Chapter 5 [Volume III, pp 61-86]

Origins of the Peoples of America--Origin of the Natchez--Origin of the Mexicans.

Now that we have been introduced to the character and customs of the Nations of Louisiana, it seems natural to say something of their origin.

The remarkable difference I observed between the Natchez, including in that name the Nations whom they treat as brethren [the Taensa], and the other peoples of Louifiana, made me extremely defirous to know whence both of them might have originally come. We had not then that full information which we have since received from the voyages and discoveries of M. De Lille [Delisle, a prominent French cartographer] in the eastern parts of the Russian Empire. I therefore applied myself one day to put the keeper of the temple in good humour, and having succeeded in that without much difficulty, I then told him, that from the little resemblance I observed between the Natchez and the neighbouring nations, [62] I was inclined to believe that they were not originally of the country which they then inhabited; and that if the ancient speech taught him any thing on that subject, he would do me a great pleasure to inform me of it. At these words he leaned his head on his two hands, with which he covered his eyes, and having remained in that postures about a quarter of an hour, as if to recollect himself, he answered in these words:

" Before we came into this land we lived there under the Sun." He pointed then with his finger almost toward the southwest, and having consulted my compass and a map, I recognized that he spoke to me of Mexico. "We lived in a beautiful country where the earth is always good. It is there that our Suns remained, because the ancients of the country were unable to force us out with all their warriors. They came, indeed, as far as the mountains after having reduced under their power the villages of our people which were in the plains, but our warriors always repulsed them at the entrance of the mountains and they were never able to penetrate there. [63]

" Our entire nation extended along the great water (the sea) where this great river (the River St. Louis) loses itself. Some of our Suns sent men up this river to find a place where they might conceal themselves far from the ancients of the country, because after having been a long time good friends they had become ill disposed and so numerous that we were no longer able to defend ourselves against them. All those who dwelt in the plains could not avoid submitting, and those who had retired into the mountains remained alone under obedience to the Great Sun. The ancients of the country wished, indeed, to force those of our people whom they had subjugated to join them in order to make war on us, but they preferred to die rather than attack their brothers and especially the Suns.

" But those who had ascended along the west side of the great river, having discovered this land which we inhabit, now crossed the river on a raft of dry canes. [64] They found the country such as they desired, suitable for concealing themselves from the ancients of the country, and even easy to defend against them if they ever undertook to attack us there. On their return they reported this to the Great Sun and the other Suns who governed the villages.

" The Great Sun immediately had those informed who remained in the plains and defended themselves still against the ancients of the country, and ordered them to go into this new land and build there a temple and to carry the eternal fire there in order to preserve it. There came hither a great number, with their wives and their children. The oldest and the Suns, relatives of the Great Sun, remained with those who kept with the Great Sun and in the mountains. They remained there a still longer time, as well as those who lived on the shores of the great water.

"A large part of our nation being then established here lived a long time in peace and in abundauce during many generations. On the other hand, those who had remained under the Sun, or very near, for it [65] was very warm there, did not hasten to come and join us, because the ancients of the country made themselves hated by all men–as much by our nation as by their own. Here is how the ancient word says that that happened.

" The ancients of the country were all brothers–that is to say, they all came out of the same country–but each large village on which many others depended had its head master, and each head master commanded those whom he had brought with him into this land. There was then nothing done among them that all had not consented to, but one of these head masters raised himself above the others and treated them as slaves. Thus the ancients of the country no longer agreed among themselves. They even warred against one another. Some of them united with those of our Nation who had remained, and all together they sustained themselves well enough.

" This was not the only reason which retained our Suns in that country. It was hard for them to leave such a good land, and besides their assistance was necessary to our other brothers [66] who were established there like ourselves and who lived along the shore of the great water on the side toward the east. These extended so far that they went very far beyond the Sun, since there were some of them from whom the Sun heard sometimes only at the end of five or six years, and there were yet others so far away, whether along the coast or in the islands, that for many years they had not been heard from at all.

" It was only after many generations that these Suns came to join us in this country, where the fine air and the peace which we enjoyed had multiplied us into a number as great as the leaves on the trees. These Suns came alone with their slaves, because our other brothers did not wish to follow them. Warriors of fire a had arrived who made the earth tremble and who had beaten the ancients of the country, and our brothers were allied with them, although our Suns had told them that these warriors of fire would subject them after having subjected the ancients of the [67] country, as we have learned has happened.

" The great Sun and the Suns who were with him were unable to induce them to follow them, took their farewells, therefore, in order to come alone to rejoin us here for fear lest the warriors of fire should make them slaves, which they feared more than death."

I did not fail to ask him who these warriors of fire were. " They were," said he, " bearded men, white but swarthy. They were called warriors of fire because their arms threw fire with great noise and killed at a great distance. They had other very heavy arms besides, which killed many people at a time, and which made the earth tremble like thunder. They had come on floating villages from the side where the sun rises. They conquered the ancients of the country, of whom they killed as many as there are spears of grass in the prairies, and in the beginning they were good friends of our brothers, but ultimate]y they made them submit as well as the ancients of the country, as our Suns had foreseen and had foretold to them." [68]

What the guardian of the temple had told me of the ancients of the country naturally led me to ask him who these people were. Here is what he answered:

"We have always called them the ancients of the country because the ancient word teaches us that when we arrived in that country we found them there in great numbers and they appeared to have been there a long time, for they inhabited the entire coast of the great water which is toward the setting sun, as far as the cold country on this side of the sun, and very far along the coast beyond the sun. They had a very large number of large and small villages, all of which were built of stones and in which there were houses large enough to lodge an entire village. Their temples were built with much skill and labor. They made very beautiful things with all kinds of materials, such as gold, silver, stones, wood, fabrics, feathers, and many other things in which they made their skill appear, as well as in manufacturing arms and in making war. [69]

" We knew nothing of them on our arrival in this country. It was only a long time afterward and when we were multiplied that we heard of each other and encountered each other with equal surprise on both sides. They did not war together at all then, and the two nations lived in peace during a great nmnber of years until one of their chiefs who was very powerful and a great warrior undertook to make them his slaves and finally succeeded, and then he also wished to subject us. It was that which obliged us, as I have told you, to abandon that land to come to inhabit this."

" But you yourselves," said I to him, "from whence are you come?"

"The ancient word," replied he, " says nothing of what land we came from. All that it teaches us is that our fathers to come here followed the sun and came with it from where it rises, that they were a long time on the journey, saw themselves on the point of dying utterly and found themselves brought into this land without searching for it. Do not ask me more, for the ancient word says nothing besides and [70] no old man will ever tell you what I do not tell you."

Seeing that I could not draw any further explanations from my friend, I waited until the Great Sun came to see me, and showed him the story that my friend had given me and that I had written down, not only to assure myself of the accuracy of the story, but also to try to get from him, if possible, some great insight that would better satisfy me. He was not slow in coming, and I asked him to stay for dinner, after which I said to him that my friend had instructed me about several things regarding their origin and their arrival in this land, and that I had put onto the speaking bark all that I had been able to learn. I had addressed myself to my friend rather that to himself because, although I knew he was willing, I feared that I might tire him. He replied that "That was good, because my friend knew all that the ancient word could teach and that he had it all in his head." "However," he continued, "tell me what you have put on the speaking bark, so that I might know if he forgot anything."

I told him what my friend had told [71] me. During all the time I was reading he was kneeling, covering his eyes with his hands, apparently to help him gather his thoughts, and I perceived that from time to time he laughed; finally he lifted his head and laughed with all his heart. I asked him what made him laugh; he replied that this speaking bark charmed him, and that it was admirable to repeat all that one had heard or that one had seen, that we were very lucky to have this science, that with its help I had learned about their Nation in one day what he himself had learned over many years, and that as old as he was, he didn't know more than me, as the ancient word had not taught him anything more. He added that, ashamed and confused at not having been able to learn where they had come from, or by what means they had arrived in this land, since all men were descended from one, he had one day taken the step of summoning from the Yazous a skilled Juggler (or shaman), to try to learn from him about this point in their history.

"This juggler" he continued, "removed from my cabin [72] all the old wood and the fire, and had new, dry wood brought, and when night came, not wanting to have any other witness but myself, he arranged the wood so that the ends of the logs were touching. Then he made many grimaces and contortions, as these mean have a habit of doing, and after a while the fire sprung up all at once. He then pronounced very rapidly some words that I was not able to distinguish, and told me to look into the large flame. At the same moment I saw appear in that flame a floating village, such as those that the brought the Spanish to our land when they came across the great water looking for our trade goods (it must have been a bark or a "balandre.") This floating village was filled with people of a stature proportionate to its size; these people had long robes and long beards and hair. All this lasted only and instant and then fell back into the flame, after which the Juggler tol me that he could not make me see any more. What I had seen caused me [73] much reflection, and I thought that, if our father had come across the great water, and the ancient word tells us they came with the sunrise as the French tell us that they came, then their land could not be far from that of the French."

This discourse of the Great Sun confirmed my ideas, and I no longer doubt that these people are descended from some ancient navigators from our continent, who, being cast upon the ocean, and encountering the trade winds, were carried, I don't want to say into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but toward some point of the mainland of Guiana, where perhaps they were wrecked. This conjecture, which seems to me very probable, received all the support it needed from a passage in Diodorus Siculus, which I read upon my return to France. This passage is all too clear and positive, and bears quoting in full. Here is how the Greek historian explained it:

" To the west of Africa" he fays, "lies a very large island, disdant many days sail from that part of our continent. Its fertile soil is partly plains and partly mountainous. The plain country is most fweet and pleafant, being watered every where with rivulets, and navigable rivers; it is beautified with many gardens, which are planted with all kinds of trees, and the orchards particularly are watered with pleasant streams. The villages are adorned with houses built in a magnificent taste, having parterres ornamented with arbours covered with flowcrs. Hither the inhabitants retire during the summer to enjoy the fruits which the country furnishes them with in the greatest abundance. The mountainous part is covered with large woods, and all manner of fruit trees, and in the valleys, which are watered with rivulets, the inhabitants meet with every thing that can render life agreeable. In a word, the whole island, by its fertility and the abundance of its springs, furnishes the inhabitants not only with every thing that may flatter their wishes, but with what may also contribute to their health and strength of body. Hunting furnishes them with such an infinite number of animals, that in their feasts they have nothing to wish for in regard either to plenty or delicacy. Besides, the sea, which surrounds the island, supplies them plentifully with all kinds of fish, and indeed the sea in general is very abundant. The air of this island is so temperate that the trees bear leaves and fruit almost the whole year round. In a word, this island is so delicious, that it seems rather the abode of the gods than of men.

"Anciently, on account of its remote situation, it was altogether unknown; but afterwards it was discovered by accident. It is well known, that from the earliest ages the Phoenicians undertook long voyages in order to extend their commerce, and in consequence of those Voyages established several colonies in Africa and the western parts of Europe. Every thing succeeding to their wish, and being become very powerful, they attempted to pass the pillars of Hercules and enter the ocean. They accordingly passed those pillars, and in their neighbourhood built a city upon a peninsula of Spain, which they named Gades [Cadiz]. There, amongst the other buildings proper for the place, they built [76] a temple to Hercules, to whom they instituted splendid sacrifices after the manner of their country. This temple is in great veneration at this day, and several Romans who have rendered themselves illustrious by their exploits, have performed their vows to Hercules for the success of their enterprizes.

"The Phoenicians accordingly having passed the Straights of Spain (Gibraltar), sailed along Africa, when by the violence of the winds they were driven far out to sea, and the storm continuing feveral days, they were at length thrown on this island.

Being the first who were acquainted with its beauty and fertility, they published them to other nations. The Tuscans, when they were masters at sea, designed to send a colony thither, but the Carthaginians found means to prevent them on the two following accounts; first, they were afraid lest their citizens, tempted by the charms of that island, should pass over thither in too great numbers, and desert their own country; next they looked upon it as a secure asylum for themselves, if ever any terrible disaster should befall their republic. Since they counted on always being the masters of the seas, as they were then, it would be easy for them retreat there, and their conquerors being ignorant of the location of this island would never be able to go and attack them there."

Such is the passage from Diodorus Siculus. It is very difficult not to conclude that the island of which he speaks is America itself, the great Atlantic Isle which the Ancients so often mentioned. If the description he gives appears too highly colored, one must think of the fact that it comes from those who were the first to discover it, and that the same thing is true of our explorers, and, I might say, of all men who have praised to an excess that which they have found which exceeds their hopes. In any case, one cannot mistake the principal traits, which are the agreeable temperature of the climate to Africans, the prodigious fertility of the earth, the vast forests, the large rivers, and the multitude of rivulets and springs.

I believe therefore that if the Phoenicians had established some colonies there, they must have been very weak. [78] Receiving resupplies infrequently, and in a very uncertain mannter, these inhabitants would have easily changed their manners and forgotten their religion. The politics of the Carthaginians also conspired to make them become savages, however polite they had been, because for fear of rendering these colonies too powerful or too well-known, to hold them in complete subordination, and with a view toward taking from them by trade some future profit, they did not transport there any arts, and, against the inviolable custom of the Ancients, did not establish any religious cult, nor a college of priests.

These first Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who were treated with so little care, could only have been regarded as commoners, who had been abandoned to chance. Their number grew from time to time by other ships, which landed there and could not return home, or which wrecked on the coast. The more they spread out and multiplied, the less they were able to conserve the memory of their origin, but as during an indefinite time there they had no commerce with any natives of the country, and they [79] never married among them, their language was maintained in a strong enough purity to understand and be understood by those whom the Sea threw upon these shores.

It was without a doubt from one of these shipwrecks that they [the Natchez] must have received this man who escaped along with his wife, and claimed that he had descended from the Sun. The cult of the eternal fire [among the Natchez] makes me suspect that he was Phoenician. Everyone knows that this superstition, born in Egypt, was spread by the Phoenicians across all their lands, and has for a long time been regarded as the most ancient and most dignified religious cult of the Divine. This man, therefore, who may have been a Priest (because it was only in Rome, I believe, that the fire was guarded by Vestals), shone brightly in his priestly garments before the eyes of the Natchez, who were as scantily clad as they are today. The conformity of the language giving the means of making himself understood, he took advantage of his character and profited from the circumstances. Putting these facts together with what I've said about the figural style and the strong Syriac expressions in the language of the Natchez, it seems to me that one could [80] make a body of proof that would demonsrate with some certainty that this Nation descends from the most ancient peoples of our continent, particularly the Phoenicians.

As to those whom the Natchez, long after their first establishment, found inhabiting the western coast of America, and whom we name Mexicans, the arts which they possessed and cultivated with success, obliged me to give them a different origin. Their temples, their sacrifices, their buildings, their form of government, and their manner of making war, all denote a people who have transmigrated in a body, and brought with them the arts, the sciences, and the customs of their country. These were the people over whom Montezuma reigned when Ferdinand [sic] Cortez made the conquest of Mexico. The small peoples governed by the Caciques who allied with him, and toward whom this "American Prince" made his vicious war of subjugation, were the portion of the Natchez who, retained by the beauty of the lands that they inhabited, did not wish to follow those who retreated into Louisiana, and did not believe the [81] warnings that the Warriors of Fire would subjugate them as well, after having by their assistance conquered Montezuma--a prediction which the outcome proved to be true to the letter.

The presents of god and silver which Montezuma gave to Cortez to be sent to Charles V, were so well crafted, according to the historian Solis, that the value of the workmanship exceeded that of the material. And those people had the art of writing, and also of painting. On the first news that the Mexican monarch had of the arrival of the Spaniards in his continent, he sent men, who wrote on sheets of cotton what they saw, and painted what they could not express in writing. Their archives consisted of cloths of cotton, whereon they had painted or drawn all those transactions which they thought worthy of being transmitted to posterity. It were greatly to be wished that the first conquereors of this new world had preserved to us the figures of those drawings; for by comparing them with the characters used by other nations, we might perhaps have discovered the origin of the inhabitants. [82] The knowledge which we have of the Chinese characters, which are rather irregular drawings than characters, would probably have facilitated such a discovery; and perhaps those of Japan would have been found to have greatly resembled the Mexican; for I am strongly of the opinion that the Mexicans are descended from one of those two nations.

In fact, where is the impossibility, that some prince in one of those countries, upon failing in an attempt to raise himself to the sovereign power, should leave his native country with all his partizans, and look for some new land, where, after he had established himself, he might drop all foreign correspondence? The easy navigation of the South Sea renders the thing probable; and the new map of the eastern bounds of Asia, and the western part of North America, lately published by Mr. De Lisle, makes it still more likely. This map makes it plainly appear, that between the islands of Japan, or northern coasts of China, and those of America, there are other lands, which to this day have [83] remained unknown; and who will take it upon him to say there is not land, because it has never yet been discovered? I have therefore good grounds to believe, that the Mexicans, came originally from China or Japan, especially when I consider their reserved and uncommunicative disposition, which to this day prevails among the people of the eastern parts of Asia.

I well know that those who know antiquity only from the pagan authors, and who are in the habit of searching there for the origins of all things, will find it incomprehensible that the Chinese and Japanese were able to pass into America long before the Phoenicians (who are regarded as the first seafarers of the world), and were then called "Ancients of the Country" by the descendants of these first Phoenician colonists. But I implore them to consider that these same profane letters which appear to us as extremely remote, are in some sense modern by comparison to the sacred letters. The great establishments of the Phoenicians are placed by the best informed chronologists around the time of the [84] flight of the Israelites from Egypt, and it was without a doubt a long time after this, that they dared to risk themselves on the ocean, and founded Cadiz. But since Diodorus Siculus implicates the Carthaginians in the discovery of America, one can only suppose that this happened long after the enlargement of Carthage by Dido, and since this republic was jealous of the Tuscans, navigation having lately flourished in Italy, it seems fitting to the honor of these ancient mariners, to fix the time of their first voyages to the New World one hundred years before the first Punic War. And this war began 264 years before Jesus Christ, some five hundred years after the retreat of Dido to Carthage, and twelve or thirteen hundred years after the flight from Egypt.

But at the time of the transmigration of the Israelites, the arts necessary for architecture were not new. It had been nearly 800 years since, that on the Plain of Sennar the human race had made its masterpiece in the construction of the Tower of Babel. The [85] confusion of the languages that obliged humans to disperse themselves before they had finished their work, did not cause them to lose the knowledge they had of the arts of building and of working in metals. They took these with them, as well as the principles of navigation, that the heads of families had found in examining the Ark of Noah, in the shadow of which they had been born. It's true that some did not preserve them as well as others--we have plenty of examples of this in the children of Japhet and Ham--the same thing could have happened to those of Shem who retreated toward the Orient, and our ignorance of what they have done, is no proof that they didn't know how to do it.

Since the space of two thousand years had passed between the dispersion of humans and the first Punic War, the Orientals, instructed in navigation, and having only to traverse a sea so calm that it has earned the name Pacific, could have preceeded the Phoenicians in America, and built there edifices that have inspired such beautiful descriptions of that land. [footnote: I was informed by a man of learning that there is in the King's library a Chinese manuscript which positively affirms that America was peopled by the inhabitants of Korea.] [86] What remains to be said about the origin of the Peoples of Louisiana will provide a new proof to my conjectures.