Read ON BOOKS ABOUT RED MEN of Letters on Literature, free online book, by Andrew Lang., on

To Richard Wilby‚ Esq.‚ Eton College‚ Windsor.

My Dear Dick, ­It is very good of you, among your severe studies at Eton, to write to your Uncle.  I am extremely pleased to hear that your football is appreciated in the highest circles, and shall be happy to have as good an account of your skill in making Latin verses.

I am glad you like “She,” Mr. Rider Haggard’s book which I sent you.  It is “something like,” as you say, and I quite agree with you, both in being in love with the heroine, and in thinking that she preaches rather too much.  But, then, as she was over two thousand years old, and had lived for most of that time among cannibals, who did not understand her, one may excuse her for “jawing,” as you say, a good deal, when she met white men.  You want to know if “She” is a true story.  Of course it is!

But you have read “She,” and you have read all Cooper’s, and Marryat’s, and Mr. Stevenson’s books, and “Tom Sawyer,” and “Huckleberry Finn,” several times.  So have I, and am quite ready to begin again.  But, to my mind, books about “Red Indians” have always seemed much the most interesting.  At your age, I remember, I bought a tomahawk, and, as we had also lots of spears and boomerangs from Australia, the poultry used to have rather a rough time of it.

I never could do very much with a boomerang; but I could throw a spear to a hair’s breadth, as many a chicken had occasion to discover.  When you go home for Christmas I hope you will remember that all this was very wrong, and that you will consider we are civilized people, not Mohicans, nor Pawnees.  I also made a stone pipe, like Hiawatha’s, but I never could drill a hole in the stem, so it did not “draw” like a civilized pipe.

By way of an awful warning to you on this score, and also, as you say you want a true book about Red Indians, let me recommend to you the best book about them I ever came across.  It is called “A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, during Thirty Years’ Residence among the Indians,” and it was published at New York by Messrs. Carvill, in 1830.

If I were an American publisher, instead of a British author (how I wish I was!) I’d publish “John Tanner” again, or perhaps cut a good deal out, and make a boy’s book of it.  You are not likely to get it to buy, but Mr. Steevens, the American bookseller, has found me a copy.  If I lend you it, will you be kind enough to illustrate it on separate sheets of paper, and not make drawings on the pages of the book?  This will, in the long run, be more satisfactory to yourself, as you will be able to keep your pictures; for I want “John Tanner” back again:  and don’t lend him to your fag-master.

Tanner was born about 1780; he lived in Kentucky.  Don’t you wish you had lived in Kentucky in Colonel Boone’s time?  The Shawnees were roaming about the neighbourhood when Tanner was a little boy.  His uncle scalped one of them.  This made bad feeling between the Tanners and the Shawnees; but John, like any boy of spirit, wished never to learn lessons, and wanted to be an Indian brave.  He soon had more of being a brave than he liked; but he never learned any more lessons, and could not even read or write.

One day John’s father told him not to leave the house, because from the movements of the horses, he knew that Indians were in the woods.  So John seized the first chance and nipped out, and ran to a walnut tree in one of the fields, where he began filling his straw hat with walnuts.  At that very moment he was caught by two Indians, who spilled the nuts, put his hat on his head, and bolted with him.  One of the old women of the tribe had lost her son, and wanted to adopt a boy, and so they adopted Johnny Tanner.  They ran with him till he was out of breath, till they reached the Ohio, where they threw him into a canoe, paddled across, and set off running again.

In ten days’ hard marching they reached the camp, and it was worse than going to a new school, for all the Indians kicked John Tanner about, and “their dance,” he says, “was brisk and cheerful, after the manner of the scalp dance!” Cheerful for John!  He had to lie between the fire and the door of the lodge, and every one who passed gave him a kick.  One old man was particularly cruel.  When Tanner was grown up, he came back to that neighbourhood, and the first thing he asked was, “Where is Manito-o-geezhik?”

“Dead, two months since.”

“It is well that he is dead,” said John Tanner.  But an old female chief, Net-ko-kua, adopted him, and now it began to be fun.  For he was sent to shoot game for the family.  Could anything be more delightful?  His first shot was at pigeons, with a pistol.  The pistol knocked down Tanner; but it also knocked down the pigeon.  He then caught martíns ­and measles, which was less entertaining.  Even Indians have measles!  But even hunting is not altogether fun, when you start with no breakfast and have no chance of supper unless you kill game.

The other Red Indian books, especially the cheap ones, don’t tell you that very often the Indians are more than half-starved.  Then some one builds a magic lodge, and prays to the Great Spirit.  Tanner often did this, and he would then dream how the Great Spirit appeared to him as a beautiful young man, and told him where he would find game, and prophesied other events in his life.  It is curious to see a white man taking to the Indian religion, and having exactly the same sort of visions as their red converts described to the Jesuit fathers nearly two hundred years before.

Tanner saw some Indian ghosts, too, when he grew up.  On the bank of the Little Saskawjewun there was a capital camping-place where the Indians never camped.  It was called Jebingneezh-o-shin-naut ­“the place of two Dead Men.”  Two Indians of the same totem had killed each other there.  Now, their totem was that which Tanner bore, the totem of his adopted Indian mother.  The story was that if any man camped there, the ghosts would come out of their graves; and that was just what happened.  Tanner made the experiment; he camped and fell asleep.  “Very soon I saw the two dead men come and sit down by my fire opposite me.  I got up and sat opposite them by the fire, and in this position I awoke.”  Perhaps he fell asleep again, for he now saw the two dead men, who sat opposite to him, and laughed and poked fun and sticks at him.  He could neither speak nor run away.  One of them showed him a horse on a hill, and said, “There, my brother, is a horse I give you to ride on your journey home, and on your way you can call and leave the horse, and spend another night with us.”  So, next morning, he found the horse and rode it, but he did not spend another night with the ghosts of his own totem.  He had seen enough of them.

Though Tanner believed in his own dreams of the Great Spirit, he did not believe in those of his Indian mother.  He thought she used to prowl about in the daytime, find tracks of a bear or deer, watch where they went to, and then say the beast’s lair had been revealed to her in a dream.  But Tanner’s own visions were “honest Injun.”  Once, in a hard winter, Tanner played a trick on the old woman.  All the food they had was a quart of frozen bears’ grease, kept in a kettle with a skin fastened over it.  But Tanner caught a rabbit alive and popped him under the skin.  So when the old woman went for the bears’ grease in the morning, and found it alive, she was not a little alarmed.

But does not the notion of living on frozen pomatum rather take the gilt off the delight of being an Indian?  The old woman was as brave and resolute as a man, but in one day she sold a hundred and twenty beaver skins and many buffalo robes for rum.  She always entertained all the neighbouring Indians as long as the rum lasted, and Tanner had a narrow escape of growing up a drunkard.  He became such a savage that when an Indian girl carelessly allowed his wigwam to be burned, he stripped her of her blanket and turned her out for the night in the snow.

So Tanner grew up in spite of hunger and drink.  Once, when starving, and without bullets, he met a buck moose.  If he killed the moose he would be saved, if he did not he would die.  So he took the screws out of the lock of his rifle, loaded with them in place of bullets, tied the lock on with string, fired, and killed the moose.

Tanner was worried into marrying a young squaw (at least he says he did it because the girl wanted it), and this led to all his sorrows ­this and a quarrel with a medicine-man.  The medicine-man accused him of being a wizard, and his wife got another Indian to shoot him.  Tanner was far from surgeons, and he actually hacked out the bullet himself with an old razor.  Another wounded Indian once amputated his own arm.  The ancient Spartans could not have been pluckier.  The Indians had other virtues as well as pluck.  They were honest and so hospitable, before they knew white men’s ways, that they would give poor strangers new mocassins and new buffalo cloaks.

Will it bore you, my dear Dick, if I tell you of an old Indian’s death?  It seems a pretty and touching story.  Old Pe-shau-ba was a friend of Tanner.  One day he fell violently ill.  He sent for Tanner and said to him:  “I remember before I came to live in this world, I was with the Great Spirit above.  I saw many good and desirable things, and among others a beautiful woman.  And the Great Spirit said:  ’Pe-shau-ba, do you love the woman?’ I told him I did.  Then he said, ’Go down and spend a few winters on earth.  You cannot stay long, and you must remember to be always kind and good to my children whom you see below.’  So I came down, but I have never forgotten what was said to me.

“I have always stood in the smoke between the two bands when my people fought with their enemies . . .  I now hear the same voice that talked to me before I came into the world.  It tells me I can remain here no longer.”  He then walked out, looked at the sun, the sky, the lake, and the distant hills; then came in, lay down composedly in his place, and in a few minutes ceased to breathe.

If we would hardly care to live like Indians, after all (and Tanner tired of it and came back, an old man, to the States), we might desire to die like Pe-shau-ba, if, like him, we had been “good and kind to God’s children whom we meet below.”  So here is a Christmas moral for you, out of a Red Indian book, and I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.