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A PRE-COLUMBIAN DINNER
A PONDEROUS geologist, with weighty tread and weightier manner, brought his foot down upon the unoffending sod and declared, "These meadows are sinking at a rapid rate; something over two feet a century." We all knew it, but Sir Oracle had spoken, and we little dogs did not dare to bark.
Not long after I returned alone to these ill-fated meadows and began a leisurely, all-day ramble. They were very beautiful. There was a wealth of purple and of white boneset and iron-weed of royal dye. Sunflower and primrose gilded the hidden brooks, and every knoll was banked with rose-pink centaury. Nor was this all. Feathery reeds towered above the marsh, and every pond was em-purpled with pontederia and starred with lilies. Afar off, acres of nut-brown sedge made fitting background for those meadow tracts that were still green, while close at hand, more beautiful than all, were struggling growths held down by the golden-dodder's net that overspread them.
It does not need trees or rank shrubbery to make a wilderness. This low-lying tract today, with but a summer's growth above it, is as wild and lonely as are the Western plains. Lonely, that is, as man thinks, but not forsaken. The wily mink, the pert weasel, the musk-rat, and the meadow-mouse ramble in safety through it. The great blue heron, its stately cousin, the snowy egret, and the dainty least bittern find it a congenial home.
The fiery dragon-fly darts and lazy butterflies drift across the blooming waste; bees buzz angrily as you approach; basking snakes bid you defiance. Verily, this is wild life's domain and man is out of place.
It was not always so. The land is sinking, and what now of that older time when it was far above its present level, — a high, dry, upland tract, along which flowed a clear and rapid stream? The tell-tale arrow-point is our guide, and wherever the sod is broken we have an inkling of Indian history. The soil, as we dig a little deeper, is almost black with charcoal-dust, and it is evident that centuries ago the Indians were content to dwell here, and well they might be. Even in colonial days the place had merit, and escaped not the eager eyes of Penn's grasping followers. It was meadow then, and not fitted for his house, but the white man built his barn above the ruins of his dusky predecessor's home. All trace of human habitation is now gone, but the words of the geologist kept ringing in my ears, and of late I have been digging. It is a little strange that so few traces of the white man are found as compared with relics of the Indian. From the barn that once stood here and was long ago destroyed by a flood one might expect to find at least a rusty nail.
The ground held nothing telling of a recent past, but was eloquent of the long ago. Dull indeed must be the imagination that cannot recall what has been here brought to light by the aid of such an implement as the spade. Not only were the bow and spear proved to be the common weapons of the time, but there were in even greater abundance, and of many patterns, knives to flay the game. It is not enough to merely glance at a trimmed flake of flint or carefully-chipped splinter of argillite, and say to yourself, "A knife." Their great variety has a significance that should not be overlooked. The same implement could not be put to every use for which a knife was needed; hence the range in size from several inches to tiny flakes that will likely remain a puzzle as to their purpose.
Besides home products, articles are found that have come from a long distance, and no class of objects is more suggestive than those that prove the widely-extended system of barter that prevailed at one time among the Indians of North America. There are shells and shell ornaments found in Wisconsin which must have been taken there from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico; catlinite or red pipe-stone ornaments and pipes found in New Jersey that could only have come from Minnesota. Shell beads are often found in graves in the Mississippi Valley that were brought from the Pacific coast, and the late Dr. Leidy has described a shell bead, concerning which he states that it is the Conus ternatus, a shell which belongs to the west coast of Central America. This was found, with other Indian relics, in Hartman's Cave, near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Two small arrow-points found in New Jersey a year or more ago proved to be made of obsidian. These specimens could only have come from the far South-west or from Oregon, and the probabilities are in favor of the latter locality. It is not unlikely that objects like the above should find their way inland to the Great Lakes, and so across the continent and down the Atlantic coast. On the other hand, arrow-points could have had so little intrinsic value in the eyes of an Indian that we are naturally surprised that they should have been found so far from their place of origin. Obsidian has occurred but very rarely east of the Alleghanies, so far as I am aware. In the Sharples collection, at West Chester, Pennsylvania, is a single specimen, reported to have been found near that place, and a few traces have since been discovered in the uplands immediately adjoining these Delaware meadows, and really there is no reason to suppose that objects of value should not have passed quite across the continent, or been carried from Mexico to Canada. There were no vast areas absolutely uninhabited and across which no Indian ever ventured.
It has been suggested that, as iron was manufactured in the valley of the Delaware as early as 1728, the supposed obsidian arrow-points are really made of slag from the furnaces, but a close examination of the specimens proves, it is claimed, this not to have been the case, and at this comparatively late date the making of stone arrow-points had probably ceased. Just when, however, the use of the bow as a weapon was discarded has not been determined, but fire-arms were certainly common in 1728 and earlier.
A careful study, too, of copper implements, which are comparatively rare, seems to point to the conclusion that very few were made of the native copper found in New Jersey, Maryland, and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast, but that they were made in the Lake Superior region and thence gradually dispersed over the Eastern States. The large copper spear from Betterton, Maryland, recently found, and another from New Jersey, bear a striking resemblance to the spear-heads from the North-west, where unquestionably the most expert of aboriginal coppersmiths lived. Of course, the many small beads of this metal occasionally found in Indian graves in the Delaware Valley might have been made of copper found near by, but large masses are very seldom met with.
Speaking of copper beads recalls the fact that a necklace comprising more than one hundred was recently found on the site of an old Dutch trader's house, on an island in the Delaware. They were of Indian manufacture, and had been in the fur trader's possession, if we may judge from the fact that they were found with hundreds of other relics that betokened not merely European, but Dutch occupation of the spot. This trader got into trouble and doubtless deserved his summary taking off.
It is not "a most absurd untruth," as was stated not long ago in the Critic in a review of a New York history, that the Indians were "a people of taste and industry, and in morals quite the peers of their Dutch neighbors." They had just as keen a sense of right and wrong. There never was a handful of colonists in North America whose whole history their descendants would care to have known.
The truth is, we know very little of the Indian prior to European contact. Carpet-knight archæologists and kid-gloved explorers crowd the pages of periodical literature, it is true, but we are little, if any, the wiser.
It is supposed, and is even asserted, that the Indian knew nothing of forks; but that he plunged his fingers into the boiling pot or held in his bare hands the steaming joints of bear or venison is quite improbable. Now, the archæologist talks glibly of bone awls whenever a sharpened splinter of bone is presented him, as if such instruments were only intended to perforate leather. They doubtless had other uses, and I am sure that more than one split and sharpened bone which has been found would have served excellently well as a one-tined fork wherewith to lift from the pot a bit of meat. Whether or not such forks were in use, there were wooden spoons, as a bit of the bowl and a mere splinter of the handle serve to show. Kalm tells us that they used the laurel for making this utensil, but I fancied my fragment was hickory. Potsherds everywhere spoke of the Indians' feasting, and it is now known that, besides bowls and shallow dishes of ordinary sizes, they also had vessels of several gallons' capacity. All these are broken now, but, happily, fragments of the same dish are often found together, and so we can reconstruct them.
But what did the Indians eat? Quaint old Gabriel Thomas, writing about 1696, tells us that "they live chiefly on Maze or Indian Corn rosted in the Ashes, sometimes beaten boyl'd with Water, called Homine. They have cakes, not unpleasant; also Beans and Pease, which nourish much, but the Woods and Rivers afford them their provision; they eat morning and evening, their Seats and Tables on the ground."
In a great measure this same story of The Indians' food supply was told by the scattered bits found mingled with the ashes of an ancient hearth. Such fireplaces or cooking sites were simple in construction, but none the less readily recognized as to their purpose. A few flat pebbles had been brought from the bed of the river near by, and a small paved area some two feet square was placed upon or very near the surface of the ground. Upon this the fire was built, and in time a thick bed of ashes accumulated. Just how they cooked can only be conjectured, but the discovery of very thick clay vessels and great quantities of fire-cracked quartzite pebbles leads to the conclusion that water was brought to the boiling-point by heating the stones to a red heat and dropping them into the vessel holding the water. Thomas, as we have seen, says corn was "boyl'd with Water." Meat also was, I think, prepared in the same manner. Their pottery probably was poorly able to stand this harsh treatment, which would explain the presence of such vast quantities of fragments of clay vessels. Traces of vegetable food are now very rarely found. A few burnt nuts, a grain or two of corn, and, in one instance, what appeared to be a charred crab-apple, complete the list of what, as yet, have been picked from the mingled earth and ashes. This is not surprising, and what we know of vegetable food in use among the Delaware Indians is almost wholly derived from those early writers who were present at their feasts. Kalm mentions the roots of the golden-club, arrow-leaf, and ground-nut, besides various berries and nuts. It is well known that extensive orchards were planted by these people. It may be added that, in all probability, the tubers of that noble plant, the lotus, were used as food. Not about these meadows, but elsewhere in New Jersey, this plant has been growing luxuriantly since Indian times.
Turning now to the consideration of what animal food they consumed, one can speak with absolute certainty. It is clear that the Delawares were meat-eaters. It needs but little digging on any village site to prove this, and from a single fireplace deep down in the stiff soil of this sinking meadow have been taken bones of the elk, deer, bear, beaver, raccoon, musk-rat, and gray squirrel. Of these, the remains of deer were largely in excess, and as this holds good of every village site I have examined, doubtless the Indians depended more largely upon this animal than upon all the others. Of the list, only the elk is extinct in the Delaware Valley, and it was probably rare even at the time of the European settlement of the country, except in the mountain regions. If individual tastes varied as they do among us, we have certainly sufficient variety here to have met every fancy.
With a food supply as varied as this, an ordinary meal or an extraordinary feast can readily be recalled, so far as its essential features are concerned. It is now September, and, save where the ground has been ruthlessly uptorn, everywhere is a wealth of early autumn bloom. A soothing quiet rests upon the scene, bidding us to retrospective thought. Not a bit of stone, of pottery, or of burned and blackened fragment of bone but stands out in the mellow sunshine as the feature of a long-forgotten feast. As I dreamily gaze upon the gatherings of half a day, I seem to see the ancient folk that once dwelt in this neglected spot; seem to be a guest at a pre-Columbian dinner in New Jersey.