Mexico, as it was and as it is/Appendix 3

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
APPENDIX NO. 3.

No. 3.


Since this volume went to press, I have been favored with the following very instructive letter, from Horatio Hale, Esq., the learned philologist who accompanied the Exploring Expedition, under the command of Captain Wilkes. It is pleasant, when groping backward through the labyrinth of time, to have now and then, some tangled threads of the lost clue thrown into our hands; and I have no doubt that, when the result of this eminent scholar's labors are placed before the public, they will obtain for him a reputation commensurate with his genius and industry.

"Philadelphia, October, 1843.

"My dear Sir:

"It gives me pleasure to learn, that you are still occupied with your work on Mexico, which has been long expected with great interest. There are few countries, so far as I could judge, which contain more that is worthy of being described; and fewer still, of which so little is accurately known.

"As to the inquiries contained in your letter, I am happy to find that we have arrived, by different roads, at the same conclusion, with regard to the origin of the Mexican Tribes, and the direction in which their migration took place. The results of such researches as I have been able to make into the languages of the western coast of America, though not of a positive nature, seem to me strongly to favor the views which you seem to entertain, of the progress of the emigrant tribes from their probable crossing-place at Behring's Straits, along the coast—or rather, between the coast and the Rocky Mountains—to the Mexican plateau.

"Very soon after commencing my investigations in Oregon, I was struck by two facts of considerable importance. First; that the numbers of distinct families of languages, or independent races, was greater than was to be found, in so small a space, in any part of the known world; and, secondly; that, in several cases, the different tribes, or subdivisions of a family, were dispersed at great distances from each other, and surrounded by several tribes speaking distinct languages. I observed, that these scattered bands were generally disposed in a line from north to south. It seemed, therefore, not an unreasonable supposition, that if the numerous hordes which have, at different periods, overrun the Mexican plains, proceeded in this direction, they may have left along their track, from time to time, detached parties, which, from some motive of discontent, would separate from the main body, and allow it to proceed without them. This would account, both for the number of small tribes speaking distinct languages, and for the manner in which those speaking the same language, are dispersed through the region.

"As an example, I may mention the Athabascan family or race, which occupies the northern part of our Continent, next to the Esquimaux, and which has been found on our northwest coast, within a hundred miles of Behring's Straits. The Carrier Indians, who live north of the Oregon Territory, in about 55° latitude, belong to this family. Five hundred miles south of these, not far to the north of the Columbia, I found a small tribe whose language showed them to have had the same origin with the Carriers. Still farther south, on the other bank of the Columbia, and separated from the last-mentioned by the Chinook tribe, was detached land of the same affinity; and a hundred miles south of these, on the Umqua river, was the tribe from which it derives its name, speaking also a cognate language. Here is a single chain, reaching from about latitude 65° to 43°, or more than half-way from Behring's Straits to the City of Mexico. It may, perhaps, hereafter, be carried still farther, as my researches did not extend much beyond the last-mentioned point.

"I may also observe, that the Shoshonees, or Snake Indians, are found first, on the head waters of the Columbia—then near the head of the California Gulf; and, again—under the dreaded name of Comanches, pushing their incursions into the heart of Texas.

"In the later history of the tribe—the Shoshonees proper—there la a fact worthy of notice. I was assured by trustworthy persons, long resident in that region, that the Snake Indians had formerly lived considerably north of the present population—occupying the territory now in the possession of the powerful Blackfeet confederacy—who have expelled them from their ancient hunting-grounds; and, it was asserted, that there were old men now living among the Shoshonees, who had a better knowledge of the country at present occupied by the Blackfeet Indians, than any of the latter themselves. My informants, (old fur-traders,) gave it as their belief, that all the tribes in that region were gradually advancing toward the south. In this instance, the movement of the Blackfeet tribes is not wholly voluntary, as they are constantly harassed on the north by hostile bands of Creek and Sioux; while the Shoshonees, in their southward progress, press before them the Uchis and Apaches, with whose ravages on the northern borders of Mexico you are, of course, well acquainted.

"We are familiar with a similar movement on the old Continent, and understand how it originates in the hardy valor of northern regions, forcing its way toward a more genial climate and a more bountiful soil. We can also perceive how among wandering tribes, like our Western Indians—by nature migratory, and bound by no ties of cultivation to the land which they occupy—this movement should be comparatively rapid; and we can thus see how a large body (like the Blackfeet nation, for instance,) might, within a few generations, be urged onward, step by step, from the northern sea to the Mexican plains. It has seemed to me that this fact might be of some importance, as serving to illustrate the history (given by Humboldt,) which the Aztecs had preserved of their migration, and with which you must be familiar. I refer more particularly to their gradual progress, (by stages as it were,) making long halts from time to time, and again taking up their line of march toward the south. I have not this account before me now, but on reading it a few months ago, I thought I could trace in the epithets which they affixed to their different encampments, {if we may apply this term to their halting-places,) some of the features of the country west of the Rocky Mountains.

"It is evident that these deductions would be reduced to certainty, if we could discover some resemblance between any of the languages of Oregon and those of Mexico. Thus far, however, the comparison has not been attended with success.

Of the twenty distinct languages, spoken within the limits of Ancient Mexico, which have been reduced to writing by the Catholic Missionaries, I have been able to obtain grammars of only five. The collection which you aided me in making in Mexico, is, indeed, the largest that I know of in this country. In Europe however, all that has been published on these subjects, and many valuable manuscripts, are preserved; and at some future day, an opportunity may offer of completing the comparison."