back to home
(voyage icon)1835

Maple Sugar Camp

September 7.--A foggy morning delayed our departure until 7 A.M., when we got under way for Wabeshaw's Prairie. Ompaytoo had informed me last night that his brother was not at home, being gone on a visit to Roques, a Frenchman who traded higher up the river at the foot of Lake Pepin, and who had been many years married to a Sioux woman. The Indians had named this Roque, who had a red blemish on his face, Wahjustachay, or "Raspberry." I remember well Ompaytoo's words, when I inquired if his brother was at home: "Wabeshaw Wahjustachay teebee" "Wabeshaw is at Wahjustachay's house;" so I determined, on our arrival at the prairie, to make my début in the Sioux tongue in these very words, adding an interrogative tone to them. We soon reached it: it was one of those beautiful bottoms, or natural meadows, on the Mississippi, which are occasionally to be seen, about seven miles long in one direction, a mile and a half wide, and was bounded on the south by a bold high bluff. The village consisted of twelve large oblong wigwams, or teebees, covered in with bark, and two round lodges, made with poles and covered with skins. As we approached the prairie, a great number of men came to the landing-place, painted in the most hideous manner, one-half of their faces being rubbed over with a whiteish clay, and the other side all begrimed with charcoal; not that they were going to war, but because they were in mourning for the wife of a chief of the second class, who had recently died. Near the village: several death-scaffolds were erected, formed of four poles each, about eight feet high, with a floor made by fastening shorter poles to them about seven feet from the ground, and the frail structure shored up by another pole extending to the ground. Upon this floor a rude coffin was placed, containing the body, and from one end of the scaffold a sort of bunting was flying, to denote the rank of the individual. Across the end of the coffin a part of the top of an American flour barrel was awkwardly nailed, with the words "steam mill" branded upon it, now covering food for the worms as it once did for men. An old squaw was standing near the scaffold of the defunct lady, howling in a most extraordinary manner. Around these scaffolds were numerous inferior graves, some of them containing full-length corpses, and others only the bones of the dead after they have remained too long on the scaffolds to hold together. This custom of only interring the bones in the ground has been very general amongst the Indians of North America, and, as has been shewn in another work,* gave rise to an opinion, from the shortness of the coffins, that a nation of dwarfs had once existed.

Great numbers of children were running about in every direction, almost all of them with their faces begrimed; and near one of the teebees a little boy, about four years old, was sitting down with a tuft of eagles' feathers stuck in his hair, and his face entirely rubbed over with vermilion. ...

...Being curious to see the interior of some of the teebees, I entered some of them, commencing with "Wabeshaw Wahjustachay teebee?" which the women always answered in the affirmative, and in a tone of great kindness; so that I began to feel great confidence in the acquirements I had made in the Sioux language. ...

We left Wabeshaw's village about noon, just as a flock of pelicans were crossing the river. The valley of the Mississippi is here near three miles in breadth, and the main channel about a mile and a quarter, bluffs and coves presenting themselves in every direction, and everywhere beautiful. We stopped for the night, at 6 P.M., at a pretty wooded slope on the left bank; and I was not much surprised to find myself attacked with an incipient sore throat, accompanied by a little fever, from having so often been wet of late, and from sleeping in a wet tent. The weather, however, had become more promising, and confiding in it and the temperate life I led, I merely put a piece of flannel round my throat, and lay down.

Ball Play on the Ice

September 8.--I rose at sun-rise, and felt much better. It was a beautifully clear morning, and about six we got under way. The wind had been so high in the night, that I sometimes felt apprehensive for the tent, which had been incautiously pitched near some trees that were to windward; and trees on these slopes having but very little hold of the soil, frequently blow over. A tent should never be pitched without well considering the state of the ground, the wind, and the weather. As we proceeded, we met a canoe containing a naked brawny Sioux, two women, and several children. The serjeant asked him if they were his wives, when he replied that one was, but that the other was his mother. Upon which L'Amirant, who had a good stock of impudence, said "How do you know she is your mother?" Putting his hand on his breast, the Indian answered, "Mamma utah" ("I fed at her breasts;" utah means "to eat"), and certainly no answer could have been more simple or expressive.

We stopped to breakfast about 9 A.M., and enjoying this meal much more than I did my dinner yesterday evening, I considered myself out of danger of an attack of sore throat, an enemy I have suffered severely from. Here we shot a great many wild pigeons, which being fat were a very acceptable addition to our larder. I observed also a great many grey squirrels about, but no black ones, which I have seen abound so much in Upper Canada. ...

... At 6 P.M. we arrived at what is called the Grand Encampment, being an alluvial bottom with some scattered trees. Perhaps it may have received its name from the contiguous elevations I have spoken of. A great number of Indians had temporarily assembled here; and as soon as our canoe appeared in sight, they came to the bank and followed us along shore until we had selected our bivouac, which I was very careful to do in a place where these gentry had not been before. They were rather troublesome to us, were too numerous for me to gratify them all with presents, and I could find no chief amongst them.

It was evident that I was getting into a part of the country very much overrun with the Sioux and that I could not advance comfortably without a regular interpreter, through whom I could maintain a good understanding with them. As far as I could make it out, all the Indians we should now meet on the right bank of the Mississippi were bands of the widely-spread people who had received the name of Sioux from the French, a term now recognized by the Indians. On the other side of the Mississippi the country was possessed by the Ojibways, a still powerful people; and betwixt these two races, only divided by the Mississippi, as fierce an antipathy existed as ever prevailed betwixt the two nations who inhabit the opposite sides of the British Channel.

Hastening to get my fire built, I retired to my tent to eat my supper, leaving the men to squabble with the Indians. The usual quantity of pork and biscuit--a pound of the first and two pounds of the other for each man had been already served out, and the provision-bags replaced in the tent. I knew the Canadians would surrender no portion of their allowance to the importunities of the natives, and hoped that, finding they could obtain nothing, they would go away to their own fires, which at length they did, and we were left in peace. During the night I looked out to see if anything was going on, but the Indian bivouac was as quiet as our own. ...

* Excursions through the Slave States, &c., vol. I. p. 180.