Great Turtle and Little Hatchet

Here’s another selection from Charles Dickens American Notes about his first visit to the US in 1842. He’s in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the passage Dickens makes reference to “The Parish Register” by George Crabbe (1807) a poem in which a country clergyman is looking through his registers, and utters the reflections and memories stirred in him, in turn, by the entries of births, marriages and deaths.

“I was very much interested,” Dickens writes, “in looking over a number of treaties made from time to time with the poor Indians, signed by the different chiefs at the period of their ratification, and preserved in the office of the Secretary to the Commonwealth.

“These signatures, traced of course by their own hands, are rough drawings of the creatures or weapons they were called after. Thus, the Great Turtle makes a crooked pen-and-ink outline of a great turtle; the War Hatchet sets a rough image of that weapon for his mark. So with the Arrow, the Fish, the Scalp, the Big Canoe, and all of them.

“I could not but think — as I looked at these feeble and tremulous productions of the hands which could draw the longest arrow to the head in a stout elk-horn bow, or split a bead or a feather with a rifle ball — of Crabbe’s musings over the Parish Register, and the irregular scratches made with a pen by men who would plow a lengthy furrow straight from end to end.

“Nor could I help bestowing many sorrowful thoughts upon the simple warriors whose hands and hearts were set there in all truth and honesty; and who only learned in the course of time from white men how to break their faith, and quibble out of forms and bonds.

“I wondered, too, how many times the credulous Big Turtle, or trusting Little Hatchet, had put his mark to treaties which were falsely read to him; and had signed away, he knew not what, until it went and cast him loose upon the new possessors of the land…”