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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

Divers Aboriginal Customs and Absurdities

By George Alsop (b. 1638)

[A Character of the Province of Mary-Land, 1666.]

THOSE Indians that I have conversed withal here in this Province of Mary-Land, and have had any ocular experimental view of either of their Customs, Manners, Religions, and Absurdities, are called by the name of Susquehanocks, being a people looked upon by the Christian inhabitants as the most noble and heroic nation of Indians that dwell upon the confines of America; also are so allowed and looked upon by the rest of the Indians, by a submissive and tributary acknowledgment; being a people cast into the mould of a most large and warlike deportment, the men being for the most part seven foot high in latitude, and in magnitude and bulk suitable to so high a pitch; their voice large and hollow, as ascending out of a cave, their gait and behavior straight, stately and majestic, treading on the Earth with as much pride, contempt, and disdain to so sordid a Centre, as can be imagined from a creature derived from the same mould and Earth….

The Indians paint upon their faces one stroke of red, another of green, another of white, and another of black, so that when they have accomplished the equipage of their countenance in this trim, they are the only Hieroglyphicks and Representatives of the Furies. Their skins are naturally white, but altered from their originals by the several dyeings of roots and barks, that they prepare and make useful to metamorphize their hides into a dark cinnamon brown. The hair of their head is black, long and harsh, but where Nature hath appointed the situation of it anywhere else, they divert it (by an ancient custom) from its growth, by pulling it up hair by hair by the root in its primitive appearance. Several of them wear divers impressions on their breasts and arms, as the picture of the Devil, bears, tigers, and panthers, which are imprinted on their several lineaments with much difficulty and pain, with an irrevocable determination of its abiding there: and this they count a badge of heroic valor, and the only ornament due to their heroes.

These Susquehanock Indians are for the most part great Warriors, and seldom sleep one Summer in the quiet arms of a peaceable rest, but keep (by their present power, as well as by their former conquest) the several Nations of Indians round about them in a forcible obedience and subjection.

Their Government is wrapped up in so various and intricate a labyrinth, that the speculativest Artist in the whole World, with his artificial and natural optics, cannot see into the rule or sway of these Indians, to distinguish what name of Government to call them by…. All that ever I could observe in them as to this matter is, that he that is most cruelly valorous, is accounted the most noble. Here is very seldom any creeping from a country farm into a courtly gallantry by a sum of money; nor feeing the Heralds to put daggers and pistols into their arms, to make the ignorant believe that they are lineally descended from the house of the Wars and Conquests; he that fights best carries it here.

When they determine to go upon some design that will and doth require a consideration, some six of them get into a corner, and sit in Junto; and if thought fit, their business is made popular, and immediately put into action; if not, they make a full stop to it, and are silently reserved.

The Warlike Equipage they put themselves in when they prepare for Belona’s March, is with their faces, arms, and breasts confusedly painted, their hair greased with bears’ oil, and stuck thick with swans’ feathers, with a wreath or diadem of black and white beads upon their heads, a small hatchet, instead of a cimeter, stuck in their girts behind them, and either with guns, or bows and arrows. In this posture and dress they march out from their Fort, or dwelling, to the number of forty in a troop, singing (or rather howling out) the decades or warlike exploits of their Ancestors, ranging the wide woods until their fury has met with an Enemy worthy of their revenge. What prisoners fall into their hands by the destiny of war, they treat them very civilly while they remain with them abroad, but when they once return homewards, they then begin to dress them in the habit for death, putting on their heads and arms wreaths of beads, greasing their hair with fat, some going before, and the rest behind, at equal distance from their Prisoners, bellowing in a strange and confused manner, which is a true presage and forerunner of destruction to their then conquered Enemy…. The common and usual deaths they put their Prisoners to, is to bind them to stakes, making a fire some distance from them; then one or other of them, whose Genius delights in the art of Paganish dissection, with a sharp knife or flint cuts the cutis or outermost skin of the brow so deep, until their nails, or rather talons, can fasten themselves firm and secure in, then (with a most rigid jerk) disrobeth the head of skin and hair at one pull, leaving the skull almost as bare as those Monumental Skeletons at Chirurgeons’ Hall; but for fear they should get cold by leaving so warm and customary a cap off, they immediately apply to the skull a cataplasm of hot embers to keep their pericranium warm. While they are thus acting this cruelty on their heads, several others are preparing pieces of iron, and barrels of old guns, which they make red hot, to sear each part and lineament of their bodies, which they perform and act in a most cruel and barbarous manner. And while they are thus in the midst of their torments and execrable usage, some tearing their skin and hair of their head off by violence, others searing their bodies with hot irons, some are cutting their flesh off, and eating it before their eyes raw while they are alive; yet all this and much more never makes them lower the top-gallant sail of their heroic courage, to beg with a submissive repentance any indulgent favor from their persecuting Enemies; but with an undaunted contempt to their cruelty, eye it with so slight and mean a respect, as if it were below them to value what they did, they courageously (while breath doth libertize them) sing the summary of their warlike achievements.

Now after this cruelty has brought their tormented lives to a period, they immediately fall to butchering of them into parts, distributing the several pieces amongst the Sons of War, to entomb the ruins of their deceased conquest in no other sepulchre than their unsanctified maws; which they with more appetite and desire do eat and digest, than if the best of foods should court their stomachs to participate of the most restorative banquet. Yet though they now and then feed upon the carcasses of their Enemies, this is not a common diet, but only a particular dish for the better sort; for there is not a beast that runs in the woods of America, but if they can by any means come at him, without any scruple of conscience they ’ll fall to (without saying Grace) with a devouring greediness.

As for their Religion, together with their Rites and Ceremonies, they are so absurd and ridiculous, that it ’s almost a sin to name them. They own no other Deity than the Devil (solid or profound), but with a kind of a wild imaginary conjecture, they suppose from their groundless conceits, that the World had a Maker, but where he is that made it, or whether he be living to this day, they know not. The Devil, as I said before, is all the God they own or worship; and that more out of a slavish fear than any real reverence to his Infernal or Diabolical greatness, he forcing them to their obedience by his rough and rigid dealing with them, often appearing visibly among them to their terror, bastinadoing them (with cruel menaces) even unto death, and burning their fields of corn and houses, that the relation thereof makes them tremble themselves when they tell it.

Once in four years they sacrifice a child to him, in an acknowledgment of their firm obedience to all his Devilish powers, and Hellish commands. The Priests, to whom they apply themselves in matters of importance and greatest distress, are like those that attended upon the Oracle at Delphos, who by their magic spells could command a pro or con from the Devil when they pleased. These Indians ofttimes raise great tempests when they have any weighty matter or design in hand, and by blustering storms inquire of their Infernal God (the Devil) how matters shall go with them either in public or private.

When any among them depart this life, they give him no other entombment than to set him upright upon his breech in a hole dug in the Earth some five foot long, and three foot deep, covered over with the bark of trees archwise, with his face due west, only leaving a hole half a foot square open. They dress him in the same equipage and gallantry that he used to be trimmed in when he was alive, and so bury him (if a Soldier) with his bows, arrows, and target, together with all the rest of his implements and weapons of war, with a kettle of broth, and corn standing before him, lest he should meet with bad quarters in his way. His Kindred and Relations follow him to the grave, sheathed in bear-skins for close mourning, with the tail droiling on the ground, in imitation of our English Solemners, that think there ’s nothing like a tail a degree in length, to follow the dead corpse to the grave with….

The Women are the Butchers, Cooks, and Tillers of the ground; the Men think it below the honor of a Masculine to stoop to any thing but that which their gun, or bow and arrows can command. The Men kill the several beasts which they meet withal in the woods, and the Women are the pack-horses to fetch it in upon their backs, flaying and dressing the hides, (as well as the flesh for provision,) to make them fit for trading….

I never observed all the while I was amongst these naked Indians, that ever the Women wore the breeches, or dared either in look or action to predominate over the Men. They are very constant to their Wives; and let this be spoken to their heathenish praise, that did they not alter their bodies by their dyeings, paintings, and cutting themselves, marring those excellencies that Nature bestowed upon them in their original conceptions and birth, there would be as amiable beauties amongst them, as any Alexandria could afford, when Marc Antony and Cleopatra dwelt there together. Their marriages are short and authentic; for after ’tis resolved upon by both parties, the Woman sends her intended Husband a kettle of boiled Venison or bear; and he returns in lieu thereof beaver or otters’ skins, and so their Nuptial Rites are concluded without other ceremony.