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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

The Morals of a Sauk Warrior

Editor's Note:

Keating developed great respect for Wennebea while riding alondside him from Chicago to Prairie du Chien. They were about the same age, both had sharp eyes for natural phoenomena (Keating was a scientist), and both were curious about the other's worldview.


The full interview and a portrait of Wennebea (page 90) are in the first volume of Keating’s book (available online at the Library of Congress American Memory collection)


[July 8. Because Marsh, still on an overland trail up the Des Moines River, wrote nothing in his diary this day, we give excerpts from W. H. Keating’s interview with the 35-year-old warrior Wennebea, who was his guide across Illinois and Wisconsin in the summer of 1823:]


With a view to ascertain what were their ideas of moral excellence, we asked Wennebea what, in their opinion, constituted a good man. He immediately replied, that in order to be entitled to this appellation, an Indian ought to be mild in his manners, affable to all, and particularly so to his squaw. His hospitality ought to be boundless; his cabin, as well as all that he can procure, should be at the disposal of any one who visits him. Should he receive presents, he ought to divide them among the young men of his tribe, reserving no share for himself. But what he chiefly considered as characteristic of a good man, was to be mild and not quarrelsome when intoxicated….


Upon the subject of intoxication Wennebea spoke with much feeling and philosophy. "Intoxication," said he, "is a bad thing; the Indian has been seduced to it by the white man; when our forefathers were first offered liquor they declined it; for they had seen its evil effects upon white men. At last two old men were bribed to taste it; they liked it and took more; they were then affected by it, their language became more voluble; they were merry in their wine. Pleased with the experiment they repeated it, and induced two others to join them; thus, did the evil spread gradually. To drink a little is not improper, but to drink to intoxication is not right; our ancestors have forbidden us to do it. You, white men, can take a little and refrain from more; while the red man follows but the impulse of his feelings; if he takes a little, he requires more, and will have it if he can get at it in any way. You encourage us in this practice; your agents, your traders, instead of withholding it, offer it to us, make us take it, and when we have had a little we lose all control over ourselves…"


When asked what were the qualifications which were most sought after in the selection of a wife, and if beauty had any influence, Wennebea replied, that they cared but little for a handsome wife, their object being to get a good one, who could attend to all their work, and behave herself as became a good woman. "We are not absolutely regardless of beauty," said he, "but we think it a trifling acquirement compared with goodness, and therefore pay but little attention to it; some young men are foolish and attend to it, but these are few, and they soon learn to take good wives, without minding their charms." Being asked what constituted female beauty, he laughed and said, a light complexion, large hazel eyes, a well-formed nose, red lips, and a figure rather small and well proportioned; they seem to have a dislike to very fat women. When questioned as to other points of beauty, he seemed not to have made a study of them; their faces, he said, might be more or less handsome, but in other respects women were all the same. Feeling a little encouraged, he continued in a strain so obscene, as even to put to the blush our old interpreter; Le Sellier; which, for a Canadian trader, might be supposed not to be an easy thing.



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