Traditions of the Ante-Columbian Epoch

On this subject, we are confined to narrow limits. Three or four of the chief stocks now between the Equinox and the Arctic Circle, have preserved traditions which it is deemed proper to recite.

1. In the voyages of Sir Alexander Mackenzie among the Arctic tribes, he relates of the Chepeweyan, that ” they have a tradition that they originally came from another country, inhabited by very wicked people, and had traversed a great lake, which was narrow and shallow, and full of islands, where they had suffered great misery, it being always winter, with ice and deep snow.” 1 In a subsequent passage, p. 387, he remarks ” Their progress (the great Athapasca family) is easterly, and according to their own tradition, they came from Siberia; agreeing in dress and manners with the people now found upon the coasts of Asia.”

2. The Shawanoes, an Algonquin tribe, have a tradition of a foreign origin, or a landing from a sea voyage. John Johnston, Esq., who was for many years their agent, prior to 1820, observes, in a letter of July 7th, 1819, published in the first volume of Archaeologia Americana, p. 273, that they migrated from West Florida, and parts adjacent, to Ohio and Indiana, where this tribe was then located.

“The people of this nation,” he observes, “have a tradition that their ancestors crossed the sea. They are the only tribe with which I am acquainted, who admit a foreign origin. Until lately, they kept yearly sacrifices for their safe arrival in this country. From where they came, or at what period they arrived in America, they do not know. It is a prevailing opinion among them, that Florida had been inhabited by white people, who had the use of iron tools. Blackhoof (a celebrated chief) affirms that he has often heard it spoken of by old people, that stumps of trees, covered with earth, were frequently found, which had been cut down by edged tools.”

At a subsequent page, he says “It is somewhat doubtful whether the deliverance which they celebrate has any other reference, than to the crossing of some great river, or an arm of the sea.” 2)

3. The next testimony is from Mexico. Montezuma told Cortez of a foreign connection between the Aztec race and the nations of the Old World.

This tradition, as preserved by Don Antonio Solis, led that monarch to assure the conqueror of a relationship to the Spanish 3 crown, in the line of sovereigns.

His speech is this: “I would have you to understand before you begin your discourse, that we are not ignorant, or stand in need of your persuasions, to believe that the great prince you obey is descended from our ancient Quetzalcoatl, Lord of the

Seven Caves of the Naxatlaques, and lawful king of those seven nations, which gave beginning to our Mexican empire. By one of his prophecies, which we receive as an infallible truth, and by a tradition of many ages, preserved in our annals, we know that he departed from these countries, to conquer new regions in the East, leaving a promise, that in process of time, his descendants should return, to model our laws, and mend our government.” 4

4. The general tradition of the nation, of their having originated in another land, and their migration by water, is preserved in the ideographic map of Botturini. 5

Map of Boturini - Plate 1
Map of Boturini – Plate 1

By the accompanying Plates 1 and 2 they describe pictographically their first landing from Aztlan. This place is depicted as an island, surrounded on three sides by the sea. It has the representative sign of six principal houses, with a temple surmounted with the usual emblem of their priesthood; and with a king and queen, or chief and chieftainess. The former has a shoulder knot, and long garments; the latter a looking-glass, with her hair in two front knots, and her feet drawn backwards, a la mode de savage. Both are sitting. The next figure is a man in a boat, with flowing hair, and a long garment. This drawing typifies the passage. It is evidently a landing, and not a departure.

Agreeably to the authors who urge the remotest date, this landing took place A. D. 1038. Others think 1064. The Aztecs began to count their chronology, or tie up their years, as they term it, in 1 Tecpatl of their system of cycles. (109.) Their first residence was at Colhuacan, the Horn mountain, where there were eight chiefs, each denoted by his peculiar family badge, or what the Algonquins call totem. From this, the persons charged with carrying their idol, and sacerdotal apparatus, set forward, passing down the Pacific coast. In this journey they spent twenty-eight years, to 2 Calli of their first cycle. During this time they had made three removes, reached the tropics, where they found fruits, growing upon trees, whose trunks were so large, that a man could hardly span them. They took three prisoners, who were sacrificed by their priests, by tearing out their hearts, in the same barbarous manner that was observed after this people became masters of Mexico. From this latter period, their chronology is carefully recorded. They made twenty-two removes, abiding various periods from four to twenty years at a place, making altogether one hundred and eighty-six years; till they reached the valley of Mexico. Agreeably to Clavigero, they reached Zampango in 1216, and migrated to Tizayocan in 1223.

Map of Boturini - Plate 2
Map of Boturini – Plate 2

It is seen that while they dwelt at Chepoltepee, or the Locust Mountain (No. 20), they took prisoners, who were dragged before their chief magistrate. These prisoners were of the wild hunter tribes, and are depicted as wearing the simple azian 6 of modern days.

5. That the Aztecs were not aborigines, or the first inhabitants of the country, is proved by this fact. These prisoners are represented to be of both sexes. The males are quite naked, except the above-named garment, and both sexes are without shoes, whereas the conquerors are always, and in all positions, depicted with large shoes, except in the first figures on an island. These have large bows, resembling in their dimensions the Chinese shoe of the present time. They are also depicted with a doublet, while the captives are naked. 7

6. By the codex Tellurianus and the codex Vaticanus, which have been made accessible by the publication of Lord Kingsborough, it is perceived that there was no Aztec ruler at all, by the name of Quetzalcoatl, during the term of their supremacy. Quetzalcoatl was a Toltec. Montezuma, in speaking of the LORD of the SEVEN CAVES, probably referred to an earlier period of their general history. There can be no pretence set up, indeed, that the Aztecs were aboriginals. They found a strong monarchy, under the Toltecs, to whom they became tributary; and these latter acknowledge the rule of the Olmecs before them, which Ferdinand D’Alva traces to the third century. All three tribes spoke kindred dialects. It was not, in fact, till A. D. 1399, when the Aztecs had been one hundred and eighty-three years, by their own account, in the valley of Anahuac, that they resolved to set up for themselves, and elected Ocampichtli emperor. Their whole era of rule, prior to the final conquest by Cortez, in 1520, had been but one hundred and twenty-one years. This story is told by their picture writings, which have been elaborately examined by the late Hon. Albert Gallatin, in the first volume of the Transactions of the American Ethnological Society.

7. It must be recollected that Montezuma ascribed the beginning of the Mexican empire to Quetzalcoatl, of Navatlaques, lawful chief of the seven bands, who had originated there. It was to this prince, who had, at an ancient era, mysteriously left them, and gone to the East, as the tradition ran, that the Aztecs attributed the origin of the Spanish monarchy, which made them the more ready, at first, to submit to their conquerors. They expected a succession or restoration of the empire to the descendants of a legitimate monarch. But when the Aztecs found their mistake, they rallied under Gautimozin, and put forth all their powers of resistance.

8. The tradition of the origin of the empire in bands of adventurers from the Seven Caves, rests upon the best authority we have of the Toltec race, supported by the oral opinion of the Aztecs in 1519. An examination of it by the lights of modern geography, in connection with the nautical theory of oceanic currents and the fixed courses of the winds in the Pacific, gives strong testimony in favor of an early expressed opinion in support of a migration in high latitudes. It is now considered probable that those caves were seated in the Aleutian Chain. This chain of islands connects the continents of Asia and America at the most practicable points; and it begins precisely opposite to that part of the Asiatic coast north-east of the Chinese empire, and quite above the Japanese group, where we should expect the Mongolic and Tata hordes to have been precipitated upon those shores. On the American side of the trajet, extending south of the peninsula of Onalasca, there is evidence, in the existing dialects of the tribes, of their being of the same generic group with the Toltec stock. By the data brought to light by Mr. Hale, the ethnographer to the United States Exploring Expedition under Captain Wilkes, and from other reliable sources, the philological proof is made to be quite apparent. The peculiar Aztec termination of substantives in tl, which was noticed at Nootka Sound, and which will be found in the appended specimens of the languages of Oregon, furnished by Mr. Wyeth, are too indicative, in connection with other resemblances in sound, and in the principles of construction, noticed by Mr. Hale, to be disregarded.

9. In seeking the facts of modern geography and nautical science on the probability of such an origin for the Indian population of Central and Mexican North America, not the tribes of the Andes, the observations accumulated on the meteorology and currents of the Pacific and Indian seas, at the National Observatory, have furnished a new point of light. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith, of Edinburgh, author of the most recent, 8 and, in many respects, the best reasoned treatise on the Natural History of the Human Species, appears to have been the first observer to throw out the idea of the Chichimecs a rude Mexican people of the Toltecan lineage having migrated from this quarter, taking, however, the word “Caves” to be a figure denoting a vessel, catamaran, or canoe; and not employing it in a literal sense.

Lieut. M. F. Maury U. S. N., the chief director of the American Nautical Observatory at Washington, to whom I transmitted the work, with particular reference to this chapter, puts a more literal construction on the tradition of Quetzalcoatl, and brings to bear an amount of modern observation on the point, which it would be unjust to withhold from the reader.

10. “I have received,” he remarks, “your letter of the 14th, [Jan. 1850,] and read with interest the passages you were so kind as to mark between pp. 232 and 261, Natural History of the Human Species, by Col. Hamilton Smith.

“Pray accept my thanks for this gratification.

“At page 261, the Colonel had a stronger case than he imagined. Referring to the Chichimec legend of the seven caves, he conjectures that the Chichimecs might originally have been Aleutians, and that caves, if not denoting islands, might have referred to canoes.

“The Aleutians of the present day actually live in caves, or subterranean apartments, which they enter through a hole in the top. They are the most bestial of the species. In their habits of intercourse they assuredly copy after the seal and the whale.

“Those islands grow no wood. For their canoes, fishing implements, and cave-hold utensils, the natives depend upon the driftwood which is cast ashore, much of which is camphor wood. And this you observe is another link in the chain which is growing quite strong of evidence which for years I have been seeking, in the confirmation of a gulf-stream near there, and which runs from the shores of China over towards our north-west coast.

“But I am telling things you already know, and about which you did not ask; and lest you should style me a fast witness, I’ll answer as best I can your several interrogatories.

“1st. You wish me to state whether, in my opinion, the Pacific and Polynesian waters could have been navigated in early times supposing the winds had been then as they now are in balsas, floats, and other rude vessels of early ages.

“Yes; if you had a supply of provision, you could run down the trades in the Pacific, on a log.

“There is no part of the world where nature would tempt savage man more strongly to launch out upon the open sea with his bark, however frail.

” Most of those islands are surrounded by coral reefs, between which and the shore the water is as smooth as a mill-pond.

“The climate and the fish invite the savage into the water, and the mountains which separate valley from valley, in many of these islands, together with the powerful vegetable activity, make it more easy for the native to go from valley to valley by water than by land; for the scoriae on the mountains, with the bramble by the way, offer barriers to those naked people that are almost impassable.

“On the other hand, there is the refreshing water, the smooth bay, the floating log, or even the unhusked cocoanut, to buoy him along. I have seen children there, not more than three years old, swimming off to the ship, simply with a cocoanut to hold by.

“This voyage accomplished, there is the island in the distance to attract and allure; and the next step would be if we imagine an infant colony on an island of a group to fit out an expedition to some of those to leeward.

” The native then finds a hollow log, that is split in two. Like children here, he has dammed up his little mountain streamlets with a dam of clay across. He does the same with his trough, kneading the clay and making a dam with it across either end. He puts in a few cocoa-nuts, a calabash of water, breaks a green branch thick with foliage, sticks it up for a sail, and away he goes before the wind, at the rate of three or four miles the hour. I have seen them actually do this, their little fleets like Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane by water. But by some mishap, in the course of time, this frail bark misses the island or falls to leeward: the only chance then is to submit to the winds and the waves, and go where they will bear.

“But the South Sea Islander would soon get above vessels with clay bows and mud sterns.

“I visited the Marquesas Islands in 1829. The natives were then in the fig leaf state; and the old chief offered to make me their king, if I would stay with them. Pardon the episode: I’ll try to stick to your question; though you have led me where there are so many flowery paths, I find it difficult to withstand the temptation of bolting right off into some of them.

“The Marquesas Islanders make large canoes out of little slats of wood; each man has a slat. At the end of the voyage he carries his piece home with him. When the canoe is wanted for another voyage, every man comes down with his timber.

“You have seen bread-trays in the Negro cabins of the South and West, after having been split, sewed together with white oak splits? In this way their canoes are sewed together with cords of cocoanut fiber, and the holes puttied up with clay. These canoes will sometimes hold twenty rowers. They perform regular voyages among the islands of the group; and from other islands they go off to greater distances.

“In the Pacific, between the Equator and 25° or 30° S., it is easy for such vessels to sail in any direction between north around by the west, to south-west and north of the Equator, to the 25th or 30th parallel. It is likewise easy for such rude vessels to sail in any course between northwest around by the west, to south. “It is difficult to get to the eastward, within the trade-wind region.” In reply to your second question, as to the possibility of long voyages before the invention of the compass, I answer that such chance voyages were not only possible, but more than probable.

“When we take into consideration the position of North America with regard to Asia, of New Holland with regard to Africa, with the winds and currents of the ocean, it would have been more remarkable that America should not have been peopled from Asia, or New Holland from Africa, than that they should have been.

“Captain Kay, of the whale-ship Superior, fished two years ago in Behring’s Straits. He saw canoes going from one continent to the other.

“Besides this channel, there is the gulf-stream, like the current already alluded to from the shores of China. Along its course, westerly winds are the prevailing winds; and we have well-authenticated instances in which these two agents have brought Japanese mariners in disabled vessels over to the coasts of America.

“Now look at the Indian Ocean, and see what an immense surface of water is exposed there to the heat of the torrid zone, without any escape for it, as it becomes expanded, but to the South.

“Accordingly, we have here the genesis of another gulf-stream, which runs along the east coast of Africa.

“The physical causes at work, were there not some other agents, such as the form of the bottom, the configuration of the land, opposing currents of cold water, &c., would give the whole of this current a south-easterly direction.

“We know that a part of it, however, comes into the Atlantic by what is called the Lagullas current. The whales, whose habits of migration, &c., I am investigating, indicate clearly enough the presence of a large body of warm water to the south of New Holland.

“This is where the gulf-stream from the Indian Ocean ought to be; and there I confidently expect, when I come to go into that part of the ocean with the thermo meter, as we are preparing to do with our thermal charts, to find a warm current coming down from Madagascar and the coast of Africa.

“There was then in the early ages the island of Madagascar to invite the African out with his canoe, his raft, or more substantial vessel. There was this current to bear him along at first at the rate of nearly, if not quite, one hundred miles a day, and by the time the current began to grow weak, it would have borne him into the region of westerly winds, which, with the aid of the current, would finally waft him over to the southern shores of New Holland. Increasing and multiplying here, he would travel north to meet the sun, and hi the course of time he would extend himself over to the other islands, as Papua and the like.

” If I recollect aright, the Gallipagos Islands, though so near the coast, and under the line, with a fine soil and climate, were, when discovered, uninhabited. Now that part of the coast near which they are, is peculiarly liable to calms and baffling winds, to the distance out to sea of several hundred miles: there was no current to drift, nor wind to blow the native from the coast, and lodge him here.

“From present knowledge of currents it can be hardly justified in the supposition that South America was peopled from Asia by vessels being driven south of the Equator to the American shores. The distance by that route west wind region south of the S. E. trades is not less than 10,000 miles, without any islands, except New Zealand, for a resting-place. The route by the Aleutian Islands with the North Pacific Gulf Stream already mentioned, is a much more probable route.

“When we look at the Pacific, its islands, the winds and currents, and consider the facilities there that nature has provided for drifting savage man with his rude implements of navigation about, we shall see that there the inducements held out to him to try the sea are powerful. With the breadfruit and the cocoanut man s natural barrels there of beef and bread, and the calabash, his natural water-cask, he had all the stores for a long voyage already at hand. You will thus perceive the rare facilities which the people of those shores enjoyed in their rude state for attempting voyages.”

11. Thus we have traditionary gleams of a foreign origin of the race of the North American Indians, from separate stocks of nations, extending at intervals from the Arctic Circle to the Valley of Mexico. Dim as these traditions are, they shed some light on the thick historical darkness, which shrouds the period. They point decidedly to a foreign to an oriental, if not a Shemitic, origin. Such an origin has from the first been inferred. At whatever point the investigation has been made, the eastern hemisphere has been found to contain the physical and mental prototypes of the race. Language, mythology, religious dogmas the very style of architecture, and their calendar, as far as it is developed, point to that fruitful and central source of human dispersion and nationality.

It is no necessary consequence, however, of the principles of dispersion that it should have been extended to this continent, as the result of regular design. Design there may indeed have been. Asia and Polynesia, and the Indian Ocean, have abounded, for centuries, with every element of national discord. Pestilence or predatory wars have pushed population over the broadest districts of Persia, India, China, and all Asia. The isles of the sea have been the nurseries of nations. Half the globe has been settled by differences of temperature, oceanic currents, the search of food, thoughtless adventure, or other forms of what is called mere accident, and not purposed migrations. All these are so many of the ways of Providence by which not only the tropical and temperate regions, but the torrid and arctic zones, have been peopled. He must have read history with a careless eye, who has not perceived the work of human dispersion to have been promoted by the discords of various races, and the meteorology of the globe, as affecting its leading current of winds and waves.

But there is a class of inquirers who are not disposed to see the will of a supreme and guiding intelligence in all this who are prone to see the laws of species invaded who lay very great stress on natural development, who are ready to explain how even planets are formed from nebulae, and regard the whole system of nature as endowed with the capacity of increasing the number of its organic forms. 9 To such transcendental reasoning, the Indian may be deemed a new species, not a new variety of man differing wholly in his mental and physical type from the Red man of the east differing, in fact, in his physiology and psychology, from every thing but himself.

He has been found to possess the elements of a peculiar character; latitude and longitude have much affected his manners and customs; food and climate have produced very marked varieties of the race; his very lexicography and principles of grammatical utterance have been affected: but these changes have not produced a new species.

It is in this view that the subject of inquiry has been invested with new interest, which has led me to scrutinize their traditions the more diligently; and it imparts an additional impulse to the following paper, in which some considerations are offered as the immediate result of the preceding examinations on the derivative opinions, theology, and mental type of the race, viewed as a distinct variety of the human species.Citations:

  1. Mackenzie, CXII. Introd.[]
  2. P. 276, Arch. Am., Vol. I.[]
  3. This was of course entitled to no weight whatever, except as denoting a foreign origin.[]
  4. History of the Conquest of Mexico. Book iii. p. 61.[]
  5. First published in 1839 by Mr. John Delafield, Jr., at Cincinnati.[]
  6. Algonquin. An azian is a simple loin cloth.[]
  7. References to plates 1 and 2
    1. ilhuitl cacan . chiamoztoc.13. acalhuacan.
    2. panhualaque.14. Ecatipu
    3. Colhuacan15. Cohuatitlan
    4. chimalman16. tecpaiocan
    5. quetzalitl17. pantitlan
    6. cuauhcohuatt18. pantitlan
    7. Cohuatt19. Atlacuihuaan
    8. oncä quitlamamlique njxtcoal20. Chapoltepec
    9. oncan quinnotz njxtcoal21. Chimalaxocl.
    10. cuextecatl Chocayan22. Huitzilihuitl
    11. Cohuatl camac23. Coxcoxth
    12. Azcapotzalco24. Colhuacan


  8. 1848.[]
  9. This allusion to the class of philosophers who coincide in the views of the author of the ” Vestiges of Creation” will not, it is hoped, be deemed out of place.[]


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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