Conversation with Mr. Houston on 31st December 1831. This
man has an extraordinary history. After a stormy and troubled youth he finally settled in the State of Tennessee. There
his natural talents and no doubt also his obscure origin won him the people's votes. He had been elected Governor of
At this time he had trouble inside his own family. He
complained about his wife; others say that he behaved very badly to her. What is certain is that he left Tennessee,
crossed the Mississippi, and withdrew among the Creeks in the district of Arkansas. There he was adopted by one of
the chiefs and, it is said, married his daughter. Since then he has lived in the midst of the wilderness.
We met him on the 27th December at the mouth of the White
River, where we had stopped to let the Choctaws get off. He was mounted on a superb stallion which had been caught
in the prairies between Mexico and the United States. These immense wildernesses are grazing grounds for innumerable
herds of wild horses, some of which are captured by the Spaniards or the Indians. Their origin is Andalusian, the horse,
as is known, not being an animal native to America. Mr. Houston boarded our boat to go to New Orleans.
Mr. Houston is a man about forty-five years old; the sorrows
and exertions of all sorts by which his existence has been beset have as yet left but slight trace on his features; his figure
is athletic; everything about him indicates physical and moral energy.
We asked him a great many questions about the Indians, of
which these are some:
Q. Have the Indians a religion?
A. Some of them have no belief in the immortality of the soul.
But generally the Indians believe in a God who punishes or rewards the deeds of this life in the other world. ...
Q. Have they any form of worship?
A. The Osages, who live on the frontier of Mexico, pray every
morning to the rising sun. The Creeks have no worship. It is only in times of great calamity, or before undertaking some
great enterprise, that they devote themselves to some public manifestations of worship.
Q. Have you often seen Indian Christians?
A. Seldom. My view is that it is a very bad plan for civilizing
the Indians to send missionaries among them. Christianity is the religion of an enlightened and intellectual people; it
is above the intellectual level of a people as little advanced in civilization, and so much the slaves of mere material
instincts as the Indians. In my view, one should first try to win the Indians away from their wandering life, and persuade
them to cultivate the soil. The introduction of the Christian religion would follow naturally on the change that had taken
place in their social condition. I have noticed that only Catholicism has been able to succeed in making a durable
impression on the Indians. It strikes their senses and speaks to their imagination.
Q. What sort of government have the Indians whom you have
A. Generally a patriarchal government. Birth makes the chiefs.
Among the tribes which contact with Europeans has made more enlightened, they are elected.
Q. Have they any law?
A. There is an idea deeply rooted in the minds of all the
Indians, which for many tribes makes the only penal code. It is that blood should be avenged by blood; in a word, the
law of retaliation; so when a man has killed, he is consigned to the vengeance of the relations of the dead man,
to whom he is handed over.
Q. Does the law of compensation exist among the tribes you
A. No. The Indians of the South think it a disgrace to accept
money as the price of the life of one of their brothers.
Q. The notions of justice of which you speak are very rough.
Besides, they only apply to murder. What happens in the case of theft?
A. Theft was absolutely unknown to the Indians before the
Europeans introduced among them objects calculated likely to tempt their cupidity. Since then it has been necessary to
make laws to prevent theft. Among the Creeks who are beginning to get civilized and have a written penal code, theft
is punished by strokes of the whip. It is the chiefs who pronounce the sentence. Adultery by a woman is punished in the
same way. Besides, generally the guilty woman's nose and ears are cut. The law of the Creeks also punishes
Q. What is the status of women among the Indians?
A. A complete servitude. The women have to do all the
unpleasant tasks, and live in great degradation.
Q. Is polygamy allowed?
A. Yes. One can have as many wives as one can feed. Divorce
too is allowed.
Q. Do you think that the Indians have great natural
A. Yes. I do not think they yield to any other race of men on
that account. Besides, I am equally of the opinion that it is the same in the case of the Negroes. The difference one
notices between the Indian and the Negro seems to me to result solely from the different education they have received.
The Indian is born free; he makes use of this freedom from his first steps in life. He is left to look after himself as soon
as he can act; even a father's power is an imperceptible bond for him. Surrounded by dangers, pressed by necessities,
and unable to count on anyone, thus his mind must be ever active to find means to ward off such troubles and to
maintain his existence.
This necessity imposed on the Indian gives his intelligence
a degree of development and ingenuity which are often wonderful. The ordinary Negro has been a slave before he was
born. Without pleasures as without needs, and useless to himse]f, the first notions of existence which he receives, make
him understand that he is the property of another, that care for his own future is no concern of his, and that the very
power of thought is for him a useless gift of providence.
Q. Is it true that the valley of the Mississippi shows signs of
the passage of a race of men more civilized than those who inhabit it today?
A. Yes. I have often come across fortified works which bear
evidence of the existence of a people who had reached a fairly high state of civilization. Whence did that people come?
Whither did it vanish? There is a mystery there. But one cannot doubt that it existed, and nothing indicates that
the Indians of our day are the remnants thereof. The most probable view seems to me that they were Mexicans who in
old days came and settled in the valley of the Mississippi.
Q. Could you give me any information about the line the
American Government takes with the Indian tribes?
A. Yes. Very easily. There were and there still are within the
Southern parts of the United States, several half-civilized Indian nations whose position vis-a-vis the governors of those
States is equivocal, and who hold up the development that might take place in that part of the Union. Congress therefore,
as much in the interests of the States of the South as those of the Indians themselves, has conceived the project of
transporting them, with their consent, to country which should always remain essentially Indian land. Its choice fell on
the upper part of the district of Arkansas.
The territory which should be inhabited by the Indian nations
begins at an imaginary line that you can draw on the map from Louisiana to Missouri, and stretches right up to the
frontiers of Mexico and to the vast prairies inhabited by the wandering hordes of the Osages. The United States have
bound themselves by the most solemn oaths never to sell the lands contained within those limits, and never in any form
to allow the introduction of a white population there. There are already 10,000 Indians in the territory. I think that in
time there will be 50,000; the country is healthy and the soil extremely fertile.
Q. Do you think that by this means the Indian race can be
saved from the disappearance that seems to threaten it? Do you think that this arrangement will not still be only
provisional, and that the Indians will not soon be forced to retreat?
A. No. I think that the Indian tribes of the South will find a
refuge there, and that they will civilize themselves, if the government is willing to take trouble to encourage civilization
among them. Note that the isolated position in which the Indian tribes will be settled will make it possible to take
effective measures to prevent the introduction of strong drink among them. Brandy is the main cause of the destruction
of the natives of America.
Q. But do you not think that the tribes foreign to one another
will carry on continual internecine war?
A. The United States have among them posts to prevent it.
Q. Do you believe in the possibility of saving the
A. Yes, surely. Twenty-five years of skilful handling by the
government would certainly bring this result about. Several of the tribes of the South are already half-civilized.
Q. What degrees of civilization do you find among these
A. At the head of all come the Cherokees. The Cherokees live
entirely by cultivating the soil. They are the only Indian tribe that has a written language. After the Cherokees come the
Creeks. The Creeks subsist partly from hunting and partly from cultivating some land. They have some definite penal
laws and a form of government.
Next I place the Chtokasaws and the Choctaws. One cannot
yet say that they have begun to get civilized, but they have begun to lose many of the traits of their savage nature.
The Osages come last of all; they live in continually moving
hordes, are almost naked, hardly use firearms at all, and know no Europeans except the fur traders.
The Osages are the last tribe of the South-West which has
a treaty with the United States.
Q. But that reserve in Arkansas, of which we were speaking
just now, is only intended to receive the Indians of the South. What line has been taken about those of the West and
A. The Indians of the West and North do not find themselves
surrounded, as do those of the South, by white populations. They border the United States, and are pushed back before
them as the latter advance.
(Tocqueville, p. 251)