Monday, August 17, 2009

Alexander Ross Describes an Indian Breakfast

I just wanted to share this wonderful passage from Alexander Ross' account of the failed Astoria adventure (the attempt by John Jacob Astor to establish a string of fur trading posts across North America). This passage is from Ross' wonderfully entertaining account, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River:

On the 17th, we were paddling along at daylight. On putting on shore to breakfast, four Indians on horseback joined us. The moment they alighted, one set about hobbling their horses, another to gather small sticks, a third to make a fire, and the fourth to catch fish. For this purpose, the fisherman cut off a bit of his leathern shirt, about the size of a small bean; then pulling out two or three hairs from his horse's tail for a line, tied the bit of leather to one end of it, in place of a hook or fly. Thus prepared, he entered the river a little way, sat down on a stone, and began throwing the small fish, three or four inches long, on shore, just as fast as he pleased; and while he was thus employed, another picked them up and threw them towards the fire, while the third stuck them up round it in a circle, on small sticks; and they were no sooner up than roasted. The fellows then sitting down, swallowed them—heads, tails, bones, guts, fins, and all, in no time, just as one would swallow the yolk of an egg. Now all this was but the work of a few minutes; and before our man had his kettle ready for the fire, the Indians were already eating their breakfast.

When the fish had hold of the bit of wet leather, or bait, their teeth got entangled in it, so as to give time to jerk them on shore, which was to us a new mode of angling; fire produced by the friction of two bits of wood was also a novelty; but what surprised us most of all, was the regularity with which they proceeded, and the quickness of the whole process, which actually took them less time to perform, than it has taken me to note it down.

Keep in mind that Ross was writing with quill and ink! Ross later married an Indian woman and his accounts of native people are often far more sympathetic than those of his white contemporaries. His Fur Hunters of the Far West is another great primary source for the early northwest.

[Picture of Alexander Ross take from this Manitoba Historical Society page, which has links to more of his writings.]

1 comment:

Bill Youngs said...

Larry, great post. Clearly your interest in Northwest History and the sources for the study of Northwest history remain prolific -- but I'd still take my fish cleeaned and slow-cooked!