IN the warmer region around the Gulf of Mexico dwelt a people having the same general hue of skin, form of features and texture of hair as those of the more northern counties. They were either the descendants of the Central or South Americans, or their habits of life had been modified by contact with the half civilized people of those countries. They were an athletic and vigorous race. The men were well proportioned, active and graceful in all their movements. The women were smaller, exquisitely formed, and some of them were very beautiful.
In the colder weather of the winter, the common men wore a mantle made of a sort of cloth manufactured of the soft inner bark of trees, interwoven with hemp or a species of flax. This was thrown gracefully over the shoulder, leaving the right arm exposed. Around the loins was a very short tunic, extending half way down the thighs, or only a wrapper. The richer and nobler sort of men wore beautiful mantles made of feathers of every hue, exquisitely arranged, or the skins of fur-bearing animals, with dressed deer-skin tunics wrought in colors, and moccasins and buskins of the same materials. The women of the better sort, at the cooler season, wore a garment of cloth or feathers or furs wrought like the mantles of the men. It was wrapped more closely around the body at the waist, and fell gracefully almost to the knee. The rest of the form was left bare excepting in the coldest weather, when they wore short mantles that fell from the neck to the hips. Their heads were always uncovered, but the men wore a skull-cap of cloth ornamented with beautiful sea-shells, the claws of beasts, or strings of pearls. It is related that a queen, on the banks of the Savannah River, took from her neck a magnificent string of pearls and twined it around that of De Soto, the early Spanish discoverer of the region. Sometimes they wore pearl pendants in their ears. In summer both sexes went without clothing, excepting a drapery of what is now known in that region as Spanish moss, gathered from the trees. This was fastened at the waist and fell in graceful negligence to the thighs. The chiefs, and prophets, and other principal men, and their wives, painted their breasts and the front part of their bodies, with stripes of white, yellow and red; and some practiced a kind of tattooing. Sometimes the fops of this class might be seen promenading, at evening, in beautiful mantles of deer-skins and of the marten, which trailed on the ground, or were held by attendants; and if they were warriors, on their heads might be seen lofty plumes of the eagle and the flamingo.
The houses of the chiefs, spacious and airy, stood upon large mounds, natural or artificial, that were ascended by steps of wood or earth. These dwellings were built of timber, sometimes in the form of a great pavilion with a broad piazza around it, furnished with benches. They were covered with the leaves of the palmetto, or thatched with straw; and sometimes they were roofed with reeds after the manner of tiles. Their winter houses were daubed inside and out with clay.
The weapons of the Floridians for hunting and war were strong bows and arrows, and javelins. Their arrows were made of fine dried cane, tipped with buck-horn and pointed with flint, hard wood, or fish bones. They were carried in a quiver made of the skin of the fawn, cased at bottom with the hide of the bear or the alligator, and slung by a thong of deer's skin so as to rest on the hip. The warriors all wore shields in battle, composed of wood, split cane, or the hide of the alligator and buffalo. On the left arm they wore a small shield of bark to protect it from the rebound of the bow-string. They also had short swords made of hard wood. When a chief was about to declare war, he sent a party at night toward the town of the enemy, to stick arrows in the ground at the cross-paths or other conspicuous places near it. From these arrows waved long locks of human hair as tokens of scalping. Then he would assemble his painted warriors, and after some wild ceremonies, would turn reverentially toward the sun, with a wooden javelin in his hand, and invoking the aid of the great God of Fire, he would take a vessel of water, and sprinkle it around, saying; "Thus may you do with the blood of your enemies." Raising another vessel of water, he would pour it upon the fire which had been kindled, and as it was extinguished he would say: "Thus may you destroy your enemies and bring home their scalps." When the battle was over, the victors cruelly mutilated the bodies of their captives. Carrying their dissevered limbs and their scalps upon spear-points, into the public square, they were there placed on poles, and the people celebrated the triumph by dancing around these trophies and singing wild songs of joy. The widows of those lost in battle gathered around the chief with piteous cries, praying him to avenge the deaths of their loved ones, asking him for an allowance during their widow-hood and permission to marry again as soon as the law would allow. Then they visited the burial places of their husbands, and cutting off their long tresses, strewed them over the graves. When their hair had grown to its usual length they were ready to marry again.
Hunting, fishing and the cultivation of the rich land were the chief employments of these people. The cotton plant was unknown to them, but hemp and flax were quite abundant. The women assisted the men in the fields, in the cultivation of corn, beans, peas, squashes, and pumpkins, which yielded enormous returns for the little labor bestowed. These productions were stored in granaries made of stone and earth and covered with mats, for winter use; also preserved meats. They obtained salt by evaporation, and the women were generally good cooks of the simple food. They made and used pottery for kitchen service, some of it skillfully constructed and quite beautiful. They were skillful artisans, as evinced by their arms, houses, beautiful barges and canoes, and ornaments. They had fortifications with moats or ditches; and walled towns; and some of their temples were grand, imposing and beautiful. Their roofs were steep and covered with mats of split cane, interwoven so compactly that they resembled the rush carpeting of the Moors. At the entrances to some of the temples, and in niches in the interior, were well-wrought wooden statues, some of them of persons who were entombed in the sacred place. Between these were shields of various sizes, made of strongly woven reeds adorned with pearls and colored tassels. Rich offerings of pearls and deer-skins, and the furs of martens and other animals were seen in these temples in great profusion, all dedicated to the Sun, the great God whom they worshipped.
The theology or religious system of these people was very simple. They regarded the Sun as the Supreme Deity, and venerated the moon and certain brilliant stars. In all their invocations of blessings upon their chiefs or upon themselves, the Sun was appealed to, as we appeal to God. "May the Sun guard you!" "May the Sun be with you!" were usual forms of invocation. At the beginning of March the men of a community selected the skin of the largest deer, with the heads and legs attached, which they filled with a variety of fruit and grain. It was served up, and appeared like the live creature in form. Its horns were garlanded with fruits and early spring flowers. Then the effigy was carried in a procession of all the inhabitants, to a plain, and placed at the top of a high post. There, at the moment when the sun appeared upon the eastern horizon, the people all fell upon their knees, with their faces toward the rising luminary, and implored the god of day to grant them, the ensuing season, an abundance of fruit and grain as good as those which they then offered.
The funeral ceremonies of these people, especially those on the death of a chief or prophet, were very peculiar. The body underwent a sort of embalming, when it was placed in the ground in a sitting posture by the nearest relatives of the deceased. Then food and money were placed by its side, and a conical mound of earth was piled over it, at the foot of which was made a paleing of arrows stuck in the ground. Around this tomb the people gathered in great numbers, some standing, some sitting, and all howling. This ceremony continued three days and nights, after which, for a long time, chosen women visited the tomb three times a day, morning, noon and night. The chief, whilst he was alive, was held in the greatest veneration, for, like the Assyrian kings, he was both monarch and pontiff--the chief magistrate and the high priest. A cruel sacrifice was made to him of every first-born male child, a custom learned from the Central Americans. It symbolized the devotion and surrender of the entire strength of the nation to the chief. Sitting upon a bench on one side of a large circle, a block two feet in height was placed before him. The child was brought by a dancing-girl and placed upon the block, and the young mother, weeping in agony, was compelled to stand near it, to make the offering. A prophet dashed out its brains, and then a group of girls danced around the altar of sacrifice, singing songs.
When a young chief desired to marry, he would send a few of his principal men to select from the daughters of the first families one of the youngest and most beautiful of the marriageable ones. The chosen bride was then painted and decorated in the most tasteful manner, preparatory to the nuptials. Brilliant colors, and costly pearls and shells, adorned her person. She was covered from her waist almost to her knees with a beautiful tunic of rich feathers. Then she was placed in a sedan chair, the top of which was an arch of green boughs festooned and garlanded with flowers. In that state she was conveyed to the presence of her future lord on the shoulders of six noblemen who were preceded by musicians and two men bearing magnificent feather fans, and followed by dancing-girls and the immediate relatives of the bride. When arrived at the residence of the chief, she was received by the lords in waiting, who conducted her to a seat by the side of her husband, on an elevated dais, where great pomp and ceremony were displayed by those in attendance. The bride and groom were constantly fanned by beautiful maidens, if the weather was warm; and they were regaled with the unfermented juice of the grape, in its season, or with a kind of sherbert made of orange juice, at other times. At near the sun-setting the chief and his young wife walked out into an open field, followed by all the people, and at the last parting ray of the luminary, they prostrated themselves toward the west and invoked the blessings of the Sun upon themselves and their children. From that moment until the stars appeared the people indulged in music and dancing--the music of the reed and a sort of tambourine and the dancing of young men and maidens--when the chief and his bride retired to their dwelling, there, with friends, to partake of a marriage-feast by the light of lamps.
Such is an outline picture of the people with whom the Spaniards first came in contact on the continent after the discoveries of Columbus and his cotemporaries. These, with the Iroquois Confederacy, are the two notable exceptions spoken of, to the general character and habits of the dusky nations who then inhabited North America. We now have a tolerably correct impression of these barbarian and Indian communities whose history, down to the present time, forms an important part of that of our Republic. Some of them have gone up in the social scale, and others have gone down: some of them have disappeared, and other tribes have been discovered. All are gradually fading away from the earth; and the time cannot be far distant when the last of the dusky race may sit on the verge of the Pacific Ocean, with his face toward the setting sun, and chant the death-song of his people, saying:
"We, the rightful lords of yore, Are the rightful lords no more. Like the silver mists we fail; Like the red leaves in the gale-- Fail like shadows when the dawning Waves the bright flag of the morning."
But they will leave behind them myriads of memories of their existence here, in their beautiful and significant names of our mountains and valleys, our lakes and rivers, our states, counties, villages and cities. We may say to our people,
"That, mid the forests where they warr'd, There rings no hunter's shout; But their name is on your waters-- Ye may not wash it out."
At this point in our story, the scene shifts, as in a dissolving view, to another continent, and presently appears the grand procession of discoverers who opened the way to settlements in this new-found land.
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