On account of the recent discovery of their consonantic language, which proves to be disconnected from any other aboriginal tongue spoken in North America, a peculiar interest attaches itself to the tribe of the Taensa Indians, whose cabins stood in Tensas county, Louisiana, bordering east on Mississippi river. The Tensas River, in French Bayou Tensa, which joins the Washita River at Trinity City, after forming a prodigious number of bends, and flowing past a multitude of artificial mounds, still keeps up the memory of this extinct tribe.
In March 1700, the French commander L. dIberville calculated the distance from the landing of the Natchez to that of the Taensas, following the river, at about 15½ leagues, and in the air-line, 11¼ leagues. That Taensa landing, at the foot of a bluff nine hundred feet high (150 toises), was about 325 Lat., while dIberville, trusting his inaccurate methods of measuring, located it at 32° 47 Lat. (Margry IV, 413).
The Northern Taensa Indians
The tribe occupied seven villages at the time of dIbervilles visit, which were distant four leagues from the Mississippi river, and grouped around a semi-circular lake, probably Lake St. Joseph. One hundred and twenty of these cabins were extending for two leagues on the lakeshore, and a “temple” was among them. The missionary Montigny, who visited the locality about the same epoch, estimated the population of that part of the Taensa settlement which he saw at 400 persons. “They were scattered over an area of eight leagues, and their cabins lay along a river.”
The seven villages visited by d Iberville constitute one town only, as he was told. This means to say that they formed a confederacy. A Taensa Indian, who accompanied him, gave their names in the Chicasa trade language, or, as the French called it, the Mobilian jargon (Margry IV, 179).
- Taënsas; from Chahta tandshi maize.
- Ohytoucoulas; perhaps from úti chestnut; cf. utápa chestnut eater. For -ougoula, cf. p. 36.
- Couthaougoulas; from Chahta ukhátaχ lake.
- Conchayon; cf. Chahta kónshak reed, species of cane.
- Talaspa; probably from tálapi five, or talepa hundred.
- Chaoucoula; from Chahta issi, deer, or hátche river, water-course.
In the Taensa Grammar and Vocabulary of Haumonté, Parisot and Adam (Paris, 1882), the name by which the people called itself is Hâstriryini “warriors, men, tribe.” cf. p. 91: hâstri to fight, make war; hâstrir warrior, man; hâstriryi people, tribe; but Tensagini also occurs in the texts, which would point to an extensive maize culture.
The Taensa were sun worshipers, and had a temple with idols and a perpetual fire. When d Iberville sojourned among them, lightning struck their temple and destroyed it, upon which the mothers sacrificed their infants, to appease the wrath of the incensed deity, by throwing them into the burning edifice (Margry IV, 414, etc.; V, 398). The people then rubbed their faces and bodies with earth. Nothing definite is known about their gentes, phratries and totems. Several French authors represent them as speaking the Naktche language (which is untrue) and as being of the same nation. 1 D Iberville states that their language differed from that of the Huma tribe.
The remnants of a tribe called Mosopellea, probably of Illinois-Algonkin origin and previously residing west of the “Isle of Tamaroa,” on western shore of Mississippi River, joined the Taensa, and were met there in 1682 by Tonti. They had been almost annihilated by the Iroquois. 2
The Taensa had, at one time, formed an alliance with the Koroa, then on Yazoo River, and another with the Arkansas Indians.
The Taensa grammar speaks of a northern and of a southern, more polished dialect, but does not locate them topographically. The only word of Taensa which I have found to agree with any other language, is ista eye; it also occurs in Southern Dakotan dialects.
The Southern Taensa Indians
In early colonial times a portion of the Northern Taensa, driven from their homes on the Taensa River by the rage of the Chicasa, fled to the Mobilians. The French settled them on the western side of Mobile bay, below Fort St. Louis, and thirty miles above Fort Condé, which stood on the site of the present city of Mobile. 3 The French called them “les petits Taënsas” in contradistinction to the ” great (or northern) Taënsas,” on Mississippi and Taensa Rivers. About the middle of the eighteenth century one hundred of their cabins stood north of the French fort St. Louis, and also north of the Tohome Indian settlement. The Taensa were then speaking their native language and, besides this, a corrupt Chicasa dialect, called the Mobilian language by the French. 4 Subsequently they must have removed from there to the eastern channel, for Bartram, Travels, pp. 401. 403, describes Taensa there as a “pretty high bluff, on the eastern channel of the great Mobile river, about thirty miles above Fort Condé, or city of Mobile, at the head of the bay with many artificial mounds of earth and other ruins.” During the wars of 1813-15 the adjacent country is called the “Tensaw country.”
It is not unlikely that these Taensa were identical with the “petits Taensas” seen by Lemoyne d Iberville at the Huma town in March 1700, and described by him as migratory, but living most of the time at three days distance west of Huma, and then warring against the Bayogoulas. They gained their sustenance by hunting, though buffaloes were scarce in their country, and were men of a fine physique (Margry IV, 408). In 1702 they defeated the Bayogoulas and burnt their village on Mississippi River; the Bayogoulas fled to the French fort on that river, then commanded by Mr. St. Denis. If identical with the Taensa on Mobile River, these rights of theirs must have occurred during their passage from the North to the bay of Mobile.
The Tangipahoa Indians
A third tribe, which may have stood in some connection with the two tribes above, are the Tangipahoa Indians settled in various places east of New Orleans, especially on Tangipahoa River, in southeastern Louisiana. A French author states that they formed one of the seven villages of the Acolapissa. The name is written in different ways, and is interpreted by Gov. Allen Wright as “those who gather maize stalks,” from tandshe maize; ápi stalk, cob; áyua they gather. Pénicaut defines the name differently, for he states (Margry V, 387) “we found (northwest of Lake Pontchartrain) a river, Tandgepao, which in the Indian signifies bled blanch The Taensapaoa tribe, on the river of the same name, is referred to in Bartram, Travels, p. 422; cf. p. 423. We have no notice concerning the language spoken by this tribe, which was, perhaps, incorporated into the Chahta living now around New Orleans; thus we are unable to decide whether they spoke Chahta, like the other Acolapissa, or another tongue. The Tangibao tribe was “destroyed by the Oumas,” as stated in a passage of Margry (IV, 168); by which is meant, that they were scattered and their tribal connection disrupted.
- Grammaire et Voc. Taensa, Introd., pp. xii. xiv. Compare also Margry, Déc. et Etabl., I, 556-557,566-568, 600-602, 609-610, 616; IV, 414. Their temple, described by le Sieur de Tonty (traveling with la Salle in 1682) in French, Hist. Coll. of La., I, pp. 61. 64.
- Margry I, 610. Mosopolea, ibid. II, 237; Monsopela, on the map in D. Coxe, Carolana.
- At that time they were warring unsuccessfully against the Huma (1713); Pénicaut (in Margry V, 508. 509) saw them at Manchac.
- T. Jefferys, Hist, of French Dominions in America; London, 1761; I, p. 162, sq.