In all the early histories of the American Colonies, in the stories of Indian life and the delineations of Indian character, these children of nature are represented as savages and barbarians, and in the mind of a large portion of the community the sentiment still prevails that they were blood-thirsty, revengeful, and merciless, justly a terror to both friends and foes. Children are impressed with the idea that an Indian is scarcely human, and as much to be feared as the most ferocious animal of the forest.
Novelists have now and then clothed a few with a garb which excites your imagination, but seldom has one been invested with qualities which you would love, unless it were also said that through some captive taken in distant war, he inherited a whiter skin and a paler blood.
But I am inclined to think that Indians are not alone in being savage--not alone barbarous, heartless, and merciless.
It is said they were exterminating each other by aggressive and devastating wars, before the white people came among them. But wars, aggressive and exterminating wars, certainly, are not proofs of barbarity. The bravest warrior was the most honored, and this has been ever true of Christian nations, and those who call themselves christians have not yet ceased to look upon him who could plan most successfully the wholesale slaughter of human beings, as the most deserving his king's or his country's laurels. How long since the pean died away in praise of the Duke of Wellington? What have been the wars in which all Europe, or of America, has been engaged, That there has been no records of her history? For what are civilized and christian nations drenching their fields with blood?
It is said the Indian was cruel to the captives, and inflicted unspeakable torture upon his enemy taken in battle. But from what we know of them, it is not to be inferred that Indian Chiefs were ever guilty of filling dungeons with innocent victims, or slaughtering hundreds and thousands of their own people, whose only sin was a quiet dissent from some religious dogma. Towards their enemies they were often relentless, and they had good reason to look upon the white man as their enemy. They slew them in battle, plotted against them secretly, and in a few instances comparatively, subjected individuals to torture, burned them at the stake, and, perhaps, flayed them alive. But who knows anything of the precepts and practices of the Roman Catholic Christendom, and quote these things as proofs of unmitigated barbarity.
At the very time that the Indians were using the tomahawk and scalping- knife to avenge their wrongs, peaceful citizens in every country of Europe, where the Pope was the man of authority, were incarcerated for no crime whatever, and such refinement of torture invented and practiced, as never entered in the heart of the fiercest Indian warrior that roamed the wilderness to inflict upon man or beast.
We know very little of the secrets of the inquisition, and this little chills our blood with horror. Yet these things were done in the name of Christ, the Savior of the World, the Prince of Peace, and not savage, but civilized. Christian men looked on, not coldly, but rejoicingly, while women and children writhed in flames and weltered in blood. Were the atrocities committed in the vale of Wyoming and Cherry Valley unprecedented among the Waldensian fastnesses and the mountains of Aurvergne? Who has read Fox's book of Martyrs, and found anything to parallel it in all the records of Indian warfare? The slaughter of St. Bartholomew's days, the destruction of the Jews in Spain, and the Scotch Covenanters, were in obedience to the mandates of Christian princes,-- aye, and some of them devised by Christian women who professed to be serving God, and to make the Bible the man of their counsel.
It is said also that the Indians were treacherous, and more, no compliance with the conditions of any treaty, was ever to be trusted. But the Puritan fathers cannot be wholly exonerated from the charge of faithlessness; and who does not blush to talk of Indian traitors when he remembers the Spanish invasion and the fall of the princely and magnanimous Montezuma?
Indians believed in witches, and burned them, too. And did not the sainted Baxter, with the Bible in his hand, pronounce it right, and was not the Indian permitted to be present, when the quiet unoffending woman was cast into the fire, by the decree of a Puritan council?
To come down to the more decidedly Christian times, it is not so very long since, in Protestant England, hanging was the punishment of a petty thief, long and hopeless imprisonment of a slight misdemeanor, when men were set up to be stoned and spit upon by those who claimed the exclusive right to be called humane and merciful.
Again, it is said, the Indian mode of warfare is, without exception, the most inhuman and revolting. But I do not know that those who die by the barbed and poisoned arrow linger in any more unendurable torment than those who are mangled with powder and lead balls, and the custom of scalping among Christian murderers would save thousands from groaning days, and perhaps weeks, among heaps that cover victorious fields and fill hospitals with the wounded and dying. But scalping is not an invention exclusively Indian. "It claims," says Prescott, "high authority, or, at least, antiquity." And, further history, Herodotus, gives an account of it among the Scythians, showing that they performed the operation, and wore the scalp of their enemies taken in battle, as trophies, in the same manner as the North American Indian. Traces of the custom are also found in the laws of the Visigaths, among the Franks, and even the Anglo Saxons. The Northern Indians did not scalp, but they had a system of slavery, of which there are no traces to be found among the customs, laws, or legends of the Iroquois.
Again, it is said, "They carried away women and children captive, and in their long journey through the wilderness, they were subjected to heartrending trials."
The wars of Christian men throw hundreds and thousands of women and children helpless upon the cold world, to toil, to beg, and to starve.
This is not so bright a picture as is usually given of people who have written laws and have stores of learning, but people cannot see in any place that the coloring is too dark! There is no danger of painting Indians so they will become attractive to the civilized people.
There is a bright and pleasing side to the Indian character, and thinking that there has been enough written of their wars and cruelties, of the hunter's and fisherman's life, I have sat down at their fireside, listened to their legends, and am acquainted with their domestic habits, understand their finer feelings and the truly noble traits of their character.
It is so long now since they were the lords of this country, and formidable as your enemies, and they are so utterly wasted away and melted like snow under the meridian sun, and helpless, that you can sit down and afford to listen to the truth, and to believe that even your enemies had their virtues. Man was created in the image of God, and it cannot be that anything human is utterly vile and contemptible.
Those who have thought of Indians as roaming about in the forests hunting and fishing, or at war, will laugh, perhaps, at the idea of Indian homes, and domestic happiness. Yet there are no people of which we have any knowledge, among whom, in their primitive state, family ties and relationship were more distinctly defined, or more religiously respected than the Iroquois.
The treatment which they received from the white people, whom they always considered as intruders, aroused, and kept in exercise all their ferocious passions, so that none except those who associated with them as missionaries, or as captives, saw them in their true character, as they were to each other.
Almost any portrait that we see of an Indian, he is represented with tomahawk and scalping knife in hand, as if they possessed no other but a barbarous nature. Christian nations might with equal justice be always represented with cannon and balls, swords and pistols, as the emblems of their employment and their prevailing tastes.
The details of war are from far to great a portion of every History of civilized and barbarous nations, to conquer and to slay has been to long the glory of the christian people; he who has been most successful in subjugating and oppressing, in mowing down human beings, has too long wore the Laural Crown, been too long an object for the admiration of men and the love of women.
It seems you might be weary of the pomp and circumstance of war, of princely banquets, and gay cavalcades. The time and space you bestow upon King and courts, and the homage you pay to empty titles, are unworthy your professed republican spirit and preferences, let us turn aside from the war path, and sit down by the hearth-stone of peace.
In the picture which I have given, I have confined myself principally to the Iroquois, or Six Nations, a people who no more deserve the term savage, than the whites do that of heathen, because they have still lingering among them heathen superstitions, and many opinions and practices which deserves no better name.
The cannibals of some of the west Indies Islands, and the Islands of the Pacific, may with justice be termed savage, but a people like the Iroquois who had a government, established offices, a system of religion eminently pure and Spiritual, a code of honor and laws of hospitality, excelling those of all other nations, should be considered something better than savage, or utterly barbarous.
The terrible torture they inflicted upon their enemies, have made their name a terror, and yet there were not so many burnt, hung, and starved by them, as perished among Christian nations by these means. The miseries they inflicted were light, in comparison, with those they suffered. If individuals should have come among you to expose the barbarities of savage white men, the deeds they relate would quite equal anything known of Indian cruelty. The picture an Indian gives of civilized barbarism leaves the revolting custom of the wilderness quite in the back-ground. You experienced their revenge when you had put their souls and bodies at a stake, with your fire-water that maddened their brains. There was a pure and beautiful spirituality in their faith, and their conduct was much more influenced by it, as are any people, Christian or Pagan.