Kathryn Troxel, in the Old Fort News, Volume 6, Issue 2, published in 1941, translated the work of Constantin Francois Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney and a member of the States General and the Constituent Assembly, from the French into English, giving us a glimpse of this traveler’s view of Little Turtle. Chasseboeuf sailed from Havre in 1795 and spent three years in the United States studying climate, customs and people. In 1798, he was suspected of being a secret agent of the French government trying to deliver Louisiana to the French Directory. He left the country never to return, even though he had intended to stay longer. In 1803 he published a book about his trip, “View of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America”. In it are a series of interviews with Chief Little Turtle.
Here we present some of the material from the original article.
“During this time I was making my observations of the Little Turtle, who, not understanding English (note: William Wells was serving as interpreter), took no part in the conversation. He walked about, plucking out the hairs of his beard, and even of his eyebrows. His dress was in the American fashion, a blue suit, with pantaloons, and a round hat. I desired Mr. Wells to ask him how he felt in garments so different from his own. ‘At first,’ said he, ‘they seemed to confine my limbs; then I got used to them; and they are a defense against the heat and the cold, I now like them.” He had tucked up his sleeves, and I was struck with the whiteness of his skin between the wrist and the elbow. I compared it with my own, and found no difference. The sun had tanned the back of my hands as much as that of his, and each of use (sic) appeared to have on a pair of gloves. I found his skin very soft to the touch, and in all respects like that of a Parisian. We had then a long conversation respecting the color of the savages; that which is called a copper color, asserted to be innate like the black of the Africans and held to constitute the natives of America a distinct race.
“The facts resulting from this discussion were: that the savages distinguish themselves by the name of red men; that they prize their own color, with reason, above white; that however they are born as white as we, and in their infancy continue so, till their skin is changed by the sun, and by the greases and juices of herbs, with which they besmear it. In short, it is fundamentally false, that this copper color, as it is called, is innate, or the same in all the natives of North America; on the contrary it varies in different nations, and is one of their means of distinguishing each other.”
Chasseboeuf also commented that William Wells had the complexion “of a ham, smoke dried, cleaned, and shining…”.
Chassebouef told Little Turtle of the theory that the Indians had come to this continent by way of the Bering Strait from Asia. “When I explained to him the means of communication by Bering’s Strait and the Aleutian Isles; ‘Why,’ said he, ‘should not these Tatars who resemble us, have come from America? Are there any proofs to the contrary? Or rather, why should we not both have been born in our own country?’ ‘I can see no objection,’ answered I, ‘but our black gowns (missionaries) will not allow it. There is also the difficulty of conceiving how any particular race originated.’ ‘It seems to me,’ replied he, ‘that this is as difficult to the black gowns as to ourselves.’
“’We can distinguish every nation,’ said Little Turtle to me, ‘at first sight; the face, the complexion, the shape, the knees, the legs, the feet, are to us certain marks of distinction. By the print of the foot we can distinguish not only men, women, and children, but also tribes. You whites are conspicuous by turning out your toes; we carry them straight before us, that they may encounter fewer obstacles among the bushes. Some people turn them in a little inward, have the foot broader, or shorter, tread more on the heel or on the toe.’”
Little Turtle, at this time, had been offered a permanent residence in Philadelphia by some Quakers living there but had declined to remain, in part because he did not know the language, and in part because he saw himself growing older and learning a new way of life was not practical to his way of thinking. “’Old age comes on. If I were to remain with the whites, I should be a piece of furniture useless to my own nation, useless to the whites, and useless to myself. What is to be done with a useless piece of furniture? I must return to my own country.’”
In closing his interview, Chasseboeuf sought to learn what surprised Little Turtle the most about Philadelphia. In a section entitled “Little Turtle Philosophizes on White Men vs Red Men”, he is quoted as saying:
“’In observing all these people,’ replied he, (it was a market day), ‘two things astonish me: the extreme difference of countenances, and the numerous population of the whites. We red men do not resemble one another, each has a particular face, but still there is family likeness. Here I perceive a confusion that puzzles me. There are ten shades between black and white; and the features, the forehead, nose, mouth, chin, black, brown, light, hair; blue, gray, and chestnut eyes; exhibit such a diversity as I cannot explain.’”
Little Turtle found the increase of population by the “white man” as “inconceivable”. But he also recognized that the way of life for the “white man” was easier than for the Indian.
“’You whites have found means of collecting at hand and in a small space a certain and abundant supply of food; from a piece of ground fifteen or twenty times as big as this room a man gathers enough to feed him all the year. If to this he add another plot sown with grass, he produces animals that supply him with meat and clothing; and all the rest of the time he may do what he pleases. We, on the contrary, require a vast extent of ground to live upon; for to each deer we kill, (and one will serve us but a couple of days), a considerable extent of ground is necessary to find nourishment and attain is full growth. If we eat or kill two or three hundred in year, it is the same thing as if we ate the wood and grass of all the ground on which they lived, and they require a great deal. In such a state of things, it is no wonder the whites have driven us year after year from the borders of the sea to the banks of the Mississippi. They spread like oil upon a blanket; we dissolve like the snow before the vernal sun. If we do not change our course, it is impossible for the race of red men to subsist.’”
Chasseboeuf closed with this observation:
“This reply convinced me, as no doubt it will every reader, that this man had not without reason acquired in his own nation and in the United States the reputation of a person superior in understanding to most of the savages.”