Population and Statistics

The aboriginal population of America was over-rated from the beginning; and the same spirit of exaggeration which actuated the early discoverers, has continued to throw its influence over every period of our history. It is not probable that, at the opening of the sixteenth century, or any other period which may be selected, the number of souls upon the Indian territory, bore any very considerable ratio to the number of square miles of country which they occupied in the shape of villages, or hunting grounds. The hunter state requires, indeed, that immense districts of forest should be left in the wilderness condition, that its objects may be properly accomplished. From some data that have been employed, it is doubtful whether an area of less than fifty thousand acres, left in the forest state, is more than sufficient to sustain by the chase a single hunter.

Most of the tribes living in districts where game abounded, relied almost exclusively upon that resource for a subsistence. The zea maize was cultivated in all the southern and middle latitudes of the territory of the United States, not as furnishing the staple of life, but as a mere subsidiary means of subsistence. This can be said of the ancient Floridians, amongst whom De Soto marched, and will hold good, if the remark be applied to the Muskogees, the Choctaws and Chickasaws, and the Cherokees, of the earlier periods of our history.

The common deer was found to inhabit all the latitudes from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Great Lakes. The black bear extended its ranges to an equal extent. The elk (C. Canadensis) was an inhabitant of the North Atlantic forests, and was found by the hunter west of the Alleghanies, and as far south as the forests of Louisiana and the prairies of Texas.

The moose (C. Alces) was killed in Pennsylvania, and characterized the forests of New England and the entire range of the Lake States. To these animals, which furnished the common viands of an Indian s lodge, were added, for all the region west of the Alleghanies, the bison of the west, (Bos Americanus,) the prominent object and glory of the chase for the tribes of these latitudes. For these prime objects of prey, the Indian disputed with the wolf, the northern cougar, or panther, and the northern hyena.

If, with the ample means and sparse population of the continent, the Indian had devoted himself to the arts of peace, the aboriginal population would undoubtedly have far transcended any modern estimates that have been submitted. But the reverse was singularly true; and, while he maintained an active war on the native quadrupeds, this struggle was but secondary compared to his incessant, blood-thirsty, and perfidious war against his own species. Every element of tribal discord was there in active operation, long before the continent was discovered; and it is inferable that the population barely sustained itself, but did not advance, for centuries.

The Iroquois, who appear to have perceived this cause of depopulation, and adopted the principles of a confederacy, reaped the highest advantages from it, and, in a comparatively few years, extended the terror of their name from New York and New England, throughout all New France, quite to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

The discovery of America, and the planting of the colonies, put a new phases on all this. By the introduction of firearms, and by creating a market for furs, the real objects of the chase were entirely changed. Hunting was altered from a manly pastime to a money making pursuit. The beaver, otter, mink, musk-rat, and other small animals, which had before-time been sufficient for their food and clothing, acquired a sudden value, and the Indian s appetites were stimulated by every possible inducement of foreign production, to exert all his powers in the chase. The consequence was, that large tracts of land were soon exhausted, and remote forests invaded. The countries in which game failed became of little use to them, and were easily parted with for the means of gratifying their newly awakened passions, and they retired farther into the wilderness. The Anglo-Saxon trod closely on their heels, following with the plough the circle before gleaned with the rifle, the gun, and the trap.

Amongst the inducements furnished the Indian, to urge him on in the chase of the furred animals, nothing has been so deleterious as the introduction of distilled spirits. A taste for this was soon created, and it has spread far and wide. Years have only confirmed the general habit. It has paralyzed his powers as a hunter, and done more than all other causes put together, to produce depopulation.

Another cause, which has but recently been demonstrated, though long suspected, is the payment of cash annuities to tribes per capita, or otherwise. The necessary result of the sale of their lands, of which the quantity held becomes excessive in their hands, by the failure of the chase upon them, is the accumulation of large sums, which it is customary, in general, to pay in the form of annuities. This custom is universal, it is believed, in our intercourse with the non-industrial or hunter tribes.

Reference to the following tables of statistics denotes that the hunter tribes, who rely, largely, on these cash annuities, become careless in their ordinary pursuit of the chase. The temptation to idleness is too strong for resistance in the Indian mind. While the use of the trap is neglected, debt is incurred for the means of clothing and subsistence. It is not to be expected that the ordinary principles of commerce will be intermitted in the intercourse of our frontier citizens with those moneyed tribes. Credit will follow, as in ordinary cases, the known means and disposition of payment.

The Indian is a man who, whatever may be his idiosyncrasies, is prompt to acknowledge his obligations to discharge his debts, tribal and personal, and who is ever ready, when his means will permit it, to cancel them: this is characteristic of the moral sense of the tribes. No man, who has had opportunities of frequent observation of their character and customs, will, it is apprehended, deny this noble trait of tribal honesty and fair dealing. The history of our Indian treaties is a standing commentary upon its truth, in every age of our republic.

That these hunter tribes should not perceive that the annual distribution of the principal of their funds, instead of the interest of it alone, is certain, in all the cases of limited annuities, to deprive them, in a few years, of every agricultural and educational means of improvement, should not excite surprise. They have not yet reached a point of civilization from which they can, calmly and truly, estimate their position. They are, at the same time, urged to continue the system by considerations of sell-gratification, which it is not easy for them to resist.

It will be further perceived, that those tribes whom we are to regard, if not in the mass, yet in their chieftaincies, governments, and leading men, as semi-civilized, have developed better fiscal abilities, while, in many instances, the principles of investment and funding, adopted by them, are replete with the best axioms of political economy.

While the hunter and barbarous tribes thus persist in a policy which must be fatal to their financial prosperity, it is a question of moment, whether the ready means thus supplied to them of self-indulgence, in the use of distilled spirits, is not hurrying them onward in a career that must end in their moral wreck. It is seen, from the inquiries that have been thus far made, that small tribes, who, but a few years ago, were prosperous, and had kept up, if not increased, from the era of 1814, in their numbers, have, under the influence of high cash annuities, and unlimited credit, been hurried on in the triple career of intemperance, depopulation, and moral degradation. Such, indeed, is their fearful progress in this course, that a few years must result in the entire extinction of some well-known tribes. Nations who were, but a few years back, fearful in their native strength, under the banners of a Tecumseh, a Little Turtle, and a Black Hawk, have fallen under influences more fatal to them than the rifle, the sword, and the camp-fever. If the Miamies, portions of the Sauks and Foxes, and the Winnebagoes, could be persuaded of the hasty and downward steps which they are making in this descending moral scale, it is believed that they would pause in their alarming course of depopulation, and revert to a healthier policy.

The statistics which are presented have been wrung from the tribes. Conscious, themselves, of a paucity in their industrial means, and of a disregard of the soundest maxims of civilized life, they have resisted, if they have not often misunderstood, the humane policy which dictated the investigation. Instead of thereby seeking to acquire means of laying a tax on their property an idea preposterous in itself, as none but citizens can, under the constitution, be taxed, the inquiry merely contemplated the acquisition of information which might show their condition, and would be of incalculable value to Congress, in more perfectly adapting its laws to it. I have, in a preceding place, adverted to the difficulties in the way of prosecuting the statistical inquiries among the tribes; but no obstacle is of sufficient weight to deter from the effort; nor can there be a reasonable doubt of ultimate and complete success.

The field of investigation has been enlarged by our recent acquisitions of territory on our southern and western boundaries, of the Indian tribes of which, we are comparatively uninformed. But this adds another reason to those previously existing, to sanction the original plan of the census and statistics. Whatever system may be adopted in relation to the cash-annuities paid to the hunter tribes, it is desirable that they should be prevented from dissipating their funds on objects not essential to their advance in agriculture, arts, education, morals, and Christianity.

The progress which has been made in the aboriginal census and statistics, will be seen by referring to the subjoined tables, in which the facts have been carefully digested. These returns relate exclusively to tribes living east of the Rocky Mountains. Respecting the extreme western tribes situated within the chartered limits of Oregon, the latest official dates received denote fifty-nine tribes, and fragments of tribes, bearing specific names; of which number thirty-four tribes live south, and twenty-five tribes north of the Columbia River. (See Tables, No. 4.) The entire Indian population of this territory is now estimated at 22,033, where Lewis and Clark in 1806 reported 80,000. A great number of dialects are spoken. The constant tendency of the savage and hunter state, as observed in the west, is to make dialects, and to generate petty independencies. Even the Cherokees, Choctaws, and other semi-civilized tribes, resist confederation. Change of accent, and peculiarities of intonation, are perpetual and rapid causes of mutations in their languages.

Mr. Hale, the ethnographer of the United States Exploring Expedition, reports four divisions of Indian population by geographical boundaries, spreading along the Pacific coast, between California and the peninsula of Alasca, in north latitude 60°. They are as follows:

  1. North-west division. Latitude 52° 2′, to Charlotte’s Sound and Alasca, 60°.
  2. North Oregon division. All north of the Columbia to latitude 52°, except Prince of Wales Island, and three or four south.
  3. South Oregon division. Sa-aptins, Walla-wallas, &c.
  4. California division. Darker shade inferior physical type.

These divisions are not established physiologically: the era being prior to the settlement of the Oregon question, also renders the divisions imprecise for civil purposes. Division number one is wholly without the limits of the United States. Of division number two, extending north of the Columbia to latitude fifty-two degrees, three degrees of the coast have been assigned to British Oregon, or New Caledonia.

By dividing the American territory into North and South Oregon, by the line of the Columbia, as it has been done by Governor Lane, the results of whose reports are given in the statistical tables herewith, the tribes are now accurately designated, agreeably to our civil limits, as above expressed. (See Tables No. 5.)

In order to group the Oregon Indians agreeably to languages, our information is inadequate. Mr. Hale subdivides the leading coast divisions into thirteen sections; of which the thirteenth section, being the Blackfeet, or Satsika, comprises tribes who dwell wholly eastward of the Rocky Mountains, and are not, in any sense, properly considered as Oregon Indians. This section is redivided into Satsika, Blood Indians, Piekans, and Atsinas, or Fall Indians, who, speaking one generic language, (the Atsina-Algonquin,) constitute the chief known local divisions of the people. They dwell on the Saskatchiwine, of the Great Lake Winnipec, of Hudson s Bay, and on the Upper Missouri, and its higher northeastern tributaries. They are found by their vocabulary, according to Mr. Mackenzie, to speak a dialect, much altered, of the Algonquin. It is certain that important portions of this tribe hunt the plains south of latitude 49°, and are therefore within the United States.

The Shoshonees who occupy the upper waters of the Lewis or Snake River, spread throughout the Great Salt Lake Basin, and cross the mountains south into Texas.

The Unikwa, the Contamis, or Flat-Bows, and the Salish families, (sections 1, 2, 3, of Mr. Hale,) are located wholly (or with the exception of g, h, j, k, 1, of the latter) north of the boundaries of Oregon. Abstracting these families from the sections enumerated, we have pretty fully eight sections of tribes or families, estimated by him; or, agreeably to the late official statements of Governor Lane, fifty-nine local tribes, numbering 22,000 souls, as the subject of our future investigations in Oregon.


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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