Cherokee Phoenix


Published May, 5, 1832

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The narrative, which we have inserted below, of a visit some years ago on an interesting and humane errand to that wild tribe of Indians the Pawnee Loups, will attract our readers. It is from the pen of a young officer in the army who accompanied the expedition of mercy, and who describes very clearly and creditably the scenes he witnessed.

N. Y. American.

[Communicated for the N.Y. American.]

Account of an expedition to the Pawnee Loup tribe of Indians, performed in March and April 1827.

Early in the spring of 1827, information was given to the United States Indian Agent, at the military station of Council Bluffs, that, in compliance with a barbarous superstition of the Pawnee Loup Indians, a female prisoner, captured by a party of one of the tribes who rove at the foot of the Rocky Mountains was to be put to death by the most lingering torments. All the efforts of the traders residing at their village, to save her from so cruel a fate, were unavailing, as deeply rooted as the belief that all their success in war and in chase depended on the religious observance of a rite handed down to them as indispensable and imperative from earliest traditions. This barbarious superstition consisted in sacrificing (in the Spring) to 'the Bright Star' of Venus, the first prisoner captured on the war path the preceding autumn.

The runner sent by the traders, informed us that the utmost favor that could be obtained from the Great War Chief was a promise to delay the sacrifice for eight days, thereby giving the Whites and opportunity to attempt her rescue. Accordingly the Indian Agents attended by a small military escort prepared to prepared (sic) set out for the Pawnee Loup village. The writer have but little knowledge of the manners and mode of living of the more remote tribes, and feeling great curiosity to visit one of the wildest and most warlike, obtained permission to accompany the expedition. Our party, including servants and 'c. consisted of 17 persons, we were all mounted some on horses other on mules, together with 6 or 8 sumpter mules these last were laden with our provisions ' Indian goods, such as red cloth, knives, blankets, powder, vermillion, 'c. taken to propitiate the favor of the chiefs and braves, without whose aid our object could not be attained.- On leaving the Bluffs, we at once enter on those immense Prairies, which extend from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains; entirely destitute of timber except on the banks of the water courses, solitary and still as a desert, this singular and characteristic feature of the western regions of our country strikes the wondering beholder with mingled sensations; awe and delight struggle for the mastery; at length the mind is left with a feeling of reverence for that Being 'which doeth great things past finding out, and wonders without number.' Our journey was diversified with no remarkable incidents; a few deer, elk, and antelopes crossed our path,evincing by their extreme shyness that the foot of man but seldom invaded the solitude of their native deserts. During the whole time we met but one human being, an Indian hunter; we came upon him unexpectedly, and his looks showed distrust and alarm. I know not why it is, but when journeying over these plains, and even with a numerous company, I have always felt a sensation of almost utter loneliness much more decided than when travelling alone among mountains, or in country diversified with hill and dale. But, to return to this digression; here and there we passed some old camp or battle ground, the scene of the amicable meeting of hostile contest of various Indian clans. At one in particular, at the conclusion of a fatiguing day's travel, on fording La Coquille, a beautiful stream that flows into the La Platte, we suddenly came upon a row of large mound of wattled earth rising several feet above the surface of the prairie-they were graves, stern but faithful monitors that discord and war had disturbed these seemingly peaceful solitudes, and, as if to add force to the lesson thus harshly inculcated, on looking around me, I discerned suspended on the decayed trunk of an oak, a human skill grinning in ghastly mockery, and arrayed in the gaudy colors of the war paint, a deep gash on the forehead showing that the warrior had met his death in battle. We afterwards learned that this was the scene of a bloody fight between the Pawnees and the Omahas, in which the Pawnees were victors.

We travelled for four days without meeting with any of those signs which denote an approach to the vicinity of an Indian village. At length, on the fifth day, the faintly marked trail which guided our course became more distinct; then, instead of one narrow track; it was increased to three or four, and by noon twenty well beaten paths, running parallel to each other, showed that our journey was drawing nigh its conclusion. We encamped this night as usual. At noon the following day we descried the 'Lodges' of the Grand Pawnees looking like hillocks or mounds of earth scattered over the surface of the prairie. As we approached we saw the inhabitants crowded on the tops of their lodges, and apparently anxious to make out who we were; suddenly a cloud of smoke arose from the village; this we were told was to inform their allies, the 'Loups' whose village was ten miles distant, of the approach of strangers as friends, and white men; indeed the extreme watchfulness of these people, would shame more civilized nations; for miles around their villages on every hill ridge or point or land that commands views of the adjacent country, watchers are constantly kept; this is to guard against surprise, and is one of the first duties taught the young Pawnee who aspires to become a warrior.- In travelling through the prairies the trader or hunter often sees the gigantic outline or a human form distinctly traced on summit of some hill in the distance; for in the prairie, objects 'loom' as at sea and appear of much more than the ordinary size. The Indian scouts are well aware of this, and therefore keep as much as possible in the shade, ' seldom stand erect any length of time. But to return to our narrative; when within a mile of the village some 60 or 100 mounted warriors nearly naked, and without saddles, rushed at full speed to meet us; when within an hundred yards or so; they separated, uttering the most discordant cries, and wildly careering, performed the most fantastic evolutions-now a band would charge us in front, tossing their spears in the air and catching them as they fell; then on a given signa; each wild warrior bowed to his courser's neck, uttering the wail of defeat; then they would encircle us howling like so many demons, brandishing their lances and clashing their buffalo-hide shields; anon, they fled, and formed themselves some distance from us in two long files one each side of the trail, and as we passed through each warrior extended his hand, and uttering his uncouth salutation. Such was the welcome of the Pawnees, and many an awkward rider of our party as he soothed his frightened horse, wished that it had not been so boisterous.

After remaining an hour with the Grand Pawnee, we proceeded to the village of the 'Loups' where our journey terminated; and were greeted with the same welcome as at the town of their allies. The most distinguished warriors came out to meet us and the Head Chief escorted us to his lodge. Here let us leave our party for a time, and in the interim I will endeavor to give you a description of the village of the Wolf Pawnees.

Immediately on the left bank of the Platte, (which is here half a mile wide,) the traveller discovers several hillocks resembling ant-hills, scattered over the prairie; as he approaches, he sees they are conical mounds of earth, from 40 to 60 feet in height; these are the lodges of the Pawnee Loups. On advancing still nearer, the cries of women, squalling of children, and barking of dogs, 'c. soon convince him that these earthen mounds are the abode of human beings, that he is in the vicinity of a populous village. As the lodges are similar, a description of one will answer for all. Conceive a section of a cylinder, from eighty to hundred feet in diameter, its elements composed of two concentric circles of posts, 15 to 20 feet high, now suppose the spaces between the posts to be firmly wattled in with reeds and mud; joists are laid horizontally on the posts and from them spring rafters, converging to the apex; these are crossed by other rafters, and when the frame work is formed, the whole is filed in and covered with earth as before, excepting an aperture for light, and the escape of smoke; the entrance is through a sort of covered passage in the side of the lodge; the interior is occupied by many families. Cribs made of cane and lined with mats, run round the inside of the lodge, and form very comfortable sleeping places for the inmates. These cribs are separate divisions for the different families.- The floor is matted, and in the center burns the common fire, over which constantly hang an enormous kettle filled generally with some of their various savage messes, such as buffalo, beaver, and elk meat, mixed with 'lyed' corn, squash or beans, the only vegetables these Indians pretend to cultivate.

In a short time a plentiful repast was set before us, to which hunger prompted us to do ample justice, not withstanding the coarseness of the cookery 'c. But what was our dismay when after we had fully satiated our appetites, an invitation was received to feast in another lodge, and we were told 'twould be a great breach of savage etiquette not to accept it; accordingly we did great injustice to our feelings in doing justice to the viands placed before us in barbarous abundance. How our stomachs quaked at seeing prodigious earthen dishes filed with lyed corn, buffalo meat, 'c., which we were expected to empty. There was no mincing the matter, no playing with the knife ' fork here; in short, we had to use wooden spoons, each of which certainly held a pint. At length having gorged ourselves to the utmost, we thought our trencher toils were ended; when, oh horrible! another chief entered and invited us to his lodge, to go through a similar ceremony: this was to much; we appealed to our interpreter in despair, and requested him to thank the Brave for his invitation, but to assure him that we could not possibly eat another morsel. On sauntering through the village, we observed two tall posts, planted in the ground their tops wound round with cloth and skins, ' crossed by a beam a few feet from the bottom. This was directly in front of the 'Medicine Lodge,' to which the unfortunate victim was confined, and was intended for the scaffold.

The poor prisoner had been confined for months in this lodge, under the charge of the 'great Medicine man' or a High Priest, who fasted himself while he fed her on the best they had, as it were, fattened her for the slaughter. Every evening she was compelled to dance 'death dance' and sing her 'scalp song,' amid the shouts of infuriated savages. I subjoin a description of the intended mode of her execution, as related to me by an intelligent trader and nothing but a reliance on his veracity and the sight of the preparations evidently going forward, caused me to believe that even savages could perpetrate such horrors. The victim was to be placed in an upright position, and secured by the hands and feet on the scaffold before described; a slow fire is then kindled beneath not sufficiently hot to consume the flesh, but so managed as to cause intense pain; while suffering this torment, all the hags in the village collect, and load her with taunts and imprecations. In the mean time, one of the principal Braves assembles a war party, to whom are joined all the boys anxious to distinguish themselves as warriors, armed with bows and blunted arrows; as they approach the villages, scouts are sent out in different directions, with all the formalities and precaution of actual war; at length one of the scouts returns with the intelligence that he has discovered the enemy. They then separate and surround the village; when near the scaffold, on a given signal, they shout the War Whoop, and with deafening cries rush towards the poor prisoner; they then stop at a considerable distance, and the boys pour in volleys of arrows; these (being without barbs) do not wound seriously, but sticking in the flesh cause very great pain. This ends the first act of the tragedy. Next, the old women heat many pieces of iron (such as arrow heads, knife blades, 'c.) red hot, and apply them at intervals to different parts of the body; all this time the fire is kept burning beneath, and has scorched the legs and soles of the feet almost to a cinder.- Thus the wretched creature endures many weary hours of torture, in vain praying for death as a release. At last, when the savage chief perceives that the victim of his cruelties will soon be insensible, and that exhausted nature cannot much longer suffer, he advances with his warriors, and, amid a shower of spears and arrows, ends her woes and life together. Such was the fate from which we hoped to rescue the miserable captive. Several presents were distributed among the principal chiefs, who promised to use all their influence in the council (which was to convene the next morning) to prevail on their warriors to deliver the prisoner to us; and as we were fearful that some attempt on her life might be made during the night, we prevailed on them to remove her from the Medicine Lodge, and place her under our charge. We now saw the captive for the first time, she was a woman of some five and twenty years of age, of a mild and intelligent, but by no means handsome countenance; she was dressed in a sort of tunic of Elk skin, and enveloped in a Buffalo Robe; she was evidently fully aware of the peril of her situation, and on first entering appeared to think that we were to be her executioners and summoned all her Indian stoicism to her aid. After sometime, by dint of signs, 'c. we made her comprehend that our object was to save her if possible. At length, when we were understood, to my thinking, never a human being could have evinced a greater gratitude; there were no transports, no sudden bursts of joy, at so unlooked for a prospect of deliverance. She gazed at us steadfastly, as if to see that we were not deceiving her; then, and only then, I saw a big drop standing in her eye, and but for a moment, a melancholy smile player o'er her wan and sunken features. It was indeed eloquent; never shall I forget that smile; the deepest burst of grief could not be more exquisitely mournful.

We passed a sleepless night in our lodge, having been kept awake by the continual cries and whoops of the Indians; the village was evidently in a state of high excitement, but we hoped that through the influence of the chiefs and the presents we intended distributing in council on the morrow, that the prisoner would be cheerfully delivered to us. The morning came, and after breakfast, the Indians commenced entering the lodge, which in a short time was crowded with warriors. Nothing now hindered our proceeding to business but the absence of the 'Great Medicine Man,' under whose custody the prisoner had been since her capture. As he had recommended her execution as a religious duty, we apprehended serious obstacles from his opposition. A bustle outside at length announced his approach. The throng made way, and he sprung directly into the center of the lodge and stood before us. A more savage and hideous looking being could scarcely be conceived; he was apparently fifty years old, tall, and of a very dark complexion, much emaciated from the rigid abstinence to which he had for many weeks subjected himself; his countenance wild and haggard, his eyes bright and deep sunk in his head, and his long hair floating in elf locks over his shoulders. The legs and feet were bare, his dress consisting merely of a long blue coat, trimmed with red, and a fillet encircling his forehead. His first act was to take a small looking glass from his bosom and hold it under the aperture in the roof of the lodge, so as to catch the reflection of the sun, all the time muttering some gibberish; this lasted for some minutes the Indians viewing his operations in silent awe, firmly believing he held direct communion with the great Wahcondah. He at length announces that the great spirit was pleased, and approved of their proceedings; after this farce he gravely saluted us, lighted his pipe at the council fire, and gave three whiffs, one in honor of Wahcondah upwards, one to the spirits of the Air horizontally, and one downwards to the spirits under the Earth, he then took his seat and the business of the council commenced.

After the pipe of peace had been passed around, the Agent addressed the council in a short speech; he said that he had heard of the intended sacrifice, and had travelled so far solely to endeavor to persuade the Pawnees to deliver their prisoner and to accept of a present instead. He tried to convince them that the Wahcondah did not require to be propitiated by human blood, and that her life or death would have no influence on the good or ill success of their war parties and hunting expeditions. He told them their Great White Father would be pleased if her life was spared and consider it as a favor conferred by his Red Children, and concluded by disclaiming all improper interference with their ancient customs. Then ensued a stormy discussion: many including most of the principal chiefs, were favorable to the surrender; but several of the old men and the fiercest of the warriors were much averse to any departure from an ancient usage. The priest said little, but from the sinister scowl with which he viewed our proceedings, was evidently opposed to the surrender. In fact, there is but little doubt that he was the author of the subsequent tumult. At length the chief announced that from their great affection for their White Father the Pawnee Loups had consented to place the captive at our disposal; the liberal presents distributed doubtless contributed to this favorable decision. As soon as the presents were divided by the chiefs among their followers, the council dispersed in apparent harmony. We now prepared for our departure, and informed our charge of the favorable change in her prospects; to my surprise she did not receive the intelligence with the joy I had anticipated, but on the contrary appeared more gloomy than ever. We now took leave of our entertainers, placing the captive (whose apathy seemed unaccountable,) in the midst of us. The men were previously directed on no account to alight or fire a shot without orders; these directions were by no means inappropriate as subsequent events will show. We had scarcely left our lodge and were still in the midst of the village, when a warrior, armed with a bow; rushed towards us with the evident intention of shooting the captive; he was in the act of aiming when a chief prostrated him with a blow of his war club, and left him for dead. This was scarcely done when another Indian sprung from a lodge, and with too true and aim, wounded the ill fated woman, the arrow (glancing very near one of our party pierced through her buffalo robe, and penetrated many inches into her body. The wound was mortal, and, as she was falling from her horse, one of the chiefs drew out the arrow and displayed it to the crowd. Then followed a scene of the wildest confusion, the Indians shouting and running for their arms in all directions, some approving and others threatening vengeance for the deed. At this juncture the agent dismounted and addressed the multitude; he told them he was sorry to see the Pawnees so soon forget their promises-that their act in council was perfectly voluntary-the deed was now done--the unfortunate woman was dead-sufficient blood had been shed, and he hoped more would not be spilt by their fighting among themselves; and concluded by saying, that he was sorry that he had come so far to effect so little.- This was happily timed, for there was every prospect of a broil and we were in the midst of the village, surrounded by thousands of infuriate savages, and utterly unable to distinguish friend from foe. The address of the agent produced a good effect, for a pauase ensued among the savages during which we had time to clear the village and gain the prairie where we could have defended ourselves in the best advantage had they attacked us; but we were not molested, and returned to the Bluffs without any important incident having occurred. Thus ended our excursion, and, although unsuccessful, we had the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that all the means in our power were used to save the life of a fellow being, and although we failed, she was at least spared by a speedy death, from expiring in dreadful tortures.

Note--We learned subsequently that although the chiefs had consented the great mass of the tribe were clamorous for her execution; and to liberate their prisoners, still that at least fifty warriors, sure of being ultimately supported, had pledged themselves that she would not leave the village alive. The one who first attacked, and he who killed her were of this party. They were no doubt influenced by the intrigues of the 'Medicine Man' and the clamor of the squaws, who displayed great vindictiveness on this occasion. We also understood, that after our departure, the dead body was dragged to the prairie and shockingly mangled.