Read CHAPTER FIVE - NATIVE TRIBES. of Handbook to the new Gold-fields , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Mr Nicolay, in his treatise on the Oregon Territory, gives a minute and graphic account of the aboriginal inhabitants of this district, from which we purpose making some extracts to enrich our pages.

The principal Indian tribes, commencing from the south, are the Callapuyas, Shaste, Klamet, Umqua, Rogues’ River, and Chinooks, between the Californian boundary and Columbia, to the west of the Cascade Mountains; the Shoshones or Snake and Nezperces tribes about the southern branch of the Columbia, and Cascade Indians on the river of that name; between the Columbia and the Strait of Fuca, the Tatouche or Classet tribe; and the Clalams about Port Discovery; the Sachet about Possession Sound; the Walla-walla, Flat-head, Flat-bow Indians, and Cour d’Aleine or Pointed Heart, about the rivers of the same names; the Chunnapuns and Chanwappans between the Cascade range and the north branch of the Columbia; the Kootanie to the east, between it and the Rocky Mountains; and to the north about Okanagan, various branches of the Carrier tribe. Of those on the coast to the north and on Vancouver Island not much is known.

Their numbers may be stated at a rough estimate as-

This is, however, 6000 less than was reported to the Congress of the United States, and 4000 more than Mr Wilkes’ calculation.

That there are errors in this there can be no doubt; and it is probable that some smaller tribes may be omitted in the above calculation; the number, therefore, between parallels 42 degrees and 54 degrees 40 minutes may be roughly estimated at 30,000.

Through the care of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the semi-civilised habits they have adopted, the number of Indians to the north of the Columbia is not on the decrease; to the south it is; and the total must be very considerably less than it was before the settlement was made among them.

The Indian nations in Oregon may be divided into three classes, differing in habits and character according to their locality and means of sustenance-the Indians of the coast, the mountains, and the plains. The first feed mostly on fish, and weave cloth for clothing from the wool or hair of the native sheep, having to a great extent settled residences, though these last characteristics are rapidly disappearing; the second, trappers and hunters, wandering for the most part in pursuit of game; and the third, the equestrian tribes, who, on the great plains about the waters of the rivers, chase on their fleet horses the gigantic bison, whose flesh supplies them with food, and whose hide covers them. The former bear some resemblance to the native inhabitants of the islands of the Pacific. The two latter are in every respect Red men. Those on the coast were first known, and when visited by the early voyagers had the characteristics which, from contiguity to White men, have deteriorated in the south, but which have been retained in the north-high courage, determination, and great ingenuity, but joined to cruelty and faithlessness; and as in the south Destruction Island obtained its name from their savage cruelty, so does the coast throughout its length afford the same testimony. Cook, who first discovered them, says, “They were thieves in the strictest sense of the word, for they pilfered nothing from us but what they knew could be converted to the purposes of utility, and had a real value according to their estimation of things.”

Their form is thick and clumsy, but they are not deficient in strength or activity; when young, their colour is not dark nor their features hard, but exposure to the weather, want of mental culture, and their dirty habits, soon reduce them all to the same dark complexion and dull phlegmatic want of expression which is strongly marked in all of them.

In Cook’s time, and till the White men settled among them, their dress was a flaxen mantle, ornamented with fur above, and tassels and fringes, which, passing under the left arm, is tied over the right shoulder, leaving the right side open: this is fastened round the waist by a girdle: above this, which reaches below the knee, a circular cape, perforated in the centre to admit the head, made of the same substance, and also fringed in the lower part, is worn: it covers the arms to the elbows. Their head is covered with a cap, conical but truncated, made of fine matting, ornamented at the top with a knot or tassels. Besides the above dress, common to both sexes, the men frequently throw over their garments the skin of a bear, wolf, or sea-otter, with the fur outwards: they wear the hair loose, unless tied up in the scalping-lock: they cover themselves with paint, and swarm with vermin; upon the paint they strew mica to make it glitter. They perforate the nose and ears, and put various ornaments into them.

But besides these common habits, they have official and ceremonious occasions, on which they wear beautiful furs and theatrical dresses and disguises, including large masks; and their war-dress, formed of a thick doubled leathern mantle of elk or buffalo skin, frequently with a cloak over it, on which the hoofs of horses were strung, makes an almost impervious cuirass. Their love for music, general lively dispositions, except from provocation, but determination in avenging insult or wrong, is testified by all.

Cook also gives a full description of their houses and manner of life. Of the former, he says they are made of split boards, and large enough for several families, who occupy small pens on each side of the interior. They have benches and boxes, and many of their utensils, such as pipes, etcetera, are frequently carved; as are also gigantic human faces on large trunks of trees, which they set up for posts to their dwellings.

In their persons and houses they were filthy in the extreme; in their habits lazy; but the women were modest and industrious. Their principal food was fish, but they had edible roots and game from the land. A favourite article of food was also the roe of herrings, dried on pine branches or sea-weed. Their weapons were spears, arrows, slings, and clubs, similar to the New Zealanders; also an axe, not dissimilar to the North American tomahawk, the handle of which is usually carved.

They made garments of pine-bark beaten fine; these were made by hand with plaited thread and woollen, so closely wove as to resemble cloth, and frequently had worked on them figures of men and animals: on one was the whole process of the whale fishery. Their aptitude for the imitative arts was very great. Their canoes were rather elegantly formed out of trees, with rising prow, frequently carved in figures. They differ from those of the Pacific generally, in having neither sails nor outriggers; they had harpoons and spears for whale-fishing. Vancouver, when at Port Discovery, saw some long poles placed upright on the beach at equal distances, the object of which he could not discover, and it was not till the last voyage of discovery, despatched from the United States under Commodore Wilkes, that they were ascertained to have been used for hanging nets upon, to catch wild-fowl by night: their ingenuity in this and in netting salmon is very remarkable. They have two nets, the drawing and casting net, made of a silky grass found on the banks of the Columbia, or the fibres of the roots of trees, or of the inner bark of the white cedar. The salmon-fishing on the Columbia commences in June, the main body, according to the habit of this fish, dividing at the mouth of the tributary streams to ascend then to their sources. At the rapids and falls the work of destruction commences; with a bag-net, not unlike to an European fisherman’s landing-net, on a pole thirty feet long, the Indians take their stand on the rocks, or on platforms erected for the purpose, and throwing their nets into the river above their standing-places, let them float down the rapids to meet the fish as they ascend. By this means many are caught; they have also stake-nets and lines with stones for leads; they also catch many with hook and line, and sometimes, now they have fire-arms, shoot them. Their mode of fishing for sturgeon is also peculiar. The line, made of twisted fibres of the roots of trees, is attached to a large wooden hook and let down over the side of a canoe; those used for this purpose are small, having only one or two men at most in them: having hooked a fish, they haul him gently up till he floats on the water, then, with a heavy mallet, with one blow on the head they kill him; with singular dexterity they contrive to jerk a fish of three hundred pounds over the lowered side of the canoe by a single effort. They catch whales also by means of harpoons with bladders attached. The oil is sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. It has been said that their houses were made of boards, but some constructive art is displayed in their erection as was much ingenuity in procuring the materials before axes were introduced among them; for they contrived to fell trees with a rough chisel and mallet. The houses are made of centre-posts about eighteen feet high, upon which a long pole rests, forming the ridge of the roof, from whence rafters descend to another like it, but not more than five feet from the ground; to these again, cross poles are attached, and against these are placed boards upright, and the lower end fixed in the ground; across these again, poles are placed, and tied with cords of cedar bark to those inside of the roof, which are similarly disposed: the planks are double. These houses are divided on each side into stalls and pens, occupied as sleeping places during the night, and the rafters serve to suspend the fish, which are dried by the smoke in its lengthened course through the interstices of the roof and walls. In their superstitions, theatricals, dances, and songs they have much similarity to the natives of Polynesia. Debased now, and degraded even beneath their former portrait-fast fading away before the more genial sun of the fortunes of the White man-the Indians on the southern coast are no longer free and warlike, and being in subjection to the Hudson’s Bay Company, English manufactures are substituted for the efforts of their native industry.

The mode of burial practised among the tribes on the coast is very peculiar. The corpse is placed sometimes in a canoe raised a few feet from the ground, with arms and other necessaries beside it. These are not unfrequently spoiled beforehand, to prevent their being stolen, as if they thought they might, like their owner, be restored to their former state in the new world. Sometimes they are put in upright boxes like sentry-boxes-sometimes in small enclosures-but usually kept neat, and those of the chiefs frequently painted. Mount Coffin, at the mouth of the Cowelitz, seems to have been appropriated to the burial of persons of importance; it is about seven hundred feet high, and quite isolated: on it were to be seen the canoe-coffins of the natives in every stage of decay; they were hung between the trees about five feet from the ground. This cemetery of the Columbia is, however, destroyed, for the American sailors under Wilkes, neglecting to put out their cooking-fire, it spread over the whole mountain, and continued to rage through the night, till all was burnt. A few small presents appeased the Indians, who but a few years before could only have drowned the remembrance of such a national disgrace in the blood of those who caused it.

Among the tribes about the lower part of the Columbia the singular custom of flattening the head still prevails, though not to the extent it did formerly; Mr Dunn thus describes the operation:-

“Immediately after the birth, the infant is laid in an oblong wooden trough, by way of cradle, with moss under the head; the end on which the head reposes is raised higher than the rest; a padding is then placed on the infant’s forehead, with a piece of cedar-bark over it; it is pressed down by cords, which pass through holes on each side of the trough. As the tightening of the padding and pressure of the head is gradual, the process is said not to be attended with much pain. The appearance of the infant, however, while under it, is shocking,-its little black eyes seem ready to start from their sockets; the mouth exhibits all the appearance of internal convulsion; and it clearly appears that the face is undergoing a process of unnatural configuration. About a year’s pressure is sufficient to produce the desired effect; the head is ever after completely flattened;” and as slaves are always left to nature, this deformity is consequently a mark of free birth. The Indians on the north coast possess the characteristics of the southern, but harsher and more boldly defined-they are of fiercer and more treacherous dispositions. Indeed, those of the south have a disposition to merriment and light-hearted good humour. Their mechanical ingenuity is more remarkably displayed in the carving on their pipes, and especially in working iron and steel. The Indians of the coast are doubtless all from the same stock, modified by circumstances and locality. Those, however, to the south of the Columbia, about the waters of the rivers Klamet and Umqua, partake largely of the characteristics of the Indians of the plains, their country having prairies, and themselves possessing horses: they are remarkable for nothing but their determined hostility towards the Whites. Idleness and filth are inveterate among all three, but among the Indians of the plains there is a marked difference; there, their food consist of fish, indeed, and dried for winter, but not entirely, being more varied by venison than on the coast, and in the winter by roots, which they dig up and lay by in store. They live more in moveable tents, and to the south their great wealth is their horses. They are not, like the coast Indians, of small stature and inelegantly made, but remarkable for comeliness of person and elegance of carriage. They are equestrian in their habits, and shew to great advantage on horseback. The principal tribes are the Shoshones and Walla-walla, between whom, as between the former and the Blackfeet, there has been continual war. The Shoshones dwell between the Rocky and Blue Mountain ranges, the Walla-walla about the river of that fame; the Blackfeet at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, principally, but not entirely, on the eastern side. Warlike and independent, the Blackfeet had for a long time the advantage, having been earlier introduced to the use of fire-arms; but by the instrumentality of the Hudson’s Bay Company, they have been of late years more on an equality: they are friendly to the Whites, but the Blackfeet, their mortal enemies, and their hill-forts overhanging the passes of the Rocky Mountains, make the future safety of the journey to the United States depend on the temper of this fickle and bloodthirsty nation, who have been well termed the Arabs of the West, for truly their hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against them; and though seriously lessened in number by war and disease, they still dwell in the presence of all their brethren. The Shoshones feed frequently on horse-flesh, and have also large quantities of edible roots, which stand them in great stead during the winter. When the men are fishing for salmon, the women are employed in digging and preserving the roots. There is, indeed, one tribe inhabiting the country of the salt lakes and springs to the south of the head-waters of the Snake or Saptin River, who have no wish, beyond these roots, living in the most bestial manner possible: these, from their single occupation, have been named Diggers. Above the Walla-walla, also, there is a tribe called the Basket people, from their using a basket in fishing for salmon. The apparatus consists of a large wicker basket, supported by long poles inserted into it, and fixed in the rocks; to the basket is joined a long frame, spreading above, against which the fish, in attempting to leap the falls, strike and fall into the basket; it is taken up three times a day, and at each haul not unfrequently contains three hundred fine fish. The Flat-heads, dwelling about the river of that name, are the most northern of the equestrian tribes: their characteristics are intelligence and aptitude for civilisation; yet, in the early history of the country, their fierceness and barbarity in war could not be exceeded, especially in their retaliation on the Blackfeet, of which Ross Cox gives a horrible account. The usual dress of these tribes is a shirt, leggings, and mocassins of deer-skin, frequently much ornamented with fringes of beads, and formerly in the “braves” with scalps; a cap of handkerchief generally covers the head, but the Shoshones twist their long black hair into a natural helmet, more useful as a protection than many artificial defences: in winter a buffalo robe is added to the usual clothing. Horses abound among them, and they are usually well armed. Through the influence of the Hudson’s Bay Company, these tribes are beaming amalgamated by intermarriage, and will, doubtless, from their pliability of disposition, readiness of perception, and capability for improvement generally, no less than their friendship for the Whites and devotion to the Company, gradually lose their identity in acquired habits and knowledge, and become the peaceful proprietors of a country rich in flocks and herds, even very much cattle. The more northern Indians inhabiting the mountainous country round the head-waters of Oregon River and the branches of the Columbia, evidence an origin similar to the Chippewayan tribes on the east of the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie found but little difference, when travelling from one to the other, and his guides were generally well understood: like them, they have exchanged their shirts and robes of skins for European manufactures, and their bows and spears for fire-arms. Among them the greater part of the furs exported by the Hudson’s Bay Company are procured, and the return of the traffic supplies all their wants: they differ, however, in manners and habits; for among them is found the tribe of Carriers, whose filthiness and bestiality cannot be exceeded; whose dainties are of putrid flesh, and are eaten up with disease; nevertheless, they are a tall, well-formed, good-looking race, and not wanting in ingenuity. Their houses are well formed of logs of small trees; buttressed up internally, frequently above seventy feet long and fifteen high, but, unlike those of the coast, the roof is of bark: their winter habitations are smaller, and often covered over with grass and earth: some even dwell in excavations of the ground, which have only an aperture at the top, and serves alike for door and chimney. Salmon, deer, bears, and wild-fowl are their principal food: of the latter they procure large quantities.

Their mode of taking salmon is curious. They build a weir across the stream, having an opening only in one place, at which they fix a basket, three feet in diameter, with the mouth made something like an eel-trap, through which alone the fish can find a passage. On the side of this basket is a hole, to which is attached a smaller basket, into which the fish pass from the large one, and cannot return or escape. This, when filled, is taken up without disturbing the larger one.

Of the religion and superstitions of the Indians little need be said; the features of polytheism being everywhere as similar as its effects. Impudent conjurers are their priests and teachers, and exerted once unlimited sway; but under the satisfactory proofs of the value of scientific medical practice and the tuition of the missionaries, it is to be hoped both their claims to respect will be negatived; and as they have evinced great aptitude to embrace and profit by instruction, it may perhaps happen that secular knowledge may combine with religious to save them from the apparent necessary result.

In closing this brief account of the gold-fields of New Caledonia, we cannot avoid adverting to the great event which, has been, we may say, contemporaneous with these discoveries-the laying down of the Atlantic telegraph. The sources of an apparently boundless and dazzling wealth have been opened up in the Far West of America, and a mighty stream of thought has begun its perpetual flow backwards and forwards between her eastern shores and England. We hail the coincidence as an assurance that friendly communication, and peace, and good-will, shall go hand and hand with the getting of gold in, and the civilising of, these far off regions; and we believe that God will use both these new and mighty engines for the advancement of the blessed gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the British possessions of North America.