Treaty Narratives

5 The Rambler in—Chicago

From Charles Joseph Latrobe's The Rambler in North America (1835)

The author of this chapter, Charles Latrobe, was another British traveler who arrived in Chicago on the same stagecoach from Detroit as Patrick Shirreff. He was a wealthy English author & traveled to Chicago specifically to witness the treaty negotiations.

I have been in many odd assemblages of my species; but in few, if any, of an equally singular character as with that in the midst of which we spent a week at Chicago.

This little mushroom town is situated upon the verge of a perfectly level tract of country, for the greater part consisting of open prairie lands, at a point where a small river whose sources interlock in the wet season with those of the Illinois, enters Lake Michigan. It however forms no harbour, and vessels must anchor in the open lake, which spreads to the horizon to the north and east, in a sheet of unbroken extent.

The river, after approaching nearly at right angles, to within a few hundred yards of the lake, makes a short turn, and runs to the southward parallel to the beach. Fort Dearborn and the light-house, are placed at the angle thus formed. The former is a small stockaded enclosure with two block-houses, and is garrisoned by two companies of infantry. It had been nearly abandoned till the late Indian war on the frontier made its occupation necessary. The upstart village lies chiefly on the right bank of the river above the fort. When the proposed steamboat communication between Chicago and the St. Joseph’s river, which lies forty miles distant across the lake, is put into execution, the journey to Detroit may be effected in three days, whereas we had been upwards of six on the road.

We found the village on our arrival crowded to excess, and we procured with great difficulty a small apartment; comfortless, and noisy from its close proximity to others, but quite as good as we could have hoped for.

The Pottawattomies were encamped on all sides, – on the wide level prairie beyond the scattered village, beneath the shelter of the low woods which chequered them, on the side of the small river, or to the leeward of the sand hills near the beach of the lake. They consisted of three principal tribes with certain adjuncts from smaller tribes. The main divisions are, the Pottawattomies of the Prairie and those of the Forest, and these are subdivided into distinct villages under their several chiefs.

The General Government of the United States, in pursuance of the scheme of removing the whole Indian population westward of the Mississippi, had empowered certain gentlemen to frame a Treaty with these tribes, to settle the terms upon which the cession of their Reservations in these States should be made.

A preliminary council had been held with the chiefs some days before our arrival. The principal Commissioner had opened it, as we learnt, by stating, that, ‘as their Great Father in Washington had heard that they wished to sell their land, he had sent Commissioners to treat with them.’ The Indians promptly answered by their organ, ‘that their Great Father in Washington must have seen a bad bird which had told him a lie, for that far from wishing to sell their land, they wished to keep it.’ The Commissioner, nothing daunted, replied: “that nevertheless, as they had come together for a Council, they must take the matter into consideration.’ He then explained to them promptly the wishes and intentions of their Great Father, and asked their opinion thereon. Thus pressed, they looked at the sky, saw a few wandering clouds, and straightway adjourned sine die, as the weather is not clear enough for so solemn a council.

However, as the Treaty had been opened, provision was supplied to them by regular rations; and the same night they had great rejoicings, danced the war-dance, and kept the eyes and ears of all open by running howling about the village.

Such was the state of affairs on our arrival. Companies of old warriors might be seen sitting smoking under every bush; arguing, palavering, or ‘powwowing,’ with great earnestness; but there seemed no possibility of bringing them to another Council in a hurry.

Meanwhile the village and its occupants presented a most motley scene.

The fort contained within its palisades by far the most enlightened residents, in the little knot of officers attached to the slender garrison. The quarters here consequently were too confined to afford place of residence for the Government Commissioners, for whom and a crowd of dependants, a temporary set of plank huts were erected on the north side of the river. То the latter gentlemen we, as the only idle lookers on, were indebted for much friendly attention; and in the frank and hospitable treatment we received from the inhabitants of Fort Dearborn, we had a foretaste of that which we subsequently met with everywhere under like circumstances, during our autumnal wanderings over the Frontier. The officers of the United States Army have perhaps less opportunities of becoming refined than those of the Navy. They are often, from the moment of their receiving commissions, after the termination of their Cadetship at West Point, and at an age when good society is of the utmost consequence to the young and ardent, exiled for long years to the posts on the Northern or Western frontier, far removed from cultivated female society, and in daily contact with the refuse of the human race. And this is their misfortune – not their fault; – but wherever we have met with them, and been thrown as strangers upon their good offices, we have found them the same good friends and good company.

But I was going to give you an inventory of the contents of Chicago, when the recollection of the warm-hearted intercourse we had enjoyed with many fine fellows whom probably we shall neither see nor hear of again, drew me aside.

Next in rank to the Officers and Commissioners, may be noticed certain store-keepers and merchants resident here; looking either to the influx of new settlers establishing themselves in the neighbourhood, or those passing yet farther to the westward, for custom and profit; not to forget the chance of extraordinary occasions like the present. Add to these a doctor or two, two or three lawyers, a land-agent, and five or six hotel-keepers. These may be considered as stationary, and proprietors of the half a hundred clap-board houses around you.

Then for the birds of passage, exclusive of the Pottawattomies, of whom more anon – and emigrants and land-speculators as numerous as the sand. You will find horse-dealers, and horse-stealers, – rogues of every description, white, black, brown, and red – half-breeds, quarter breeds, and men of no breed at all; – dealers in pigs, poultry, and potatoes; – men pursuing Indian claims, some for tracts of land, others, like our friend Snipe, for pigs which the wolves had eaten; -creditors of the tribes, or of particular Indians, who know that they have no chance of getting their money, if they do not get it from the Government agents; – sharpers of every degree; pedlars, grog-sellers; Indian agents and Indian traders of every description, and Contractors to supply the Pottawattomies with food. The little village was in an uproar from morning to night, and from night to morning; for, during the hours of darkness, when the housed portion of the population of Chicago strove to obtain repose in the crowded plank edifices of the village, the Indians howled, sang, wept, yelled, and whooped in their various encampments. With all this, the whites seemed to me to be more pagan than the red men.

You will have understood, that the large body of Indians, collected in the vicinity, consisted not merely of chiefs and warriors, but that in fact the greater part of the whole tribe were present. For where the warrior was invited to feast at the expense of Government, the sq*** took care to accompany him; and where the sq*** went, the children or pappooses, the ponies, and the innumerable dogs followed; – and here they all were living merrily at the cost of the Government.

The features of the Pottawattomies are generally broad and coarse: their heads large, and their limbs fuller than the Osages. Among their warriors you rarely see one with the head shaved, retaining nothing but the scalp-lock. On the contrary, they wear it bushy and long, frequently plaited into long tails, sometimes hanging back in the nape of the neck, and at others over the face in front. Their sculls are remarkably flat behind.

Of their dress, made up as it is of a thousand varieties of apparel, but little general idea can be given. There is nothing among them that can be called a national costume. That has apparently long been done away with, or at least so far cloaked under their Eurupean ornaments, blankets, and finery, as to be scarcely distinguishable. Each seemed to clothe him or herself as best suited their individual means or taste. Those who possessed the means, where generally attired in the most fantastic manner, and the most gaudy colours. A blanket and breech-cloth was possessed with a very few exceptions by the poorest among the males. Most added leggings, more or less ornamented, made of blue, scarlet, green, or brown broad-cloth; and surcoats of every colour, and every material; together with rich sashes, and gaudy shawl or handkerchief-turbans.

All these diverse articles of clothing, with the embroidered petticoats and shawls of the richer sq***s and the complicated head-dress, were covered with innumerable trinkets of all descriptions, thin plates of silver, beads, mirrors, and embroidery. On their faces, the black and vermillion paint was disposed a thousand ways, more or less fanciful and horrible. Comparatively speaking, the women were seldom seen gaily drest, and dandyism seemed to be more particularly the prerogative of the males, many of whom spent hours at the morning toilet. I remember seeing one old fool, who, lacking other means of adornment and distinction, had chalked the whole of his face and bare limbs white.

All, with very few exceptions, seemed sunk into the lowest state of degradation, though some missionary efforts have been made among them also, by the American Societies. The Pottawattomie language is emphatic; but we had no means of becoming acquainted with its distinctive character, or learning to what class of Indian tongues it belonged.

All was bustle and tumult, especially at the hour set apart for the distribution of the rations.

Many were the scenes which here presented themselves, portraying the habits of both the red men and the demi-civilized beings around them. The interior of the village was one chaos of mud, rubbish, and confusion. Frame and clapbroad houses were springing up daily under the active axes and hammers of the speculators, and piles of lumber announced the preparation for yet other edifices of an equally light character. Races occurred frequently on a piece of level sward without the village, on which temporary booths afforded the motley multitude the means of ‘stimulating;’ and betting and gambling were the order of the day. Within the vile two-storied barrack, which, dignified as usual by the title of Hotel, afforded us quarters, all was in a state o most appalling confusion, filth, and racket. The public table was such a scene of confusion, that we avoided it from necessity. The French landlord was a sporting character, and every thing was left to chance, who, in the shape of a fat housekeeper, fumed and toiled round the premises from morning to night.

Within, there was neither peace nor comfort, and we spent much of our time in the open air. A visit to the gentlemen at the fort, a morning’s grouse-shooting, or a gallop on the broad surface of the prairie, filled up the intervals in our perturbed attempts at reading or writing in doors, while awaiting the progress of the treaty.

I loved to stroll out towards sunset across the river, and gaze upon the level horizon, stretching to the north-west over the surface of the Prairie, dotted with innumerable objects far and near. Not far from the river lay many groups of tents constructed of coarse canvas, blankets, and mats, and surmounted by poles, supporting meat, mocassins, and rags. Their vicinity was always enlivened by various painted Indian figures, dressed in the most gaudy attire. The interior of the hovels generally displayed a confined area, perhaps covered with a few half-rotten mats or shavings, upon which men, women, children, and baggage, were heaped pell-mell.

Far and wide the grassy Prairie teemed with figures; warriors mounted or on foot, sq***s, and horses. Here a race between three or four Indian ponies, each carrying a double rider, whooping and yelling like fiends. There a solitary horseman with a long spear, turbaned like an Arab, scouring along at full speed; groups of hobbled horses; Indian dogs and children; or a grave conclave of grey chiefs seated on the grass in consultation. It was amusing to wind silently from group to group here noting the raised knife, the sudden drunken brawl, quashed by the good-natured and even playful interference of the neighbours; there a party breaking up their encampment, and falling with their little train of loaded ponies and wolfish dogs, into the deep black narrow trail running to the north. You peep into a wigwam, and see a domestic feud; the chief sitting in dogged silence on the mat, while the women, of which there were commonly two or three in every dwelling, and who appeared every evening even more elevated with the fumes of whiskey than the males, read him a lecture. From another tent a constant voice of wrangling and weeping would proceed, when suddenly an offended fair one would draw the mat aside, and taking a youth standing without by the hand, lead him apart, and sitting down on the grass, set up the most indescribable whine as she told her grief. Then forward comes an Indian, staggering with his chum from a debauch; he is met by his sq***, with her child dangling in a fold of her blanket behind, and the sobbing and weeping which accompanies her whining appeal to him, as she hangs to his hand, would melt your heart, if you did not see that she was quite as tipsy as himself.

Here sitting apart and solitary, an Indian expends the exuberance of his intoxicated spirits in the most ludicrous singing and gesticulation; and there squat a circle of unruly topers indulging themselves in the most unphilosophic and excessive peals of laughter.

It is a grievous thing that Government is not strong handed enough to put a stop to the shameful and scandalous sale of whiskey to these poor miserable wretches. But here lie casks of it for sale under the very eye of the Commissioners, met together for purposes, which demand that sobriety should be maintained, were it only that no one should be able to lay at their door an accusation of unfair dealing, and of having taken advantage of the helpless Indian in a bargain, whereby the people of the United States were to be so greatly the gainers. And such was the state of things day by day. However anxious I and others might be to exculpate the United States Government from the charge of cold and selfish policy toward the remnant of the Indian tribes, and from that of resorting to unworthy and diabolical means in attaining possession of their lands, as long as it can be said with truth, that drunkenness was not guarded against, and that the means were furnished at the very time of the Treaty, and under the very nose of the Commissioners, how can it be expected but a stigma will attend every transaction of this kind. The sin may lie at the door of the individuals more immediately in contact with them; but for the character of the people as a nation, it should be guarded against, beyond a possibility of transgression. Who will believe that any act, however formally executed by the chiefs, is valid, as long as it is known that whiskey was one of the parties to the Treaty.

But how sped the Treaty? you will ask.

Day after day passed. It was in vain that the signal-gun from the fort gave notice of an assemblage of chiefs at the council fire. Reasons were always found for its delay. One day an influential chief was not in the way; another, the sky looked cloudy, and the Indian never performs any important business except the sky be clear. At length, on the 21st of September, the Pottawattomies resolved to meet the Commissioners. We were politely invited to be present.

The Council-fire was lighted under a spacious open shed on the green meadow, on the opposite side of the river from that on which the Fort stood. From the difficulty of getting all together, it was late in the afternoon when they assembled. There might be twenty or thirty chiefs present, seated at the lower end of the enclosure; while the Commissioners, Interpreters, &c. were at the upper. The palaver was opened by the principal Commissioner. He requested to know why he and his colleagues were called to the council? An old warrior arose, and in short sentences, generally of five syllables, delivered with a monotonous intonation, and rapid utterance, gave answer. His gesticulation was appropriate, but rather violent. Rice, the half-breed Interpreter, explained the signification from time to time to the audience; and it was seen that the old chief, who had got his lesson, answered one question by proposing another, the sum and substance of his oration being – ‘that the assembled chiefs wished to know what was the object of their Great Father at Washington in calling his Red Children together at Chicago!’

This was amusing enough after the full explanation given a week before at the opening session; and, particularly when it was recollected that they had feasted sumptuously during the interval at the expense of their Great Father, was not making very encouraging progress. A young chief rose and spoke vehemently to the same purpose. Hereupon the Commissioner made them a forcible Jacksonian discourse, wherein a good deal which was a-kin to threat, was mingled with exhortations not to play with their Great Father, but to come to an early determination, whether they would or would not sell and exchange their territory: and this done, the council was dissolved. One or two tipsy old chiefs raised an occasional disturbance, else matters were conducted with due gravity. The relative positions of the Commissioner and the whites before the Council-fire, and that of the Red Children of the Forest and Prairie, were to me strikingly impressive. The glorious light of the setting sun streaming in under the low roof of the Council-House, fell full on the countenances of the former as they faced the West – while the pale light of the East, hardly lighted up the dark and painted lineaments of the poor Indians, whose souls evidently clave to their birth-right in that quarter. Even though convinced of the necessity of their removal, my heart bled for them in their desolation and decline. Ignorant and degraded as they may have been in their original state, their degradation is now ten-fold, after years of intercourse with the whites; and their speedy disappearance from the earth appears as certain as though it were already sealed and accomplished.

This exchange was recorded in the treaty’s Journal of the Proceedings; it appears in part one of this digital reader (“Negotiations”).

Your own reflection will lead you to form the conclusion, and it will be a just one, – that even if he had the will, the power would be wanting, for the Indian to keep his territory; and that the business of arranging the terms of an Indian Treaty, whatever it might have been two hundred years ago, while the Indian tribes had not, as now, thrown aside the rude but vigorous intellectual character which distinguished many among them, now lies chiefly between the various traders, agents, creditors, and half-breeds of the tribes, on whom custom and necessity have made the degraded chiefs dependant, and the Government Agents. When the former have seen matters so far arranged that their self-interest, and various schemes and claims are likely to be fulfilled and allowed to their hearts’ content, – the silent acquiescence of the Indian follows of course; and till this is the case, the Treaty can never be amicably effected. In fine, before we quitted Chicago on the 25th, three or four days later, the Treaty with the Pottawattomies was concluded, the Commissioners putting their hands, and the assembled chiefs their paws to the same.

By it, an apparently advantageous ‘swop’ was made for both parties; –the main conditions of which, if the information we received was correct, were, –that the Indians should remove from the territory they now occupied, within three years time being conveyed at Government expense across the Mississippi, and over the State of Missouri, to the western boundary of the latter, where five millions of acres of rich and fine land were to be set apart for them; and that they were to be supported for one year after their arrival in their new possession. Moreover, the Government bound itself to pay them over and above, a million of dollars; part of this sum being set aside for the payment of the debts of the tribe–part for a permanent school-fund–and part for agricultural purposes, presents, and so forth.

Charles Joseph Latrobe. The Rambler in North America, 1832-1833, volume 2 (Harper and Brothers, 1835): pp. 149-159. Original Source: University of Iowa.