Early Life Among the Indians
Copyright 1891 B.G. Armstrong & T.P. Wentworth, Ashland, WI.
1892 Press of A.W. Bowron, Ashland, Wis.

Chapter VII.

The Indians in the Old Days - How They Managed to Build Boats, Make Pails, Pots, Kettles and Pans - Birch Bark and Its Uses - The Flint Rock - How They Obtained It and Worked It Into Knives, Axes and Arrowheads - The Building of a Wigwam - The Queen of Pocagemah

Now I wish to give the Indian manner of living before the white race was known to them and how they managed before they ever saw an axe, a knife, gun, a pail, or a kettle, etc. The greatest hardship they had was in getting along without an instrument for cutting. This was especially hard in preparing firewood and they were obliged to pick up and break small limbs of fallen trees and gather old bark, etc., for their fires, which compelled them after quite a stay in one place to go a long way for it, but for most other things they provided themselves with substitutes that did very well. I have seen bows that with only the strength of an average man put to them would throw an arrow through an inch pine board. It must have been a tedious task to make them without axe or knife, but it was accomplished by the use of wedge, flint and fire. Then they took certain bones from animals, especially the horns of buffalo, and by heating them they could peel them in layers. These strips were fastened to the back of the bow with a glue which they made from the heads of sturgeon, and to assist the glue they wrapped the bow with tendons from the loins of animals. The article they used for cutting was flint, and from this they also made their arrowheads. Where this particular kind of flint was procured I have never been able to find out, but I judge from the length of time it took a party to get it, as told in tradition, and from the descriptions of the lakes and rivers they saw and the distance they were said to have gone, that it is somewhere in Ohio. They describe the flint beds as being on a mountainside and as being from one to four feet under the surface of the ground, and with only their hands and sticks to remove the earth, the task of getting to it must have been difficult. After this was accomplished the next thing was to build a fire upon the rock. The fire they started by friction, always carrying with them a thoroughly dried black-ash stick with a groove worked into one side of it and a dry piece of white cedar to match the groove. When they wanted to start a fire they would lay a piece of dry rotten wood or punk on top of the black-ash stick holding it there with one hand, and with the other would rub the cedar stick in the groove of the ash block with all the rapidity they were capable of until it created sparks, which would ignite the punk and from this a fire was soon kindled. After the fire was built upon the rocks and it had been heated to a proper heat, the fire was cleared away and water thrown on the rock, which cracked it in all different sizes and shapes. This process was repeated until they had the desired amount they wished to carry home. From these pieces they would select the ones nearest to a cutting edge, and taking another piece of flint or hard rock they would chip off little by little, eventually getting down to nearly an edge, and then with sand and water and a flint stone rub the rough surface until they got as good an edge as possible. Some of these they used in skinning animals, and the larger ones they make into tools for heavier work such as cutting bark, small stick and poles for different uses. Upon the larger ones they fasten a handle, which was done by working a groove on each side of the flint and splitting a hard piece of wood, ash or hickory, they would insert the flint between the prongs made by the split and bind them close to the flint on both sides. This is both knife and cleaver, and when one is obtained it is carefully preserved, and when in use much caution is used lest it be broken. Their arrowheads are also made of this material, and their every spare moment was utilized in their manufacture, that a supply might be in readiness in a time of need. Are you wondering what they carried the water to throw upon the heated flint? They carried it in pails made of birch bark taken from the White Birch tree. Pots and kettles were also made from this bark. Canoes are made from this same bark, which they obtain by climbing the tree or sometimes by building a rude staging of sticks and logs. They cut the bark around the whole tree at the height sufficient for the length of the boat; then again around the bottom. They then cut the bark lengthwise; it is then worked lose from the tree, and at the proper time of year it peels off easily, and if properly managed, can be taken off in one unbroken sheet, and as the bark of the birch is very tough, the danger of spoiling the sheet is very slight. When this bark is fresh from the tree and exposed to the rays of the sun, it will warp and nearly close itself with the outer side in. The bark is straightened out upon the smooth surface of the ground, the inner surface downward, as this side is want for the waterside of the boat. Three poles are now put in lengthwise along the middle of the sheet, upon which are placed three stones, the larger on in the middle and the smaller at either end, then the bark is turned up and sew together at each end with black spruce roots which are very tough and pliable, procured from twenty to forty feet long, in diameter being from one-sixteenth to one-eight of an inch. The needle used is a splint found in the deer's foreleg, near the hoof, and attached to the lower end to the dewclaw joint. Cedar poles are put along the edges of the bark inside and out, and firmly sewed in place. From the pole in the bottom to the pole inside at the top they spring split cedar about one-eight of in inch thick, the whole length of the boat, making a solid lining inside the bark. Then they put in trots or braces, across from rail to rail, probably three or four feet in length, which gives it stability as well as shape. Sticks are then fitted into the ends and sewed into place, and if any rents are made in the bark in building, they are sewed up and pitch from the black spruce tree is then melted into and around all seams and rents, by holding a firebrand to the crude pitch, which is daubed on a stick for the purpose. The boat is then complete as it was made in primitive days, but since tools have been in use the bark is cut and rounded at the ends and better symmetry is observed, and they are made much nicer in every way and more durable, but the materials used in their construction is substantially the same. The pails the Indians used for carrying water and sap were made water tight by spruce pitch, the same as the canoes, as were the pots they made for cooking meat and making sugar. A kettle made of birch bark will not burn as long as it is filled with water and not until it is nearly empty. In boiling sap for sugar the Indians always boil a pail of sap until it is reduced to about one-third the quantity first put over the fire. They then kept adding and boiling until the kettle is full of syrup; they then turned this syrup into another vessel, continuing this until they had enough for a sugaring. A different vessel was then used, but of the same material and was made tray shape. It hung suspended over the fire by cords of basswood bark at each of the four corners and when the boiling commenced the stirring was constant to prevent scorching until the signs of graining appeared. It was then removed from the fire to a bowl made of rock and there stirred and cooled until the graining of the sugar was complete. The rock bowls are made as follows: Securing sandstone as near flat as possible and from twenty to thirty inches square, the hollowing process is begun by taking a stone or boulder harder than the bowl stone, and as pointed as they could find. They would commence and continue the picking process until the center of the stone had been crumbled away to a proper depth and circumference, then it was rubbed with a stone, sand and water until the inner surface was perfectly smoothed and polished. It was a long and tedious undertaking, but when one was completed it was highly prized, and they were heirlooms for many generations. Birch bark is also used in building wigwams and being wind and waterproof, it makes their lodges warm and comfortable. Building a wigwam is begun by setting poles into the ground in a circle and cone shape, leaving an opening at the top of six inches to two feet, according to the circumference of the structures at the bottom. The poles are woven together with strings of basswood bark, thus completing the frame, a doorway being made by leaving out poles upon the side where they wish the entrance and when the lodge is complete the skin of an animal is hung over to keep out the cold. In this country the skin of the caribou was most generally used. They then take birch bark and after tearing into strips the width they desire for making a tight covering for this cone shaped frame, they sew the ends of the bark together until the length is sufficient to go around the bottom of the structure, then another strip is made to go above the first one and is sewed to it, and so on until the top is reached, which is left open for smoke to escape. Birch bark cannot be torn lengthwise of the tree but clockwise it tears almost like cloth. This bark is of a very peculiar nature and fitted for a great many uses. The Indians used it as a torch when fishing at night. It was used to light the wigwam when needed and burns brightly and equal to an oil and waste torch and is almost proof against decay. I have found birch trees which had been buried a long time, some two and four feet under the surface, that had been covered by changing sands and channels, which were so decayed that when the trunk was removed all the inside would run out like mush, but the bark would be in a perfect state of preservation and it seems to me to been a provision of the Almighty for the Indians' good, for without it I cannot see how they could have managed to get along.

Dogs were the only domesticated animal known to the Indians until the white people settled among them, and they were never known to have had any other pet or tame any animal of any kind. The Eskimo dog they had when I first came among them and which, according to their tradition, they had never been without, were different from the dogs of today, that are so called, they were large and their make up was almost that of a lion, only smaller. Their heads were large and their bodies tapering from their shoulders back, their hinder parts being much lower than their shoulders. Their neck was covered with long hair and they had a mane or long bristly hair running from the neck along the back to the root of the tail, the tail being bushy only at the end. They were very savage animals and were kept for their watchfulness, although they were submissive and kind to their masters. The other dogs of which they had great numbers, were of all sizes, breeds, shape and color, from a cur to a dog that would weigh from fifty to sixty pounds, and all were of a snappish disposition. These they used for hunting different animals and more especially those species that burrow in trees or in the ground. The smaller ones were the best for treeing bears, for they were quicker that a bear and their constant worrying would soon cause a bruin to take to a tree, where they would keep him at bay until the hunter arrived. The larger dogs they used for sledging. These dogs were also quick to give warning of the approach of strangers.

There is another tool the Indians used before the advent of the white men. It was used for knocking off bark for firewood, driving stakes and at any work were pounding was necessary. They would find a stone of wedge shape and work a groove around it and tie a handle to one side of the stone with a groove worked in sufficiently deep to protect the string. This served quite a purpose. This with the awl which they used for sewing taken from the for leg of a deer or elk, and a pointed horn that they sharpened by the use of stone and sand made up the tools used by the ancient Indians. I forgot to mention that the poles and sticks used in canoe building were brought to a proper length by the use of fire and line used for measuring was the black spruce root.

In the winter of 1846 I was trading at a place between the Snake River and Pocagemah Lake in Minnesota, and on the bank of the Snake River near its entry into Cross Lake, I built my trading house. The name of the lake was derived from the name the Indians gave it, which was Pem-ma-che-go-ming, and means to cross or go through. In the Potawatomie language the word would be Kosh-ko-ming, a name they gave to a lake through which the Rock River runs in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. After the treaty of 1837 lumbermen were in the habit of cutting choice pine timber wherever it was handy to get a market, without owning the land or getting permission to cut the timber. In other words they were stealing it from the government. The Snake River was the outlet for much of this timber, or so much of it as was cut as far up as Knife Lake, on the Knife River, Rice and Tamarack Rivers, and Colonel Sims, of New Orleans, Louisiana, was the man whom the government sent to look after the trespassing. He had been in the Mexican War and had lost one arm. He arrived at my trading post in the spring of 1847. After informing me of his mission he asked to make his home with me for a while, as it was central in the country in which he wished to make his investigations and would also like to have my assistance in locating points where trespassing had been done. I to the colonel in and made him as comfortable as circumstances would permit. I found him a pleasant companion. He would relate his adventures in Mexico, in turn, for which I would recite matters about this country that were interesting to him. As he was an army officer I told him of the Indian soldiers, how they had their war dances, drills and parades, as well as white soldiers. This interested him very much and he was quite anxious to witness one of them where he could see a genuine medicine dance and feast and listen to the speeches of the braves, telling of their miraculous adventures and many hair-breath escapes. At this time there live a missionary near Pocagemah Lake by the name of Boutwell, which lake was about four miles from my place by trail. Boutwell's wife was a half-caste Chippewa and a daughter of a member of the American Fur Co. She had been east and was educated and spoke both languages quite fluently. There also lived on the bank of this lake an Indian chieftain by the name of Bic-a-jek, who had a band numbering about 150 souls. His own family consisted of a wife, one son and a daughter. This daughter had lived close to the mission some time and became a favorite of Mrs. Boutwell on account of her naturally good manners and her Indian beauty. She had, with the assistance of Mrs. Boutwell, taken up the white women's mode of dress and was as neat and tasty as could be. She was the idol of the old chief and her brother, and for my part I must say she was the prettiest Indian maiden I ever met. She was pretty in feature, and in manners she was feminine to a degree not often overmatched by her white sisters. Mrs. Boutwell often told her she was pronounced handsome and that she must set her cap for a white husband. These teachings had their effect and caused her to appear at her best on all occasions, and especially when white people were present, consequently she became faultless in her attire. The Colonel was telling me one day of the beautiful Creole women in New Orleans, and I told him there was an Indian beauty in the neighborhood, who, in features and form, could not be beaten in the whole south. Just them it happened that the chief and his wife and daughter were in sight coming to my place to trade. I told the Colonel that they were coming and he rushed for his uniform, which he always did when parties came, to whom he wished to show his rank. When the chief and party arrived at the post he was at his best in military attire and awaited an introduction, which I interpreted between them. The chief said he was glad to meet a white officer, as he was an officer among soldiers himself. The Colonel related his experience in war, the hard times he had seen, and how he had lost an arm in the bargain, to which the old chief replied: "He who strikes must expect to get struck," which was equivalent to saying, in the Indian understanding, "That's all right, don't grumble." The Colonel, turning to me said: "Your description of the daughter is correct. She is as pretty as a pink." He told me to cut her off a couple of calico dresses and to give the chief some tobacco also on his account, and urged me to arrange with the chief to have us present at their next war or medicine dance, and to tell the chief that he should be much pleased to see it, and perhaps he could give them some pointers in military matters that they would like to know. I interpreted the request to the chief, who said he was not then prepared for such an entertainment, but would have one as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made. I knew what that meant, for they never have one of these dances until a surplus of meat ahead to last from two to six days, so they can be spared from the chase, and these councils always last white the stock of meat holds out. It was only a few days after that I heard that the hunters had been very successful, having killed a couple of bear and several deer, and knew the council would soon be called. The Colonel was in high glee. The next morning, and but a little after sunrise, I saw two Indians hurrying up the river in a canoe, and guessed they were messengers to invite us to the feast. I told the colonel of their coming and he was soon inside his uniform, and with the eagles upon his shoulders, he looked the veteran he really was. Along came the braves, and taking positions on either side of the doorway, said the chief had sent them to invite us to a drill and feast, and pointing to the sky where the sun would be at about ten o'clock, said that was the time for us to be there. One of them told me that the chief's daughter had told them to bring some salt and pepper for the meats of the visitors, which I gave them with a plug of tobacco to be smoked at the dance, and they hurried away. The Colonel was delighted, and said he could tell by the warlike looks of the chief and the beauty of the daughter that we would have a good time. When we arrived at the Indian camp we were met at the shore by about twenty braves in war paint, clubs and knives in hand and scalp locks up, all ready to commence their drills and exercises. The war-whoop was given and a circle formed with the chief and drummer-boy inside, the chief acting the part of drum major and drillmaster. The dancing began; 'round and 'round went the circle, the chief going through the manual of the arms and being imitated by all the braves in the circle. This opened the Colonel's eyes as he saw the braves were no novices in handling the club and knife. The changing of club to knife hand and vice versa was gone through with for quite a time and was most beautifully done, when one luckless brave made a mistake. At a signal from the chief the drum was sounded and everything was stopped, when the unlucky man was taken aside by the chief and drilled in an awkward squad of one until he became perfect, when the dance went on by giving the emergency war whoop. It was continued some time longer when speeches by the braves were in order, telling of their experiences since the last council, with varying effects. The feast came next in order, but first I will tell you how a war whoop is given. There are two kinds, the general and the emergency whoop. The first is given by a yell loud and long enough to allow the maker to slap his hand over his mouth three times, and then repeat and once again, which agrees with the white man's three cheers. The emergency one is given in the same way but only one is given in the same way but only one yell and signifies that there is no time to lose, but hasten quickly, and corresponds with the long roll in white military service. Dinner was now cooked and ready, the chief's daughter being the leader in that department. She brought and spread upon the ground in the long wigwam, which had been prepared for the occasion, new rugs and mats made of rushes woven together with bark. She placed the nicest one where she intended her white visitors to be seated. She appeared more neat than ever; with a nice fitting dress and sailor collar of white with beads in braids in great profusion about her neck and of many colors, her collar lapping at the throat in an artistic manner and fastened with the claw of an eagle; her fine black hair braided and coiled at the back of her head in the finest style, her beau catcher locks at the temple in shape, she was a perfect picture of health and beauty combined, and she was the chief waiter at the table on the ground. She first brought to each a piece of roasted meat that had been done at the fire on a stick. It was served on a plate made in tray shape of birch bark. This comprised the first course. The Colonel having but one arm, I had provided myself with a sharpened stick to use as a fork in cutting his meat with my pocket knife, which I did after excusing myself to the chief and his daughter for this lack of etttiquette at an Indian dinner, where knives and forks, cups and saucers are considered unnecessary. The Colonel spoke in the highest terms of the cut of meat and the good taste in which it had been served and inquired of me what kind of game it was, but could not tell him as I only knew of their killing bear and deer. This course being over the daughter proceeded to take the orders for the next, inquiring of each their preference for boiled or roasted meat. The Colonel ordered both kinds, remarking that the bear meat was a choice meat to him, but venison rather beat them all. During this course the colonel said that it was nice, but could not compare it favorable with the first dish, and said he must have the hide of that animal to take home with him to show to his people and tell them that it was from that animal that he had feasted at an Indian dinner, upon the choicest morsel he had ever eaten, not excepting that prepared by the French cooks of New Orleans. Taking from his pocket a five dollar gold coin wished me to tell the daughter it was for that particular skin. The old chief smiled at the sight of the "shiner," and more so as it was aimed at the hand of his idolized daughter, though he knew not for what it was being given, for I had not yet told him. The daughter was not at first inclined to take the gold, fearing it might be a breach of good behavior, but I assured her it was all right, and the coin was dropped into the hand of the dusky maiden, who, by the way, the Colonel had named "Queen of Pocagemah." The meal having been finished and the braves were preparing to continue their dancing and festivities, the Colonel requested that I call the maiden and go with them to see the skin of the animal that he might give orders to have it properly tanned and ready for him when he should start for home. I called the girl and we proceeded to the place where the hides were kept.

The Queen of Pocagemah pointed it out, and there, stretched between to poles, and hung the hide of a very large black dog. At the sight of it the Colonel's anger got the best of him, notwithstanding the presence of his charmer, and he arraigned me before the bar of his judgment in terms much more forcible than complimentary, and had he been provided with a gun he would no doubt have slain me, so great was his anger. But with only one arm he was convinced that he would be obliged to wait till another time to get even with me. The Indians became alarmed, thinking the man was crazy, as they knew not a word he was saying, and it was some time before I could get in a word of explanation. I quieted the Indians' fears by telling them it was a way he had, but that it was nothing against their treatment of him. But nothing would do the Colonel but to take our canoe and go home. On the way he became cooler and finally declared he had made an unnecessary show himself, without a cause, and after my explanation that I knew nothing of what kind of meat we were eating, and that it was no joke played by me, he became perfectly cool, and after a week or so sent for the hide, which had been neatly tanned, and took it home with him, as he said, a reminder of the war dance and his display of foolish anger. He returned to New Orleans after a few weeks and I heard from him several times in relations to trespassing matters, and in all his communications would mention the medicine dance, and was particular to enquire after the health of his "Queen of Pocagemah." About this time Mrs. Boutwell left Pocagemah and joined a mission up the Mississippi, but the chief's daughter continued her pursuit of a white husband, in which she was successful before the summer had passed. In August 1847, a man by the name of John Drake came to Pocagemah. He was a fine looking man and although his business was a whiskey peddler, he won the smiles of Colonel Sim's queen and married her. He started a whiskey shop near Knife Lake where he traded in steel traps and trinkets with the Indians. A man named Henry Rusk, who could talk some Chippewa, went into partnership with him so they would be able to trade. Quarrels and fights became frequent at their place and one or two shooting affairs. When Chief Bi-a-jek heard how matters were going at Drake's place, took his wife and went there to make them a visit. As is the Indian custom in such cases they took along their wigwam and pitched a short distance from Drake's house. They then went and called on the daughter and invited her to call upon them at their lodge. At this he objected and said she should never put foot in their wigwam. He also said, through Rusk, that if the chief was not away from there before morning he would shoot him, for he did not propose to have any interference in his family affairs. The girl was offended at this remark and watching an opportunity, she stole away and went to the lodge of her parents. Drake soon discovered her absence and found out where she had gone and became so angry that he took his rifle and fired a shot through the wigwam. It was now dark and Rusk prevailed upon Drake to desist as he had threatened to kill the whole family. Rusk now had the gun and told Drake if he would be quiet and stay in the house he would go to the wigwam and fix up matters with the chief. When the shot was fired by Drake the three occupants of the lodge had skulked away to the brush and the chief had taken a position behind a tree with his rifle to defend himself from any further attack, and as Rusk came out of the door gun in hand, so that Drake could not use it during his absence, the chief espied him by the light of the house and believing it to be Drake he fired at him, inflicting a mortal wound. As Drake now saw trouble ahead he quietly slipped away from the house, leaving everything behind him and reached my place just at daylight. He told me what had happened and wanted me to go and see to Rusk. I did so, taking with me three men. We found him just breathing his last. Drake took to the woods and I heard from him a month or so afterwards at Wood Lake here he had a quarrel over some steel traps. He afterwards went to a wigwam of the party with whom he had the quarrel, and not finding them drove the family from it and set it on fire. The Indian coming from the woods just then, where he had been hunting, saw what Drake had done, hunted him up and shot him. A sort of investigation was had over the affair, which resulted in the sending to the authorities at St. Croix Falls a report of justifiable homicide, but nothing more was done about it.


Contributed and used with permission on this site by Timm Severud. The Lac Courte Oreilles Historical Preservation Office created this reproduction.Timm Severud manually typed it in and some minor changes to text have been made from the original, to correct spelling mistakes, and slight grammar mistakes. There is no copyright on this book or this reproduction. Feel free to use and share with others. Enjoy what I consider the best historical biography I have ever read. T.L.S.


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