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a blog by Jarrett Retz

Book Review: Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America

by Jarrett RetzJune 5th, 2022

Piqued Interest

In the summer of 2021, I stayed at a hotel close to Washougal, WA, on the Columbia River. Walking along a paved path I read an information placard that featured a painting of Paul Kane's.

PL. 38. Chinook Lodge, Mount Hood in the Distance (Pg. 188)

The painting was a group of Native Americans around a lodge constructed of cedar bark. Off on the horizon, the trees open up, and the Columbia River takes the eye to the base of a towering Mt. Hood. This was so cool!

The written history of the United States is small compared to places like Europe and parts of Asia. Furthermore, that written history shrinks when discussing the Washington Territory and Washington State.

Therefore, I became enthused to get my hands on this book and see what else it might contain.

Lasting Impression

I looked forward to every chance I had to pick up this book and continue reading. Paul Kane's, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America is a wonderful time capsule. It provides answers to many questions that a slightly adventurous or curious mind may have about the frontier of the North America in the 1840s:

  • What would it have been like to travel through the interior in the mid-1800s?
  • Who would you meet?
  • What Indian tribes would you come across?
  • How did people eat, sleep, stay warm, or travel?
  • What was the wildlife like?

Paul Kane, recording daily or weekly journal entries, sketching tribal members, scenic vistas, towns, and ceremonies was writing, drawing, and recording information that he wanted to convey to people who lived much further East in heavily populated areas, whether that be America or Great Britain.

Although he (most likely) was writing with the intention of publication in the near future (the 1850s) his writings provide a cache of value to me, today, ~176 years later. My favorite parts of this book, which I'll describe in more detail further down the article include:

  • The state of Native Amerian tribes: illness, consumption, hostilities with other tribes, current way of life.
  • How one travels across the interior: sleeping, crossing rivers, eating, modes of transportation.
  • Everything that pertained to what is now Washington State: My favorite chapters of this book is the times he spent in the northwest territory. Being a Washingtonian, I had a strong fascination with

The State of North American Tribes


Consumption is the abuse of liquor, or alcoholism, that destroyed groups of Native Americans, and people within the tribes when they came in contact with the substance.

The first part of Kane's journey is through the Great Lakes area of North America. He comments multiple times on the alcoholism and consumption that seems to grip some of the tribes. Also, how alcohol seems to find its way onto, or around, reservations whenever the tribe members are paid by the government. The sale of liquor, as Kane states at the time, is prohibited by the United States to indigenous peoples, but that does not stop it from falling into their hands entirely.

Leaving the Great Lakes, Kane travels north into Canada and spends time with a settlement of half-breeds that are under the supervision of the Hudson's Bay Company. He then makes an interesting remark on their behavior, in comparison to the tribes down by the Great Lakes:

Without entering into the general question of
the policy of giving a monopoly of the fur trade to
one company, I cannot but record, as the firm
conviction which I formed from
a comparison
between the Indians in the Hudson's Bay Company
territories and those in the United States, that
opening up the trade with the Indians to all who
wish indiscriminately to engage in it, must lead to
their annihilation. For while it is the interest of
such a body as the Hudson's Bay Company to
improve the Indians and encourage them to in-
dustry, according to their own native habits in
hunting and the chase, even with a view to their
own profit, it is as obviously the interest of small
companies and private
adventurers to draw as
much wealth as they possibly can from the country
in the shortest possible time, although in doing so
the very source from which the wealth springs should
be destroyed. The unfortunate craving for intoxi
cating liquor which characterises all the tribes of
Indians, and the terrible effects thereby produced
upon them, render it a deadly instrument in the
hands of designing men.
It is well known that, although the laws of the
United States strictly prohibit the sale of liquor to
the Indians, it is impossible to enforce them, and
whilst many traders are making rapid fortunes in
their territories, the Indians are fast declining in
character, numbers,
and wealth,
whilst those in
contact with the Hudson's Bay Company maintain
their numbers, retain native characteristics unim
paired, and in some degree share in the advantages
which civilisation places within their reach.

Based on his writings, I can't disagree with this statement, and I believe it to be authentic. However, without getting too much into the theories of influence, Paul Kane is—at least to my understanding—financed or at least greatly indebted to the help of the Hudson's Bay Company to get him across North America. Therefore, it's difficult for me to take it entirely at face value.

Way of Life

Kane shares many stories told by the Native American tribes. Also, he records details on the medicine ceremonies, hunting methods, cleanliness, bodily characteristics, gambling games, and diet of many of the tribes he encounters.

In my opinion, his recounting of each is excellently done.

He describes the poor hygiene and filth of tribes from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. These descriptions include rats in the teepees around the Lakes and Natives picking, and then biting, the lice out of the hair of other tribe members.

Paul Kane is fascinated by "the Flatheads" of the Pacific Northwest.

The FlatHead Indians are met with on the
banks of the Columbia River, from its mouth
eastward to the Cascades, a distance of about
150 miles; they extend up the Walhamette River's
mouth, about thirty or forty miles, and through
the district between the Walhamette and Fort As-
toria, now called Fort George.
To the north
they extend along the Cowlitz River, and the
tract of land lying between that and Puget's
Sound. About two-thirds of Vancouver's Island
is also occupied by them, and they are found
along the coasts of Puget's Sound and the Straits
of Juan de Fuca. The Flatheads
are divided
into numerous tribes, each having its own peculiar
locality, and differing more or less from the others
in language, customs, and manners. Those in the
immediate vicinity of the fort are principally Chi-
nooks and Klickataats, and are governed by a chief
called Casanov. This name has no translation,
the Indians on the west side of the Rocky Moun-
tains differing from those on the east in having
hereditary names, to which no particular meaning
appears to be attached, and the origin of which
is in many instances forgotten.

Kane provides a description, and a drawing, of how the head of an infant is flattened:

The Chinooks and Cowlitz Indians carry the
custom of flattening the head to a greater extent
than any other of the Flathead tribes. The process
is as follows:
The Indian mothers all carry their
infants strapped to a piece of board covered with
moss or loose fibres of cedar bark, and in order to
flatten the head they place a pad on the infant's
forehead, on the top of which is laid a piece of
smooth bark, bound on by a leathern band passing
through holes in the board on either side, and kept
tightly pressed across the front of the head.
- a sort
of pillow of grass or cedar fires being placed under
the back of the neck to support it. This process
commences with the birth of the infant, and is con-
tinued for a period of from eight to twelve months,
by which time the head has lost its natural shape,
and acquired that of a wedge: the front of the skull
flat and higher at the crown, giving it a most un-
natural appearance.

The above passages, and my interest in them, could fall into the category of Native American Way of Life or Washington State History. However, I will include it here, because it leads me to another extremely fascinating observation that Kane relates in his book:

This unnatural operation does not, however, seem
to injure the health, the mortality amongst the Flat-
head children not being perceptibly greater than
amongst other Indian tribes; nor does it seem to
inure their intellect. On the contrary, the Flat-
heads are generally considered fully as intelligent
as the surrounding tribes, who allow their heads to
preserve their natural shape, and it is from amongst
the round heads that the Flatheads take their slaves,
looking with contempt even upon the white for
having round heads, the flat head being considered
as the distinguishing mark of freedom
[emphasis added].

How interesting it is, not only that tribes in the West took slaves, but that the Flatheads thought of round-headed people as deserving of slavery due to their skulls lacking flatness! I thought, how American they were to use physical characteristics to determine ones fitness for freedom! Truly, a sign of the times.

Again, describing the northwest, Kane talks about how the tribes of the Lower Columbia sustained themselves year round. Going as far as to describe a few tribes in the northwest as "lazy", he suspects, because of their ease in acquiring salmon and other fish for food.

Salmon is almost the only food used by the Indians
on the Lower Columbia River, the two months
fishing affording a sufficient supply to last them
the whole year round. The mode in which they
cure them is by splitting them down the back.
after which each half is again split, making them
sufficiently thin to dry with facility, a process
occupying in general from four to five days.*
The salmon are afterwards sewed up in rush mats,
containing about ninety or one hundred pounds,
and put up on scaffolds to keep the dogs from
them. Infinitely greater numbers of salmon could
be readily taken here, if it were desired; but, as
the chief considerately remarked to me, if he were to
take all that came up, there would be none left for
the Indians on the upper part of the river; so that
they content themselves with supplying their own

I found their considerations for tribes up the river wonderful. I had heard about this awareness of conservation when reading about the Spokane tribe, and their Salmon Chief that determined the amount of fish that were pulled from the river. So I was eager to draw a comparison between the tribes lower on the Columbia, thinking about tribes further up the river (Spokane), and the Spokane tribe also paying attention to the amount of fish pulled from the river.

Briefly, a few other descriptions I remember include:

  • The buffalo hunts, and buffalo pens used to kill hundreds and thousands of buffaloes in the northern plains of Canada
  • Also, on the plains up north in Canada, burning the plains to corral buffalo and move game, creating what Kane describes as an "indian summer"
  • The superstitions many had about Paul Kane drawing them, thinking it will bring them bad luck or kill them.

Sickness and War

Remaining on the subject of Washington tribes, Paul Kane spent some time in what is now Walla Walla, WA. He recounts a sad occurrence of how European diseases (measles) were still decimating tribes, notably the Walla Walla and "Kye-use" (Cayuse):

On the day after my arrival at the fort, a boy,
one of the sons of Peo-Peo-mox-mox, the chief of
the Walla-Wallas, arrived at the camp close to the
fort. He was a few days in advance of a war
party headed by his father, and composed of
Walla-Walla and Kye-use Indians, which had been
absent eighteen months, and had been almost
given up by the tribes. This party, numbering
200 men, had started for California for the purpose
of revenging the death of another son of the chief
who had been killed by some Californian emigrants;
and the messenger now arrived bringing the most
disastrous tidings, not only of the total failure of
the expedition, but also of their suffering and de-
tention by sickness. Hearing that a messenger
was coming in across the plains, I went to the
Indian camp and was there at his arrival. No
sooner had he dismounted from his horse than the
whole camp, men, women, and children, surrounded
him, eagerly inquiring after their absent friends,
as they had hitherto received no intelligence, beyond
a report, that the party had been cut off by hostile
tribes. His downcast looks and silence confirmed
the fears that some dire calamity must have hap-
pened, and they set up a tremendous howl, while
he stood silent and dejected, with the tears stream-
ing down his face. At length, after much coaxing
and entreaty on their part, he commenced the re-
cital of their misfortunes [measles outbreak]...
...The same signs of intense
grief followed the mention of each name, present-
ing a scene which accustomed as I was to Indian
life, I must confess, affected me deeply. I stood
close by them on a log, with the interpreter of the
fort, who explained to me the Indian's statement,
which occupied nearly three hours. After this the
excitement increased, and apprehensions were en-
tertained at the fort that it might lead to some
hostile movement against the establishment.

What eventually ensued, as recounted by Paul Kane with the help of an acquaintance was the Whitman massacre.

However, I'll need to do more reading on the subject because the events in Paul Kane's book don't seem to be the same as what I have read on Wikipedia. Reading further, the Wikipedia page on the Whitman massacre references the Walla Walla expeditions and that page seems more in line with Kane's events.

Regardless, the historical hyperlink is one of the many gems that this book contains.

How One Travels Across "the interior"

Whether it was leaving a fort with only a gun—having the intention to shoot and kill for your meals—or how to make camp and stay warm when sleeping on snow, Paul Kane does a wonderful job detailing the incredible struggles that were often life threatening on the frontier at this time.

During his return through the Canadian Rockies, having to endure extremely low temperatures and physical hardships, he shares with the reader a maxim that travelers follow: never turn back.

It became common knowledge to me, as I read the book, that a great way to cross a river is to hold on to the tail of a horse as it swam across! Kane does it on countless occasions during his journey.

Food and shelter were of the utmost concern, and the importance of protecting the rations cannot be understated.

One of the most interesting sources of nutrition on his travels is pimmi-kon. A mixture of buffalo meat, fat, and sometimes berries stored in a sack made of buffalo skin and weighing almost 90 lbs. This concoction was used to supply distant forts during the winter, and was carried by the men and women as they toiled through areas with little game.

It's alarming, while reading, to understand just how close they lived to death at so many moments.

Washington State

Finally, for anyone interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest, there are Kane's notes on what the PNW was like in the late 1840s.

He spent a bit of time at Fort Vancouver. Traveling to Mt. St. Helens and sketching it's then rounded dome.

Later, he took an extended trip up to Fort Victoria (on Vancouver Island). In addition to the passages I have already shared on the Cowlitz, Chinook, and Klickitat tribes in the area Paul Kane spent time among the Clallum during his time at Fort Victoria, who occupied the land and islands bordering the Straight Juan de Fuca.

In one chapter, he outlines the process and tools the tribe used to hunt and secure whales:

Their manner of catching the whale is in-
genious, and from the description which I re-
ceived of the hunt must be very exciting. Upon
a whale being seen blowing in the offing, they
rush down to their large canoes, and push off
with ten or twelve men in each. Each canoe is
furnished with a number of strong sealskin bags
filled with air, and made with great care and skill,
capable of containing about ten gallons each. 'To
each bag is attached a barbed spear-head, made of
bone or iron, when they can get it, by a strong
string, eight or nine feet long, and in the socket of
the spear-head is fitted a handle, seven or eight feet
in length. Upon coming up with the whale, the
barbed heads with the bags attached are driven
into him and the handles withdrawn. The attack
is continually renewed, until the whale is no longer
able to sink from the buoyancy of the bags, when
he is despatched and towed ashore. They are
sometimes led twenty or thirty miles out to sea in
the chase, but such is the admirable construction
of their canoes, and so skilfully are they managed,
that an accident rarely happens.

Knowing the area on the Washington coast from one of my backpacking trips, I was also intrigued by the battles that the Clallums had with the Makah tribe on the peninsula. Another one of Kane's anecdotes.

I enjoyed all the details of his trip from Fort Vancouver, up to Fort Victoria, back to Fort Vancouver, and finally up to Fort Colville via the Columbia. Along the way he stopped at the Cascades of the Columbia, went around Celilo Falls (to avoid conflict with the tribes fishing in the area), and stopped in Walla Walla.

He made contact with Dr. Whitman of Walla Walla. Another one of his excursions in Walla Walla took him up the Palouse River and to the base of "Peluce Falls" (Palouse Falls). It was exciting to see his painting of it, from so long ago, and how today it looks the same! I know that sounds ridiculous, but it feels like I have a personal connection with the man because we've stood and gawked at the same waterfall!

He struggled to find a guide to take him up through the "Grand Coulet" (Grand Coulee) because the natives in the area believed it to be haunted. Endeavoring to travel through the coulee and meet back up with the Columbia River at what is now Grand Coulee, WA and the Grand Coulee Dam.

Coming out of the coulee, and approaching the river he writes of the Columbia in a way that a romantic, and someone that loves Washington State the same as I do, can agree with:

August 5th. - Towards evening we began to see
trees, principally pine, in the heights and in the dis-
tance, and I concluded that we were now approach-
ing the Columbia River. I now pressed forward
and before sundown emerged from the gorge of this
stupendous ravine, and saw the mighty river flow-
ing at least 500 feet below us, though the banks
rose considerably more than that height above us
on each side. This river exceeds in grandeur any
other perhaps in the world, not so much from its
volume of water, although that is immense, as
from the romantic wildness of its stupendous and
ever varying surounding scenery, now towering
into snow-capped mountains thousands of feet
high, and now sinking in undulating terraces
to the level of its pellucid water.

I've personally camped near this area that he is describing. Due to the dam the water is very high and that's all I've known of it. Therefore, I struggle to envision the big canyon walls and the river Columbia way below, the way he writes about it.

After reaching the Columbia on the other side of the coulee, Kane heads on to Colville where he paints Kettle Falls, and what it looked like so many years ago (before it disappeared under the rising waters of the dam).

During his stay at Colville he traveled and met the Spokan (Spokane) tribe and, residing in Spokane myself, I'll share the passage because I find it interesting, albeit short.

The Spokan Indians are a small tribe, differing
very little from the Indians at Colville either in their
appearance, habits, or language. They all seemed
to treat the missionaries with great affection and
respect; but as to their success in making converts,
I must speak with great diffidence, as I was not
sufficiently acquainted with the language to ex-
amine them, even had I wished to do so. I have
no doubt that a great number have been baptised,
but I also am aware that almost all Indians will
take a name from a man whom they esteem, and
give him one in return; and the more ceremony
there is about the transaction, the more importance
will be attached to it, and the greater the induce-
ment to others to be equally honoured. No in-
fluence, however, seems to be able to make agri-
culturists of them, as they still pursue their hunt-
ing and fishing, evincing the greatest dislike to
anything like manual labour.

The rest of his book, after Colville, was much of the same in terms of difficult traveling. Except for maybe even more difficult than before. I had already filled my cup of curioslty by this point and quickly moved through the final chapters with more speed than the preceding chapters.


For the right person, Paul Kane's Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America is full of interesting articles. But, I'd be hesitant to recommend it because the majority of readers might find it, surprisingly dull, or just flat uninteresting!

Conversely, I am very interested in the West, the tribes that inhabited the American West, and the history of Washington State. Therefore, if you find yourself in that same boat, this book would be a great read!

As a final note, I spent a lot of my time with this book in my lap with me looking at my phone trying to track Kane's travels based on the name of someplace he would mention in the book. I found it hard to get a sense of how he got from point to point. To my astonishment, in the Appendix of the book, there is a map of North America that shows Kane's route! I couldn't believe it! It would have saved me so much time to know about it. It's a pretty cool fold out. So, remember that it's there for the purpose of tracing his steps across the continent.

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