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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

Economics of the Liquor Trade

Editor's Note:

Local and state governments had attempted to stop the sale of alcohol to Indians since colonial times, and in 1802 this power was explicitly given to the president. An 1832 act of Congress had specifically prohibited the importation of liquor onto Indian lands.

In all these efforts, however, enforcement was problematic and, ultimately, ineffective. Among the Fox and Sauk where Marsh spent the summer of 1834, the duty of keeping alcohol away from Indians fell to the U.S. Indian agent, who was advised by the authorities in Washington that,

"A rigid discharge of this duty, in which you will be aided by the commanding officer at Fort Armstrong, who has been instructed to that effect, it is confidently believed will produce a proper respect for the authority of the agent and effectually prevent the introduction of whiskey among the Indians by the whites." [Wisconsin Historical Collections 20:229]

Indian agents could not, of course, be in all places at all times, and Army commanders usually felt they had more important duties to perform. Indian agents were not allowed to prevent traders from keeping supplies of alcohol for the use of themselves and their employees, and a portion of this stock often found its way to Indians customers. Moreover, the exact borders of "Indian country" were often vague, and traders could provide alcohol to Indians without breaking the law by importing it into nearby locations to which the Indians could easily travel.

The result was scenes such as those described several times in Marsh's journal. "The government repeatedly passed laws forbidding alcohol in Indian country," wrote Alison Games in American Indian Quarterly (June 1, 1999; 23:177), "but in the face of lenient penalties, annuity-rich Indians who wanted alcohol, eager and creative traders, and above all the legal difficulty of defining 'Indian country' and later Indians themselves, these laws proved ineffective."

Some writers have asserted that the introduction of alcohol was a deliberate ploy by white authorities to undermine Indian character and judgment -- a type of chemical warfare designed to weaken their adversary. Indian treaty negotiators were sometimes under the influence of alcohol supplied by whites, or enticed by the immediate provision of it after the treaty was signed. Some of the people with whom Marsh spent this summer, for example, felt that the St. Louis Treaty of 1804, which led to the Black Hawk War, was such a case.

Most scholars point to the widespread alcoholism in 19th-c. American cities, however, and argue that alcohol was simply a ubiquitous part of white society that flowed, along with other negative aspects of mainstream culture, into Indian societies, often with disastrous results.

[Aug.] 8th Fri.

Last eve was the time appointed by Appenoose for me to lay before him my object [in coming to the village]. As I sat in my apartment near his in the lodge noting down the occurences of the day & waiting for him to come in, as he had gone into an adjoining one, I heard the sound of revelry proceeding from it and very soon one came in and said that a canoe had arrived bringing whiskey. I feared the consequences. During the day they had been feasting, and had made a good deal of noise, still all was peace and quietness in the village and matters went on as usual. At this time whilst I was out there the business of the day was over and all were returning to rest. Although there had been a noise struck up, still it was only beating upon the drum and whooping which did not disturb them.

At rather a late hour, having given up all hope of an interview with the chief I lay down to rest and being much fatigued soon fell asleep, but about 12 o'clock was suddenly awaked by a most tremendous yelling like drunken Indns when fighting. I could not sleep but immediately arose and put on my clothes, so if they should come in here I could make my escape.

Immediately the fires in the lodge were lighted up and all were called for some purpose, but as I could not understand I knew not for what purpose.

The women then went up and down the lodge laying away every kind of weapon or stick with which any one might be injured and all were upon the watch; soon there was a partial cessation and again it commenced and there was a very great hurrying.

Drunken scenes are horrible to witness amongst savages in the day time, and even then one is not without fear for his safety, but night adds a terribleness to it which cannot be expressed, because a drunken Indn. runs like a fiend let loose from the bottomless pit. [Here Marsh writes a long description of a fight between Indians, not transcribed]

I understood [the fight] was occasioned by three bottles of whiskey which, at the usual rate as they sell to Indians at one dollar per gallon, cost 75 cents, and afforded a profit to the vendor, as they purchase for 33 or 34 cents per g. by the barrell, about 40 cents. And for this paltry gain they are willing not only to render the Indians extremely unhappy and increase their wretchedness but to destroy all the peace of the village and endanger the lives of those who live in it. The awful Day of Judgment approaches when these must give account for all the deeds of darkness and mischief which they have done or been accessory to. But may God give them repentance before it is too late.

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