General Customs and Peculiarities of North American Indians

It were far easier to foretell the period when the extinction of the Indian races must be consummated, and to explain the causes that must sooner or later terminate their national existence, than to trace back their early history.

Even a succinct account of the various theories, with the arguments upon which they are based, as to the probable sources whence the early inhabitants of the Western hemisphere derived their origin, would furnish matter for a volume: we shall therefore do little more than allude to the different hypotheses upon the subject, leaving the reader to follow up the inquiry, if his inclination so move him, by the examination of works especially devoted to the discussion of this vexed question.

The want of a written language among the aborigines of America; the blindness of the system of hieroglyphics used by the more advanced nations of the continent; and the wild discrepancies in their fanciful oral traditions, leave us little hope of satisfactorily elucidating the mystery by any direct information obtained from the people themselves. Analogies in physical conformation, customs, architecture, language, and religion, must form our principal clew in deciding the question of their origin.

That America was first peopled by wanderers from the Old World seems to be a conclusion to which most of those who have treated on the subject have arrived. Exclusive of the supposed necessity for maintaining the truth of Scriptural history by deducing all the races of the globe from a common ancestry, abundant facilities for an intentional or casual migration have been pointed out by geographers.

The numberless isles of the Pacific offer ready resting-places for adventurous or bewildered navigators, and might have been peopled successively by wanderers from Southeastern Asia. Some of the natives of that portion of the eastern continent possess a skill in nautical affairs which would abundantly qualify them for voyages as hazardous as any to which they would be exposed in crossing the Pacific from island to island in their swift proas. The near approach of the two grand divisions of the globe at Behring’s Straits presents still greater facilities for a pas sage from one to the other, when the waters are closed by ice, during the severe northern winter, or when they lie open, affording a free passage for canoes.

That the northeastern portions of America were visited and probably peopled, at a very early date, by adventurers from the north of Europe seems to be fully established. Many wild and improbable legends indeed exist, touching these early voyages, and we can sympathize with the manner in which the old historian of Virginian colonization dismisses the subject: ” For the stories of Arthur, Malgo, and Brandon, that say a thousand years ago they were in the north of America, or the friar of Linn, that by his black art went to the north pole in the year 1360. In that I know them not. Let this suffice.”

Modern investigation has brought to light abundant evidence of visits by the Northmen to Greenland and the neighboring American coast, at the close of the tenth and in the beginning of the eleventh centuries, and it is not improbable that intercourse had subsisted between the two countries at a much earlier period. The marked difference between the Esquimaux Indians and all other tribes of the Western continent points plainly to a separate ancestry. We shall speak more at large upon this subject when we come to treat of the natives of that vast and desolate region lying between the Canadas and the frozen seas of the North.

Vague accounts of islands or continents at the West are found in the works of many early writers. The Atlantis of Plato, the Hesperides, and a host of other uncertain fables have been tortured by ingenious antiquaries into proof of more extensive geographical knowledge than is generally attributed to the ancients.

Some theorists have indefatigably followed up the idea that we are to search for the lost tribes of Israel among the red men of America, and have found or fancied resemblances, otherwise unaccountable, between Indian and Hebrew words, ceremonies, and superstitions.

Others have exhibited equal ingenuity in carrying out a comparison between the Moors of Africa and the Americans, claiming to establish a near affinity in character and complexion between the two races. They suppose the Moorish immigrants to have arrived at the West India islands, or the eastern coast of South America, and thence to have spread over the whole continent.

However variant, in some particulars, the different nations of America may appear, there are peculiarities of language which are noticeable throughout the continent, and which would seem to prove that neither of these nations has subsisted in an entirely isolated condition.

According to Humboldt, “In America, from the country of the Esquimaux to the banks of the Orinoko, and again, from these torrid banks to the frozen climate of the Straits of Magellan, mother tongues, entirely different with regard to their roots, have, if we may use the expression, the same physiognomy. Striking analogies of grammatical construction have been recognized, not only in the more perfect languages, as that of the Incas, the Aymara, the Guarani, the Mexican, and the Cora, but also in languages extremely rude. Idioms, the roots of which do not resemble each other more than the roots of the Sclavonian and Biscayan, have resemblances of internal mechanism similar to those which are found in the Sanscrit, the Persian, the Greek, and the German languages.”

Of the primary roots of the different Indian dialects, it is said that there are four more prominent than the rest, and which can be traced over nearly the whole continent. These are the Karalit or Esquimaux (Eskimo), the Iroquois, the Lenni Lenape, and that of the Cherokees, Choctaws, and other tribes of the South.

The great body of the American aborigines, not with standing the country over which they are distributed, have many features of physical conformation in common. The exceptions to this general truth, exhibited principally in the persons of the Esquimaux, and in certain white tribes at the West, deserve a separate consideration: at present, our remarks will be confined to the red men, and particularly to those of the present United States and territories.

The appellation universally bestowed upon this people is in itself a strange misnomer, and would hardly have obtained so generally, had not the error in which it originated been one which early voyagers were slow to acknowledge.

The Americans have, indeed, usurped the name of those for whom they were so long mistaken, and whom we are now reduced to distinguish by the title of East Indians.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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