Adventures on the Eastern Frontier

By: Bryce Little

Originally Published in 1987

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James Adair was born in county Antrim, Ireland, around 1709, and immigrated to South Carolina in 1735. He initially traded with the Cherokees in North Carolina and Tennessee, but in 1744 he took up residence with the Chickasaws in what is now northern Mississippi. There he established firm friendships which he used to extend the interests of the English colonies (specifically South Carolina) against the French and their Indian allies, the Shawnee and Choctaws. His role was an active one. He participated in Chickasaw raids against their traditional enemies, the Shawnee. As a reward for his role in promoting friction between Choctaw groups that resulted in attacks on French settlements, he was given scalps. In the 1750s he led Chickasaw scouts as part of an unsuccessful expedition of South Carolinian troops against the Cherokee. The bulk of his History of the American Indians was written in the following decade while he lived a relatively peaceful life among the Chickasaws.

His book consists of several discrete sections: his “arguments” for the Jewish origins of the Indians; descriptions of the southeastern tribes and their recent relationships with Europeans; and more general comments on Indian life. It concludes with an appendix “Containing a Description of the Floridas, the Mississippi Lands with Their Productions—the Benefits of Colonizing Georgiana, and Civilizing the Indians—and the Way to Make All the Colonies More Valuable to the Mother Country.”

Adair was clearly well educated, and his book contains much information of value to historians and ethnographers. At the same time, it betrays a series of strongly held ideas and opinions. Some of Adair’s ideas, including a belief in the superiority of Europeans and the importance of their expansion to the west, were products of his time and culture; others, such as his dislike of formal government and religion, were more idiosyncratic. The following excerpts are intended to show the kind of information that this 18th century frontiersman provided, as well as the general tone of his writing.

“The Indians are of a copper or red-clay colour—and they delight in every thing, which they imagine may promote and increase it: accordingly they paint their faces with vermilions, as the best and most beautiful ingredient. If we consider the common laws of nature and providence, we shall not be surprized at this custom; for every thing loves best its own likeness and place in the creation, and is disposed to ridicule its opposite (1775:1).”

“By a strict, permanent, divine precept, the Hebrew nation were ordered to worship at Jerusalem, Jehovah the true and living God, and who by the Indians is stiled Yohewah. The ancient heathens it is well known, worshipped a plurality of gods—Gods which they formed to themselves, according to their own liking, as various as the countries they inhabited, and as numerous, with some, as the days of the year. But these American Indians pay their religious devoir to Loak-Ishohoollo-Aba, ‘the great, beneficent, supreme, holy spirit of fire,’ who resides (as they think) above the clouds, and on earth also with unpolluted people. He is with them the sole author of warmth, light, and of all animal and vegetable life (1775:17-18).”

“[The Indians] pay no religious worship to stocks, or stones, after the manner of the old eastern pagans; neither do they worship any kind of images whatsoever… This is consonant to the Jewish observance of the second commandment, and directly contrary to the usage of all the ancient heathen world, who made corporeal representations of their deities—and their conduct, is a reproach to many reputed christian temples, which are littered round with a crowd of ridiculous figures to represent God, spurious angels, pretended saints, and notable villains (1775:21).”

“[On meeting a group of Cherokee warriors in 1749] I observed that instead of carrying their bow and quiver over their shoulder, as is the travelling custom, they held the former in their left hand, bent, and some arrows. I approached and addressed them, and endeavoured to appear quite indifferent at their hostile arrangement. While I held my gun ready in my right hand… [their leader] came and struck my breast with the but-end of one of my pistols, which I had in my left hand: I told him with that vehemence of speech, which is always requisite on such an occasion, that I was an English Chikkasah; and informed by expressive gestures that there were two tens of Chikkasah warriors, and more than half that number of women, besides children, a little behind, just beyond the first hilt. At this news, they appeared to be much confused . . . (1775:275-276).”

“The Choktah flatten their foreheads with a bag of sand, which with great care they keep fastened on the scull of the infant, while it is in its tender and imperfect state. Thus they quite deform their face, and give themselves an appearance, which is disagreeable to any but those of their own likeness. Their features and mind, indeed, exactly correspond together; for except the intense love they bear to their native country, and their utter contempt of any kind of danger, in defence of it, I know no other virtue they are possessed of: the general observation of the traders among them is just, who affirm them to be divested of every property of a human being, except shape and language (1775:283­284).”

“In a dry summer season, [the Indians] gather horse chestnuts, and different sorts of roots, which having pounded pretty fine, and steeped a while in a trough, they scatter this mixture over the surface of a middle-sized pond, and stir it about with poles, till the water is sufficiently impregnated with the intoxicating bitern. The fish are soon inebriated, and make to the surface of the water, with their bellies uppermost. The fishers gather them in baskets, and barbicue the largest. …It seems, that fish catched in this manner, are not poisoned, but only stupified; for they prove very wholesome food to us, who frequently use them. By experiments, when they are speedily moved into good water, they revive in a few minutes (1775:402).”


Cite This Article

Little, Bryce. "Adventures on the Eastern Frontier." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 2 (July, 1987): -. Accessed July 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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