The Red Man's Continent - A Chronicle of Aboriginal America, Volume 1 In The - Chronicles Of America Series
by Ellsworth Huntington
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The Indians of the Great Plains lived a very different life from that of the natives of either the mountains or the Pacific coast. In the far north, to be sure, the rigorous climate caused all the Indians to live practically alike, whether in the Rockies, the plains, or the Laurentian highland. South of them, in that great central expanse stretching from the latitude of Lake Winnipeg to the Rio Grande River, the Indians of the plains possessed a relatively uniform type of life peculiar to themselves. This individuality was due partly to the luxuriant carpet of grass which covered the plains and partly to the supply of animal food afforded by the vast herds of buffaloes which roamed in tens of thousands throughout the whole territory. The grass was important chiefly because it prevented the Indians from engaging in agriculture, for it must never be forgotten that the Indians had neither iron tools nor beasts of burden to aid them in overcoming the natural difficulties in the way of agriculture. To be sure, they did occasionally pound meteoric iron into useful implements, but this substance was so rare that probably not one Indian in a hundred had ever seen a piece. The Indians were quite familiar with copper, but there is not the slightest evidence that they had discovered any means of hardening it. Metals played no real part in the life of any of the Indians of America, and without such tools as iron spades and hoes it was impossible for them to cultivate grassland. If they burned the prairie and dropped seeds into holes, the corn or beans which they thus planted were sure to be choked by the quickly springing grass. To dig away the tough sod around the hole for each seed would require an almost incredible amount of work even with iron tools. To accomplish this with wooden spades, rude hoes made of large flakes of flint, or the shoulder blades of the buffalo, was impossible on any large scale. Now and then in some river bottom where the grass grew in clumps and could be easily pulled up, a little agriculture was possible. That is all that seems to have been attempted on the great grassy plains.

The Indians could not undertake any widespread cultivation of the plains not only because they lacked iron tools but also because they had no draft animals. The buffalo was too big, too fierce, and too stupid to be domesticated. In all the length and breadth of the two Americas there was no animal to take the place of the useful horse, donkey, or ox. The llama was too small to do anything but carry light loads, and it could live only in a most limited area among the cold Andean highlands. Even if the aboriginal Americans could have made iron ploughs, they could not have ploughed the tough sod without the aid of animals. Moreover, even if the possession of metal tools and beasts of burden had made agriculture possible in the grass-lands, it would have been difficult, in the absence of wood for fences, to prevent the buffalo from eating up the crops or at least from tramping through them and spoiling them. Thus the fertile land of the great plains remained largely unused until the white man came to the New World bringing the iron tools and domestic animals that were necessary to successful agriculture.

Although farming of any sort was almost as impossible in the plains as in the dry regions of winter rains farther west, the abundance of buffaloes made life much easier in many respects. It is astonishing to see how many purposes these animals served. An early traveler who dwelt among one of the buffalo-hunting tribes, the Tonkawa of central Texas, says: "Besides their meat it [the buffalo] furnishes them liberally what they desire for conveniences. The brains are used to soften skins, the horns for spoons and drinking cups, the shoulder blades to dig up and clear off the ground, the tendons for threads and bow strings, the hoofs to glue the arrow-feathering. From the tail-hair they make ropes and girths, from the wool, belts and various ornaments. The hide furnishes... shields, tents, shirts, footwear, and blankets to protect them from the cold." *

*See Hodge, "Handbook of American Indians," vol. II, p. 781.

The buffalo is a surprisingly stupid animal. When a herd is feeding it is possible for a man to walk into the midst of it and shoot down an animal. Even when one of their companions falls dead, the buffaloes pay no attention to the hunter provided he remains perfectly still. The wounded animals are not at first dangerous but seek to flee. Only when pursued and brought to bay do they turn on their pursuers. When the Indians of an encampment united their forces, as was their regular habit, they were able to slaughter hundreds of animals in a few days. The more delicate parts of the meat they ate first, often without cooking them. The rest they dried and packed away for future use, while they prepared the hides as coverings for the tents or as rugs in which to sleep.

Wherever the buffaloes were present in large numbers, the habits of the Indians were much the same. They could not live in settled villages, for there was no assurance that the buffalo would come to any particular place each year. The plains tribes were therefore more thoroughly nomadic than almost any others, especially after the introduction of horses. Because they wandered so much, they came into contact with other tribes to an unusual degree, and much of the contact was friendly. Gradually the Indians developed a sign language by which tribes of different tongues could communicate with one another. At first these signs were like pictographs, for the speaker pointed as nearly as possible to the thing that he desired to indicate, but later they became more and more conventional. For example, man, the erect animal, was indicated by throwing up the hand, with its back outward and the index finger extending upward. Woman was indicated by a sweeping downward movement of the hand at the side of the head with fingers extended to denote long hair or the combing of flowing locks.

Among the plains Indians, the Dakotas, the main tribe of the Sioux family, are universally considered to have stood highest not only physically but mentally, and probably morally. Their bravery was never questioned, and they conquered or drove out every rival except the Chippewas. Their superiority was clearly seen in their system of government. Personal fitness and popularity determined chieftainship more than did heredity. The authority of the chief was limited by the Band Council, without whose approbation little or nothing could be accomplished. In one of the Dakota tribes, the Tetons, the policing of a village was confided to two or three officers who were appointed by the chief and who remained in power until their successors were appointed. Day and night they were always on the watch, and so arduous were their labors that their term of service was necessarily short. The brevity of their term, however, was atoned for by the greatness of their authority, for in the suppression of disturbances no resistance was suffered. Their persons were sacred, and if in the execution of their duty they struck even a chief of the second class they could not be punished.

The Dakotas, who lived in the region where their name is still preserved, inhabited that part of the great plain which is climatically most favorable to great activity. It is perhaps because of their response to the influence of this factor of geographical environment that they and their neighbors are the best known of the plains tribes. Their activity in later times is evident from the fact that the Tetons were called "the plundering Arabs of America." If their activities had been more wisely directed, they might have made a great name for themselves in Indian history. In the arts they stood as high as could be expected in view of the wandering life which they led and the limited materials with which they had to work. In the art of making pictographs, for instance, they excelled all other tribes, except perhaps the Kiowas, a plains tribe of Colorado and western Kansas. On the hides of buffalo, deer, and antelope which formed their tents, the Dakotas painted calendars, which had a picture for each year, or rather for each winter, while those of the Kiowas had a summer symbol and a winter symbol. Probably these calendars reveal the influence of the whites, but they at least show that these people of the plains were quickwitted.

Farther south the tribes of the plains stood on a much lower level than the Dakotas. The Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca, describes the Yguases in Texas, among whom he lived for several years, in these words: "Their support is principally roots which require roasting two days. Many are very bitter. Occasionally they take deer and at times fish, but the quantity is so small and the famine so great that they eat spiders and eggs of ants, worms, lizards, salamanders, snakes, and vipers that kill whom they strike, and they eat earth and all that there is, the dung of deer, things I omit to mention and I earnestly believe that were there stones in that land they would eat them. They save the bones of the fish they consume, the snakes and other animals, that they may afterward beat them together and eat the powder." During these painful periods, they bade Cabeza de Vaca "not to be sad. There would soon be prickly pears, although the season of this fruit of the cactus might be months distant. When the pears were ripe, the people feasted and danced and forgot their former privations. They destroyed their female infants to prevent them being taken by their enemies and thus becoming the means of increasing the latter's number."

East of the Great Plains there dwelt still another important type of Indians, the people of the deciduous forests. Their home extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. As we have already seen, the Iroquois who inhabited the northern part of this region were in many respects the highest product of aboriginal America. The northern Iroquois tribes, especially those known as the Five Nations, were second to no other Indian people north of Mexico in political organization, statecraft, and military prowess. Their leaders were genuine diplomats, as the wily French and English statesmen with whom they treated soon discovered. One of their most notable traits was the reverence which they had for the tribal law. The wars that they waged were primarily for political independence, for the fundamental principle of their confederation was that by uniting with one another they would secure the peace and welfare of all with whom they were connected by ties of blood. They prevented blood feuds by decreeing that there should be a price for the killing of a co-tribesman, and they abstained from eating the flesh of their enemies in order to avoid future strife. So thoroughly did they believe in the rights of the individual that women were accorded a high position. Among some of the tribes the consent of all the women who had borne children was required before any important measure could be taken. Candidates for a chiefship were nominated by the votes of the mothers, and, as lands and houses were the property of the women, their power in the tribe was great.

The Iroquois were sedentary and agricultural, and depended on the chase for only a small part of their existence. The northern tribes were especially noted for their skill in building fortifications and houses. Their so-called castles were solid wooden structures with platforms running around the top on the inside. From the platforms stones and other missiles could be hurled down upon besiegers. According to our standards such dwellings were very primitive, but they were almost as great an advance upon the brush piles of the Utes as our skyscrapers are upon them. Farther south in the Carolinas, the Cherokees, another Iroquoian tribe, stand out prominently by reason of their unusual mental ability. Under the influence of the white man, the Cherokees were the first to adopt a constitutional form of government embodied in a code of laws written in their own language. Their language was reduced to writing by means of an alphabet which one of their number named Sequoya had devised. Sequoya and other leaders, however, may not have been pure Indians, for by that time much white blood had been mixed with the tribe. Yet even before the coming of the white man the Cherokees were apparently more advanced in agriculture than the Iroquois were, but less advanced in their form of government, in their treatment of women, and in many other respects. In general, as we go from north to south in the region of deciduous forests, we find that among the early Indians agriculture became more and more important and the people more sedentary, though not always more progressive in other ways. The Catawbas, for instance, in South Carolina were sedentary agriculturists and seem to have differed little in general customs from their neighbors. Their men were brave and honest but lacking in energy. In the Muskhogean family of Indians, comprising the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, who occupied the Gulf States from Georgia to Mississippi, all the tribes were agricultural and sedentary and occupied villages of substantial houses. The towns near the tribal frontiers were usually palisaded, but those more remote from invasion were unprotected. All these Indians were brave but not warlike in the violent fashion of the Five Nations. The Choctaws would fight only in self-defense, it was said, but the Creeks and especially the Chickasaws were more aggressive. In their government these Muskhogean tribes appear to have attained a position corresponding to their somewhat advanced culture in other respects. Yet their confederacies were loose and flimsy compared with that of the Five Nations. Another phase of the life of the tribes in the southern part of the region of deciduous forests is illustrated by the Natchez of Mississippi. These people were strictly sedentary and depended chiefly upon agriculture for a livelihood. They possessed considerable skill in the arts. For instance, they wove a cloth from the inner bark of the mulberry tree and made excellent pottery. They also constructed great mounds of earth upon which to erect their dwellings and temples. Like a good many of the other southern tribes, they fought when it was necessary, but they were peaceable compared with the Five Nations. They had a form of sun-worship resembling that of Mexico, and in other ways their ideas were like those of the people farther south. For instance, when a chief died, his wives were killed. In times of distress the parents frequently offered their children as sacrifice.

Many characteristics of the Natchez and other southern tribes seem to indicate that they had formerly possessed a civilization higher than that which prevailed when the white man came. The Five Nations, on the contrary, apparently represent an energetic people who were on the upward path and who might have achieved great things if the whites had not interrupted them. The southern Indians resemble people whose best days were past, for the mounds which abound in the Gulf States appear to have been built chiefly in pre-Columbian days. Their objects of art, such as the remarkable wooden mortars found at Key Marco and the embossed copper plates found elsewhere in Florida, point to a highly developed artistic sense which was no longer in evidence at the coming of the white man.

It is interesting to see the way in which climatic energy tended to give the Five Nations a marked superiority over the tribesmen of the South, while agriculture tended in the opposite direction. There has been much discussion as to the part played by agriculture among the primitive Americans, especially in the northeast. Corn, beans, and squashes were an important element in the diet of the Indians of the New England region, while farther south potatoes, sunflower seeds, and melons were also articles of food. The New England tribes knew enough about agriculture to use fish and shells for fertilizer. They had wooden mattocks and hoes made from the shoulder blades of deer, from tortoise shells, or from conch shells set in handles. They also had stone hoes and spades, while the women used short pickers or parers about a foot long and five inches wide. Seated on the ground they used these to break the upper part of the soil and to grub out weeds, grass, and old cornstalks. They had the regular custom of burning over an old patch each year and then replanting it. Sometimes they merely put the seeds in holes and sometimes they dug up and loosened the ground for each seed. Clearings they made by girdling the trees, that is, by cutting off the bark in a circle at the bottom and thus causing the tree to die. The brush they hacked or broke down and burned when it was dry enough.

There is much danger of confusing the agricultural condition of the Indian after the European had modified his life with his condition before the European came to America. For instance, in the excellent article on agriculture in the "Handbook of American Indians," conditions prevailing as late as 1794 in the States south of the Great Lakes are spoken of as if typical of aboriginal America. But at that time the white man had long been in contact with the Indian, and iron tools had largely taken the place of stone. The rapidity with which European importations spread may be judged by the fact that as early as 1736 the Iroquois in New York not only had obtained horses but were regularly breeding them. The use of the iron axe of course spread with vastly greater rapidity than that of the horse, for an axe or a knife was the first thing that an Indian sought from the white man. In the eighteenth century agriculture had thus become immeasurably easier than before, yet even then the Indians still kept up their old habit of cultivating the same fields only a short time. The regular practice was to cultivate a field five, ten, and sometimes even twenty or more years, and then abandon it. *

*Ordinarily it is stated that this practice was due to the exhaustion of the soil. That, however, is open to question, for five or ten years' desultory cultivation on the part of the Indian would scarcely exhaust the soil so much that people would go to the great labor of making new clearings and moving their villages. Moreover, in the Southern States it is well known today that the soil is exhausted much more rapidly than farther north because it contains less humus. Nevertheless the southern tribes cultivated the land about their villages for long periods. Tribes like the Creeks, the Cherokees, and the Natchez appear to have been decidedly less prone to move than the Iroquois, in spite of the relatively high development of these northern nations.

What hindered agriculture most in the northern part of the deciduous forest was the grass. Any one who has cultivated a garden knows how rapidly the weeds grow. He also knows that there is no weed so hard to exterminate as grass. When once it gets a foothold mere hoeing seems only to make it grow the faster. The only way to get rid of grass when once it has become well established is to plow the field and start over again, but this the Indians could not do. When first a clearing was made in the midst of the forest, there was no grass to be contended with. Little by little, however, it was sure to come in, until at length what had been a garden was in a fair way to become a meadow. Then the Indians would decide that it was necessary to seek new fields.

One might suppose that under such circumstances the Indians would merely clear another patch of forest not far from the village and so continue to live in the old place. This, however, they did not do because the labor of making a clearing with stone axes and by the slow process of girdling and burning the trees was so great that it was possible only in certain favored spots where by accident the growth was less dense than usual. When once a clearing became grassy, the only thing to do was to hunt for a new site, prepare a clearing, and then move the village. This was apparently the reason why the Iroquois, although successful in other ways, failed to establish permanent towns like those of the Pueblos and the Haidas. Their advancement not only in architecture but in many of the most important elements of civilization was for this reason greatly delayed. There was little to stimulate them to improve the land to which they were attached, for they knew that soon they would have to move.

Farther south the character of the grassy vegetation changes, and the condition of agriculture alters with it. The grass ceases to have that thick, close, turfy quality which we admire so much in the fields of the north, and it begins to grow in bunches. Often a southern hillside may appear from a distance to be as densely covered with grass as a New England hayfield. On closer examination, however, the growth is seen to consist of individual bunches which can easily be pulled up, so that among the southern tribes the fields did not become filled with grass as they did in the north, for the women had relatively little difficulty in keeping out this kind of weed as well as others.

In this survey of aboriginal America we have been impressed by the contrast between two diverse aspects of the control of human activities by physical environment. We saw, in the first place, that in our own day the distribution of culture in America is more closely related to climatic energy than to any other factor, because man is now so advanced in the arts and crafts that agricultural difficulties do not impede him, except in the far north and in tropical forests. Secondly, we have found that, although all the geographical factors acted upon the Indian as they do today, the absence of metals and beasts of burden compelled man to be nomadic, and hence to remain in a low stage of civilization in many places where he now can thrive. In the days long before Columbus the distribution of civilization in the Red Man's Continent offered still a third aspect, strikingly different both from that of today and from that of the age of discovery. In that earlier period the great centers of civilization were south of their present situation. In the southern part of North America from Arizona to Florida there are abundant evidences that the Indians whom the white man found were less advanced than their predecessors. The abundant ruins of Arizona and New Mexico, their widespread distribution, and the highly artistic character of the pottery and other products of handicraft found in them seem to indicate that the ancient population was both denser and more highly cultured than that which the Europeans finally ousted. In the Gulf States there is perhaps not much evidence that there was a denser population at an earlier period, but the excellence of the pre-Columbian handicrafts and the existence of a decadent sun worship illustrate the way in which the civilization of the past was higher than that of later days. The Aztecs, who figure so largely in the history of the exploration and conquest of Mexico, were merely a warlike tribe which had been fortunate in the inheritance of a relatively high civilization from the past. So, too, the civilization found by the Spaniards at places such as Mitla, in the extreme south of Mexico, could not compare with that of which evidence is found in the ruins. Most remarkable of all is the condition of Yucatan and Guatemala. In northern Yucatan the Spaniards found a race of mild, decadent Mayas living among the relics of former grandeur. Although they used the old temples as shrines, they knew little of those who had built these temples and showed still less capacity to imitate the ancient architects. Farther south in the forested region of southern Yucatan and northern Guatemala the conditions are still more surprising, for today these regions are almost uninhabitable and are occupied by only a few sickly, degraded natives who live largely by the chase. Yet in the past this region was the scene of by far the highest culture that ever developed in America. There alone in this great continent did men develop an architecture which, not only in massiveness but in wealth of architectural detail and sculptural adornment, vies with that of early Egypt or Chaldea. There alone did the art of writing develop. Yet today in those regions the density of the forest, the prevalence of deadly fevers, the extremely enervating temperature, and the steady humidity are as hostile to civilization as are the cold of the far north and the dryness of the desert.

The only explanation of this anomaly seems to be that in the past the climatic zones of the world have at certain periods been shifted farther toward the equator than they are at present. Practically all the geographers of America now believe that within the past two or three thousand years climatic pulsations have taken place whereby places like the dry Southwest have alternately experienced centuries of greater moisture than at present and centuries as dry as today or even drier. During the moist centuries greater storminess prevailed, so that the climate was apparently better not only for agriculture but for human energy. At such times the standard of living was higher than now not only in the Southwest but in the Gulf States and in Mexico. In periods when the deserts of the southwestern United States were wet, the Maya region of Yucatan and Guatemala appears to have been relatively dry. Then the dry belt which now extends from northern Mexico to the northern tip of Yucatan apparently shifted southward. Such conditions would cause the forests of Yucatan and Guatemala to become much less dense than at present. This comparative deforestation would make agriculture easily possible where today it is out of the question. At the same time the relatively dry climate and the clearing away of the vegetation would to a large degree eliminate the malarial fevers and other diseases which are now such a terrible scourge in wet tropical countries. Then, too, the storms which at the present time give such variability to the climate of the United States would follow more southerly courses. In its stimulating qualities the climate of the home of the Mayas in the days of their prime was much more nearly like that which now prevails where civilization rises highest.

From first to last the civilization of America has been bound up with its physical environment. It matters little whether we are dealing with the red race, the black, or the white. Nor does it matter whether we deal with one part of the continent or another. Wherever we turn we can trace the influence of mountains and plains, of rocks and metals from which tools are made, of water and its finny inhabitants, of the beasts of the chase from the hare to the buffalo, of domestic animals, of the native forests, grass-lands, and deserts, and, last but not least, of temperature, moisture, and wind in their direct effects upon the human body. At one stage of human development the possibilities of agriculture may be the dominant factor in man's life in early America. At another, domestic animals may be more important, and at still another, iron or waterways or some other factor may be predominant. It is the part of the later history of the American Continent to trace the effect of these various factors and to chronicle the influence that they have had upon man's progress.


Although many books deal with the physical features of the Western Hemisphere and many others with the Indians, few deal with the two in relation to one another. One book, however, stands out preeminent in this respect, namely, Edward John Payne's "History of the New World Called America," 2 vols. (1892-99). This book, which has never been finished, attempts to explain the conditions of life among the American aborigines as the result of geographical conditions, especially of the food supply. Where the author carries this attempt into the field of special customs and religious rites, he goes too far. Nevertheless his work is uncommonly stimulating and deserves the careful attention of the reader who would gain a broad grasp of the relation of geography to the history of the New World.

Two other good books which deal with the relation of geography to American history are Miss Ellen C. Semple's "American History and its Geographical Conditions" (1903) and A. P. Brigham's "Geographic Influences in American History" (1903). Both of these books interpret geography as if it included little except the form of the land. While they bring out clearly the effect of mountain barriers, indented coasts, and easy routes whether by land or water, they scarcely touch on the more subtle relationships between man on the one hand and the climate, plants, and animals which form the dominant features of his physical environment on the other hand.

In their emphasis on the form of the land both Semple and Brigham follow the lead of W. M. Davis. In his admirable articles on America and the United States in "The Encyclopaedia Britannica" (11th edition) and in The International Geography edited by H. R. Mill (1901), Davis has given an uncommonly clear and vivid description of the main physical features of the New World. Living beings, however, play little part in this description, so that the reader is not led to an understanding of how physical geography affects human actions.

Other good descriptions of the North American continent are found in the following books: I. C. Russell's "North America" (1904), Stanford's "Compendium of Modern Geography and Travel," including the volumes on Canada, the United States, and Central America, and the great volumes on America in "The Earth and its Inhabitants" by Elise Reclus, 19 vols. (1876-1894). Russell's book is largely physiographic but contains some good chapters on the Indians. In Stanford's "Compendium" the purpose is to treat man and nature in their relation to one another, but the relationships are not clearly brought out, and there is too much emphasis on purely descriptive and encyclopedic matter. So far as interest is concerned, the famous work by Elise Reclus holds high rank. It is an encyclopedia of geographical facts arranged and edited in such a way that it has all the interest of a fine book of travel. Like most of the other books, however, it fails to bring out relationships.

As sources of information on the Indians, two books stand out with special prominence. "The American Race," by D. G. Brinton (1891), is a most scholarly volume devoted largely to a study of the Indians on a linguistic basis. It contains some general chapters, however, on the Indians and their environment, and these are most illuminating. The other book is the "Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico," edited by F. W. Hodge, and published by the United States Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, 1897, 1910, 1911). Its two large volumes are arranged in encyclopedic form. The various articles are written by a large number of scholars, including practically all the students who were at work on Indian ethnology at the time of publication. Many of the articles are the best that have been written and will not only interest the general reader but will contribute to an understanding of what America was when the Indians came here and what it still is today.


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