Michigan Pioneer Collections

Date: 1847

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I now give you the unwritten law, as I learned it while five years among them as missionary—told me by chiefs and interpreters. When murder is committed among them in times of peace, the murderer, as soon as he has committed the deed, flees at once to the chief and band of Indians that is nearest kinsman to himself, and stays there with that chief until that chief secures a chief’s court or council for the trial of the murderer. In the meantime the murderer must not go away from that chief’s wigwam until the court meets, unless the chief goes with him.

The chief to whom this murderer fled lived fifty or sixty miles north-east of the place where the murder was committed, at the village of Shingwahkoosking, alias, "The-village-of-little-pine-trees," located on the Pine River, thirty-five miles from Saginaw (where St. Louis, Gratiot county, now is). The name of the old chief who lived at this Indian village was Pamahsegah, alias, "The-sun-shines-among-the-clouds." To him this murderer fled. He was a chief of much dignity and influence among the chiefs of the Saginaw and Grand River Indians, and was blood relation to this murderer. He took a deep interest in securing the council or court for the trial of this criminal, and the feasts attending such a court, which I will here explain. The place where the court is to be held is the Indian village nearest to the place where the murder was committed. This village was on the Maple River two or three miles above Maple Rapids. The parties composing such a court or council are: first, the family of the murdered man; second, all his relatives and his wife’s relatives; third, the Indian chiefs who are related to both parties; fourth, the murderer himself; fifth, the medicine man or the great spirit’s mediator, who acts officially: first, as a friend of the murdered; second, as the friend of both parties; third, as the agent who presents the gifts to the bereaved family; fourth, who particularly reveals what the mind of the great good spirit is in settling the question whether the murderer’s life is to be spared, or whether he is in open court to be tomahawked. There are also three speakers on each side to conduct the arguments. The chief, who is the nearest kinsman to the murderer, calls the court in conjunction with the medicine man and fixes the time of holding it. The court or council is held in a new wigwam built of poles and covered with bark, for that especial occasion, in which no one has ever slept, eaten, or lived. The wigwam on this occasion was built down in the cornfield, with capacity to hold one hundred and fifty or two hundred persons. When the time is fixed for holding the court, secret notices are sent to all the relatives and friends on both sides, who at once begin to make preparations for the feasts which are to occur in the forenoon in the village where the court is held. The things prepared and brought by the friends are dried berries, meats, maple sugar, flour, etc. It is really two feasts, the chiefs and relatives of the murdered man meet at one wigwam and eat together, and the medicine man, chiefs, and relatives of the murderer meet with him at another wigwam and feast or eat together. This party have prepared and brought the presents to buy off the life of the murderer, which are to be given by the medicine man, during the trial in open council, to the family of the murdered chief.

I will here say, I have met many missionaries, Indian traders, and others, who had been at many gatherings of Indians, but I never yet conversed with a white man who had been present at an Indian court for the trial of a murderer; and what I here write is what I heard, saw, and had explained to me by my interpreter and the chiefs who were here present at this trial. After the feasts are over, then the plaintiff, i.e., the family, chiefs, and relatives of the murdered man, march slowly, in single file, to the new wigwam . . . and they enter as though they are going to a funeral. . . . The most distant relative walked in first—walked along on the north side to the east end and halfway across the wigwam, and sat down on the ground with his back against the wigwam, and thus were his party all seated. The wife and children of the murdered chief sat next to the door. The eldest son, a lad sixteen years old, sat first at the entrance. Wahbegakake, the chief of this village, was a relative of this party, and by his urbanity I and my interpreter were invited to witness the council.

The ranking chief of the other party was Pashasega. They came down the hill, and with a slow, firm step made a semicircle in front of the tent, and entered very quietly, and coolly shook hands with each of the other party, and saying in a low, subdued tone of voice, Bushoo, i.e., "How do you do," were seated on the ground on the opposite side of the wigwam. The murderer was a very sullen, morose, forlorn picture of human depravity. He followed the medicine man, and they were the last to enter the court. The criminal’s face was blackened with charcoal to show his sorrow, with his blanket and leggings torn full of holes to excite the sympathy of his opponents. The medicine man took his seat in the center of the wigwam with the criminal on one side of him, and the presents or gifts on the other, to be given at the proper time to the bereaved family. In front of the wigwam were gathered one hundred or more Indians who had come to witness the trial. They formed a semicircle, and were mostly seated on the ground, so they could all look in the wide door of the wigwam. All was quiet as the chamber of death. Perhaps five minutes elapsed after all were seated, in silent reflection before any action occurred. Then one of the speakers on the side of the criminal arose and opened the case, by stating the facts of the murder, and making a full confession of the crime, as follows: "My brothers, we are met here in this new wigwam to sit in council on this great trouble that is in all our hearts. This foolish young man killed one night down near the mouth of Fish Creek, in the woods by the side of the trail, your second chief, who was a strong-minded, good man. When we his relatives heard this bad news we all felt very sorry in our hearts, and we do today; and we are met here now to show you our sorrow, and to try and buy of you the life of this foolish young man that killed your chief. That chief was a good counselor, a good hunter, and we feel sorrow d eep down in our hearts, on account of this trouble." This speech was short. The speaker, as he closed, had the endorsement of all on his side of the case by the Indian assent—Ah! The medicine man now arose and carried across the wigwam some new Indian Mackinaw blankets, and laid them down in front of the bereaved family, which consisted of the widow, one son sixteen years old, and four smaller children. The family sat perfectly still and kept cool. I think there were two blankets apiece for each member of the family. The medicine man returned to his seat. Following this act an Indian speaker arose and spoke on the other side of the case, setting forth in his remarks the excellent characteristics of the murdered chief. "He was a good hunter, and provided food for his own family; he was a good husband and father, and as such always cared for his own wigwam. Now, he being dead, this boy sixteen years old has to hunt and get food for his mother, and these other children alone; and his place in the Indian council is vacant; and this makes us all feel very sorrowful; (pointing over to the family) our brother is not there; his body is in the chebawahgemugh (i.e., in the graveyard), and his spirit has gone to the great hunting grounds beyond the setting sun; and we all mourn. These presents you bring his family do not bring back our brother." At the conclusion of this speech all the relatives of the bereaved family responded and endorsed the speaker by the Indian, Ah!

Then followed another speaker from the side of the criminal, who was very eloquent in his address. He said: "My brothers, you are like the eagle who from the top of the tall tree over the ledge of rocks on the bank of the lake, with his sharp eagle eye, sees way down on the bank of the lake a small living animal; quick as he sees the animal he wants it for food, and suddenly from his high peak, darts as an arrow shot from the bow, and before the animal can hide, or get away, the eagle takes it up in one of his claws, and with ease flies up, up, up, towards the sun. The little animal struggles and struggles to get away, but the eagle continues to fly upward. The eagle now has a great white heart of pity, or compassion, and he looks as he flies more slowly, down at this poor little animal struggling to get away, and thinks that it wants to live. Then the eagle in his great white heart says, ’I will let you live’; and immediately turns its flight slowly and gently downward with his extended wings on the air, to the place from where he took the animal up and lets it go, saying to the animal, ’This world is large enough for us both to live in.’ So you, my brothers, like the eagle, you have this man in your power, and you have a great white heart, and you can live and let this young man live, too. As that little animal in the eagle’s claw, as the eagle flew up towards the sun, felt dizzy, so does this young man feel dizzy in this council and in your power, and you can lower him down easy to the place among you where he was before he killed our brother, and I hope you will do it and let him live." All on his side responded Ah! and the speaker sat down.

The medicine man took some pieces of blue broadcloth and walked across the court and laid them on the pile of blankets, for the widow and children. Another speaker spoke especially in behalf of the children of the murdered chief with much pathos, and was endorsed by the Ah!! from his side of the council.

The third speaker for the criminal made a very strong plea for pity and forgiveness to be bestowed on the prisoner, on the ground that all the criminal’s relatives had joined in purchasing these presents and bringing them into this council for the medicine man to present to his bereaved family, and buy off the life of this foolish young man. "Now, if we did not forgive him, and want you to forgive him and let him live, we should not have bought these gifts, and brought them here; but this shows to you our sorrow for the death of the chief, and our love for the life of this our brother who killed him, and we want you to forgive this bad deed of this young man."

This speech brought out the unanimous vote of all on his side, expressed by the same Ah! The speaker sat down amidst deep, suppressed thoughts on the part of the whole council, though there was no demonstration of emotion by anyone. The medicine man arose and took more presents of broadcloths, wampum, beads, and tobacco, and coolly carried them over and laid them with the other gifts. This last speech produced profound respect for the speaker upon the whole court, and especially upon the witnesses outside of the wigwam. The speaker seemed to have electrical eloquence for the occasion; and while he was speaking I felt my hair rise on my head, his voice was so full of native pathos. And the effect was such that, before the sixth and last speaker commenced, there was a silent pause for five or eight minutes. The sixth speaker addressed the council from the side of the bereaved family. He was the finest looking Indian of the six speakers, and made the most eloquent speech in the trial. He said: "Brothers, the great good spirit created us all to be brothers and to live in peace, and always to be friends and not enemies; and when we do differently it always brings trouble. Now this trouble that has brought us together from our different villages along the rivers, even over as far as the Saginaw River, and taken our time getting ready to come to this council, and the time we are here holding this court, and the time it will take us to go home, is all because this young man killed our brother and chief. Look at this family—this woman and children. Husband dead; father in the grave. This young son has now to use the gun to get meat for his mother and brothers and sister, and we, his relatives, have deep sorrow in our hearts. When we visit his wigwam it is lonesome because he is not there, and every fall when our great father at Washington sends us presents and money at the Indian payments, his wigwam will then be lonesome, and his name on the paper or pa y roll will not be there, but ’dead’ will be written opposite his name, all because this young man killed him that night when they were sleeping together in the woods with only one blanket. This sorrow we all feel will go with us when we travel on the trail with our ponies, when we are alone hunting in the woods. Whenever we think of our dead brother, or of this young man, we will find this deep sorrow in our hearts. These blankets, broadcloths, wampum, and all these presents to buy off the life of this young man, do not give back to us the life of our chief; and if he was living he could hunt and trap, and get furs and buy these things that you bring to this council to buy off the life of this murderer. If the chief was living his family could have his company, his care, and his life to defend them. We all feel this deep sorrow in our hearts, and we shall never see him again in our councils on this earth, nor until we go to the great spirit’s hunting grounds beyond the setting sun." As this speaker closed, all on his side of the court responded Ah!

The prisoner remained silent and motionless during these speeches, except his breathing. He never looked up at all, but kept his seat near the mediator, in the center of the council. Now the medicine man arose deliberately, and took other presents, such as wampum, beads, tobacco, and a jug of "fire water," or whisky, and carried them over and laid them in front of the widow and children with the other presents, and with becoming official dignity, returned to his seat beside the criminal.

All eyes now in the court, and of those standing outside, were turned towards this medicine man, who deliberately prepared and did his official part in the trial, which seemed to be the hinge on which the result of the trial hung. He took from his fawn-skin tobacco pouch a plug of Caven-dish tobacco, and with his knife from his belt cut off small pieces of tobacco and filled his large redstone MisSissippi pipe, and attached the long, artistically carved stem to the bowl of the red council pipe. He took a flint and a piece of punk and steel from his pouch, with which to strike fire to light the pipe. Now being ready, he rose very deliberately and addressed the court as follows: "Brothers, we have met here before the great spirit, who sees us all, who knows why we are met, who sees right down into our hearts, who knows what your tongues have talked, and what your hearts have thought, and he knows what these presents are that I have carried over and given to this family, to make peace for this trouble. Now, if you are all true to each other, and intend to settle this trouble, and let this young man that has brought this trouble in our wigwams and hearts live, then I will have to strike this flint once only, with this steel, to light this pipe of peace; but if some of you have kept back in your hearts, thoughts and feelings contrary to peace, as you on both sides have talked, then I will have to strike this flint more than once to bring the fire to light this pipe of peace"; and they all on both sides of the court, responded Ah! This is the first time they all in the council said ah together.

A pause for a minute and every eye in the council, and of the witnesses outside, was turned upon the muskahkenenene, or the medicine man, or mediator, and now, for the first time since the council commenced, the murderer lifted his eyes from the ground and fixed them on the right arm of the medicine man, as he deliberately lifted it up at full length for the blow. Now, as with electric might fell the steel click against the flint, tightly grasped in the left hand of the medicine man, the punk closely held contiguous to the flint. All eyes are now on the punk—a second more, and the murderer’s eyes fell to the ground again. The next moment smoke from the ignited punk rises, and with the burning punk the pipe of peace is lighted. The medicine man takes a few whiffs from the pipe, and then quietly walks across the tent and brings it down and presents it to the son of the murdered chief. Once, but he took it not; twice, in due deliberate form was the pipe offered him, but not a motion or a muscle does he move. A third time it is presented, and when the medicine man was about to take it away from him, his mother quietly touched his arm, and with a look of earnestness, prompted him to smoke. He took the pipe and gave one whiff, and returned it. The widow next was presented with the pipe: Up to this stage in the proceedings no emotions have been exhibited by anyone on either side. All the proceedings have been conducted with the most profound propriety; but now, as this widow takes hold of that pipe and takes but one whiff of smoke, she gives vent to the pent up feelings of a broken, grief-stricken spirit in a wail of sorrow, as mother and widow, while tears gush down her cheeks as evidence of her deep loneliness and mourning for her murdered husband; at the same time, by this act of smoking, she said to one and all present, "I forgive this murderer."

The medicine man goes on from one to one, and each takes a whiff. There are sitting two young men midway around the circle of the court, who are cousins to the murdered chief. They had intimated that they could not forgive the criminal. The unwritten law on that point, as told me by their senior chief, is, "If any relative of the murdered chief cannot forgive the murderer, then in open council, in the presence of all the parties, when the pipe of peace is presented, the relative who cannot smoke the pipe, may rise up, and in the presence of all, kill the murderer with his tomahawk." Now, when the medicine man stood in front of these two cousins and presented the pipe to the first one, there evidently was much suppressed anxiety among the chiefs and friends on the side of the murderer, as this young man sat coolly, when the pipe was presented to him once, twice, and even thrice. The medicine man evidently took in the whole situation, for he presented the pipe now more deliberately to this young Indian, than he had to anyone in the court. This Indian showed he was in a profound study; what should he do; take the pipe and forgive, or rise now with his tomahawk and kill the murderer? The third time the pipe is presented, and when lifted up and away from him just the length of his arm, he reached and took it, and took one whiff of smoke; his brother by his side did the same, and the deep, silent suspense was over. The pipe then was presented to each one in the court, except the murderer, and all smoked but him; he was not allowed. The court is now closed; one by one the chiefs and friends of the murderer arose and shook hands with the other side, and went out as they came in, and the trial is over.1

The marked development of adoption or artificial kinship has been noticed (Chap. VI), and a similar attitude is sometimes expressed in the replacement of the murdered person by the murderer. Tanner, for example, who was captured as the substitute for the dead son of an Indian mother, relates that during his captivity a mother proposed to adopt a young Indian who had murdered her son in a drunken brawl.1

1Hickey, M.n/an/an/an/an/a, "A Missionary among the Indians," , 4: 550–556 (1847).

1 Tanner, J., Narrative of the Captivitu and Adventures of John Tanner, 243.

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Chicago: Michigan Pioneer Collections in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed May 23, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3KX8GZ4CZZ52HNV.

MLA: . Michigan Pioneer Collections, Vol. 4, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 May. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3KX8GZ4CZZ52HNV.

Harvard: , Michigan Pioneer Collections. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 May 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3KX8GZ4CZZ52HNV.