Knoxville Journal Express - 1926
Photograph made by Miss Steen of a group of Cernak Indians.
Caption: The natives have an innate distrust for the white man and are very treacherous, Miss Steen says, Consequently only the more adventurous men volunteer for the work of colonization.
Two-part Story of Bessie Steen's Experiences; European Trip Narrated This Week.
To have seen Paris is the ultimate in the average person's life; to see London would be an unexpected pleasure, but to visit Vienna, Europe's gayest city, to see the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland, Berlin and other cities and sights would be beyond the wildest expectations of the average person's thoughts.
Throw all that and a trip to South America in also and you have the substance of what Miss Bessie Steen, Knoxville young lady, has seen within the last year. Miss Steen arrived home from New York city Monday morning after a year of seeing the world. She is visiting here with her mother, Mrs. Walter Steen Thompson, for two weeks, before returning to California, where she expects to enter the classes of Dr. Gustave Nordenskjord, a noted anthropologist.
Miss Steen spent two months in Europe, visiting all the famous art displays. She was in Paris for a few weeks, in Belgium and London. She spent considerable time in Vienna, viewing the wonderful art works there. Later she traveled into Switzerland, where she viewed the beauties of that mountainous country. After her trip through the continent, she took a boat for New York and then went to South America.
Arriving in Brazil she received permission from the government through the intercession of influential friends to penetrate the wilds of that country. She is specializing in primitive art and it was her purpose through her trip to gather and study forms of the native art of that country.
She was the only woman in the expedition and had numerous and not-so-humerous experiences. The dangers among the pygmy headhunting tribes of that country were many.
After spending four months in Brazil she returned to the United States where she entered Columbia University. After spending some time in research work, she has started westward again. She has hundreds of fine photographs of her trip. Besides these there are numerous drawings, native ornaments, animal skins and other things of interest.
To Miss Bessie Steen, Knoxville young lady, goes the honor of being the first white woman to penetrate the wilds of Brazil. Meeting with hundreds of obstacles, traveling day and night, constantly mingling with the savage, pigmy, headhunting tribes of that country, this young lady is back home alive, and eager to go there once more.
Miss Steen is an artist of recognized ability and is specializing in primitive ornaments of art. Starting last year she made a tour of Europe and then left for South America to see her brother, Thomas Steen. She might have had a hazy idea that she would like to go there but the suddenness of the Victorian government to allow her to do so, made the adventure far more thrilling.
Miss Steen left for London early in 1925. According to her, it is a wonderful city--and the people are so funny. She met a group of friends there and together they attended the Wembly exposition which is now going on. This is in the nature of an exposition of all the products, agriculture and manufactured, of the British empire. It was a great thing to see. She has a great deal of fun ordering milk in restaurants there. Milk in London, or in any other European city, for that matter, is an unknown quantity. Her friends "put her up" to doing it. When the waitress came she gave her order and when the beverage question came up she said "Milk,"
The waitress looked at her blankly. "What was that?" In a fine Cockney brogue, "Milk," Miss Steen repeated. "Huh?" asked the waitress blankly. "Milk," she repeated again. "Milk, milk,"(she pronounced it "millick") "Why ma'am we don't sell it to adults, we give it to babies."
After spending a few weeks in London, she next journeyed to Paris. Her primary purpose in visiting each of these famous cities was to study art, consequently there wasn't much time for sightseeing and pleasure. She saw many of the most beautiful and priceless works of art in her travels.
She also visited the Montemarte district where all the artists live. Miss Steen says (and she ought to know) that the talk about artists being a high-lived fast bunch is the bunk, They are just like any other group of people. Most of them haven't money enough to live in the style folks in Iowa are accustomed to, let alone spending their money for wine, etc. Of course they dress oddly and preen a good bit for the admiring tourist and dearly love to shock them--but that's all. Moulin Rouge and numerous other places, which are advertised as artists' haunts are nothing more than bait for the poor, rich American tourist. Frenchmen and artists hardly every patronize them. But the Yankee looking for excitement must see it or he will go back home and tell his friends that Paris is nothing but a slow hick town and Paris doesn't want that kind of advertising.
Next she traveled over into Austria where she resided in Vienna for several weeks and attended the noted Franz Cizek's school of art. This gentleman has won world renown in his style of painting which is ultra modern futuristic work. It is easy to see that Miss Steen believes Vienna to be the most charming city she visited.
After Vienna (she pronounces it "Veen") she went to Switzerland. There she saw all the wonders of the famous mountains and says that she doesn't believe they compare with the Rocky mountain country. After short trips into Czecho-Slovakia and other Balkan countries she went to Germany. She was Unter der Linden in Berlin, saw the famous castles and then went to Hamberg where she was to sail from Bremen harbor for South America. When she arrived there she found the boat she was to sail on was a "tub" and she didn't feel like she wanted to take passage on it.
So she waited until the SS Republic came along and then went to New York on it. The seas were sometimes fair, but most of the way over they were high and its was a beautiful sight to see the heavy waves dash against the ship. It was about 5 o'clock on Oct. 11, 1925, that flares and S.O.S., calls were noticed by the officers. They rushed in the direction of the distress calls and found the U.S. revenue cutter No. 134, leaking and badly damaged in imminent danger of sinking. The men on the distressed boat had been without food for three days. The waves were rolling terribly high, according to Miss Steen.
Immediately the big Republic began pouring crude oil on the water. Chief Officer J.L. Beebe called for volunteers to man a small boat and take of the endangered men. It was a thrilling sight, according to Miss Steen to watch the men step up. The deck was constantly being washed by the heavy waves and only the bravest and most daring of the passengers were on it. There was a snap and precision about the way those men stepped up with a hearty, "Aye, Aye, sir!" which made the blood run through your veins faster as you thrillingly realized that those men were cheerily risking their lives to save their fellow seamen.
It was impossible to use a power life boat, so a smaller boat, manned by the sturdy seamen was soon let down with Officer Beebe at the helm. Going was fine until they struck the edge of the oil. Then the boat went right straight up over a wave and disappeared. The passengers who had crowded to the rail screamed. They were lost. But no, there they were on the crest of another wave and then plunged into the trough. The disabled cutter was gyrating worse than that. Every time it hit the trough of a wave it almost capsized and the inexperienced passengers were almost certain that every minute would be the last.
Suddenly the life boat neared the cutter and then just as quickly it was coming back. They couldn't get close enough to the cutter. But as they hove closer into view some one began counting the heads and it was then that they discovered the crew had been rescued. There wasn't a moment waisted in doing so, however. It took an hour to take the men off and ten minutes later, the Republic tooted her siren and was off for New York. Arriving at New York, she was there only a few days before leaving on a Munson line steamer for Brazil. Of course there were some very interesting things happened on the boat going down, chief among them was leaving mail at the equator for the next steamer going north. Miss Steen was skeptical when the captain advised her that this would be a quick way to get them to folks back home, but she wrote them anyway. It seems the idea is that there is a buoy at the equator and they fasten the mail sack to the equator. Everybody gets their letters ready and then when they reach the equator they learn that the buoy is in the same class as sky hooks and left handed monkey wrenches.
Arriving at Brazil, they landed at Rio de Janeiro, the capital. It doesn't take long according to Miss Steen to learn that you are in the land of manyana[sic]. Leisure is the Latin's watchword. You place your luggage before the customs officers and they take their time about it. They may argue until its tea time and then come back and talk until it's coffee time. It is all the same to them. They don't understand or care very much what you are saying for they can't understand English. You wait and wait. Your sense of futility grows until you are desperate. You frantically seek some one who can talk English and Portuguese. Somebody is found at last. You make them understand at last and then your customs officers dispose of you speedily. The next thing is to find some one to take your baggage too the place you want to go.
They are not hired, they are bargained with. You must strike a bargain and to do it without dickering is unknown to these people. Miss Steen was bringing a Parisian umbrella to her brother. When she arrived at the railway station which was to take her to Sao Paulo, where her brother was to meet her, the umbrella was gone. She then learned the foolishness of having anything tied on to her luggage. It is simply customary to steal that stuff.
The train goes to Sao Paulo once a week, and the sleeper reservations were made at least a month ahead, so Miss Steen rode the day coach for a day and a night. The Pullmans in that country are different from American ones. Each compartment has a regular bed in it. But that didn't do Miss Steen any good--she rode in the "chair" car.
Arriving at Sao Paulo her brother, Thomas, met her in his flivver and they left at once for Santa Amara, his home. Miss Steen stressed the Brazilian's innate courtesy. They are subtle, polite and look upon the average Yankee as a loudmouthed brag. One of the first things she saw was a coffee plantation, or fazenda. The fazendero (owner) was absent and his 10-year-old son showed them over the place. It was as large as the state of Connecticut and has a town of 100 houses with movies, schools, churches, etc., right on it.
It sounds rather peculiar to have a 10-year-old lad showing off his father's place, but you have to understand the way those young Brazilians on plantations are taught to appreciate it. The women are taught to be queens--they are not allowed to do any kind of work. The men are learning to be leaders at the age of 5, and this young lad at 10 was as grave and dignified as man of 50. The chauffeur drove the flivver and the little chap pointed out all the interesting spots and gravely explained the process of growing coffee.
The home in which the fazendero and his family lived was a gorgeous castle, according to Miss Steen. It is a building of rock and tightened with clay and it was beautifully placed, being on a hill and it is from this place that the fazendero could stand and see all of his plantation.
Later on she went to Victoria and attended a great ball in honor of the governor or president of the state of Victoria who had just returned. It was most wonderful. The Brazilian young folks Maxixi and tango in a style and grace unknown in America. In every room in the palace there was an orchestra. She was escorted by a former ambassador and to quote her "he was a swell." He had the highest hat, the most flowing cape, he bowed the lowest and was the most polite of the polite.
It was here that she met some influential government officials and the trip into the interior was brought up--Pulling the strings in a Latin government is the only way she could get through. The Brazilians first listened politely and then shook their heads just as politely to tell her that it couldn't be done. But she went. and She had some most exciting experiences. If you were an Iowa girl, who had led a most prosaic existence, and after fighting and begging to your last bit of energy to get there, you found yourself on the brink of the great Brazil jungle which had never been seen by a white woman before, what would your reactions be?
That was the predicament of Miss Bessie Steen, after she had broken down the precedents of government rules, faced many polite heads which always shook "no" until driven nearly to desperation she got a lucky break and the trip to the jungle was on. But she will never forget the many times she which she faced those influential Brazilians to be told that it was impossible time after time.
At last she met the right parties and the way was quickly opened. She was to be accompanied by two representatives of the Brazilian government and as she entered the different states she was to be met by representatives of that government and taken care of. According to her own words, she was well taken care of. There never was a time that her custodians ever let her out of their sight and they watched her as if she was of some precious metal.
Attempts were made to secure a woman to accompany Miss Steen, but no lady felt so adventuresome. Their negative answers were generally based upon one word--snakes. There are plenty of them in the jungles, not even considering the treacherous savages, the wild animals, the lizards, the dangers of fatal diseases or poisoned arrows. Snakes are the main barrier.
There are huge boa constrictors, measuring from 15 to fifty feet long, that can crush the life out of any living thing. There are rattlers whose bite is so deadly that five minutes after they strike the person will be dead. There are water moccasins, which make water travel dangerous. There are tiny vipers whose fangs are even more deadly than the larger snake and who can hardly be seen and never give warning. They are venomous and always too eager to attack.
It can easily be understood why Miss Steen took such care in the selection of her jungle costume. Parisian frocks are simply passé there. Her first act was to get a pair of heavy leather puttees and then buy a pair of shoes of heavy material and have leather sewed onto the top to make them double secure. A linen riding costume completed the outfit. One doesn't carry much luggage into the jungle for to do so means that you might have to carry it yourself some time.
The two Brazilians who were representatives of the government were wonderful she says. One man spoke English very fluently, being a graduate of Leland Stanford University. They understood very well the dangers of the jungle and were not willing for Miss Steen to take any more chances than were necessary. Many times she was shielded from dangers she knew nothing of, nor could she learn what they were because these men said, "they didn't wish to frighten her." Wasn't that a tough predicament for a girl who was searching for a thrill?
The journey started on the train, next they went by Ford truck--and by the way Miss Steen says Fords are growing more plentiful every day in Brazil--then by mule and finally on foot and in canoes.
Few people can understand the greatness and opportunities in South America. There are millions of square miles there which have no white inhabitants. There are hundreds of tribes who have never seen a white person. Civilization is gradually reaching out more and more but it will be many years before South America reaches the stage of civilization that the United States had approached in 1880.
A big majority of the tribes which Miss Steen visited were already upon the road to civilization. One however, the Cernaks, were only two years from headhunting and cannibalism. Most all of them run stark naked. If they didn't they would die within a few years or months They live in conditions almost unbelievably filthy and the ultraviolet rays of the sun are the only medicines that keep them well.
Life is short for these poor beings. A woman is old at 30 and a woman living to the age of 50 is unheard of. Men are just as short lived. They reach maturity early in life--some as early as 8 or 10 years and consequently they may not live so many years, but the time is cut off the adolescent and preadolescent period. They may look like Negroes but they are really not. Most of them have a reddish skin, like the American Indian, but their features are distinctly Negroid.
Many of the women wear blocks in their mouths which cause the lower lip to protrude in a ghastly manner. They hang these heavy pieces of wood on their ears too. By bribery one of these women was induced to remove them from her mouth and ears. When she did her lips and ears hung in shapeless masses and although, she was entirely naked, she was terribly embarrassed until she put them back in their places again. Only then did she regain her composure.
Now the average Knoxvillian will ask why they do those crazy things. They don't know why themselves. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago some of their ancestors must have conceived the idea that this would beautify or in some manner distinguish the wearers. This custom has been followed down through the ages and now these poor ignorant savages are following this painful custom although they don't know why they do it.
The food of the travels was according to what was fashionable in the country. They subsisted mostly upon black beans and coffee. You might say that you like beans and as for coffee you would take all you could get. But not that kind of coffee, dear reader, nor yet that kind of beans. The beans are just as hard as little pebbles and have about as much taste as popcorn "jawbreakers" The coffee is served black because they have only a small amount of milk in that country. And then to add to the zest of the cup, the natives insist upon filling the cup two-thirds full of sugar. Imagine coffee twice as strong as you drink, without milk and made sickly sweet with sugar. This according to Miss Steen was one of the "joys of the jungle."
The tribal customs are peculiar and consequently the white man trying to meet them on the same ground and become friends with them must tread cautiously. Those natives have the peculiar habit of shooting their poison arrows first and then not bothering to ask any questions afterward. Of course the idea of making friends with them is to civilize them as far as possible.
They re innately distrustful and treacherous and consequently only the bravest men can volunteer for this work. He never knobs what moment a an arrow will shoot out from the underbrush to pierce his heart.
The first step of the colonizer is to gather together all the bright trinkets and pieces of goods that he can find. Then he sets out for the point where he knows some savage tribe is hibernating. He goes as close on their path as he believes is feasible and then leaves some of the gifts. He leaves and returns in about two or three weeks. If the presents are gone he leaves more, for it is a good sign. If these too are also gone when he returns he knows that he is making fine progress. But that never happens.
When he returns after the allotted two weeks he generally finds the present still there, and he knows that from every bush a pair of eyes are closely watching his every move. He may even find a cross of sticks erected in the path and if he does he is doubly wary. If he knocks that down or passes it, it is certain death for that move will be followed by a shower of arrows. l The native erects this cross to tell the whole world that he doesn't want any one but tribesmen coming up that path and if they do, they do it at their own risk.
The colonizer, seeing that his gifts have been refused, leaves some of the choicest things he has--red cloth, brass jewelry and bread. Once a native testes bread he is your friend for life if you can give him more bread. This time all the gifts may be taken, when he comes back, and some simple little thing left in return. The colonizer is overjoyed when he sees this for reciprocity is the life of good fellowship. But he takes the gifts the natives have left, leaves some more of his and returns to his camp, never offering to go into their camp for that would mean certain death.
To keep this story from dragging let us suppose that the next time he comes, he calls and several of the younger and more venturesome braves come forward. They have never seen a white man and they look him over eagerly. They may even be able to understand each other through an interpreter of native lingoes. They see that the white man wants to be friendly with them and it won't be long until they come to his camp. After this some of the older men may come, and then even a few of the women. But the white man never goes to their camp unless he is invited. When he is, then the actual work of civilizing them begins. The process of getting into the tribal camp sometimes takes a long as four years and even longer. Miss Steen says with the average around two years. It is painstaking work, calling for the highest amount of bravery and tact and only few men are appointed by the Brazilian government to do this work.
Can you imagine what these natives thought when they saw Miss Steen? Of course they had no idea that a white woman existed. They looked at her wristwatch. Felt in her pockets and examined her shoes. Everything about her was a source of wonderment to them. Most of Miss Steen's exploration was done in the state of Minas Geraes. Brazilian custom and manners decreed that she could not sleep at night unless she was with a woman. Sometimes they had to travel for twenty-four hours before they would reach the hut of some poor native woman, and there Miss Steen would be allowed to rest. The natives seem to have an aberration for fresh air. They would show Miss Steen to her "room" and then would securely close the windows and doors. Wouldn't that be a great place to sleep? Many times she arose in the night to open the windows, only to have the watchful woman come in and close them again. Of course there really were dangers of wild animals, but when one is suffering you are willing to take most any chance.
But in spite of the squalor of the natives, the beauty of the country cannot be equaled anywhere in the world. She carries a vivid impression of a huge valley there which she says is far more beautiful than the Shoshone valley in the United States. You walk there hemmed in by two huge walls, hundreds of feet high. The whole landscape is covered with beautiful foliage, brilliant and scintillating in the sunlight. Through all these trees are beautiful birds, handsomely colored parrots. Entwined about other trees are great snakes, and dazzling-skinned lizards, all of which blend into a color scheme which makes the whole scene seem like a paradise. But danger lurks everywhere.
Traveling at night in the section is another story, she says, because they had to hurry to make connections on the border of another state, they were forced to travel all night. What a weird procession it was. Headed by a bare footed native guide, who held a hollow burning bamboo pole, filled with animal fat, the party went cautiously forward. The guide followed a schedule of so many steps per minute. An eerie feeling came over you from the very atmosphere. The 'pat-pat' of the wild animals following the group could be hear. A wild cat crossed the path snarling viciously as it retreated. Snakes awakened by the light moved sluggishly across the path. The knowledge that the jaguars were following was certainly uncomfortable. Suddenly about a hundred yards to the right the piercing scream of an animal dying could be heard. "What was it?" Miss Steen whispered anxiously. Her escorts shook their heads and mutely bade her remain silent.
After one has been in the jungle for a few weeks you are as near a wreck as it is possible to be without being a corpse. Supposing that you spent your vacation trampling through bushes, over barely traceable paths, not knowing what minute you may be the object of some animal's attack or encoiled in the sinuous folds of a huge boa constrictor. Supposing that all the time you were walking the heat would be around 100 degrees and there you were subsisting on black beans and coffee--not coffee like Americans know it, but black bitter stuff poured into a cup half fall of sugar. Great life, eh?
That's part of what Miss Bessie Steen went through in order to head her own expedition into the jungles of Brazil and study firsthand the savage tribes and their primitive ornaments. Here's a couple of yarns which are said to be true about snakes. The first one Miss Steen says is hearsay, but the second happened to a member of her party.
The owner of a huge fazenda or coffee plantation sent one of his men to the city with several thousands in gold. The man disappeared and naturally it was thought he had absconded. Posses were sent out from the plantation and they searched the jungle everywhere. They were going through a dense undergrowth when suddenly one of the men stopped, shrieked and another quick to act raised his gun to his shoulder and fired. The headless body of a huge boa constrictor swayed back and forth a few times and then the body slowly uncoiled as the muscles relaxed and feel to the ground with a heavy sickening thud. The serpent was examined and found to be more than fifty feet long. A bulge was noticed in the center of the dead snakes body and he was promptly cut open. Inside the missing money carrier was found, money and all, life begin crushed out before the shake had swallowed him.
A member of Ms. Steen's party went to visit a store in one of the small semi-native towns they were passing through and seeing no one around chose to help himself. He reached up onto a high shelf and there encountered the slimy coils of a snake. His snakeship proceeded to uncoil himself to his majestic twelve feet and started after the luckless fellow who wanted to turn the place into a groceterial (sic). Just then the store owner awakened, came up quickly saying, excitedly, "Come back! Come Back! That's only my house cat." But the other fellow didn't come back.
The law in the country is made by the fazenderos and the government can do little with them. They are a good deal like the minute men in America during the early eighteenth century. The story is related that a government detachment went out to settle with some fazendero, but the commander was so thoroughly discouraged that he was glad to make terms with the belligerent coffee grower. One night every hub on his wagon was loosened and when he started the next morning the wagons had to be repaired after half of them had lost wheels. His mules were poisoned and one of the natives volunteered to cure them. The next morning they were all well--but gone. He was given all kinds of false leads and misdirected everywhere. He was simply powerless.
Many interesting discoveries were made by Miss Steen in the way of studying primitive ornaments. She gained a great deal of valuable information. Starting back to Rio de Janeiro she came back by river boat. On this boat there were four prisoners being transported to Rio for execution for having been leaders in a revolution there. One of them had a little monkey not more than six inches in size. He was fed by Miss Steen and before she left the boat the grateful prisoner gave her Saugi and she brought the little animal back to New York. He was certainly a trial, she said. The first thing he did was to eat a lot of butterflies and other bugs which she had carefully mounted. He was as smart and mischievous as a young child. And a good deal more ornery.
When she stepped off the boat at Rio she must have heaved a sigh of relief for although it was a great adventure, these trips to the jungles get on ones nerves. And she had the honor of being the first white woman to penetrate the jungles and was content to be back in civilization again.
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