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source: William Henry Gray, A History of Oregon, 1792—1849, Drawn from Personal Observation and Authentic Information. Portland, Oregon: Harris & Holman, 1870.

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CHAPTER XXII.

The French and American settlers.—Hudson’s Bay Company’s traveling traders.—The Flatheads.—Their manner of traveling.—Marriage.—Their honesty.—Indian fight and scalp dance.—Making peace.—Fight with the Sioux.—At Council Bluffs.

 

THE reader is already acquainted with all of the first missionaries, and with the governing power and policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the different parties and organizations as they existed. We will now introduce parties of men as we find them in the Wallamet settlement.

There were at this time about fifty Canadian-Frenchmen in the Wallamet settlement, all of them retired servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company. These men, who had spent the most active part of their lives in the service of the company, had become connected with native women. and nearly all of them had their families of half-native children. This class of servants were found by the experience of the company not as profitable for their purposes as the enlisted men from the Orkney Isles, or even the Sandwich Islanders.

They were induced to allow those that had families of half-native children to retire from the service and settle in the Wallamet. In this manner they expected to hold a controlling influence in the settlement, and secure a population dependent upon them for supplies. It was upon this half-breed population that they relied to rally the Indian warriors of the country to prevent an American settlement. As was plainly stated by one of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mr. F. Ermatinger, in the fall of 1838, in case any effort should be made to remove them from the country, they had but to arm the eight hundred half-breeds the company had, and, with the Indians they could control, they could hold the country against any American force that could be sent into it. The Hudson’s Bay Company knew very well the power and influence they had secured over the Indians. There was then too small a number of outside Americans to make any effort to remove them, other than to afford them facilities to leave the country. With all the facilities they furnished, and encouragement they gave to go to the Sandwich Islands and to California, there was a gradual increase of the population the company did not wish to see;—sailors from vessels, and hunters from the mountains. These sailors and hunters naturally gathered around the American mission; many of them had, or soon took, native women for wives; the missionaries themselves encouraged them to marry these women. This soon commenced an influence exactly like that held by the Hudson’s Bay Company through their Canadian-French settlement. The moral and religious influence of the English church had not been favorably received at Vancouver.

Gray procures his outfit at Vancouver, in January, 1837, and starts in company with Ermatinger on his return. First night camp at a sawmill; meet a young man who had crossed the mountains with Captain Wyeth, and had remained as clerk at Fort Hall, under the Hudson’s Bay Company. This young man has never risen very high in the community where he resides. For a time he considered he was an important member of the Hudson’s Bay Company. His self-approbation was superior to the profits be brought to the company, and they found it convenient to drop him from their employ. He attempted a settlement out of the limits prescribed for Americans, and was soon compelled to locate himself under the influence of the Methodist Mission.

There was also in the settlement another young man, who about that time had taken a native wife and wished to locate at the mouth of the Columbia River. This privilege was denied him, unless he could procure some others to go with him. He had joined the Methodist class, and was considered a reliable man; he came to the country with Captain Wyeth, and had opened and taught the first school ever commenced in the country.

Ermatinger and company were detained fourteen days under the lee of a big rock just opposite Cape Horn, waiting for the east wind to subside and allow them to pass up the river. Ermatinger was a traveling trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. That year he was with the Flathead tribe. Gray continued with him, having his own tent and traveling equipage. The route traveled was nearly that since explored and located as Mullan’s military road. We struck the Coeur d’Alene Lake and took boats, passed through the lake and up the Flathead River, making two portages with our boats and goods before we reached Flathead House, as it was called, a common log hut, covered with poles and dirt, about 16 by 20. At this point our horses came up. Their packs. and equipage were all put. on board the boats, while the horses came light through the woods and along the rough river trail. At the place where we found our boats, we found a number of friendly Indians, also at the head of the lake, and a few at the Flathead House or hut. Here we found an old Frenchman in charge, with a small supply of goods, and about two packs of beaver which he had collected during the winter.

We were joined by a part of the Flathead tribe. In a few days all were ready. The tribe and trader started over the mountains on to the waters of the Missouri, to hunt the buffalo and fight the Blackfeet. Our route was along the main branch of Clark’s fork of the Columbia, till we reached the Culas Patlum (Bitter Root). A halt was made to allow the natives to dig and prepare the root for the season. The root is quite nutritious, answering the Indian in place of bread; it is somewhat bitter in taste, and to a person not accustomed to its use, is. not a very agreeable diet. This root secured for the season, the camp continued over the dividing ridge into the Big Hole, or Jefferson fork of the Missouri. In this place we were joined by the balance of the buffalo Indians., All parties, persons, and property were carried upon horses. The camps usually traveled from ten to fifteen miles per day. It is due to this tribe to say that truth, honesty, and virtue were cardinal principles in all their transactions. An article of property found during the day was carried to an old chief’s. lodge; if it were so light that he could hold it in his hand and walk through the camp, he would pass around and inquire whose it was. Sometimes several articles would be lost and picked up; in such cases the old chief would go through the camp on horseback and deliver them to the owner.

Their system of courtship and marriage was equally interesting. A youth wishing to marry a young miss was required to present a horse at the lodge of his intended, ready for her to mount as the camp should move. In case all were suited, her ladyship would mount the horse and ride it during the day; at night a feast was had at the lodge of the bride, the old chief announced the ceremony complete, and the parties proceeded to their own home or lodge.

In case the suit was rejected the horse was not suitable; he was left for the owner to receive at his pleasure; the maid mounted her own horse and proceeded about her business. In case of any visitors from other tribes, which they frequently had in going to buffalo, they would caution a stranger, and inform him of the propensity to steal which they had learned was the habit of the Indian visitor. This tribe claim to have never shed the blood of a white man. I believe it is the only tribe on the continent truly entitled to that honor; yet they are far more brave as a tribe than any other Indians. They never fear a foe, no matter how numerous.

Our sketches perhaps would not lose in interest by giving a short account of a fight which our Flathead Indians had at this place with a war party of the Blackfeet. It occurred near the present location of Helena, in Montana. As was the custom with the Flathead Indians in traveling in the buffalo country, their hunters and warriors were in advance of the main camp. A party of twenty-five Blackfeet warriors was discovered by some twelve of our Flatheads. To see each other was to fight, especially parties prowling about in this manner, and at it they went. The first fire of the Flatheads brought five of the Blackfeet to the ground and wounded some five more. This was more than they expected, and the Blackfeet made but little effort to recover their dead, which were duly scalped, and the bodies left for food for the wolves, and the scalps borne in triumph into the camp. There were but two of the Flatheads wounded: one had a flesh-wound in the thigh, and the other had his right arm broken by a Blackfoot ball.

The victory was complete, and the rejoicing in camp corresponded to the number of scalps taken. Five days and nights the usual scalp-dance was performed. At the appointed time the big war-drum was sounded, when the warriors and braves made their appearance at the appointed place in the open air, painted as warriors. Those who had taken the scalps from the heads of their enemies bore them in their hands upon the ramrods of their guns.

They entered the circle, and the war-song, drums, rattles, and noises all commenced. The scalp-bearers stood for a moment (as if to catch the time), and then commenced hopping, jumping, and yelling in concert with the music. This continued for a time, when some old painted women took the scalps and continued the dance. The performance was gone through with as many nights as there were scalps taken.

Seven days after the scalps were taken, a messenger arrived bearing a white flag, and a proposition to make peace for the purposes of trade. After the preliminaries had all been completed, in which the Hudson’s Bay Company trader had the principal part to perform, the time was fixed for the meeting of the two tribes. The Flatheads, however, were all careful to dig their war-pits, make their corrals and breastworks, and, in short, fortify their camp as much as if they expected a fight instead of peace. Ermatinger, the company’s trader, remarked that he would sooner take his chances for a fight off-hand than endure the anxiety and suspense of the two days we waited for the Blackfeet to arrive. Our scouts and warriors were all ready, and all on the watch for peace or war, the latter of which, from the recent fight they had had, was expected most. At length the Blackfeet arrived, bearing a red flag with II. B. C. in white letters upon it, and advancing to within a short distance of the camp, were met by Ermatinger and a, few Flathead chiefs, shook hands, and were conducted to the trader’s lodge,—the largest one in the camp,—and the principal chiefs of both tribes, seated upon buffalo and bear skins, all went through with the ceremony of smoking a big pipe, having a long handle or stem trimmed with horse-hair and porcupine quills. The pipe was filled with the trader’s tobacco and the Indians killikinick. The war-chiefs of each tribe took a puff each of the pipe, passed it to his right-hand man, and so around till all the circle had smoked of the big medicine pipe, or pipe of peace, which on this occasion was made by the Indians from a soft stone which they find in abundance in their country, having no extra ornamental work upon it. The principal chief in command, or great medicine man, went through the ceremony, puffed four times, blowing his smoke in four directions. This was considered a sign of peace to all around him, which doubtless included all he knew any thing about. The Blackfeet, as a tribe, are a tall, well-formed, slim-built, and active, people. They travel principally on foot, and are considered very treacherous.

The peace made with so much formality was broken two days afterward by killing two of the Flatheads when caught not far from the main camp.

It was from this Flathead tribe that the first Indian delegation was sent to ask for teachers. Three of their number volunteered to go with Gray to the States in 1837 to urge their claims for teachers to come among them. The party reached Ash Hollow, where they were attacked by about three hundred Sioux warriors, and, after fighting for three hours, killed some fifteen of them, when the Sioux, by means of a French trader then among them, obtained a parley with Gray and his traveling companions,—two young men that had started to go to the States with him. While the Frenchman was in conversation with Gray, the treacherous Sioux made a rush upon the three Flatheads, one Snake, and one Iroquois Indian belonging to the party, and killed them. The Frenchman then turned to Gray and told him and his com1panions they were prisoners, and must go to the Sioux camp, first attempting to get possession of their guns. Gray informed them at once’ "You have killed our Indians in a cowardly manner, and you shall not have our guns," at the same time telling the young men to watch the first motion of the Indians to take their lives, and if we must die, to take as many Indians with us as we could. The Sioux had found in the contest thus far, that, notwithstanding they had conquered and killed five, they had lost fifteen, among them one of their war-chiefs, besides several severely wounded. The party were not further molested till they reached the camp, containing’ between one and two hundred lodges. A full explanation was had of the whole affair. Gray had two horses killed under him and two balls passed through his hat, both inflicting slight wounds. The party were feasted, and smoked the pipe of peace over the dead body of the chief’s son; next day they were allowed to proceed with nine of their horses; the balance, with the property of the Indians, the Sioux claimed as part pay for their losses, doubtless calculating to waylay and take the balance of the horses. Be that as it may, Gray and his young men reached Council Bluffs in twenty-one days, traveling nights and during storms to avoid the Indians on the plains.

At Council Bluffs they found an Indian trader speaking the French language, meaner than the Sioux Indian, by the name of Papeon. The party had been twenty-one days on rations that ordinarily would have been consumed in four days; they had killed and eaten parts of two of the nine worn-out horses; they had with them six. The party entered the trading establishment and requested some food and the privilege of washing, not as beggars, but expecting to pay for what they required. They waited an hour or more; no food was forthcoming; Gray went to Papeon, the trader, and inquired the reason they could get no food. The old French imp inquired, in his broken French, "Have you got any ting to pa for de tings you vant?" He was asked if gold would pay him, or a draft on his company. "Oh, yes," he said, and in a short time food and what was required was produced.

This is only a specimen of most Indian traders of the Catholic stamp. There are honorable exceptions.

 

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