Continuing our 1846 interview with Gabriel Franchere, conducted by our fictitious magazine “Playmen.”
The above is a statue of Sacajewea, the Indian woman who led Lewis and Clark through the wilderness. The statue is situated at Fort Clapsop, near Astoria – where the explorers set up shop at the base of the Columbia.
What were the Indians like?
The natives inhabiting on the Columbia, from the mouth of that river to the falls . . . on a space extending about 250 miles are, generally speaking, of low stature. Few of them passing five feet six inches, and many not even five feet.
This statue of Ilchee is in Vancouver, Washington. Ilchee, whose head was masterly sculpted in the way of upper-class Chinooks, was the daughter of Chief Comcomly. She married Duncan McDougall, the commander at Fort Astoria.
They pluck out the beard, in the manner of the other Indians of North America; but a few of the old men only suffer a tuft to grow upon their chins. On arriving among them we were exceedingly surprised to see that they had almost all flattened heads. This configuration is not a natural deformity, but an effect of art, caused by compression of the skull in infancy. It shocks strangers extremely, especially at first sight.Nevertheless, it is considered an indispensable ornament.
And when we signified to them how much this mode of flattening the forehead appeared to us to violate nature and good taste, they answered that it was only slaves who had not their heads flattened. The slaves, in fact, have the usual rounded head, and they are not permitted to flatten the foreheads of their children.
- A museum depiction of the Chinooks meeting explorers Lewis and Clark. Lana Rodlie photo
The men go entirely naked, not concealing any part of their bodies. Only in winter they throw over the shoulders a panther’s skin, or else a sort of mantle made of the skins of wood-rats sewed together. In rainy weather I have seen them wear a mantle of rush mats, like a Roman toga, or the vestment which a priest wears in celebrating mass; thus equipped, and furnished with a conical hat made from fibrous roots and impermeable, they may call themselves rain-proof. The women, in addition to the mantle of skins, wear a petticoat made of the cedar bark, which they attach round the girdle, and which reaches to the middle of the thigh.
The women anoint the body and dress the hair with fish oil, which does not diffuse an agreeable perfume. Their hair (which both sexes wear long) is jet black. It is badly combed, but parted in the middle, as is the custom of the sex everywhere, and kept shining by the fish-oil before-mentioned. Sometimes, in imitation of the men, they paint the whole body with a red earth mixed with fish-oil.
What about alcohol. Did you see any problem with alcohol abuse?
Chief of the Chinooks, Comcomly. Born about 1765, died about 1835.
The Columbia River natives regard intoxicating drinks as poisons, and drunkenness as disgraceful. I will relate a fact in point: one of the sons of the chief Comcomly being at the establishment one day, some of the gentlemen amused themselves with making him drink wine, and he was very soon drunk. He was sick in consequence, and remained in a state of stupor for two days. The old chief came to reproach us, saying that we had degraded his son by exposing him to the ridicule of the slaves, and besought us not to induce him to take strong liquors in future.
How did they govern themselves?
The politics of the natives are a simple affair. Each village has its chief, but that chief does not seem to exercise a great authority over his fellow-citizens. Nevertheless, at his death, they pay him great honors. They use a kind of mourning, which consists in painting the face with black, in lieu of gay colors. They chant his funeral song or oration for a whole month. The chiefs are considered in proportion to their riches: such a chief has a great many wives, slaves, and strings of beads — he is accounted a great chief. It is like other civilized nations, among whom the worth of a man is estimated by the quantity of gold he possesses.
When the Indians warred with each other, what was that like?
As all the villages form so many independent sovereignties differences sometimes arise, whether between the chiefs or the tribes. Ordinarily, these terminate by compensations equivalent to the injury. But when the latter is of a grave character, like a murder (which is rare), or the abduction of a woman (which is. very common), the parties, having made sure of a number of young braves to aid them, prepare for war. Before commencing hostilities, however, they give notice of the day when they will proceed to attack the hostile village. This does not follow in that respect the custom of almost all other American Indians, who are wont to burst upon their enemy unawares, and to massacre or carry off men, women, and children. The Columbia natives, on the contrary, embark in their canoes, which on these occasions are paddled by the women, repair to the hostile village, enter into parley, and do all they can to terminate the affair amicably. Sometimes a third party becomes mediator between the first two, and of course observes an exact neutrality. If those who seek justice do not obtain it to their satisfaction, they retire to some distance, and the combat begins. It is then continued for some time with fury on both sides. But as soon as one or two men are killed, the party which has lost these, owns itself beaten and the battle ceases.
They never fight but in open daylight, as if to render nature witness of their exploits. The evening before a battle, they keep up frightful cries all night long, and, when they are sufficiently near to understand each other, defy one another by menaces, railleries, and sarcasms, like the heroes of Homer and Virgil. The women and children are always removed from the village before the action.
Their offensive arms are merely a bow and arrow, and a kind of double edged sabre, about two and a half feet long, and six inches wide in the blade. They rarely come to sufficiently close quarters to make use of the last. For defensive armor they wear a cassock or tunic of elk-skin double, descending to the ankles, with holes for the arms. It is impenetrable by their arrows, which cannot pierce two thicknesses of leather. And as their heads are also covered with a sort of helmet, the neck is almost the only part in which they can be wounded. They have another kind of corslet, made like the corsets of our ladies, of splinters of hard wood interlaced with nettle twine. In their military expeditions, they have their bodies and faces daubed with different paints, often of the most extravagant designs. I remember to have seen a war-chief, with one exact half of his face painted white and the other half black.
Do they marry? Are they monogamous or do men have more than one wife?
Polygamy is permitted, indeed is customary. There are some who have as many as four or five wives. And although it often happens that the husband loves one better than the rest, they never show any jealousy, but live together in the most perfect concord. Adultery is almost unknown among them, and the woman who should be guilty of it would be punished with death. At the same time, the husband may repudiate his wife, and the latter may then unite herself in marriage to another man.
How do they look after their sick or wounded?
As soon as a native of the Columbia is indisposed, no matter what the malady, they send for the medicine man, who treats the patient in the absurd manner and with such violence of manipulation, that often a sick man, whom a timely bleeding or purgative would have saved, is carried off by a sudden death.
What about religion?
These people have not, properly speaking, a public worship. I could never perceive, during my residence among them, that they worshipped any idol. They had, nevertheless, some small sculptured figures; but they appeared to hold them in light esteem, offering to barter them for trifles.
Having travelled with one of the sons of Comcomly, the chief of the Chinooks, I put to him several questions touching their religious belief. This was an intelligent and communicative young man. What he told me respecting it: Men, according to their ideas, were created by a divinity whom they name Etalapass; but they were imperfect, having a mouth that was not opened, eyes that were fast dosed, hands and feet that were not moveable. In a word, they were rather statues of flesh, than living men. A second divinity, whom they call Ecannum, less powerful, but more benign than the former, having seen men in their state of imperfection, took a sharp stone and laid open their mouths and eyes. He gave agility, also, to their feet, and motion to their hands. This compassionate divinity was not content with conferring these first benefits. He taught men to make canoes, paddles, nets, and, in a word, all the tools and instruments they use. He did still more: he threw great rocks into the river, to obstruct the ascent of the salmon, in order that they might take as many as they wanted.
One of their most ridiculous superstitions regards the method of preparing and eating fish. In the month of July, 1811, the natives brought us at first a very scanty supply of the fresh salmon, from the fear that we would cut the fish crosswise instead of lengthwise; being persuaded that if we did so, the river would be obstructed, and the fishing ruined. Having reproached the chief on that account, they brought us a greater quantity, but all cooked, and which, not to displease them, it was necessary to eat before sunset. Re-assured at last by our solemn promises not to cut the fish crosswise, they supplied us abundantly during the remainder of the season.
The natives of the Columbia further believe, that the men who have been good citizens, good fathers, good husbands, and good fishermen, who have not committed murder, etc., will be perfectly happy after their death, and will go to a country where they will find fish, fruit, and all manner of food in abundance; and that, on the contrary, those who have lived wickedly, will inhabit a country of fasting and want, where they will eat nothing but bitter roots, and have nothing to drink but salt water.
What was your general opinion of the natives?
In spite of the vices that may be laid to the charge of the natives of the Columbia, I regard them as nearer to a state of civilization than any of the tribes who dwell east of the Rocky Mountains. They did not appear to me so attached to their customs that they could not easily adopt those of civilized nations: they would dress themselves willingly in the European mode, if they had the means. To encourage this taste, we lent pantaloons to the chiefs who visited us, when they wished to enter our houses, never allowing them to do it in a state of nudity. They possess, in an eminent degree, the qualities opposed to indolence, improvidence, and stupidity: the chiefs, above all, are distinguished for their good sense and intelligence. Generally speaking, they have a ready intellect and a tenacious memory. Thus old Comcomly recognized the mate of the Albatross as having visited the country sixteen years before, and recalled to the latter the name of the captain under whom he had sailed at that period.
Source: Narrative of a Voyage to Northwest Coast of America in th Years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814 of the First American Settlement on the Pacific by Gabriel Franchere; translated and edited by J. V. Huntington.