On the Origin and Antiquities of the Aborigines of Our Country

Samuel L. Mitchill

[Extracted from ARAM 1 (1820): 344-55.]



The following Letter was a few months since addressed by Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, of Newyork, to the Recording Secretary of the American Antiquarian Society; on the Origin and Antiquities of the Aborigines of our country.


I received, two days ago, your letter of February first, informing me that the President and Sub Council of the American Antiquarian Society, at Worcester, had appointed me a corresponding member.

My opinion is, that the Antiquities of our country were never presented to us in so interesting and advantageous an aspect as at present. Their num- [p.345] ber and their description is more attended to than heretofore. There are more good observers, and therefore we are enabled to form more correct conclusions. At the same time, it must be remembered, that the vestiges of the Aborigines, their manners, their languages and their arts, are becoming rapidly more and more faint; and many of them will soon vanish altogether from sight. It therefore becomes the Society, and all its members, to employ every moment of time, and every opportunity that can be found, to delineate them as they are, and to save them from oblivion. I accordingly exhort all with whom I communicate, to be industrious and persevering.

My observation led me several years ago to the Conclusion, that the two great continents were peopled by similar races of men; and that America, as well as Asia, had its Tartars in the north, and its Malays in the south. If there were but historians, we should find a striking resemblance. America has had her Scythians, her Alans, and her Huns; but there has been no historian to record their formidable migrations, and their barbarous achievements. How little of past events do we know!

Since the publication of my sentiments on this subject, at home, they have been published in several places abroad.

Mr. E. Salverte, editor of the Bibliotheque Universelle, has printed them at Geneva, in Switzerland, with a learned and elaborate comment.

The Monthly Magazine, of London, contains an epitome of the same.


In that memoir I maintained the doctrine, that there were but three original varieties of the human race—the tawny man, the white man, and the black man; a division, which I was pleased to observe, the incomparable author of the Animal Kingdom (Regne Animal, &c.) had adopted in France. The former of these seems to have occupied, in the earliest days, the plain watered by the Euphrates and the Tigris, while the white Arab, as he has sometimes been called, was produced in the regions north of the Mediterranean Sea; and the sable Arab, or negro, arose to the south of that expanse of water.

Of the brown, or tawny variety, are the eastern Asiaticks and western Americans, divisible into two great stocks, or genealogies. 1. Those in high latitudes, whom I call Tartars; and, 2. the inhabitants of low latitudes, whom I consider as Malays. I am convinced that the terms, for the general purposes of reasoning, are equally applicable to the two great continents; and that, with the exception of the negro colonies in Papua, and a few other places, the islanders in the Pacifick ocean are Malays.

The comparison of the languages, spoken by these colonies and tribes respectively, was begun by our learned fellow citizen, the late Dr. B. S. Barton.

The work has been continued by the Adelangs and Vater, distinguished philologists of Germany. Their profound inquiry into the structure of language, and the elements of speech, embraces a more correct and condensed body of information, [p.347] concerning the original tongues of the two Americas, than was ever compiled and arranged before. Their Mithridates surpasses all the similar performances that have ever been achieved by man.

It gives me pleasure to mention to you a more recent undertaking, which reflects great honour upon the author and his worthy associates. Peter S. Du Ponceau, Esq. as Corresponding Secretary to the Historical and Literary Committee of the Philosophical Society, at Philadelphia, has prepared a Report on the languages of the American Indians. He has performed the task with singular industry, skill and research—showing the copiousness of those tongues in words and inflections—their complicated or polysynthetick structure in the whole space between Arctick and Antarctick—and the essential points of difference between their forms, and those of the ancient and modern languages of the other hemisphere. This subject is in a train of farther investigation by that learned gentleman and his able associates. To them therefore it may be properly confided.

Owing to my particular situation, the arts of the aborigines, and their ways of living, have more particularly excited my attention.

One of my intelligent correspondents, who has surveyed with his own eyes the region watered by the river Ohio, wrote me very lately a letter containing the following paragraph: "I have adopted your theory respecting the Malayans, Polynesians and Alleghanians. This last nation, so called by the Lennilenapi, or primitive stock of our hunting Indians, was that which inhabited the United States [p.348] before the Tartar tribes came and destroyed them, and erected the mounds, works, fortifications and temples of the western country. This historical fact is now proved beyond a doubt, by the traditions of the Lennilenapi Indians, published by Mr. Heckewelder, in the work just issued by the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia—and your sagacious ideas are confirmed. I may add, that Mr. Clifford, of Lexington, Kentucky, has proved another identity between the Alleghanians and Mexicans, by ascertaining that many supposed fortifications were temples—particularly that of Circleville in Ohio, where human sacrifices were one of the rites. He has discovered their similarity with the ancient Mexican temples, described by Humboldt, and has examined the bones of victims in heaps, the shells used in sacred rites, as in India, and the idols of baked clay, consisting of three heads."

This opinion of human sacrifices was fully confirmed by the testimony of Mr. Manuel Liea, during the summer of 1818. He, on his return from the trading posts on the upper Missouri, informed his fellow citizens at St. Louis, that the Wolf tribe of the Pawnee Indians yet follow the custom of immolating human victims. He purchased a Spanish prisoner, a boy about ten years old, whom they intended to offer as a sacrifice to the Great Star; and they did put to death, by transfixing on a sharp pole, as an offering to the object of their adoration, the child of a Paddo woman, who, being a captive herself, and devoted to that sanguinary and horrible death, had made her escape on horseback, leaving her newborn offspring behind.


The triad, or trinity of heads, instantly brings to mind a similar article figured by the Indians of Asia, and described by Mr. Maurice in his Oriental Researches.

I received, a short time since, directly from Mexico, several pieces of cloth, painted in the manner that historians have often represented. I find the material in not a single instance to be cotton, as has been usually affirmed. There is not a thread indicating the use of the spinning wheel, nor an intertexture showing that the loom or the shuttle was employed. In strictness, therefore, there is neither cotton nor cloth in the manufacture. The fabricks, on the contrary, are uniformly composed of pounded bark, probably of the mulberry tree, and resemble the paper cloths, if I may so call them, prepared to this day in the Friendly and Society Islands of the Pacifick ocean, as nearly as one piece of linen, or one blanket of wool, resembles another. I derive this conclusion from a comparison of the several sorts of goods. They have been examined together by several excellent judges. For at the late meeting of the Newyork Literary and Philosophical Society, in February, 1819, I laid the paper cloths, with their respective colourings and paintings, from Mexico, Otaheite, Tongatabboo, upon the table for the examination of the members. All were satisfied that there was a most striking similitude among the several articles. Not only the fabrick, but the colours and the materials of which they apparently consisted, as well as the probable manner of putting them on, seemed to me strong proofs of the sameness of origin in the different [p.350] tribes of a people working in the same way, and retaining a sameness in their arts of making a thing which answers the purpose of paper, of clcth, and of a material for writing and painting upon.

Soon after the arrival of these rolls from New Spain, filled with hieroglyphick and imitative characters, I received a visit from three natives of South America, born at St. Bias, just beyond the Isthmus of Darien, on the eastern side, between Portobello and Carthagena. They were of the Malay race, by their physiognomy, form and general appearance. Their dark brown skins, their thin beards, the long, black, straight hair of their heads, their small hands and feet, and their delicate frame of body, all concurred to mark their near resemblance to the Australasians; while the want of high cheek bones, and of little eyes, placed wide apart, distinguished them sufficiently from the Tartars,

Other similitudes exist. The history of M. de la Salle's last expedition and discoveries in North America, is contained in the second volume of the Collections of the Newyork Historical Society, p. 306. In that narrative is the following statement: "Thus, in pursuing our journey, sometimes in the plains, and sometimes across the torrents, we arrived in the midst of a very extraordinary nation, called the .Biscatonges, to whom we gave the name of 'weepers,' in regard that upon the first approach of strangers, all these people, as well men as women, usually fall a weeping bitterly, &c. That which is yet more remarkable, and perhaps very reasonable in that custom, is, that they weep much more at the birth of their children than at their death, be- [p.351] cause the latter is esteemed only by them, as it were, a journey or voyage, from whence they may return after the expiration of a certain time; but they look upon their nativity as an inlet into an ocean of dangers and misfortunes."

I beg you to compare this with a passage in the Terpsichore of Herodotus, chapter four, where, in describing the Thracians, he observes, "that the Trausi have a general uniformity with the rest of the Thracians, except what relates to the birth of their children, and the burial of their dead. On the birth of a child, he is placed in the midst of a circle of his relations, who lament aloud the evils, which, as a human being, he must necessarily undergo; all of which they particularly enumerate." (Beloe's translation.)

There is an opinion among the Seneca nation of the Iroquois confederacy, living at this day in the region south of lake Ontario, that eclipses of the sun and moon are caused by a Manitau, or bad Spirit, who mischievously intercepts the light intended to be shed upon the earth and its inhabitants. Upon such occasions, the greatest solicitude exists. All the individuals of the tribe feel a strong desire to drive away the demon, and to remove thereby the impediment to the transmission of luminous rays. For this purpose, they go forth, and, by crying, shouting, drumming, and the firing of guns, endeavour to frighten him. They never fail in their object; for by courage and perseverance they infallibly drive him off. His retreat is succeeded by a return of the obstructed light.


Something of the same kind is practised among the Chippeways, at this time, when an eclipse happens. The belief among them is, that there is a battle between the sun and moon, which intercepts the light. Their great object, therefore, is to stop the fighting, and to separate the combatants. They think these ends can be accomplished by withdrawing the attention of the contending parties from each other, and diverting it to the Chippeways themselves. They accordingly fill the air with noise and outcry. Such sounds are sure to attract the attention of the warring powers. Their philosophers have the satisfaction of knowing that the strife never lasted long after their clamour and noisy operations had begun. Being thus induced to be peaceful, the sun and moon separate, and light is restored to the Chippeways.

Now it is reported, on the authority of one of the Jesuit fathers of the French mission to India, that a certain tribe or people, whom he visited there, ascribed eclipses to the presence of a great dragon.—This creature, by the interposition of his huge body, obstructed the passage of the light to our world.—They were persuaded they could drive him away by all the terrifying sounds they could produce. These were always successful. The dragon retired in alarm, and the eclipse immediately terminated.

The manner of depositing the bodies of distinguished persons after death, is remarkable. Among the tribes inhabiting the banks of the Columbia river, and in some of those which live near the waters of the Missouri, the dead body of a great man is [p.353] neither consumed by fire, nor buried in the earth; but it is placed in his canoe, with his articles of dress, ornament, war and hunting, and suspended in the canoe, between two trees, to putrefy in the open air.

The custom of exposing bodies to decomposition above ground in the morais, or places of deposit for the dead, among the Polynesians, will immediately occur to every reader of the voyages made within the last half century, through the Pacifick ocean, for the purposes of discovery.

The practice of cannibalism exists in full force in the Tegee islands. A particular and faithful account of it is contained in the 14th volume of the Medical Repository, chapters 209-215.

The history of the five Indian nations dependent upon the government of Newyork, by Dr. Golden, pp. 185-6, shows that the ferocious and vindictive spirit of the conqueror led him occasionally to feast upon his captive. The Ottawas then made a soup of the flesh of an Iroquois prisoner. The like has been repeatedly done since, on select occasions, by the other tribes. Governour Cass, of Michigan, a few weeks ago, told me, that among the Miamis there was a standing committee, consisting of seven warriours, whose business it was to perform the maneating required by publick authority. The last of their cannibal feasts was on the body of a white man, of Kentucky, about thirty five years ago. The appointment of the committee to eat human flesh, has, since that time, gradually become obsolete; but the oldest and last member of this canni- [p.354] bal society is well remembered, and died only a few years ago.*

The Antiquities of North America, or rather the Fredonian section of it, have become deservedly the objects of particular and inquisitive research.

It was my intention to have terminated this communication here; but another subject occurs to me. There is a class of Antiquities which present themselves on digging from thirty to fifty feet below the present surface of the ground. They occur in the form of fire brands, split wood, ashes, coals, and occasionally of tools and utensils, buried to those depths by the alluvion, and have been observed, as I am informed, in Rhodeisland, Newjersey, Maryland, Northcarolina, and doubtless in other places. I have heard of some in Ohio. I wish the members of the Society would exert themselves with all possible diligence to ascertain and collect the facts of this description. They will be exceedingly curious both for the geologist and the historian. After such facts shall have been collected and methodized, we may perhaps draw some satisfactory conclusions. Light may possibly be shed upon the remote Pelasgians, and upon the traditionary Atlantides; and, if the rays should not be bright enough to exhibit them in all their distinctness, there will [p.355] be sufficient to show us a great deal more than we have learned, as yet, concerning the generations of men who have gone before us, as inhabitants of ihe regions of the globe, now held, though with strange additions and alterations, by the present race.

I present this letter to the American Antiquarian Society, as a proof of my respect for the Institution, and of my zeal to promote its laudable objects.—And I beg you will accept for yourself the assurance of my particular regard.

Samuel L. Mitchill.

* A very circumstantial description of a cannibal feast, where a soup was made from the body of an Englishman, at Michillimakinack, about the year 1760, is given by Alexander Henry, Esq. in his book of travels through Canada and the Indian territories. It is there stated that man-eating was then, and always had been, practised among the Indian nations on returning from war, or on overcoming their enemies, for the purpose of giving them courage to attack, and resolution to die. (14 Med. Repos. pp. 261-262.)