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The Northwest fur trade, and the Indians of the Oregon country. 1788-1830 Sturgis, William, 1782-1863 1910

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Array leaflets
No.   219.
The Northwest
Fur Trade,
By William Sturgis.
The Northwest Fur Trade, between Boston, the Pacific
Coast, and China, was an important stage in American expansion. It led to the discovery of the Columbia River, and
to the annexation of two great American states. It enabled
American merchants to compete successfully with other
nations in the China trade, and inaugurated the friendly
relations that have since existed between the United States
and China.
In this Leaflet we reprint parts of two lectures on the
Northwest Fur Trade and the Indians of the Oregon Country
delivered in 1846 by William Sturgis, who had been actively
engaged in the Northwest Fur Trade since 1798; and
extracts from his journal on his first voyage, written before
he was eighteen years old.
Mr. Sturgis said that, in early life, he made several successful voyages, to what was then deemed a remote and
unexplored region, and passed a number of years among a people, at that time, just becoming known to the civrN^ed
world. His first visit to Nootka Sound was made in the
eighteenth century, about twenty years after it was discovered by Captain Cook.
Though not one of the first, he was amongst those who
early engaged in the Northwest trade, so called, and continued to carry it on, either personally or otherwise, until it
ceased to be valuable. He thus witnessed its growth, maximum, decreased, and finally, its abandonment by Americans.
These early visits afforded him an opportunity, too, of
observing changes in the habits and manners of the Indians,
effected by intercourse with a more civilized race; and, he
regretted to add, brought to his knowledge the injustice,
violence, and bloodshed, which has marked the progress of
this intercourse. . . .
This trade, in which our citizens largely participated, and
at one period nearly monopolized, was principally limited to
the sea-coast between the mouth of the Columbia river, in
latitude 460, to the numerous islands bordering this whole
extent of coast, and the sounds, bays, and inlets, within these
limits. Trade was always carried on along-side, or on board
the ship, usually anchored near the shore, the Indians coming off in their canoes. It was seldom safe to admit many
of the natives into the ship at the same time, and a departure
from this prudent course, has, in numerous instances, been
followed by the most disastrous and tragical results.*
The vessels usually employed were from one hundred to
two hundred and fifty tons burthen, each. The time occupied for a voyage by vessels that remained upon the coast
only a single season, was from twenty-two months to two
years, but they generally remained out two seasons, and were
absent from home nearly three years. The principal object
of the voyages was to procure the skins of the sea-otter,
which were obtained from the natives by barter, carried to
Canton, and there exchanged for the productions of the
Celestial Empire, to be brought home or taken to Europe,
thus completing what may be called a trading voyage.
* The story of the capture of the ship Boston by the Northwest Indians,
in 1803, and of his captivity among the Indians, was told by one of the
two survivors of the crew in a book called "Jewitt's Narrative," which
was one of the most popular books of adventure in the first half of the
nineteenth century. Beaver and common otter skins, and other small furs, were
occasionally procured in considerable quantities, but in the
early period of the trade they were deemed unimportant,
and little attention was given to collecting them. The sea-
otter skins have ever been held in high estimation by the
Chinese and Russians, as an ornamental fur; but its great
scarcity and consequent cost, limits the wear to the wealthy
and higher classes only. A full-grown prime skin, which has
been stretched before drying, is about five feet long, and
twenty-four to thirty inches wide, covered with very fine fur,
about three-fourths of an inch in length, having a rich jet
black, glossy surface, and exhibiting a silver color when
blown open. Those are esteemed the finest skins which have
some white hairs interspersed and scattered over the whole
surface, and a perfectly white head. Mr. Sturgis said that
it would now give him more pleasure to look at a splendid
sea-otter skin than to examine half the pictures that are
stuck up for exhibition, and puffed up by pretended connoisseurs. In fact, excepting a beautiful woman and a lovely
infant, he regarded them as among the most attractive
natural objects that can be placed before him.
The sea-otter has been found only in the North Pacific.
The earliest efforts on record to collect furs in that region,
were made by Russians from Kamchatka, who, in the early
part of the eighteenth century, visited, for this purpose, the
Kurile and other islands that lie near the northern coasts of
Asia. After the expedition of Bering & Co., in 1741, these
excursions were slowly extended to other groups between the
two continents, and when Cook, in 1778, explored these
northern regions, he met with Russian adventurers upon
several of the islands in proximity with the American shore.
It was, however, the publication of Cook's northern voyages,
in 1785, that gave the great impulse to the Northwest fur
trade, and drew adventurers from several nations to that
The published journal of Captain King, who succeeded to
the command of one of the ships after the death of Captains
Cook and Clark, and his remarks, setting forth the favorable
prospects for this trade, doubtless roused the spirit of adventure. Between the time of the publication referred to,
in 1785, and the close of 1787, expeditions were fitted out from Canton, Macao, Calcutta, and Bombay, in the East;
London and Ostend in Europe; and from Boston in the
United States. In 1787, the first American expedition was
fitted out, and sailed from Boston. It consisted of the ship
Columbia, of two hundred and twenty, and the sloop Washington, of ninety tons burthen—the former commanded by
John Kendrick, the latter by Robert Gray.*
Mr. Sturgis deemed it scarcely possible, in the present age,
when the departure or return of ships engaged in distant
voyages is an every-day occurrence, to appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking, of the obstacles and difficulties
that had to be surmounted in carrying it out.
He said, were he required to select any particular event
in the commercial history of our country, to establish our
reputation for bold enterprise and persevering energy, in
commercial pursuits, he should point to this expedition of the
Columbia and Washington. Many of the obstacles and
dangers were clearly pointed out, showing that it was then
viewed as an extraordinary undertaking. . . .
Captain Kendrick, who was entrusted with the command
of the expedition, was a bold, energetic, experienced seaman.
His management justified the confidence reposed in him, but
he was fated never to return.
The project of engaging in the fur trade of the North.
Pacific, from this country, was first brought forward by the
celebrated American traveller, Ledyard. In his erratic
wanderings, he entered on board the ship Resolution, as
corporal of marines, with Captain Cook, upon his last voyage. After his return, he made repeated attempts to get an
outfit for a voyage to the Northwest Coast. In 1784, three
years previous to Kendrick's expedition, he induced Robert
Morris to engage in the undertaking. But for some cause,
now unknown, the enterprise was abandoned, as were similar
ones in France and England. The unfortunate Ledyard
seemed doomed to disappointment in whatever he undertook.
The life of this remarkable man shows that respectable talents, united with great energy and perseverance of character,
may be comparatively valueless to the possessor, and useless
*See the account of the Columbia's voyages in Old South Leaflets.
No. 131  (Vol. VI). to the world, from the want of a well-balanced mind, which,
unfortunately, was the fatal deficiency in Ledyard.*
Nearly all the early and distinguished navigators, who discovered and explored the northern regions of the Pacific, met
the fate that too often awaits the pioneers in bold and hazardous undertakings, and found a premature death, by violence
or disaster, or disease brought on by incessant toil and
Bering, a Danish navigator in the service of Russia, who
commanded the expedition just mentioned, was wrecked in
1741, upon an island that bears his name, and perished miserably in the course of the winter. He was the first navigator
known to have passed through the strait that separates Asia
from America; and Cook, who was the next to sail through it,
in a commendable spirit of justice, gave to this strait the
name of the unfortunate Bering. The fate of Cook is well
known. He was killed by the natives of the Sandwich
Islands, of which group he was the discoverer.
Mr. Sturgis said he had stood upon the spot where Cook
fell, in Karakakooa Bay, and conversed with the natives who
were present at the time of the massacre. They uniformly
expressed regret and sorrow for his death, but insisted that
it was caused by his own imprudence. . . .
Vancouver, an able British navigator, was sent out by his
government in 1790, to receive Nootka Sound from the
Spaniards, and explore the whole western coast of North
America. The chart prepared by him is the most accurate
of any at the present day. With a constitution shattered by
devotion to his arduous duties, he returned to England in
1794, and sunk into an early grave.
Mr. Sturgis said he had already remarked that Kendrick
was fated never to return. After remaining with both
vessels two seasons on the northwest coast, he sent the
Columbia home, in charge of Captain Gray, and remained
himself in the sloop Washington. He continued in her several years, trading on the coast and at the Sandwich Islands.
In 1792, while lying in the harbor of Honolulu, at one of
these islands, and receiving, upon his birthday, a complimentary salute from the captain of an English trading vessel
*Jared Sparks's "Memoirs of the Life and Travels of John Ledyard"
"(1828) is an interesting account of the remarkable career of this early
American adventurer. anchored near, he was instantly killed by a shot carelessly
left in one of the guns fired on the occasion.*
Captain Gray reached home in the Columbia, in the summer of 1790, and thus completed the first circumnavigation
of the globe under the American flag. He was immediately
fitted out for a second voyage in the same ship, and it. was
during this voyage that he discovered, entered, and gave
the name to the Columbia river, a circumstance now relied
upon as one of the strongest grounds to maintain our claim
to the Oregon Territory.    He died abroad some years ago.
The voyage of the Columbia was not profitable to her
owners, in a pecuniary view, but it opened the way for other
adventures, which were commenced on her return. In 1791,
there were seven vessels from the United States in the North
Pacific in pursuit of furs. For various reasons, the American traders so far gained the ascendency, that at the close
of the eighteenth century, with the exception of the Russian establishment on the northern part of the coast, the
whole trade was in our hands; and so remained until the
close of the war with Great Britain, in 1815. This trade
was confined almost exclusively to Boston. It was attempted, unsuccessfully, from Philadelphia and New York,
arid from Providence and Bristol, in Rhode Island. Even
the intelligent and enterprising merchants of Salem, failed
of success; some of them, however, were interested in several of the most successful northwestern voyages carried on
from Boston. So many of the vessels engaged in this trade
belonged here, the Indians had the impression that Boston
was our whole country. Had any one spoken to them of
American ships, or American people, he would not have been
understood. We were only known as Boston ships, and
Boston people.
In 1801, the trade was most extensively, though not most
profitably prosecuted; that year, there were 15 vessels on
the coast, and in 1802 more than 15,000 sea-otter skins were
collected, and carried to Canton. But the competition was
so great, that few of the voyages were then profitable, and
*The author is not quite accurate.   In December, 1794, Captain Kendrick and his crew, together with that of the English ship Jackal, took a
decisive part in a battle between two Hawaiian chiefs.    To celebrate the
. victory, Captain Kendrick hoisted his ensign, which the English vessel was
saluting when the fatal accident occurred. some were ruinous. Subsequently, the war with Great
Britain interrupted the trade for a time; but after the
peace of 1815, it was resumed, and flourished for some
years. The difficulties and uncertainty in procuring furs
became so serious, that in 1829 the business north of California was abandoned.
Besides the 15,000 skins collected by American traders in
1802, probably the Russians obtained 10,000 the same year
within their hunting limits, making an aggregate of 25,000
in one season. Mr. Sturgis said he had personally collected
6,000 in a single voyage, and he once purchased 560 of prime
quality in half a day. At the present time, the whole amount
collected annually within the same limits does not exceed
200, and those of very ordinary quality.
The commercial value of the sea-otter skin, like other
commodities, has varied with the changes in the relation of
supply and demand.
The narrative of Cook's voyage shows the value of a
prime skin to have been, at the time of that voyage, $120.
In 1802, when the largest collection was made, the average
price of large and small skins, at Canton, was only about
$20 each. At the present time, those of first quality would
sell readily at $150.* Some seventy or eighty ordinary
California skins, brought home a few months ago, were sold
here at nearly $60 each, to send to the north of Europe.
Mr. Sturgis said the trade on the coast was altogether a
barter trade. It consisted in part of blankets, coarse cloths,
great-coats, fire-arms and ammunition, rice, molasses, and
biscuit, coarse cottons, cutlery, and hard-ware, a great
variety of trinkets, &c; in fact, everything that one can
imagine. Copper has long been known, and highly prized
by the Indians. The lecturer observed that he had seen
pieces of virgin copper among different tribes, that weighed
50 or 60 pounds each. It was put to no use, but still was
considered very valuable, and a person having a few pieces
was deemed a wealthy man.
The natives had no currency. But the skin of the ermine,
found in limited numbers upon the northern part of the continent, was held in such universal estimation, and of such
* The price of sea-otter skins at the St. Louis fur auction in 1920 was
about #800.   As high as #2,000 has been paid for the finest skins. 8
uniform value, among many tribes, that it in a measure supplied the place of currency. The skin of this little slender
animal is from eight to twelve inches in length, perfectly
white, except the tip of the tail, which is jet black.
Urged by some Indian friends, in 1802, Mr. Sturgis
obtained and sent home a fine specimen, with a request that
a quantity should be ordered at the annual Leipsic fair,
where he supposed they might be obtained. About 5,000
were procured, which he took out with him on the next
voyage, and arrived at Kigarnee, one of the principal trading
places on the coast, early 1804. Having previously encouraged the Indians to expect them, the first question was, if
he had "clicks" (the Indian name for the ermine skin) for
sale, and being answered in the affirmative, great earnestness was manifested to obtain them, and it was on that
occasion that he purchased 560 prime sea-otter skins, at that
time worth #50 apiece at Canton, in a single forenoon, giving
for each five ermine skins, that cost less than thirty cents
each in Boston. He succeeded in disposing of all his ermines
at the same rate, before others carried them out—but in less
than two years from that time, one hundred of them would
not bring a sea-otter skin.
Among a portion of the Indians, the management of trade
was entrusted to the women. The reason given by the men
was, that women could talk with the white men better than
they could, and were willing to talk more.
When the natives had a number of skins for sale, it was
usual to fix a price for those of the first quality as a standard,
which required a great deal of haggling. In addition to the
staple articles of blankets, or cloth, or muskets, &c, that
constituted this price, several smaller articles were given as
presents, nominally, but in reality formed part of the price.
Of these articles, different individuals would require a different assortment: a system of equivalents was accordingly
established. For instance, an iron pot and an axe were
held to be of equal value—so of a knife and a file, a pocket
looking-glass and a pair of scissors.
Mr. Sturgis next alluded to the various efforts made by the
Indians to obtain a more valuable article than the established
equivalent. To avoid trouble, which would certainly follow
if he yielded in, a single instance, he said he had found it necessary to waste hours in a contest with a woman about
articles of no greater value than a skein of thread or a
sewing-needle. From various causes, the northwest trade
was liable to great fluctuations. The laws of supply and
demand were frequently disregarded, and prices consequently
often unsettled. He had seen prime sea-otter skins obtained
for articles that did not cost fifty cents at home, and had
seen given for them articles that cost here nearly twice as
much as the skins would sell for in China.
To secure success with any branch of business, it must
be undertaken with intelligence, and steadily prosecuted.
Men of sanguine temperaments are often led, by reports of
great profits made by others, to engage in a business of
which they are ignorant, or have not adequate means to
carry it on, and thus involve themselves in loss or ruin.
These truths Mr. Sturgis deemed strikingly illustrated by
the northwest trade.
While most of those who have rushed into this trade without knowledge, experience, or sufficient capital to carry it
on, have been subjected to such serious losses, they were
compelled to abandon it; to all who pursued it systematically and perseveringly, for a series of years, it proved highly
lucrative. Among those who were the most successful in this
trade, were the late firm of J. & T. H. Perkins, J. & Thos.
Lamb, Edward Dorr & Sons, Boardman & Pope, Geo. W.
Lyman, Wm. H. Boardman, the late Theodore Lyman, and
several others, each of whom acquired a very ample fortune.
These fortunes were not acquired, as individual wealth
not unfrequently is, at the expense of our own community,
by a tax upon the whole body of consumers, in the form of
enhanced prices, often from adventitious causes. They were
obtained abroad by giving to the Indians articles which they
valued more than their furs, and then selling those furs to the
Chinese for such prices as they are willing to pay; thus
adding to the wealth of the country, at the expense of foreigners, all that was acquired by individuals beyond the usual
return for the use of capital, and suitable compensation for
the services of those employed. This excess was sometimes
very large. Mr. Sturgis said that more than once he had
known a capital of $40,000, employed in a northwest voyage,
yield a return exceeding $150,000.    In one instance, an out- 10
fit not exceeding #50,000, gave a gross return of #284,000.
The individual who conducted the voyage is now a prominent merchant of Boston.
In conclusion, the lecturer gave a brief account of the
two.great fur companies. In 1785 an association of merchants was formed in Siberia for the purpose of collecting
furs in the North Pacific. In 1799 they were chartered
under the name of the "Russian American Company," with
the exclusive privilege of procuring furs within the Russian
limits, (540 40') for a period of twenty years, which has
since been extended.
The furs collected are sent across Siberia to Kiatska, the
great mart for peltries in the northern part of China, or to
St. Petersburg. For a number of years the company obtained a large portion of their supplies from American
vessels, giving in return seal-skins and other furs, and latterly
bills on St. Petersburg.
The treatment of the agents and servants of the company,
to the Indians, has been of the most atrocious and revolting character.
The British Hudson Bay Company was chartered by
Charles II., in 1669, with the grant of the exclusive use and
control of a very extensive though not well-defined country,
north and west of Canada. This uncertainty as to limits,
led to the formation of an association of merchants in Canada
in 1787, called the "Northwest Company," for carrying on
the fur trade without the supposed boundaries of the Hudson
Bay Company.
Those in the service of these concerns soon came in
collision. Disputes and personal violence followed. At
length, in June, 1816, a pitched battle was fought near a
settlement that had been made by Lord Selkirk, upon the
Red river, under a grant from the Hudson Bay Company,
between the settlers and a party in the service of the Northwest Company, in which Governor Semple and seventeen of
his men were killed. This roused the attention of the British
government, and in 1821, the two companies were united, or
rather, the Northwest Company was merged into the Hudson Bay Company. Previous to this, however, the Northwest Company had, in 1806, established trading posts beyond
the Rocky Mountains.    During the last war with  Great II
Britain, they got possession of Mr. Astor's settlement at the
mouth of the Columbia, and extended their posts on several
branches of that river. These establishments being united,
it infused new life, and their operations have since been conducted with increased vigor. They have now, practically,
a monopoly of the fur trade, from 42 ° to 540 40', on the
western sea-board, and from 490 to the Northern Ocean,
upon the rest of the American continent.
With the exception of the British East India Company,
the Hudson Bay Company is the most extensive and powerful association of individuals for private emolument now
in existence, and their influence has hitherto prevented an
adjustment of the Oregon question. Mr. Sturgis said he
did not speak from mere conjecture, when he affirmed that
it would have been settled months ago, upon the line suggested by him in a previous lecture before this association,
and to the satisfaction of the people of both countries, but
for the selfish interference of this company. Should disastrous consequences follow the delay in settling this question,
it will add another to the numerous evils that have already
resulted from great commercial monopolies.
The whole business of collecting furs upon our western
continent, without the acknowledged limits of the United
States, is now monopolized by two great corporations, the
Russian and British Fur Companies.
After the peace in 1815, the British Northwest Company—
partly in consequence of the monopoly of the East India
Company—were compelled to seek the aid of American merchants and American vessels, in carrying on an important
branch of their business. For a number of years, all the
supplies for British establishments, west of the Rocky
Mountains, were brought from London to Boston, and carried hence to the mouth of the Columbia in American ships,
and all their collections of furs sent to Canton, consigned to
an American house, and the proceeds shipped to England or
the United States, in the same vessels; a fact which speaks
loudly in favor of the freedom of our institutions and the
enterprise of our merchants. Our respected fellow citizens,
Messrs. Perkins & Co., furnished the ships, and transacted
the business. 12
The appearance of the country here [Norfolk Sound] is
really romantic. On one side of us, within pistol-shot, and
which seems in the evening almost as if you could touch it,
is a thick spruce wood, extending close to the water's edge,
frowning in native horror, and looks to be only fit for wild
beasts to prowl in: on the other side appears a mixture of
land and water. At short distances are passages which
either run inland, or, by joining, cut the country up into small
islands. Some of them are not much larger than the ship,
and numbers much smaller. They are composed of rocks
rising just clear of the surface of.the water, on which is
sprinkled a little soil; and from this rises a thick cluster of
tall spruce-trees, which, in the tout ensemble, look very handsome, and often bring to my mind the romantic little Island
of Poplars, in which is Rousseau's tomb. Add to this the
melancholy sighing of the wind among the pines. But a
truce to descriptions; and let me proceed to business.
The place where we walked was all rocks; and, on the
shoreside of us; they rose like a barrier, in some places full
an hundred feet perpendicular. On the tops of these (which
overhung all the beach beyond the Point) again are tall
spruce-trees, which seem to grow on the edge of the precipices
as plenty and as thick as on the lowland. Some of them,
which had advanced their heads too high for the feeble support their roots afforded, had shared the fate of all such
foolish pretenders, by being dashed from the pinnacle to the
bottom of the precipice; and, with their roots still clinging
to the rocks above, and their heads on the beach below, offer
an instructive example to thousands, who, by presuming on
as slight foundations, have no right to expect aught but the
same fate. . . .
In the afternoon, two large canoes came round the East
Point; and, as they turned it, all joined in a war-song, which
they rattled off with spirit quite handsomely. Upon their
approach, we found that they each contained a petty chief,
and about nine young men. The chiefs, who were both
good-looking men, and carried themselves with great dignity,
sat upon a high box in the middle of the canoes.    They 13
had beards about two inches long, with a considerable pair
of whiskers; and wore very long hair, which, by what we
could understand, was taken from the heads of their enemies
killed in battle. The tops of their heads were powdered
with small geese-down; and a long red and yellow feather,
painted, which rose over all, completed the head-dress. In
their ears they wore a kind of shell pearl, which is of some
value here, and, when the coast was first visited, was
esteemed of very great. Over their shoulders they wore a
cloth of their own manufacture, about a fathom square, made
out of the wool of their mountain sheep: round the edges
they work in sea-otter's fur; and, on the whole, it makes
a very handsome appearance. What they wore on their
legs I could not say, as they did not condescend to rise
from their seats, but, after purchasing three or four muskets,
left us, and went on shore. All the young men in the canoes
had their faces daubed with red and black, and their heads
powdered with red ochre and geese-down. This, though no
doubt only what is conformable to their ideas of beauty,
yet made them look not far unlike Milton's description of
Death,—"Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell."
He [one of the chiefs], however, would not venture himself on board of us; having been several times made prisoner
by different vessels, and obliged to ransom himself by giving
up the greatest part of his skins. This was the way some
people, not worthy of the name of men (and who, I thank
Heaven, cannot call themselves Americans), took to make
their fortunes.
C , C , and Alsatree, the principal chiefs on the
coast, they trepanned on board their ships; and, having
seized and laid some of them in irons, forced them, contrary
to every principle of honor or humanity, to deliver up their
skins before they would give them their liberty.
The Indians of whom I speak are piscatory in their pursuits; reside upon the borders of the sea, from which they
* Proc. Mass. Hist. Soc. VII, 444-49. H
draw their principal subsistence; and use altogether the
canoe, both for this purpose and for transporting themselves
and families from place to place. Their migrations are limited to a change of residence from one permanent village to
another at different seasons of the year, following the periodical movements of the several species of fish upon which they
mainly depend for food; and to trading excursions, which
are often made, sometimes to distant points, visiting tribes
residing several hundred miles from their own village. Upon
these occasions they are usually accompanied by their women
and children, who are adroit and skilful in the management
of canoes, and, in taking and curing fish, are as efficient as
the men themselves. These circumstances, exercising a material influence upon their domestic and social character,
have, in a degree, softened the naturally stern nature of these
Indians, and rendered them less sanguinary than the tribes
in the interior. War, however, is not unfrequent; and bravery and skill in conducting it are qualities commanding as
high admiration and respect as among the most warlike
people: and the Indian upon the borders of the Pacific
accords to an accomplished and successful destroyer of his
fellow-men the same pre-eminence that is conceded to him
by most civilized nations. In their domestic relations, they
manifest as much tenderness and affection as can be found
in any state of society. The constant presence of their
women gives to them a proper influence; and their position,
though subordinate in some respects, is, upon the whole, as
favorable as that occupied by their sex in civilized life,—
nominal submission, actual control. Children are uniformly
treated with tenderness and indulgence, seldom punished, and
never struck.
The Indian doctrine is, that it mav be necessarv to beat
dogs, but not to strike a child. The children, on their part,
seem intuitively respectful and submissive to their seniors.
I do not recollect to have seen punishment inflicted upon a
child but in a single instance, and then not very severely. A
woman, with a family of children was alongside of the ship
in her canoe, making some purchases; and, among other
articles, she obtained a quantity of molasses, which was put
into a large tub in her canoe. A little naked urchin, two or
three years old, half covered with oil and dirt, made repeated i5
attempts to get at the molasses, much to the mother's annoyance. At length, in a great pet, she caught the child by the
arms, and plunged it into the tub, leaving it seated in the
viscid substance up to its chin. The child bore the punishment with as much stoicism, and employed himself in the
same manner, as a young Yankee would have done.
The only occasion upon which blows are inflicted is in
the practice of a singular custom among them. At times
during the winter, in a cold, frosty morning, all the boys of
a village, from five to ten years old, assemble upon a sandy
beach in a state of nudity; and, each having furnished himself with a bunch of rods, they wade into the water up to
their armpits: and then commences an uproarious scene; each
one using his rods with his whole strength in thrashing every
one who comes within his reach, always giving a preference
to those of his own size. This continues for some time;
when at a given signal, a general plunge and a short swim
finishes the frolic, and they resume their garments and their
gravity. The Indians say that this practice hardens the
bodies of the little fellows, and the flagellation. they get
loosens their skins, and thus promotes their growth.
Their fancy for many articles could be traced to a desire
to imitate their somewhat more polished visitors; and the
absurdity, if any there was, lay in the manner in which they
used them. When attacked upon this point, they would
dryly refer to some of our usages as equally absurd with
their own. Talking one day upon such matters with Altad-
see, a sarcastic old chief of the Hanslong tribe, I ridiculed the
practice of covering their own and their children's garments
with rows of brass and gilt buttons, and loading them with
old keys, to keep bright at a great expense of labor. "Why,"
said he, "the white men wear buttons."—"True," I replied;
"but they are useful to us: the fashion of our garments requires buttons to secure them."—"Ah!" said he, "perhaps it
is so; but I could never discover the usefulness of half a
dozen buttons upon your coat-tails: and, as for the waste
of labor in scouring old keys, you are right; it is very foolish,
and almost as ridiculous as the fashion, which I am told
prevails in your country, of placing brass balls upon iron i6
fences in front of your houses, to be polished every day,
and tarnished every night. "Truly," he added, "Ejjets hardi
and Hanslong hardi cootnanous coonug" ("White people
and Hanslong people are equally foolish").
Their dwellings are of a more permanent character than
those of the Indians in the interior. In the winter villages,
some of the houses are quite large, covered with boards, and
probably as comfortable as the houses in London and Paris
are represented to have been five centuries ago. I have
seen houses upon the southern part of the Coast more than
one hundred feet in length, and forty in breadth; and Jewett,
who was two years a prisoner among them, describes
Maquinna's house at Nootka as a hundred and fifty feet long.
In articles of furniture, either for use or ornament, they are
quite deficient; and their mode of living is so simple, that
little is required. The only ornamental articles I recollect
to have seen in their houses were copper tea-kettles. These
we imported from Holland, and carried to the Coast in large
quantities. It would have been almost sacrilege among the
Indians to have degraded this beautiful piece of furniture, as
they esteemed it, to culinary uses. It was placed in an
elevated and conspicuous position in the house, kept perfectly bright, and regarded with as much solicitude and care
as I have elsewhere seen bestowed upon a tawdry French
vase, filled with showy artificial flowers, and carefully covered with a glass case.
The Indians are not a joyous race, and have few amusements. The only public ones are singing and dancing, and
these not in a style calculated to inspire or indulge mirth.
The women take no active part in the dance; but their
pleasant voices are often heard in song, sometimes with great
sweetness and pathos. Their musical instruments are a
hollow cylinder, used as a drum, and rattles of various sorts;
but they are only used to mark time, and stimulate the
dancers, who take great pains to prepare themselves for the
occasion, and only appear in full dress. When engaged in
the war-dance, they cover the head with scalps taken from
their enemies, the hair filled with the down of sea-fowl or the 17
eagle. Their mode of scalping adapts it to this purpose; for
they take off the whole skin of the head, preserving it entire,
with the hair attached. I cannot commend their grace in
the dance; but their spirit is worthy of imitation. They
engage in it with some life and animation: at least it was
easy to discover whether the dancers were awake or asleep,—
a fact not readily ascertained in modern days in more
polished communities.
My own opportunities were favorable for observing and
estimating Indian character; but, even with a close and long-
continued intimacy under circumstances that tended to dispel
the reserve that an Indian maintains in his intercourse with
strangers, I found it scarcely possible to comprehend, much
less to describe him, or to understand his motive for much
that he does. His character is made up of incongruous and
seemingly conflicting elements. The noblest impulses and
best feelings of man's nature are in him closely allied to
brutal propensities; and the bright and dark hues are so
mixed and blended, that at times they are scarcely distinguishable, and seem lost in one another. He is, even to
those who have most carefully studied him, a mysterious
being, and must remain so; for we cannot fully comprehend
his impulses and motives: and doubtless Mr. Schoolcraft
is correct in remarking, as he does, that athe civilized man
is no less a mysterious and unaccountable being to an Indian,
because the springs of action are alike unintelligible to him."
But, while it may not be possible to comprehend all the
anomalies of Indian character, enough may be discovered
and understood to entitle him to much higher consideration
than he usually enjoys. Few have the opportunity to make
a just estimate of this race. Those who form an opinion of
them from the wretched, degraded remnants of the tribes
who formerly occupied New England, such as the Penobscots
and others, or from delegations from more distant tribes that
are occasionally paraded about and exhibited, like wild animals, as a show, will do the Indian great injustice, and have
a very erroneous impression. To judge the Indian fairly,
he must be seen, as I have seen him, in his native forest,
before he becomes contaminated by intercourse with civilized i8
men; for, to our reproach be it spoken, contamination and
degradation invariably and speedily follow such intercourse.
In this original state, while he retains his independence,
and preserves self-respect, he is proud even of existence; and
it is not a mere poetical fiction in the writer who says, that
"the Indian in his primitive state stands erect, his foot firmly
planted upon'his mother earth, surveys the wide expanse of
Nature, and, with conscious superiority, strikes his breast,
and exclaims exultingly, 'I am a man'!" I have at times per-
ceived'the workings of strong and lofty feelings in the Indian's
bosom, that could not be more truly or happily expressed.
Mr. Catlin, with all his frippery, has given many interesting
facts respecting remote Indians, who, at the time of his
visit, were little changed by the intrusion of civilization; and
I doubt not his statements may be relied on, with some little
allowance for his evident partiality for the red man. His
conclusion, after a long residence among them, is, in his own
words, that "the North-American Indian, in his primitive
state, is a high-minded, honorable, hospitable being"; and
in another passage he asserts, that "the North-American
Indian, in his native state, is an honest, hospitable, faithful,
brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless, yet honorable,
contemplative, and religious being." My own experience
does not lead me to dissent from this opinion. It may sound
strangely to hear the Indian spoken of as a religious being;
but, if a constant reference in all that he does to the supposed
will of his Creator constitutes a religious being, the North-
American Indian is eminently one. Mr. Schoolcraft, speaking of the great tribes of the Far West, says "It would surprise any person to become acquainted with the variety and
extent to which an Indian is influenced by his religious views
and superstitions: he takes no important step without reference to them; they are his guiding motives in peace and in
war; he follows the chase under their influence, and his very
amusements take their tincture from them."
To the Indian, much that we do seems ridiculous and
absurd; and some of the practices of civilized life are as
revolting to his feelings as their most barbarous usages are
to ours. I have often been struck with the comments of
sensible Indians upon what they had noticed or learned
respecting our customs, particularly by those of Keow, the 19
principal chief of Caiganee, a place much frequented by
trading-vessels. Keow was, upon the whole, the most intelligent Indian I met with. He was a shrewd observer, of
quiet perception, with a comprehensive and discriminating
mind, and insatiable curiosity. He would occasionally pass
several days at a time on board my ship; and I have often
sat up half the night with him, answering questions, and
listening to his remarks. I have no doubt that our conversation, first and last, would fill several folio volumes, even in
the sight-destroying type of modern pamphlet-printing. His
comments on some features of our social system, and upon
the discrepancies and inconsistencies in our professions and
practice as Christians, particularly in relation to war,
duelling, capital punishment for depredations upon property,
and other less important matters, were pertinent and forcible,
and by no means flattering to us, or calculated to nourish
our self-conceit.
Biographical Note.
William Sturgis was an admirable example of the self-made American
merchant. Born in 1782 at Barnstable, Massachusetts, the son of a Cape
Cod shipmaster, he came to Boston at the age of fourteen, and became a
clerk in the office of J. & T. H. Perkins, one of the pioneer firms in the
Northwest fur trade. Young Sturgis soon decided to abandon the office
stool and seek his fortune at sea. In 1798, after studying navigation for
a. few months, he shipped as foremast hand on the ship Eliza, of 136
tons, bound for the Northwest Coast and China. The captain made him
his assistant in trading with the Indians. Sturgis picked up their language
quickly, and won their good-will by fair dealing. While trading along
the coast, the Eliza fell in with another Boston vessel, the Ulysses, whose
crew had mutinied and put the captain in irons. The Eliza's officers induced them to release their commander and promise to obey him in
future; but the mates refused to return. Captain Lamb of the Ulysses
then offered young Sturgis the position of first mate. He accepted with
some misgivings, being only seventeen years old, but made such a success
of it that on returning to Boston the owners made him first mate and
supercargo (business officer) of their ship Caroline. When the captain of
this vessel died at Hawaii, William Sturgis succeeded to the command, at
the age of nineteen. Five years after he had left Boston as a common
sailor, he returned "as the master of a noble ship, with a valuable cargo
on board, the fruit in great measure of his own skill and exertions."
After another voyage around the world in the same vessel, Captain
Sturgis was given command of a larger Boston ship, the Atahualpa, which
sailed^ direct for Canton with 300,000 silver dollars on board. The owner
of this vessel was unwilling to arm her, as was customary in those days
for all Pacific merchantmen; but luckily Captain Sturgis managed to
get four cannon on board. On August 21, 1809, when at anchor off Macao,
the Atahualpa was   attacked  by  sixteen  heavily  armed Chinese  junks, 20
under the command of a noted pirate. Part of the crew were on shore,
but the rest, under the lead of their intrepid captain, succeeded in beating
off the pirates, with heavy loss.    C? x-"-e;is had sworn off smoking,
but when the fight began he lit a  ^b. the crew that he
would toss it in the powder barrel ratht; . . the  ship to  the
pirates.   A passenger, who was "yellow as a su*. with the jaundice,
was completely cured by the excitement of the batuo.
After this voyage was over, Captain Sturgis retired from the sea, and
formed the firm of Bryant & Sturgis, which continued the Northwest fur.'
trade until 1829, when it ceased to be profitable. Bryant & Sturgis then
became the leader in the California hide traffic. It was on their vessels
that Richard H. Dana sailed "Two Years before the Mast.*' For
thirty years off and on, William Sturgis represented Boston in the Massachusetts legislature. On one occasion a learned member of that assembly
endeavored to confuse this bluff old sailor by a string of Latin and Greek
quotations, to which Mr. Sturgis, who was self-educated beyond the point
attained by most college graduates, replied in the Indian language of the
Northwest Coast, which he said was quite as much to the point, and
"doubtless as intelligible and convincing ;.o most of those present" as the
classical quotations they had just heard. He always took a keen interest
in the Oregon question, and published several articles and pamphlets in
favor of the American claim. The westward extension of the forty-ninth
parallel, as- a compromise boundary, was suggested by him in a pamphlet
of 1845, which undoubtedly had considerable influence on the result of
the negotiations of 1846. Like most retired sea-captains, William Sturgis
lived to a good old age, and kept his physical and intellectual vigor to the
end.   He died on October 21, 1863.
The Lecture on the Northwest Fur Trade is reprinted from Hunt's
Merchants' Magazine, XIV, 533-38 (1846). The extracts from Sturgis's
journal and from the second lecture, as well as the facts regarding the
author's life, are from Charles G. Loring, "Memoir of William Sturgis,"
in "Proceedings of Massachusetts Historical Society, 1863-64," VII, 420-73.
Other Old South Leaflets on the Oregon Country and
the Northwest are No. 131 (E. G. Porter's account of the
Discovery of the Columbia River), No. 44 (Jefferson's life
of Meriwether Lewis, 1813), and 133 (Seward's Address on
Alaska, 1869).
The Old South Leaflets are a series of reprints of historical narratives, speeches, documents and other writings
relating to the history of America, and of Liberty. They
are published under the editorial supervision of S. E. Mori-
son, Ph.D., by The Old South Association, Old South
Meeting-house, Boston, Massachusetts, where they may
be obtained at five cents the copy, four dollars and seventy-
five cents the hundred, or in bound volumes, twenty-five
numbers in each, one dollar and a half. A catalogue of the
series will be forwarded upon request.


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