Early written accounts of the native
flutes from 1528-1869 in North America

What follows is a collection of early written accounts that describe flutes and their varied use in North America. In some ways, these quotes individually imply more about their author and their times than the flutes that they describe. But when these remarks are brought together, they provide a bigger picture of the flute in everyday life.

In April of 1528, an expedition of 300 landed on the west coast of Florida and only four ever survived to see what they would call a civilized community. One of these, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, chronicles their trials and gives our earliest European account of native flutes:

We travelled without seeing any natives who would venture to await our coming up with them until the seventeenth day of June, when a chief approached, borne on the back of another Indian, and covered with a painted deer-skin. A great many people attended him, some walking in advance, playing on flutes of reed.
(pg. 26, “Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543”, compiled by J. Franklin Jameson [1907], containing "The Narrative of Alvar Nunez Cabeca de Vaca", edited by Frederick W. Hodge)

In 1539, Hernando de Soto lands on the Florida coast and begins his conquest of the gulf territory. The first published narrative was attributed to a gentleman from the town of Elvas, in Portugal. Elvas was a member of the Spanish expedition and writes of September 1539:

Some Indians arrived to visit their lord; and every day they came out to the road, playing upon flutes, a token among them that they come in peace.
(pg. 158, “Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543”, compiled by J. Franklin Jameson [1907], containing "The Narrative of the expedition of Hernando de Soto by the gentleman of Elvas", edited by Theodore H. Lewis)

Elvas records their approach to the town of Coca (believed to have existed two miles north of Childersburg, Alabama):

The Cacique came out to receive him (Soto) at distance of two crossbow-shot from the town, borne in a litter on the shoulders of his principal men, seated on a cushion, and covered with a mantle of marten skins, of the size and shape of a woman’s shawl; on his head he wore a diadem of plumes, and he was surrounded by many attendants playing upon flutes and singing.
(pg. 183, “Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543”, compiled by J. Franklin Jameson [1907], containing "The Narrative of the expedition of Hernando de Soto by the gentleman of Elvas", edited by Theodore H. Lewis)

In 1540-1542, Pedro de Castaneda describes the settlements, their ceremonies and customs that the Coronado expedition encountered as they traveled out Mexico and into Pueblo country:

Five days from here he came to Cicuye, a very strong village four stories high. The people came out from the village with signs of joy to welcome Hernando de Alvardo and their captain, and brought with them into the town with drums and pipes something like flutes, of which they have a great many.
(pg. 118, “The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542”, by Pedro De Castaneda, translated and edited by George Parker Winship [1990])

Castaneda later provides a description of grinding corn from the province of Tiguex:

A man sits at the door playing on a fife while they grind, moving the stones to the music and singing together.
(pg. 146, “The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542”, translated and edited by George Parker Winship [1990])

Also in 1540, D. Antonio de Mendoza writes a letter to the king, which includes a reference to flutes:

The Indians have their dances and songs, with some flutes which have holes on which to put the fingers. They make much noise. They sing in unison with those who play, and those who sing clap their hands in our fashion . . . . . They say that five or six play together, and that some of the flutes are better than others.
(pg. 173, “The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542”, translated and edited by George Parker Winship [1990])

In 1560, Garcilaso de la Vega left Peru, the region where he was born and raised. Some 42 years later in Spain, he wrote two massive volumes on the Incas, where he gives account of two types of reed instruments, the pan pipes and the courting flute:

They had flutes with four or five stops, like those of shepherds. These were not for use together in consort, but played separately, for they did not know how to harmonize measured verse and were mostly concerned with the passions of love, its pleasure and pain, and the favor or coldness of the beloved.

Every song had its known tune, and they could not sing two different songs to the same tune. This was because the lover who serenaded his lady with his flute at night told her and everybody else of the pleasure or sorrow produced by her favor or coldness by means of the tune he played, and if two different songs had had the same tune, no one would have known which he meant. One might say that he talked with his flute. Late on night a Spaniard came upon an Indian girl he knew in Cuzco and asked her return to his lodging, but she said: Let me go my ways, sir. The flute you hear from that hill calls me with such tender passion that I must go toward it. Leave me, for heaven’s sake, for I cannot but go where love draws me, and I shall be his wife and he my husband.
(chapter 26, “ROYAL COMMENTARIES OF THE INCAS And General History of Peru, PART ONE“, by Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca [1609], translated by Harold V. Livermore [1966])

The Rene Goulaine de Laudonni’re expedition reached the coast of Florida in June of 1564. Near the mouth of the St. Johns River they made contact with the Saturiwas, a Timucua chiefdom. In their first encouter, Jacques Le Moyne writes about being greeted by a large party that included a demonstration of reed whistles:

The king was accompanied by seven or eight hundred men, handsome, strong, well-made and active fellows, the best-trained and swiftest of his force, all under arms as if on a military expedition. Before him marched fifty youths with javelins or spears; and behind these, and next to himself, were twenty pipers, who produced a wild noise, without musical harmony or regularity, but only blowing away with all their might, each trying to be the loudest. Their instruments were nothing but a thick sort of reeds, or canes, with two openings; one at the top to blow into, an the other at the other end for wind to come out of, like organ-pipes or whistles.
(pg 3, "Narrative of Le Moyne, surnamed de Morgues, an artist who accompanied the French expedition to Florida under Laudonniere, 1564", Translated from Latin by De Bry, and printed for William Appleton [1874])

While exploring the California coast, Sebastian Vizcaino writes in his diary about anchoring off the island of Serros on February 6th, 1602 to gather wood and water. Here they encounter some Indians:

The Indians of the island came down to the beach where the water hole was made, with their bows and arrows, painted with vermillion, and playing flutes,
(pg 98, ’Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706’, edited by Herbert Eugene Bolton [1916], containing ’Diary of Sebastian Vizcaino, 1602-1603’, by Sebastian Vizcaino.)

In 1606, an expedition from the Arcadia colony of New France explored the coastline south of their territory, which today would be described as the southern coast of Maine. In one of the bays south of Richmond Island and near the Saco river, Marc Lescarbot writes:

When M. de Poutrincourt had landed at this harbour, lo and behold, amid a multitude of savages were a good number of pipers, who played, though with less harmony than our shepherds, upon a kind of long flageolet, made apparently of reeds, with designs painted thereon; and to show the excellence of their art, they whistled through their noses, and gambolled after their usual fashion.
(pg 325, "The History of New France" by Marc Lescarbot [1606], translated by W. L. Grant, introduction by H. P. Biggar, volume II of III [1911].)

George Percy was three time supreme commander of the early Virginia colony of Jamestown, and wrote a detailed account of his first voyage to Virginia:

When we landed, the Werowance of Rapahanna came downe to the water side with all his traine, as goodly men as any I have seene of Savages or Christians: the Werowance coming before them playing on a Flute made of a Reed, with a Crown of Deares haire colloured red, in fashion of a Rose fastened about his knot of haire, and a great Plate of Copper on the other side of his head, with two long Feathers in fashion of a paire of Hornes placed in the midst of his Crowne. His body was painted all with Crimson, with Chaine of Beads about his necke, his face painted blew, besprinkled with silver Ore as wee thought, his eares all behung with Braslets of Pearle, and in either eare a Birds Claw through it beset with fine Copper or Gold. He entertained us in so modest a proud fashion, as though he had beene a Prince of civill government, holding his countenance without laughter or any such ill behaviour.
(pg 13-14, ’Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625’, edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler [1907], containing ’Observations by Master George Percy, 1607’, by George Percy.)

Captain John Smith of the famous---yet maybe questionable---Pocahontas story, writes briefly of the flute in 1607:

For their musicke they use a thicke cane, on which they pipe as a Recorder.
(pg 107, ’Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625’, edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler [1907], containing ’A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion’, by John Smith [1612]).

In 1612, William Strachey writes of the Virginia colonies and the first peoples of the region:

The voyd tyme betweene their sleepe and meat, they commonly bestowe in reveling dauncing and singing, and in their kind of Musique, and haue sundry Instrumentes for the same; they haue a kind of Cane, on which they pipe as on a Recorder and are like the Greeke Pips which they call Bombices, being hardly to be sounded without great strayning of the breath, vpon which they observe certain rude tunes, buth their chief Instruments are Rattles made of smale Gourdes or Pumpeon shells, of these they haue Base, Tenor, Countortenor, Meane, and Treble, these mingled with their voices somtymes 20. or 30. togither makes such a terrible howling as would rather affright then giue pleasure to any man.
(pg. 85, “The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania”, by William Strachey [1612], Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund [1953])

In 1665, Fernando de Azcu’ led a Spanish military expedition out of what is now Northeast Mexico into Southwest Texas. A company of 103 Spaniards and 300 friendly Indians waged a campaign against the Cacaxtle Indians who had been raiding the region. Juan Bautista Chapa would later write about the campaign:

During the engagement, an old Indian woman played a flute to give the Cacaxtle courage. She, however, was at the time a Spanish captive, and the friendly Indians asked if they could eat her. The Spaniards would not allow this, nor any similar cruelty that would serve as vengeance against her. However, the Indians knew that a boy among the prisoners was a relative of hers. That night the Indians secretly managed to secure him, and they ate him, for which there was no remedy.
(pg. 56, “Texas & Northeastern Mexico, 1630-1690”, edited by William C. Foster [1997], containing ’Historia del Nuevo Reino de Le’n’ by Juan Bautista Chapa, translated by Ned F. Brierley)

At Quebec in 1709, Antoine Desis Raudot finishes a letter with the following:

These, sir, are the occupations of the savages in their villages. Sometimes they play a sort of flute made of reeds, the sound of which is disagreeable.
(pg. 351, “Occasional Contributions From the Museum of Anthropology of the University of Michigan, No. 10”; containing “The Indians of the Western Great Lakes, 1615-1760”, by W. Vernon Kinietz [1940])

In September 1748, while exploring early Pensylvania, Peter Kalm writes a flute made from a tree:

I have never heard that the poison of this Sumach has been mortal; but the pain ceases after a few days duration. The natives formerly made their flutes of this tree, because it has a great deal of pith.
(pg. 64, ’Travels into North America, Volume 1’ by Peter Kalm [1772])

From around 1756, Col. James Smith gives an account of his captivity with the Indians and mentions their flutes:

Some were beating their kind of drum, and singing; others were employed in playing on sort of flute, made of hollow cane’ and others playing on the jews-harp. Some part of this time was also taken up in attending the council house, where the chiefs, and as many others as chose, attended; and at night they were frequently employed in singing and dancing.
(pg. 46, “An account of the remarkable occurrences in the life and travels of Col James Smith, during his captivity with the Indians in the years 1755, ’56, ’57, ’58, & ’59” by James Smith [1870])

Pedro Fages writes the Viceroy about a 1769 trip across California. One passage describes an indian dance:

The women go to them well painted, and dressed as has been described, carrying in both hands bundles of feathers of various colors. The men go entirely naked, but very much painted. Only two pairs from each sex are chosen to perform the dance, and two musicians, who play their flutes. Nearly all the others who are present increase the noise with their rattles made of cane dried and split, at the same time singing, very displeasingly for us, who are not accustomed to distressing the ear with this kind of composition.
(pg. 36, “A Historical, Political, and Natural Description of California by Pedro Fages, Soldier of Spain” [1775], translated by Herbert Ingram Priestley [1937])

William Bartram traveled through Georgia and Florida, in 1773-74. He writes some on the customs of those visited:

These people like all other nations, are found of music and dancing: their music is both vocal and instrumental; but of the later they have scarcely and thing worth the name; the tambour, rattle-gourd, and a kind of flute, made of a joint of reed or the tibia of the deer’s leg: on this instrument they perform badly, and at best it is rather a hideous melancholy discord, than harmony. It is only young fellows who amuse themselves on this howling instrument; but the tamour and rattle, accompanied with their sweet low voices, produce a pathetic harmony, keeping exact times, seems to express the solemn elevated state of the mind: at that time there seems not only a harmony between him and his instrument, but it instantly touches the feelings of the attentive audience, as the influence of an active and powerful spirit; there is then an united universal sensation of delight and peaceful union of souls throughout the assembly.
(part IV, chapter III, “Travels and other writings” by William Bartram [1791])

In the late 1790’s, Isaac Weld Jr. traveled through North America and Canada. He writes of the flute:

The Indian flute or pipe is formed of a thick cane, similar to what is found on the banks of the Mississippi, and the southern parts of the United States. It is about two feet or more in length, and has eight or nine holes in it, in one row. It is held in the same manner as the oboe or clarinet, and the sound is produced by means of a mouth piece not unlike that of a common whistle. The tones of the instrument are by no means unharmonious, and they would admit of a pleasing modulation, but I never met with an Indian that was able to play a regular air upon it, not even any one of the airs which they commonly sing, although I saw several that were extremely fond of amusing themselves with the instrument, and that would sit for hours together over the embers of their cabin fires, playing over a few wild melancholy notes. Every Indian that can bring a sound out of the instrument, and stop the holes, which any one may do, thinks himself master of it; and the notes which they commonly produce are as unconnected and unmeaning as those which a child would bring forth from a halfpenny whistle.
(pg. 415, “Travels through the states of North America and the provinces of upper and lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, 1797”, by Isaac Weld Jr. [1799])

At the 1792 Natchez Treaty Conference between Choctaw and Spain, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos writes in a letter:

In front of this place, there was an Indian playing a tambourine and around him all the Indian women dancing and singing; within a short distance, close to us, there was one who played a kind of flute.
(pg. 188, “Paths to a Middle Ground” by Charles A. Weeks [2005], containing “Gayoso’s Account of the Natchez Congress, May 1792”)

David Thomson journeys to a Mandan village in 1797, some seven years prior to Lewis and Clark’s expedition. He records the trip in his notebooks:

They have also their Musicians and dancing Women; In the house of the Chief, in which I staid, every evening, about two or three hours after sunset, about forty or fifty men assembled. They all stood; five or six of them were Musicians, with a drum, tambour, rattle, and rude flutes;
(pg. 233, ’David Thompson’s Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812’, edited by J.B. Tyrrell [1916])

John Tanner at the age of nine is captured by a pair of Shawnee, and then sold to an Ojibwa family, who raise him in the manner of the Ojibwa, with which he spent half of his adult life. His autobiography is a fascinating look at a man between two worlds. It includes an account of courting a wife that occurred around 1800:

I now redoubled my diligence in hunting, and commonly came home with meat in the early part of the day, at least before night. I then dressed myself as handsomely as I could, and walked about the village, sometimes blowing the Pe-be-gwun, or flute. For some time Mis-kwa-bun-kwa pretended she was not willing to marry me, and it was not, perhaps, until she perceived some abatement of ardour on my part, that she laid this affected coyness entirely aside.
(pg. 117, “A narrative of captivity and adventures of John Tanner, {U.S. interpreter at the Saut de Ste. Marie,} during thirty years residence among the Indians in the interior of North America”, by John Tanner [1830])

Although volumes after volumes have been published from the Lewis and Clark expedition, there is only one mention of wind instruments, which appears in the journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse, on Thursday 27th September 1804:

we Saw them have one dance this evening. They kept it up until one oclock dancing round a fire about 80 of them in nomber. they had drums and whistles for musick.
(pg. 64, ’Original Journals of Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806, volume 7’, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites [1905], containing the ’The original journals of Private Joseph Whitehouse’)

Published in 1805, George Heriot describes a flute ceremony in Mexico City:

The gates of the temple being thrown open, one of the ministers of the god discovered himself, and blew a species of flute, turning himself towards the four quarters of the world, as if to invite to repentance all the inhabitants of the earth.
(pg. 175, “Travels through the Canadas. To which is subjoined a comparative view of the manners and customs of several of the Indian nations of North and South America”, by George Heriot [1805]).

In 1823, Major Stephen Long led a reconnaissance expedition up the Minnesota River (then known as the St. Peter's River). Early in the westward trip, somewhere between Fort Wayne and Chicago, Major Long's expedition report mentions singing and musical instruments of the Potawatomi. He credits much of this information to his Agent Interpreter, Mr. Joseph Barron, who was a longtime resident:

The Potawatomis have a number of war songs, formed for the most part of one or two ideas, expressed in short and forcible sentences, which they repeat over and over, in a low humming kind of tune, which to our ears appeared very monotonous; they have no love songs, the business of singing being always connected with warlike avocations.
(pg. 134,...).

Singing is always attended by the dance, and if possible, by intoxication, in which case it becomes incoherent and unintelligble. The only musical instruments which they use are the drum, rattle, and a kind of flageolet.
(pg. 135, “Narative of an Expedition to the Source of St Peter's River, Volume 1”, by William H. Keating [1825]).

In 1824, Charles C. Trowbridge interviewed Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, brother of Tecumseh, and wrote the following:

Anciently the flute was used exclusively by young men who were desirous of raising a war party. The leader, or he who wished to distinguish himself by setting afoot an expedition of this kind, would take his flute & retire a short distance from the village, where he would begin to play. The young men around, at the sound of the music, assembled around him, and heard his declarations. If they chose to join him they pledged themselves upon the spot & joined in the song, but if they thought the project rash & inexpedient they retired as they came. This instrument is now used by all young men, indiscriminately, and is not exclusively used, by young men in love, tho' few in that situations fail to charm their mistresses with its sounds.
(pg. 39 “Occasional Contributions From the Museum of Anthropology of the University of Michigan, No. 9”; containing “Shawnese Tradition, C.C. Trowbridge's Account”, edited by Vernon Kinietz and Erminie W. Voegelin [1939]; representing Charles C. Trowbridge's manuscripts dated 24 July 1824.)

In 1826, Thomas Loraine McKenney was traveling from Detroit to Sault Sainte Marie, part of a treaty envoy to negotiate with the Chippewa. In his daily travelogue on July 2nd, he provides an evening encounter at the shores of Drummond's island:

On leaving Capt. Anderson's, Mr. P. went to the landing to order the barge round, whilst Col. C. and myself walked about looking at the Indians. Presently we heard a note of an Indian's flute—

“It rose—that chaunted mournful strain,
Like some lone spirits o'er the plain:
‘Twas musical, but sadly sweet.
Such as when winds and harpstrings meet—
And take a long unmeasured tone.”

Nothing can be more mournful in its tones. It was night, and a calm rested on every thing; and it was moon-light, all which added to its effect. We saw the Indian who playing it, sitting on a rock. We approached him, when I took his flute and tried to play. It had but three holes. I could produce a tone, but could not vary it into an air of any kind, which diverted him, and he laughed at my want of skill. We afterwards learned that this Indian was in love, and that he would sit there all night indulging in this sentimental method of softening the heart of his mistress, whose lodge he took care should be opposite his place of melody; and within reach of his monotonous, but pensive strains.
(pg. 138 “Sketches of a tour to the lakes”, by Thomas Loraine McKenney [1972])

From 1827, we find the earliest account of a split and hollowed out flute in a handwritten manuscript by Thomas Forsyth, a government agent at Fort Armstrong. It was provided to General William Clark, then US superintendent of Indian affairs:

The only musical instruments of the Sauk and Fox Indians make use of, is the flute, made of a piece of cane or two pieces of soft wood hallowed out and tied together with leather thongs, also a drum, which they beat with a stick, the flute they blow at one end, except the key it is something like a flagelet. They beat the drum at all kinds of feastes, dances, and games, they dance keeping time with the tap of the drum, their tunes are generally melancholly, they are always on a flat key, and contain many variations, they have a peculiar mode of telling stories, elegantly illustrated with metaphor and similie, in telling their stories they always retain something to the last, which is necessary to explain the whole.
(pg. 222 “The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Region of the Great Lakes, Volume 2”, by Emma Helen Blair [1912])

George Catlin appears to be the first artist to paint and write about the tribes of the Upper Missouri. In 1832 he wrote about the plains flute while visiting the mouth of the Teton River, Upper Missouri:

There is yet another wind instrument which I have added to my Collection and from its appearance would seem to have been borrowed, in part, from the civilized world. This is what is often on the frontier called a 'deer-skin flute', a Winnebago courting flute, 'tsal-eet-quash-to'; it is perforated with holes for the fingers, sometimes for six, at others for four, and in some instances for three only, having only so many notes with their octaves. These notes are very irregularly graduated, showing clearly that they have very little-taste or ear for melody. These instruments are blown in the end, and the sound produced much on the principle of a whistle. In the vicinity of the Upper Mississippi, I often and familiarly heard this instrument, called the Winnebago courting flute; and was credibly informed by traders and others in those regions, that the young men of that tribe meet with signal success, oftentimes, in wooing their sweethearts with its simple notes, which they blow for hours together, and from day to day, from the bank of some stream -- some favorite rock or log on which they are seated, near to the wigwam which contains the object of their tender passion; until her soul is touched, and she responds by some welcome signal, that she is ready to repay the young Orpheus for his pains, with the gift of her hand and her heart. How true these representations may have been made, I cannot say, but there certainly must have been some ground for the present cognomen by which it is known in that country.
(pg. 243, Letter #30, “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians”, by George Catlin [1841])

A year later in 1833, Chief Black Hawk, Sauk tribe, gave his autobiography while in captivity. It briefly speaks to flute playing in the context of courting:

Our women plant the corn, and as soon as they get done, we make a feast, and dance the crane dance, in which they join us, dressed in their best, and decorated with feathers. At this feast our young braves select the young woman they wish to have for a wife. He then informs his mother, who calls on the mother of the girl, when the arrangement is made, and the time appointed for him to come. He goes to the lodge when all are asleep (or pretend to be), lights his matches, which have been provided for the purpose, and soon finds where his intended sleeps. He then awakens her, and holds the light to his face that she may know him-after which he places the light close to her. If she blows it out, the ceremony is ended, and he appears in the lodge the next morning, as one of the family. If she does not blow out the light, but leaves it to burn out, he retires from the lodge. The next day he places himself in full view of it, and plays his flute. The young women go out, one by one, to see who he is playing for. The tune changes, to let them know that he is not playing for them. When his intended makes her appearance at the door, he continues his courting tune, until she returns to the lodge. He then gives over playing, and makes another trial at night, which generally turns out favorable. During the first year they ascertain whether they can agree with each other, and can be happy-if not, they part, and each looks out again. If we were to live together and disagree, we should be as foolish as the whites. No indiscretion can banish a woman from her parental lodge-no difference how many children she may bring home, she is always welcome-the kettle is over the fire to feed them.
(pg. 73, “Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak or Black Hawk”, by Black Hawk [1834])

Mrs. Anna Jameson, the author of “Characteristics of women” and “Female sovereigns” describes Chippewa courtship in 1838:

When a young Chippewa of St. Mary’s sees a young girl who pleases him, and whom he wishes to marry, he goes and catches a loach, boils it, and cuts off the tail, of which he takes the flat bone, and sticks it in his hair. He paints himself bewitchingly, takes a sort of rude flute or pipe, with two or three stops, which seems to be only used on these amatory occasions, and walks up and down his village, blowing on his flute, and looking, I presume, as sentimental as an Indian can look. This is regarded as an indication of his intentions, and throws all the lodges in which there are young marriageable girls into a flutter, though probably the fair one who is his secret choice is pretty well aware of it. The next step is to make presents to the parents and relatives of the young woman; if these are accepted, and his suit prospers, he makes presents to his intended; and all that now remains is to bring her home to his lodge.
(pg. 241, “Winter studies and summer rambles in Canada, Vol. III.”, by Mrs. {Anna} Jameson [1838])

Mrs. John H. Kenzie chronicles her journey through the frontiers of the Winnebago. It begins with boarding the steamer "Henry Clay" for Green Bay. The next eight years cover events of the territory, and makes several mentions the flute and courting:


The funeral observances in honor of the chief had not yet ceased. Throughout the day, and all that night, the sound of instruments, mingled with doleful lamentations, and with the discordant whoops and yells of those in a partial state of intoxication, filled the air, and disturbed our repose. To these were added occasionally the plaintive sounds of the Indian flute, upon which the young savage plays when he is in love. Grief and whiskey had made their hearts tender, and the woods resounded to their melancholy strains.


The back of the little Rail is very concave, or hollow. The Indians tell us it became so in the following manner: --


There is supposed, by most of the North-western tribes, to exist an invisible being, corresponding to the "Genius" of oriental story. Without being exactly the father of evil, Nan-nee-bo-zho is a mischievous spirit, to whose office it seems to be assigned to punish what is amiss. For his own purposes too, he seems constantly occupied in entrapping and making examples of all the animals that come in his way.

One pleasant evening, as he walked along the banks of a lake, he saw a flock of ducks, sailing and enjoying themselves on the blue waters. He called to them:

"Ho! come with me into my lodge, and I will teach you to dance!" Some of the ducks said among them-selves, "It is Nan-nee-bo-zho, let us not go." Others were of a contrary opinion, and his words being fair, and his voice insinuating, a few turned their faces towards the land -- all the rest soon followed, and with many pleasant quackings, trooped after him, and entered his lodge.

When there, he first took an Indian sack, with a wide mouth, which he tied by the strings around his neck, so that it would hang over his shoulders, having the mouth unclosed. Then placing himself in the centre of the lodge, he ranged the ducks in a circle around him.

"Now," said he, "you must all shut your eyes tight whoever opens his eyes at all, something dreadful will happen to him. I will take my Indian flute and play upon it, and you will, at the word I shall give, open your eyes, and commence dancing, as you see me do."

The ducks obeyed, shutting their eyes tight, and keeping time to the music by stepping from one foot to the other, all impatient for the dancing to begin.

Presently a sound was heard like a smothered "quack," but the ducks did not dare to open their eyes.

Again, and again, the sound of the flute would be interrupted, and a gurgling cry of "qu-a-a-ck" be heard. There was one little duck, much smaller than the rest, who, at this juncture, could not resist the temptation to open one eye, cautiously. She saw Nan-nee-bo-zho, as he played his flute, holding it with one hand, stoop a little at intervals and seize the duck nearest him, which he throttled and stuffed into the bag on his shoulders. So, edging a little out of the circle, and getting nearer the door which had been left partly open to admit the light, she cried out:

"Open your eyes -- Nan-nee-bo-zho is choking you all and putting you into his bag!"

With that she flew, but the Nan-nee-bo-zho pounced upon her. His hand grasped her back, yet, with desperate force, she released herself and gained the open air. Her companions flew, quacking and screaming after her. Some escaped, and some fell victims to the sprite.

The little duck had saved her life, but she had lost her beauty. She ever after retained the attitude she had been forced into, in her moment of danger -- her back pressed down in the centre, and her head and neck unnaturally stretched forward into the air.


Among the various groups of his people, there was none attracted my attention so forcibly as a young man of handsome face, and a figure that was striking, even where all were fine and symmetrical. He too had a gay handkerchief on his head, a shirt of the brightest lemon-colored calico, an abundance of silver ornaments, and, what gave his dress a most fanciful appearance, one leggin of blue, and the other of bright scarlet. I was not ignorant that this peculiar feature in his toilette indicated a heart suffering from the tender passion. The flute, which he carried in his hand, added confirmation to the fact, while the joyous, animated expression of his countenance showed with equal plainness that he was not a despairing lover.

I could have imagined him to have recently returned from the chase, laden with booty, with which he had, as is the custom, entered the lodge of the fair one, and throwing his burden at the feet of her parents, with an indifferent, superb sort of air, as much as to say, "Here is some meat -- it is a mere trifle, but it will show you what you might expect with me for a son-in-law." I could not doubt that the damsel had stepped forward and gathered it up, in token that she accepted the offering, and the donor along with it. There was nothing in the appearance or manner of any of the maidens by whom we were surrounded, to denote which was the happy fair, neither, although I peered anxiously into all their countenances, could I there detect any blush of consciousness, so I was obliged to content myself with selecting the youngest and prettiest of the group, and go on weaving my romance to my own satisfaction.
( “Wau-Bun, the 'Early Day' in the Northwest”, by Mrs. John H. Kenzie [1857] )

In 1839-40, Victor Tixier visited the Osage prairies, and wrote briefly of their whistles of reed:

Instrumental music has not reached an advanced stage of progress among the Osage. They accompany their singing with a fan with which they beat time on a stick; they also have tsu-tsehs, or whistles of reed, tambourines with two skins, and on great occasions they stretch a damp skin on a caldron; this is art in its infancy.
(pg. 239, “Tixier's Travels on the Osage Prairies”, edited by John Francis McDermott [1940], translated by Albert J. Salvan from the original French edition “Victor Tixier's Travels Voyage aux prairies osages, Louisiane et Missouri,
1839-40” by Victor Tixier [1844])

In the summer of 1841, the Republic of Texas sent an expedition of 21 wagons from Austin to New Mexico with plans to gain control of the lucrative Santa Fe Trail trade. In George Wilkins Kendal chronicles of this ill fated expedition, he describes their searching an evacuated Waco village on the Witchita River:

In one of the main buildings an instrument, evidently intended for musical purposes, was found. It was made of cane, in some respects resembled a fife, although much longer. It had five holes for fingers, besides a mouth-piece somewhat after the fashion of a clarionet. The notes of the instruemnt were nearly as soft as those of a flageolet, the workmanship extremely neat, and evincing not only ingenuity, but taste; and after hearing the story of the ladder, I could not help thinking that this same instrument had, perchance, while in the hands of some Indian Romeo, discoursed most eloquent music to a belle of the tribe, who like Juliet, would step out on her balcony and pour forth her love and fealty to her soul's idol in return for this sweet token of his homage.
(pg. 139, “Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, Volume I”, by George Wilkins Kendall [1844])

Margaret Fuller gives an accounting of her visit in 1842 to Mackinaw Island in Michigan. She also describes the Winnebago courting flute:

With the first rosy streak, I was out among my Indian neighbors, whose lodges honey-combed the beautiful beach, that curved away in long, fair outline on either side the house. They were already on the alert, the children creeping out from beneath the blanket door of the lodge; the women pounding corn in their rude mortars, the young men playing on their pipes. I had been much amused, when the strain proper to the Winnebago courting flute was played to me on another instrument, at any one crying it a melody; but now, when I heard the notes in their true tone and time, I thought it not unworthy comparison, in its graceful sequence, and the light flourish, at the close, with the sweetest bird-songs; and this, like the bird-song, is only practised to allure a mate. The Indian, become a citizen and a husband, no more thinks of playing the flute than one of the 'settled down' members of our society would of choosing the 'purple light of love' as dye-stuff for a surtout.
(pg. 170, “Summer on the Lakes in 1843”, by Margaret Fuller [1844])

Father P.J De Smet writes in 1845-46 of his travels to the Oregon Missions:

The oldest savage of the tribe presides at the feast given on the occasion. Ten of the best singers and musicians, each with his peculiar instrument, squat in the middle of the akkaro. Four of them have dried calabases in their hands, from which the seeds have been extracted and small pebbles placed in their stead, which being shaken by the muscular arms of these gigantic saves, produce a sound like falling hail. Four others beat their tekapiroutche---this is a kind of drum of a most mournful and deafening sound; it is made from the trunk of a tree and is about three feet long and one-and-a-half broad, covered at both ends with deer skin. The remaining two have a kind of flute made of reeds, about two feet long and one inch in diameter, instruments, such as were used by the ancient shepherds, and which give forth sounds that may be heard at the distance of half a mile. They fasten to each instrument a little tewaara, or medicine bag, filled with roots and other materials, to which in their superstitious rites, they attach a supernatural power, that renders their offering more agreeable to the Author of life.
(pg. 360, “Oregon Missions and travels over the rocky mountains in 1845-46”, by Father P.J. De Smet [1847])

Published in 1849, Mary H. Eastman gives an account of events around Fort Snelling. She spent 7 years in the vicinity of the fort, and collected a number of accounts of courting and the flute:

"The Dancing Woman" is wrapped in her blanket pretending to go to sleep. In vain does "The Flying Cloud" play that monotonous courting tune on the flute. The maiden would not be his wife if he gave her all the trinkets in the world. She loves and is going to marry "Iron Lightning," who has gone to bring her--what? a brooch--a new blanket? no, a Chippeway's scalp, that she may be the most graceful of those who dance around it. Her mother is mending the mocassins of the old man who sleeps before the fire.
Walking Wind was not so easily won. She had been tormented so long herself, that she was in duty bound to pay back in the same coin. It was a Duncan Gray affair--only reversed. At last she yielded; her lover gave her so many trinkets. True, they were brass and tin; but Dahcotah maidens cannot sigh for pearls and diamonds, for they never even heard of them; and the philosophy of the thing is just the same, since everybody is outdone by somebody. Besides, her lover played the flute all night long near her father's wigwam, and, not to speak of the pity that she felt for him, Walking Wind was confident she never could sleep until that flute stopped playing, which she knew would be as soon as they were married. For all the world knows that no husband, either white or copper-colored, ever troubles himself to pay any attention of that sort to his wife, however devotedly romantic he may have been before marriage.
Wenona had not hoped in vain, for her lover was with her, and Wanska seemed to be forgotten. The warrior's flute would draw her out from her uncle's lodge while the moon rose o'er the cold waters. Wrapped in her blanket, she would hasten to meet him, and listen to his assurances of affection, wondering the while that she had ever feared he loved another.
( “DAHCOTAH; or, life and legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling”, by Mrs. Mary Eastman [1849])

In 1850, Charles Lanman gives an account of being a tourist among the natives:

The appointed night arrived, and the bitterest roots which could be found in the lodges of the magicians were collected together and made into a soup. The company assembled to partake of this feast, was the largest that had ever bee known, and, as they were to conclude their ceremony of thankfulness by dancing, they had cleared the snow from the centre of their village, and on this spot were they duly congregated. It was a cold and remarkably clear night, and their watch fires burnt with uncommon brilliance. It was now the hour of midnight, and the bitter soup was all gone. The flutes and the drums had just been brought out, and the dancers, decked in their most uncouth dresses, were about to enter the charmed ring, when a series of loud shoutings were heard, and the eyes of the entire multitude were intently fixed upon the northern sky, which was illuminated by a most brilliant and unearthly light. It was a light of many colors, and as changeable as the reflections upon a summer sea at the sunset hour.
(pg. 248, “Haw-Ho-Noo; or, Records of a tourist”, by Charles Lanman [1850])

From 1851, Henry R. Schoolcraft writes of Indian music, songs, and poetry:

Their instruments of music are few and simple. The only wind instrument existing among them is the Pibbegwon, a kind of flute, resembling in simplicity the Arcadian pipe. It is commonly made of two semi cylindrical pieces of cedar, united with fish glue, and having a snake skin, in a wet state, drawn tightly over it to prevent its cracking. The holes are eight in number, and are perforated by means of a bit of heated iron. It is blown like the flageolet, and has a similar orifice or mouth pieces.
(pg. 222, “The American Indians, their history, condition and prospects from original notes and manuscripts”, by Henry R. Schoolcraft [1851])

Published in 1859, Paul Kane writes fondly of a flute serenade:

Strolling one evening in the vicinity of the camp, I heard the sound of some musical instrument, and upon approaching the performer, who was lying under a tree, I found that he was playing an instrument resembling a flageolet in construction, but much softer in tone. This instrument is principally used by lovers, who play for hours in the vicinity of their mistress’s lodge. I have often listened with pleasure to this music, as its simple and plaintive notes stole through the stillness of the forest. The lover made no secret of his object, but conversed with me freely upon the subject of his love.
(pg.14, “Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America, from Canada to Vancouver’s Island and Oregon through the Hudson’s Bay territory and back again”, by Paul Kane [1859])

In 1869, Rev. Alfred Longley Riggs, a missionary, friend, and educator to the Santee Sioux people, provides one of the most detailed descriptions of their flutes. It is also one of the earliest accounts of the warble (or ‘bubble’) that appeared to be a common attributed in the earliest recordings of the plains flute:

The pipe or flute is called cho-tan-ka, which means literally, 'big-pith.' It has two varieties, one made of wood, and the other of bone. The first is the most common, and much resembles the flageolet. It is made by taking the sumac--a wood which has the requisite "big-pith"--a straight piece nineteen or twenty inches long, and, when barked and smoothed down, an inch and a quarter in diameter. This is split open in the middle, and the pith and inner wood carefully hollowed out to make a bore of five eighths of an inch diameter, extending through the whole length, except that it grows smaller at the mouth-piece, and at a point four inches below that, it is interrupted entirely by a partition three eighths of an inch thick, which is left to form the whistle. The halves are glued together. Finger-holes one quarter of an inch in diameter, and usually six in number, are burnt along the upper face. On the same face the whistle is made by cutting a hole three eights of an inch square each side of the partition. Then, over these, and connecting them, is laid a thin plate of lead, with a slit cut in it, a little more than an inch long and three eights of an inch wide. On top of this is a block of wood, two inches long and three fourths of an inch wide, flat on the bottom, and carved above into rough likeness of a horse; and a deer-skin string binds the whole down tight. A brass thimble for a mouth-piece, some ribbon streamers, a few lines of carving, and a little red and yellow paint, and the instrument is complete:

The pitch of the particular pipe to which this description mainly refers, seems to have been originally A prime, and changed to G prime by boring a seventh hole. One formerly in my possession was pitched at E flat prime; and from it the airs which are here give were taken down.

The second variety of the cho-tan-ka is made of the long bone of the wing or thigh of the swan and crane. To distinguish the first from the second, they call the first the murmuring (literally 'bubbling') cho-tan-ka, from the tremulous note it gives when blown with all the holes stopped.
(pg. 476, “TAH’-KOO WAH-KAN; The gospel among the Dakotas”, by Stephen R. Riggs, with an appendix “Dakota songs and music”, by Alfred Longley Riggs [1869])

The written account of these flutes is fairly sparse for the first 340 years. Here I end this story of many voices, because the next several decades belong to the Ethnomusicologist who compiled much of which survived upon the various reservations.

Thanks to earlier researchers, friends, online libraries, local libraries, and search engines. Without them, I would have had a lot fewer examples. If anyone knows of additional written accounts, please send me an email. I would love to include them.

 --- Robert Gatliff   admin@

 --- 2018.09.17 - Added accounts from Major Stephen Long, and Thomas Forsyth.
 --- 2017.01.22 - Three more quotes by Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, George Wilkins Kendall, and Juan Bautista Chapa.
 --- 2017.01.21 - Added quotes from Jacques Le Moyne and Thomas Loraine McKenney
 --- 2016.09.02 - Included a quote from Marc Lescarbot.
 --- 2005.03.10 - Added a link to the warbling essay.
 --- 2005.02.05 - Five more quotes by Sebastian Vizcaino, George Percy, Peter Kalm, David Thompson, and Joseph Whitehouse.
 --- 2005.01.07 - Added Garcilaso de la Vega's quote.
 --- 2004.12.28 - Included a quote from Pedro Fages.
 --- 2004.11.24 - Included quotes from Trowbridge and Raudot.
 --- 2003.04.20 - Added additional quotes from Kenzi, Tixier, and Eastman.
 --- 2003.02.09 - Original collection of quotes.