Recently I shared with you Stephen Powers' 1873 article about the Nisenan Maidu, as it appeared in the Overland Monthly. In another message, I mentioned that Chief Weimar had "made his mark" on the 1851 treaty negotiated with the Maidu, in which they gave up all claims to their ancestral lands in exchange for one rather large reservation, extending from the Sacramento Valley on the west to Chicago Park on the east, and from Bear River on the south, to Deer Creek and the South Yuba on the north.
That is one of the treaties with the California Indians which, when sent to the U.S. Senate for ratification, was instead placed in a sealed secret archive, not to be opened for fifty years, in 1903; the Barbour Treaties.
So, who is this Chief Weimar? A Nisenan, for whom the town of Weimar was named. He appears in several Gold Rush diaries and books, almost always referred to as "Captain" Weimar, although the spelling of his name varies widely. Alonzo Delano wrote a nice Weimar story, in which he and Weimar and Simmons Peña Strong ventured into the local high country on a camping trip, in 1853.
In the excerpts below, he is named "Captain Wemah," and I can't refrain from remarking about the significance of that title.
It is really Spanish—he was "capitan" Wemah. And why is that?
The Spanish and Mexican influence in California was confined almost entirely to the coastal region. Indian who escaped from the Missions made their way into the Central Valley and Sierra foothills. When Captain Wemah was a child, there well may have been escapees from the Missions sheltering with his very tribe. Among these Indians of different tribes, Spanish would have become a lingua franca, just as Stephen Powers remarks that English had become their lingua franca, in the 1870s.
But that is the 1870s. Consider the 1830s and 1840s. Sutter builds his fort near the confluence of the American River and the Sacramento River. He hires many Indian laborers. Of all these Indians, there are those fresh from the hills, who know nothing of modern civilization, and there are those with some kind of background with the Spanish and Mexicans. These latter will speak Spanish, and perhaps some English. They will ride horses and dress as Europeans. They will often be the bosses who manage the wilder Indians, on the job.
Within the broader more tenuous parts of the sphere of influence of Sutter's Fort, was much of the territory of the Nisenan. This is illustrated by the experiences of some of the Donner Party, the Forlorn Hope group, who, when at last they staggered down into the foothils below Greenhorn Creek and north of Bear River, on the old trans-Sierran Indian trail we call the Donner Trail, encountered a village of Indians. Among them was one who was mounted and spoke some Spanish.
Spanish is also spoken by the Nisenan in the excerpts below.
So. although we cannot know for sure, a couple of possibilities occur to me, about Captain Weimar.
1. He was an actual employee of Sutter, who parlayed his position at the Fort into the chieftaincy of the Nisenan.
2. He was a foothills Nisenan not involved at all with Sutter, but was thrown together with hordes of Mexicans, other Indians who spoke some Spanish, and the motley crew of Americans and Europeans in California in 1848, when Indians thronged the brand new diggings. He was already a Nisenan "chief" and, because all Indians of any degree of civilization (and thus, a degree of Spanish) were accorded the honorific, "capitan," Weimar assumed it as his right.
Well, at any rate. From "Sketches of travels in South America, Mexico and California," by S.M. Schaeffer, I will extract passages which bear upon the Nisenan and Captain Wemah. Schaeffer was mining for gold near Grass Valley at the time.
January 1, 1851. There were several encampments around here of native Indians, (the Digger tribe;) and one day, when working alone, some distance from my cabin, I was honored with a visit from several squaws, nearly every one of whom had a ''papoose'' strapped to her back. They were out hunting and digging wild onions and tender roots, which grew there; and they laughed heartily at my incessant digging and washing dirt, and signified that Indian no work, but ''American much work, ugh,'' Their faces were besmeared with tar, which I was informed indicated the decease of a friend or relative.
Whilst I enjoyed a laugh at their expense, they were equally merry at the appearance I presented, so we were all pleased. Finally they went off, and I could hear them laughing at the idea of a man working and earning his support ''by the sweat of his brow.''
Thursday, January 30th. Five or six young men and myself agreed to take a short walk through the woods, ostensibly for ''prospecting,'' but in reality to visit ''Capt.'' Wemah's Indian camp. Our ''prospecting amounted to the figure 0,'' but our visit to the Indians was interesting and highly gratifying. Their encampment was located in a lovely valley, through which ran a never-failing stream. Their council house was in the centre of the camp; around it were the wigwams, constructed of bark, each having a hole in the centre of the roof, through which issued the smoke from the fire beneath.
The entrance to their palatial mansions was an aperture just large enough to admit one person at a time in a stooping posture. On a large rock I noticed several squaws--quite pretty and of fine figure, nearly nude, pounding acorns, out of which they make soup and bread.
The ladies were courteous and affable, and were pleased with our visit, but apparently surprised at receiving so much attention from us. When the acorns are fully ripe, the squaws saunter forth, collect immense quantities, place them in their storehouse, and when needed, pound them to a coarse powder, which they prepare in a proper manner for the lazy chiefs.
The chiefs and braves never work, but spend their time in hunting and manufacturing ornaments. Whenever the squaws go out after roots and vegetables they are always accompanied by a brave, as a ''guard of honor.'' I often wished that I could
converse with them. The majority of the Indiaus about Grass Valley were friendly to the ''whites;'' others were disposed for war--war to extermination.
Wednesday, June 18th. Today was held our first Whig convention; delegates from Nevada and Rough and Ready joined us. My friend, Judge S_______, of whom I have heretofore spoken, was unanimously elected presiding officer; and the entire proceedings reminded me very much of the political conventions I had attended as ''lobby member'' in the eastern states. There was considerable discussion in relation to the office of State senator. Nevada wanted the candidate selected from her district. Rough and Ready very modestly withdrew from the discussion, and finally it was compromised by our district getting the senatorial nominee, and Nevada taking the lion's share of the candidates for the assembly.
During the morning Captain Wemah, head chief of the Indian tribe in our valley, came into the room, and as he took a seat alongside of me, I watched his countenance, feeling curious to know how the proceedings would interest him. The old chief understood about as much of the English language as a Japanese. He sat silent awhile, gazed all around the room, rose up, straightened himself, turned around, exclaimed ''ugh,'' and off he marched.
Look there! ''Heigho, what is going on among the Indians?'' Why, there is to be a grand ''Pow Wow'' at Wemah's camp to-night; ''Let us go down.'' ''Agreed.''
I was anxious to be present at the beginning of the exercises, but waiting for some friends, whose business detained them later than they had expected, we arrived at the camp just in time to be too late for the grand wardance, in which participated the entire assemblage of chiefs, braves and warriors, many of whom were representatives from distant tribes who had come to attend the all-important ''big talk'' in relation to the ''pale faces.''
The squaws were not allowed to indulge in any of the sports, neither were they permitted to come within speaking distance of the council house.
Some of the warriors were profusely decorated with fancy colored feathers, beads, shells and trinkets, and liberally daubed with paint. After resting a short time, the gaily-decked Indians made for the council chamber, (a description of which, and the camp, I gave in a former chapter,) which was dimly lighted by a fire in the centre, around which the various delegations squatted in a circle.
''Captain'' Wemah, who held the important position of chief over all the Digger Indians, stood in the centre of the party, and when all were quiet--not a whisper to be heard--he commenced his opening and welcome speech, delivering it with wonderful fluency, great vehemence, and wild and violent gesticulations. During his powerful address, he was frequently applauded by his well behaved and respectful auditory. The old chief was dressed in his best suit: his coat, which had been given him by an American soldier, fitted him about as well as the garments that are put on a stick to frighten off the crows from a corn field; in one pocket he had a couple of empty bottles, in the other a huge horse pistol, which once might have been a formidable weapon, but now lacked a trigger! When he had concluded his speech, he called out--''Ven Wollupie''--''si, si, signor.'' Two stout, well developed braves seized a tub of daintily prepared acorn gruel, and placed it before their delegation; others were called, who followed their example, until every squad was supplied with a tub of gruel; then, at the signal of the ''Captain,'' each Indian dipped his unwashed hands into the delectable food, and gulped down the gruel like a half-starved pig.
After the liberal entertainment was finished, the Convention or Pow Wow was called to order, and Wemah again addressed the motley crowd, with even more earnestness than before. There were unmistakable evidences of discontent. The fire in the centre of the council house was fast dying out; the discussion waxed warm; those of the Indians who could not get inside of the chamber, clambered on the roof, and peeped down the hole in the middle, heedless of the smoke, and the vile stench which issued forth in murky clouds. Wemah danced, frothed and expostulated, but all to no purpose. The ''Pow Wow'' lost all sense of propriety, and the clever old chief stalked out in apparent disgust. No sooner had his ''highness'' retired, than every ''pale face'' inside the council was unceremoniously ordered out.
As a report of the great speech of the evening would doubtless be interesting, though not familiar with the Indian language, I will endeavor to give a few sentences from memory's log: '' Ingin--no cara--ugh--bah--manayna--he, ya, hi--mucho Americano fight--si hugh--capitaw--ugh fire-water, whiskey aqua no good--sleepy--ha--he--yes! ''
I passed around the camp, and stopped in front of Wemah's wigwam. There the old chief lay flat upon his face, his military coat buttoned up to his chin, around him the numerous ladies of his household. Just then a friend called to me; I looked around, and found I was the only ''pale face'' within the camp--the small hours of another day had come around. I hastened to join my companions, when we returned to our wigwams, and sought and found refreshing sleep.
One day, observing several acquaintances laughing heartily, I inquired the cause of their mirth, when my attention was directed to a procession of three Indians coming up the street. The first warrior was playing the jews-harp, as unconcernedly as though he had been in his wigwam, having only an apron on; the next hero was whistling, turning neither to the right nor left, but walking ahead, regardless of the loud laughing of the ''pale faces;'' his entire dress consisted of an old vest, and that unbuttoned! The last Indian was singing; he strutted proudly by, clad in a hickory shirt which he valued above price.
Whenever an Indian visited a trading establishment, the most gaudy colored handkerchiefs, calicos, &c., were shown him. Indians never value money; and I have seen them enter a store, put down their gold dust, and keep on buying until the
storekeeper would call out, ''all gone.''
I saw a finely developed brave come into one of the stores, gaze all around the room until his keen eye caught sight of a bundle of ''Arctic'' comforts, and although the weather was oppressively warm, he purchased several and wrapped them
around his waist, and stalked out as proud as an emperor.
These Indians were generally men of truth; whenever an Indian requested a garment to be laid aside for him it was done, for the merchant felt sure that he would return on the promised day.
On one occasion, chief Wolupe, next in rank to Capt. Wemah, ordered a heavy cloth coat, and promised to call with the ''oro'' after two ''sleepy;'' after the two ''sleepy'' passed, in walked the chief, and with a distressed look, announced that ''Injun man play push stick--lost him money, bah, ugh;'' but he promised to come back again after one ''sleepy,'' and he did and bought the coat. They are very fond of gambling, and use sticks instead of cards.
They are a temperate people, and afraid of ''fire-water.'' They are a virtuous people, but, of course, like all human beings, their characters exhibit both good and bad traits. They never use salt on their meat; when game is brought into camp, it is thrown on the fire, roasted, and then greedily devoured, with little regard to the rules of conventional society.
Acorns are a favorite article of food, and a full supply is always kept on hand for emergencies. They are a dirty, filthy people. Their active out-door life, and abstinence from rich cooked dishes, preserved them from many ailments with which more civilized people are afflicted. The poor squaws are compelled to labor very hard. The warriors holding any kind of work in utter contempt, they had rather starve than be tied to labor. The squaws are never allowed to idle away their time; while some are employed in pounding acorns, the rest are sent out to search for esculent roots and vegetables. An acquaintance of mine expressed a desire to have a smart-looking Indian boy to live with him; he was accommodated, but after a couple of days' life among the ''pale faces,'' Indian boy vamosed without saying, ''by your leave, sir.''
A couple of gentlemen wished to get up a grand Indian war-dance at Nevada, and while they would feast the Indians for their performance, they anticipated a considerable profit on the speculation. Captain Wemah acquiesced, and his whole
tribe was soon preparing for the ''first grand exhibition by native Indians;'' and as Captain Wemah had always been friendly to the whites, he hoped for a full attendance.
Handbills were printed and distributed far and wide; great inducements set forth, and the price of tickets only two dollars each. One morning I was standing at the head of Mill street, and observed chief Wemah riding along on an old scraggy-looking pony, bowing to everybody, followed by his warriors, braves squaws and little ones; nearly every squaw had a huge willow basket strapped to her back. Away they scampered in the happiest humor, bound for the exhibition. At night I saw the captain and his train returning in the worst humor. I asked him what was the matter? he replied: ''Americana no good, bah!''
Some rowdy fellows had broken down the inclosure, stopped the performances; and the Indians were as mad as California panthers. They, however, lost nothing--they had plenty of fresh beef and bread; but the managers made a bad speculation--lost two hundred dollars. They had purchased several beeves, had them killed and dressed for the performers, but the rowdies interrupted the performances, and they sold no tickets.