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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. 9.

MOUTH OF YELLOW STONE, UPPER MISSOURI.

Since the dates of my other Letters from this place, I have been taking some wild rambles about this beautiful country of green fields; jolted and tossed about, on horseback and on foot, where pen, ink, and paper never thought of going; and of course the most that I saw and have learned, and would tell to the world, is yet to be written. It is not probable, however, that I shall again date a letter at this place, as I commence, in a few days, my voyage down the river in a canoe; but yet I may give you many a retrospective glance at this fairy land and its amusements.

A traveller on his tour through such a country as this, has no time to write, and scarcely time enough to moralize. It is as much as he can well do to "look out for his scalp," and "for something to eat." Impressions, however, of the most vivid kind, are rapidly and indelibly made by the fleeting incidents of savage life; and for the mind that can ruminate upon them with pleasure, there are abundant materials clinging to it for its endless entertainment in driving the quill when he gets back. The mind susceptible of such impressions catches volumes of incidents which are easy to write—it is but to unfold a web which the fascinations of this shorn country and its allurements have spun over the soul—it is but to paint the splendid panorama of a world entirely different from anything seen or painted before; with its thousands of miles, and tens of thousands of grassy hills and dales, where nought but silence reigns, and where the soul of a contemplative mould is seemingly lifted up to its Creator. What man in the world, I would ask, ever ascended to the pinnacle of one of Missouri's green-carpeted bluffs, a thousand miles severed from his own familiar land, and giddily gazed over the interminable and boundless ocean of grass-covered hills and valleys which lie beneath him, where the gloom of silence is complete—where not even the voice of the sparrow or cricket ill heard—without feeling a sweet melancholy come over him, which seemed to drown his sense of everything beneath and on a level with him?

It is but to paint a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red—where meat is the staff of life—where no laws, but those of honour, are known—where the oak and the pine give way to the cotton-wood and peccan—where the buffaloes range, the elk, mountain-sheep, and the fleet-bounding antelope—where the magpie and chattering parroquettes supply the place of the red-breast and the blue-bird—where wolves are white and bears grizzly—where pheasants are hens of the prairie, and frogs have horns!—where the rivers are yellow, and white men are turned savages in looks. Through the whole of this strange land the dogs are all wolves—women all slaves—men all lords. The sun and rats alone (of all the list of old acquaintance), could be recognised in this country of strange metamorphose. The former shed everywhere his familiar rays; and Monsr. Ratapon was hailed as an old acquaintance, which it gave me pleasure to meet; though he had grown a little more savage in his look.

In traversing the immense regions of the classic West, the mind of a philanthropist is filled to the brim with feelings of admiration; but to reach this country, one is obliged to descend from the light and glow of civilized atmosphere, through the different grades of civilization, which gradually sink to the most deplorable condition along the extreme frontier; thence through the most pitiable misery and wretchedness of savage degradation; where the genius of natural liberty and independence have been blasted and destroyed by the contaminating vices and dissipations introduced by the immoral part of civilized society. Through this dark and sunken vale of wretchedness one hurries, as through a pestilence, until he gradually rises again into the proud and chivalrous pale of savage society, in its state of original nature, beyond the reach of civilized contamination; here he finds much to fix his enthusiasm upon, and much to admire. Even here, the predominant passions of the savage breast, of ferocity and cruelty, are often found; yet restrained, and frequently subdued, by the noblest traits of honour and magnanimity,—a race of men who live and enjoy life and its luxuries, and practice its virtues, very far beyond the usual estimation of the world, who are apt to judge the savage and his virtues from the poor, degraded, and humbled specimens which alone can be seen along our frontiers. From the first settlements of our Atlantic coast to the present day, the bane of this blasting frontier has regularly crowded upon them, from the northern to the southern extremities of our country; and, like the fire in a prairie, which destroys everything where it passes, It has blasted and sunk them, and all but their names, into oblivion, wherever it has travelled. It is to this tainted class alone that the epithet of "poor, naked, and drunken savage," can be, with propriety, applied; for all those numerous tribes which I have visited, and are yet uncorrupted by the vices of civilized acquaintance, are well clad, in many instances cleanly, and in the full enjoyment of life and its luxuries. It is for the character and preservation of these noble fellows that I am an enthusiast; and it is for these uncontaminated people that I would be willing to devote the energies of my life. It is a sad and melancholy truth to contemplate, that all the numerous tribes who inhabited our vast Atlantic States have not "fled to the West;"—that they are not to be found here—that they have been blasted by the fire which has passed over them—have sunk into their graves, and everything but their names travelled into oblivion.

The distinctive character of all these Western Indians, as well as their traditions relative to their ancient locations, prove beyond a doubt, that they have been for a very long time located on the soil which they now possess; and in most respects, distinct and unlike those nations who formerly inhabited the Atlantic coast, and who (according to the erroneous opinion of a great part of the world), have fled to the West.

It is for these inoffensive and unoffending people, yet unvisited by the vices of civilized society, that I would proclaim to the world, that it is time, for the honour of our country—for the honour of every citizen of the republic—and for the sake of humanity, that our government should raise her strong arm to save the remainder of them from the pestilence which is rapidly advancing upon them. We have gotten from them territory enough, and the country which they now inhabit is most of it too barren of timber for the use of civilized man; it affords them, however, the means and luxuries of savage life; and it is to be hoped that our government will not acquiesce in the continued wilful destruction of these happy people.

My heart has sometimes almost bled with pity for them, while amongst them, and witnessing their innocent amusements, as I have contemplated the inevitable bane that was rapidly advancing upon them; without that check from the protecting arm of government, and which alone could shield them from destruction.

What degree of happiness these sons of Nature may attain to in the world, in their own way; or in what proportion they may relish the pleasures of life, compared to the sum of happiness belonging to civilized society, has long been a subject of much doubt, and one which I cannot undertake to decide at this time. I would say thus much, however, that if the thirst for knowledge has entailed everlasting miseries on mankind from the beginning of the world; if refined and intellectual pains increase in proportion to our intellectual pleasures, I do not see that we gain much advantage over them on that score; and judging from the full-toned enjoyment which beams from their happy faces, I should give it as my opinion, that their lives were much more happy than ours; that is, if the word happiness is properly applied to the enjoyments of those who have not experienced the light of the Christian religion. I have long looked with the eye of a critic, into the jovial faces of these sons of the forest, unfurrowed with cares—where the agonizing feeling of poverty had never stamped distress upon the brow. I have watched the bold, intrepid step—the proud, yet dignified deportment of Nature's man, in fearless freedom, with a soul unalloyed by mercenary lusts, too great to yield to laws or power except from God. As these independent fellows are all joint-tenants of the soil, they are all rich, and none of the steepings of comparative poverty can strangle their just claims to renown. Who (I would ask) can look without admiring, into a society where peace and harmony prevail—where virtue is cherished—where rights are protected, and wrongs are redressed—with no laws, but the laws of honour, which are the supreme laws of their land. Trust the boasted virtues of civilized society for awhile, with all its intellectual refinements, to such a tribunal, and then write down the degradation of the "lawless savage," and our transcendent virtues.

As these people have no laws, the sovereign right of summary redress lies in the breast of the party (or friends of the party) aggrieved; and infinitely more dreaded is the certainty of cruel revenge from the licensed hands of an offended savage, than the slow and uncertain vengeance of the law.

If you think me enthusiast, be it so; for I deny it not. It has ever been the predominant passion of my soul to seek Nature's wildest haunts, and give my hand to Nature's men. Legends of these, and visits to those, filled the earliest page of my juvenile impressions.

The tablet has stood, and I am an enthusiast for God's works as He left them.

The sad tale of my native "valley," (1) has been beautifully sung; and from the flight of "Gertrude's" soul, my young imagination closely traced the savage to his deep retreats, and gazed upon him in dreadful horror, until pity pleaded, and admiration worked a charm.

A journey of 4000 miles from the Atlantic shore, regularly receding from the centre of civilized society to the extreme wilderness of Nature's original work, and back again, opens a book for many an interesting tale to be sketched; and the mind which lives, but to relish the works of Nature, reaps a reward on such a tour of a much higher order than can arise from the selfish expectations of pecuniary emolument. Notwithstanding all that has been written and said, there is scarcely any subject on which the knowing people of the East, are yet less informed and instructed than on the character and amusements of the West: by this I mean the "Far West;"—the country whose fascinations spread a charm over the mind almost dangerous to civilized pursuits. Few people even know the true definition of the term "West;" and where is its location?—phantom-like it flies before us as we travel, and on our way is continually gilded, before us, as we approach the setting sun.

In the commencement of my Tour, several of my travelling companions from the city of New York, found themselves at a frightful distance to the West, when we arrived at Niagara Falls; and hastened back to amuse their friends with tales and scenes of the West. At Buffalo a steam-boat was landing with 400 passengers, and twelve days out—"Where from?" "From the West." In the rich state of Ohio, hundreds were selling their farms and going—to the West. In the beautiful city of Cincinnati, people said to me, "Our town has passed the days of its most rapid growth, it is not far enough West."—ln St. Louis, 1400 miles west of New York, my landlady assured me that I would be pleased with her boarders, for they were nearly all merchants from the "West." I there asked,—"Whence come those steam boats, laden with pork, honey, hides, &c.?"

From the West.

Whence those ponderous bars of silver, which those men have been for hours shouldering and putting on board that boat?

They come from Santa Fee, from the West.

Where goes this steam-boat so richly laden with dry goods, steam-engines, &c.?

She goes to Jefferson city.

Jefferson city?—Where is that?

Far to the West.

And where goes that boat laden down to her gunnels, the Yellow Stone?

She goes still farther to the West "Then," said I, "I'll go to the West."

I went on the Yellow Stone—

Two thousand miles on her, and we were at the mouth of the Yellow Stone river—at the West. What! invoices, bills of lading, &c., a wholesale establishment so far to the West! And these strange looking, long-haired gentlemen, who have just arrived, and are those relating the adventures of their long and tedious journey. Who are they?

Oh! they are some of our merchants just arrived from the West.

And that keel-boat, that Mackinaw-boat, and that formidable all of which are richly laden with goods.

These, Sir, are outfits starting for die West.

Going to the West, ha?" Then," said I, "I'll try it again. I will try and see if I can go to the West."

What, a Fort here, too?

Oui, Monsieur—oui, Monsieur (as a dauntless, and semibarbarian-looking, jolly fellow, dashed forth in advance of his party on his wild horse to meet me.)

What distance are you west of Yellow Stone here, my good fellow?

Comment?

What distance?—(stop)—quel distance?

Pardòn, Monsieur, je ne sais pas, Monsieur.

Ne parlez vous l'Anglais?

Non, Monsr. I speaks de French and de Americaine; mais je ne parle pas l'Anglais.

"Well then, my good fellow, I will speak English, and you may speak Americaine."

Pardón, pardón, Monsieur.

Well, then we will both speak Americaine.

Val, sare, je suis bien content, pour for I see dat you speaks putty coot Americaine.

What may I call our name?

Bap'tiste, Monsieur

What Indians are those so splendidly dressed, and with such fine horses, encamped on the plain yonder?

Ils sont Corbeaux.

Crows, ha?

Yes, sare, Monsieur.

We are then in the Crow country?

Non, Monsieur, not putty éxact; we are in de coontrae of de dam Pieds noire.

Blackfeet, ha?

Oui.

What blue mountain is that which we see in the distance yonder?

Ha, quel Montaigne? cela est la Montaigne du (pardón).

Du Rochers, I suppose?

Oui, Monsieur, de Rock Montaigne.

You live here, I suppose?

Non, Monsieur, I comes fair from de West.

What, from the West! Where under the heavens is that?

Wat, diable! de West? well you shall see, Monsieur, he is putty fair off, súppose. Monsieur Pierre Chouteau can give you de histoire de ma vie—il bien sait que je prends les castors, very fair in de West.

You carry goods, I suppose, to trade with the Snake Indians beyond the mountains, and trap beaver also?

Oui, Monsieur.

Do you see anything of the "Flat-heads" in your country?

Non, Monsieur, ils demeurent very, very fair to de West.

Well, Ba'tiste, I'll lay my course back again for the present, and at some future period, endeavor to go to the "West." But you say you trade with the Indians and trap beavers; you are in the employment of the American Fur Company, I suppose?

Non, Monsieur, not quite éxact; mais, súppose, I am "free tappare," free, Monsr. free

Free trapper, what's that? I don't understand you, Ba'tiste.

Well, Monsr. súppose he is easy pour understand—you shall know all. In de first place, I am enlist for tree year in de Fur Comp in St. Louis—for bounté—pour bounté, eighty dollare (understand, ha?) den I am go for wages, et I ave come de Missouri up, et I am trap castors putty much for six years, you see, until I am learn very much; and den you see, Monsr. M'Kenzie is give me tree horse—one pour ride, et two pour pack (mais he is not buy, him not give, he is lend), and he is lend twelve trap; and I ave make start into de Rocky Montaigne, et I am live all álone on de leet rivares pour prendre les castors. Sometime six months—sometime five month, and I come back to Yel Stone, et Monsr. M'Kenzie is give me coot price pour all.

So Mr. M'Kenzie fits you out, and takes your beaver of you at a certain price?

Oui, Monsr. oui.

What price does he pay you for your beaver, Ba'tiste?

Ha! Suppose one dollare pour one beavare.

A dollar per skin, ah?

Oui.

Well, you must live a lonesome and hazardous sort of life; can you make anything by it?

Oh! oui, Monsr. putty coot, mais if it is not pour for de dam rascalité Riccaree, et de dam Pieds noirs, de Blackfoot Ingin, I am make very much monnair, mais (sacré), I am rob—rob—rob too much!

What, do the Blackfeet rob you of your furs?

Oui, Monsr. rob, súppose, five time! I am been free trappare seven year, et I am rob five time—I am someting left not at all—he is take all; he is take all de horse—he is take my gun—he is take all my clothes—he is takee de castors—et I am come back with foot. So in de Fort, some cloths is cost putty much monnair, et some whiskey is give sixteen dollares pour gall; so you see I am owe de Fur Comp 600 dollare, by Gar!

Well, Ba'tiste, this then is what you call being a free trapper is it?

Oui, Monsr. "free trappare," free!

You seem to be going down towards the Yellow Stone, and probably have been out on a trapping excursion.

Oui, Monsr. c'est vrai.

Have you been robbed this time, Ba'tiste?

Oui, Monsr. by de dam Pieds noirs—I am loose much; I am loose all—very all——eh bien—pour le dernier—c'est le dernier fois, Monsr. I am go to Yell Stone—I am go le Missouri down, I am go to St. Louis.

Well, Ba'tiste, I am to figure about in this part of the world a few weeks longer, and then I shall descend the Missouri from the mouth of Yellow Stone, to St. Louis; and I should like exceedingly to employ just such a man as you are as a voyageur with me—I will give you good wages, and pay all your expenses; what say you?

Avec tout mon cour, Monsr. remercie, remercie.

It's a bargain then, Ba'tiste; I will see you at the mouth of Yellow Stone.

Oui, Monsr. in de Yel Stone, bon soir, bon soir, Monsr.

But stop, Ba'tiste, you told me those were Crows encamped yonder.

Oui, Monsieur, oui, des Corbeaux.

And I suppose you are their interpreter?

Non, Monsieur.

But you speak the Crow language?

Ouis, Monsieur.

Well then, turn about; I am going to pay them a visit, and you can render me a service.—Bien, Monsieur, allons.

(1) Wyöming.