After sailing eighty leagues from the capital of Louisiana, we arrived at the Natchez post, which was an important one twenty years ago but is insignificant today. The fort is situated on a high point overlooking the Mississippi. The Natchez, who lived here formerly, were a very important people. They had several villages ruled by individual chiefs, who in turn were governed by the great chief of the entire nation. All of these chiefs were called “Suns,” and all five hundred of them were related to the Great Sun, their sovereign, who wore on his chest a picture of the sun from which he claimed descent. Ouachil, the name under which the sun was worshipped, means “very great fire” or “supreme fire.”
The ceremonies of this sun cult were rather august. The high priest arose before sunrise and walked solemnly at the head of his people. He carried a calumet, and, in order to honor the sun, blew the first puff of smoke in its direction. Staring at the sun’s first rays and extending his arms towards the sky, each worshiper howled in turn after the high priest. Then they all prostrated themselves. The women brought their children to this ceremony and made them assume the positions required by the rite.
At harvest time in July, the Natchez had a very important celebration. They first blackened their faces, took purifying baths, and fasted until three in the afternoon. The oldest man in the nation then offered God the first fruits of the harvest.
They had a temple in which burned an eternal flame. The priests, who were very careful to keep the fire going, were permitted to use the wood of only one type of tree. If, by chance, the fire went out, the horrified nation put the responsible priests to death. This happened very rarely because the guardian priests, pretending to light their pipes, would ask for “profane” fire, since they could not use the “sacred” fire for this purpose, and would then rekindle the flame.
When the sovereign died, his wives and several of his subjects were put to death so that they could accompany him to the grave. The lesser Suns carefully followed the same custom. According to the law, when a female relative of the Suns died, her husband was put to death too. Here is the story of an Indian named Etteacteal, who was unwilling to submit to this law. He had married into the Sun family, an honor which almost ended in disaster for him. When his wife fell sick and seemed to be dying, he fled down the Mississippi in a pirogue and arrived in New Orleans. He gained the protection of Governor de Bienville by becoming his hunter. The governor interceded for him with the Natchez, who stated that Etteacteal had nothing to fear since the funeral ceremony had already taken place without him and he no longer of any use.
Etteacteal, thus reassured, dared to make several trips to his nation without taking up permanent residence there. He happened to be there at the time of the death of Bitten Snake, a relative of his late wife and brother of the Chief Sun. It was decided that he would have to pay his debt. Since Monsieur de Bienville had been recalled to France, the Natchez chief decided that the letters of reprieve granted to Etteacteal were null and void, and he had him seized. In the war chief’s cabin, where he was put with the other victims to be sacrificed to Bitten Snake, Etteacteal gave way to his feelings of grief. The dead man’s wife was to be sacrificed, too, but she watched the preparations for her death calmly and seemed eager to join her husband in death. Hearing Etteacteal’s groans, she said to him, “Aren’t you are a warrior?” He answered, “Yes, I am.” She replied. “Still, you are crying. Life is dear to you! Since you feel that way, it’s not right for you to come with us. Go off with the women.” Etteacteal said, “Certainly life is dear to me. I should like to walk upon this earth until the death of the Great Sun; then I would die with him.” The woman answered, “Go away, I tell you. It is not right for you to come with us and for your heart to remain behind on earth. Again I say, go away so that I shall not have to look at you.”
Etteacteal did not wait for her to repeat her order; he took off like a bolt of lightning. Three old women, two of whom were relatives of his, tired of life because of their age and their infirmities, offered to pay his debt. None of them had been able to walk for a long time. Etteacteal’s two relatives had hair which was no grayer than that of 55-year-old French women. The other woman was 120 years old and had very white hair, a rarity among the Indians. None of the three had very wrinkled skin. They were put to death early in the evening, one at bitten Snake’s door, the other two in the temple square.
The generosity of these women redeemed Warrior Etteacteal’s life. His honor, which had been blemished by his fear of death, was restored to him. He lived in peace from that time on, and, profiting by the education he received during his stay among the French, he became a witch doctor and used his knowledge to fool his fellow tribesmen.
The day after this execution, they began to prepare the procession. At the appointed hour, the leader of the ceremony, dressed in the ornaments appropriate to his rank, appeared at the door of the cabin out of which came the victims who were to accompany the prince to the Land of the Spirits. These were his two wives, his chancellor, his physician, his favorite servant, and some old women who had volunteered to be sacrificed.
The favorite wife went up to the Chief Sun, who was with several Frenchmen, to say good-by to them. She ordered that the Suns, who were her children, be brought to her and she spoke these words to them: “My children, this is the day when I must tear myself from your arms to follow the footsteps of your father to the Land of the Spirits. If I were to yield to your tears, I would fail in my duty and my love. I have done enough for you by bearing you next to my heart and nursing you at my breasts. Should you who were formed of his blood and fed with my milk be shedding tears? Rejoice in the fact that you are Suns and warriors. You must set examples of firmness and valor for the entire nation. I have provided for all your needs by obtaining friends for you. My friends and the friends of your father are also yours. I leave you among them. They are the French, who have tender hearts and are generous. Be worthy of their esteem by not disgracing your race. Always deal with them honestly and never ask their help for base reasons.”
“And you, Frenchmen,” she added, turning toward our officers, “I leave my orphaned children in your hands. They will know no other father but you; you must protect them.”
She then arose and, followed by her group, entered her husband’s cabin with surprising firmness.
A noble lady, who decided to accompany Bitten Snake to the other world because of her friendship for him, voluntarily joined the number of victims. The Europeans called her Gloria because of her majestic bearing, her proud look, and the fact that she would bother with only the most distinguished Frenchmen. They felt her loss keenly. She was familiar with many herbs which she used to save the lives of a good number of our sick. This moving sight filled them with grief and horror. The dead man’s favorite wife then arose and said to them with a smile on her lips: “I die without fear; my last moments are not marred by grief. I leave my children in your hands. When you see them, noble Frenchmen, remember that you loved their father and that to the very grave he was a sincere and true friend of your nation, which he loved more than his own life. It has pleased the Master of Life to call him, an in a little while I shall go to join him. I shall tell him that I saw your hearts grieve at the sight of his body. Do not mourn, for we shall be friends in the Land of the Spirits for even a longer time than here. There is no death there.” [At the appointed time of the ceremony, the victims swallowed balls of tobacco to numb their senses. Then they were strangled and laid out on mats, with the favorite on the right, the other wife on the left, and then all the other victims according to their rank.]
These sad words brought tears to the eyes of all the French. They did all that they could to keep the Chief Sun from killing himself. He was inconsolable at the death of his brother to whom he used to delegate the burdens of government. He became furious when his attempts were resisted. He held his rifle by the breech, while the Sun who was his heir held it by the lock, causing the powder to spill out. The cabin was full of Suns, nobles, and the Esteemed, all of whom were trembling, but the Frenchmen reassured them by having all the Chief Sun’s arms hidden and by filling the barrel of his rifle with water so that it could not be used for some time. When the Suns saw that their chief’s life was assured, they thanked the French by shaking hands with them without saying a word. There was a deep silence, for grief and respect restrained the great number of people who were present.
During this ceremony, the Chief Sun’s wife was sized with fear. When she was asked if she were sick, she answered in a loud voice, “Yes, I am.” She continued more softly, “If the French leave, my husband and all the Natchez will die. Please stay, brave Frenchmen, for your word has the force of arrows. Who would have dared do what you have done? You are true friends to him and his brother.”
According to the law, the Chief Sun’s wife would have been forced to follow her husband to the grave; that was doubtless the reason for her fear and her gratitude to the French who wanted him to live.
The Chief Sun held his hand out to the officers and said , “My heart is so heavy that my eyes, although they are open, did not see that you were standing. My mouth did not open to tell you to be seated. Excuse my deep grief.”
The French replied that it was unimportant, that they were going to leave him alone, but that they would no longer be friends if he did not give the order to light the fires again, first lighting his own in their presence. [The chief sun had given the order to extinguish all fires. This is done only when the sovereign himself dies]. They also said that they would not leave him until his brother had been buried.
He shook hands with all the Frenchmen and said, “Since all the chiefs and the noble officers want me to remain on this earth, so be it; I will not kill myself. Let all the fires be lighted again immediately. I shall wait for death to unite me with my brother. I am already old, and until my death, I shall walk with the French. If not for them, I would have gone off with my brother and the paths would have been covered with dead bodies.”
[#12] The Natchez: Jean-Bernard Bossu’s Travels in the Interior of North America 1751-1762, trans. and ed. Seymour Feiler (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962, pp. 31-37).