Ridpath's History of the United States
Volume I

Part I
Aboriginal America


Chapter I
The Red Man

The primitive inhabitants of the New World were the Red men called Indians. The name Indian was given to them from their supposed identity with the people of India. Columbus and his followers believed that they had reached the islands of the far East, and that the natives were of the same race with the inhabitants of the Indies. The supposed similarity between the two peoples, if limited to personal appearance, had some foundation in fact; but in manners, customs, and character, no two races could be more dissimilar than the American aborigines and the inhabitants of China and Japan.

The origin of the Indians is involved in great obscurity. At what date or by what route they came to the New World is unknown. The notion that the Red men are the descendants of the Israelites is absurd. That Europeans or Africans, at some early period, crossed the Atlantic by sailing from island to island, seems highly improbable. That the people of Kamtchatka came by way of Behring Strait into the northwestern parts of America, has little evidence to support it. Perhaps a more thorough knowledge of the Indian languages may yet throw some light on the origin and early history of the American races.

The Indians belonged to the hunting and fishing stage of economic development. It is true that here and there they had risen to the agricultural stage; they tilled the soil in a rude way; but for the most part the Indian, when discovered by the Europeans, was a child of the forest and the plain and the bow and arrow were his chief weapons. To him the chase was everything. To smite with swift arrow the deer and the bear was his chief delight and profit. Such a race of men could live only in a country of woods and wild animals. The illimitable hunting-grounds--forest, and hill, and river--were the Indian's earthly Paradise.

The American aborigines belonged to several distinct families or nations. North of the sixtieth parallel of latitude dwelt the Esquimaux. The name means the eaters of raw meat. They lived in snow huts, or in hovels partly or wholly underground. Sometimes their houses were constructed out of the bones of whales and walruses. Their manner of life was that of fishermen and hunters. They clad themselves in winter with the skins of seals, and in summer with those of reindeer. Inured to cold and exposure, they made long journeys in sledges drawn by dogs, or risked their lives in open boats fighting with whales and polar bears among the icebergs.

The greater portion of the United States east of the Mississippi was peopled by the family of the Algonquins. Their original home was on the Ottawa River. At the beginning of the seventeenth century they numbered fully a quarter of a million. The tribes of this great family were nomadic in their habits, roaming about from one hunting-ground and river to another. There are probably fewer than 100,000 Algonquins remaining at this day.

Around the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario lived the Iroquois. Their domain extended south of the lakes to the valley of the Upper Ohio. At the time of their greatest power the Iroquois embraced no fewer than nine different nations. The chief of these were the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks, constituting the famous Five Nations of New York. The warriors of this confederacy presented the Indian character under its most favorable aspect. They were brave, patriotic, and eloquent; not wholly averse to useful industry; living in respectable villages; tilling the soil with considerable success; faithful as friends, but terrible as enemies. Among the most highly civilized Indians are the Cherokees of the South, who are said to be of the Iroquois family.

West of the Mississippi was the great family of the Dakotas, whose territory extended from the Arkansas River to the country of the Esquimaux, and westward to the Rocky Mountains. Their languages and institutions, differing much among the various tribes, are not so well understood as those of some other nations. South of the Dakotas, in a district nearly corresponding with the State of Texas, lived the wild Comanches, whose very name is a synonym for savage ferocity. Beyond the Rocky Mountains were the Indian nations of the plains: the widely-spread families of the Shoshonees, the Selish, The Klamaths, and the Californians. On the Pacific slope, farther southward, dwelt in former times the famous races of Aztecs and Toltecs--the most civilized and least warlike of the primitive Indian nations.

The Indians were strongly marked with national peculiarities. The most striking characteristic of the racve was a certain sense of personal independence--willfulness of action--freedom from restraint.. Next among the propensities of the Red men was the passion for war--a passion almost universal. Their wars, however, were always undertaken for the redress of grievances, real or imaginary, and not for conquest. But with the Indian a redress of grievances meant a bloody personal vengeance on the offender. Revenge was the prime motive in every Indian conflict. To forgive an injury was considered a shame. The Red men's strategy in war consisted of craft, treachery, and cunning. The open battle of the field was unknown among them. Fighting was limited to the ambuscade and the massacre. Quarter was rarely asked, and seldom granted.

In times of peace the Indian character appeared to a better advantage. But the Red man was always unsocial and solitary. He was a man of the woods. He sat apart, communing with himself and solitude. He thought the forest better than his wagwam, and his wigwam better than the village. The Indian woman was a degraded creature--a mere drudge and beast of burden. The social principle was at a low ebb among the Indians; family and domestic ties almost unrecognized.

Civil government hardly existed among the native American nations. Each tribe had its own sachem, or chieftain, to whom in matters of peace and war a certain degree of obedience was rendered. Sometimes confederations were formed, based on the ties of kinship or the necessities of war. But these confederations seldom lasted long, and were likely at any time to be broken up by the barbarous tribes who composed them. Sometimes a chieftain would arise with such marked abilities of leadership as to gain an influence over several nations. But with the death of the chief, each tribe would regain its independence and return to its own ways. No general Indian Congress was known; but councils were frequently called to debate questions of policy and right.

In the matter of the arts the Indian was a barbarian. His house was a wigwam or hovel, built of poles set up in a circle, and covered with skins and the branches of trees. The door was a simple opening opposite the point from which the wind blew; the floor and the walls were covered with mats; a fire was kindled on the ground in the center. Household utensils were few and rude. Earthen pots, bags and pouches for carrying provisions, and stone hammers for pounding corn, were the stock and store. The Indian's weapons of offence and defense were the hatchet and the bow and arrow. In times of war he painted his face and body with all manner of glaring and fantastic colors. The elegant arts were wholly wanting. Indian writing consisted of half-intelligible hieroglyphics scratched on the face of rocks or cut in the bark of trees.

The Indian languages bear little resemblance to those of other races, but have great similarity among themselves. The vocabulary of the Red man was a very limited one. The principal objects nature and common actions and emotions had special names; but abstract ideas were expressed with great difficulty and almost endless circumlocution. Indian words had a narrow but very intense meaning. There was, for instance, no word signifying to hunt or to fish; but one word meant "to kill a deer with an arrow"; another, "to take fish by striking the ice." Among some of the tribes the meaning of words was so restricted that the warrior would use one term and the squaw another to express the same idea.

The Indians were generally sedate in manners and serious in behavior. Sometimes, however, they gave themselves up to merry-making and hilarity. The dance was universal--not the social dance of civilized nations, but the dance of ceremony, of religion, and of war. Various amusements were common, such as running, leaping, wrestling, shooting at a mark, racing in canoes along swift rivers or placid lakes, playing at ball, or engaging in intricate and exciting games. The use of tobacco was universal and excessive; and after the introduction of intoxicating liquors by the Europeans, the Indians fell into terrible drunkenness.

In personal appearance the Red men were strongly marked. In stature they were nearly all below the average of Europeans. The Esquimaux are rarely five feet high, but are generally thick-set and heavy. The Algonquins are taller and lighter in build; a straight and agile race, lean and swift of foot. The eyes are jet-black and sunken; hair black and straight; beard black and scant; skin copper-colored or brown; cheek-bones high; forehead and skull variable in shape and proportion; hands and feet small; body lithe but not strong; expession sinister, or rarely dignified and noble.

For centuries the Indian race has been declining. The only hope of its perpetuity seems now to center in the Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Chickasaws of Oklahoma. These nations, numbering in the aggregate about forty-eight thousand souls, have attained a considerable degree of civilization. Most of the othe tribes seem to be approaching extinction. Whether the Red man has been justly deprived of the ownership of the New World will remain a subject of debate; that he has been deprived can be none. The white races have taken possession of the vast domain. The weaker people have withered from the presence of the stronger. By the majestic rivers and in the depths of the solitary woods the feeble sons of the Bow and Arrow will be seen no more. To the prairies and forests, the hunting-grounds of his fathers, the Red man says farewell.


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