Earliest Plains Flute
and courting in the 1800's

Whistles and flutes have been used by Native Americans for thousands of years and have many shapes and sizes. Bone and reed flutes appear in the writings of the earliest North America explorers, but not until the 1800s do we have accounts of juniper and cedar flutes. This style of flute, commonly called the plains flute or courting flute, appears to be a recent invention in the long history of first peoples. The eariest accounts of courting with such flutes are found in diaries and travelogues of the 1820’s and 1830’s from the western half of the Great Lakes to the Upper Missouri River. Two of the oldest flutes found in museums are also from this area and time.

The oldest is a cedar flute, intestine wrapped, painted red, with a spacer, and block with deep side walls that was part of a collection of items donated to the Peale Museum by the family of Lt. George Christianson Hutter in 1828. Hutter was part of the Atkinson-O'Fallon military expedition of 1825-1826 that traveled up the Missouri on man-powered wheel boats. Their objective was to sign treaties with the tribes, which was in part an attempt to stop the Canadian fur traders who were still active in the area and to encourage peace and trade with Americans.

Peabody Number: 99-12-10/53006
Display Title: Wooden flute
Date: Early 19th; ca. 1800-1825
Culture Region: Great Lakes: Western;
Culture: Winnebago?

There was some confusion over the providence of Hutter’s flute, some scholars thought it was part of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition that were also donated to the Peale Museum. However contemporary scholars are now attributing this flute and other related contributions to Hutter. Today the flute resides in the Peabody museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

Since the flute’s providence doesn’t state where Hutter acquired the flute, it will be six years after the Atkinson-O’Fallon expedition before the first undeniable example of courting flutes from the upper Missouri is found. George Catlin, a Pennsylvania attorney and self-taught painter, made a number of trips between 1832 and 1839 along the riverways of the Plains in an attempt to capture on canvas what he considered was a vanishing way of life. In 1832, Catlin penned a letter from the mouth of the Teton River on the upper Missouri river. In this letter, Catlin provides both a description of a courting flute and an illustration:

" 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. "

This passage was found in Letter #30, and was later published in his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, an important source of ethnographic information from that time.   From Catlin’s letters there are two additional references to flutes:

The Smithsonian Exhibit, George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, includes a large number of Catlin's paintings and a plains flute that he had collected. A Smithsonian publication by the same name contains a photograph of this flute and the following attribution:

about 1830s, Pawnee
approx. 21 3/8 x 2 1/2 in
wood,hide,lead, sinew, pigment
National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

An interesting side note to the Pawnee attribution is Frances Densmore's research some 90 years later. She recorded the Pawnee didn't played the flute, but some of their love songs were preceded by the syllables ee-ee on a low tone as in imitation of a flute. I assume Densmore was referring to the warble. Also her Pawnee informant said, 'The flute was courting medicine of a bad kind.'  It is not hard to imagine the enforced culture-cide on reservations that followed Catlin and preceeded Densmore had already taken its toll on parts of their culture.

A year after Catlin's trip to the upper Missouri river, an autobiography was published of Chief Black Hawk, Sauk tribe. 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. "

During 1833-34, German Prince Maximilian and painter Karl Bodmer explored and documented the Western wilderness of America. So far, I have been unable to find any flute references in abridged writings of Maximilian. The Bodmer painting to the right of Mandeh-Pahchu (Mandan) appears to be holding a flute, but I understand there is a difference of opinion on this subject. From Bodmer's collection of paintings, there is another painting that is labeled 'flute player', but unfortunately the flute is mostly hidden from view. Maximilian brought back many artifacts that are now in European museums. It would be interesting to find these mystery flute.

Some 10 years later, Margaret Fuller gives an accounting of her visit to Mackinaw Island in Michigan. In her book 'Summer On the Lakes, in 1843', she 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. "

In 1869, Rev. Alfred Longley Riggs, a missionary, friend, and educator to the Santee Sioux people, provides the most detailed description of their flutes.

" 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."

This 'bubbling' flute reference is one of the earliest descriptions of the warble, which is sound that appears to be highly prized in earlier times. Such flutes, could be blown forcefully with all holes covered while the pitch of the flute would repeatedly jump an octave and then immediately fall an octave. When first heard, many mistake the warble for a strong vibrato, which it is not. But the warble is a whole other topic, which is covered in another essay.

My research continues for this period of time. Of current interest is the writings of the fur traders and explorers from the Upper Missouri to the Great Lakes. So the digging through the past continues. So hopefully, there is more in the future on this subject of the past.

 --- Robert Gatliff


 --- 2006.09.10 - Expanded the essay to include Hutter's flute, the oldest flute that I've been able to track down.
 --- 2006.01.30 - The Catlin flute is no longer the oldest to my knowledge. Also fixed a couple of typos.
 --- 2005.03.10 - Added links to the warbling essay.
 --- 2004.01.23 - Added the 1869 quote from Alfred Riggs.
 --- 2004.01.19 - Added the statement that this essay is about the plains style flute.
 --- 2003.01.03 - Original essay.