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The Digger Indian holds a low place in the scale of humanity. He is not intelligent; he is not handsome; he is not very brave. He stands near the foot of his class, and I fear he is not likely to go up any higher. It is more likely that the places that know him now will soon know him no more, for the reason that he seems readier to adopt the bad white man's whisky and diseases than the good white man's morals and religion. Ethnologically he has given rise to much conflicting speculation, with which I will not trouble the gentle reader. He has been in California a long time, and he does not know that he was ever anywhere else. His pedigree does not trouble him; he is more concerned about getting something to eat. It is not because he is an agriculturist that he is called a Digger, but because he grabbles for wild roots, and has a general fondness for dirt. I said he was not handsome, and when we consider his rusty, dark-brown color, his heavy features, fishy black eyes, coarse black hair, and clumsy gait, nobody will dispute the statement. But one Digger is uglier than another, and an old squaw caps the climax.
The first Digger I ever saw was the best-looking. He had picked up a little English, and loafed around the mining-camps picking up a meal where he could get it. He called himself "Captain Charley," and, like a true native American, was proud of his title. If it was self-assumed, he was still following the precedent set by a vast host of captains, majors, colonels, and generals, who never wore a uniform or hurt anybody. He made his appearance at the little parsonage on the hill-side in Sonora one day, and, thrusting his bare head into the door, he said:
"Me Cappin Charley," tapping his chest complacently as he spoke.
Returning his salutation, I waited for him to speak again.
"You got grub - coche carne?" he asked, mixing his Spanish and English.
Some food was given him, which he snatched rather eagerly, and began to eat at once. It was, evident that Captain Charley had not breakfasted that morning. He was a hungry Indian, and when he got through his meal there was no reserve of rations in the unique repository of dishes and food which has been mentioned heretofore in these Sketches. Peering about the premises, Captain Charley made a discovery. The modest little parsonage stood on a steep incline, the upper side resting on the red gravelly earth, while the lower side was raised three or four feet from the ground. The vacant space underneath had been used by our several bachelor predecessors as a receptacle for cast-off clothing. Malone, Lockley, and Evans, had thus disposed of their discarded apparel, and Drury Bond and one or two other miners had also added to the treasures that caught the eye of the inquisitive Digger. It was a museum of sartorial curiosities - seedy and ripped broadcloth coats, vests, and pants, flannel mining-shirts of gay colors and of different degrees of wear and tear, linen shirts that looked like battle-flags that had been through the war, and old shoes and boots of all sorts, from the high rubber water-proofs used by miners to the ragged slippers that had adorned the feet of the lonely single parsons whose names are written above.
"Me take um?" asked Captain Charley, pointing to the treasure he had discovered.
Leave was given, and Captain Charley lost no time in taking possession of the coveted goods. He chuckled to himself as one article after another was drawn forth from the pile which seemed to be almost inexhaustible. When he had gotten all out and piled up together, it was a rare-looking sight.
"Mucho bueno!" exclaimed Captain Charley, as he proceeded to array himself in a pair of trousers. Then a shirt, then a vest, and then a coat, were put on. And then another, and another, and yet another suit was donned in the same order. He was fast becoming a "big Indian" indeed. We looked on and smiled, sympathizing with the evident delight of our visitor in his superabundant wardrobe. He was in full-dress, and enjoyed it. But he made a failure at one point - his feet were too large, or were not the right shape, for white men's boots or shoes. He tried several pairs, but his huge flat foot would not enter them, and finally he threw down the last one tried by him with a Spanish exclamation not fit to be printed in these pages. That language is a musical one, but its oaths are very harsh in sound. A battered "stove-pipe" hat was found among the spoils turned over to Captain Chancy. Placing it on his head jauntily, he turned to us, saying, Adios, and went strutting down the street, the picture of gratified vanity. His appearance on Washington Street, the main thoroughfare of the place, thus gorgeously and abundantly arrayed, created a sensation. It was as good as a "show" to the jolly miners, always ready to be amused. Captain Charley was known to most of them, and they had a kindly feeling for the good-natured "fool Injun," as one of them called him in my hearing.
The next Digger I noticed was of the gentler (but in this case not lovelier) sex. She was an old squaw, who was in mourning. The sign of her grief was the black adobe mud spread over her face. She sat all day motionless and speechless, gazing up into the sky. Her grief was caused by the death of a child, and her sorrowful look showed that she had a mother's heart. Poor, degraded creature! What were her thoughts as she sat there looking so pitifully up into the silent, far-off heavens? All the livelong day she gazed thus fixedly into the sky, taking no notice of the passersby, neither speaking, eating, nor drinking. It was a custom of the tribe, but its peculiar significance is unknown to me.
It was a great night at an adjoining camp when the old chief died. It was made the occasion of a fearful orgy. Dry wood and brush were gathered into a huge pile, the body of the dead chief was placed upon it, and the mass set on fire. As the flames blazed upward with a roar, the Indians, several hundred in number, broke forth into wild wailings and howlings, the shrill soprano of the women rising high above the din, as they marched around the burning pyre. Fresh fuel was supplied from time to time, and all night long the flames lighted up the surrounding hills which echoed with the shouts and howls of the savages. It was a touch of pandemonium. At dawn there was nothing left of the dead chief but ashes. The mourners took up their line of march toward the Stanislaus River, the squaws bearing their papooses on their backs, the "bucks" leading the way.
The Digger believes in a future life, and in future rewards and punishments. Good Indians and bad Indians are subjected to the same ordeal at death. Each one is rewarded according to his deeds.
The disembodied soul comes to a wide, turbid river, whose angry waters rush on to an unknown destination, roaring and foaming. From high banks on either side of the stream is stretched a pole smooth and small, over which he is required to walk. Upon the result of this post-mortem Blondinizing his fate depends. If he was in life a very good Indian he goes over safely, and finds on the other side a paradise, where the skies are cloudless, the air balmy, the flowers brilliant in color and sweet in perfume, the springs many and cool, and the deer plentiful and fat. In this fair clime there are no bad Indians, no briers, no snakes, no grizzly bears. Such is the paradise of good Diggers.
The Indian who was in life a mixed character, not all good or bad, but made up of both, starts across the fateful river, gets on very well until he reaches about half-way over, when his head becomes dizzy, and he tumbles into the boiling flood below. He swims for his life. (Every Indian on earth can swim, and he does not forget the art in the world of spirits.) Buffeting the waters, he is carried swiftly down the rushing current, and at last makes the shore, to find a country which, like his former life, is a mixture of good and bad. Some days are fair, and others are rainy and chilly; flowers and brambles grow together; there are some springs of water, but they are few, and not all cool and sweet; the deer are few, and shy, and lean, and grizzly bears roam the hills and valleys. This is the limbo of the moderately-wicked Digger.
The very bad Indian, placing his feet upon the attenuated bridge of doom, makes a few steps forward, stumbles, falls into the whirling waters below, and is swept downward with fearful velocity. At last, with desperate struggles he half swims, and is half washed ashore on the same side from which he started, to find a dreary land where the sun never shines, and the cold rains always pour down from the dark skies, where the water is brackish and foul, where no flowers ever bloom, where leagues may be traversed without seeing a deer, and grizzly bears abound. This is the hell of very bad Indians - and a very had one it is.
The worst Indians of all, at death, are transformed into grizzly bears.
The Digger has a good appetite, and he is not particular about his eating. He likes grasshoppers, clover, acorns, roots, and fish. The flesh of a dead mule, horse, cow, or hog, does not come amiss to him - I mean the flesh of such as die natural deaths. He eats what he can get, and all he can get. In the grasshopper season he is fat and flourishing. In the suburbs of Sonora I came one day upon a lot of squaws, who were engaged in catching grasshoppers. Stretched along in line, armed with thick branches of pine, they threshed the ground in front of them as they advanced, driving the grasshoppers before them in constantly increasing numbers, until the air was thick with the flying insects. Their course was directed to a deep gully, or gulch, into which they fell exhausted. It was astonishing to see with what dexterity the squaws would gather them up and thrust them into a sort of covered basket; made of willow-twigs or tule-grass, while the insects would be trying to escape; but would fall back unable to rise above the sides of the gulch in which they had been entrapped. The grasshoppers are dried, or cured, for winter use. A white man who had tried them told me they were pleasant eating, having a flavor very similar to that of a good shrimp. (I was content to take his word for it.)
When Bishop Soule was in California, in 1853, he paid a visit to a Digger campoody (or village) in the Calaveras hills. He was profoundly interested, and expressed an ardent desire to be instrumental in the conversion of one of these poor kin. It was yet early in the morning when the Bishop and his party arrived, and the Diggers were not astir, save here and there a squaw, in primitive array, who slouched lazily toward a spring of water hard by. But soon the arrival of the visitors was made known, and the bucks, squaws, and papooses, swarmed forth. They cast curious looks upon the whole party, but were specially struck with the majestic bearing of the Bishop, as were the passing crowds in London, who stopped in the streets to gaze with admiration upon the great American preacher. The Digger chief did not conceal his delight. After looking upon the Bishop fixedly for some moments, he went up to him, and tapping first his own chest and then the Bishop's, he said:
"Me big man - you big man!"
It was his opinion that two great men had met, and that the occasion was a grand one. Moralizers to the contrary notwithstanding, greatness is not always lacking in self-consciousness.
"I would like to go into one of their wigwams, or huts, and see how they really live," said the Bishop.
"You had better drop that idea," said the guide, a white man who knew more about Digger Indians than was good for his reputation and morals, but who was a good-hearted fellow, always ready to do a friendly turn, and with plenty of time on his hands to do it. The genius born to live without work will make his way by his wits, whether it be in the lobby at Washington City, or as a hanger-on at a Digger camp.
The Bishop insisted on going inside the chief's wigwam, which was a conical structure of long tule-grass, air-tight and weather-proof, with an aperture in front just large enough for a man's body in a crawling attitude. Sacrificing his dignity, the Bishop went down on all-fours, and then a degree lower, and, following the chief; crawled in. The air was foul, the smells were strong, and the light was dim. The chief proceeded to tender to his distinguished guest the hospitalities of the establishment, by offering to share his breakfast with him. The bill of fare was grasshoppers, with acorns as a side-dish. The Bishop maintained his dignity as he squatted there in the dirt - his dignity was equal to any test. He declined the grasshoppers tendered him by the chief, pleading that he had already breakfasted, but watched with peculiar sensations the movements of his host, as handful after handful of the crisp and juicy gryllus vulgaris were crammed into his capacious mouth, and swallowed. What he saw and smelt, and the absence of fresh air, began to tell upon the Bishop - he became sick and pale, while a gentle perspiration, like unto that felt in the beginning of seasickness, beaded his noble forehead. With slow dignity, but marked emphasis, he spoke:
"Brother Bristow, I propose that we retire."
They retired, and there is no record that Bishop Soule ever expressed the least desire to repeat his visit to the interior of a Digger Indian's abode.
The whites had many difficulties with the Diggers in the early days. In most cases I think the whites were chiefly to blame. It is very hard for the strong to be just to the weak. The weakest creature, pressed hard, will strike back. White women and children were massacred in retaliation for outrages committed upon the ignorant Indians by white outlaws. Then there would be a sweeping destruction of Indians by the excited whites, who in those days made rather light of Indian shooting. The shooting of a "buck" was about the same thing, whether it was a male Digger or a deer.
"There is not much fight in a Digger unless he's got the dead-wood on you, and then he'll make it rough for you. But these Injuns are of no use, and I'd about as soon shoot one of them as a coyote" (ki-o-te).
The speaker was a very red-faced, sandy-haired man, with blood-shot blue eyes, whom I met on his return to the Humboldt country after a visit to San Francisco.
"Did you ever shoot an Indian?" I asked.
"I first went up into the Eel River country in '46," he answered. "They give us a lot of trouble in them days. They would steal cattle, and our boys would shoot. But we've never had much difficulty with them since the big fight we had with them in 1849. A good deal of devilment had been goin' on all roun', and some had been killed on both sides. The Injuns killed two women on a ranch in the valley, and then we set in just to wipe 'em out. Their camp was in a bend of the river, near the head of the valley, with a deep slough on the right flank. There was about sixty of us, and Dave was our captain. He was a hard rider, a dead shot, and not very tender-hearted. The boys sorter liked him, but kep' a sharp eye on him, knowin' he was so quick and handy with a pistol. Our plan was to git to their camp and fall on em at daybreak, but the sun was risin' just as we come in sight of it. A dog barked, and Dave sung out:
"'Out with your pistols! pitch in, and give 'em the hot lead!'
"In we galloped at full speed, and as the Injuns come out to see what was up, we let 'em have it. We shot forty bucks - about a dozen got away by swimmin' the river."
"Were any of the women killed?"
"A few were knocked over. You can't be particular when you are in a hurry; and a squaw, when her blood is up, will fight equal to a buck."
The fellow spoke with evident pride, feeling that he was detailing a heroic affair, having no idea that he had done any thing wrong in merely killing "bucks." I noticed that this sane man was very kind to an old lady who took the stage for Bloomfield - helping her into the vehicle, and looking after her baggage. When we parted, I did not care to take the hand that had held a pistol that morning when the Digger camp was "wiped out."
The scattered remnants of the Digger tribes were gathered into a reservation in Round Valley, Mendocino county, north of the Bay of San Francisco, and were there taught a mild form of agricultural life, and put under the care of Government agents, contractors, and soldiers, with about the usual results. One agent, who was also a preacher, took several hundred of them into the Christian Church. They seemed to have mastered the leading facts of the gospel, and attained considerable proficiency in the singing of hymns. Altogether, the result of this effort at their conversion showed that they were human beings, and as such could be made recipients of the truth and grace of God, who is the Father of all the families of the earth. Their spiritual guide told me he had to make one compromise with them - they would dance. Extremes meet - the fashionable white Christians of our gay capitals and the tawny Digger exhibit the same weakness for the fascinating exercise that cost John the Baptist his head.
There is one thing a Digger cannot bear, and that is the comforts and luxuries of civilized life. A number of my friends, who had taken Digger children to raise, found that as they approached maturity they fell into a decline and died, in most cases of some pulmonary affection. The only way to save them was to let them rough it, avoiding warm bed-rooms and too much clothing. A Digger girl belonged to my church at Santa Rosa, and was a gentle, kind-hearted, grateful creature. She was a domestic in the family of Colonel H - . In that pleasant Christian household she developed into a pretty fair specimen of brunette young womanhood, but to the last she had an aversion to wearing shoes.
The Digger seems to be doomed. Civilization kills him; and if he sticks to his savagery, he will go down before the bullets, whisky, and vices of his white fellow-sinners.