Dickens Has a Laugh With a Choctaw Chieftain

On his way from Cincinnati to St. Louis in 1842 aboard a steamboat, Charles Dickens met a chief of the Choctaw tribe named Pitchlynn, who was well versed in English and American literature, a fan of Sir Walter Scott and yes! James Fenimore Cooper.

Pitchlynn had been visiting Washington “on some negotiations pending between his tribe and the Government: which were not settled yet (he said in a melancholy way), and he feared never would be: for what could a few poor Indians do against such well-skilled men of business as the whites? He had no love for Washington; tired of towns and cities very soon; and longed for the Forest and the Prairie.”

Dickens asked him what he thought of Congress. “He answered, with a smile, that it wanted [lacked] dignity in an Indian’s eyes.”

“He would very much like, he said, to see England before he died; and spoke with much interest about the great things to be seen there. When I told him of that chamber in the British Museum wherein are preserved household memorials of a race that ceased to be, thousands of years ago, he was very attentive, and it was not hard to see that he had a reference in his mind to the gradual fading away of his own people.

“This led us to speak of Mr. [George] Caitlin’s gallery, which he praised highly: observing that his own portrait was among the collection, and that all the likenesses were ‘elegant.’

“Mr. Cooper [James Fenimore], he said, had painted the Red Man well; and so would I, he knew, if I would go home with him and hunt buffaloes, which he was quite anxious I should do. When I told him that, supposing I went, I should not be very likely to damage the buffaloes much, he took it as a great joke and laughed heartily.

“He was a remarkably handsome man; some years past forty, I should judge; with long black hair, an aquiline nose, broad cheek bones, a sunburnt complexion, and a very bright, keen, dark, and piercing eye.

“There were but but twenty thousand of the Choctaws left, he said, and their number was decreasing every day. A few of his brother chiefs had been obliged to become civilized, and to make themselves acquainted with what the whites knew, for it was their only chance of existence.

“But they were not many; and the rest were as they had always been. He dwelt on this: and said several times that unless they tried to assimilate themselves to their conquerors, they must be swept away before the strides of civilized society.

“When we shook hands at parting, I told him he must come to England, as he longed to see the land so much: that I should hope to see him there some day: and that I could promise him he would be well received and kindly treated.

“He was evidently pleased by this assurance, though he rejoined, with a good-humored smile and an arch shake of his head, that the English used to be very fond of the Red Men, when they wanted their help, but had not cared much for them since.

“He took his leave; as stately and complete a gentleman of Nature’s making as ever I beheld; and moved among the people in the boat, another kind of being. He sent me a lithographed portrait of himself soon afterwards; which I carefully preserved in memory of our brief acquaintance.”