Memoirs from 1760 – visiting the Cherokee

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Ostenaco by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1762.

Lt Henry Timberlake met with Chief Ostenaco when he visited the Cherokee Overhill towns for three months in 1761-62. He later accompanied three Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III and other political figures. Below is an excerpt from his memoirs in which he describes the tribe and people.
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The Cherokees are of a middle stature, of an olive colour, though generally painted, and their skins stained with gun-powder, pricked into it in very pretty figures. The hair of their head is shaved, though many of the old people have it plucked out by the roots, except a patch on the hinder part of the head, about twice the bigness of a crown-piece, which is ornamented with beads, feathers, wampum, stained deers hair, and such like baubles. The ears are split and stretched to an enormous size, putting the person who undergoes the operation to incredible pain, being unable to lie on either side for near forty days. To remedy this, they generally split but one at a time ; so soon as the patient can bear it, they are wound round with wire to expand them, and are adorned with silver pendants and rings, which they likewise wear at the nose. This custom does not belong originally to the Cherokecs, but taken by them from the Shawnee, or other northern nations.

They that can afford it wear a collar of wampum, which are beads cut out of clam shells, a silver breast-plate, and bracelets on their arms and wrists of the same metal, a bit of cloth over their private parts, a shirt of the English make, a sort of cloth-boots, and moccasins which are shoes of a make peculiar to the Americans, ornamented with porcupine-quills ; a large mantle or matchcoat thrown over all completes their dress at home-; but when they go to war they leave their trinkets behind, and the mere neccesities serve them.

The women wear the hair of their head, which is so long that it generally reaches to the middle of their legs, and sometimes to the ground, club’d, and ornamented with ribbons of various colours; but, except their eyebrows, pluck it from all the other parts of the body, especially the lower part of the sex. The rest of their dress is now become very much like the European ; and, indeed, that of the men is greatly altered. The old people still remember and praise the ancient days, before they were acquainted with the whites, when they had but little dress, except a bit of fkin about their middies, mockafons, a mantle of / buffalo skin for the winter, and a lighter one of feathers’ for the summer. The women particularly the half-breed, are remarkably well featured; and both men and women are straight and well-built, with small hands and feet.

The warlike arms used by the Cherokees are guns, bows and arrows, darts, scalpping-knives, and tommahawkes, which are hatchets; the hammer-part of which being made hollow, and a small hole running from thence along the shank, terminated by a small brass-tube for the mouth, makes a compleat pipe. There are various ways of making these, according to the country or fancy of the purchaser being all made by the European. Some have a long spear at top, and some dif- ferent conveniencies on each side. This is one of their most useful pieces of field-furniture, serving all the offices of hatchet, pipe, and sword; neither are the Indians less expert at throwing it than using it near, but will kill at a confiderable distance.

They are of a very gentle and amicable disposition to those they think their friends, but as implacable in their enmity, their revenge being only compleated in the entire destruction of their enemies. They were pretty hospitable to all white rangers, till the Europeans encouraged them to scalp ; but the great reward offered has led them often since commit as great barbarities on us, as they formerly only treated their most inveterate enemies with.

They are very hardy, bearing heat, cold, hunger and thirst, in a surprising manner; and yet no people are given to more excess in eating and drinking, when it is conve- niently in their power: the follies, nay mischief, they commit when inebriated, are entirely laid to the liquor; and no one will revenge any injury (murder excepted) received from one who is no more himself : they are not less addicted to gaming than drinking, and will even lose the shirt off their back, rather than give over play, when luck runs against them.

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About 60 yards from the town-house we were received by a body of between three or four hundred Indians, ten or twelve of which were entirely naked, except a piece of cloth about their six of them with eagles tails in their hands, which they shook and flourished as they advanced, danced in a very uncommon figure, singing in concert with some drums of their own make, and those of the late unfortunate Capt. Damere ; with several other instruments, uncouth beyond description.

Cheulah, the headman of the town, led the procession, painted blood-red, except his face, which was half black, holding an old rusty broad-sword in his right hand, and an eagle’s tail in his left. As they approached, Che-dah, bringing himself out from the left, cut two or three capers, as a signal to the other eagle-tails, who instantly followed his example. This violent exercise, accompanied by the band of music, and a loud yell from the mob, lasted about a minute, when the head- man waving his sword over my head, struck it into the ground, about two inches from my left footj then directing himself to me made a short discourse (which my Interpreter told me was only to bid me a hearty welcome) and presented me with a string of beads. We then proceeded to the door, where Cheulah, and one of the beloved men, taking me by each arm, led me in, and seated me in one of the fist seats; it was so dark that nothing was perceptible till a fresh supply of canes were brought, which being burnt in the middle of the house answered both purposes of fuel and candle. I then discovered about five hundred faces and Cheulah addressing me a second time, made a speech much to the same effect as the former, congratulating me on my safe arrival through the numerous parties of the northern Indians, that generally haunt the way I came.

He then made some professions of friendship, concluding with giving me another string of beads, as a token of it. He had scarce finished when four of those who had exhibited at the procession made their second appearance, painted milk-white, their eagle-tails in one hand, and small goards with beads in them in the other, which they rattled in time to the music. During this dance the peace-pipe was prepared . The bowl of it was of red stone, curiously cut with a knife, it being very soft, tho’ extremely pretty when polished. Some of these are of black stone, and some of the same earth thev make their pots with, but beautifully diversified. The stem is about three feet long, finely adorned with porcupine quills, dyed feathers, deers hair, and such like gaudy trifles.

After I had performed my part with this, I was almost suffocated with the pipe’s presented me on every hand, which I dared not to decline. They might amount to about 170 or 180; which made me so sick, that I could not stir for several hours.

The Indians entertained me with another dance, at which I was detained till about seven o’clock next morning, when I was conducted to the house of Chucatah, then second in command, to take some refreshment. Here I found a white woman, named Mary Hughes, who who told me she had been prisoner there near a twelve month, and that there still remained among the Indians near thirty white prisoners more, in a very miserable condition for want of clothes, the winter being particularly severe ; and their misery was not a little heightened by the usage they received from the Indians. I ordered her to come to me to Ostenaco’s, with her miserable companions, where I would distribute some shirts and blankets I had brought with me amongst them, which she did some days after.