Gateway to the Classics: Stephen of Philadelphia by James Otis
Stephen of Philadelphia by  James Otis

How the Indians Live

I would that I might describe to you the Indians whom we found living near about the land which was set apart for our city, in such manner that you would be able to picture them to yourself, for they were much like neighbors to us during the days when Philadelphia was little more than a clearing in the wilderness.

As I have said, Jethro and I were often among them, and came to be acquainted with half a dozen or more until they were to us really friends.

I have heard those who have traveled much in this land of America describe the villages which the people of Boston, or of Jamestown, saw when they first came to this country, and therefore it is that I know our Indians lived in a different manner from the savages in those sections.

The villages near us were made of huts, hardly higher than a man would stand, and built by setting poles into the ground until a frame-work had been made five or six feet wide, and from ten to twelve feet long. This was covered with the bark of trees, or of mats woven from coarse dried grass, with a mat hanging at one end to serve as door.


Inside these, in the winter, a fire is built, and the smoke passes out through a hole left in the roof. As for beds, they heap up reeds or grass, covering the whole with skins of animals, and thus are as comfortable while sleeping, as are we English people on our beds of feathers.

When they are in their own village, it seems as if the savages are continually burning that Indian weed called tobacco, and how they contrive to get any pleasure or profit from it passeth all understanding.

They make of a smooth red stone, or of common clay, a small bowl which would contain, perhaps, a robin's egg, and to this they attach a reed, or the leg-bone of a turkey, which is hollow, in order to suck the smoke into their mouths.

But that which displeases me more than anything else, is that the Indians grease themselves with fat from the bear, and on hot days this has a most disagreeable odor. It may be that this helps to keep them warm, for I have seen boys of my own age going around on a winter's day almost naked, and yet they made no complaint of being cold; but Jethro believes that it is because of much bathing that they are able to withstand the cold as they do, these same boys often being seen to plunge into the water, seemingly simply for the sake of wetting their skins, even when there is ice floating on the surface.

Neither the boys nor the men labor in the fields; but the women and the girls make the gardens, gather fuel, and look after all the work, leaving to their fathers and brothers no task save that of hunting.

I have seen three or four girls struggling to drag into the village a quantity of wood for the fires, while twenty or more full grown men lay idly on the ground watching them, but without offering to lend any aid, and yet they are by no means selfish in their dealings with us white people.


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