Volume III, chapter 6 (pp87-101)

Origin of the Peoples of North America: Voyage of Moncacht-apé in the lands to the east of Louisiana

When the Natchez came to the part of America in which I found them there were several tribes living on both sides of the Mississippi. They called each other Red Men, and their origin is extremely difficult to discover, for they have not, like the Natchez, preserved their traditions nor have they arts and sciences like the Mexicans, from which one can draw inductions. The only thing to be learned from them is, what they invariably say, that they came from the North-West, and the spot that they point out with their flngers, no matter where they may [88] be at the time, should be about fifty-five degrees of latitude. This meagre information not being satisfactory to me, I made inquiry, if among the neighboring tribes there was not some wise old man who could enlighten me further on this point. I was extremely rejoiced to learn that in the nation of the Yazoos, at a distance of forty leagues from Natchez, such a one could be found. His name was Moncacht-Apé. He was a man of courage and spirit. I can do no better than compare him to the early Greeks, who travelled among the Eastern people to examine the manners and customs of the diflerent countries and then returned to communicate what they had learned to their countrymen. Not that Moncacht-apé actually carried out such a project as this, but he conceived the idea and did what he could to carry it out. I took advantage of a visit that was paid me by this native of the Yazoo Nation, called by the French ' the interpreter' because he speaks so many [89] Indian languages, but known among his own people, as I have already said, as Moncacht-apé, which means 'one who kills difficulties or fatigue.' In fact, the travels of many years did not affect his physique. I begged him to repeat to me an account of his travels, omitting nothing. My proposition seemed to please him. I shall make our traveller speak in the first person, but I shall abridge his voyage to the Eastern Coast, because he speaks there largely of Canada which is very well known. I shall only report what there was in it of importance. He began as follows:–

"'I had lost my wife, and the children that I had by her were dead before her, when I undertook my trip to the country where the sun rises. I left my village notwithstanding all my relations. I was to take counsel with the Chickasaws, our friencls and neighbors. I remained some days to find out if they knew whence we all came, or at least, if they knew whence they themselves came: they who are our ancestors, since it is from them that the language of the people comes; but they [90] could teach me nothing new. For this reason I resolved to go to the nations on the coast where the sun rises, to learn about them, and to know if their old language was the same. They taught me the route that I must take, in order to avoid the large villages of the whites for fear that they might be angry to see me–me a stranger. I reached the country of the Shawnees, the point where I was to take up the river Wabash (Ohio), and I followed it up nearly to its source which is in the country of the Iroquois, but I left them to the side of the cold (north) and I went into a village of the Abenaquais which was in my route. I remained there until the cold weather, which in this country is very severe and very long, was over.

"During this winter I gained the friendship of a man a little older than myself, who was equally fond of travelling. He promised to come with me and to conduct me, because he knew the way, to the Great Water which I wished to see since I had heard it talked about. As soon as the snows were melted and the weather settled, I started with him [91] and we avoided the Indian settlements. We rested frequently on the way, because this country is full of stones which made our feet sore, especially mine, being unaccustomed to anything of the sort.

"After having travelled several days we saw the Great Water. When I saw it I was so content that I could not speak, and my eyes seemed to me to be too small to look at it at my ease, but night overtook us and we encamped near at hand, upon an elevation. The water was near but below us. The wind was high and without doubt vexed the Great Water, for it made so much noise that I could not sleep. I feared that the blows that it gave would break down the height where we were, although it was of stone.

"The sun had not appeared when I rose to see the Great Water. I was much surprised to see that it was far away. I was a long time without speaking to my comrade, who thought from seeing me [92] all the time looking about and not speaking that I had lost my wits. I could not understand how this could be. Finally, the wind having ceased, the sun arose. The Great Water was not so much disturbed as it was on the preceding night, and I saw with surprise that it returned towards us. I sprang up quickly and fled with all my strength. My comrade called out to me not to be afraid. I shouted to him, on my part, that the Great Water was coming towards us and that we should be drowned. He then reassured me, saying that the red men who had seen the Great Water had observed that it always advanced as much as it receded, but that it never came farther up on the earth at one time than another. When he had thus satisfied me we returned to the shore of the Great Water, and remained there until the middle of the day when I saw it, receding, go afar off.

"We left to go to sleep far off from the noise, which followed me everywhere, and even till evening I spoke [93] of nothing else to my comrade. We arrived at the banks of a little river, where we lay down to rest, but I thought of it all the night. We retook the route that we had followed in going and arrived at his home, where they were glad to see us.

"'This village is in the country at some distance from the Great Water whence we had come, and they had not seen it except between the lands where the great river of the country loses itself. In this region where they had seen it, it advances and recedes, but much less than in the place where we had seen it. These people believe that the Great Water over which the French come with their floating villages, which the winds move by puffing out the great cloths which they bear. [footnote: the Naturals call these Vessels floating villages, because they find in them such a large number of men. When a vessel has two decks, they say that there are two villages in that great pirogue, which is the general name that they give to all boats that they see on the water. The cloths that the wind pushes are the sails.] They believe, I say, that this Great Water was like several Great Waters that they have in [94] their country which are surrounded with land and of which the water is good to drink, in place of which that where we were is salt and bitter. [footnote: These are the lakes that the Naturals call great waters, but "Great Water" just means "the sea."] I know it because I put some of it in my mouth. Moreover the French say it takes more than two moons to come to our country, whereas the Great Waters of their country can be crossed in two or three, or at most in four days for the largest, and all that I have seen agrees with what the French have told me, that this water touches all lands and is as large as the earth.

"They listened to me with pleasure for a long time, and an old man who was there told me that he had been in a place where the great river of their country (the St. Lawrence River) precipitated itself from so high and with so much noise that it could be heard a half day's journey distant; that as I was curious, I should do well to see this place when the cold weather should be [95] over. [footnote: this place is Niagara Falls. One hears from more than three leagues away the noise that is makes.] I resolved to go there. I told my comrade who had accompanied me to the Great Water, and he promised to go with me. I had in truth a great desire to see this place which seemed worthy to be seen. I passed the winter in this place and was very impatient because it was long. It is impossible to hunt except with rackets [snowshoes] on the feet, to get accustomed to which caused me much trouble. This is unfortunate, for the country is good. Finally, the winter being over, the snow melted, the weather good, and our provisions prepared, we packed our bundles, and my comrade took a hatchet, with the use of which he was familiar. It was for the purpose of making me a dug-out, upon which, following the counsel that was given me, I should embark upon the river Ohio, as it is called in this country, the Wabash as we call it, and by this means I could return to my village more easily and in less time than if I should return on foot.

[96]"We departed then and travelled for several days before flnding the great river of that country. We did not lack for meat on our route. There is an abundance of buffaloes and also of other game, but as these animals have a great deal of trouble to live while snow is on the ground they were not yet fat. When we had arrived upon the banks of this great river, we rested. The next day we travelled with the current of the water, for we were too high up for the place that we came to see. Following what had been told us, we could not be deceived in finding this water-fall, for one hears the noise from afar, as we discovered on our approach. We passed the night where the noise was already strong, but not enough to hinder us from sleeping. As soon as day broke we departed for this place of which all men speak with wonder. Fortunately an old man had induced us to take, before leaving the village, [97] some buffalo's wool to put in our ears; without that we should truly have become deaf through the great noise made by this water in falling from so high. I had never been able to believe what the old man had told me, but when my eyes and my senses beheld, I thought he had not said enough for that which my eyes saw.

"This river does not fall. It is as if it were cast, the same as when an arrow falls to the ground. This sight made my hair stand on end and my flesh creep. Nevertheless, after having looked for a sufficiently, long time, my heart which had been agitated became quiet. As soon as I perceived it was quiet I spoke to myself aud said, 'What then! Am I not a man? What I see is natural, and other men have passed under this river. [footnote: The St. Lawrence River {today known as the Niagara River} leaves a large space beneath it as it falls.] Why should not I pass there? It is true that only Frenchmen have passed there and [98] that red men do not undertake the passage; but I, Moncacht-Apé, ought I to fear more than another man?' [footnote: One can see herer that his name signifies a man who endures pain and danger.] ‘No,' said I, in a low tone, 'I ought not to fear.' I descended at once and passed under and came back. I passed extremely quickly, for although I had buffalo's wool in my ears, the noise was so strong that I was giddy. I was not so much drenched as I had expected to be before I went in. After having examined the height of this fall, I believe that the Red men speak the truth when they assert that it is of the height of one hundred Red men, who are rather taller than whites. [footnote: From Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River has a course of 30 to 40 leagues, and it is between these two lakes that these falls are located.]

"We were detained so long looking at what I have narrated that we were compelled to camp for the night on the other side of a wood, which [99]notwithstanding its thickness did not stop the noise of the waters, for we still heard it. It is true that our ears, although stopped np, were full of it, and for more than ten days after I still thought I heard it. [footnote: IN a new map of Canada the height of these falls is given as 135 feet, which would be at the most only a quarter of the height given by this voyager, Moncacht-apé]

"The next day we took the shortest path for the Ohio River. When we reached there we followed down this river to a point where there was no more wood to prevent me from following its waters to the great river of our country, which passes very near here. This was the way that I wished to take, as I had been told it would take me to my village.

"When we were at the place where I ought to take the water, we cut down a tree of soft wood; we made in a short time my little dugout [pirogue]. In truth it was not [100] well finished, but as it was to descend with the current, it was better than a light one. My dugout being made, I shaped a paddle. I also made a bark rope. We placed the dugout in the water and fastened it with my bark rope; then we went hunting. We killed two buffaloes, the meat of which we smoked. My comrade took his share, and I placed the rest in the dugout. We parted with hearts bound together like good friends who love one another. If he had been without a wife and children he would have joined me in my trip to the West of which I have spoken.

"I entered my dug-out and descended at my ease the Ohio River to our great river, which we call Meact-chact-sipi (or the Fleuve St. Louis, as the French call it), without meeting anyone in the Ohio River. I had not proceeded far in the Great River before I met two pirogues full of Arkansas, who bore a [101] calumet to the Illinois, who are their brothers. Thence I descended all the time even to our little river, which I entered, but except for one of our neighbors, whom I happily met, I never should have been able to ascend to our village. I saw with joy my relations, who were glad to see me fat, that is to say, in good health."

Such was the narrative that Moncacht-Apé gave me of his journey to the East, where he learned nothing concerning the matters which he was investigating. It is true he had seen the ocean. He had seen it in a state of agitation. He had witnessed the ebb and flow of the tide. He had examined the famous falls at Niagara, and he could talk intelligently of them. All this could not fail to be satisfactory to a curious man, who had nothing else to do than travel for information, to do which he had but to make similar expeditions to that which he had made to the East.