SIBLEY, John (1757-1837). Autograph letter signed ("John Sibley") to Sir William Dunbar, Natchitoches, Louisiana, 2 April 1805. 10 pages, folio (315 x 210 mm; 12½ x 8½ in.), edges untrimmed, neatly stitched at left margin, buckram folding chemise, burgundy quarter morocco gilt slipcase. Provenance: Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard (her sale Christie's New York, 26 January 1996, lot 183).
"I NEVER SAW SO HANDSOME A COUNTRY": SIBLEY'S EXTENSIVE FIRST-HAND REPORT ON THE RED RIVER AND EAST TEXAS
A detailed letter to a fellow surveyor of Louisiana Territory, Sir William Dunbar. Sibley extensively describes the topography and population of the Red River, records a creation myth of the Caddoqui tribe and passes on first-hand accounts of individuals who had traveled into the unexplored region to the west (present-day Texarkana): "...You wish some information of Red River and its adjacent Country which with much Pleasure I will give you...the Banks of the River on Each Side would generally make desirable settlements...Natchitoches...is strung along on the bank of the river and contains about 40 houses...the left-hand Channel is settled except for a few miles...the West Channel is called False River and is the shortest & least used...there being no settlements on it...little River & False River come together just below in sight of the Post of Natchitoches."
After describing Lake Caddo and the "Caddoquies," a Native American tribe living on its shores, he records a creation legend associated with a nearby hill, where "the Great Spirit placed one Caddo family, when all the world beside was drowned, from which family all Indians have originated to this little hill, not only the Caddoquies but half a dozen other nations..." Sibley adds a long passage on his interpreter, Louis Grappe, "who was born at the Caddo Old Towns about 500 miles by water above Natchitoches...his father was a French officer and Superintendent of Indian Affairs before Louisiana was ceded to Spain [prior to 1762]"; Grappe "acquired a knowledge of all the Indian tongues in Louisiana" and Sibley has drawn on his extensive knowledge of regions he himself had been unable to visit.
Sibley learned a great deal from an elderly Native American who in his youth had travelled extensively to the west: "about 40 years ago he set off with some young Indians...from the Paris Nation who then lived about 50 leagues higher up the river than where they now do, on a hunting voyage...on foot...[T]hey found the country all Prairie except small copses of cedar...the surface becoming more and more hilly as they advanced, very broken Ledges of Rocks and the country rising into broken mountains..." They saw "plenty of an ore that the Indians told him, was his (meaning the white people's) treasure and that amongst these mountains of ore a noise was often heard like the explosion of a cannon...which the Indians said was the Spirit of the White People working amongst their Treasure..." Eventually they "found the waters running towards the Setting Sun, the country declining, becoming more Level..." "[I] never saw so handsome a Country...and in crossing over the ridge...saw...Spotted Tyger and a few White [Grizzly] Bears; The Elk, Buffalo, Antelope, Bears, Wolves...Wild Hogg with Deer, Hares & Rabbits were common...After spending some time on the waters beyond the ridge [w]e set off for Sa[nta] Fe stearing a South East Course, the waters all running to the West, the Country after some days becoming more broken and less timber, at Length all Prarie, and continued so till [w]e Arrived at S[an]t[a] Fe, the waters always running West..."
John Sibley (1757-1837), a physician, served in the Revolution and in 1802 settled in Louisiana. William C. Claiborne, later Governor of the Territory, recommended him to President Jefferson to make unofficial surveys of the region. "Sibley's reports to Jefferson were unusually complete, and are an important source of information regarding Louisiana" (DAB). Sibley became Indian agent for Orleans Territory and visited nearly every tribe within the region, compiling vocabularies of each language. The present letter was expanded into a report to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn and collected in Message from the President...Communicating Discoveries...by Captains Lewis and Clark, Doctor Sibley, and Mr. Dunbar, Washington, D.C., 1806.