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An Eloquent Visitor from the Great Plains

Chief Petalesharro Visits the White House, 1821

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One of the most moving moments in the early history of the White House took place in the Entrance Hall, when President James Monroe received Chief Petalesharro, a Pawnee from the Loup River region in central Nebraska. At the time he was at the White House, he was a celebrity for rescuing a woman his tribe was attempting to burn at the stake, tearing her from the fire and riding away with her on his horse.

Petalesharro’s appearance in Washington was as though a page from The Last of the Mohicans had come to life. Schoolgirls brought him gifts; the press hailed his heroic manliness and good looks. As part of a delegation in Washington to negotiate with officials, he appeared before Monroe in the full regalia of chief. His speech, delivered to the president and guests, survives as a high point of formal oration in American history.

Petalesharro (Generous Chief) Pawnee by Charles Bird King, c. 1822, is one of many portraits made by King at the request of Thomas L. McKenney, the first director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The chief wears the warbonnet in which he appeared at President James Monroe’s New Year’s Day reception, as well as necklaces of trade beads and the Monroe peace medal. It hangs in the White House Library today.

My Great Father: I have travelled a great distance to see you—I have seen you and my heart rejoices. I have heard your words—they have entered one ear and shall not escape the other, and I will carry them to my people as pure as they came from your mouth.

My Great Father: I am going to speak the truth. The Great Spirit looks down upon us, and I call Him to witness all that may pass between us on this occasion. If I am here now and have seen your people, your houses, your vessels on the big lake, and a great many wonderful things far beyond my comprehension, which appear to have been made by the Great Spirit and placed in your hands, I am indebted to my Father here, who invited me from home, under whose wings I have been protected. Yes, my Great Father, I have travelled with your chief: I have followed him, and trod in his tracks; but there is still another Great Father to whom I am much indebted—it is the Father of us all. Him who made us and placed us on this earth. I feel grateful to the Great Sprit for strengthening my heart for such an undertaking, and for preserving the life which he gave me. The Great Spirit made us all—he made my skin red, and yours white; he placed us on this earth, and intended that we should live differently from each other.

He made the whites to cultivate the earth, and feed on domestic animals; but he made us, red skins, to rove through the uncultivated woods and plains; to feed on wild animals; and to dress with their skins. He also intended that we should go to war—to take scalps—steal horses from and triumph over our enemies—cultivate peace at home, and promote the happiness of each other. I believe there are no people of any color on this earth who do not believe in the Great Spirit—in rewards, and in punishments. We worship him, but we worship him not as you do. We differ from you in appearance and manners as well as in our customs; and we differ from you in our religion; we have no large houses as you have to worship the Great Spirit in; if we had them today we should want others tomorrow, for we have not, like you, a fixed habitation—we have no settled home except our villages, where we remain but two moons in twelve. We, like animals, rove through the country, whilst you whites reside between us and heaven; but still, my Great Father, we love the Great Spirit—we acknowledge his supreme power—our peace, our health, and our happiness depend upon him, and our lives belong to him—he made us and he can destroy us.

Samuel F. B. Morse of New Haven, Connecticut, began his painting The House of Representatives in November 1821, while Chief Petalesharro was with his delegation in Washington and the Seventeenth Congress was debating highly significant Indian policies. Oil lamps are being lighted for an evening session. At the far right of the painting, from beneath the acoustical curtains that span the columned gallery, Chief Petalesharro can be seen as he watches the congressmen below forming within their own legal context the laws that will impact his future.

My Great Father: Some of your good chiefs, as they are called [missionaries], have proposed to send some of their good people among us to change our habits, to make us work and live like the white people. I will not tell a lie—I am going to tell the truth. You love your country— you love your people—you love the manner in which they live, and you think your people are brave.—I am like you, my Great Father, I love my country. I love my people—I love the manner in which we live, and think myself and warriors brave. Spare me then, my Father; let me enjoy my country, and pursue the buffalo, and the beaver, and the other wild animals of our country, and I will trade their skins with your people. I have grown up and lived this long without work—I am in hopes you will suffer me to die without it. We have plenty of buffalo, beaver, deer and other wild animals—we have also an abundance of horses—we have everything we want—we have plenty of land, if you will keep your people off of it. My father has a piece on which he lives [Council Bluffs], and we wish him to enjoy it—we have enough without it—but we wish him to live near us to give us good counsel— to keep our hearts and eyes open that we may continue to pursue the right road—the road to happiness. He settles all differences between us and the whites, between the red skins themselves—he makes the whites do justice to the red skins, and he makes the red skins do justice to the whites. He saves the effusion of human blood, and restores peace and happiness of the land. You have already sent us a father; it is enough he knows us and we know him—we have confidence in him—we keep our eye constantly upon him, and since we have heard your words, we will listen more attentively to his.

It is too soon my Great Father, to send those good men among us. We are not starving yet—we wish you to permit us to enjoy the chase until the game of our country is exhausted—until the wild animals become extinct. Let us exhaust our present resources before you make us and interrupt our happiness—let me continue to live as I have done, and after I have passed to the Good or Evil Spirit from off the wilderness of my present life, the subsistence of my children may become so precarious as to need and embrace the assistance of those good people.

There was a time when we did not know the whites—our wants were then fewer than they are now. They were always within our control—we had then seen nothing which we could not get. Before our intercourse with the whites (who have caused such a destruction in our game) we could lie down to sleep, and when we awoke we would find the buffalo feeding around our camp—but we are now killing them for their skins, and feeding the wolves with their flesh, to make our children cry over their bones.

Here, My Great Father, is a pipe which I present you, as I am accustomed to present pipes to all the red skins in peace with us. It is filled with such tobacco as we were accustomed to smoke before we knew the white people. It is pleasant, and the spontaneous growth of the most remote parts of our country. I know that the robes, leggings, moccasins, bear-claws, etc., are of little value to you, but we wish you to have them deposited and preserved in some conspicuous part of your lodge, so that when we are gone and the sod turned over our bones, if our children should visit this place, as we do now, they may see and recognize with pleasure the deposits of their fathers; and reflect on the times that are past.