Adventures of Chevalier de La Salle - John S. C. Abbott

Life With the Savages


Father Hennepin and his two companions reembarked in their canoe, and, oppressed with varied feelings of anxiety and curiosity, recommenced their journey up the river. The thirty large canoes, filled with their captors, surrounded them. The current was rapid; the savages were seldom in a hurry, and their progress was slow. At night they always landed and slept in the open air, unless it was stormy, when they would sometimes construct for themselves a frail shelter.

The devout ecclesiastic felt in duty bound daily to say his office, as it was called, in accordance with the rules of the Catholic Church. He had his breviary, composed of matins, lauds, vespers, and compline, or last prayer at night. These exercises he scrupulously performed. The superstitious Indians, seeing him open his book, and move his lips, imagined that he was practising some sort of incantation against them. Angrily they cried out against it, exclaiming, in their own language, "witchcraft."

Michael Ako, who had no ambition to receive a martyr's crown, entreated him, if he must say his prayers, to say them in secret. "If you persist in this course," said he, "you will so provoke the Indians, that we shall all be inevitably killed." Auguelle, who was more religiously inclined, joined in these entreaties, begging him to retire apart, morning and evening, into the forest for his devotions.

But the suspicions of the Indians were aroused. They had a great dread of diabolical influences. Whenever he entered the woods a party followed him. He could get no chance to pray out of their sight. At length he said to his companions:

"I cannot dispense with my prayers, whatever may be the consequences. If we are all massacred, I shall be the innocent cause of your death, as well as of my own."

To accustom the Indians to his mode of worship, he commenced chanting the litany of the Virgin. He had a well-trained, melodious voice. The Indians were pleased with the novel strains floating over the still waters. Paddle in hand they paused to listen. Adroitly, he led them to believe that the Good Spirit had taught him to sing, and had sent him to them for their diversion. It would seem, on the whole, that the Indians treated their captives with remarkable kindness. The canoe of the Frenchmen was heavily laden with articles for trade, and there were but three to paddle. They therefore found it very difficult to keep up with the well-manned war canoes of the savages. The chief placed one or two warriors on board the Frenchmen's boat, to help them stem the current. It was with difficulty that the little fleet accomplished more than twenty or twenty-five miles a day.

The savages were collected from various villages, and it was quite evident that they were still divided in opinion respecting the disposition to be made of their prisoners. One of the chiefs took the Frenchmen under his special protection. He caused them, at each encampment, to occupy the same cabin with him, or to sleep by his side. But there was another chief who clamored for their death. He had lost a son, killed by the Miamis. Every night his dismal howlings were heard, as he wailed piteously, endeavoring to stimulate his own passions, and to rouse his comrades to kill the Frenchmen, so as to seize their arms and avenge themselves upon the Miamis.

But others, who were far more considerate, said, If we kill or rob these Frenchmen, we shall soon use up the few goods they have in their canoe, and no other Frenchmen will dare to visit us to bring us more. But, if we treat them kindly, and purchase their goods fairly, others will come, bringing a great abundance. Thus we can all sell our skins and furs, and supply the whole tribe with the things we so greatly need.

As they were paddling along one day, a large flock of turkeys was seen feeding near the river. Cautiously Father Hennepin paddled near them, and one of his boatmen, taking careful aim, struck down three with a single shot. The savages, who had watched the proceeding with intense interest, were amazed. Many of them, perhaps all, had never seen a gun discharged before, though the knowledge of the arrival of the French, and the wonderful power of their guns, had been widely spread through the tribes. The canoes were all paddled to the shore. With the deepest interest they examined the dead turkeys, and reexamined the musket. The unseen bolt had struck them down at twice the distance their arrows would reach. An arrow could have killed but one. The bullet had killed three. "Manza ouacangege," exclaimed one of the chiefs, in astonishment, which signified, The iron has understanding.

The situation of the Frenchmen was very peculiar, as they hardly knew whether the savages regarded them as prisoners or not. Father Hennepin was still pursuing his original design of exploring the sources of the Mississippi. If the Indians were truly friendly, their companionship was an element of safety, and was to be desired. In order to test the question whether he was his own master, and could follow his own will, he suggested to the chief his design of turning back and following down the Mississippi to its mouth. He might thus find a short passage to the Indies, though he admits that he thought it more probable that it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, than into the Red Sea. The chiefs however, promptly signified that they could not consent to be thus deprived of the pleasure of his company.

Though the Indians paddled all day long, with great vigor, against the current, not stopping even to eat until their night's encampment, they never seemed at all fatigued. There was an ample supply of game for food. Having reared their frail shelters, if it rained, kindled their fires and cooked their suppers, they invariably had a war dance, each smoking in turn the war calumet. This was distinguished from the peace calumet by different colored feathers. Their whoops and yells were hideous. And there was something indescribably mournful in the wailings of those who had lost relatives during the war.

Fortunately for the French, all their expeditions had thus far been conducted under the control of religious men. Not an Indian had been killed or wronged by them. They had proved only great benefactors to the Indians. Had a solitary Indian been killed by any Frenchmen, these captives, in revenge, would have been put to death with tortures of the most diabolical cruelty. Had any Miami warriors fallen into the hands of these savages, awful would have been their doom. Father Hennepin and his companions could not but shudder as they listened to the wailing yells of those who mourned their dead, and witnessed the fiend-like expression of their countenances and gestures.

With the earliest dawn, after the night's encampment, some one gave a whoop, which instantly brought every man to his feet. No time was lost in washing or dressing. They generally, as a measure of protection against their enemies, endeavored to encamp upon the point of an island. While some went out to hunt for game, others replenished the fires, and cooked the breakfast, while still others sought the neighboring eminences to discover whether there were any smoke or other indications of a lurking foe. They then entered their birch canoes, which they did not leave until the close of the afternoon, when they landed for another night's encampment.

Thus for nineteen days they continued ascending the river. Father Hennepin estimated that they had made between three and four hundred miles.

One afternoon, as the thirty canoes were being paddled up the stream in a long line, a large bear was seen swimming across the river, a little above them. The canoes in advance promptly surrounded him, and he was speedily killed. Upon dragging him ashore he proved to be a monster in size, and very fat. It so happened that they were opposite a very beautiful prairie. The head chief, whose name was Aguipaguetin, ordered all the canoes ashore for a grand feast. The warriors decorated themselves with paint and feathers, and after partaking of what they considered a sumptuous feast, commenced the wild orgies of the war dance, with hideous yellings and contortions. They all leaped about on the greensward of the prairie, with their arms akimbo, and violently beating the ground with their feet, in measured tread.

The wailing for the dead was blended with their discordant cries. One of the chiefs who was very loud in his demonstrations of grief for his lost son, and who had previously urged putting the Frenchmen to death, frequently in the course of the frantic dance approached the Frenchmen, and placing his hands on each one of their heads, uttered the most piercing dirge-like cries. Father Hennepin could not understand the significance of this strange ceremony, but he had many fears that it indicated violence to come.

Hoping to conciliate the chief, he made him a very valuable present of knives, axes, beads, and tobacco in honor of the son whose loss he so deeply deplored. By these frequent presents, the small store of goods which the canoe could hold was rapidly disappearing. They were then on the borders of a wide expansion of the Mississippi resembling a lake. Father Hennepin gave it the name of Pepin, or the Lake of Tears, from the lugubrious cries of the chieftain in the funereal dance. The next day, or day after, quite a large herd of buffaloes was seen swimming across the river. The enormous creatures, thus taken at disadvantage, were easily killed. Thirty or forty, pierced by arrows and javelins, were soon dragged ashore. The savages had another feast, from the tongues and other most delicate morsels of the animal. All the remainder was left to putrefy, or be devoured by wild beasts. The frail canoes were so crowded that there was no room to store away any game. Neither was there need to do so, for every day brought almost invariably a full supply. It required hunger, and an acquired appetite for such food, to make it palatable; for it was eaten without bread or salt, or any other seasoning.

Some days the Indians seemed very good natured. Again, with no known cause, they were morose and threatening. Even the chief who had protected them was as capricious in his conduct as a child. He would at times feed them abundantly, minister to all their wants, and caress them. Again he would allow them, in a stormy night, to be driven from his cabin, to find such shelter as they could. Usually some Indians would be placed in their canoe to help them paddle. Again they would be left to struggle unaided against the rushing flood. The Frenchmen could not speak a word of the language of their captors, or understand a word spoken to them. It is probable that they often misunderstood the significance of signs. But there was no difficulty in perceiving the difference between smiles and frowns, between blessings and curses.

On the nineteenth day of their navigation, the Indians reached one of their villages on the river banks. It was afterwards found that this spot was about twenty-five miles below a remarkable fall in the river, to which Father Hennepin gave, in honor of his patron saint, the name of the Falls of St. Anthony. This hamlet, far away in the north, was a cold and cheerless assemblage of savage homes. The families, in the culture and comforts of life, were but slightly elevated above the brutes around them. There were several chiefs who had lost sons during the war. The captives were given one to each of three of them. Nominally, they were to be adopted in the place of the lost ones. In reality, they were slaves, to be driven farthest from the fire, to have the most scanty supply of food, in case of want, and in all things to endure the hardest fare.

Having thus distributed their captives, the savages seized their property and divided it among themselves. They probably did not consider this an act of robbery, but since the Frenchmen had been graciously received as sons of the tribe, their goods should be appropriated to the public welfare. The village near the Falls of St. Anthony was but a temporary encampment. The tribe into whose hands the captives had fallen, was called Issatis. Their principal village was still farther up the river, nearly a hundred and fifty miles in a northwesterly direction. Probably in consequence of the innumerable windings of the stream, they abandoned their canoes at the Falls, and commenced the journey on foot, traversing an Indian trail which led through forest and moor, over prairie and mountain. It was indeed a wearisome and almost fatal journey to those newly adopted into such hardships of barbarian life. In those early days of spring, and in those high latitudes, it was often bitterly cold. There were remaining snow drifts, and deeper clammy mud and pools of water to be waded, skimmed over with ice, and freezing storms of rain and sleet. They encountered many rivers and swollen brooks, which they were compelled either to swim or ford.

These streams, flowing down from unknown regions in the north, were often encumbered with large blocks of ice. There was but little game in those dismal forests, and on those sear and bleak prairies. The savages were pitiless, and would often give but a meagre portion to their adopted brethren. Father Hennepin often divested himself of his clothes, bound them upon his head, and swam across these streams. Upon reaching the shore, his limbs would be so chilled and benumbed that he could scarcely stand. The blood would trickle down his body and limbs, from wounds inflicted by the sharp edges of the ice. The trail invariably led to spots where the crossings of the swollen streams were not very wide. Several of the Indians were men of gigantic stature. Father Hennepin was a tall man, but his companions were very short, and neither of them could swim. When they came to a ford where the water was over the heads of the short men these tall Indians would carry them across on their shoulders. When all were compelled to swim they would help the unfortunate men across on pieces of drift wood.

The Indians seemed to have sinews of steel. They were alike insensible to hunger, to drenched garments, and to freezing blasts. The celerity with which they pressed on their way, astonished the Europeans. On several occasions Father Hennepin, while traversing the broad bleak prairie, was quite in despair. His trembling, tottering limbs would scarcely support his body. Once, feeling unable to take another step, he threw himself upon the ground, declaring that there he must die. The rank and withered grass of the prairie was five or six feet high. Very deliberately one of the savages set fire to the grass. It burst forth in a consuming flame. "Now," said he, "you may follow us or be burned to death."

On one occasion, when Father Hennepin had thrown himself upon the ground, in utter exhaustion, one of the chiefs of the party came to him, and pulling up a quantity of dried grass, made a soft bed for him to lie down upon. Then seating himself by his side, he took from his pocket two pieces of wood, very dry. One was a small block of cedar, with an indentation in the centre, about two thirds of an inch in diameter. The other was a round peg, five or six inches long, which fitted into the hole in the block. This block he placed upon his knee, and fitting the peg into the socket, spun it round with wonderful rapidity between his two palms. Soon smoke began to appear, then a few sparks were elicited, and then a gentle flame rose from the dust of the charred wood. He lighted his pipe, and after smoking for a moment, gave it Father Hennepin to smoke. He then put his hands affectionately on the Frenchman's head, and moaned and wept.

What did this all mean? Were the sympathies of the savage excited, in view of the sufferings of the white man? Were his tears caused to flow in anticipation of torture at the burning stake, to which he might suppose the victim to be doomed? Or was this an act of barbarian mourning over some loved one lost in battle? Father Hennepin could not interpret the deed. But he greatly feared that it indicated dreadful woes to come—sufferings, the thought of which was sufficient to agitate even a savage breast.

After a weary journey of five days, this party of forty or fifty warriors, with their captives, approached their destined village. It was far away in the northern wilderness, east of the Mississippi, which majestic stream had there dwindled into a rivulet. They were near the head waters of a river, since called the St. Francis. It was indeed a dreary and savage wild which they had penetrated, and from whose glooms the captives could not expect ever to emerge. In some way the inhabitants of the village had heard of the approach of the warriors, and quite a number of the women and children came out to meet them.

In a sort of triumphal entrance, like that of the ancient Romans, they took Auguelle, dressed him as gorgeously as they could, in Indian costume, painted his face, daubed his hair with grease, and fastened upon his head a plume of eagle's feathers, brilliantly colored. They placed a gourd in his hand, containing a number of round pebbles, which he was directed to shake for music, with the accompaniment of his voice, shouting a French song. The Frenchmen, in dreadful incertitude respecting their fate, were agreed in the conviction that it was good policy to do every thing in their power to conciliate their captors.

The warriors were much chagrined in returning from their expedition without a single scalp, without a single captive from their enemies, without having even struck a blow. It was necessary for them therefore to make as much parade as they could of their French prisoners. Yet the most ignorant Indian of them all could not but perceive that there was not much to be boasted of in a hundred and twenty warriors having picked up three peaceful canoe men, who had made no resistance, who had never done them any harm; who had come into their country as friends, making them rich presents, and who undeniably desired only to do them good.

They could not utter the scalp halloo, nor the yell announcing that they were bringing victims for the stake. But they made the forest resound with their war-whoops, and with their shouts of triumph. During the absence of the war party, the women and the old men had planted several stakes, and had gathered around their large quantities of dried grass, with which they intended to scorch and blister and consume the prisoners, whom they doubted not the victors would bring back. They were anticipating a grand gala day in dance and yell, as they witnessed the writhings of their victims and listened with delight to the shrieks which agony extorted.

Father Hennepin and his companions were appalled as they looked at these stakes and these preparations for torture, and feared that they were to occupy the places prepared for the Miamis. They, however, concealed their fears, carefully abstained from the slightest indication of anxiety, and assumed that they were contented and beloved members of the tribe which had adopted them.

It was about the 21st of April, 1680, when these unfortunate men, who had been cradled in France, were led into the miserable hovels of this village of savages. They were all conducted into the wigwam of the principal chief. Here, much to their encouragement, the chief presented them his own peace calumet, to smoke. He then gave them, in a birch bark dish, some boiled wild rice, seasoned with dry whortleberries. Half-famished as the Frenchmen were, this was by no means unpalatable food.

After this feast each one was conducted to the wigwam of the Indian by whom he had been adopted. These Indians lived in different villages several miles apart. The captives now found, much to their sorrow, that they were to be separated. Father Hennepin was adopted by the chief Aquipaguetin, and was conducted nearly three miles, often through marshes knee-deep with mud and water, till they came to a considerable stream, probably one of the upper tributaries of the St. Francis River. Here five wives of the chief, with their canoes, were obsequiously waiting the approach of their lord and master. A young son of the chief was also with them. The chief informed them all that he had adopted the white man in the place of the child he had lost; and that his wives were to call him their son, and that his son was to call him brother.

The women paddled the canoes down the dark stream fringed with gloomy evergreens and tangled underbrush, until they came to an island upon which there was a small cluster of cabins. Here was the residence of the chief. His wigwam was large, though but a single room, and was crowded with his wives and children. Father Hennepin was immediately presented with some boiled fish on a birch bark plate. But he was so very weak, from exposure, toil, and emaciation, that he could not rise from the ground without assistance.

The medical practice of the chief was peculiar; but either in consequence of it, or in spite of it, the sick man got well. A small hut, called a sweating cabin, was built, very tight. This was made more impervious to the air by covering it with buffalo skins. A large number of stones heated red hot were placed inside, which raised the temperature almost to that of an oven. The sick man crept in, followed by four medical practitioners. The entrance was closed. The Indians then began to wail and howl, probably to frighten off the evil spirits, who they supposed had invaded the sick man's body. At the same time they commenced rubbing their patient violently from head to foot. The perspiration oozed from every pore, and fell from him like rain drops. The heat was intolerable. He nearly fainted, and was for the time greatly debilitated. This regimen was followed three times a week for two or three weeks, when, Father Hennepin writes:

"I felt as strong as ever."