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Archive for September 7th, 2011

Indian File

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 7, 2011

Most people have figured out that the expression Indian file is another way of saying single file.  But where did the expression Indian file come from in the first place?  Is the answer obvious?

The St. Maurice Valley Chronicle newspaper in Three Rivers, Quebec ran a story on June 30, 1960 that dealt with cycling safety.  The article, entitled, “Indian File When Cycling” had this to say on the matter:

When cycling in a group or more, cyclists should always ride Indian File, that is one behind the other, the Provincial Highway Safety Committee (Prudentia) says.  This advice is oft repeated but somehow is not taken to heart by cyclists.  If cyclists would only realize the danger.  When riding side by side, two cyclists take the space of an ordinary car on the highway or street.  Not only is this practice a definite traffic hazard, but it creates a veritable danger to the cyclist and to the motorist alike.  Ride Indian File and stay alive this summer.

On October 31, 1934 the Milwaukee Sentinel published a story about give huge water spouts that roared into Buffalo harbor from Lake Erie amidst snow and near gale winds.  The story was entitled, “Erie Water Spouts Crash Buffalo Seawall: Tumble Sea Gulls, Advance On City In Indian File.”  The newspaper reported in part:

At least 100 to 500 feet high, the spouts traveled in Indian file as they swirled into the harbor from a black spot on the lake about a mile southwest of the city.

It was quite the spectacle as John P. Scanlon, United States coast guard station lookout was quoted as saying this about the five towers that, according to him, shot towards the city at “terrific speed from a mile southwest on the lake.”

“They looked like spiral staircases,” Scanlon said.  “The spouts seemed to spring up suddenly and followed each other in Indian file.  One attracted my attention particularly.  After tumbling sea gulls about, it sped along the municipal beach and grabbed bushes up.  It seemed as though it drenched a lot of people when it finally smashed against the docks.”

On August 14, 1900 the Philadelphia Record republished a story from the Associated Press entitled, “Peculiar And Unusual Occurrence On The Saratoga Track.”  The story read in part:

A heavy rainfall converted the track into a quagmire ankle deep this afternoon, and the fields were greatly reduced by withdrawals.  In the first race, Starter Caldwell dropped his flag.  The man holding the advanced flag failed to see the bunting go down and all of the jockeys except Sam Doggett, on his own horse Terrorist, and Burus, on Lieber Karl, the 4 to 5 favorite, pulled up.  This pair raced towards to the finish with the former winning.  The field straggled in in Indian file.  The race was ordered to be run over again by the stewards under the rule providing that the advance flag must fall.  All bets stood.

On August 14, 1878 the Montreal Gazette published a news story entitled, “Vice Regal Tour: Lord Dufferin In The Townships.”  As was the case when such visits occurred, the event was a very serious and formal affair as can be seen by this snippet from the story:

Her Excellency, Mrs. Col. Lyttleton, and attendants, followed in another carriage, and the guard of honor wheeled in columns of subdivisions.  The firemen, who had been provided with flaming torches, had been in waiting, and at a signal from Chief S F Foss, wheeled into line, and turning were Indian file, flanking the escort.  Along with the firemen were hundreds of citizens bearing torches.  This was a prettily executed movement, and the blazing torches of the firemen and citizens in constant motion reflected from the glittering bayonets of the guard of honor, the cheering of the surging crowd and the glare of thousands of lights from the different windows, made a most impressive sight.

In 1849, the Providence, Rhode Island January 25th edition of the Manufacturers and Farmers Journal published a piece of fiction entitled, “Adventures In New Mexico.”  The author went by the name of E … no first name, no last name … just E.  The story included this tidbit:

Hitching John to the hind gate of a wagon, I borrowed a large bored rifle, and set off after them on foot.  The prairie here being undulating, and in many places broken into deep gullies, it presented every facility for a “still hunt” in other words for a “creeping on to” game.  The bulls were plodding soberly along some distance from me, in Indian file.  I knew by the “law of the land” that they were making for some watering place, and it was there I expected to crawl upon them; but on they went and on I followed; the wagons soon passed out of sight, and far before could just be traced the sand hills of the Big Arkansas.

It’s in the journal of William Parkman, — a 17-year-old soldier in the Massachusetts regiment — dating back to the summer of 1758 that the following entry is found:

August 8.  Set out for Fort Edward in an Indian file, Major Putnam in the front, and when we had marched about a mile and a half the enemy waylaid us, and fired upon our front and cut off Major Putnam.  Upon that Major Rogers came up from the rear and formed the men in a line, and they drove the enemy, and had an engagement, which lasted two hours and ten minutes.

The expression, however, is a direct translation of “en file indienne” found in journals written by the French who settled in Quebec in the 1600s.  Samuel de Champlain (1567 – 1635) and Anadabijou speaking on behalf of the Montagnais, the Etchemins and the Algonquin nations from the Ottawa River area to the far northwest agree to embark upon a campaign against the Iroquois in 1603. The campaign is successful and of course, gives rise to celebration.  Samuel de Champlain described the events that took place in June of that year when the allies assembled at Tadoussac, Quebec using the expression “en file indienne” to describe what he observed.

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