Gabriel Franchere Discusses Customs of Indians Living in the Pacific Northwest


Gabriel Franchere was a fur trader who worked for John Jacob Astor in Oregon beginning in 1810.  He took part in the founding of Astoria and gained an intimate knowledge of the Indians of that region as he worked for Astor in the region.  The narrative of his experiences was widely read in both French and English editions.


The natives inhabiting on the Columbia, from the mouth of that river to the falls, that is to say, on a space extending about 250 miles from east to west, are, generally speaking, of low stature, few of them passing five feet six inches, and many not even five feet.  They pluck out the beard, in the manner of the other Indians of North America; but a few of the old men only suffer a tuft to grow upon their chins.  On arriving among them we were exceedingly surprised to see that they had almost all flattened heads.  This configuration is not a natural deformity, but an effect of art, caused by compression of the skull in infancy.  It shocks strangers extremely, especially at first sight; nevertheless, among these barbarians it is an indispensable ornament:  and when we signified to them how much this mode of flattening the forehead appeared to us to violate nature and good taste, they answered that it was only slaves who had not their heads flattened.  The slaves, in fact, have the usual rounded head, and they are not permitted to flatten the foreheads of their children, destined to bear the chains of their sires….


Cleanliness is not a virtue among these females, who, in that respect, resemble the other Indian women of the continent.  They anoint the body and dress the hair with fish oil, which does not diffuse an agreeable perfume.  Their hair (which both sexes wear long) is jet black; it is badly combed, but parted in the middle as is the custom of the sex everywhere, and kept shining by the fish-oil before-mentioned….The men are not lazy, especially during the fishing season.  Not being hunters, and eating, consequently, little flesh-meat (although they are fond of it), fish makes, as I have observed, their principal diet.  They profit, therefore, by the season when it is to be had, but taking as much as they can; knowing that the intervals will be periods of famine and abstinence, unless they provide sufficiently beforehand.


Their canoes are made of cedar, and of a single trunk:  we saw some which were five feet wide at midships, and thirty feet in length; these are the largest, and will carry from 25 to 30 men; the smallest will carry but two or three….Their houses, constructed of cedar are remarkable for their form and size:  some of them are one hundred feet by thirty or forty feet in width. 


The kitchen utensils consist of plates of ashwood, bowls of fibrous roots, and a wooden kettle:  with these they succeed in cooking their fish and meat in less time than we take with the help of pots and stewpans.  Seen how they do it!  Having heated a number of stones red-hot, they plunge them, one by one, in the vessel which is to contain the food to be prepared; as soon as the water boils, they put in the fish or meat, with some more heated stones on top, and cover up the whole with small rush mats to retain the steam….


It will be asked, no doubt, what instruments these savages use in the construction of their canoes and their houses.  To cause their patience and industry to be admired as much as they deserve, it will be sufficient for me to mention that we did not find among them a single hatchet; their only tools consisted of an inch of half-inch chisel, usually made of an old file, and of a mallet, which was nothing but an oblong stone.  With these wretched implements, and wedges made of hemlock knots, steeped in oil and hardened by the fire, they would undertake to cut down the largest cedars of the forest, to dig them out and fashion them into canoes, to split them, and get out the boards wherewith to build their houses.  Such achievements with such means, are a marvel of ingenuity and patience. 


·        How does he describe the appearance of Indians? 

·        How does he describe their homes, canoes, cooking practices & technology?

·        How reliable a source is this to learn about Native Americans living in the PNW