Friday, October 10, 2008

Tools of the Trade

" A trapper's equipments in such cases is generally one animal upon which is placed one or two Ephishemores a riding Saddle and bridle a sack containing six beaver traps a blanket with an extra pair of Moccasins his powder horn and bullet pouch with a belt to which is attached a butcher knife a small wooden box containing bait for Beaver a Tobacco sack with a pipe and implements for making fire with sometimes a hatchet fastened to the Pommel of his saddle his personal dress is a flannel or cotton shirt (if he is fortunate enought to obtain one, if not Antleope skin answers the purpose of over and under shirt) a pair of leather breeches with blanket or smoked Buffaloe skin leggings, a coat made of Blanket or Buffaloe robe a hat or cap of wool, Buffaloe or Otter skin his hose are pieces of Blanket lapped around his feet which are covered with a pair of Moccasins made of Dressed Deer Elk or Buffaloe skins with his long hair falling loosely over his shulders completes his uniform."

From Osburne Russells' journal, Journal of a Trapper 1834-1843, page 82.

As can be seen by Russell's description of the mountain fur trapper, tools and dress were simple, but effective.
Pictured above is a fresh skinned beaver pelt, stretched on a willow hoop to dry. The skins, when dry, were folded fur side in and packed in bales of packs of about 50 pelts; each bale weighing approxamately 90-100 pounds. Onced baled together, the pelts would be shipped to St. Louis, and then to manufactureres who made the highly fashionable beaver hair hats. A large, prime beaver pelt was often referred to as a "plew," a variation on the French word for "plus," la plus, meaning the prime or best grade.
Tens of thousands of beaver pelts were taken from the Rocky Mountains. Yet it remains quite rare to visit a modern fur trade reenactment and see even a single beaver pelt.

The next most valuable item that the mountain man carried were his traps. This picture shows a trap that is typical of the type used during the 1820-1840 era. It weights between 3-5 pounds, and the length of the springs, end to end, is 23 inches. The spread of the jaws measures 6 1/2 inches across and has a 3 1/2 foot chain attached to it. Without these traps, there was little purpose for the trapper to be in the mountains; they were his livelihood.

Continuing with Russell's description of a trapper's tools, pictured above is the rifle, along with some of the tools and accoutrements necessary to use it. While the type and make of rifles used during this era were as varied as the men who used them, this particular rifle, the Northwest Trade gun, represents a type many of the trappers carried. It is a flintlock, smoothbore, .530 caliber muzzle loader.
Above the rifle is a shooting bag, which holds all of the other pictured items. The powder horn is above the shooting bag. These horns were made from either cow or buffalo horn, and typically could hold one pound of black powder. The smaller horn, below the rifle, holds a finer gained black powder used for priming the flintlock. A small antler powder measure (above the rifle barrel) measured out a powder charge for the gun. To the lower right corner is the bullet pouch, containing the round ball bullets. To the left of the pouch, flints for the flintlock, a screw driver, spring vise, touch hole pick, and bullet starter fro the ramrod. Above the pouch are two bars of lead, used for making the ball bullets. A bullet mold, used by melting the lead in a small laddle, and pouring into the mold, is shown below.

This last picture shows a small belt axe (top), butcher knives (bottom), and a fire steel with flint (left). The belt axe is a common style used from the Colonial period. It is about 14 inches long, with a polled steel head. It is small enough to be carried on a belt, and is well-adapted for cutting firewood, driving stakes, and splitting bones. It was referred to as a "Kentucky belt axe."
The knives are a curved butcher knife (top) with a seven inch blade, and a long, straight butcher knife (bottom) that has a 12 inch blade. The curved knife is carried in the leather sheath shown. This particular knife is a "Green River" knife made by J. Russell & Co. of Green River, Mass. IT is of some interest to note that this company did not exist prior to 1835, and many of their knives wouldn't have made it out West until after the last rendezvous in 1840. This particular knife style was made during the 1860's, and often traded to the Native people. Both of the knives are hand-forged. Jim Bridger often talks about the "Green River" knife, but not until the buffalo hunting days of the 1840's and 1850's.
The last items in this photo are the fire making tools. The "C"-shaped striker is made of steel and is often referred to as a "Steel." The so called flints could be flint of chert. Chert is the more common rock found in the United States. When striking a sharp edge of the chert with the steel, sparks can be made. These sparks are tiny slivers of steel being shaved off of the striker. When caught in a prepared tinder of char-cloth, or cat-tail duff, or even some dry grass, it is possible to create an ember for a fire. Steels came in many shapes and styles.