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Story Archives: Natchez appearance and dress; Natchez 1729 -- best & worst of times
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|Natchez appearance and dress; Natchez 1729 -- best & worst of times|
(15th in a Series)
The French found the Natchez, both men and women, to be an attractive people.
The women, said Dumont, had "well-proportioned figures," were "quite agreeable in appearances," well groomed and "pride themselves on an extreme cleanliness." On the other hand, Dumont, a soldier and artist, found a couple of Gulf Coast tribes to be "very negligent of themselves" and "not extremely neat."
DuPratz, a farmer, said few adult Indians were under 5 ft.-5 in., many taller. "They have long thighs...black eyes, and hair of the same color, coarse and straight." Few were fat and few were frail, the men "more sinewy," the women "more fleshy."
Historian Jim Barnett, an expert on the Natchez, said the tribe practiced a custom of "head flattening," which some French writers described. Barnett wrote in his 1998 book that to "achieve the desired look, a mother bound a piece of hard ceramic wood against her child's forehead every night. Gradually, the skull above the eyes flattened and retained the abnormal shape. Most Europeans thought the practice was simply for beautification, but head flattening may have also had a deep social or religious significance. It is not known if all members of the tribe had their heads flattened."
One French writer in the "Luxembourg Memoir" offered a disturbing look at the process. He said that what "a mother does to the head of her infant in order to force its tender bones to assume this shape is almost beyond belief. She lays the infant on a cradle which is nothing more than the end of a board on which is spread a piece of the skin of an animal; one extremity of this board has a hole where the head is placed and it is lower than the rest. The infant being laid down entirely naked she pushes back its head into this hole and applies to it on the forehead and under the head a mass of clay which she binds with all her strength between two little boards. The infant cries, turns completely black and the strain which it is made to suffer is such that a white, slimy fluid is seen to come out of its nose and ears at the time when the mother presses on its forehead. It sleeps thus every night until its skull has taken on the shape which custom wishes it to receive."
The dress of the Natchez was also described by the French. The children up to puberty, according most writers, often wore nothing at all during the warm seasons. Adults and children usually wore moccasins when traveling and went barefoot when home. Du Pratz said the moccasins, made of deerskins, "come around the foot like a sock." The deerskin was cut "three fingers longer than the foot" and pulled up the ankle. The moccasin shoe was shaped without soles or heels, laced and tied with a thong made of bear skin.
Barnett said that through "trade with the colonists, the Indians had access to cloth and blankets, which supplemented their traditional garments made from animal skins, plant materials and feathers. In summer, men often wore only a breechcloth, which is a piece of material passed between the legs and secured in front and back by a belt. Men also wore deerskin or cloth shirts, and leggings that extended from the ankle to the hip."
Clothing materials for women and children came from deerskins as well as cloth for dresses. Shawls were made from feathers and skirts made from the fibers of mulberry tree bark. Women normally wore nothing above the waist except when it was cold.
Historian Jack Elliott continues our series on the Natchez fort this week with the story of the ebb and flow of life in Natchez in 1729 as the Indians prepared to attack the French.
BEST & WORST OF TIMES
BY JACK ELLIOTT
As the year 1729 approached its end the French colonists at Natchez had cause for hope. Throughout French Louisiana the economy was looking up. Dumont de Montigny records that following the arrival in 1726 of the new governor, Perier, "all the country began to flourish more than ever. All vied in forming new establishments, the officers even . . . began plantations."
At Natchez the tobacco harvest and other crops were successful. There was every reason for the farmers to believe that their year of toil in the fields would pay off. Furthermore there had been no outbreaks of violence with their Indian neighbors for several years.
The population continued to grow and farms expanded as a visible indicator of prosperity. As Dumont de Montigny wrote: "the settlements formed at Natchez...prospered more and more every day..." Only the size of the military garrison did not grow. Meanwhile the new commandant, Captain Chepart, was apparently more interested in taking advantage of the new prosperity than he was in the duties of his command.
The Natchez Indians must have viewed the growing population with mixed feelings. For them it meant expanding possibilities for trade. However, it also meant increasing possibilities for conflict over land. At the time there were about 2500-3000 Indians around Natchez and about 700 colonists – both French (ca 400) and African (ca 280)– so the Indians still held the upper hand numerically – but that could change in time.
On November 27, two large boats arrived from New Orleans. They had come to pick up the fruit of the harvest, thereby bringing to completion the agricultural year and insuring financial remuneration for the farmers. Furthermore the boats bore a wide variety of supplies, everything from cloth to brandy. For those on the frontier it must have seemed like Christmas had come early.
CHEPART'S LAND GRAB FUELS A FURY
The situation would have continued along this trajectory if not for the new commandant at Natchez – Captain Chepart. Although he previously had a good record, upon arriving at his new command he changed. He was arrogant and intolerant to both French and Indian alike. Perhaps caught up in the economic prosperity he decided that he too would establish his own plantation. Therefore sometime during 1729 he demanded that the Natchez vacate either their White Apple settlement or the Grand Village (which one is uncertain) so that he could turn the lands into his plantation. This triggered a chain of events that brought death to hundreds and the destruction of the French colony and the Natchez tribe.
Accounts differ somewhat on what happened after Chepart's proposed land grab. Indeed many details are uncertain and possibly erroneous. The tribal leaders held one or more meetings to decide on a plan of action. The upshot was that the Indians would buy time by requesting that they be allowed to harvest their crops before having to move. This would allow them to plan and organize a surprise attack on the French settlement designed not to cripple it, but to annihilate it. The delay would also allow them to salvage their crops which was essential to their livelihood, especially if they were going to launch a major war.
The plan they devised was a sneak attack spearheaded by a group of tribal leaders led by the Great Sun who would approach the commandant and the fort bearing the calumet of peace, in other words, bearing a figurative flag of truce. Other warriors would be assigned to specific outlying French settlements which they would approach seemingly with the intention of trading. Upon a signal -- the first firing of guns -- all would attack the unsuspecting French.
The events leading up to the massacre are only hazily understood and will probably remain so. One of the stories that spread throughout the Mississippi Valley was that the planned massacre was part of a general conspiracy instigated by the Natchez to launch all the Indian tribes into a major campaign to wipe out all the small and scattered French settlements. Part of this story involved the counting sticks.
According to various accounts the Natchez sent bundles of sticks to each tribe involved in the conspiracy in order to synchronize the attack. A stick was to be removed each day from each bundle until the bundles were gone and that would be the time to attack. The story explains that other tribes did not carry out their attacks, because the Tattooed Arm, a high-ranking female Sun who empathized with the French, removed some of the sticks so the Natchez would attack early and thereby alert the French to impending attacks throughout the colony.
However, this story seems questionable. As Jim Barnett has pointed out, if the Natchez were so closely linked to a massive coordinated attack on a prescribed date, why would they delay their attack, as Du Pratz relates, to coincide with the arrival of the galley from New Orleans? Granted that the galley was filled with much coveted supplies -- an enticing bauble -- it is not likely that the Indians would have jeopardized their strategy for the supplies when they would have eventually had the cargo if their plan was a success.
Regardless no coordinated attack by numerous confederated tribes ever occurred. Furthermore, in 1733 a captured Sun named Saint-Cosme (perhaps the offspring of the murdered French missionary, Father Jean-François Buisson de Saint-Cosme) stated that in fact there had been no conspiracy. This seems to be the current consensus.
|Frank Morris Murder Series|