Ellsworth Huntington.

The Red Man's Continent: a chronicle of aboriginal America online

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Produced by The James J. Kelly Library of St. Gregory's
University, and Alev Akman



By Ellsworth Huntington







In writing this book the author has aimed first to present in readable
form the main facts about the geographical environment of American
history. Many important facts have been omitted or have been touched
upon only lightly because they are generally familiar. On the other
hand, special stress has been laid on certain broad phases of geography
which are comparatively unfamiliar. One of these is the similarity of
form between the Old World and the New, and between North and South
America; another is the distribution of indigenous types of vegetation
in North America; and a third is the relation of climate to health and
energy. In addition to these subjects, the influence of geographical
conditions upon the life of the primitive Indians has been emphasized.
This factor is especially important because people without iron tools
and beasts of burden, and without any cereal crops except corn, must
respond to their environment very differently from civilized people of
today. Limits of space and the desire to make this book readable have
led to the omission of the detailed proof of some of the conclusions
here set forth. The special student will recognize such cases and
will not judge them until he has read the author's fuller statements
elsewhere. The general reader, for whom this book is designed, will be
thankful for the omission of such purely technical details.





Across the twilight lawn at Hampton Institute straggles a group of
sturdy young men with copper-hued complexions. Their day has been
devoted to farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, or some other trade. Their
evening will be given to study. Those silent dignified Indians with
straight black hair and broad, strong features are training their hands
and minds in the hope that some day they may stand beside the white man
as equals. Behind them, laughing gayly and chattering as if without a
care in the world, comes a larger group of kinky-haired, thick-lipped
youths with black skins and African features. They, too, have been
working with the hands to train the mind. Those two diverse races, red
and black, sit down together in a classroom, and to them comes another
race. The faces that were expressionless or merely mirthful a minute ago
light up with serious interest as the teacher comes into the room. She
stands there a slender, golden-haired, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon girl
just out of college - a mere child compared with the score of swarthy,
stalwart men as old as herself who sit before her. Her mobile features
seem to mirror a hundred thoughts while their impassive faces are moved
by only one. Her quick speech almost trips in its eagerness not to waste
the short, precious hour. Only a strong effort holds her back while she
waits for the slow answers of the young men whom she drills over and
over again in simple problems of arithmetic. The class and the teacher
are an epitome of American history. They are more than that. They are an
epitome of all history.

History in its broadest aspect is a record of man's migrations from
one environment to another. America is the last great goal of these
migrations. He who would understand its history must know its mountains
and plains, its climate, its products, and its relation to the sea and
to other parts of the world. He must know more than this, however,
for he must appreciate how various environments alter man's energy and
capacity and give his character a slant in one direction or another.
He must also know the paths by which the inhabitants have reached their
present homes, for the influence of former environments upon them may be
more important than their immediate surroundings. In fact, the history
of North America has been perhaps more profoundly influenced by man's
inheritance from his past homes than by the physical features of his
present home. It is indeed of vast importance that trade can move freely
through such natural channels as New York Harbor, the Mohawk Valley, and
the Great Lakes. It is equally important that the eastern highlands of
the United States are full of the world's finest coal, while the central
plains raise some of the world's most lavish crops. Yet it is probably
even more important that because of his inheritance from a remote
ancestral environment man is energetic, inventive, and long-lived in
certain parts of the American continent, while elsewhere he has not the
strength and mental vigor to maintain even the degree of civilization to
which he seems to have risen.

Three streams of migration have mainly determined the history of
America. One was an ancient and comparatively insignificant stream from
Asia. It brought the Indian to the two great continents which the white
man has now practically wrested from him. A second and later stream was
the great tide which rolled in from Europe. It is as different from the
other as West is from East. Thus far it has not wholly obliterated the
native people, for between the southern border of the United States on
the one hand, and the northern borders of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay
on the other, the vast proportion of the blood is still Indian. The
European tide may in time dominate even this region, but for centuries
to come the poor, disinherited Indians will continue to form the bulk of
the population. The third stream flowed from Africa and was as different
from either of the others as South is from North.

The differences between one and another of these three streams of
population and the antagonisms which they have involved have greatly
colored American history. The Indian, the European, and the Negro
apparently differ not only in outward appearance but in the much more
important matter of mentality. According to Brinton * the average brain
capacity of Parisians, including adults of both sexes, is 1448 cubic
centimeters. That of the American Indian is 1376, and that of the Negro
1344 cubic centimeters. With this difference in size there appears to
be a corresponding difference in function. Thus far not enough accurate
tests have been made upon Indians to enable us to draw reliable
conclusions. The Negro, however, has been tested on an extensive
scale. The results seem to leave little doubt that there are real and
measurable differences in the mental powers of races, just as we know
to be the case among individuals. The matter is so important that we may
well dwell on it a moment before turning to the cause of the differences
in the three streams of American immigrants. If there is a measurable
difference between the inherent brain power of the white race and
the black, it is practically certain that there are also measurable
differences between the white and the red.

* D. G. Brinton. "The American Race."

Numerous tests indicate that in the lower mental powers there is no
great difference between the black and the white. In physical reactions
one is as quick as the other. In the capacity of the senses and in the
power to perceive and to discriminate between different kinds of objects
there is also practical equality. When it comes to the higher faculties,
however, such as judgment, inventiveness, and the power of organization,
a difference begins to be apparent. These, as Ferguson * says, are
the traits that "divide mankind into the able and the mediocre, the
brilliant and the dull, and they determine the progress of civilization
more directly than do the simple fundamental powers which man has in
common with the lower animals." On the basis of the most exhaustive
study yet made, Ferguson believes that, apart from all differences due
to home training and environment, the average intellectual power of the
colored people of this country is only about three-fourths as great as
that of white persons of the same amount of training. He believes it
probable, indeed, that this estimate is too high rather than too low. As
to the Indian, his past achievements and present condition indicate that
intellectually he stands between the white man and the Negro in about
the position that would be expected from the capacity of his brain. If
this is so, the mental differences in the three streams of migration
to America are fully as great as the outward and manifest physical
differences and far more important.

* G. O. Ferguson. "The Psychology of the Negro," New York, 1916.

Why does the American Indian differ from the Negro, and the European
from both? This is a question on which we can only speculate. But we
shall find it profitable to study the paths by which these diverse races
found their way to America from man's primeval home. According to the
now almost universally accepted theory, all the races of mankind had
a common origin. But where did man make the change from a four-handed,
tree-dwelling little ape to a much larger, upright creature with two
hands and two feet? It is a mistake to suppose that because he is
hairless he must have originated in a warm climate. In fact quite the
opposite seems to be the case, for apparently he lost his hair because
he took to wearing the skins of slain beasts in order that he might have
not only his own hair but that of other animals as a protection from the

In our search for the starting-place of man's slow migration to America
our first step should be to ascertain what responses to physical
environment are common to all men. If we find that all men live and
thrive best under certain climatic conditions, it is fair to assume that
those conditions prevailed in man's original home, and this conclusion
will enable us to cast out of the reckoning the regions where they do
not prevail. A study of the relations of millions of deaths to weather
conditions indicates that the white race is physically at its best when
the average temperature for night and day ranges from about 50 to 73
degrees F. and when the air is neither extremely moist nor extremely
dry. In addition to these conditions there must be not only seasonal
changes but frequent changes from day to day. Such changes are possible
only where there is a distinct winter and where storms are of frequent
occurrence. The best climate is, therefore, one where the temperature
ranges from not much below the freezing-point at night in winter to
about 80 degrees F. by day in summer, and where the storms which bring
daily changes are frequent at all seasons.

Surprising as it may seem, this study indicates that similar conditions
are best for all sorts of races. Finns from the Arctic Circle and
Italians of sunny Sicily have the best health and greatest energy under
practically the same conditions; so too with Frenchmen, Japanese, and
Americans. Most surprising of all, the African black man in the United
States is likewise at his best in essentially the same kind of weather
that is most favorable for his white fellow-citizens, and for Finns,
Italians, and other races. For the red race, no exact figures are
available, but general observation of the Indian's health and activity
suggests that in this respect he is at one with the rest of mankind.

For the source of any characteristic so widespread and uniform as this
adaptation to environment we must go back to the very beginning of the
human race. Such a characteristic must have become firmly fixed in the
human constitution before primitive man became divided into races, or at
least before any of the races had left their original home and started
on their long journey to America. On the way to this continent one race
took on a dark reddish or brownish hue and its hair grew straight and
black; another became black skinned and crinkly-haired, while a
third developed a white skin and wavy blonde hair. Yet throughout the
thousands of years which brought about these changes, all the races
apparently retained the indelible constitutional impress of the climate
of their common birthplace. Man's physical adaptation to climate seems
to be a deep-seated physiological fact like the uniformity of the
temperature of the blood in all races. Just as a change in the
temperature of the blood brings distress to the individual, so a change
of climate apparently brings distress to a race. Again and again, to be
sure, on the way to America, and under many other circumstances, man has
passed through the most adverse climates and has survived, but he has
flourished and waxed strong only in certain zones.

Curiously enough man's body and his mind appear to differ in their
climatic adaptations. Moreover, in this respect the black race, and
perhaps the red, appears to be diverse from the white. In America an
investigation of the marks of students at West Point and Annapolis
indicates that the best mental work is done when the temperature
averages not much above 40 degrees F. for night and day together. Tests
of school children in Denmark point to a similar conclusion. On the
other hand, daily tests of twenty-two Negroes at Hampton Institute for
sixteen months suggest that their mental ability may be greatest at a
temperature only a little lower than that which is best for the most
efficient physical activity. No tests of this sort have ever been made
upon Indians, but such facts as the inventiveness of the Eskimo, the
artistic development of the people of northern British Columbia and
southern Alaska, and the relatively high civilization of the cold
regions of the Peruvian plateau suggest that the Indian in this respect
is more like the white race than the black. Perhaps man's mental powers
underwent their chief evolution after the various races had left the
aboriginal home in which the physical characteristics became fixed.
Thus the races, though alike in their physical response to climate,
may possibly be different in their mental response because they have
approached America by different paths.

Before we can understand how man may have been modified on his way from
his original home to America, we must inquire as to the geographical
situation of that home. Judging by the climate which mankind now finds
most favorable, the human race must have originated in the temperate
regions of Europe, Asia, or North America. We are not entirely without
evidence to guide to a choice of one of the three continents. There is
a scarcity of indications of preglacial man in the New World and an
abundance of such indications in the Old. To be sure, several skulls
found in America have been supposed to belong to a time before the last
glacial epoch. In every case, however, there has been something to throw
doubt on the conclusion. For instance, some human bones found at Vero
in Florida in 1915 seem to be very old. Certain circumstances, however,
suggest that possibly they may not really belong to the layers of gravel
in which they were discovered but may have been inserted at some later
time. In the Old World, on the contrary, no one doubts that many human
skulls and other parts of skeletons belong to the interglacial epoch
preceding the last glacial epoch, while some appear to date from still
more remote periods. Therefore no matter at what date man may have
come to America, it seems clear that he existed in the Old World much
earlier. This leaves us to choose between Europe and Asia. The evidence
points to central Asia as man's original home, for the general movement
of human migrations has been outward from that region and not inward.
So, too, with the great families of mammals, as we know from fossil
remains. From the earliest geological times the vast interior of Asia
has been the great mother of the world, the source from which the most
important families of living things have come.

Suppose, then, that we place in central Asia the primitive home of
the thin-skinned, hairless human race with its adaptation to a highly
variable climate with temperatures ranging from freezing to eighty
degrees. Man could not stay there forever. He was bound to spread to
new regions, partly because of his innate migratory tendency and partly
because of Nature's stern urgency. Geologists are rapidly becoming
convinced that the mammals spread from their central Asian point of
origin largely because of great variations in climate. * Such variations
have taken place on an enormous scale during geological times. They
seem, indeed, to be one of the most important factors in evolution.
Since early man lived through the successive epochs of the glacial
period, he must have been subject to the urgency of vast climatic
changes. During the half million years more or less of his existence,
cold, stormy, glacial epochs lasting tens of thousands of years have
again and again been succeeded by warm, dry, interglacial epochs of
equal duration.

* W. D. Matthew. "Climate and Evolution," N. Y. Acad. Sci., 1915.

During the glacial epochs the interior of Asia was well watered and full
of game which supplied the primitive human hunters. With the advent
of each interglacial epoch the rains diminished, grass and trees
disappeared, and the desert spread over enormous tracts. Both men
and animals must have been driven to sore straits for lack of food.
Migration to better regions was the only recourse. Thus for hundreds
of thousands of years there appears to have been a constantly recurring
outward push from the center of the world's greatest land mass. That
push, with the consequent overcrowding of other regions, seems to have
been one of the chief forces impelling people to migrate and cover the

Among the primitive men who were pushed outward from the Asian deserts
during a period of aridity, one group migrated northeastward toward
the Kamchatkan corner of Asia. Whether they reached Bering Sea and the
Kamchatkan shore before the next epoch of glaciation we do not know.
Doubtless they moved slowly, perhaps averaging only a few score or
a hundred miles per generation, for that is generally the way with
migrations of primitive people advancing into unoccupied territory. Yet
sometimes they may have moved with comparative rapidity. I have seen a
tribe of herdsmen in central Asia abandon its ancestral home and start
on a zigzag march of a thousand miles because of a great drought. The
grass was so scanty that there was not enough to support the animals.
The tribe left a trail of blood, for wherever it moved it infringed upon
the rights of others and so with conflict was driven onward. In some
such way the primitive wanderers were kept in movement until at
last they reached the bleak shores of the North Pacific. Even there
something - perhaps sheer curiosity - still urged them on. The green
island across the bay may have been so enticing that at last a raft of
logs was knotted together with stout withes. Perhaps at first the men
paddled themselves across alone, but the hunting and fishing proved so
good that at length they took the women and children with them, and so
advanced another step along the route toward America. At other times
distress, strife, or the search for game may have led the primitive
nomads on and on along the coast until a day came when the Asian home
was left and the New World was entered. The route by which primitive
man entered America is important because it determined the surroundings
among which the first Americans lived for many generations. It has
sometimes been thought that the red men came to America by way of the
Kurile Islands, Kamchatka, and the Aleutian Islands. If this was their
route, they avoided a migration of two or three thousand miles through
one of the coldest and most inhospitable of regions. This, however,
is far from probable. The distance from Kamchatka to the first of the
Aleutian Islands is over one hundred miles. As the island is not in
sight from the mainland, there is little chance that a band of savages,
including women, would deliberately sail thither. There is equally
little probability that they walked to the island on the ice, for the
sea is never frozen across the whole width. Nevertheless the climate may
at that time have been colder than now. There is also a chance that a
party of savages may have been blown across to the island in a storm.
Suppose that they succeeded in reaching Bering Island, as the most
Asiatic of the Aleutians is called, the next step to Copper Island would
be easy. Then, however, there comes a stretch of more than two hundred
miles. The chances that a family would ever cross this waste of ocean
are much smaller than in the first case. Still another possibility
remains. Was there once a bridge of land from Asia to America in this
region? There is no evidence of such a link between the two continents,
for a few raised beaches indicate that during recent geological times
the Aleutian Islands have been uplifted rather than depressed.

The passage from Asia to America at Bering Strait, on the other hand,
is comparatively easy. The Strait itself is fifty-six miles wide, but
in the middle there are two small islands so that the longest stretch
of water is only about thirty-five miles. Moreover the Strait is usually
full of ice, which frequently becomes a solid mass from shore to shore.
Therefore it would be no strange thing if some primitive savages, in
hunting for seals or polar bears, crossed the Strait, even though they
had no boats. Today the people on both sides of the Strait belong to
the American race. They still retain traditions of a time when their
ancestors crossed this narrow strip of water. The Thilanottines have
a legend that two giants once fought fiercely on the Arctic Ocean. One
would have been defeated had not a man whom he had befriended cut the
tendon of his adversary's leg. The wounded giant fell into Bering Strait
and formed a bridge across which the reindeer entered America. Later
came a strange woman bringing iron and copper. She repeated her visits
until the natives insulted her, whereupon she went underground with her
fire-made treasures and came back no more. Whatever may have been the
circumstances that led the earliest families to cross from Asia to
America, they little recked that they had found a new continent and that
they were the first of the red race.

Unless the first Americans came to the new continent by way of the
Kurile and Aleutian Islands, it was probably their misfortune to
spend many generations in the cold regions of northeastern Asia and
northwestern America. Even if they reached Alaska by the Aleutian route
but came to the islands by way of the northern end of the Kamchatkan
Peninsula, they must have dwelt in a place where the January temperature
averages -10 degrees F. and where there are frosts every month in the
year. If they came across Bering Strait, they encountered a still more
severe climate. The winters there are scarcely worse than in northern
Kamchatka, but the summers are as cold as the month of March in New York
or Chicago.

Perhaps a prolonged sojourn in such a climate is one reason for
the stolid character of the Indians. Of course we cannot speak with
certainty, but we must, in our search for an explanation, consider the
conditions of life in the far north. Food is scanty at all times, and
starvation is a frequent visitor, especially in winter when game is hard
to get. The long periods of cold and darkness are terribly enervating.
The nervous white man goes crazy if he stays too long in Alaska. Every
spring the first boats returning to civilization carry an unduly large
proportion of men who have lost their minds because they have endured
too many dark, cold winters. His companions say of such a man, "The
North has got him." Almost every Alaskan recognizes the danger. As one
man said to a friend, "It is time I got out of here."

"Why?" said the friend, "you seem all right. What's the matter?"

"Well," said the other, "you see I begin to like the smell of skunk
cabbage, and, when a man gets that way, it's time he went somewhere

The skunk cabbage, by the way, grows in Alaska in great thickets ten
feet high. The man was perfectly serious, for he meant that his mind was
beginning to act in ways that were not normal. Nowhere is the strain of
life in the far north better described than in the poems of Robert W.

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Online LibraryEllsworth HuntingtonThe Red Man's Continent: a chronicle of aboriginal America → online text (page 1 of 9)