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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

A Midsummer Celebration

Editor's Note:

This was Rev. Marsh's first close observation of a traditional Fox ceremony and, like other white observers before him, he was fascinated. Compare his reaction to that in Fr. Pierre Charlevoix's 1721 description of a calumet dance by the Sauk and the Ho-Chunk, and Thomas McKenney's account of an Ojibwe dance in 1826.


Marsh's detailed descriptions of many rites and ceremonies are one of the chief reasons his diary is so valuable. The Fox allowed ethnographers to spend much time with them around 1900 and again in the 1950s, but Marsh's observations are the earliest thorough account of traditional Fox lifeways.


Marsh often appears especially impressed by the way the Fox decorated their bodies. You can see pictures of Indians belonging to a variety of tribes from the upper Mississippi, painted in the 1830s by James Otto Lewis for his Aboriginal Portfolio, at Wisconsin Historic Images.


Vermillion: bright red color, with a tinge of orange.


Pole-cat: skunk



Thurs [July] 31st


About sun-rise this morn. the village crier went up and down in front of the houses giving information that there would be a dance and directions also respecting sweeping the lodges etc.


During the day much preparation was made for it in preparing the drums and other things. None but warriors or braves who could strike the post with his war club or spear and relate some martial deed was permitted to join in this dance.


As I sat in the [lodge] where I took up my lodgings or passed along through, as it is over 100 ft. in length, I saw the performers making every preparation: some busily engaged before a small mirror in painting their faces with vermillion & other colors in the most fantastical manner, and others were getting feathers & other ornaments in readiness. These things occupied so much time that they did not get ready to dance until towards eve.


After performing a short time in an adjoining lodge they entered the head chief Appenooces, where I kept, and a more ludicrous sight their dress, manner of painting themselves, or their dancing can scarcely be imagined. Some seven or eight sung, which was a kind of half suppressed yell emitted from the throat to which they kept time by beating the drum. Abt 10 or 12 danced. These had only a girdle about their loins and mockasins upon their feet, excepting around the ankles and calf of the leg the tail of the pole-cat was tied and other ornaments together with small bells.


None but braves, that is those who had either killed or wounded an enemy can wear the above ornaments. Some of their faces were painted white streaked with vermillion and others of red and white promiscuously together with blue, and their bodies mostly besmeared with a kind of white clay with red or black streaks as fancy dictated.


The singers would raise a kind of yell, beating the drum etc. and then one perhaps the leader in the dance would give a yell, begin to jump up and down, making most curious and unique gestures. Then one after another would join until all were drawn in, each one seeming to vie with the other to see who could jump or manoeuvre the hardest. This after a few minutes closed with a yell exceeding loud and shrill, partly suppressed by putting the hand over the mouth. The old men looking in the meantime, gazing with interest, and the boys had every eye fixed with rapt attention marking the performance.


This scene so vain, so empty as well as foolish, fills their benighted minds with deep interest and is great amusement for them. May these days of darkness soon pass away, & the light the blessed gospel shine upon them.

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