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XXXVII.—TRADITIONS OF THE NATCHEZ.
T. B. THORPE.
1. Of all our Indian tribes, none were more interesting or more rudely destroyed than the Natchez. What is remembered of them is calculated to make a deep impression upon the imagination, and to cause regret that some historian has not preserved a truthful history of this singular people. In the early traditions of the Mexicans, preserved to us in their hieroglyphical paintings, there is presented the wonderful spectacle of families and nations, from innate impulses, moving from “the North,” and, ever restless, wandering over an unoccupied continent in search of homes. It is evident that the same wisdom that confounded the primitive language at Babel, and scattered the swarming millions of Asia, impelled the early occupants of our continent to move onward like advancing waves of the sea.
2. In these strange migrations, some chief must have separated from the parent multitude, and turned his face with his followers toward the South-west; and finally reaching the delectable lands of the valley of the lower Mississippi, there established what was afterwards known as the tribe of the Natchez.
3. The country selected is of surpassing loveliness; for, from the precipitous bluff that so unexpectedly frowns down upon the Mississippi, inland, to where the nation erected its great mound, is one continuous undulation of picturesque scenery, originally enriched with groves of live oaks and magnolias. It was really a fairy-land, and enough of the primitive forest still remains to give the sanction of truth to the most florid description of it preserved in legendary lore.
4. There can not be a doubt that, at the time these nomadics took possession of their adopted homes, the surrounding country was comparatively without inhabitants ; for the savage and warlike nations which lived in the neighborhood never would have permitted the Natchez, in their in
fancy, to occupy lands, which even afterward the latter defended more by moral than by physical force.
5. As fire-worshipers, the Natchez displayed their Oriental origin, and they were more sincere in this most poetic of all idolatries than the magi of the East. They possessed a tradition which, unlike the traditions of any other nation, gallantly ascribed the salvation of their race to a woman. This was, that, after the destruction of all the inhabitants of the earth save a single family, which family was about to die because of the continued darkness of the heavens, a young girl, inspired with a wish to save her race, threw herself into the fire which was used as a light ; and that no sooner was her body consumed, than she arose in the East, surrounded with such surpassing glory that her form could not be looked upon: thus enshrined, she became the chief, her nearest female relation being elected her successor. Hence were established the worship of the sun and the living sacrifice of the sacred fire, together with the belief that, so long as it blazed upon their altars, the Natchez would be powerful and happy.
6. The Sun, a female sovereign, was absolute in power. The rewards of the chase and of the cultivation of the soil were placed under her charge, implying that they were the results of her genial rays; and, through her, as if direct from the hands of Providence, they were distributed among the people.
7. The Natchez must have rapidly increased after their establishment on the banks of the Mississippi ; for their tradition was, that, in the first century of their settlement, they raised those monuments of industry on which to erect their temples and bury their dead, and the remains of which are so much admired to this day. Their great work was built upon a hill, where they believed fire fell from the sun, indicating that their wanderings were at an end. This series of mounds, the most remarkable in the valley of the Mississippi, has been almost entirely overlooked by the curious in such relics of ancient days.
8. A natural hillock was leveled upon the top, and used as the foundation of the mounds, the only example known. Upon a base thus prepared were raised the grand elevation
for the great temple of the Sun, the inferior works used for defense, and the graves of the nobles. In examining these singular ruins, now covered with trees of a century's growth, it is not difficult to conceive them rising in their perfection from the open plain, their summits smoking with sacrificial fires, and covered with priests and people. It was only upon the great mound, and at the festival of fruits, that the Sun showed herself to the multitude.
9. Attired in robes of white cotton, adorned with feathers, and her breast glistening with various brilliant stones, she assisted in the early greeting of her supposed ancestor, and as the god of day ascended in the East, and shot his bright rays across the landscape, they first of all fell upon the sacred priestess, and were reflected back in ten thousand rays, which were regarded by the worshipers as a recognition of sympathy and acknowledged relationship.
10. According to the belief of the Natchez, the extinction of the fires of the temple would be the signal for their destruction ; thus having, it would seem, with some other nations mentioned in history, a foreboding of their extermination. A brief period before the French invaded their homes, by some accident this fearful catastrophe happened, and the nation was consequently suffering from superstitious depression. It was therefore that they fell a comparatively easy prey to the superior arms and discipline of the European invader.
11: In their struggle for existence, after an obstinate defense, they were first driven from the banks of the river; but, again rallying, they gathered for their final struggle at the base of the great mound. As soon as the tribe thought themselves sufficiently prepared, they provoked attack, and their last great battle took place. The Sun-chief was killed, and the survivors, believing that the dark prophecy that · rested upon the Natchez had been fulfilled, as a crowd of
flying fugitives retreated west of the Mississippi, and, after various misfortunes, were lost, or became absorbed among the Onmas, the Tensas, and other friendly tribes.
12. The enlightened mind, in speaking of the Natchez, explains their destruction upon philosophical reasons. It was the weak giving way to the strong ; but their fate ap
pealed to more sympathizing and more imaginative hearts, who have softened the story of their ruin, stripped it of its harsher features, and left it so interwoven with golden light, that we half forget the unwelcome truth, and think hopefully of the departed. The Southern Indians of our day, when sitting beside their“ council fires,” and speaking of the times that are past, tell us :
13. That a young Natchez chief, famed for his virtue and bravery, became enamored of a beautiful maiden, and that his passion was returned. His interviews were stolen ones, and few and far between. On one occasion, when the young chief was keeping his night-watch over the sacred fire of the temple, he heard the plaintive song of a day-bird ; and, flying to the neighboring groves, there met his mistress, and exchanged the solemn vows of eternal love. Returning to the temple, the young chief, to his horror, discovered that the flame had expired in his (unconsciously to him) long absence, and the altars, which had ever glowed with living fire, were cold.
14. Alarm filled the young warrior's breast ; despair was impressed upon his features; and as the sun illumined the hills, and made the homes of the Natchez glisten in its refreshing and (to them) sacred radiance, there was no response of ascending sacrifice, and the chief priests rushed with precipitation to the temple, to learn the cause.
15. Terrible indeed were the wailings that ascended from the soul-stricken worshipers. It was deemed that a curse had fallen upon the nation ; that its speedy extinction was shadowed forth; and amidst the excitement, by order of the great Sun, the young maiden was sacrificed, not only as a propitiation, but that her surpassing beauty should no longer tempt the guardians of the sacred altars to neglect their vigils.
16. The young chief was doomed to make expiation in fastings and prayers; and after due ceremonies he was imprisoned in the center of the great mound, there to remain until he wooed back the lost fire from heaven. It was in vain that he essayed the comparatively easy task of lighting the proper combustibles by rapid friction. Overwhelmed by religious fear, his strength of arm appeared to have departed;
and even when, from long and patient labor, the fire was about to descend, a tear of regret for the memory of his mistress would fall upon the just-igniting wood, and leave his interminable task to be again renewed.
17. Although years, yea, centuries, have passed away; although the entrance to the great mound has crumbled indistinguishably into the surrounding mass, and huge trees have usurped the places of the ascents and the altars, yet the old Indians, in their day-dreams, visit the young chief, who is still in the center of the mound, perseveringly engaged in his labor-and confidently assert, that when he recovers the sacred fire he will again appear at the altar, and that the Natchez, in all their former glory, will take possession of their now desolated homes.
XXXVIII.—THE LAST MAN.
The sun himself must die,
Adown the gulf of Time!
As Adam saw her prime !
2. The Sun's eye had a sickly glare,
The Earth with age was wan,
Around that lonely man !
In plague and famine some !
To shores where all was dumb !