Tribes on the Santa Fe Trail, and at the Foot of the Rocky Mountains

The tendency of the Indian population, which stretches over the prairies east of the Rocky Mountains, is towards the south and southwest. The Cheyennes, or Chawas, who once lived on a tributary of the Red River of Hudson’s Bay, crossed the Missouri, in consequence of the arrival of the Algonquian tribes on the sources of the Mississippi. The latter went as far north as the summit of the Portage du Trait, in their progress towards Athabasca Lake. The Chawas are now found very high on the Nebraska, and pressing onwards southward, below the mountains. The Sioux, or Dacotas, of the Missouri are pressing in the same direction, occupying positions less westerly. The Dacotas of the Mississippi, who have not yet broken up their more easterly villages in Minnesota, are destined to pass in the same direction. The pres sure upon these tribes is from the north. They have receded, in the last quarter of a century, (dating from the treaty of boundaries of Prairie du Chien, in 1825,) before the military ardor of the Algonquins, and cannot now be said to have permanent or safe footing north of the river St. Peters.

The Arapahoes, who infest the sources of the Platte and Arkansas, are a part of the Atsina, or Fall Indians of the Blackfoot stock, and once lived on the Assinabwoin and Saskatchiwine. The Minnatarees and Gross Venires proper, who speak the Absaroka or Crow language, are, to a great extent, mingled with the parent tribe, and occupy the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. These snowy peaks are so elevated as to prevent their being crossed at any point between the Jefferson Fork of the Missouri and the Southern Pass, at the sources of the Nebraska. This fact appears first to have been demonstrated by the party of Mr. Hunt, who, in 1810, attempted, under Mr. Astor’s auspices, a more northern pass, but who were, eventually, after skirting the mountains, thrown upon the headwaters of that river.

Mr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the government agent for the higher Platte and Arkansas, refers to this concentration of Indian population below the mountains, and on the plains leading to Santa Fe, as one of the pregnant causes of the difficulties and dangers which have, of late years, beset the path of the merchant and emigrant.

Of the bands south of the range of his extensive agency, as observed in 1847, his estimates of population require to be compared with those of the late Governor Bent, of New Mexico, of 1846, and of Ex-President Burnet, of 1847, herewith furnished, and of Mr. Robert S. Neighbours, Special Agent in Texas in 1847.

Mr. Fitzpatrick, from whose correspondence we introduce extracts, has had much experience in the adventurous scenes of that district, speaks some of the Indian languages, and communicates his views and opinions with a degree of confidence which is the result of a long acquaintance with life in the Indian country. He communicates the important fact, before indicated by imperfect vocabularies, that the Comanches of Texas are but an off-shoot of the Shoshonee or Snake stock; that their several bands speak close dialects of the same language as the mountain tribes; and that this language, in its several dialects, spreads through the great Salt Lake Basin to California, as well as northwardly into the Columbia Valley.

Of the mass of the strength of the aboriginal population south of these limits we can speak with less confidence than of the bold, predatory, and reckless hordes north of them.

“My own imperfect knowledge of the country,” he observes, “and its inhabitants south of the Santa F trail, in the direction of Texas, prevents me from saying any thing positive upon the subject. Yet I believe that the Comanche Indians do not exceed 1000 lodges, and as it is rare that more than one warrior occupies a lodge, amongst them, we may put them down at the very utmost, 1200 warriors. They are divided into three different and distinct bands; but who always, and when necessary, unite and co-operate in concert. Those bands have different names, but speak the same language, which is that of the Shoshonee or Snake on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, as well as great numbers of Indians on, and south of the Columbia River, and those inhabiting the Great Desert west of the Great Salt Lake, and on the very confines of California; all speak a dialect of the same language. The names of the different bands are as follows: Yampatick-ara, Cools-on-tick-ara, Penoi-in-tickara, all of which are Snake or Shoshonee words, and being translated into English, mean, Root-eaters, Buffalo-eaters, Sugar or Honey-eaters. These three bands, united with the Kioways, which are very few in number, are what we have to contend with at present on the Santa F6 road.”

In the month of October 1848, the same observer takes a deeper view of this pressing and irresponsible mass.

“The subject of the printed circular accompanying a series of inquiries respecting the History, Present Condition, and Future prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, (Vide Appendix,) is one of immense magnitude, and would require years of close application and study, besides a perfect knowledge of their various tongues, and that knowledge too, being in the individual himself, as it is somewhat difficult to reach any subject in regard to those people, through any interpreter I have ever met in this country, apart from the ordinary concerns of every-day life. It is a remarkable fact, that the most ignorant and weak-minded are those who most readily acquire a knowledge of the Indian tongues orally. From this cause it is a very difficult matter to arrive at anything like correctness. And to it may be attributed the many falsehoods and exaggerations put forth to the world, by travelers and others, who obtained their information from men who had neither a proper knowledge of their own mother tongue nor of that of the Indian. And in nine cases out of ten such persons do not and cannot comprehend what the book-makers, or travelers, wish to arrive at, because they are subjects that never before entered their minds. These remarks will apply equally to all the writing I have ever read on the subject; at least so far as my own opinion goes. I will further remark, I fear the real character of the Indian can never be ascertained, because it is altogether unnatural for a Christian man to comprehend how so much depravity, wickedness, and folly, could possibly belong to human beings, apparently endowed with a reasonable share of understanding. Let the civilized man, if possible, divest himself of all partiality and prejudice, and view the Indian impartially, just as he finds him, without attempting to cast imputations on anything but the right cause, which is their own innate proneness to evil, and it will be found that that very innate principle of wickedness and depravity, is the great cause of hastening them off to destruction; I believe, moreover, that all the aid from the wealthiest governments of Europe, united with that of the United States, could not redeem or save a tithe of those people, inasmuch as I consider them a doomed race, and they must fulfill their destiny. Yet it is a generous and praiseworthy exertion in the government to do all it can for them.

In regard to the manners, customs, habits, &c., of the wild tribes of the Western Territory, a true and more correct type than any I have ever seen, may be found in the ancient history of the Jews or Israelites after their liberation from Egyptian bondage. The Medicine Lodge of the Indian may be compared to the place of worship or tabernacle of the Jews; and the sacrifices, offerings, purifications, ablutions, and anointings, may be all found amongst and practiced by those people.

The customs of Indian women at certain periods and after childbearing, are almost those of the Jewish women. They have to undergo a probation of a certain number of days on all such occasions, besides ablutions and purifications, before they are considered fit to enter on their domestic duties; during this probation they are considered unclean, and altogether unfit to enter the lodge or join with the family; which, indeed, they never attempt; but erect a hut for themselves, where they remain the whole time; having their food brought to them.

The manner of mourning for a deceased relative is very similar to that of the Israelites; in such cases the men will cast off all their finery, and put on instead (if they put on anything) the most worthless garments, and keep their heads, and often the body, bedaubed with white clay during the time of mourning, which sometimes lasts ten moons; this might be called putting on sackcloth and ashes. The women, on the other hand, cut off their hair, and otherwise disfigure their persons by cutting with a flint or sharp stone their face, arms, and legs, in such a way as to let a great deal of blood flow in the operation, which is never washed off until they cease to mourn.

In cases of death, if the deceased happens to be a distinguished man, they will kill for his use two or three of his favorite horses, and inter with him arms, pipe, and tobacco, with many articles which he was known to have fancied when alive. They do not seem to be inclined to bury their dead in the ground, although they sometimes do so, and in a very careless manner, as the wolves invariably dig them up; they will sometimes put them high up in large trees, until decomposition takes place, and nothing is left but the bones and hair, which they will gather carefully and perhaps carry about with them for a length of time, or until they find a favorable spot, where they will deposit them without ceremony, and, I believe, privately. But their favorite places of interment are in caves or crevices of rock, from which they are never removed.

There could be very numerous and similar analogies made between the manners and customs of those people, and those of the Jews; but when we see nearly the same traits of character, manners, customs, &c., manifested in every part of the globe where a barbarous people have been found, I have come to the conclusion that man in that state is pretty much the same sort of being throughout, except what difference may naturally arise from the physical adaptation of the country they inhabit in supplying their wants.

In regard to the Indians of this agency, as well as all the roaming tribes of this vast extent of country, I can assert with a great degree of certainty, that they have no fixed laws, or anything like permanent institutions, by which to regulate their concerns, either between themselves or other tribes, except what may be decided from time to time in their councils, or from emergencies arising out of the uncertainty of their relations with other tribes; and to this fact alone may be attributed their constant warring on each other; as the most insignificant being of any one tribe may be the cause of bringing on a war with any other tribe, which may last for years, and without the least dread of punishment from his own tribe. In proof of this, I will relate an occurrence which took place here a short time ago. The Cheyennes, who were encamped near, came to the Fort for the purpose of honoring us with a dance; which is the usual custom of those tribes when they wish to exhibit their satisfaction for the treatment received. They were dressed in all the wildness and decoration of their native costume, and altogether made a very interesting appearance. They commenced and pursued the dance with all the wild and varied gesture of such scenes, until an old woman entered the circle of the dance, apparently bleeding from every pore; her face, legs, and arms were bleeding profusely, which gave her a most hideous appearance. In this state, she exhorted the warriors in her behalf, and “to take pity on her, that she was old, and had had her only son killed by the Aripahoes last spring, and the murder has never been atoned for.” At this critical juncture a courier came running in with intelligence that people were discovered in the distance.

The warriors immediately broke up the dance, mounted their best horses, and pursued the strangers; and late that night returned with two Arapahoe scalps, and a squaw as prisoner. This circumstance, no doubt, reconciled the old woman for the loss of her only son. This law of retaliation, or some mode of remuneration in the shape of payment for the slain, is the only law recognised by the natives of this country. I have taken measures to put a stop to further bloodshed for the present; but where there is no law to punish individuals for committing depredations on other tribes, not even in the most aggravated case, their relations of good fellowship must always be in a very precarious state.

I shall make it my business, hereafter, to take more pains in investigating the various subjects contained in the series of inquiries received; but I consider it highly improper to write anything at random, for the information of the Department, and therefore will decline saying much at present, except that which I am convinced of being correct; and I sincerely wish that every one whose business it is to write on this subject, would adopt the same course. Then, indeed, we might have hopes of some change for the better management of the Indian tribes. Nothing, in my opinion, has been more prejudicial to the welfare and improvement of the Indians within the territory of the United States, than the great forbearance and constant humoring of all their whims, together with the erroneous opinion existing, that nothing but the introduction of Christianity was wanting to make them happy and prosperous.

I am not one of those who expect and look for the immediate improvement and civilization of the Indian tribes by the means generally recommended, as I am well aware they will have to pass through a long and protracted ordeal, before they can even attain the first step to civilization; and I have yet to learn and decide, whether the full-blooded Indian is capable of such a change, inasmuch as I have never discovered any great advancement, either moral or physical, (the many favorable reports to the contrary notwithstanding,) which makes me very sceptical on the subject. I have met with but few Indians whom I thought were prepared to receive instruction in civilization and Christianity, which are some of the tribes on the Columbia River and its tributaries; and to the severe but just administration of the Hudson Bay Company may be attributed their now prosperous state. On their first acquaintance with whites, the Oregon Indians were disposed to be mischievous, as all other Indians: but after the British took possession of that country, and the Hudson Bay Company established there, the Indians were taught very severe lessons, on all and every occasion when they misbehaved; and not the slightest injustice or crime was ever allowed to pass unpunished. And at length they ascertained, that to do unto others as they would have others do unto them, is by far the best policy; they also learned that the God of the white people was by far the most powerful, and have for many years been desirous of learning how to worship and please Him. And long before a missionary went into that country, those people were as honest, kind, and inoffensive as any I have ever met, either civilized or savage, and, I believe, in a few years will be in a more prosperous state than any Indians within the boundary of the United States. There is a great deal which ought to be taught an Indian before the attempt is made to Christianize him; some of which tuition may be taken from the remarks above, in regard to the Columbia Indians.”

It has been thought right to present this view of the state of the prairie-tribes, from a man whose means of observation, good general judgment, and honesty of purpose in the public service, are unimpeached. So far as respects their manners and customs, their wild and predatory lives, and the utter want of reference of their acts to any moral or legal standard, these remarks are sustained by the best and latest authorities; and this wild and irresponsible state of life is well described by Mr. Parkman as existing among the Arapahoes. With regard to Christianity, and its application to such tribes, surrounded by so many continually pressing circumstances, to prevent its appreciation, introduction, or spread, it need only be said, that the observations denote an entire misapprehension of the subject. Fixity of location and agricultural industry are among the very first fruits aimed at by our teachers among all the nomadic tribes, without which no success can be anticipated. As a general fact, these tribes are surrounded by circumstances which are so perilous that they are, at present, very much beyond the circle of practical missionary effort.


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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