This reference forwarded by Skipper Funderburg,
January 2008, with many thanks.
LETTER -- No.
MANDAN VILLAGE, UPPER MISSOURI.
At the distance of half a mile or so above the village, is the customary place where the women and girls resort every morning in the summer months, to bathe in the river.
To this spot they repair by hundreds, every morning at sunrise, where, on a beautiful beach, they can be seen running and glistening in the sun, whilst they are playing their innocent gambols and leaping into the stream.
They all learn to swim well, and the poorest swimmer amongst them will dash fearlessly into the boiling, and eddying current of the Missouri, and cross it with perfect ease.
At a little
distance below the village, also, is the place where the men and boys go
to bathe and learn to swim.
After this morning ablution, they return to their village, wipe their limbs dry, and use a profusion of bear's grease through their hair and over their bodies.
of swimming is known to all the American Indians; and perhaps no people
on earth have taken more pains to learn it, nor any who turn it to better
There certainly are no people whose avocations of life more often call for the use of their limbs in this way; as many of the tribes spend their lives on the shores of our vast lakes and rivers, paddling about from their childhood in their fragile bark canoes, which are liable to continual accidents, which often throw the Indian upon his natural resources for the preservation of his life.
many times also, when out upon their long marches in the prosecution of
their almost continued warfare, when it becomes necessary to plunge into
and swim across the wildest streams and rivers, at times when they have
no canoes or craft in which to cross them.
I have as yet seen no tribe where this art is neglected.
It is learned at a very early age by both sexes, and enables the strong and hardy muscles of the squaws to take their child upon the back, and successfully to pass any river that lies in their way.
of swimming amongst the Mandans, as well as amongst most of the other tribes,
is quite different from that practiced in those parts of the civilized
world, which I have had the pleasure yet to visit.
The Indian, instead of parting his hands simultaneously under the chin, and making the stroke outward, in a horizontal direction, causing thereby a serious strain upon the chest, throws his body alternately upon the left and the right side, raising one arm entirely above the water and reaching as far forward as he can, to dip it, whilst his whole weight and force are spent upon the one that is passing under him, and like a paddle propelling him along; whilst this arm is making a half circle, and is being raised out of the water behind him, the opposite arm is describing a similar arch in the air over his head, to be dipped in the water as far as he can reach before him, with the hand turned under, forming a sort of bucket, to act most effectively as it passes in its form underneath him.
By this bold and
powerful mode of swimming, which may want the grace that many would wish
to see, I am quite sure, from the experience I have had, that much of the
fatigue and strain upon the breast and spine are avoided, and that a man
will preserve his strength and his breath much longer in this alternate
and rolling motion, than he can in the usual mode of swimming, in the polished
Hidatsa Village, Earth-covered Lodges, on the Knife River, 1810 Miles above St. Louis
At that time, William Byrd, founder of Richmond, Va., wrote in his diary.
"One of our Indians taught us their way of swimming.
They strike not out both hands together, but alternately one after another, whereby they are able to swim both farther and faster than we do."
Now I had the full report in the London Times of Monday, April 22, 1844, which describes how the swimming baths in High Holborn, "kept by a Mr. Hedgman, were crowded with private visitors and that gentleman's friends":
"At 12 o'clock, the omnibus, with three of the Indians outside, and the squaws, accompanied by Mr. Anderson, arrived, as also Mr. Harold Kenworthy, the well-known swimmer. In the rear of the omnibus, in full costume and on horseback, were We-nish-ka-wea-bee (The Flying Gull) and Sah-ma (Tobacco) with Mr. Green, their medical adviser, who has attended them since they have been in London, and who, on this occasion, suggested that the temperature of the water should be raised to 85 degrees.
"The Flying Gull and Tobacco were selected as competitors, the rest of the party being seated to witness the trial of skill, and the squaws being accommodated in an interior room. While the two Indians were divesting themselves of their costume, Mr. Kenworthy went through a series of scientific feats, which excited the applause of the Indians and spectators.
"At a signal, the Indians jumped into the bath, and, on a pistol being discharged, they struck out and swam to the other end, a distance of 130 feet, in less than half a minute. The Flying Gull was the victor by seven feet. They swam back again to the starting place, where The Flying Gull was again the victor. Then they dived from one end of the bath to the other with the rapidity of an arrow, and almost as straight a tension of limb.
"They afterwards entered the lists with Mr. Kenworthy, who is accounted one of the best swimmers in England, and who beat them with the greatest ease." (Probably, after their prior exertions, the two Indian swimmers were too fatigued to offer Mr. Kenworthy much serious competition! )
then remade their toilet, and the whole party were then shown round the
extensive establishment, at which they expressed great wonder. The medal
will be presented to The Flying Gull in the course of the week. Mr. Hedgman
then conducted them to take refreshment in the room with the squaws, and
after partaking of wine and biscuits, they returned in the omnibus to the
Egyptian Hall in time to resume the exhibition."
TRUDY WAS NOT
the first person to fall in love with the embrace of the sea and swimming.
In the spring of 1832, George Catlin, a slightly built, thirty-seven- year-old former attorney, paddled up the Missouri River from St. Louis in search of subjects for painting.
He stopped some eighteen hundred miles later, just north of what is now Bismarck, North Dakota, where the Knife River, after winding several hundred miles through the lush grassland prairies, intersects with the Missouri.
There Catlin made contact with two little-known bands of Native Americans, the two-thousand-member Mandan tribe, who lived in two adjacent villages at the confluence of the rivers, and their allies, the Hidatsa, a smaller band of about five hundred natives whose village bordered those of the Mandan.
They were not
entirely unknown, having first been "discovered" by white explorers in
1738, and in 1804 Lewis and Clark spent time with the tribes.
But where others had simply met the natives, traded for or simply taken what they needed, and moved on, in 1832, Catlin stayed and studied them, making sketches that he later planned on turning into paintings and taking detailed, written notes on all aspects of their culture.
Catlin felt far
more comfortable among the Mandan and Hidatsa than he had been in either
the courtroom or the drawing room where he had sketched many of the subjects
of his portraits.
They had looked down on him as if he were some kind of crafisman, like a boot maker, uninterested in the process of his art, solely concerned with whether the final product was flattering.
Then there were the critics, the swells with classical backgrounds who had journeyed to Europe and, even though they were American themselves, looked with disdain toward artists of their own nation-
They found fault with almost every painting Catlin had ever made, particularly taking him to task for his inability to render perspective.
Anytime he was called upon to paint more than one or two figures, as in a group meeting, Catlin had struggled mightily, unable to capture the relative changes in size that denote distance.
The natives gave
him no such criticism.
To them, Catlin was a curiosity, but one upon which they cast no judgment.
They soon grew accustomed to watching him sitting quiety and sketching upon a pad of paper, and gave him great latitude to move among them.
He was no threat, made no demands, and was welcome to observe them as he wished.
convinced some natives to sit for portraits and spent hours observing both
rituals and more mundane daily tasks, at other times he went off on his
own, roaming the bluffs surrounding the villages, where he could view the
Mandan and Hidatsafrom afar.
Nearly every day he witnessed the natives gathering along the shores of the Knife River, both for the purposes of bathing and for pure pleasure.
For years, westerners
had noted that natives in the Americas, Polynenesia, and the Far East could
not only swim, but that they swam better than anyone in the West.
As one Virginia colonist noted, "They strike not out both hands together, but alternately one after another, whereby they are able to swim both farther and faster than we do."
It was a curiosity, but despite the fact that some members of the upper crust were gingerly stepping into the water and testing their skill and bravery with the breaststroke, making daring long-distance swims either down rivers or between towns along the seacoast, hugging close to the shore as they plodded along, no one in the West thought about emulating the savages.
found the sight both mesmerizing and melancoly.
Although he was certainly not the first westerner to witness Native Americans swimming, he was certainly the first to pay such close attention.
To him, it was personal.
Born in Wilkes
Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1796, Catlin had been raised on a small farm in
nearby Broome County, New York.
From an early age Native American culture had fascinated him.
His mother had briefly been held by a band of Iroquois, and Native Americans still roamed the nearby woods.
Once, in fact. while hunting in the woods ...
... young Catlin
was surprised when a shot rang out and dropped a deer before him.
As Catlin later wrote, he then saw "what I never had seen before, nor ever dreamed of seeing in that place, the tall and graceful form, but half bent forward, as he pushed his red and naked shoulders and drew himself slowly over the logs and through the bushes, of a huge Indian!"
Petrified, Catlin considered killing the Indian but when the native turned his way, wrote Catlin, "I saw then (though a child), in the momentary glance of that face, what infant human nature could not fail to see, and none but human nature could express.
I saw Humanity."
sparked a lifelong interest by Catlin in the American natives.
He studied law and briefly worked as an attorney but soon abandoned the law and turned to painting, eking out an existence as a portrait artist.
Although the self-taught artist was kept busy, his work was considered crude and was a critical failure.
In 1814, however,
after encountering an Indian delegation traveling to Philadelphia, Catlin
had an inspiration and decided to devote his talent to documenting the
American natives as his primary
Over the next few years Catlin made plans to take an extended trip west to observe Native American tribes.
But in September 1826, as Catlin tried to wrap up his affairs before beginning his journey, his younger brother Julius Catlin traveled to Rochester, New York, to deliver one of his brother's portraits.
While there, he decided to sketch a waterfall along the Genesee River.
On the hot day, after sitting in the sun for several hours, he found the waters too tempting and decided to cool off.
Like most other
of his contemporaries, Julius Catlin's swimming skills, were, at best,
He could float and probably paddle along a bit using the breastroke, but was by no means an
On this day he
delicately stepped into the water.
Taking care not to slip, he slowly made his way from shore, feeling, with each step, the rising tide of cool water around his body, and then a steady pull of the current increased.
Then he was gone.
The current lifted him off his feet, pulled him into the Genesee, and swept him downstream.
Panicked, he fought and splashed and called out, but neither Catlin himself nor anyone else had the skills needed for rescue.
In only a few moments he was...
slipped beneath the water, and drowned.
His battered body was found days later far downstream.
Not only was his brother dead, but he had died while making a journey on his behalf and while pursuing vocation George Catlin himself had inspired.
George Catlin then decided to make his journey Westward alone, a trip that in 1832 brought him to the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes.
the tribes with the eye of an artist and a keen attention to detail, but
he was never more precise than when he saw the natives swimming in the
swift currents of the Knife and Missouri rivers.
The Mandan and the Hidatsa took to the water every single day without incident, the women and younger children at a place above their village, and the men and older boys below.
As he looked down from the surrounding bluffs and saw the natives cavorting in the water, laughing and shouting, he could not help but think of his brother.
"They all learn to swim well," wrote Catlin of the natives, "and the poorest swimmer among them will dash fearlessly into the boiling and eddying current of the Missouri, and cross it with perfect ease ...The art of swimming is known to all the American Indians, and perhaps no people on earth have taken more pains to learn it, nor any who turn it to better account.
"The mode of swimming
amongst the Mandan, as well as amongst most of the other tribes, is quite
different than that practiced in those parts of the civilized world which
I have had the pleasure yet to visit," wrote Catlin.
Unlike the Europeans, the natives did not use the breaststroke.
Instead, noted Catlin, the native "throws his body alternately upon the left and right side, raising one arm entirely above the water and reaching as far forward as he can, to dip it, whilst his whole weight and force are spent upon the one passing under him, like a paddle propelling him along; whilst this arm is making a half circle, and is being raised out of the water behind him, the opposite arm is describing a similar arch in the air over his head, to be dipped in the water as far as he can reach before him, with the hand turned under, forming a sort of bucket, to act most effectively as it passes
in its turn beneath him.
By this bold and powerful mode of swimming, whIch may want the grace that many would wish to see, I am quite sure ...that a man will preserve his strength and breathe much
... longer in this alternate rolling motion, than he can in the usual mode of swimming, in the polished world."
There, in a few
brief paragraphs, was the future of an entire sport.
And there it sat, in one of Carlin's notebooks, for much of the next decade, unread and unstudied, as countless men and women "in the polished world" drowned, just as Julius Catlin had.
But if anyone had looked closely at the painting Catlin made the following winter entitled Hidatsa Village, Earth Covered Lodges, on the Knife River, they would have seen how profoundly the scene affected the painter.
From the perspective of the opposite shore the scene shows more than a dozen mud dwellings atop a bluff above the river.
In the foreground of the far shore, where the river runs beneath the village, four natives lay horizontal in the water, each with an arm stretched out or over-head, apparently swimming easily.
Yet on the near
shore, almost unnoticed, in the lower right comer of the painting is an
indistinct lone figure not identifiable as a native.
This figure, half immersed in water, arms thrust overhead, appears to be drowning.
A canoe is rushing toward the figure, water churning as it speeds to help, and several natives can be seen running toward the riverbank, preparing to dive into the water.
The contrast in
the scene is unmistakable.
The natives can swim.
The drowning figure cannot.
Over the next
few years Catlin made several more journeys, eventually making contact
with nearly fifty tribes, turning his sketches into paintings, opening
a modest gallery to display his work, and
giving lectures with little success.
In the meantime the Mandan and Hidatsa were both afflicted with smallpox.
The disease raced through the tribes, and only five years after Carlin's first contact barely one hundred Mandan remained alive, while nearly half the Hidatsa succumbed.
and on his way toward bankruptcy, in 1840 Catlin gathered his paintings
and other artifacts and abandoned America for England, hoping for a better
reception, and self- published a two-volume collection of his writings
and prints entitled Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions
of the North American Indians, a book that included Carlin's description
of the swimming natives.
For a time his gallery was quite successful, but after a few years interest began to wane.
Catlin, scrambling for fi-
nanciaI survival, then created an EngIish version of the "Wild West" show, using family members and acton to portray Native Americans.
Then he encountered a retired member of the Canadian military, Colonel Arthur Rankin, who had befriended the Ojibwa tribe and had traveled to England with nearly a dozen members of the tribe. The Ojibwa caused a sensation in London, and Rankin and Catlin became partners as the Ojibwa become a living display in Catlin's gallery, performing actual native dances and songs.
A short time later
at the invitation of a member of the British Swimming Society, who had
apparently read Catlin's book, the Ojibwa were invited to make an appearance
at the swimming baths at High Holbom.
The society wished to see a demonstration of native swimming.
Two Ojibwa, Wenishkaweabee (the Flying Gull) and Sahma (Tobacco), were invited to compete for a silva medal to be presented by the society.
As London's Times
reported, "At a signal the Indians jumped into the bath, and, on a pistol
being discharged, they struck out and swam to the other end, a distance
of 130 feet, in less than half a minute.
The Flying Gull was the victor by seven feet ...The style of swimming , is totally 'un-European.'
They thrash the water violently with their arms, like saiIs of a windmill, and beat downward with their feet, blowing with force and grotesque antics ... They dived from one end of the bath to the other with the rapidity of an arrow, and almost as straight as the tension of limb."
Although no one in attendance realized it, they had just witnessed the ftrst formal demonstration of a stroke that would one day be refined into the "crawl," - better known today as the "freestyle."
lt left enough of an impression that for some decades afterward the stroke was known in England as simply "the Indian."
After a second
race, again won by the Flying Gull, the two natives were challenged to
swim once more by Harold Kenworthy, a member of the society and widely
acknowledged as one of the best swimmers in England.
For the third time in less than ten minutes, the two Ojibwa dove into the water, this time joined by Kenworthy.
Kenworthy, utilizing the backstroke, won easily as the Flying Gull and Tobacco, by this time exhausted, barely managed to finish.
The victory satisfied the Englishman's sense of superiority, for the English would...
... be slow to
adopt "the Indian" stroke, but the days of the breaststroke as the preeminent
style of swimming were numbered.
All it would take was someone to recognize it.
Perhaps the first
swimmer to recognize and take advantage of the style of swimming that so
captivated George Catlin was John Arthur Trudgen, who, quire apart from
Catlin, made his own discovery.
The son of an English engineer employed in Brazil, as a boy Trudgen was taught how to swim by native Brazilians, learning a stroke that was essentially identical to that displayed by the two Ojibwa. When he returned to England he began to use the stroke, which he refined somewhat from the original, using the same double overarm stroke displayed by the Mandan and the two Ojibwa.
But instead of beating "downward with their feet," as the Ojibwa had, Trudgen utilized the "frog kick" used by proponents of the breastroke, kicking simultaneous with the downward stroke of his right arm.
He then glided forward, legs together, as he stroked with his left arm.
Although the result was rather jerky, as the swimmer constantly sped forward then slowed down, this slight change made the stroke palatable to the English sensibility, which was at least as concerned with grace as it was with raw speed, and Trudgen's kick resulted in less splashing than the swimming style demonstrated by the Ojibwa.
In early August
1875, representing the Alliance Swimming Club of London at Edgbaston Reservoir,
in a race in which every other swimmer used the breaststroke, Trudgen captured
the English 100-yard championship, traveling the distance in one minute
and sixteen seconds- roughly the same pace as the Flying Gull in his first
exhibition some thirty years earlier.
Recalling the two Ojibwa, as a writer in the British publication the Swimming Record sniffed a few days later, Trudgen's "action reminds an observer of a style peculiar to the Indians.''