Persons and Character of Indians

Indians, generally, are about the size of the white people. The Osage, and some other tribes, who are of remarkable height, and fine figure, are exceptions to this remark. In these respects they exceed any equally large body of white people known among us. In the shape of their limbs, and their erect form, Indians have evidently the advantage over the whites. Some, whom I have seen, would be perfect models for the sculptor. Instances of deformity are rare. In bodily strength they are inferior to the whites; as b true of all savages; civilized man being always superior in strength to savage man. 1 They are fleet in their movements.

Indian runners are prodigies in respect to their long continued rapidity in conveying messages to distant tribes. Their journeys far exceed in length, what white man could perform in the same time, and with less weariness. With wonderful quickness interesting information is circulated among the tribes friendly to each other. 2

Indians talk but little. Their knowledge is limited, and their ideas few; and they have the wisdom not to talk when they have nothing to say – a trait of character worthy the imitation of many, who claim to be wiser than Indians. In conversation they do not interrupt each other, but wait respectfully till the speaker has finished. Except when intoxicated, they are not vociferous, noisy, or quarrelsome, in their common intercourse, but mild and obliging. Backbiting, whispering, cursing and swearing, to our shame it must be said, are vices, not of savage, but of civilized man!! The Indians who have been conversant with white men, like the ancient Cretans, are liars. Many among them are full of subtly, deceit and artifice, implacable, unmerciful, without pity. 3 When enmity toward an individual, family, or tribe, from whatever cause is imbibed, it remains till death, unless previously gratified and removed, by taking revenge on his enemy. The most horrid scenes of torture and cruelty are witnessed by whole tribes of both sexes, old and young, without any show of pity. Thousands of helpless women and children, crying for mercy, have been tomahawked, and scalped, and mangled, without mercy. But these dispositions, and the indulgence of them, unhappily are not confined to Indians. I would to God, for the honor of our country, they were. Were we to charge the Indians with indulging these ferocious dispositions, we should expose ourselves to the just retort, “Physician, heal thyself. Thou that reproaches us as implacable, unmerciful, unpitying toward white people; dost thou suffer thy warriors to indulge these same dispositions toward defenseless Indians, desolating and burning our pleasant villages, and slaughtering our shrieking wives and children?”

Hospitality is a prominent trait in the Indian character. To the stranger, whether white or red, they are hospitable and generous, furnishing the best food and accommodations their dwellings afford; often relinquishing their own food and lodging for the refreshment and comfort of the stranger.

The women are slaves of the men, performing all the labor and drudgery of the house, of the field, and of raising their children. Those women, who have families, generally stoop in their walk; their heads project forward; they are deformed by the burdens which they are constrained to bear. The man considers it a disgrace to labor, and while at home is a mere lounger.

Indian Chiefs are generally, not always, the ablest and wisest men in the nation; more frequently they are old men, and manage their Councils, and the affairs of the nation with sober dignity, great order, deliberation and decorum. They proceed slowly, but sorely. Nothing is permitted to interrupt their great business after they engage in it; and when they have finished it, the Council breaks up. Special care is taken to prevent divisions in their deliberations, and in their respective nations. In conversing with individual chiefs and sections of tribes, in my late tour among them, and asking what they thought of the propositions of their Great Father, the President; their reply, in frequent instances was – “We are but part of the nation; we cannot answer. We will deliver your proposal to the Chiefs in Council, who will deliberate on it, and decide, and then we will let you know our opinion.” Their public speakers are generally their most eloquent men, and many of them, in point of natural and forcible gesture, graceful attitude, and manly sense, not, indeed, in learning and information, would rank among the first orators in any age or country. Next to the Chiefs, are the medicine men, a species of jugglers, of whom we have given an account, 4 and who have usually the dominant influence in the tribe.

The Indians are shrewd observers, and quick discerners of character. They have a high sense of honor, justice, and fair dealing, and great sensibility, when advantage is taken of their weakness and ignorance, to deprive them of their property, and in other ways, to trespass on their rights? When their confidence, in this way, is once lost, it is difficult to regain it. Their distrust too, is not limited to the man who injures them, but is extended to all whom he is supposed to represent. “This white man would cheat us out of all our property. All white men would do the same. White men are all cheats.” 5 They have not our knowledge and means to make the just discrimination. This view shows again how necessary it is, that the Government, in all their transactions with Indians, should be just, faithful to fulfill all their promises to them with paternal kindness, in their uneducated, dependent state. In this way alone can they regain and secure their lost confidence; and without their confidence and affection, we can do them very little good. This view of the Indian character, also, shows how indispensable it is to the success of any plans for the benefit of Indians, that none but men of good and exemplary character, should ever be permitted to go among them, either in the Military profession, as Agents or Traders, or in any other capacity. The reasons are so obvious, that no observations are necessary to elucidate or enforce them.

There is as visible a difference of character among the different tribes, as there is in our own population; few general observations, therefore, will apply to them as a body. Whatever may have been their origin, about which there are many opinions, and none of which can be relied on as correct, they are certainly an intelligent and noble part of our race, and capable of high moral and intellectual improvement. When we consider their mode of life, the few advantages they have enjoyed for cultivating and enlarging their minds, that they have no written language, no books, on education, but in the art of war, hunting, and a few other things, and no religion other than that, which, not to use stronger expressions is very imperfect, and of little moral effect; we may well wonder that we find them in the state we have described. They are a race, who on every correct principle ought to be saved from extinction, if it be possible to save them. They are entitled to all that can be done for this purpose.


Polygamy, limited principally to the Chiefs, and to the wealthy, is practiced generally among the Indians. This practice should be delicately, but effectually discountenanced, not only because it is a violation of the laws of God, but because it tends to diminish the increase, and to endanger the harmony, of families, and to render difficult and perplexing the proper government and education of children. This practice ever yields and vanishes before the light of civilization and Christianity. Let in this light on the Indians, and the abolition of this practice will follow of course.Citations:

  1. M. Peron, one of the distinguished French Naturalists, has had opportunity to notice, that men in a savage state are inferior in strength to men civilized. By actual experiment, he is said to have demonstrated, in every satisfactory manner that the introduction of social order, and the sober habits of civilized life, does by no means, as some have asserted, impair, but actually strengthen our physical powers. The following has been quoted as the result of his experiments on the subject, made with the Dianometer of M. Regnier.
    Force. Savages. With hands. With traces

    Of Diemen’s Land,    50.6    —
    New Holland,    51.8   14.8
    Timor, 58.7    16.4
    French,     69.2   22.1
    English, 71.4    23.8

    By civilizing the Indians we may hence calculate how much physical strength we shall gain; beside an increase of their numbers.[]

  2. In the summer of 1820, I received my first intelligence, and this shortly after the event, of the capture of the two Winnebago murderers, who have since been executed, from a solitary chief, on a solitary island, in Lake Michigan.[]
  3. Pawnee brave, the subject of a vevy interesting anecdote (See Appendix, p. 247) may be considered as one among many other honorable exception to these general remarks.[]
  4. Appendix p. 100[]
  5. The following pleasant Anecdote is in point, and exactly illustrates my meaning. – A white man and an Indian agreed to hunt together, and to share equally the game they should take. At night it appeared, that they had only a turkey and a buzzard; the latter a bird of no value. Well, said the white man to the Indian, we are now to divide what we have taken, and if you please, I will take the turkey and you shall take the buzzard; or you may take the buzzard, and I will take the turkey. Ah, replied the Indian, yea no say turkey for poor Indian once.[]


Morse, Rev. Jedidiah. A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States on Indian Affairs, Printed by S. Converse, 1822.

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