Chateaubriand's memoirs, VIII, 3

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book VIII - Chapter 3
The Course of the Ohio



London, April to September 1822.

The savages of Florida say that in the midst of a lake there is an island where the loveliest women in the world live. The Muskogees have tried to conquer it on many occasions; but this Eden flees before their canoes, a natural symbol of those dreams which retreat before our desires.

That land also boasted a Fountain of Youth: but who would wish to live again?

These fables almost took on a kind of reality to my eyes. At the moment when we least expected it, we saw a fleet of canoes emerge from a bay, some with oars others with sails. They carried two families of Creeks, one of Seminoles, the other of Muskogees, among which were Cherokees and Burnt-woods. I was struck by the grace of these savages who in no way resembled those of Canada.

The Seminoles and Muskogees are quite tall, and yet, in amazing contrast, their mothers, wives and daughters are, in America, the smallest women known.

The Indian women who landed near us, of mixed Cherokee and Castilian stock, were tall in stature. Two of them looked like the Creoles of San Domingo and Mauritius, but yellow-skinned and delicate like women of the Ganges. These two Floridian women, cousins on the father’s side, served me as models, one for Atala, the other for Céluta: they surpassed the portraits I painted of them only by that variable and fugitive truth of nature, that physiognomy of race and climate, which I could not render. There was something indefinable in the oval face, the dusky complexion that one seemed to see through light, orange coloured smoke, the hair so black and soft, the lengthened eyes, half-hidden beneath the veil of two satiny eyelids which half-opened lazily; in short in the dual attraction of the Indian and the Spanish woman.

The meeting with out hosts somewhat altered our movements; our trading agents started to enquire about horses: it was decided that we should go and install ourselves near the studs.

The plain where we camped was full of bulls, cows, horses, bison, buffalo, cranes, turkeys and pelicans: the birds mottled the green backcloth of the savannah with white, black and pink.

Our traders and trappers were agitated by many passions: not passions of race, education or prejudice, but natural passions, direct and full-blooded, and they made straight for their goal, their course witnessed only by a tree falling in the depths of an unknown forest; an uncharted valley, a nameless river. The relations between the Spaniards and the Creek women formed the basis of their adventures: The Burnt-woods played the principal part in these romances. One story was celebrated, that of a dealer in brandy, seduced and ruined by a painted woman (a courtesan). This story put into Seminole verse under the title of Tabamica, was sung on the trail through the woods. Carried off in turn by the settlers, the Indian women soon died of neglect at Pensecola: their misfortunes went to enhance the Romanceros and be classed with Ximena’s laments.