Letter III

Fort William, Nov. 16th, 1833.

(the mouth of the Yellow Stone river.)


- My time has been so much occupied during the last five weeks, preparing our winter quarters, that I have been obliged to omit my usual monthly letter. You have never built a fort? Then pray Heaven you never may; for of all the trouble and annoyance I have ever experienced, that gives the most. A few days more will enable me to complete the outside of our accommodations, with the exception of an ice house and provision store. We can finish the interior at our leisure. Our fort is 130 by 150 feet - strongly built, with only one well guarded entrance - and inclosing all our houses, stores, &c.

The trade has scarcely commenced; but we, and our rivals, are electioneering hard for it; - a business that would puzzle one of your most noisy politicians. Intrigue, bribery and corruption are the order of the day. The Indians feel their importance and maintain it.

Amongst those who lately visited me, was a part of the tribe of Creek [Cree?] Indians, accompanied by their chief Sonnant (anglice "Rattle.") He is a man above the common size, and of very remarkable appearance. When you look at an Indian, you generally try to discover his character from his eye; but the optics of this chief defied scrutiny. They were so embedded between high cheek bones, a hawk nose that exceeds belief, and large shaggy eye brows; that no man, even in your prying and starring city, could tell their colour, without such a look as an Indian brooks not; while my new friend Sonnant could peer into your very soul, without appearing to be looking at you.

His forehead was prominent, - and such were the general developments of his cranium, that without being much of a phrenologist you would at once attribute to him, resolution, to sustain his purposes; implacable hatred and deadly revenge on those who crossed him. His head surmounted by a huge mass of hair, tied in a knot before, not unlike the mode adopted by some belles among the "white folks," (bless them) but with this difference - the hair was all his own. - His full chest and brawny arms, were tattooed with blue stripes, very regularly laid on; and indeed handsome, after your eye became familiar with it; although at first sight, you would condemn the taste that could admire such horrible and disgusting ornaments. The easy, dignified and elastic step of this chief, proved that he was "born to command." His apparel was simple, but comfortable. A Buffalo robe enveloped him from head to knee. Leggins of Antelope skin ensconced his legs; and plain moccasins protected his feet.

Sonnant - or "the Rattle," as I shall call him, has seven brothers, all of whom are chiefs of subordinate rank in the nation. To their influence, no less than his own savage bravery, is he indebted for the great and powerful ascendancy he maintains among his people. He has several wives, the youngest of whom, scarcely fifteen years of age, was amongst the party who visited me, and evidently proud of her lord and master. He seems to be fully sensible of his important standing; but he has one fault which materially lessened his claims on my respect: - namely, a most sacreligeous contempt for the rules laid down by the temperance society; not one of which will he observe; shame on him! - In other words he is a beastly drunkard.

Such as he was, however, he came to see me; and we had a talk on politics - or trade; which with us are synonymous terms. When we advised peace between nations, it is with a view to our benefit, in traffic: - when we advise war (a thing by the way, we have never done) our motives would be equally selfish. I could make some handsome compliments to myself, on recommending sobriety, when I had no spirits to sell; and very strongly deprecating the use of the "fire water" by our friends the "red skins." The advice was certainly good, be the motive as it may. Indeed such is the world, with all its attempts to dissemble. Self interest predominates; and the only difference in its exercise, in savage and civilized life, is that in the former we acknowledge; in the latter you conceal your motives.

Our smoke and talk, ended like all of a similar character, by me giving him some tobacco, ammunition, and vermilion, in return for many fair promises. He then begged me for something to drink, which he said should be strong, as he was accustomed drinking like his "white fathers." I ordered a pint of wine for himself and suite (enough, of the description we have, to make you and I tipsy) when lo! the old sinner swallowed the whole at a single draught! It was amusing to see his companions looking at him imploringly during the act, and very significantly smelling the empty cup. "The Rattle" soon began to make a noise, and became very troublesome from his loquacity. I paced the apartment with some degree of impatience; and to his solicitations for more drink, gave a flat denial; at the same time leaving the house. - The old fellow (for he has seen nearly sixty snows) in great good humour, paced through the room with his hands on his sides (Buffaloe robes have no pockets) observing that he too was a chief and a "medicine man;" and that he would walk as his father (meaning me) had done. The old rascal had seen enough moons to be my grandfather. His conduct and remarks were irresistibly comic. Our clerks and men, were so highly amused that another bumper was allowed his majesty, who departed greatly pleased with his interview; vowing everlasting friendship; which being interpreted; means, as long as I had wine and goods to give, and he had robes and beaver to trade.