Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A short visit to an Indian reservation
A SHORT VISIT TO AN INDIAN RESERVATION.
On Saturday, the 8th of June, 1861, in the course of a year’s tour through the States, I found myself at St. Paul, the capital of Minnesota, and at the head of regular steamboat navigation on the Mississippi. I had not been there long before my attention was drawn to the following advertisement in a St. Paul paper:
GRAND PLEASURE EXCURSION TO THE SIOUX AGENCY.
The Two Steamers, Frank Steele, Capt. Hatcher, Favourite, Capt. Bell, of Davidson’s Line, will make an Excursion Trip to the
LOWER SIOUX AGENCY,
On Monday, the 17th Day of June.
Leaving St. Paul at 4 p.m., and arriving at the Agency in time to WITNESS THE PAYMENTS, which will come off on the 19th and 20th.
This will afford a good opportunity to persons wishing to visit this Splendid Region of Country, and of witnessing the ceremonies of the payment of nearly
FIVE HUNDRED INDIANS.
State Rooms can be secured of Temple & Beaupre, Agents, on the Levee.
As the excursion would be to me a novel one, I decided on joining it. On the Monday following I was fortunate enough to meet with a fellow-countryman, whom I will call Brown, who, like myself, was travelling through the country for pleasure, and with whom I had previously made acquaintance in the South. He agreed to go with me, and accordingly, after securing a state-room, and spending the intervening week very pleasantly in fishing-expeditions to some of the neighbouring lakes, we went on board the Frank Steele, the larger of the two boats advertised, about four o’clock in the afternoon of the 17th.
The Frank Steele, though rather small of its kind, was a type of that peculiar build of steamers which navigates the Mississippi and its tributaries—a sort of house-boat in stories—for everything was above deck. There was the deck itself, or ground-floor, for instance, not more than some three feet above the water, on which the machinery was placed, and on this also was stowed away fuel (which was used in large quantities, and renewed from time to time on the voyage), as well as freight, which forms at least as important a branch of the ordinary business of the river-steamers as the passenger-traffic. Above this the first floor was mainly occupied by the saloon, reaching nearly from stem to stern, painted white, and lined on each side with a row of state-rooms. Each room was fitted with two berths and opened by one of two doors into the saloon, and by the other into the “guard,” a passage which stretched round the saloon and formed a promenade. The after-end of the saloon was appropriated to the ladies, and could be shut off from the rest by folding-doors, at pleasure. Over this lay the officers’ quarters, which covered a much smaller area, leaving around them abundant space from which to enjoy a good look-out on the scenery. The whole was crowned with a sort of square box, in which the helmsman, or “wheelsman,” as he is termed, sat at the wheel. The draught of water of a boat of this kind is so light as to enable her to run with safety to within a few feet of the bank, and so to obviate the necessity of anything in the shape of a pier at the landings; when the vessel is lightly laden, it is often not more than twenty-six inches. Americans are apt to speak of these vessels as “floating palaces,” but with the exception of some in the South, in which higher fares are charged and proportionably better treatment given, they are nothing of the kind. You are provided in them, it is true, with three meat meals a day, but the food is greasy and badly cooked, and you are invariably placed in the dilemma of being obliged to bolt your dinner (with the rest) in a quarter of an hour, or leave the table with an appetite. Another drawback exists in the fact that the state-rooms are extremely small, and are unprovided with any washing-apparatus whatever. The passenger is dependent for his morning’s ablutions on waiting his turn for a damp rub at one of three basins in the barber’s shop. Even clean sheets are to be regarded as a luxury not always met with. On one occasion I had the misfortune to join a boat at an intermediate landing, and was assigned the second berth in a state-room in which one was already appropriated. Finding, in spite of a careful comparison, some difficulty in deciding which of the two was the unoccupied one, the first time I met my room-fellow (an average Western man), I appealed to him, asking him to be kind enough to point out his own. He said he “guessed it didn’t matter much—he’d slept in both.” But against all these disadvantages must be set off the low rate of fare, which rarely exceeds two cents a mile, and in long distances often falls materially short of that sum. This includes board and everything but boot-cleaning, a luxury dispensed with by most of the passengers, but, if indulged in, is charged by the porter at the modest rate of 10 cents (5d.) for every pair of boots. The fare on the present occasion was 10 dollars (2l.) for a distance of some 600 miles and a week’s board.
But to the excursion itself. It was of course crowded, as excursions are the world over. Two boats had been advertised, at least two boat loads of passengers were anxious to go, but they were all economically stowed away into the unhappy Frank Steele. My friend and myself had good reason to congratulate ourselves on having secured berths. At night the saloon was strewn with passengers who had come too late for state-rooms. Many even had to sleep outside in the “guard.” To get a seat at the first set of tables at each meal was a study with those who attempted it, and the requisite hanging about in the neighbourhood to achieve a place even at the second set (beyond which we soon ceased to aspire), was no trifling tax on patience. But such discomforts were not without mitigation. We had the good luck to suffer in common with three fellow-countrymen, two of whom—Black and White—were travelling together, while the third, Blue (he had a weakness for looking at the blue side of things), was for the time being travelling alone, and we managed together to make time pass pleasantly enough, rubbing much of it away in whist. For the scenery, though pretty, was monotonous—a low line of green sloping bluffs at a little distance from the river on one side, the other bank flat and tolerably wooded—and compared poorly with the glorious variety of the Upper Mississippi. But in addition to our English party of five, I may mention another gentleman on board, from five-and-thirty to forty years of age, whose English dress, combined with a dragoon’s moustache and a fashionable drawl, induced us to regard as an Englishman, in spite of one or two points that puzzled us rather. The passengers generally were evidently of our opinion. A report soon reached our ears that there was an “English lord” on board, and before long took a more definite shape, an apoplectic coloured barber remarking to one of us on the second day out (in allusion to the passenger in question), that he was “surprised to find Lord Palmerston so young a man.” So he became known amongst us as “Pam.” We afterwards made acquaintance with him and found we had been mistaken. He proved to be an American, who had, however, spent twelve years of his life in Europe. He was subsequently kind enough to make himself of much use to us at the Agency.
And so we went on, steaming semicircles up the winding course of the stream, now and then touching at some settlement by the way, the whole population of which, attracted by the thrilling strains of the band we carried on board, would come forth to a man, woman, and child to stare us a greeting. But it seemed our fate to be always taking in passengers and never putting any off, and we became more crowded at every landing. Now and then, as we got higher up the river, we varied the monotony of our life by running aground, and so sticking for an hour or so, for the water was falling rapidly; and there was even some question as to whether it would remain deep enough to allow us to reach the Agency. But by the evening of Wednesday (19th), we found ourselves at Fort Ridgeley, a frontier post about thirty miles from our destination, one which has since gained a sad renown as the scene of the recent massacres. Here, though we were glad to rid ourselves of a painfully dirty detachment of volunteers, brought up to relieve the regular garrison, whose services were wanted elsewhere for the war, our troubles came to a climax. The river above this point being narrow and not free from obstructions, we lay off the Fort till daylight. So, in the first place, the mosquitoes, hitherto kept off by the motion of the boat, make a dead set at us, driving some from their berths on to deck, and deterring others from seeking theirs. By about two in the morning, feeling drowsy enough to defy the troublesome insects, we are fairly under way for the land of dreams. But by this time the band is drunk, and will play the liveliest tunes overhead to the confusion of slumber, till, seized by a sudden desire to refresh themselves by a walk in the night air, and rejoin the boat some miles a-head, they tramp off, and the noise of their instruments dies gratefully away in the distance.
To sleep at last—only to be awoke by the pattering rain of a thunderstorm, which comes down in such force as to make a way for itself into the next state-room to Brown’s and mine, washing White out of it, and leaving Black to extract what comfort he can within for the rest of the night out of the floor and an umbrella. However, by daylight on Thursday morning we were off again, and by ten had safely reached our stopping place, the Lower Sioux Agency. We had had warning of our near approach to it for the last mile or so of the way, from a number of swarthy young vagabonds in ragged blankets, who from time to time as they sighted the steamer would give chase for a few yards along the bank, and we were now scarcely well up to the landing before we were boarded by numerous members of the tribe, who at once began to examine everything with the greatest curiosity, and were soon engaged in driving bargains with the passengers.
We had learnt, soon after leaving St. Paul, that the captain had no intention of fulfilling the implied terms of the advertisement by remaining at the Agency a couple of days, but that he would stay a few hours only, and indeed that the date of the payment was very uncertain, depending on the agent’s ability to get everything in readiness. We now heard for certain that the payment would not take place for some days at least, and the captain gave notice that he should return in the evening. So we landed with the intention of procuring what accommodation we could at the Agency for a few days, and of getting back to St. Paul in the best way we could. The Agency is situated on the right bank of the Minnesota, at a height of perhaps two hundred feet above the landing, overlooking on one side the beautiful valley of the river, and on the other three one vast green field of rolling prairie stretching away to the horizon. What few houses there are are of the simplest kind, and belong chiefly to the Indian traders, who buy skins and furs of the Indians, and sell them flour, blankets, or anything they require, frequently taking, in default of money, from those who are hard up, even pipes and personal ornaments, which they make a profit of, either by reselling to their former owners when flush of cash, or to any stray traveller curious in such matters, who, like ourselves, might chance to visit the Reservation. These traders’ stores are served by half-breeds who speak both languages. Scattered thinly about the neighbourhood are the bark huts of those Indians who, though absent for a great portion of the year, yet regard the place as central quarters, and return to it at sowing and harvesting seasons, while here and there are a few clapboard cottages, built by the government for those who can be induced to settle and farm a grant of land. There were comparatively few tents to be seen at this time, though the Indians about the place were in greater numbers than usual, owing to the near approach of the payment. They consist of two classes—the “civilised,” or farmer Indians, and the “blanket,” or wild Indians. The so-called “civilised” are those who have consented to discard their wild dress in favour of that of the whites, and have thus made themselves eligible to receive a government grant of land, to which are generally added a cottage, the fencing of the soil, a yoke of oxen, and a few agricultural implements. The exchange of blankets and leggings for coat and trowsers is insisted on as the one essential qualification for the receipt of this bounty; but it was decided in one of the Minnesota courts about this time, that, to render himself capable of voting in the elections, the Indian must go a step farther and be conversant with one of the languages of civilisation. The “civilised” class are greatly in the minority, and, indeed, it must require no slight moral courage in the Indian to enter it, for those who do so are regarded with some contempt by the remainder as playing false to their tribe, and with not a little jealousy into the bargain, as, owing to a considerable portion of the annual payment being set aside as an agricultural fund to meet the wants of those who farm, they have a larger proportionate share of the money expended on them; and, in case of any discontent arising amongst the wild class on the subject of the payment, trouble is sure first to show itself in a series of depredations on the property of the “white Indians,” as the farmers are nicknamed by the rest. The Indian, accustomed to wear no kind of head-covering himself, considers the hat the most distinctive feature of the white man’s dress, and several, who had made up their minds to become “civilised,” were at this time waiting only till some hats could be procured, there being none at that time to be got in the place. Nothing would induce them to adopt pro tem, the remainder of the dress without the hat. On the other hand, they will not part with their moccasins, the easy freedom of which they are naturally loath to exchange for the confinement of a boot. In this point the exchange is the other way, for moccasins are worn generally by the whites. The Indians, whether wild or civilised, associate mostly with members of their own class, and a civilised Indian is obliged to give up whatever authority he may have held in his band. But the line which divides the two classes is, in reality, a very narrow one—a mere burlesque on civilisation. The interior of the civilised Indian’s cottage is fully as wild as that of his wild neighbour’s hut or tent, the more so in appearance from being out of keeping with the more pretentious outside. The women appear to be regarded as civilised ipso facto by the civilisation of their lords and masters, and without the form of a change of dress.
The Indian agent is appointed by the President on his taking office, for the term of his presidency, and quits office with the President at the end of that time, like every other government officer, down to a country postmaster with a salary of 20l. a-year, to make way for an adherent of the party in power. He has a house at the Agency to which he is appointed, and out of a salary of but 1500 dols. (300l.) a-year, contrives in nine cases out of ten to solve the problem of retiring with a fortune at the end of his four years’ term. Though the salary is small, the “stealings” are large, and are carried on at the expense of the unfortunate Indian, and the “stealings” are alone thought to render the appointment worth the having by such men as possess influence enough to get it.
“Is it likely,” an American on the Reservation put it to me, “that what d’ye call him,” (naming the agent recently appointed by Lincoln), “would throw up a good lawyer’s business at St. Paul, that brought him an income of five thousand dollars, a year, for the sake of a four years’ salary of fifteen hundred dollars, unless he expected to make something more out of it?”
The agent exercises a sort of arbitrary power on the Reservation under his charge. Strictly speaking no stranger is allowed to set foot on it without his permit, but the rule is not enforced without special cause. If an Indian commits any offence demanding notice, the agent summarily sentences him to imprisonment with ball and chain at the nearest fort. Nor is there usually any difficulty in enforcing the sentence. The Indians appreciate their own interests too well to throw any obstacle in the way. I saw, myself, one who had been caught shooting his neighbour’s ox with an arrow, driven off to Fort Ridgeley without the slightest disturbance. And the agent, being authorised by government to do everything in his power to keep the Indians on the Reservation, and induce them to farm, is able to stop the payment of any who leave it on war, if not on hunting parties, a policy, if report speaks truly, very frequently adopted, as tending to combine moral welfare (on the part of the Indian), with pecuniary profit (on the part of the agent.
Beyond the agent for each tribe there is a higher official termed a superintendent, whose duty is to exercise a general supervision over, perhaps, three or four agencies, and to be present at each annual payment, and who outranks the agent when the two are together. He, too, like the agent, is appointed for the four years’ term of the presidency, and is popularly supposed to be attracted to the office by the same motives.
I have as yet said nothing of the source from which the requisite funds are derived for the payments, but it must not on that account be supposed that the United States government annually indulges a generous impulse, by distributing gratuities amongst the wild tribes on its borders. As emigration sets further westwards, the government, recognising for form’s sake, the title of the Indians to the land they occupy, makes treaties from time to time with those tribes on whose property the settlers are encroaching, and buys up their land at the rate of about ten cents, (fivepence) an acre, at the same time reserving out of the purchase a certain district for their use, which hence receives the name of Reservation. But the capital of the purchase-money, instead of being paid over at once, is invested, and the interest divided amongst the members of the tribes in question once every year, some in cash, some in provisions, some in dry goods or clothing, while part also is set aside as I have mentioned, as an agricultural fund, and of this, in addition to their regular share of the remainder, the civilised class reaps the benefit.
Having succeeded, I trust, in explaining to a certain extent the system which the United States pursue in their dealings with the Indians, let me return to the day we came to the Agency, and the way in which we spent it.
Our first thoughts were directed towards making sure of some sort of accommodation in the place for a day or two. And this appeared a matter of no small difficulty. There was indeed a farmhouse, that did duty as a sort of inn, or “boarding-house,” in which the whites of the place were in the habit of taking their meals, but this was full. Every bed in the place, we were told on all hands, was occupied. But thanks to “Pam,” who was kind enough to introduce us to the superintendent, we found that the difficulty was not insuperable, and so agreed to stay, the superintendent making himself responsible for our getting a roof to sleep under. Having settled this point, we had time to turn our attention to the Indians and the day’s programme. The weather was glorious, and the day was a sort of holiday with the tribe. Indians came flocking in from every quarter, attracted by the report of the arrival of a steamer, a rare sight to most, and to some a novel one, for though, during those few months in the year which follow the break-up of the ice, when the water is high enough, a weekly steamer makes its way to the Agency, it must be remembered that but few of the tribe are resident there throughout the year, and that the great majority of those present at this time had been drawn thither by the payment. In they came, a mixed crowd of men, women, and children, lit gaily up by the bright colours—blue, green, and red—of the blankets which many of them wore, bustling about in a state of restless curiosity at the sight of so many strangers.
But after awhile, the attention of all, white and red, was turned to a council, in which the tribe proposed to lay its grievances before the new agent for redress. The agent presided in a chair, while the men who took part in the council sat facing him on the ground in three or four semi-circular rows, one behind the other. The orator, an appointed officer, who speaks for the tribe on such occasions, from the centre of the open space in front of the semicircle, addressed the agent in the Sioux or Dacota language, with all due emphasis and gesticulation, squatting down on his haunches at intervals to allow the interpreter (a white) to explain what he had just been saying. Outside the council stood squaws and whites, watching the proceedings. The men in council were for the most part smoking, passing their pipes from one to the other according to the custom amongst them, and every now and then would express approval of the orator’s words by a “Ho!” an equivalent to “Hear! hear!” with ourselves.
The council over, we adjourned to the “boarding-house,” where, after waiting till one set of hungry people had made way for us, we squeezed ourselves down to dinner at a crowded table. It were hard to say whether the dinner or our fellow-guests were the dirtier. But the slovenly meal is more especially impressed on my memory by the fact that some of us were inadvertently leaving, without settling the score, when we were arrested by the voice of the landlord shouting to us from the other end of the room: “Guess you fellers may as well pay for your dinners.” And yet this style of address was by no means new to me. I had learnt long ere this that in the West the rougher the man the more generally recognised were his claims to the name of a gentleman, and that to be spoken of as “this man,” or addressed as “you feller,” should be regarded in the light of an unconscious tribute to respectability. In the afternoon there was an ox (which had been given to the Indians, it was said, by the governor of the State, who had been our fellow passenger from St. Paul) to be cut up and distributed, after which an Indian dance was to come off in honour of the gift. So we sauntered forth to see what was going on. The beast had been slaughtered, and was being cut up. The Indians sat near in groups, chatting and smoking, and watching the operation with a degree of lazy interest; those who possessed such articles of luxury sheltered under umbrellas, while others would screen themselves from the sun under the shade of some leafy boughs, fixed close to them in the ground. Many of the visitors took the opportunity of driving bargains with them for their pipes and other curiosities, and a great deal of business was done in that way, but the usual result of a heavy demand was apparent in the extravagant prices asked. We, having made up our minds to remain, waited for a cheaper market on the morrow. The Indians themselves would not unfrequently make a bid for an umbrella, an article of which they seemed to have the highest appreciation.
The distribution of the ox was followed, in due course, by the dance, which at once became the centre of attraction, and it was truly a most curious performance. It was confined to a body of men, who had divested themselves of their blankets, and were got up entirely for the occasion in the most fantastic style. A short printed cotton shirt (deriving what extra embellishment it could from daubs of paint smeared across the pattern), with a cloth round the loins, and a cap of some fanciful shape, were the features of dress common to most of them, while some added to these a pair of leathern leggings, reaching perhaps halfway above the knee, and looped up to the waist; others appeared with bare legs profusely painted, as were the faces of all. A few, dressed after the same fashion, and armed with various rude musical instruments, squatted down on the ground as an orchestra, and sent forth a low, moaning, but not inharmonious noise, to the time of which the dancers moved round and round them in a circle, yelling, howling, and throwing up their arms, with gestures and grimaces that defy description. The dance itself was, clearly, genuine enough; the motive of it not so much so, as it proved. We had not been watching the scene long, before (to our chagrin) somebody came round for subscriptions towards the expense of the ox which had purchased the dance. So, after all, the affair had been “got up” for the amusement of the visitors. But it made little difference. The performers certainly gave us our money’s worth, and we had already, before the conclusion of the dance, begun to weary of its monotony, when we learnt that the steamer, whose captain had decided some hours ago to prolong his stay till the dance was over, was going to start. Accordingly Black and I were on our way down hill to remove what little luggage we had on board, when the others came shouting after us to say that they were satisfied with what they had seen, and were for going back in the boat. Black and I were still for staying, so we all came to a friendly agreement, by which we two were to remain, while the rest should return to St. Paul and wait for us to rejoin them there, or in the neighbourhood, within a few days. So we bade them good-bye, saw them off, and remounted the hill with our traps.
Our first object was to make sure of our night’s lodging. Through the superintendent, who was good enough to use his influence on our behalf with the landlord of the boarding-house, we were shown at bed-time into a double-bedded room. One bed was already occupied, while the agent was lounging in his clothes on a neighbouring sofa, and the other bed was pointed out as the one assigned for our joint accommodation. Not holding by the American doctrine that for two to sleep in one bed is one of the essential characteristics of disinterested friendship, we ventured to suggest that it would be more agreeable that one of us should shake himself down with a blanket and pillow on the floor. Our host, however, pardoning the whim, was kind enough to turn the agent over to share the other bed with its present occupant, and gave us the sofa as well, and so we passed the night in comparative comfort.
The next morning, as before, Indians came flocking in from all sides to the Agency, which they seemed to regard for the present as a general rendezvous, and being undisturbed by any special cause of excitement, squatted down in groups under the shelter of their boughs and umbrellas, and fell at once to their own amusements. We thus had an opportunity of making acquaintance with them at leisure, as we sat ourselves down amongst them.
The men were a fine athletic set of fellows, and all, men and women, were endowed with a more or less pleasant cast of features, which, in the case of some of the women, almost merited the name of good looks. I cannot, however, call to mind that, either then or afterwards, I once saw a pure-blooded Indian woman who could be called either pretty or handsome, though fine-looking women were not unfrequently to be met with. But their beauty, such as it is, is, apparently, admired by the whites of the neighbourhood, many of whom take them to wife. The half-breed class, which springs from the union, occupies a most useful position between the two races, and some of the half-breed women have considerable claims to beauty.
The squaws (poor creatures!) are compelled to do all the hard work and drudgery of life, and you may frequently see a poor woman trudging slowly home, half bent beneath the weight of some heavy load, while her jovial lord trots cheerily by on his nag; or thrashing out a heap of Indian corn, while he lounges lazily near with a pipe to his mouth.
Though the Indians are so often spoken of as Red men, their skin is rather bronze in tone than red, and the term is a misnomer.
Not only are their features pleasant, but their manners are frank and good-natured. They always received us sociably, seeming to regard as a matter of course that we should come and look at them, and would examine us with as much curiosity as we expended on them. They appreciate a shake of the hand as a “white” custom which means friendship, and pass their pipes by way of offering a welcome of their own. Here and there a group was busily engaged with a well-thumbed pack of playing-cards, in the popular American game of “poker,” gambling with all the earnestness and calculation of old hands. So well known is their love of play, that the majority of those who crowded our boarding-house were card-sharpers, who had come to speculate on it, and to swindle them out of their money. They can hold their own against fair play. Now and then we drove a bargain for a pipe, or bow, or some such thing, and found, as we had expected, a much cheaper market than on the previous day.
On the next day (Saturday, 22nd), after spending the morning in much the same fashion, we hired a “team” (which, in the States, is another name for a pair of horses), and a long, light, shallow sort of van without springs (which represents the popular form of conveyance in the West), and making ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would permit, jogged across the prairie to a place some ten miles further up the country, called Redwood, and lying on the direct road to the Upper Agency, to which we intended to continue our journey on the morrow. It was a settlement of but a single “frame” cottage, occupied by a man and his wife, who had come there as schoolmaster and mistress to teach, so far as they could, the children of the Indians who lived around them. It was a little after sunset when we reached the house, and as night was fast gathering, we at once strolled forth to a knoll, but a few yards off, on the opposite side of the road, to examine what we had just passed, a Sioux burying-place. Four rude stems, about eight feet each in height and forked at the top, are planted in the ground, so as to form the corners of a small square, while a couple of wooden cross-bars laid in the forks of two opposite sides, form a rest, on which is placed the rude coffin that contains the dead, wrapped with a piece of red cloth or a blanket. Here it remains exposed for, perhaps, a couple of years, at the end of which time it is taken down, and buried.
On returning to the cottage, we made acquaintance with our landlord and landlady. The landlord was a heavily-built man of middle height, and about fifty years old. Black eyes, deeply set, and half-hidden beneath a pair of shaggy black brows, and a chin that had not for some days come in contact with a razor, combined with the mass of long, black, uncombed hair that thatched his head, to give him an appearance that was not, to say the least, prepossessing. Notwithstanding, and with the assistance of his wife (a tall, thin, middle-aged Yankee woman of sharp features, but withal a pleasant expression), he did what he could to make us comfortable, so far as the limited resources of the establishment would permit, but they were limited. On being shown to the room in which we were to sleep, we found ourselves in a good-sized garret, with much the appearance of a loft, one end of which was crowded with lumber, while on each side of the room at the other end was a double bed made up on the floor. Our host pointed out one of these as ours, the other, he added, was for himself and his man. With a sheet and a pillow I made a separate bed for myself, much to the surprise of the schoolmaster, and should have slept comfortably enough, if we had not, unfortunately, for the sake of cooling with a breath of fresh air the sultry atmosphere of the room, left the window open. So, of course, we awoke simultaneously, all four of us, in the middle of the night, each to find the other three using strong language towards the mosquitoes, which were persecuting us unmercifully.
After breakfast next morning, we accepted the services of a good-humoured, middle-aged Indian, which were willingly given for half a dollar, and, under his guidance, made our way to some falls a few miles off, in the woods. “Sholto,” our guide, was a sort of pensioner on the hospitality of the schoolmaster, and was in the habit of making frequent visits to the cottage for the sake of what he might pick up in the way of a meal. He was, technically speaking, civilised, but apparently thought it permissible, in the seclusion of his country life, to lay aside for the while the pomps and vanities of civilisation, and to adopt a dress severe in its simplicity—a printed calico shirt and the dirtiest of blankets. He appeared even to disregard what might be deemed the decencies of savage life, in discarding the use of leggings and moccasins, and his legs and feet suffered not a little in our walk from the nettles in consequence. His blanket he threw off after a while, and carried on his arm. The falls to which he led us, though small, were wild and beautiful, and a couple of Indians chopping wood on the bank of the stream added to the picturesque character of the spot. We refreshed ourselves with a swim in a cool deep pool above the falls, and then returned.
After a dinner of salt pork, which was almost the only kind of meat we fell in with in these parts, we resumed our journey to Yellow Medicine, where the Upper Agency is situated, twenty-five miles away. I should rather say “The Agency,” without qualification, for what is called the Lower Agency, though containing a somewhat larger white population, is, strictly speaking, but a branch of the Upper. It is at the Upper Agency that the agent’s house is placed. The place takes its name of “Yellow Medicine” from some medicinal root or herb which the Indians find there.
The Agency itself is on high ground, while a few traders’ huts and some other dwellings lie in a snug little valley below. We managed to get a rough accommodation in a small house in the valley, our lodging being of much the same character as that of the previous night, except that we had our loft to ourselves.
Next morning we walked out to the Indians’ quarters, some three miles away on the prairie. Huts of any kind there were few to be seen, but encamped here was a population of perhaps a thousand, and tents were numerous—one here, two there, a dozen grouped yonder—the plains were spotted with them. The people assembled under them, though all Sioux, were of various tribes, for the Sioux Indians are rather a race than a tribe, comprising divisions whose only bond is a common language, and which own no nearer connection with each other than, for example, we ourselves do with the Americans. Nor does even the whole of each tribe yield allegiance to a common chief. A tribe consists of separate bands, each of which is governed by its own head, and the man who wields most influence in a tribe is simply the ablest chief of a powerful band.
We entered many of the tents, and made acquaintance with their inmates. We found them altogether a wilder set of people than their brethren at the other Agency, not a family in the whole encampment having any permanent residence in the place, but they received us with the same frank good humour. Sometimes, as we were passing a tent, a shout from within would invite us to enter, but, invited or not, we were always made welcome. The tents consist of a covering, sometimes of buffalo hide, but more often of canvass, thrown round a conical framework of poles, a corner at the top being turned back, to allow an exit to the smoke of the wood fire which is always kept burning below. Within, one would often find the head of the family stretched lazily on the ground, and half asleep, with nothing to cover his nakedness but a cloth round the loins, while the female members of the household were busily employed in cooking, or other domestic duties, But the squaws were always fully clothed. The men, when in an industrious frame of mind, were generally engaged in the manufacture of a bow, or arrows, or in cutting out a redstone pipe, in the carving and ornamenting of which the Sioux shows much ingenuity.
But in all the tents which we entered, we squatted down, without challenge, as members for the time being of the family circle, and were soon at home with the rest, chatting and bargaining, so far as the few words of Sioux we had picked up would allow us, with the help of signs. There is no portion of an Indian’s property that has not its price, and you have only to bid high enough to buy everything he has, from a bead necklace to a squaw. The offer of a squaw we had on more than one occasion politely to decline.
It seems strange that these people, in whose tents we spent in this friendly way some six or seven hours, without a suspicion of harm on our part, or, apparently a thought of harm on theirs, should have since been guilty of those fearful massacres which have almost exterminated the whites of the neighbourhood. And yet their victims, though the attack may have taken them unexpectedly at the moment, had little ground for surprise that an attack should come. The extensive plundering of the Indians, which had been carried on for years under the cloak of authority, by each successive agent, was well known to have created great discontent amongst them. This feeling was kept in abeyance by promises held out from time to time that a change of agent would bring with it a redress of grievances, and in some measure also, doubtless, by a wholesome fear of the regular garrison of Fort Ridgeley. But agents were changed, and still there was no redress forthcoming, while their fears had now been in great part removed by the substitution of volunteers for regulars at the fort, for volunteers were held by them in no great consideration. The whites at the Upper Agency regarded the approaching payment there (which was to follow that at the Lower) with considerable apprehension, and expressed great anxiety that there should be a detachment of troops on the spot to prevent a disturbance.
On the next day (which was Tuesday, the 25th), we returned to the Lower Agency. The Indians there had considerably increased their numbers during our absence, the payment being expected to come off the next morning. “Sholto” we met, but scarcely recognised our old friend in the “reach-me-down” check suit with which he now paraded his civilisation, the metamorphosis was so complete.
We made two out of a party of six in our old bed-room that night. When morning came there were still further preparations necessary, which would postpone the payment till the middle of the day, or perhaps the afternoon, and having waited till nearly two without seeing it commence, we drove off on our way back to St. Paul, being now in a hurry to rejoin our friends, the more so as we understood that there was little interest in the ceremony itself.
So we moved forward across the prairie in a van of the same kind as that which had carried us to Yellow Medicine, and after a drive of thirty miles came to a halt for the night at a German settlement, called New Ulm. A further stage of thirty miles brought us by about the middle of the next day to Mankato, a larger settlement, mostly German, and the scene of the execution of the thirty-eight leading criminals in the massacres. Here we were unfortunate enough to miss a steamer, and were induced, by the misrepresentations of our landlord, to wait two days in the vain expectation of another. The river was getting low, and few boats now ascended so far.
8o, on Saturday the 29th, we drove on to St. Peter, a small place lower down the river, joined a boat, slept on board that night, started on Sunday morning, reached St. Paul sometime on Sunday night in a state of sleep, and, on waking, rejoined our friends in the early morning of Monday the 1st of July. And so ended our rough, though pleasant, excursion.