TRAITS OF INDIAN CHARACTER,
By Washington Irving.
'Notwithstanding all the obloquy with which early historians of the colonies have overshadowed the characters of the unfortunate natives, some bright gleams will occasionally break through, that throw a degree of melancholy lustre on their memories. Facts are occasionally to be met with, in their rude annals, which though recorded with all the coloring of prejudice and bigotry, yet speak for themselves; and will be dwelt on with applause and sympathy, when prejudice shall have passed away.
'In one of the homely narratives of the Indian wars in New England, there is a touching account of the desolation carried into the tribe of the Pequod Indians. Humanity shudders at the cold blooded accounts given of indiscriminate butchery on the part of the settlers. In one place we read of the surprisal of an Indian fort in the night when the wigwams were wrapped in flames, and the miserable inhabitants shot down and slain, in attempting to escape,' all being despatched and ended in the course of an hour.' After a series of similar transactions, 'Our soldiers,' as the historian piously observes, 'being resolved by God's assistance to make a final destruction of them,' the unhappy savages being hunted from their homes and fortresses, and pursued with fire and sword, a scanty but gallant band, the sad remnant of the Pequod warriors, with their wives and children, took refuge in a swamp.'
'Burning with indignation, and rendered sullen by despair-with hearts bursting with grief at the destruction of their tribe, and spirits galled and sore at the fancied ignominy of their defeat, they refused to ask their lives at the hands of an insulting foe, and preferred death to submission.'
'As the night drew on they were surrounded in their dismal retreat, in such manner as to render escape impracticable. thus situated, their enemy 'plied them with shot all the time, by which means many were killed and buried in the mire.' In the darkness and fog that preceded the dawn of day, some few broke through the besiegers and escaped into the woods: 'the rest were left to the conquerors, of which many were killed in the swamp, like sullen dogs who would rather, in their self-wildedness [sic] and madness, sit still and be shot through, or cut to pieces,' than implore for mercy. When the day broke upon this handful of forlorn, but dauntless spirits, the soldiers, we are told, entering the swamp, 'found several heaps of them sitting close together, upon whom they discharged their pieces, laden with ten or twelve pistol bullets at a time; putting the muzzles of their pieces under the boughs, within a few yards of them; so as, besides those that were dead, many more were killed and sunk into the mire, and never were minded more by friend or foe.'
'Can anyone read this plain unvarnished tale, without admiring the stern resolution, the unbending pride, and loftiness of spirit, that seemed to nerve the hearts of these self taught heroes, and to raise them above the instinctive feelings of human nature? When the Gauls laid waste the city of Rome, they found the nobles clothed in their robes, and seated with stern tranquility in their curule chairs; in this manner they suffered death without an attempt at supplication or resistance. Such conduct in them was applauded as noble and magnanimous; in the hapless Indians it was reviled as obstinate and sullen. How much are we the dupes of show and circumstance? How different is virtue, arrayed in purple and enthroned in state, from virtue, destitute and naked, reduced to the last stage of wretchedness and perishing obscurely in a wilderness.'
'Do these records of ancient excesses fill us with disgust and aversion? Let us take heed that we do not suffer ourselves to be hurried into the same iniquities. Posterity lifts up its hands with horror at past misdeeds, because the passions that urged to them are not felt, and the arguments that persuaded to them are forgotten; but we are reconciled to the present perpetration of injustice by all the selfish motives with which interest chills the heart and silences the conscience. Even at the present advanced day, when we should suppose that enlightened philosophy had expanded our minds, and true religion had warmed our hearts into philanthropy-when we have been admonished by a sense of past transgressions, and instructed by the indignant censure of candid history-even now, we perceive a disposition breaking out to renew the persecutions of these hapless beings. Sober-thoughted men, far from the scenes of danger, in the securities of cities and populous regions, can coolly talk of 'exterminating measures,' and discuss the policy of extirpating thousands. If such is the talk in the cities, what is the temper displayed on the borders. The sentence of desolation has gone forth-'the roar is up amidst woods' implacable wrath, goaded on by interest and prejudice, is ready to confound all rights, to trample on al claims of justice and humanity, and to act over these scenes of sanguinary vengeance, which have too often stained the pages of colonial history.'
'These are not the idle suggestions of fancy; they are wrung froth by recent facts which still haunt the public mind. We need but turn to the ravaged country of the Creeks to behold a picture of exterminating warfare.
These deluded savages, either excited by private injury or private intrigue, or by both, have lately taken up the hatchet, and made deadly inroads into our frontier settlements.- Their punishment has been pitiless and terrible. Vengeance has gone like a devouring fire through their country-the smoke of their village yet rises to heaven, and the blood of the slaughtered Indians yet reeks upon the earth. Of this merciless ravage, an idea may be formed by a single exploit, boastfully set forth in an official letter that has darkened our public journals.* A detachment of soldiery had been sent under the command of one General Coffee to destroy the Tallushatches towns, where the hostile Creeks had assembled. The enterprise was executed as the commander in chief+ expresses it, in style- but, in the name of mercy, in what style! The towns were surrounded before the break of day. The inhabitants, starting from their sleep, flew to arms, with beat of drums and hideous yellings. The soldiery pressed upon them on ever side, and met with desperate resistance-but what was savage valor against the array and discipline of scientific warfare? The Creeks made gallant charges, but were beaten back by overwhelming numbers. Hemmed in like savage beasts surrounded by the hunters, wherever they turned they met a foe, and in every foe they found a butcher. 'The enemy retreated firing,' says Coffee in his letter, 'until they got around and in their buildings, where they made all the resistance that an overpowered soldier could do; they fought as long as one existed, but their destruction was very soon completed; our men rushed up to the doors of the houses, and in a few minutes killed the last warrior of them; the enemy fought with savage fury, and met death with all its horrors, without shrinking or complaining; not one asked to be spared, but fought so long as they could stand or sit. In consequence of their flying to their houses, and mixing with the families, our men in killing the males, without intention, killed and wounded a few of the squaws and children.'
'So unsparing was the carnage of the sword, that not one of the warriors escaped to carry the heart-breaking tidings to the remainder of the tribe. Such is what is termed executing hostilities in style!-Let those who exclaim with abhorrence at Indian inroad-those who are so eloquent about the bitterness of Indian recrimination -let them turn to the horrible victory of General Coffee, and be silent.'
'As yet, our government has in some measure restrained the tide of vengeance, and inculcated lenity towards the hapless Indians who have been duped into the present war. Such temper is worthy of an enlightened government-let it still be observed-let sharp rebuke and signal punishment be inflicted on those who abuse their delegated power, and disgrace their victories with massacre and conflagration. The enormities of the Indians form no excuse for the enormities of white men. It has pleased heaven to give them but limited powers of mind++ and feeble lights to guide their judgments; it becomes us who are blessed with higher intellects to think for them, and to set them an example of humanity. It is the nature of vengeance, if unrestrained, to be headlong in its actions, and to lay up, in a moment of passion, ample cause for an age's repentance. We may roll over these miserable beings with our chariot wheels, and crush them to the earth; but when war has done its worst- when passion has subsided, and it is too late to pity or to save-we shall look back with unavailing compunction at the mangled corpses of those whose cries were unheeded in the fury of our career.'
'Let the fate of war go as it may, the fate of those ignorant tribes that have been inveigled from their forests to mingle in the strife of white men, will be inevitably the same. In the collision of two powerful nations, these intervening particles of population will be crumbled to dust, and scattered to the winds of heaven. In a little while, and they will go to the way that so many tribes have gone before. The few hordes that still linger about the shores of Huron and Superior, and the tributary streams of the Mississippi, will share the fate of those tribes that once lorded it along the proud banks of the Hudson; of that gigantic race that are said to have existed on the borders of the Susquehanna, and of those various nations that flourished about the Potomac and the Rappahanoc, and that peopled the forests of the vast valley Shenandoah. They will vanish like a vapor from the face of the earth-their very history will be lost in forgetfulness-and 'the places that know them, will know them no more forever.'
'Or if perchance some dubious memorial of them should survive the lapse of time, it may be in the romantic dream of the poet, to populate in imagination his glades and groves, like the fauns, and satyrs, and sylvan deities of antiquity. But should he venture the dark story of their wrings and wretchedness-driven from their native abodes and the sepulchers of their fathers-hunted like wild beasts about the earth, and sent down in violence and butchery to the grave-posterity will either turn with horror and incredulity from the tale, or blush with indignation at the inhumanity of their forefathers.- 'We are driven back,' said an old warrior, 'until we can retreat no further-our hatchets are broken-our bows are snapped-our fires are nearly extinguished-a little longer and the white men will cease to persecute us-for we will cease to exist!'
'Letter of Gen Coffee, dated Nov. 4, 1812.
+ Gen. Andrew Jackson.
++ We should very reluctantly concede the truth of this remark, though we are aware that it is the belief of many. The real difference between the whites and the Indians, we should attribute to the extent of advantages of improvement, enjoyed by the one, and the same withheld from the other; and this may be said of all the human race. The white man, who has his mind improved, certainly can lay claim to greater acquired abilities, than an Indian in his rude state, this nevertheless does not prove that God has seen fit to give the Aborigines of this Country, limited powers of mind. Abundant evidence has been given that the natural powers of the mind, amongst most of the Indians, are very much like most nations, and we have had, as yet, no reason to believe, that under suitable advantages, and proper instruction, they will fail of equal acquired abilities.