Schoolcraft’s Opinion of Native American History

1. Native American history, on this continent, is more celebrated for preserving its fables than its facts. This is emphatically true respecting the hunter and non-industrial tribes of the present area of the United States, who have left but little that is entitled to historical respect. Nations creeping out of the ground a world growing out of a tortoise s back the globe re-constructed from the earth clutched in a muskrat s paw, after a deluge, such are the fables, or allegories, from which we are to frame their ancient history. Without any mode of denoting their chronology, without letters, without any arts depending upon the use of iron tools, without, in truth, any power of mind or hand, to denote their early wars and dynasties, except what may be inferred from their monumental remains, there is nothing, in their oral narrations of ancient epochs, to bind together or give consistency to even this incongruous mass of wild hyperboles and crudities.

Whenever it is attempted, by the slender thread of their oral traditions, to pick up and reunite the broken chain of history, by which they were anciently connected with the old world, their sachems endeavor to fix attention by some striking allegory or incongruous fiction; which sounds, to ears of sober truth, like attempts at weaving a rope of sand. To impress the mind by extraordinary simplicity, or to surprise it, with a single graphic idea, is quite characteristic of Indian eloquence whatever be the theme.

Manco Capac, deriving his pedigree from the sun, or Tarenyawagon, receiving his apotheosis from the White Bird of Heaven; Quetzalcoatl, founding the Toltec empire with a few wanderers from the Seven Caves; or Atatarho, veiling his god-like powers of terror with hissing rattle-snakes, fearful only to others; such are the proofs by which they aim to stay the ill-proportioned fabric of their history, antiquities, and mythology.

2. The native cosmogonists, when they are recalled from building these castles in the air, and asked the meaning of a tumulus, or the age of some gigantic tooth or bone, which remains to attest geological changes in the surface of the continent, answer with a stare! and if they speak at all, they make such heavy drafts upon the imagination, that history never knows when she has made allowances enough on this head.

A mammoth bull, jumping over the great lakes; 1 a grape-vine carrying a whole tribe across the Mississippi; 2 an eagle s wings producing the phenomenon of thunder, or its flashing eyes that of lightning; men stepping in view less tracks up the blue arch of heaven; the rainbow made a baldric; a little boy catching the sun s beams in a snare; 3 hawks, rescuing shipwrecked mariners from an angry ocean, and carrying them up a steep ascent, in leathern bags. 4 These, or a plain event of last year s occurrence, are related by the chiefs with equal gravity, and expected to claim an equal share of belief and historic attention. Where so much is pure mythologic dross, or requires to be put in the crucible of allegory, there appears to be little room for any fact. Yet there are some facts, against which we cannot shut our eyes.

3. We perceive, in them, if examined by the light of truth, as revealed alike by divine and profane records, a marked variety of the human race, possessing traits of a decidedly oriental character, who have been lost to all history, ancient and modern. Of their precise origin, and the era and manner of their migration to this continent, we know nothing with certainty, which is not inferential. Philosophical inquiry is our only guide. This is still the judgment of the best inquirers, who have investigated the subject through the medium of physiology, languages, antiquities, arts, traditions, or whatever other means may have been employed to solve the question. They are, evidently, ancient in their occupancy of the continent. There are, probably, ruins here, which date within five hundred years of the foundation of Babylon. All history demonstrates, that from that central focus of nationality, nations were propelled over the globe with an extraordinary degree of energy and geographical enterprise. It is well said by a recent and eminent writer, that the foot of man has pressed many a soil, which late travelers assume was never trodden before. 5 We have known this continent but three centuries and a half, dating from 1492. That discovery fell like a thunderclap. But it is now known that the Scandinavians had set foot upon it, at a long prior date, and had visited the northern part of it, from Greenland, as early as the beginning of the 10th century. 6 Even in the 9th century, we are informed, Othere proceeded on a voyage to the North Pole. The brothers Zeni had made important prior discoveries, in the western and northern oceans. Biscayan fishermen were driven off the Irish coasts in 1450, and there is a chart of Andrea Bianca in the Ducal Library at Venice, of 1436, on which the names of Brazil and Antillia occur.

4. But whenever visited, whether in the 9th, 10th, or 15th century, or late in the 16th, when Virginia was first visited, the Indians vindicated all the leading traits and characteristics of the present day. Of all races on the face of the earth, who were pushed from their original seats, and cast back into utter barbarism, they have, apparently, changed the least; and have preserved their physical and mental type, with the fewest alterations. They continue to reproduce themselves, as a race, even where their manners are comparatively polished, and their intellects enlightened; as if they were bound by the iron fetters of an unchanging type. In this unvarying and indomitable individuality, and in their fixity of opinion and general idiosyncrasy, they certainly remind the reader of oriental races of the Shemitic family of man.

5. Viewed in extenso, the race appears to be composed of the fragments of various tribes of men, who bore, however, a general affinity to each other. With some small exceptions, they appear to be parts of a whole. Most of their languages and dialects are manifestly derivative. While they are transpositive and polysyllabic, they are of a type of synthesis more concrete and ancient in its structure than those of Rome and Greece, and exhibit no analogies to those of western and northern Europe, unless it be the Basque and Magyar. But they are philosophically homogeneous in syntax, capable of the most exact analysis and resolution into their original and simple elements; and while some of them impose concords, in reference to a wild aboriginal principle of animate and inanimate classes of nature, they are entirely una-synt7tetic. This subject will be examined in its proper place.

6. As a race, there never was one more impracticable; more bent on a nameless principle of tribality; more averse to combinations for their general good; more deaf to the voice of instruction; more determined to pursue all the elements of their own destruction. They are still, as a body, nomadic in their manners and customs. They appear, on this continent, to have trampled on monumental ruins, some of which had their origin before their arrival, or without their participation as builders; though these are apparently ruins of the same generic race of men, but of a prior era. They have, in the north, no temples for worship, and live in a wild belief of the ancient theory of a diurgus, or Soul of the Universe, which inhabits and animates every thing. They recognize their Great Spirit in rocks, trees, cataracts, and clouds; in thunder and lightning; in the strongest tempests and the softest zephyrs; and this subtle and transcendental Spirit is believed to conceal himself in titular deities from human gaze, as birds and quadrupeds; and, in short, he is to be supposed to exist under every possible form in the world, animate and inanimate.

7. While a Great Spirit thus constitutes the pith of Indian theory, the tribes live in a practical state of polytheism; and they have constructed a mythology in accordance with these sublimated views of matter and spirit, which is remarkable for the variety of its objects. To this they constantly appeal, at every step of their lives. They hear the great diurgic Spirit in every wind; they see him in every cloud; they fear him in every sound; and they adore him in every place that inspires awe. They thus make gods of the elements: they see his image in the sun; they acknowledge his mysterious power in fire; and wherever nature, in the perpetual struggle of matter to restore its equilibrium, assumes power, there they are sure to locate a god.

8. This is but half their capacity of stout belief. The Indian god of North America exists in a dualistic form; there is a malign and a benign type of him; and there is continual strife, in every possible form, between these two antagonistical powers, for the mastery over the mind. They are in perpetual activity. Legions of subordinate spirits attend both. Nature is replete with them. When the eye fails to recognize them in material forms, they are revealed in dreams. Necromancy and witchcraft are two of their ordinary powers. They can, in a twinkling, transform men and animals. False hopes and fears, which the Indian believes to be true, spring up on every side. His notions of the spirit-world exceed all belief; and the Indian mind is thus made the victim of wild mystery, unending suspicion, and paralyzing fear. Nothing could make him more truly a wild man.

9. It is a religion of woods and wilds, and involves the ever-varying and confused belief in spirits and demons, gods of the water and gods of the rocks, and in every imaginable creation of the air, the ocean, the earth, and the sky, of every possible power, indeed, which can produce secret harm or generate escape from it. Not to suffer, with the Indian, is to enjoy. Not to be in misery from these unnumbered hosts, is to be blest. He seems, indeed, to present the living problem of a race which has escaped from every good and truthful influence, and is determined to call into requisition every evil one, to prevent his return to the original doctrines of truth; for he constantly speaks, when his traditions are probed, of having lived in a better state; of having spoken a better and purer language, and of having been under the government of chiefs who exercised a more energetic power. Such, at least, I have found the tone of the Algonquin mind, during a long residence among them.Citations:

  1. Jefferson s Notes[]
  2. Heckewelder’s History of the Indians[]
  3. Oneöta[]
  4. Cusic’s Ancient History of the Iroquois[]
  5. Charles Hamilton Smith’s History of the Human Species[]
  6. Antiquities Americana. Copenhagen[]


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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