them from their lands, in compliance with a Treaty stipulation, which the Government claims to have been justly made, and which the Seminolees aver, was not. Many millions of money, and some hundreds of lives of officers and men have already been expended in the attempt to dislodge them; and much more will doubtless be yet spent before they can be removed from their almost impenetrable swamps and hiding-places, to which they can, for years to come, retreat; and from which they will be enabled, and no doubt disposed, in their exasperated state, to make continual sallies upon the unsuspecting and defenceless inhabitants of the country; carrying their relentless feelings to be reeked in cruel vengeance on the unoffending and innocent. (1)
The prisoners who are held here, to the number of 250, men, women and children, have been captured during the recent part of this warfare, and amongst them the distinguished personages whom I named a few moments since; of these, the most conspicuous at this time is Os-ce-o-la, commonly called Powell, as he is generally supposed to be a half-breed, the son of a white man (by that name), and a Creek woman.
I have painted him precisely in the costume, in which he stood for his picture, even to a string and a trinket. He wore three ostrich feathers in his head, and a turban made of a vari-coloured cotton shawland his dress was chiefly of calicos, with a handsome bead sash or belt around his waist, and his rifle in his hand.
This young man is, no doubt, an extraordinary character, as he has been for some years reputed, and doubtless looked upon by the Seminolees as the master spirit and leader of the tribe, although he is not a chief. From his boyhood, he had led an energetic and desperate sort of life, which had secured for him a conspicuous position in society; and when the desperate circumstances of war were agitating his country, he at once took a conspicuous and decided part; and in some way whether he deserved it or not, acquired an influence and a name that soon sounded to the remotest parts of the United States, and amongst the Indian tribes, to the Rocky Mountains.
This gallant fellow, who was, undoubtedly, captured a few months since, with several of his chiefs and warriors, was at first brought in, to Fort Mellon in Florida, and afterwards sent to this place for safe-keeping, where he is grieving with a broken spirit, and ready to die, cursing white mail, no doubt, to the end of his breath.
The surgeon of the post, Dr. Weedon, who has charge of him, and has been with him ever since he was taken prisoner, has told me from day to day, that he will not live many weeks; and I have my doubts whether he will, from the rapid decline I have observed in his face and his flesh since I arrived here.
During the time that I have been here, I have occupied a large room in the officers' quarters, by the politeness of Captain Morrison, who has command of the post, and charge of the prisoners; and on every evening, after painting all day at their portraits, I have had Os-ce-o-la, Mick-e-no-pa, Cloud, Co-a-had-jo, King Phillip, and others in my room, until a late hour at night, where they have taken great pains to give me an account of the war, and the mode in which they were captured, of which they complain bitterly.
I am fully convinced from all that I have seen, and learned from the lips of Osceola, and from the chiefs who are around him, that he is a most extraordinary man, and one entitled to a better fate.
In stature he is about at mediocrity, with an elastic and graceful movement; in his face he is good looking, with rather an effeminate smile; but of so peculiar a character, that the world may be ransacked over without finding another just like it. In his manners, and all his movements in company, he is polite and gentlemanly, though all his conversation is entirely in his own tongue; and his general appearance and actions, those of a full-blooded and wild Indian.
I have made a portrait of Ye-how-lo-gee, (the cloud), generally known by the familiar name of "Cloud." This is one of the chiefs, and a very good-natured, jolly man. growing fat in his imprisonment, where he gets enough to eat, and an occasional drink of whiskey from the officers, with whom he is a great favourite.
Ee-mat-la ("King Philip") is also a very aged chief, who has been a man of great notoriety and distinction in his time, but has now got too old for further warlike enterprize. (2)
Co-ee-ha-jo, is another chief who has been a long time distinguished in the tribe, having signalized himself very much by his feats in the present war.
La-shee (the licker), commonly called "Creek Billy," is a distinguished brave of the tribe, and a very handsome fellow.
I have also made portraits of a Seminolee boy, about nine years of age; (3) and a Seminolee woman.
Mick-e-no-pah is the head chief of the tribe, and a very lusty and dignified man. He took great pleasure in being present every day in my room, whilst I was painting the others; but positively refused to be painted, until he found that a bottle of whiskey, and another of wine, which I kept on my mantelpiece, by permission of my kind friend Captain Morrison, were only to deal out their occasional kindnesses to those who sat for their portraits; when he at length agreed to be painted, "if I could make a fair likeness of his legs," which he had very tastefully dressed in a handsome pair of red leggings, and upon which I at once began, (as he sat cross-legged), by painting them on the lower part of the canvass, leaving room for his body and head above; all of which, through the irresistible influence of a few kindnesses from my bottle of wine, I soon had fastened to the canvass, where they will firmly stand I trust, for some hundreds of years.
Since I finished my portrait of Os-ce-o-la, and since writing the first part of this Letter, he has been extremely sick, and lies so yet, with an alarming attack of the quinsey or putrid sore throat, which will probably end his career in a few days. Two or three times the surgeon has sent for the officers of the Garrison and myself, to come and see him "dying"we were with him the night before last till the middle of the night, every moment expecting his death; but he has improved during the last twenty-four hours, and there is some slight prospect of his recovery. (4) The steamer starts to-morrow morning for New York, and I must use the opportunity; so I shall from necessity, leave the subject of Os-ce-o-la and the Seminolees for future consideration. Adieu.
(1) The above Letter was written in the winter of 1833, and by the Secretary at War's Report, a year and a half ago, it is seen that 36,000,000 of dollars had been already expended in the Seminolee war, as well as the lives of 12 or 1400 officers and men, and defenceless inhabitants, who have fallen victims to the violence of the enraged savages and diseases of the climate. And at the present date, August, 1841, I see by the American papers, that the war is being prosecuted at this time with its wonted vigour; and that the best troops in our country, and the lives of our most valued officers are yet jeopardised in the deadly swamps of Florida, with little more certainty of a speedy termination of the war, than there appeared five years ago.
The world will pardon me for saying no more of this inglorious war, for it will be seen that I am too near the end of my book, to afford it the requisite space; and as an American citizen, I would pray, amongst thousands of others, that all books yet to be made might have as good an excuse for leaving it out.
(2) This veteran old warrior died a few weeks after I painted his portrait, whilst on his way, with the rest of the prisoners, to the Arkansas.
(3) This remarkably fine boy, by the name of Os-ce-o-la Nick-a-no-chee, has recently been brought from America to London, by Dr. Welch, an Englishman, who has been for several years residing in Florida. The boy it seems, was captured by the United States troops, at the age of six years: but how my friend the Doctor got possession of him, and leave to bring him away I never have heard. He is acting a very praiseworthy part however, by the paternal fondness he evinces for the child, and fairly proves, by the very great pains he is taking with his education. The doctor has published recently, a very neat volume, containing the boy's history; and also a much fuller account of Os-ce-o-la, and incidents of the Florida war, to which I would refer the reader.
(4) From accounts which left Fort Moultrie a few days after I returned home, it seems, that this ill-fated warrior died, a prisoner, the next morning after I left him. And the following very interesting account of his last moments, was furnished me by Dr. Weedon, the surgeon who was by him, with the officers of the garrison, at Os-ce-o-la's request.
"About half an hour before he died, he seemed to be sensible that he was dying; and although he could not speak, he signified by signs that he wished me to send for the chiefs and for the officers of the post, whom I called in. He made signs to his wives (of whom he had two, and also two fine little children by his side,) to go and bring his full dress, which he wore in time of war; which having been brought in, he rose up in his bed, which was on the floor, and put on his shirt, his leggings and moccasinsgirded on his war-belthis bullet-pouch and powder-horn, and laid his knife by the side of him on the floor. He then called for his red paint, and his looking-glass, which was held before him, when he deliberately painted one half of his face, his neck and his throathis wriststhe backs of his hands, and the handle of his knife, red with vermilion; a custom practiced when the irrevocable oath of war and destruction is taken. His knife lie then placed in its sheath, under his belt; and he carefully arranged his turban on his head, and his three ostrich plumes that he was in the habit of wearing in it. Being thus prepared in full dress, he laid down a few minutes to recover strength sufficient, when lie, rose up as before, and with most benignant and pleasing smiles, extended his band to me and to all of the officers and chiefs that were around him; and shook hands with us all in dead silence; and also with his wives and his little children; he made a signal for them to lower him down upon his bed, which was done, and he then slowly drew from his war-belt, his scalping-knife, which lie firmly grasped in his right band, laying it across the other, on his breast, and in a moment smiled away his last breath, without a struggle or a groan."