Editor's Choice

For some lighter reading, the American Indian Histories and Cultures team at Adam Matthew pick some of their personal highlights from the collection.


Legend of the Welsh Indians

Lauren Jones

Page two of Placide's essay. Copyright The Newberry Library.In the midst of quality-checking and indexing this collection I came across one rather non-descript and unassuming little note buried amongst the vast array of manuscripts that made me stop and read. The document, Essay on the Welsh Indians, written by Tom Placide, I confess, immediately appealed to me because of my own Welsh ancestry but the content is no less fascinating. Placide tells us that in 1801 a Lieutenant Roberts arrived at a hotel in Washington where a young waiter, “a native of Wales,” brought him the wrong drink. After chiding him in Welsh, Roberts recalls:

There happened to be at the same time in the room one of the secondary Indian Chiefs, who, on my pronouncing these words, rose up in a great hurry stretching forth his hand at the same time – the Chief said that it was likewise his language, and the language of his father and mother and of his nation – I said to him, “So it is the language of my father and mother and of my country”. Upon this the Indian began to enquire from whence I came? I replied “from Wales” but he had never heard a word about such a place.

Not content with generally conversing in the same language, Roberts then challenges the Indian Chief to count in Welsh. Roberts describes his astonishment at seeing “a man with his face painted, his arms ornamented and feathers in his hair, speaking Welsh as fluently as if he had been born in the vicinity of Snowdon” (home to the highest peak in Wales). 'Mih-Tutta-Hangkusch. A Mandan village', with coracle-like boats. Copyright The Newberry Library.

There are several documents in the collection that allude to the “Welsh Indians” but the validity and authenticity of such claims has been widely disputed. The legend evolved from a medieval folktale about a Welsh hero's sea voyage, to which only allusions survive. According to the old stories, in 1170 a Welsh prince named Madog ap Owain Gwynedd (Madoc) sailed to America and established a settlement among the Indians (over 300 years before Christopher Columbus!).

At the end of his essay, Placide attempts to lend weight to his claim by naming renowned American painter, George Catlin, as a fellow supporter. He notes that Catlin “speculates… in several parts of his book on the Mandan Indian being the descendants of Madoc, and bases his belief upon the shape of their canoes, the colour of their skin and hair, and a very slight similarity in some of their words”. This painting by Catlin, Mih-Tutta-Hangkusch (A Mandan Village), shows the Indian bull boats that he thought to be similar to the Welsh coracle boat.

The evidence pointing to the legitimacy of these claims is tenuous at best but Placide's essay is thoroughly entertaining. For me, the very fact that some people somewhere believed this legend is fascinating enough. Despite the questionable testimony, the patriotic hopeful in me can't help thinking... what if it was true?!

Use the 'Basic Search' feature to find out more about "Welsh Indians".



The belle of the reservation

Tom Mellors

Portrait of Gi-aum-e Hon-o-me-tah by Burbank. Copyright The Newberry Library.Gi-aum-e Hon-o-me-tah looks cosy wrapped up in her Kiowa blanket. Her cheeks are redder than her lips thanks to traditional face paint, and her eyes stare calmly into yours. Elbridge A. Burbank had a talent for capturing eyes; in his portraits of elderly chiefs he conveys solemnity and defiance, but with Gi-aum-e the impression is altogether different. Young and beautiful, her eyes look to the future, not the past.

Gi-aum-e was the niece of Haw-gone (Silver Horn), a famed Kiowa artist, and the daughter of a Kiowa chief. In his memoir, Among the Indians, Burbank describes her as an intelligent girl with good English who was considered “the belle of the reservation”. She was sixteen when Burbank painted her in the 1890s, and although she appears calm in her portrait she didn't speak a word during the first week of posing out of bashfulness. “When she finally did become acquainted, she became quite talkative,” Burbank wrote.

Gi-aum-e’s boyfriend lived in a village seventy-five miles away, but they often visited each other. When Burbank asked Gi-aum-e if her boyfriend thought she was the nicest girl on the reservation she was silent at first, “but when outside where I could not see her, she put her hand through the doorway and replied in the sign language, Yes.”

Her boyfriend was not without competition. A Comanche named Chasequah was infatuated with her and desperately tried to woo her despite not being able to speak Kiowa. Burbank became a kind of agony aunt to him:

Chasequah would come to me with his troubles; he said that Gi-aum-e cared nothing for him, not even caring to answer his love letters... he asked me one day if I would make him some medicine, so that when he took it Gi-aum-e would love him.

When the officers at Fort Sill held a dance Burbank invited Gi-aum-e and her friend Ton-had-dle. During the dance he caught them laughing together in a corner of the room: “They explained naively that they were laughing because they thought it so funny for one girl to dance with so many different men. They also felt that this was very improper.”

Burbank tells another amusing story about when his lay figure – an artist’s mannequin – arrived from Chicago. The Kiowa men would “take it from the pedestal and dance around the room with it,” while the two girls would dress it in Kiowa clothes, “paint the face and place it on a chair before a window and then go outside and look up and laugh at it”.

Burbank became good friends with Gi-aum-e and he corresponded with her for several years after leaving the reservation. Their correspondence ended abruptly however, when she failed to reply to one his letters. When he next returned to Fort Sill he was shocked to learn that she had died suddenly. His memoir offers no cause of death.

Reflecting on the finished portrait, which features in this resource, Burbank wrote: "I never painted a more beautiful picture in my life". Viewed from a distance of well over a hundred years, Gi-aum-e is still the belle of the reservation.



The adventures of 'Indian Peter'

Nick Jackson

Frontispiece of Peter Williamson's 'Travels', depicting him in Indian costume. Copyright The Newberry Library.Peter Williamson was an extremely unlucky man, but also an example to us all of how to play the hand one has been dealt. Born in Scotland in 1730, at the age of about thirteen he was kidnapped on the quayside in Aberdeen, taken to Pennsylvania and sold as an indentured servant. In 1750 his master died and Peter gained his freedom, only to be kidnapped again four years later by Cherokee raiders; when he escaped, he found his home burned down and his wife dead. Having joined the army to fight in the war then raging in North America between the British and French, he was captured a third time and taken to Quebec, whence, having been exchanged for a French prisoner, he was shipped to Plymouth, arriving in November 1756. Injured in the war and with nothing to his name but a gratuity of six shillings, he resolved to walk back to Aberdeen.

I became interested in Peter’s story through reading his book The travels of Peter Williamson among the different nations and tribes of savage Indians in America, published in Edinburgh in 1768. This work is, according to its exhaustive, appropriately eighteenth-century sub-title,

an account of their principles religious, civil and military; their genius, strength, ideas of a deity, and notions of the creation; with every thing remarkable concerning their manners, customs, employments, diversions, commerce, agriculture, &c. &c.

Title page of Peter Williamson's 'Travels'. Copyright The Newberry Library.The book distills Williamson’s observations of America and its native peoples for a British audience for whom these things would have been the stuff of legend, but quite how much the contents actually stem from his own experiences is unclear. He was only with the Cherokee for a matter of months, but gives details of the customs of many other tribes and relates events – such as a speech made to the governor of New York by the Mohawk chief Hendrick during a private audience in July 1754 – which he cannot possibly have witnessed. His section on the snakes of North America includes a description of the cockatrice, a mythical creature with the hindparts of a serpent and the foreparts of a cockerel; this cannot even be a retelling of an Indian tale as the cockatrice had been a feature of European heraldry for centuries. At the back of the book Williamson appends a world gazetteer, ‘for the perusal of such as cannot reach the price of high-priced books on geography’.

But this kind of cavilling misses the point. Peter Williamson was, or became, a showman; he lived through remarkable adventures and, his travels over, set to making a crust out of them as best he could. When his first book, French and Indian cruelty, was published in 1757, he took to selling copies whilst demonstrating Indian dances in the kind of costume depicted in the frontispiece of his Travels. After his literary success he opened a pub in Edinburgh – advertising himself as the ‘vintner from another world’ – taught himself printing, inventing a waterproof ink along the way, and launched two political magazines. He spent years pursuing legal action against the baillies of Aberdeen, whom he rightly accused of having been complicit in the slave trade there, and, some time before 1774, introduced in Edinburgh Britain’s first regular postal service.

I like to imagine that if he had found the cockatrice in America he would have made sure to bring one back to Scotland and put it on display.



The Red Man's Greeting

Hannah Phillips

Cover of 'The Red Man's Greeting.' Copyright The Newberry Library.The white birch, or ‘paper birch’ tree has a special place in American Indian culture. Birch-bark scrolls (called wiigwaasabak) and birch-bark boxes (wiigwaasi-makak) are essential elements of some indigenous ceremonies, often being painted with geometrical patterns and pictographs. Birch bark was also used in weddings, where the bride would literally tie a knot in one of the pale strips, and it was used in traditional American Indian construction.

It is in reference to these traditions that The Red Man’s Greeting was letterpress printed onto strips of bark from this “wonderful tree” (Greeting, Intro).Written by Simon Pokagon in 1892, it was originally called The Red Man’s Rebuke, but the title was revised for its second edition. It was produced to be sold at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the World’s Fair), but makes it clear that the booklets were “political protests against the Columbian Exposition” (Corey, Alex, “Fair Material”, MALS Quarterly, Winter 2010):

“We have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world. No, sooner would we hold high joy-day over the graves of our departed fathers than to celebrate our own funeral, the discovery of America”. (Greeting, p1)

The booklet goes on to recount a succinct history of European contact with American Indians from a native perspective, encompassing the development of rail, the gold rush, epidemics, alcohol and the destruction of natural resources. It eloquently describes the clash of perspectives that characterised America’s colonisation, criticises the government as “broken-down and disappointed politicians” (Greeting, p10) and decries the seemingly endless list of wrongs done by settlers. I couldn’t help but be moved by Pokagon's powerful use of metaphor and the passion with which he writes.Illustrated page from 'The Red Man's Greeting'. Copyright The Newberry Library.

“The cyclone of civilization rolled westward; the forests of untold centuries were swept away; streams dried up; lakes fell back from their ancient bounds; and all our fathers once loved to gaze upon was destroyed, defaced, or marred”. (Greeting, pp12-13)

Pokagon’s broader legacy, however, is controversial and somewhat confusing. While this damning account was written to be sold at the Columbian Exposition, he was also a speaker there, and it is reported that his speech was much more conciliatory in tone. He was popular with Chicago high society, and became something of a celebrity. While he was an activist for American Indian rights – 'Simon Pokagon, Pottwattamie Chief.' Copyright The Newberry Library.particularly pursuant of monies owed from past treaties – he also sold “interests” in American Indian land to real estate speculators, leading to his estrangement from the Potawatomi tribe.

The ambiguous credentials of its author may lead a reader to question the motivations of the booklet, but the emphatic truth of what it contains is undeniable. While it stands as an important and powerful artefact in construction and content, the context is reflective of an extremely abstruse historiography and the challenging confluence of tradition and assimilation.