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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A History of St. Tammany

By Samuel Latham Mitchill (1764–1831)

[Born in North Hempstead, Queens Co., N. Y., 1764. Died in New York, N. Y., 1831. From an Oration pronounced before the Tammany Society. 1795.]

I SHALL, therefore, talk to you concerning the life, character, and exploits of your great father, Tammany.

In many parts of that extensive and fertile tract of country west of the Alleghany mountains, and extending northward of the river Ohio, are found remains of fortifications, and monuments and vestiges of human art, whose antiquity no man knows, nor can ascertain. The regularity of their plan and figure, and the skill and labor displayed in their erection, have given rise to an idea that some Europeans must have had an agency in making them. After many fruitless conjectures on the subject, the most experienced antiquarians have given it up in despair. Now, it was not Ferdinando de Soto, nor De La Salle, nor any other Spaniard or Frenchman, that erected these works; but, at a period far more remote than the fancied voyage of Boehm, or the real navigation of Columbus, Tammany and his people inhabited these lands.

He was in his youth both a hunter and a warrior, and the fame of his exploits had travelled through all the space embraced by the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi, and had even extended beyond the Missouri and the upper lakes. In his hazardous excursions he labored with extraordinary zeal to subdue the monsters of the forest, and the Grecian Hercules himself does not appear to have achieved greater exploits. In the war which he waged for many years with the Evil Spirit, his sagacity, courage, and prowess, were wonderfully distinguished. For this author and promoter of mischief, envying the reputation and happiness which Tammany enjoyed, determined to harass and torment him in every possible way. He accordingly first caused poison sumach and stinging-nettles to grow so thick in the land, that they almost choked every other vegetable, and diffused virulent exhalations through every part of the air, to the annoyance of all the people, who were also poisoned and punctured by them whenever they went forth to hunt Tammany, after various trials to destroy them, found at last that the soil in which they grew was inflammable, and availing himself of a severe drought, after the fall of the leaf, set fire to the turf and consumed the venomous plants, which burned with such rapidity that the Evil Spirit himself, who happened to be skulking about the spot, was sorely singed by the flames.

In revenge for this, he next sent innumerable rattlesnakes to infest the land; but Tammany, by sowing the seeds of the ash-tree upon the ground just cleared of the sumach, soon caused the serpents to disappear, and while this was doing, the distress and affliction caused by their bites gave occasion to the discovery of curing them by seneka-root and plantain.

Frustrated in this scheme, he brought from the other side of Lake Superior alarming droves of Mammoths, carnivorous animals, and especially loving to feed upon human flesh. These he turned loose upon the Tammanial Territories, and many deaths and much devastation they caused. They were so swift that nobody could overtake them, and so ferocious that they filled whole villages with terror. Arrows fell blunted from their skins and clubs assailed them in vain. From some prisoners brought home in an expedition against the Indians of the Tide-waters, the Tammanites had learned the use of seasoning for their food, and a part of the tribute paid to the conquerors by the Atlantic nations was wampum, dried fish, and salt. This latter they caused to be brought thither in vast quantities, and the creatures of the wilderness, attracted by the diffusion of its atoms through the air, flocked around the magazines, and pawed and licked the dust impregnated with the smallest saline particles. They grew so fond of it that Tammany ordered large spots of ground to be sprinkled with salt, that the wild animals drawn thither might fall a more easy prey to the hunters, who lay in wait to kill them. Among others came the Mammoth, who was remarkably ravenous of the product of the ocean, and when intent in gratifying his palate, was led into the covered pits dug across his paths by direction of Tammany, and there expired impaled on the sharpened points of trees, which tore to pieces his belly and bowels as he fell. Thus the country was cleared of those monsters, whose bones, discovered to this day at the Licks, confirm the reality of the story.

Mortified and disappointed at this extraordinary expedient, his determined adversary next attempted by an inundation to cover the land, and to destroy its inhabitants at once. For this purpose he raised a dam of compact rock a little above Ontario, and caused a rising of the waters of Lake Erie to a great height; and then made another, above where Detroit now is, which confined the lakes Huron and Michigan: the banks were overflowed by the mighty collection afforded by rain and melting snow, and the southern country began to be deluged; but Tammany getting intelligence of what was going on, opened the drains in which the waters of Alleghany, Miamis, and Wabash now run; cut the ditch, which at this time forms the channel of the Ohio, through the solid limestone, and thus collected and gave vent to the mighty body of waters rushing from above; being hailed on the accomplishment of it by his almost adoring people, the saviour of his country. The lakes by degrees subsided; but the rapids of Detroit and the falls of Niagara remain to this day, monuments of the astonishing event!

But no sooner had this difficulty been surmounted than Tammany’s implacable adversary stirred up the red men of the East and North to hostility against him. Their fighters assembled and told over their valiant deeds in former expeditions, to encourage each other. The war-dance, in all its terrible pomp, was exhibited, and the performers worked themselves up to a frenzy. The conjurors, who had been powwowing during the ceremony, reported a favorable event to the war. The march was begun, and in less than two moons they had entered the hunting-grounds of Tammany. By the superior address of the latter they were led into an ambuscade, surprised, overpowered, and except some few, who were slain in the conflict, the whole party taken prisoners. These invaders imagined that the cruel tortures of fire and laceration, which the successful Indians usually inflict upon captives, were to be practised upon them; each had prepared himself to endure the horrible execution, and, like Alknoomook, sing his death-song, and utter expressions of bravado and defiance, while gashes were separating limb from limb, and blazing splinters, stuck into his flesh, excited the double torment of wounding and burning at once. But while they were expecting, hour after hour, the arrival of this awful moment, they were told that Tammany had determined to spare their lives. They were conducted to his wigwam, and heard from him discourses so full of good-sense and reason, that, ashamed and confounded at their own villany, they fell prostrate before him to the ground and begged to be put to death; which, they said, would be infinitely more honorable than to live in disgrace. This was refused them; but they were taken away, and so distributed and billeted out amongst the Tammanites, that, without a chance of escaping or of doing mischief, they became gradually incorporated with the nation, and entertained for it the sincerest attachment and love. Thus Tammany turned the disasters of his enemy to his own advantage, and increased his own strength, while he impaired theirs. For it was a maxim of conduct with this sagacious savage, far more refined and excellent than prevails among most of our civilized, enlightened, and Christian legislators, that, putting revenge and retaliation entirely out of the question, a fellow-man ought never to be degraded to the condition of a slave, and it was necessity alone which justified, in any case, the destruction of human life. Some of them were at length dismissed to go home, and these carried the news of the generous treatment they had experienced, and filled with amazement all who heard them talk of such an innovation in Indian policy. Many of them returned with their squaws and pappooses to the land of Tammany; and the rest resolved upon everlasting peace, the discontinuance of slavery, and the abolition of that cold-blooded butchery, called public execution.

More fell than ever by this unexpected turn of things, the enemy devised a new mode of attack. As all his schemes and projects had hitherto failed, he determined to watch an opportunity of attacking Tammany in person. But his meanness of temper led him, instead of sending an open challenge, to seek, like an assassin, an opportunity of secret injury. He accordingly concealed himself in a swamp, near one of Tammany’s accustomed walks, with intention to fall upon him and slay him, as he unguardedly passed along. But mischief full often defeats itself. Tammany knew by the moving tops of the bushes that some creature was in concealment there, and by the peculiar smell which evil spirits emit, he concluded his enemy was lurking in ambush to waylay him. Pretending not to notice his discovery, he cautiously advanced within striking distance, when suddenly, and with great force, directing a blow with the hickory sapling which served him for a walking-stick, he made his wounded adversary bellow out with pain. They clinched,—and dreadful was the crashing of timber which they trod down in the scuffle; never, since the time when the Giants piled mountain upon mountain, were there such exertions of animal strength. For the space of more than a league square not a tree of any size was left standing. All were smashed and trampled flat by the combatants. At length, after unceasing exertions for fifty days, Tammany, skilfully taking advantage of the hip-lock, threw him head and shoulders to the ground and endeavored to roll him into the Ohio, and drown him; but an immense rock standing in the way, he could not effect it. He then seized him by the throat, and would certainly have strangled him had not his wrist and thumb been so sprained and weakened, that they could not gripe him hard enough to stop his weasand.

Tammany by this time grew faint and exhausted, which the Evil Spirit perceiving, slipped out of his hands; but, as he departed, was told to confine himself to the cold and remote regions of Labrador and Hudson’s Bay; and was threatened with instant death, if he should ever be catched showing his face on this side of the great waters….

Tammany lived after this many years in great happiness, and wonderfully beloved by his people; at last, after arriving to an unusual age, that universal palsy, which in the natural course of things immediately precedes death, terminated his life without either sickness or pain; and he expired [Greek], without a sigh or a groan.

Great honors were paid to his memory. After more parade and ceremony than was ever shown to any corpse before, they committed the body of Tammany to the ground, after their manner; and raised over it a large mound of earth. Our curious antiquarians have detected the spot, though they knew not its design or use, for he lies interred within the great Indian fort, near Muskingum, beneath that hillock which they have so often admired; a monument for size and labor second to nothing of the kind, save the Pyramids of Egypt.

After this the Tammanites, as long as they continued to observe the institutions of their sage, went on to be prosperous and great. But nations as well as individuals have their rise, decline, and termination. Babylon, the capital city of a mighty empire, where is it? And what has become of the government itself? Who knows, but from story, aught of Troy or Persepolis, whose very ruins had perished centuries ago? Now another race inhabits the land formerly occupied by the Jews; and what has become of ten of the Israelitish Tribes? Where are the all-subduing Romans, whose standards waved victorious from Spain almost to Parthia? They are all extinct. In like manner, in the vicissitudes of human affairs, the degenerate Tammanites, after dwindling into insignificance, finally lost entirely their character and name, and were swallowed up or scattered abroad among the surrounding nations. All we know of them, therefore, as they were unacquainted with letters, is by oral communication.

And you may consider the Talk you have now heard, as an effort to rescue a curious portion of unwritten history from oblivion.