Petalesharro, Pawnee Chief

Petalesharro, a Pawnee Chief

Petalesharro was a brave of the Pawnee tribe. His father, Letalasharr was chief of his band, and a man of renown. Petalesharro early imbibed his father’s spirit; often, no doubt, charmed with the songs of the chief, in which he recounted the battle’s he had fought, and told of the scalps he had taken, his youthful bosom heaved, and his heart resolved to imitate these deeds; and, in his turn, to recount his warlike exploits — tell of his victories, and count the scalps he had taken. Thus impressed, he went early into battle, and soon won the renown and the title of a “brave.”

We saw him in Washington in 1821, whither he was sent as one of a deputation from his tribe, to transact business with the government. He was dressed, so far as his half-length discloses it, precisely as he is seen in the portrait. He wore a head-dress of the feathers of the war eagle, which extended, in a double series, down his back to his hips, narrowing as it descended. His robe was thrown carelessly but gracefully over his shoulders, leaving his breast, and often one arm, bare. The usual garments decorated his hips and lower limbs; these were the anzeum, the leggins, and the moccasin, all ornamented. The youthful and feminine character of his face, and the humanity of its expression, were all remarkable. He did not appear to be older than twenty years, yet he was then believed to be twenty-five.

A fine incident is connected with the history of this Indian. The Pawnee Loups had long practiced the savage rite, known to no other of the American tribes, in sacrificing human victims to the Great Star, or the planet Venus. This dreadful ceremony annually preceded the preparations for planting corn, and was supposed to be necessary to secure a fruitful season. To prevent the failure of the crop, and a consequent famine, some individual was expected to offer up a prisoner, of either sex, who had been captured in war, and someone was always found who coveted the honor of dedicating the spoil of his prowess to the national benefit. The intended victim carefully kept in ignorance of the fate that impended, was dressed in gay apparel, supplied with the choicest food, and treated with every tenderness, with the view of promoting obesity, and preparing an offering the more acceptable to the deities who were to be propitiated. When, by the successful employment of these means, the unhappy victim was sufficiently fatted, a day was appointed for the sacrifice, and the whole nation assembled to witness the solemn scene.

Some short time before Petalesharro was deputed to visit Washington, it chanced that an Itean maid, who had been taken prisoner, was doomed by her captor to be offered up to the Great Star, and was prepared with the usual secrecy and care for the grand occasion. The grief and alarm, incident to a stale of captivity, had been allayed by deceptive kindness, and the grateful prisoner became happy in the society of strangers, who bestowed upon her a degree of adulation to which she had probably not been accustomed. Exempt from labor, and exalted into an unwonted ease of life, she soon acquired that serenity of mind, and comeliness of person, which rendered her worthy of being offered to the Great Star, as a full equivalent for an abundant harvest.

The reader will now fancy himself in view of the great gathering of the Pawnees, and that he is in sight of the multitude assembled in honor of the sacrifice. In his near approach he will hear their orgies. In the midst of the circle a stake is brought; its end is sharpened, when it is driven deep into the ground. Yells and shouts announce that all is ready. In the distance is seen a company of Pawnees; by the side of the leader is a delicate girl. They approach near. He who made her captive enters the circle — shouts welcome him. He takes the girl by the hand, and leads her to the fatal spot. Her back is placed against the stake; cords are brought, and she is bound to it. The fagots are now collected, and placed around the victim. A hopeless expression is seen in her eye — perhaps a tear! Her bosom heaves, and her thoughts are of home, when a torch is seen coming from the woods hard by. At that moment a young brave leaps into the midst of the circle — rushes to the stake — tears the victim from it, and springing on a horse, and throwing her upon another, and putting both to the top of their Speed, is soon lost in the distance. Silence prevails — then murmurs are heard — then the loud threat of vengeance, when all retire. The stake and the fagot are all that remain to mark the spot which, but for this noble deed, ashes and bones would have distinguished. Who was it that intrepidly released the captive maid.’ It was the young, the brave, the generous Petalesharro

Whether it was panic, or the dread of Latalashaw’s vengeance that operated, and kept the warriors from using their bows and arrows, and rifles, is not known, but certain it is they did not use them.

Our readers will, perhaps, expect to hear that Petalesharro conducted the maiden to her own people, and received the reward which valor deserves from beauty. But mere gallantry formed no part of this adventure. It was not induced, nor rewarded, by love. The Indian is very scriptural in his belief that man is the head of the woman; but he is equally strong in the faith, that the female, if she has fair play, is quite as able to take care of herself as a man. Having escorted her into the broad plains, beyond the precincts of the Pawnee village, and supplied her with provisions, he admonished her to make the best of her way to her own nation, which was distant about four hundred miles, and left her to her fate and her reflections. She lost no time in obeying such salutary counsel, and had the good fortune, the next day, to fall in with a war party of her own people, by whom she was safely carried home.

Cardhie records of chivalry furnish a parallel to this generous act? Can the civilized world bring forward a case demonstrating a higher order of humanity, united with greater bravery? Whence did the youthful Petalesharro learn this lesson of refined pity? Not of civilized man. Great as have been the efforts of the good and the merciful, from the days of Eliot and Brainard to our own times, to enlighten the Indians, none had ever yet reached the Pannees, to instruct them, or to enrapture their thoughts by such beautiful illustrations of the merciful. It was the impulse of nature — nature cast in a more refined mould; and, probably, as the sequel will show, nurtured by the blood and spirit of a noble though untaught father.

The tidings of this deed accompanied Petalesharro to Washington, he and his deed soon became the theme of the city. The ladies, especially, as is their nature, hastened to do him honor. A medal was prepared. A time was appointed for conferring upon him this merited gift. An assembly had collected to witness the ceremony. He was told, in substance, that the medal was given him in token of the high opinion which was entertained of his act in the rescue of the Itean maid. He was asked, by the ladies who presented it, to accept and wear it for their sake; and told, when he had another occasion to save a captive woman from torture, and from the stake, to look upon the medal, think of those who gave it, and save her, as he had saved the Itcan girl. The reply of Petalesharro was prompt and excellent, but the interpretation of it was shocking! He was made to say, “I did it (rescued the girl) in ignorance. I did not know that I did good! I now know that I did good, by your giving me this medal.” We understood him to mean this; and so, we have no doubt, he spoke, in substance, though not in our words: — “He did not know, till now, that the act he had performed was meritorious; but, as his white brothers and sisters considered it a good act, and put upon it so high a value, he was glad they had heard of it. We would almost venture to represent the words of the brave in reply to the compliment. We saw the medal put on his neck, and saw him bring it in his hand, and look at it. Holding it before him, he said — “This brings rest to my heart. I feel like the leaf after a storm, and when the wind is still. I listen to you. I am glad. I love the pale faces more than ever I did, and will open my ears wider when they speak. I am glad you heard of what I did. I did not know the act was so good. It came from my heart. I was ignorant of its value. I now know how good it was. You make me know this by giving me this medal.”

The rescue of the Itean girl might, if a solitary act, be looked upon as the result of impulse, and not as proceeding from a generous nature. It happens, however, not to stand alone, as the only incident of the sort in the life of Petalesharro. One of his brother warriors had brought in a captive boy. He was a Spaniard. The captor resolved to offer him in sacrifice to the Great Star. The chief, Letalashaw, had been for some time opposed to these barbarous rites. He sent for the warrior, and told him he did not wish him to make the sacrifice. The warrior claimed his right, under the immemorial usages of the tribe. They parted. Letalashaw sent for his son, and asked what was to be done to divert the captor from his purpose. Petalesharro promptly replied: “I will take the boy, like a brave, by force.” The father thought, no doubt, that danger would attend upon the act, and resolved on a more pacific mode. It was to buy the boy. He accordingly gave out his intention, and those who had goods of any kind, brought them to his lodge, and laid them down as an offering on the pile which the chief had supplied from his own stores. The collection having been made, the captor was again sent for, and, in the authoritative tone of a chief thus addressed: “Take these goods, and give me the boy.” He refused, when the chief seized his war-club and flourished it over the head of the captor. At the moment, Petalesharro sprang forward, and said — “Strike! and let the wrath of his friends fall on me.” The captor, making a merit of necessity, agreed, if a few more articles were added, to give up the boy to the chief. They were added, and thus the captive was saved. The merchandise was sacrificed instead of the boy. The cloth was cut into shreds, and suspended upon poles, at the spot upon which the blood of the victim had been proposed to be shed, and the remainder of the articles burned. No subsequent attempt to immolate a victim was made.

Petalesharro succeeded his father in the chieftainship of his tribe, and became highly distinguished in that, station.

We conclude this sketch with the following stanzas, published, some years ago, in the “New York Commercial Advertiser,” on the rescue of the Itean maid.

Biography, Pawnee,

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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