The Indians of Early Westmoreland
Our early Westmoreland annals are so replete with references to the Indians that it is highly proper that we should now glance casually at their tribal history, their leading characteristics, and their modes of life. All over western Pennsylvania have been found relics in abundance which prove beyond doubt that they once roamed over our hills in great numbers. But even without these the beautiful Indian nomenclature of our rivers, mountains, valleys, counties, and towns, prove their former presence in this community.
Archaeologists and philologists have alike for a century speculated in vain as to the origin of this strange and pathetic people. It is idle to pretend that we know more of their early history and origin than that they were here when Columbus came to America, and that their name was given them by him because of his well known mistake in geography. Prior to 1750 Western Pennsylvania was inhabited by the Indian alone. It was never densely populated by them as we understand density now, for with their mode of life no section was capable of sustaining more than an extremely limited number of inhabitants. As a people they lived very largely by hunting and fishing. Their women cultivated small patches of corn, a cereal which has since borne their name, and in addition to this many of them raised a few vegetables. They also raised large quantities of tobacco. To this end they cleared small tracts of land here and there, generally on the alluvial bottoms of large streams, many of which are yet pointed out as old Indian fields. They knew nothing of fertilizing land and when the soil was exhausted they abandoned their fields and removed to new sections. They knew something of the medicinal qualities of roots, herbs and flowers, which grew in the wildwood, and these they gathered and used in times of external injury with a considerable degree of success. They subsisted largely on the meat of wild game and for this reason it required thousands of acres to support even a small tribe. The land was necessarily public land so far as the Indians were concerned. A tribe it is true, exercised a temporary ownership over a certain section, but this they readily abandoned if a locality more promising for the pursuit of wild game presented itself, or when fire wood was well nigh exhausted. All Indians were prompt to help each other in distress. Some families were poor and improvident, while others were prosperous. Yet while any member of the tribe had food, the indigent and shiftless did not suffer, and the results of a successful hunting expedition were shared with their less fortunate friends if they stood in need of them. Originally they made all their own implements of warfare and of the chase. their bows and arrows were made of wood. The former were stiffened with the dried tendons and thongs of the deer or buffalo, and the latter were tipped at the points with flinty stones known in modern times as arrow-heads. Their bowstrings were of raw-hide made from the skins of animals. They also made rude axes from stone, and with these and by the aid of fire, they were able to fell trees and to hollow out their huge trunks, thus converting them into canoes. However, when first known to Westmoreland pioneers, they were provided with iron and steel implements and in part at least, with firearms. Some of these they had captured or stolen from the whites, others were furnished them by thoughtless and unprincipled traders in return for skins and furs. But the union formed between the French and Indians and still later between the English and Indians, had aided them still more, in the acquisition of scalping knives, tomahawks and guns, and also in teaching them how to use these weapons to the best advantage.
It must not be supposed, however, that the introduction of firearms among the Indians induced them to abandon the bow and arrow. The best firearm known or used than was a flintlock which was discharged by a spark made by a flint in the hammer striking a projection on the gun barrel. This spark fell into the "pan", where a small amount of powder called "the priming" was placed after the gun was loaded. When this was ignited by the spark it communicated its flame with the powder in the gun, and the latter was instantly discharged. As many be readily imagined, the least dampness or rain would render the flintlock useless, but not so with the bow and arrow. This the Indian always kept with him, and so skillful was he in its use that he rarely ever missed his mark when at short range. In the hands of an expert Indian it was more to be feared than a firearm, for the wound was more painful and the arrow was directed with scarcely less unerring certainty. Not infrequently has it been found that an arrow from the bow of a strong armed savage had penetrated and passed entirely through a large horse or buffalo. Furthermore, its discharge made no report, and the unwary pioneer or the herd of deer had little or no knowledge of the whereabouts of their hidden enemy. It was a weapon, indeed, peculiarly suited to an enemy whose strength lay largely in the stealthy manner in which he approached his foe. It was used by the Indians in all of our earlier wars with them. In general St. Clair's battle with the Indians in 1791 it is on record that the arrow wounds were more galling and more feared by the American troops than the wounds from gun shots.
The Indians inhabiting the eastern part of the United States with whom our early settlers came most in contact are usually designated as the "Six Nations," viz.: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Tuscaroras. Each of these nations had a rude form of government, and their unwritten laws were well understood by the Indians and were binding even on the humblest members of the race. Francis Parkman says that they lived together by thousands with a harmony which civilized nations might envy. Each of these six nations was composed of smaller tribes of from two to five hundred members. These tribes were separated widely from each other, so that each could have unbounded miles of hunting territory. Each tribe had its chief, who exercised great power over all his subjects. On the death of the chief the office did not generally descend to his son, but to his sister's son or to the dead chief's brother. But if the rightful heir was a weakling or a coward, or was otherwise in capacitated for leadership, the tribe did not hesitate to discard him and select another. The son of a chief, while he could not inherit the office from his father, could earn it by deeds of daring courage. Capt. John Smith discovered and made a note of these customs even in his day among the early tribes of Virginia.
They had a marriage ceremony which was generally celebrated with songs and dances, and their marital relations were comparatively well kept, though divorce was obtainable on the arbitrary caprice of either party. The relationship of father, grandfather, cousin, nephew, etc., were clearly defined among them, and no Indian youth was allowed to marry a squaw of his own immediate tribe, because of the possible relationship which might exist between them. The average Indian was tall and straight with rough features, high cheek bones, Roman or aquiline nose, coarse straight black hair, dark penetrating eyes and beardless face. He had a swarthy complexion,
much darker than the darkest of our race, which had a tinge of red or brown in it, and this gave him the well known name of red skin, thought it is at best something of a misnomer.
The Indian has been widely represented as a silent and morose disposition, and this, says Washington Irving, is in some degree erroneous. When alone in helpless captivity among the whites, whose language he did not understand and whose motives he distrusted, he was invariable taciturn but certainly not more so than the white man would have been under like circumstances. Parkman describes them as continuously visiting, chatting, joking and bantering each other with sharp witticism. When among themselves in their smoky wigwams or around their blazing camp fires, they were exceedingly loquacious and mirthful. Deeds of valor, feats of strength and agility, narrow escapes from captivity and death when on the war path, the successes or failures of the last hunting expedition, and amusing incidents at the expense of the white man, constituted very largely the younger Indian's conversation, while the older members of the race regaled the youthful warriors with the oft-repeated heroic tales of incidents long gone by.
The average Indian had, indeed, more endurance, and could run faster than the average white man, for his entire life's training tended to fortify him in these feats of strength; while, on the other hand, the heavy labor incident to pioneer life destroyed the shite man's fleetness of foot, and rendered him less agile and less able to cope with his Indian enemy in this direction. In war, when equally opposed, the Indian was almost invincible. He never of his own volition fought in the open, but took advantage of every possible method of ambuscade. Familiar with all phases of forest life, he sought to match the superior numbers or strength of his enemy by a thorough concealment of his own whereabouts in battle. The military training of the English and American soldiers stood for but little when confronted by a foe who could fire and almost instantly disappear from view. Indeed, the serried columns of the drillmaster rather assisted the Indian in ambush, and only when his methods of warfare were learned and somewhat adopted was the American soldier even comparatively successful in his contests with him. The Indian did not adopt this method through fear or cowardice, for when forced to fight at bay he proved himself not lacking in bravery by fighting with a desperation found only in infuriated wild beasts. His leading principle in warfare was self-preservation. He thought it foolhardy to needlessly expose himself in battle, as foolhardy as though the contest were between himself and a ferocious animal. His war parties only received the highest meed of praise when they returned not only with an abundance of scalps but without the loss of a warrior . He employed every subterfuge and stratagem possible with him to entice the white man into danger. he so successfully imitated the gobble of the wild turkey that the unsuspecting hunter was lured within reach of his arrow. He removed the bell from a domestic animal and by gently shaking it enticed the pioneer or his children to his hiding place and to captivity or death. His people had for centuries hunted wild animals by stealth and he adopted the same methods of ridding himself from the new and more dangerous enemy which, in countless numbers, came upon him from the East.
When first known to the white man they were not necessarily a savage race. They went to war among themselves, but were not particularly hostile to our people until we began to displace them and to interfere, as they thought, with their vested rights in the natural products of the wilderness. They thought it their duty to exterminate the white man, and the latter thought it no greater crime to kill an Indian than a rattlesnake. If he seldom ever spared the life of a wounded or conquered adversary the Indian, on the other hand, asked no quarter when he himself was taken captive. It is quite probable that for obvious reasons, the early settler in his combats with the Indians met oftenest the larger and stronger specimens of the tribe. This led to the impression that they were as a race physically much superior to our own. This is entirely erroneous. Our men compared well with them in size and strength, and, considering all circumstances, there was perhaps but little advantage on either side. Our women were, all things considered, equal to theirs in strength, and greatly superior to them in physical beauty. The attractive Indian maiden of modern fiction is a poetical creation rather than one found in real life. The Indian woman was homely, and one of average comeliness was a rare exception, and this quality the race has preserved even to this day. But the Indian standards of aesthetics differed from ours, and to his eye the maiden of his race may have been richly dowered with personal loveliness and beauty.
Of the smaller tribes the ones most commonly known to our early pioneers were the Cornplanters, Delawares, Cherokees, Mingoes, Shawnees, Munsies, Hurons, Ojibwas, Miamis, Pottowatamies, etc., and some of them are yet represented in the remnant Indian tribes of the west. The Indian incursions made on our early Westmoreland settlers invariably originated with one or more of the tribes above mentioned. They were then scattered all over the country west of the Susquehanna and north of the Ohio rivers, with a few stragglers farther south and east. The Cornplanters and the Delawares were the tribes with whom our early settlers came most in contact.
The Indians built towns, but not as places of permanent abode, for the reason that they were compelled to wander over a large territory and often to remove when game was scarce, from one locality to another to subsist at all. They lived in small houses made of poles, and covered with the skins of animals and with the bark of trees to protect them from the cold and rain. These houses were called wigwams. They were generally circular in shape at the ground, and the poles, standing on their ends, were drawn nearly together at the top, thus presenting a conical form, with a small opening at the apex for the emission of smoke. The conical shape of the wigwam made it less liable to be blown over by the storm. In our part of the state each family had a separate wigwam, though in some tribes several families lived in the same habitation. They usually built their wigwams in a valley or on the sheltered side of a mountain or hill, and near to a good stream of water. Sometimes the wigwams were long and marrow, even as long as one hundred feet or more, and each one served for many families. There was always an opening at the top for the escape of smoke, but they were invariable filled with soot. Living almost constantly in smoke, many of the Indians had inflamed eyes in winter time, and a resultant blindness in old age was not infrequent. They had rude fortifications around their towns made by digging trenches and surmounting the ground thrown from them by logs, stones, bark, etc. In these rude habitations they cooked, ate and slept in the winter time, using leaves and dried twigs covered with the skins of animals for beds. The wigwams were so poorly constructed that they decayed and were gone in a few years after they were abandoned.
The white race in Western Pennsylvania practically came first in contact with the Indians in purchasing furs and skins from them. The Indian was naturally a child of the wilderness, and excelled in hunting wild animals. As a result the Indian towns abounded with the skins of the buffalo, bear, deer, wolf, beaver, otter, mink, fox, raccoon, etc. They shot these animals with bows and arrows or with firearms. They speared fish, or caught them with rude hooks made of bone, or drove them into ponds screened with small rods. They also fished with rude nets, made from the twisted fiber of wild hemp. Both animals and fish and all game birds were then extremely plentiful. The life the Indian led had developed his senses of sight, hearing and smell to a degree which amazed even the shrewdest woodsman among our early settlers. he knew the habits of all wild animals, and could detect their slightest movements in the forests, movements invisible to the eye of one unaccustomed to the woods. With these qualities he easily surpassed the average hunter in procuring skins and furs and wild game.
Upon the women of the tribe devolved all the hard labor, including raising corn, skinning wild animals and carrying heavy burdens of skins and dried meat when they were making long journeys. their squaws were at best little better than beasts of burden. their hard lives shriveled them and made them appear older than their years. They were hideous, neglected and despised in latter years, and, as a result, became more fierce, cruel and vindictive than were the men of the tribe. In explanation of this custom concerning the Indian women it may be said that such duties were invariably performed by women in all nations of the world when in that stage of civilization. Their Indian household duties, as may be readily imagined, were necessarily very few. The warrior, whether hunting wild animals or on the warpath, needed agility, a steady nerve, and great strength above all things else, and these would all have been impaired by hard labor or by carrying heavy burdens. The Indian boy was taught from childhood to run, jump, swim, fish, shoot and fight, but not to work. They were taught to go hungry and endure all manner of hardships and pain without complaint, preparing them in that way for what they might expect in after life. With such training it is not to be wondered at that he scorned and laughed at the wails of agony of his victim who felt the flames creeping around his quivering flesh, while he himself endured such pain in silence with a fortitude worthy at least of the proverbial stoicism of the Grecian philosopher. The Indian lived with ease sometimes, but more often his nomadic life was attended with great hardships and privations. Only when the weather was pleasant, and when wild berries, fruits and nuts were plentiful and when the forest abounded with game, was his life one of comparative ease. they were forced sometimes to live on the roots, bark and buds of trees, and even cannibalism was not by any means unknown among them.
Leading a lonely life in the wilderness the Indian became a close observer of the phenomena of nature. He had studied the heavens for signs of rain and clear weather, and so mastered them that his forecasting was almost unerring. Long before he knew the white man he had discovered that there were four seasons which regularly followed each other each year, and he had discovered further that these four periods were measured by thirteen moons. By moons he accurately counted his own age and the ages of his children, and kept account of the noted events in his monotonous life. All this was kept in his mind purely, for the race had no method of writing or of physically preserving a record of events. Resultant upon this we have no account or history of the Indians as kept by themselves. We can form a fair estimate of the Indian character only by remembering that the heartrending tales of his inhumanities have been written almost solely by his enemies. His lips were sealed as to his side of the difficulties, for he could neither speak nor write his defense in a language which we could understand. Their tradition, customs and laws were preserved in memory and transmitted orally, and they consequently perished almost entirely with the ill-fated race. Stone implements, battle axes, tomahawks, pipes, arrow and spearheads have survived the ravages of time, and are almost the only tangible evidences left by the Indian of his long dominion in Pennsylvania.
The Indians did not recognize any special difference between an animal and a human being, be he red or white. When killing an animal he frequently performed incantations over its body to appease its spirit so that it, or the spirit of surviving animals, would not become hostile to him or his people. He killed animals only for their skin or flesh or in self defense in ridding himself of dangerous beasts. The wanton destruction of wild animals was unknown to the Indian. The average Indian killed a white man as readily as an animal, for the former he regarded as his mortal enemy. Murder among the Indians was very rare, and the crime was seldom punished by public authority. The murderer and his friends were forced to give presents, sometimes of considerable value, to the representatives of the unfortunate Indian who had been killed. Where presents were refused by the dead man's family the murderer was given over to them as a slave, and he was made to hunt or fish for them and to assist them in their support. The presents given by a murderer consisted of corn or growing corn, skins, guns, bows and arrows, and objects of adornment. From twenty to thirty presents were considered a good recompense for the murder of an Indian man. The murder of woman, because of her helplessness, demanded more presents from the murderer than that of a man. her life was moreover more necessary for the increase of the Indian race than that of a man, hence a greater number of presents must be given to atone for it. Stealing was more common among them, and was punished by allowing the injured party not only to retake the goods stolen by force, but to take from the robber all the property he possessed. For treason, or betraying his tribe in any way, the offender was put to death, the chief of the tribe usually appointing an Indian to stealthily shoot him.
They had dogs in our section, but no other domestic animals. They did not have horses until they secured them from the pioneers, and very few were used by them here. This was probably because they were inhabiting a mountainous wilderness unsuited by nature for horseback riding. The much vaunted Indian feats of horsemanship were confined almost entirely to the boundless prairies of the West. Their long journeys were performed on foot or in canoes. They had trails or paths through the dense forests and over mountain chains on which they journeyed, conforming in many instances to our modern highways, but which will be treated elsewhere in these pages. The Indians also traveled a great deal on water, particularly in the lake regions. Though they made canoes by hollowing out logs, they were cumbersome at best, and a canoe made of birch bark was perhaps the favorite one in Indian navigation. They had learned to calk the cracks or joints with the exudations of the pine tree and make them perfectly water-proof. They also made canoes from the skins of animals, and even as late as 1832 Washington Irving, in his "Tour of the Prairies," speaks of crossing streams in the west in buffalo skin canoes. In these frail barks they floated up and down our limpid streams, dreaming not that better methods of navigation near at hand would soon appear to force them from their hunting grounds and, in the end, practically work the extermination of the whole Indian race.
Though the Indians were naturally a strong athletic race, capable of great endurance and inured to all manner of hardships, they did not increase rapidly in number. Their poorly constructed habitations, the necessary unsanitary condition of such homes, and their wandering disposition superinduced a great mortality among their children and, perhaps, only the stronger ones survived. This, with their habitual outdoor life, accounted in a great measure for the unusual strength and vitality of the Indian warrior. Living as they did, they were almost necessarily filthy in their habits, and as a result were greatly subjected to infestious diseases, such as fever and small pox. When these diseases broke out they were extremely destructive to the race, for they had little knowledge of how to treat them successfully. They believed that all sickness was the result of an evil spirit which pervaded the sick man, and the Indian doctors sought by signs, magic, and hideous noises to drive the demon from his patient. The result of such treatment may be readily imagined.
They had crude forms of religion; they believed in "Manitou," a Great Spirit which ruled the heavens and earth, and with whom both good and bad Indians should live and hunt after death, for they were thorough Universalists. They believed, however, in a distinction between the final home of a good, brave warrior on the one hand, and that of the cowardly, lazy Indian, on the other; the latter they thought would be compelled to eat serpents and ashes in a gloomy division of the next world. In keeping with their general belief, they thought animals would in the next world be admitted on equal terms with Indians. They believed that the Great Spirit sometimes endowed minor spirits with certain special powers. This belief saved many a white man's life. If they once believed that a prisoner had some special connection with the Great Spirit, his life was safe. Their system of worship was with song and dance, and every great undertaking, such as going on an extended hunt or on the war path, was begun with some ceremony of this kind. A similar ceremony ended the expedition, the first to please the Great Spirit, to induce him to favor their cause, and the second to in a measure express their gratitude for favors granted. But those who have investigated the subject of religion among the primitive Indians believe that they had no conception of a Supreme Being until they came in contact with civilized white men. The first missionaries among them, who were Jesuit priests, found no word in their language to express our idea of God, and the common opinion is that the idea of the primitive red man worshipping a Great Spirit before he was taught to do so by the advent of Christianity from Europe, originated and had existence only in the brains of sentimental writers and in the idle dreams of poets.
A leading characteristic of the Indian was his inability to forgive or forget an injury done him by the white race, yet, on the other hand he has been credited with being equally mindful of favors shown him. With his understanding of the early settlers' encroachment upon his territory, he was as Ishmael, who thought that every man's hand was against him. The pioneer was slowly but surely working his exclusion, and his vindictive wrath was indiscriminately meted out against all pale-faces. Too often it fell with great severity on the innocent and unoffending and on the guilty alike.
Morally they did not compare with our race by any means, and should not be expected to do so, for we have had the advantages of centuries of civilization and education. But if we compare them with our own race, when, as a race, we had reached the stage in which we found the Indian, the only fair comparison, they undoubtedly equal us. If the reader of these pages is astonished at this statement on recalling the cruel manner in which the Indian dealt with his supposed white enemy when in helpless captivity, let him remember that it is but a few generations since the ablest and best of the English speaking people were tortured on the rack, confined in dungeons, mutilated, and burned at the stake, by the decree of the highest tribunal in English civilization, and that even in Massachusetts innocent men and women were burned for witchcraft. And these barbarities were committed not by unlettered savages, but by a people who were making history, writing poetry, and building cities and palaces which stand to this day and command the admiration of the world.
The Indian had, indeed, many bad traits, but those who labored long among them as missionaries, or who were long held captive by them, generally saw much good in them, and became greatly attached to them. They were not originally the treacherous race they have lately been reputed to be. Few men of our later history have fought the Indians more valiantly or more successfully than General William Henry Harrison, yet he in after years bore this testimony concerning them: "A long and intimate knowledge of the Delaware tribe, in peace and in war, as enemies and as friends, has left upon my mind the most favorable impressions of their character for bravery, generosity and fidelity to their engagements." In many cases, even in our own county, the Indian divided his scanty food with the early settlers, and in some instances saved them from starvation.
When first known to the whites they knew nothing of intoxicants nor even the simplest form of fermentation or distillation. They smoked tobacco, and taught the habit to Sir Walter Raleigh, who introduced it in England, but this was their nearest approach to a stimulant or narcotic. Our people soon taught them the use of liquor, and most bitterly did both races suffer from it. They took to rum almost intuitively, and it seemed to arouse only the baser principles of their nature. They would part with their finest furs to secure a taste of rum, and this exorbitant appetite in the end perhaps did more than anything else to rob them of their vigor and reason, and finally of all lands they possessed.
A strong trait of Indian character was his love of bright colors and ornamentation. He painted his face and body, wore ornaments in his ears and nose, and dressed his hair with bright feathers and his rude deer hide garments with fringe. It has been supposed that this originated as a means of protection, for, when in a dense wilderness, clothed only by the skins of animals without some bright colors or ornamentati9on, he might easily have been the victim of an arrow intended for a wild animal. But so long did they thus array themselves that it became a passion with them, from which they have never been able to divest themselves. A youth may be educated away from his people, yet upon his first opportunity he most likely again resumes the garb of his tribe, and is generally discontented with any other than the Indian life. The Secretary of the Interior some years ago sent dark clothes to a western tribe, which after the fashion of that day were lined with red and white barred material. Visiting them shortly afterward he noticed that they had uniformly turned their garments wrong side out, so that they might display the bright colored linings. Less than any other members of the human family do they seem able to discard their hereditary customs. As a result, it has been found almost impossible to civilize them or to induce them to engage in the habits and callings of our enlightened age.
The early settlers in America found the Indian in undisputed possession of a land of singular beauty and of great fertility and natural wealth. To dispossess him of his hunting grounds was to incur his undying hatred and wrath. To suffer him to remain precluded the possibility of our present civilization, for the interests of the two races were directly opposite to each other. The Indian could subsist only in an unbounded wilderness; the white man's sole ambition was to conquer the forest, to tame and improve the wild lands, and make them contribute to his welfare. It was the Indian's misfortune that he was contented to lead only an idle and uncivilized life; that he in his make-up was entirely void of ambition, progress and industry, and that he could not or would not improve the country which he inhabited. The white man, on the other hand, was contented, only with improvement, and was most happy when living on the products of his own labor. This same peculiarly unfortunate situation confronted the early settler in our country as well as elsewhere. Had the Indian not been dispossessed, our county would perhaps to this day have been covered with its primeval forest and inhabited mainly by Indians and wild animals. It was inevitable, therefore, that, for our present civilization, the Indian should be gradually driven back. Before the aggressive white man, filled with industry and ambition, the indolent Indian slowly followed the setting sun until his course has been almost a direct retreat from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. And with this westward march he was gradually blighted until his once powerful race has now almost perished from the earth.
The most humane methods in dealing with the Indians in dispossessing them of their land may not always, indeed, may not generally, have been adopted by our ancestors. Gen. Jeffery Amherst suggested to Col. Bouquet to try to inoculate the Westmoreland Indians with small pox by means of blankets, and the latter, whom every one reveres, replied that he would do so, and that he regretted only that he could not adopt the Spanish method of hunting them with English dogs. In this connection, before we censure them it should be remembered that they were a sturdy, industrious people, not lacking in intellect, nor in the cardinal virtues of charity, affection and honor, and that they were surrounded by obstacles which cannot be appreciated by our present generation. They doubtless dealt with the Indians as they thought the exigencies of the time demanded. On the question as to whose dominion, that of the Indian or the white man, in the Western hemisphere, was fraught with the greatest benefit to the human family, there can certainly be no two opinions.
Source: Page(s) 67 - 78, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed March 1999 by Tena M. Hanna for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Tena M. Hanna for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (http://www.pa-roots.com/westmoreland/)
Westmoreland County Genealogy Project Notice:
These electronic pages cannot be reproduced in any format, for any presentation, without prior written permission.
Return to Westmoreland County History Project
Return to Westmoreland County Home Page
(c) Westmoreland County Pennsylvania Genealogy Project