Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Memorable Precept of an Indian Chief

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

The Memorable Precept of an Indian Chief

By John Trumbull (1756–1843)

[Born in Lebanon, Conn., 1756. Died in New York, N. Y., 1843. Autobiography, etc., of John Trumbull. 1841.]

AT the age of nine or ten a circumstance occurred which deserves to be written on adamant. In the wars of New England with the Aborigines, the Mohegan tribe of Indians early became friends of the English. Their favorite ground was on the banks of the river (now the Thames) between New London and Norwich. A small remnant of the Mohegans still exists, and they are sacredly protected in the possession and enjoyment of their favorite domain on the banks of the Thames. The government of this tribe had become hereditary in the family of the celebrated chief Uncas. During the time of my father’s mercantile prosperity, he had employed several Indians of this tribe in hunting animals, whose skins were valuable for their fur. Among these hunters was one named Zachary, of the royal race, an excellent hunter, but as drunken and worthless an Indian as ever lived. When he had somewhat passed the age of fifty, several members of the royal family who stood between Zachary and the throne of his tribe died, and he found himself with only one life between him and empire. In this moment his better genius resumed its sway, and he reflected seriously, “How can such a drunken wretch as I am, aspire to be the chief of this honorable race—what will my people say—and how will the shades of my noble ancestors look down indignant upon such a base successor? Can I succeed to the great Uncas? I will drink no more!” He solemnly resolved never again to taste any drink but water, and he kept his resolution.

I had heard this story, and did not entirely believe it; for young as I was, I already partook in the prevailing contempt for Indians. In the beginning of May, the annual election of the principal officers of the (then) colony was held at Hartford, the capital: my father attended officially, and it was customary for the chief of the Mohegans also to attend. Zachary had succeeded to the rule of his tribe. My father’s house was situated about midway on the road between Mohegan and Hartford, and the old chief was in the habit of coming a few days before the election, and dining with his brother governor. One day the mischievous thought struck me to try the sincerity of the old man’s temperance. The family was seated at dinner, and there was excellent home-brewed beer on the table. I addressed the old chief—“Zachary, this beer is excellent; will you taste it?” The old man dropped his knife and fork—leaned forward with a stern intensity of expression; his black eye sparkling with indignation, was fixed on me. “John,” said he, “you do not know what you are doing. You are serving the devil, boy! Do you not know that I am an Indian? I tell you that I am, and that, if I should but taste your beer, I could never stop until I got to rum, and become again the drunken, contemptible wretch your father remembers me to have been. John, while you live, never again tempt any man to break a good resolution.” Socrates never uttered a more valuable precept—Demosthenes could not have given it in more solemn tones of eloquence. I was thunder-struck. My parents were deeply affected; they looked at each other, at me, and at the venerable old Indian, with deep feelings of awe and respect. They afterwards frequently reminded me of the scene, and charged me never to forget it. Zachary lived to pass the age of eighty, and sacredly kept his resolution. He lies buried in the royal burial-place of his tribe, near the beautiful falls of the Yantic, the western branch of the Thames, in Norwich, on land now owned by my friend, Calvin Goddard, Esq. I visited the grave of the old chief lately, and there repeated to myself his inestimable lesson.