The Indians in the United States Ethnographically Considered

The Indians are treated of in a graphic manner by Daniel G. Brinton, of Philadelphia, Pa., in a series of it of the Science of Ethnography”, as follows:

The American race includes those tribes whom we familiarly call “Indians”, it designation, as you know, which perpetuates the error of Columbus, who thought the western land he discovered was a part of India.

I shall not undertake to discuss those extensive questions, “Who are the Indians”? and “When was America peopled?” and “By what route did the first inhabitants come here”? These knotty points I treat in another coarse of lectures, where I marshal sufficient arguments, I think, to show satisfactorily that America was peopled during, If not before, the great Ice age; that its first settlers probably came from Europe by way of a land connection which once existed over the northern Atlantic, and that their long and isolated residence in this continent has molded them all into a singularly homogeneous race, which varies but slightly anywhere on the continent, and has maintained its type unimpaired for countless generations. Never at anytime before Columbus was it, influenced in blood, language, or culture by any other race. So marked is the unity of its type, so alike the physical and mental traits of its members from Arctic to Antarctic latitudes, that I, do not divide it any other way than geographically as follows:

  1. Arab; group.
  2. North Atlantic group.
  3. North Pacific group.
  4. Mexican group.
  5. Interisthmian group.
  6. South Atlantic group.
  7. South Pacific group.

All the higher civilizations are contained in the Pacific group, the Mexican really belonging to it by derivation and original location. Between the members of the Pacific and Atlantic groups there Was very little communication at any period, the High Sierras walling them apart; but among the members of each Pacific and each Atlantic, group the intercourse was constant and extensive. The Nahuas, for Instance, spread down the Pacific from Sonora to the straits of Panama; the Inca power stretched along the coast for 2,000 miles; but neither of these reached into the Atlantic plains. So with the Atlantic groups the Guarani tongue can he traced from Buenos Ayres to the Amazon, the Algonkin from the Savannah River to Hudson Bay, but neither crossed the mountains to the west. The groups therefore are cultural as well as geographical, and represent natural divisions of tribes as well as of regions, The northernmost of this division is

The Arctic Group

This group comprises the Eskimo and Aleutian tribes. The more correct name for the former is that which they give themselves, Intuit, “men”. They are essentially a maritime people, extending along the northern coasts of the continent from Icy bay in Alaska on the west almost to the straits of Belle Isle on the Labrador side. Northward they reach into Greenland, where the Scandinavians found them about the year 1000 A. D., although it is likely that these Greenland Eskimos had come from Labrador no long time, before. Throughout the whole of this extensive distribution they present a most remarkable uniformity of appearance, languages, arts, and customs. The unity of their tribes is everywhere manifest.

The physical appearance of the Eskimos is characteristic, Their color is dark, hair black and coarse, stature medium, skull generally long (dolichocephalic, 71-73). The board is scant and the cheekbones high. They usually have a cheerful, lively disposition, and are much given to stories, songs, and laughter. Neither the long nights of the polar zone nor the cruel cold of the winters dampens their glee. Before their deterioration by contact with the whites they were truthful and honest. Their intelligence in many directions is remarkable, and they invented and improved many mechanical devices in advance of any other tribes of the race. Thus, they alone on the American continent used lamps. They make them of stone, with a wick of dried moss. The sledge with its team of dogs is one of their devices, and gloves, boots, and divided clothing are articles of dress not found on the on the continent south of them. Their “kayak”, alight and strong boat of seal skins stretched over a frame of bones or wood, is the perfection of a sea canoe, Their carvings in bone, wood, or ivory, and their outline drawings reveal no small degree of technical skill; and they independently discovered the principle of the arch and apply it to the construction of their domed snow houses. The principal weapons among them are the bow and arrow and the lance.

The Aleutians proper live on tho central and eastern islands of the archipelago named from them, Their language differs wholly from the Eskimo. At present they are largely civilized.

The North Atlantic Group

The spacious watershed of the Atlantic stretches from the crests of the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern ocean, Whether the streams debouch into Hudson Bay or the Gulf of Mexico, their waters find their way to the Atlantic. The most of this region was in the possession of a few linguistic stocks whose members, generally at war with each other, roved widely over these low lands.

The northernmost of them was the Athapasca stock. Its members called themselves Tinnah, “people”, and they are also known as Chepewyans, an Algonkin word meaning “pointed skins”, applied from the shape of the skin robe they wore, pointed in front and behind. Their country extended from Hudson Bay to the Cascade Range of the Rocky Mountains, and from the Arctic Ocean southward to a line drawn from the mouth of the Churchill River to the mouth of the Frazer River. The northern tribes extend westward nearly to the delta of the Yukon River, and reach the seacoast at the mouth of the Copper River. At some remote period some of its bands forsook their inhospitable abodes in the north and, following the eastern flanks of the Cordillera, migrated far south into Mexico, where they form the Apaches and Navajos and the Moans, near the month of the Rio del Norte. The general trend of the prehistoric migrations of the Tinneh seems to have been from a center west of Hudson Bay, whence they diverged north, west, and southwest. In physical features they are of average stature and superior muscular development. The color varies considerably, even in the game village, but tends toward a brown. The skull is long, the face broad, and the cheekbones prominent. In point of culture the Tinneh stand low. The early missionaries who undertook the difficult task of bringing them into accord with Christian morals have left painful portraitures of the brutality of the lives of their flocks. The Apaches have for centuries been notorious for their savage dispositions and untamable ferocity. They are, however, skillful hunters, bold warriors, and of singular physical endurance.

Immediately south of, the Athapascans, throughout their whole extent, were the Algonkins. They extended uninterruptedly from Cape Race, in Newfoundland, to the Rocky Mountains, on both banks of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. The Blackfoot were their western most tribe, and in Canada they embraced the Crees, Montagnais, Micmacs, Ottawas, eta, In the area of the United States they were known in New England as the Abnakis, Passamaquoddies, Pequots, etc.; on the Hudson, as Mohegans; on the Delaware, as Lampe; in Maryland, as Nanticokes; in Virginia, as Powhatans; while in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys the Miamis, Sacs and Foxes, Kickapoos, and Chippeways were of this stock. Its most southern representatives were the Shawnees, who once lived on the Tennessee and perhaps the Savannah River, and were closely related to the Mohegans of Now York.

Most of these tribes were agricultural, raising maize, beans, squash, and tobacco. They occupied fixed residences in towns most of the year. They were skillful in chipping and polishing stone, and, they had a definite, even rigid, social organization. Their mythology was extensive, and its legends, as well as time history of their ancestors, were retained in memory by a system of ideographic writing, of which a number of specimens have been preserved. Their intellectual capacities were strong, and the distinguished characters that arose among them (King Philip, Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Pontiac, Tammany, Powhatan) displayed in their dealings of war or peace with the Europeans an ability, a bravery, and a sense of right on a par with the famed heroes of antiquity.

The earliest traceable seat of this widely extended group was somewhere near the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay. To this region their traditions point, and there the language is found in its purest and most archaic form, They apparently divided early into two branches, the one following the Atlantic coast southward and the other the St, Lawrence and the Great Lakes westward. Of those that remained, some occupied Newfoundland, others spread over Labrador, where they wore thrown into frequent contact with the Eskimos,

Surrounded on all sides by the Algonkins, the Iroquois first appear in history as occupying a portion of the area of New York state, To the west, in the adjoining part of Canada, were their kinsmen, the Eries and Hurons; on the Susquehanna, in Pennsylvania, the Conestoga; and in Virginia, the Tuscaroras. All were closely related, but in constant feud. Those in New York ware united as the Five Nations, and as such are prominent figures in the early annals of the English colony. The date of the formation of their celebrated league is reasonably placed in the fifteenth century.

Another extensively dispersed stock is that of the Dakotas, Their area reached from Lake Michigan to the Rocky Mountains and from the Saskatchewan to the Arkansas River, covering most of the valley of the Missouri. A fragment of them, the Tuteloes, resided in Virginia, where they were associated with the Monacans, now extinct, but who were probably of the same stock.

First Half of George Catlin's Map of Indian Country
First Half of George Catlin’s Map of Indian Country

They are also called the Sioux. Their principal tribes are the Assiniboins, to the north; the Hidatsa, or Crows, at the west; the Winnebagoes, to the east; the Omaha, Mandans, Otoes, and Ponces, on the Missouri; the Osages and Kansas, to the south.

The Chahta-Muskoki stock occupied the area of what we call the gulf states, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. They comprised the Creeks or Muskokis, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and later the Seminoles. The latter took possession of Florida early in the last century. Previously that peninsula had been inhabited by the Timucua, a nation now wholly extinct, though its language is still preserved in the works of the Spanish missionaries.

The Creeks and their neighbors were first visited by Fernando do Soto in 1540, on that famous expedition when he discovered the Mississippi. The narratives of his campaign represent them as cultivating extensive fields of corn, living in well fortified towns, their houses erected on artificial mounds, and the villages having defenses of embankments of earth. These statements are verified by the existing remains, which compare favorably in size and construction with those left by the mysterious “mound builders” of the Ohio valley. In fact, the opinion is steadily gaining ground that probably the builders of the Ohio earthworks were the ancestors of the Creeks, Cherokees, and other southern tribes.

Second Half of George Catlin's Map of Indian Country
Second Half of George Catlin’s Map of Indian Country

Much of the area of eastern Texas and the land north of it to the Platte River were held by various tribes of the Caddoes. Fragments of them are found nearly as far north as the Canada line, and it is probable that their migration was front this higher latitude southerly, though their own legends referred to the east as their first home. They depended for subsistence chiefly on hunting and fishing, thus remaining in a lower stage of progress than their neighbors in the Mississippi valley. Sometimes this is called the Pani family, from one of their members, the Pawnees, on the Platte River. Their most northerly tribe was the Arickarees, who reached to the middle Missouri, and in the south the Witchitas were the most prominent.

The Kioways now live about the headwaters of the Nebraska or Platte River, along the northern line of Colorado. Formerly they roamed over the plains of Texas, but according to an ancient tradition they came from same high northern latitude and made use of sleds.

Omitting a number of small tribes, whose names would weary you, I shall mention in the Atlantic group the Shoshone bands called also Snake or Ute Indians. They extended from the coast of Texas in a northwesterly direction over New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada to the borders of California, and reached the Pacific near Santa Barbara. Many of them are as low grade of humanity, the lowest in skull form, says Professor Virchow, of any he has examined on the continent. The “Root-diggers” are one of their tribes, living in the greatest squalor. Yet it would be a serious error to suppose they are not capable of better things. Many among them have shown decided intellectual powers. Sarah Winnemucca, a full blood Pi Ute, was an acceptable and fluent lecturer in the English language, and their war chiefs have at times given our army officers no little trouble by their skill and energy.

The Comanches are the best known of the Shoshonees, and present the finest types of the stock. They are of average stature, straight noses, features regular and even handsome, and the expression manly. They are splendid horsemen and skillful hunters, but men never given to an agricultural life.

The Northern Pacific Group

1840 Map of the United States Indian Frontier
Map of the United States Indian Frontier in 1840
Showing the position of the tribes that have been removed west of the Mississippi

The narrow valleys of the Pacific slope are traversed by streams rich in fish, whose wooded banks abounded in game. Shut off from one another by lofty ridges, they became the home of isolated tribes, who developed in course of time peculiarities of speech, culture, and appearance; hence it is that there is an extraordinary diversity of stocks along that coast, and few of them have any wide extent.

In the extreme north the Tlinkit or Kolosch are in proximity to the Eskimos near Mount St. Elias. They an ingenious and sedentary people, living in villages or square wooden houses, many parts or which are elaborately carved into fantastic figures, Their canoes are dug out of tree trunks, and are both graceful in shape and. remarkably seaworthy. With equal deftness they manufacture clothing from skin; ornaments from bone, ivory; wood, and. stone; utensils from horn and stone, and baskets and mats from rushes.

To the south of them are the Haidahs of Vancouver Island, distantly related in language to the and Thinkit, and closely in the arts of life. Their elaborately carved pipes in black slate and. their intricate designs in wood testify to their dexterity the artists. Smith of them are various stocks, the Tsimshian on the Nass and Skeena Rivers, the Nootka on the sound of that same name, the Salish, who occupy a large tract, and others.

All the above are north of the line of the United States. Not far south of it are the Sahaptins, or Nez Percé, who are noteworthy for two traits; one, their language, which is to some extent inflectional, with cases like the Latin; and the second, for their commercial abilities. They owned the divide between the hoed waters of the Missouri and of the Columbia Rivers, and from remote times carried the, products of the Pacific slope (sheiks, beads, pipes, etc.) far down the Missouri, to barter them for articles from the Mississippi Valley.

The coast of California was thickly peopled by many tribes of no linguistic, affinities, most of whom have now disappear. They offer little of interest except to the specialist, and I shall omit their enumeration. In order to devote more time to the Pueblo Indian to and cliff dwellers of New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona.

These include divers tribes, Moguis, Zuñis, Amami, and others, upon the same plane of culture, and that in many respects higher than any tribe I have yet named to you. They constructed largo buildings (pueblos) of stone or sun-dried bricks, with doors and windows supported by beams of wood. They were not only tillers of the soil but devised extensive systems of irrigation, by which the water was conducted for miles to the fields. They were both skillful and tasteful in the manufacture of pottery and clothing; and as places of defense or retreat they erected stone towers and lodged well-squared stone dwellings on the ledges of the deep canyons known as “cliff houses”.

In connection with the discussion of the ethnography kind the distribution of the Indians, two maps here given are as drawn by George Catlin. The first is an outline to show location of Indians in the United States in l833. The second is a map of the Indian frontier in 1840, showing the position of tribes that prior to that date were removed west of the Mississippi river.


Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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