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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)



The Letter which I gave you yesterday, on the subject of "medicines" and "medicine-men," has somewhat broken the "thread of my discourse;" and left my painting-room (in the bastion), and all the Indians in it, and portraits, and buffalo hunts, and landscapes of these beautiful regions, to be taken up and discussed; which I will now endeavour to do, beginning just where I left (or digressed) off.

I was seated on the cool breech of a twelve-pounder, and had my easel before me, and Crows and Blackfeet, and Assinneboins, whom I was tracing upon the canvass. And so I have been doing to-day, and shall be for several days to come. My painting-room has become so great a lounge, and I so great a "medicine-man," that all other amusements are left, and all other topics of conversation and gossip are postponed for future consideration. The chiefs have had to place "soldiers" (as they are called) at my door, with spears in hand to protect me from the throng, who otherwise would press upon me; and none but the worthies are allowed to come into my medicine apartments, and none to be painted, except such as are decided by the chiefs to be worthy of so high an honour.

The Crows and Blackfeet who are here together, are enemies of the most deadly kind while out on the plains; but here they sit and smoke quietly together, yet with a studied and dignified reserve.

The Blackfeet are, perhaps, one of the most (if not entirely the most) numerous and warlike tribes on the Continent. They occupy the whole of the country about the sources of the Missouri, from this place to the Rocky Mountains; and their numbers, from the best computations, are something like forty or fifty thousand—they are (like all other tribes whose numbers are sufficiently large to give them boldness) warlike and ferocious, i. e. they are predatory, are roaming fearlessly about the country, even into and through every part of the Rocky Mountains, and carrying war and amongst their enemies, who are, of course, every tribe who inhabit the country about them.

The Crows who live on the head waters of Yellow Stone, and extend from this neighbourhood also to the base of the Rocky Mountains, are similar in the above respects to the Blackfeet; roaming about a great part of the year—and seeking their enemies wherever they can find them.

They are a much smaller tribe than the Blackfeet, with whom they are always at war, and from whose great numbers they suffer prodigiously in battle; and probably will be in a few years entirely destroyed by them.

The Crows have not, perhaps, more than 7000 in their nation, and probably not more than eight hundred warriors or fighting men. Amongst the more powerful tribes, like the Sioux and Blackfeet, who have been enabled to preserve their warriors, it is a fair calculation to count one in five as warriors; but among the Crows and Minatarees, and Puncahs, and several other small but warlike tribes, this proportion cannot exist; as in some of these I have found two or three women to a man in the nation; in consequence of the continual losses sustained amongst their men in war, and also whilst pursuing the buffaloes on the plains for food, where their lives are exceedingly exposed.

The Blackfeet and the Crows, like the Sioux and Assinneboins, have nearly the same mode of constructing their wigwam or lodge; in which tribes it is made of buffalo skins sewed together, after being dressed, and made into the form of a tent; supported within by some twenty or thirty pine poles of twenty-five feet in height, with an apex or aperture at the top, through which the smoke escapes and the light is admitted. These lodges, or tents, are taken down in a few minutes by the squaws, when they wish to change their location, and easily transported to any part of the country where they wish to encamp; and they generally move some six or eight times in the course of the summer; following the immense herds of buffaloes, as they range over these vast plains, from east to west, and north to south. The objects for which they do this are two-fold—to procure and dress their skins, which are brought in, in the fall and winter, and sold to the Fur Company, for white man's luxury; and also for the purpose of killing and drying buffalo meat, which they bring in from their hunts, packed on their horses' backs, in great quantities; making pemican, and preserving the marrow-fat for their winter quarters; which are generally taken up in some heavy-timbered bottom, on the banks of some stream, deep imbedded within the surrounding bluffs, which break off the winds, and make their long and tedious winter tolerable and supportable. They then sometimes erect their skin lodges amongst the timber, and dwell in them during the winter months; but more frequently cut logs and make a miserable and rude sort of log cabin, in which they can live much warmer and better protected from the assaults of their enemies, in case they are attacked; in which case a log cabin is a tolerable fort against Indian weapons.

The Crows, of all the tribes in this region, or on the Continent, make the most beautiful lodge. As I have before mentioned, they construct them as the Sioux do, and make them of the same material; yet they oftentimes dress the skins of which they are composed almost as white as linen, and beautifully garnish them with porcupine quills, and paint and ornament them in such a variety of ways, as renders them exceedingly picturesque and agreeable to the eye. I have procured a very beautiful one of this description, highly-ornamented, and fringed with scalp-locks, and sufficiently large for forty men to dine under. The poles which support it are about thirty in number, of pine, and all cut in the Rocky Mountains, having been some hundred years, perhaps, in use. This tent, when erected, is about twenty-five feet high, and has a very pleasing effect; with the Great or Good Spirit painted on one side, and the Evil Spirit on the other. If I can ever succeed in transporting it to New York and other eastern cities, it will be looked upon as a beautiful and exceedingly interesting specimen.

The manner in which an encampment of Indians strike their tents and transport them is curious, and to the traveller in this country a very novel and unexpected sight, when he first beholds it. Whilst ascending the river to this place, I saw an encampment of Sioux, consisting of six hundred of these lodges, struck, and all things packed and on the move in a very few minutes. The chief sends his runners or criers (for such all chiefs keep in their employment) through the village, a few hours before they are to start; announcing his determination to move, and the hour fixed upon, and the necessary preparations are in the meantime making; and at the time announced, the lodge of the chief is seen flapping in the wind, a part of the poles having been taken out from under it; this is the signal, and in one minute, six hundred of them (on a level and beautiful prairie), which before had been strained tight and fixed, were seen weaving and flapping in the wind, and in one minute more all were flat upon the ground. Their horses and dogs, of which they had a vast number, had all been secured upon the spot, in readiness; and each one was speedily loaded with the burthen allotted to it, and ready to fall into the grand procession.

For this strange cavalcade, preparation is made in the following manner: the poles of a lodge are divided into two bunches, and the little ends of each bunch fastened upon the shoulders or withers of a horse, leaving the butt ends to drag behind on the ground on either side. Just behind the horse, a brace or pole is tied across, which keeps the poles in their respective places; and then upon that and the poles behind the horse, is placed the lodge or tent, which is rolled up, and also numerous other articles of household and domestic furniture, and on the top of all, two, three, and even (sometimes) four women and children. Each one of these horses has a conductress, who sometimes walks before and leads it, with a tremendous pack upon her own back; and at others she sits astride of its back, with a child, perhaps, at her breast, and another astride of the horse's back behind her, clinging to her waist with one arm, while it affectionately embrace a sneaking dog-pup in the other.

In this way five or six hundred wigwams, with all their furniture, may be seen drawn out for miles, creeping over the grass-covered plains of this country; and three times that number of men, on good horses, strolling along in front or on the flank; and, in some tribes, in the rear of this heterogeneous caravan, at least five times that number of dogs, which fall into the rank, and follow in the train and company of the women, and every cur of them, who is large enough, and not too cunning to be enslaved, is encumbered with a car or sled (or whatever it may be better called), on which he patiently drags his load—a part of the household goods and furniture of the lodge to which be belongs. Two poles, about fifteen feet long, are placed upon the dog's shoulder, in the same manner as the lodge poles are attached to the horses, leaving the larger ends to drag upon the ground behind him; on which is placed a bundle or wallet which is allotted to him to carry, and with which he trots off amid the throng of dogs and squaws; faithfully and cheerfully dragging his load 'till night, and by the way loitering and occasionally

"Catching at little bits of fun and glee

"That's played on dogs enslaved by do, that's free."

The Crows, like the Blackfeet, are beautifully costumed, and perhaps with somewhat more of taste and elegance; inasmuch as the skins of which their dresses are made are more delicately and whitely dressed. The art of dressing skins belongs to the Indians in all countries; and the Crows surpass the civilized world in the beauty of their skin-dressing. The art of tanning is unknown to them, so far as civilized habits and arts have not been taught them; yet the art of dressing skins, so far as we have it in the civilized world, has been (like hundreds of other ornamental and useful customs which we are practising), borrowed from the savage; without our ever stopping to enquire from whence they come, or by whom invented.

The usual mode of dressing the buffalo, and other skins, is by immersing them for a few days under a lye from ashes and water, until the hair can be removed; when they are strained upon a frame or upon the ground, with stakes or pins driven through the edges into the earth; where they remain for several days, with the brains of the buffalo or elk spread upon and over them; and at last finished by "graining," as it is termed, by the squaws; who use a sharpened bone, the shoulder-blade or other large bone, of the animal, sharpened at the edge, somewhat like an adze; with the edge of which they scrape the fleshy side of the skin; bearing on it with the weight of their bodies, thereby drying and softening the skin, and fitting it for use.

The greater part of these skins, however, go through still another operation afterwards, which gives them a greater value, and renders them much more serviceable—that is, the process of smoking. For this, a small hole is dug in the ground, and a fire is built in it with rotten wood, which will produce a great quantity of smoke without much blaze; and several small poles of the proper length stuck in the ground around it, and drawn and fastened together, at the top, around which a skin is wrapped in form of a tent, and generally sewed together at the edges to secure the smoke within it; within this the skins to be smoked are placed, and in this condition the tent will stand a day or so, enclosing the heated smoke: and by some chemical process or other, which I do not understand, the skins thus acquire a quality which enables them, after being ever so many times wet, to dry soft and pliant as they were before, which secret I have never yet seen practiced in my own country; and for the lack of which, all of our dressed skins when once wet, are, I think, chiefly ruined.

An Indian's dress of deer skins, which is wet a hundred times upon his back, dries soft; and his lodge also, which stands in the rains, and even through the severity of winter, is taken down as soft and as clean as when it was first put up.

A Crow is known wherever he is met by his beautiful white dress, and his tall and elegant figure; the greater part of the men being six feet high. The Blackfeet on the other hand, are more of the Herculean make—about middling stature, with broad shoulders, and great expansion of chest; and the skins of which their dresses are made, are chiefly dressed black, or of a dark brown colour; from which circumstance, in all probability, they having black leggings or moccasins, have got the name of Blackfeet.

The Crows are very handsome and gentlemanly Indians in their personal appearance: and have been always reputed, since the first acquaintance made with them, very civil and friendly.

These people to be sure, have in some instances plundered and robbed trappers and travellers in their country; and for that I have sometimes heard them called rascals and thieves, and rogues of the first order, &c.; yet they do not consider themselves such; for thieving in their estimation is a high crime, and considered the most disgraceful act that a man can possibly do. They call this capturing, where they sometimes run off a Trader's horses and make their boast of it; considering it a kind of retaliation or summary justice, which they think it right and honourable that they should administer. And why not? for the unlicensed trespass committed through their country from one end to the other, by mercenary white men, who are destroying the game, and catching all the beaver and other rich and valuable furs out of their country, without paying them an equivalent, or, in fact, anything at all, for it; and this too, when they have been warned time and again of the danger they would be in, if they longer persisted in the practice. Reader, I look upon the Indian as the most honest and honourable race of people that I ever lived amongst in my life; and in their native state, I pledge you my honour they are the last of all the human family to pilfer or to steal, if you trust to their honour; and for this never-ending and boundless system of theft and plunder, and debauchery, that is practiced off upon these rightful owners of the soil, by acquisitive white men, I consider the infliction, or retaliation, by driving off and appropriating a few horses, but a lenient punishment, which those persons at least should expect; and which, in fact, none but a very honourable and high-minded people could inflict, instead of a much severer one; which they could easily practice upon the few white men in their country, without rendering themselves amenable to any law.

Mr. M'Kenzie has repeatedly told me, within the four last weeks, while in conversation relative to the Crows, that they were friendly and honourable in their dealing with the whites, and that he considered them the finest Indians of his acquaintance.

I recollect whilst in St. Louis, and other places at the East, to have heard it often said, that the Crows were a rascally and thieving set of vagabonds, highway robbers, &;c. &c.; and I have been told since, that this information has become current in the world, from the fact that they made some depredations upon the camp of Messrs. Crooks and Hunt of the Fur Company; and drove off a number of their horses, when they were passing through the Crow country, on their way to Astoria. This was no doubt true; and equally true, would these very Indians tell us, was the fact, that they had a good and sufficient reason for it.

These gentlemen, with their party, were crossing the Crow country with a large stock of goods, of guns, and ammunition, of knives, and spears, arrowheads, &c. and stopped for some time and encamped in the midst of the Crow country (and I think wintered there), when the Crows assembled in large numbers about them, and treated them in a kind and friendly manner; and at the same time proposed to trade with them for guns and ammunition, &c. (according to these gentlemen's own account,) of which they were in great want, and for which they brought a great many horses, and offered them repeatedly in trade; which they refused to take, persisting in their determination of carrying their goods to their destined place, across the mountains; thereby disappointing these Indians, by denying them the arms and weapons which were in their possession, whilst they were living upon them, and exhausting the game and food of their country. No doubt, these gentlemen told the Crows, that these goods were going to Astoria, of which place they knew nothing; and of course, it was enough for them that they were going to take them farther west; which they would at once suppose was to the Blackfeet, their principal enemy, having eight or ten warriors to one of the Crows; where they supposed the white men could get a greater price for their weapons, and arm their enemies in such a way as would enable them to turn upon the Crows, and cut them to pieces without mercy. Under these circumstances, the Crows rode off, and to show their indignation, drove off some of the Company's horses, for which they have ever since been denominated a band of thieves and highway robbers. It is a custom, and a part of the system of jurisprudence amongst all savages, to revenge upon the person or persons who give the offence, if they can; and if not, to let that punishment fall upon the head of the first white man who comes in their way, provided the offender was a white man. And I would not be surprised, therefore, if I get robbed of my horse; and you too, readers, if you go into that country, for that very (supposed) offence.

I have conversed with Messrs. Sublette and Campbell, two gentlemen of the highest respectability, who have traded with the Crows for several years, and they tell me they are one of the most honourable, honest, and high-minded races of people on earth; and with Mr. Tullock, also, a man of the strictest veracity, who is now here with a party of them; and, he says, they never steal,—have a high sense of honour,—and being fearless and proud, are quick to punish or retaliate.

So much for the character of the Crows for the present, a subject which I shall assuredly take up again, when I shall have seen more of them myself.