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The Forest Region

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



WHEN British and French and Dutch colonized North America in the seventeenth century, the region which they entered was a continuous forest extending northward to the tree line of Labrador and Hudson's Bay west, southward to the foot-hills of the mountains and the shores of the Gulf, and westward to about the longitude of the Mississippi River. This vast region was inhabited by numerous tribes of a race new to white men. The Norse, during their brief stay in Vin-land, on the northern borders of the forest lands, had heard, through the Skraelings, of men who wore fringed garments, carried long spears, and whooped loudly; but they had not seen those people, whom it had remained for Columbus first to encounter. These men — "Indians" Columbus had called them — were, in respect to polity, organized into small tribal groups; but these groups, usually following relationship in speech and natural proximity, were, in turn, loosely bound together in " confederacies" or "nations." Even beyond these limits affinity of speech delimited certain major groups, or linguistic stocks, normally representing consanguineous races; and, indeed, the whole forest region, from the realm of the Eskimo in the north to the alluvial and coastal lands bordering on the Gulf, was dominated by two great linguistic stocks, the Algonquian and the Iroquoian, whose tribes were the first aborigines encountered by the white colonists.

The Algonquians, when the whites appeared, were by far the more numerous and wide-spread of the two peoples.

Their tribes included, along the Atlantic coast, the Micmac of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Abnaki, Pennacook, Massachuset, Nauset, Narraganset, Pequot, etc., of New England, the Mahican and Montauk of New York, the Delaware of New Jersey, and the Nanticoke and Powhatan of Virginia and North Carolina. North of the St. Lawrence were the Montagnais and Algonquin tribes, while westward were the Chippewa and Cree, mainly between the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay. The Potawatomi, Menominee, Sauk and Fox, Miami, Illinois, and Shawnee occupied territory extending from the western lakes southward to Tennessee and westward to the Mississippi. On the Great Plains the Arapaho and Cheyenne and in the Rocky Mountains the Siksika, or Blackfeet, were remote representatives of this vast family of tribes. In contrast, the Iroquoian peoples were compact and little divided. The two centres of their power were the region about Lakes Erie and Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence, southward through central New York and Pennsylvania, and the mountainous region of the Carolina and Virginia colonies. Of the northern tribes the Five Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy, of New York, and the Canadian Huron, with whom they were perpetually at war, were the most important; of the southern, the Tuscarora and Cherokee. In all the wide territory occupied by these two great stocks the only considerable intrusion was that of the Catawba, an offshoot of the famed Siouan stock of the Plains, which had established itself between the Iroquoian Cherokee and the Algonquian Powhatan.

As the territories of the forest tribes were similar — heavily wooded, whether on mountain or plain, copiously watered, abounding in game and natural fruits — so were their modes of life and thought cast to the same pattern. Every man was a hunter; but, except in the Canadian north, agriculture was practised by the women, with maize for the principal crop, and the villages were accordingly permanent. Industries were of the Stone Age, though not without art, especially where the ceremonial of life was concerned. The tribes were organized for war as for peace, and indeed, if hunting was the vocation, war was the avocation of every Indian man: warlike prowess was his crowning glory, and stoical fortitude under the most terrible of tortures his supreme virtue; the cruelty of the North American Indian — and few peoples have been more consciously cruel—can be properly understood only as the reflection of his intense esteem for personal courage, to the proof of which his whole life was subjected. For the rest, a love of ritual song and dance, of oratory and the counsel of elders, a fine courtesy, a subtle code of honour, an impeccable pride, were all traits which the Forest Tribes had developed to the full, and which gave to the Indian that aloofness of mien and austerity of character which were the white man's first and most vivid impression of him. In the possession of these traits, as in their mode of life and the ideas to which it gave birth, the forest Indians were as one people; the Algonquians were perhaps the more poetical, the more given to song and prophecy, the Iroquoians the more politic and the better tacticians; but their differences were slight in contrast to an essential unity of character which was to form, during the first two centuries of the white men's contact with the new-found race, the European's indelible impression of the Red Man.



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