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The Diversity of Native America: The Middle Colonies
Digital History ID 641

Author:   William Penn
Date:1683

Annotation: Pennsylvania's founder offers a vivid description of the indigenous people of that area.


Document: The natives I shall consider in their persons, language, manners, religion and government....For their persons, they are generally tall, straight, well-built, and of singular proportion; they tread strong and clever, and mostly walk with a lofty chin....They grease themselves with bear's fat clarified, and, using no defense against sun or weather, their skins must needs be swarthy....

Their language is lofty, yet narrow, but like the Hebrew; in signification full, like short-hand in writing; one word serveth in the place of three, and the rest are supplied by the understanding of the hearer....

Of their customs and manners there is much to be said; I will begin with children. So soon as they are born, they wash them in water, and while very young and in cold weather to choose they plunge them in the rivers to harden and embolden them. Having wrapped them in a clout [cloth] they lay them on a straight, thin board, a little more than the length and breath of the child, and swaddle it fast upon the board to make it straight.... The children will go [walk] very young, at nine months commonly; they wear only a small clout round their waist till they are big; if boys, they go fishing till ripe for the woods, which is about fifteen; then they hunt, and, after having given some good proofs of their manhood by a good return of skins, they may marry....The girls stay with their mothers and help to hoe the ground, plant corn, and carry burdens....The age they marry at, if women, is about thirteen and fourteen; if men, seventeen and eighteen....

Their houses are mats or barks of trees set on poles in the fashion of an English barn....

Their diet is maize or Indian corn, divers ways prepared; sometimes roasted in the ashes, sometimes beaten and boiled with water, which they call "homine"....

But in liberality they excel; nothing is too good for their friends. Give them a fine gun, coat, or other thing, it may pass twenty hands before it sticks....Wealth circulateth like the blood, all parts partake....

If they die, they bury them with their apparel, be they man or woman, and the nearest of kin fling something precious with them as a token of their love: their mourning is blacking of their faces, which they continue for a year....

Their worship consists of two parts, sacrifice and cantico: their sacrifice is their first fruits; the first and fattest buck they kill goeth to the fire where he is all burnt....The other part is their cantico, performed by round dances, sometimes words, sometimes songs, then shouts....In the fall, when the corn cometh in, they begin to feast one another....

Their government is by kings, which they call "Sachems" and those by succession, but always of the mother's side....

Every king hath his council, and that consists of all the old and wise men of his nation, which perhaps is two hundred people. Nothing of moment is undertaken, be it war, peace, selling of land, or traffic, without advising with them, and which is more, with the young men too....

The justice they have is pecuniary. In case of any wrong or evil fact, be it murder itself, they atone by feasts and presents of wampum, which is proportioned to the quality of the offence or person injured, or of the sex they are of: for in case they kill a woman they pay double....

Source: William Penn, A Letter from William Penn (London, 1683).

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