Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton

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Public Domain Books


Tanning Skins and Making Moccasins

Sam had made a find. A Calf had been killed and its skin hung limp on a beam in the barn. His father allowed him to carry this off, and now he appeared with a “fresh Buffalo hide to make a robe.”

“I don’t know how the Injuns dress their robes,” he explained, “but Caleb does, and he’ll tell you, and, of course, I’ll pay no attention.”

The old Trapper had nothing to do, and the only bright spots in his lonely life, since his own door was shut in his face, were visits to the camp. These had become daily, so it was taken as a matter of course when, within an hour after Sam’s return, he “happened round.”

“How do the Indians tan furs and robes?” Yan asked at once.

“Wall, different ways–”

But before he could say more Hawkeye reappeared and shouted:

“Say, boys, Paw’s old Horse died!” and he grinned joyfully, merely because he was the bearer of news.

“Sappy, you grin so much your back teeth is gettin’ sunburned,” and the Head Chief eyed him sadly.

“Well, it’s so, an’ I’m going to skin out his tail for a scalp. I bet I’ll be the Injunest one of the crowd.”

“Why don’t you skin the hull thing, an’ I’ll show you how to make lots of Injun things of the hide,” Caleb added, as he lighted his pipe.

“Will you help me?

“It’s same as skinnin a Calf. I’ll show you where to get the sewing sinew after the hide’s off.”

So the whole camp went to Burns’s field. Guy hung back and hid when he saw his father there drawing the dead Horse away with the plough team.

“Good-day, Jim,” was Caleb’s greeting, for they were good friends. “Struck hard luck with the Horse?”

“No! Not much. Didn’t cost nothing; got him for boot in a swap. Glad he’s dead, for he was foundered.”

“We want his skin, if you don’t.”

“You’re welcome to the hull thing.”

“Well, just draw it over by the line fence we’ll bury what’s left when we’re through.”

“All right. You hain’t seen that durn boy o’ mine, have you?”

“Why, yes; I seen him not long ago,” said Sam. “He was p’inting right for home then.”

“H-m. Maybe I’ll find him at the house.”

“Maybe you will.” Then Sam added under his breath, “I don’t think.”

So Burns left them, and a few minutes later Guy sneaked out of the woods to take a secondary part in the proceedings.

Caleb showed them how to split the skin along the under side of each leg and up the belly. It was slow work skinning, but not so unpleasant as Yan feared, since the animal was fresh.

Caleb did the most of the work; Sam and Yan helped. Guy assisted with reminiscences of his own Calf-skinning and with suggestions drawn from his vast experiences.

When the upper half of the skin was off, Caleb remarked: “Don’t believe we can turn him over, and when the Injuns didn’t have a Horse at hand to turn over the Buffalo they used to cut the skin in two down the line of the back. I guess we better do that. We’ve got all the rawhide we need, anyhow.”

So they cut off the half they had skinned, took the tail and the mane for “scalps,” and then Caleb sent Yan for the axe and a pail.

He cut out a lump of liver and the brains of the Horse. “That,” said he, “is for tanning, an’ here is where the Injun woman gits her sewing thread.”

He made a deep cut alongside the back bone from the middle of the back to the loin, then forcing his fingers under a broad band of whitish fibrous tissue, he raised it up, working and cutting till it ran down to the hip bone and forward to the ribs. This sewing sinew was about four inches wide, very thin, and could easily be split again and again till it was like fine thread.

“There,” he said, “is a hank o’ thread. Keep that. It’ll dry up, but can be split at any time, and soaking in warm water for twenty minutes makes it soft and ready for use. Usually, when she’s sewing, the squaw keeps a thread soaking in her mouth to be ready. Now we’ve got a Horse skin and a Calfskin I guess we better set up a tan-yard.”

“Well, how do you tan furs, Mr. Clark?”

“Good many different ways. Sometimes just scrape and scrape till I get all the grease and meat off the inside, then coat it with alum and salt and leave it rolled up for a couple of days till the alum has struck through and made the skin white at the roots of the hair, then when this is half dry pull and work it till it is all soft.

“But the Injuns don’t have alum and salt, and they make a fine tan out of the liver and brains, like I’m going to do with this.”

“Well, I want to do it the Indian way.”

“All right, you take the brains and liver of your Calf.”

“Why not some of the Horse brains and liver?”

“Oh, I dunno. They never do it that way that I’ve seen. Seems like it went best with its own brains.”

“Now,” remarked the philosophical Woodpecker, “I call that a wonderful provision of nature, always to put Calf brains and liver into a Calfskin, and just enough to tan it.”

“First thing always is to clean your pelt, and while you do that I’ll put the Horsehide in the mud to soak off the hair.” He put it in the warm mud to soak there a couple of days, just as he had done the Calfskin for the drum-heads, then came to superintend the dressing of the Buffalo “robe.”

Sam first went home for the Calf brains and liver, then he and Yan scraped the skin till they got out a vast quantity of grease, leaving the flesh side bluish-white and clammy, but not greasy to the touch. The liver of the Calf was boiled for an hour and then mashed up with the raw brains into a tanning “dope” or mash and spread on the flesh side of the hide, which was doubled, rolled up and put in a cool place for two days. It was then opened out, washed clean in the brook and hung till nearly dry. Then Caleb cut a hardwood stake to a sharp edge and showed Yan how to pull and work the hide over the edge till it was all soft and leathery.

The treatment of the Horsehide was the same, once the hair was removed, but the greater thickness needed a longer soaking in the “tan dope.”

After two days the Trapper scraped it clean and worked it on the sharp-edged stake. It soon began to look like leather, except in one or two spots. On examining these he said:

“H-m, Tanning didn’t strike right through every place. So he buttered it again with the mash and gave it a day more; then worked it as before over the angle of the pole till it was soft and fibrous.

“There,” said he, “that’s Injun tan leather. I have seen it done by soaking the hide for a few days in liquor made by boiling Hemlock or Balsam bark in water till it’s like brown ink, but it ain’t any better than that. Now it needs one thing more to keep it from hardening after being wet. It has to be smoked.”

So he made a smoke fire by smothering a clear fire with rotten wood; then fastening the Horsehide into a cone with a few wooden pins, he hung it in the dense smoke for a couple of hours, first one side out, then the other till it was all of a rich smoky-tan colour and had the smell so well known to those who handle Indian leather.

“There it is; that’s Injun tan, an’ I hope you see that elbow grease is the main thing in tannin’.”

“Now, will you show us how to make moccasins and war-shirts?” asked Little Beaver, with his usual enthusiasm.

“Well, the moccasins is easy, but I won’t promise about the war-shirts. That’s pretty much a case of following the pattern of your own coat, with the front in one piece, but cut down just far enough for your head to go through, instead of all the way, and fixed with tie-strings at the throat and fringes at the seams and at the bottom; it hain’t easy to do. But any one kin larn to make moccasins. There is two styles of them–that is, two main styles. Every Tribe has its own make, and an Injun can tell what language another speaks as soon as he sees his footgear. The two best known are the Ojibwa, with soft sole–sole and upper all in one, an’ a puckered instep–that’s what Ojibwa means–’puckered moccasin.’ The other style is the one most used in the Plains. You see, they have to wear a hard sole, ’cause the country is full of cactus and thorns as well as sharp stones.”

“I want the Sioux style. We have copied their teepee and war bonnet–and the Sioux are the best Indians, anyway.”

“Or the worst, according to what side you’re on,” was Caleb’s reply. But he went on: “Sioux Injuns are Plains Injuns and wear a hard sole. Let’s see, now. I’ll cut you a pair.”

“No, make them for me. It’s my Horse,” said Guy.

“No, you don’t. Your Paw give that to me.” Caleb’s tone said plainly that Guy’s laziness had made a bad impression, so he had to stand aside while Yan was measured. Caleb had saved a part of the hide untanned though thoroughly cleaned. This was soaked in warm water till soft. Yan’s foot was placed on it and a line drawn around the foot for a guide; this when cut out made the sole of one moccasin (A, cut below), and by turning it underside up it served as pattern to cut the other.

Now Caleb measured the length of the foot and added one inch, and the width across the instep, adding half an inch, and with these as greatest length and breadth cut out a piece of soft leather (B). Then in this he made the cut a b on the middle line one way and c d on the middle line the other way. A second piece the reverse of this was cut, and next a piece of soft leather for inside tongue (C) was sewn to the large piece (B), so that the edge a b of C was fast to a b of B. A second piece was sewn to the other leather (B reversed).

“Them’s your vamps for uppers. Now’s the time to bead ’em if you want to.”

“Don’t know how.”

“Well, I can’t larn you that; that’s a woman’s work. But I kin show you the pattern of the first pair I ever wore; I ain’t likely to forget ’em, for I killed the Buffalo myself and seen the hull making." He might have added that he subsequently married the squaw, but he did not.

“There’s about the style” [D]. “Them three-cornered red and white things all round is the hills where the moccasins was to carry me safely; on the heel is a little blue pathway with nothing in it: that is behind–it’s past. On the instep is three red, white and blue pathways where the moccasin was to take me: they’re ahead–in the future. Each path has lots of things in it, mostly changes and trails, an’ all three ends in an Eagle feather–that stands for an honour. Ye kin paint them that way after they’re made. Well, now, we’ll sew on the upper with a good thick strand of sinew in the needle–or if you have an awl you kin do without a needle on a pinch–and be sure to bring the stitches out the edge of the sole instead of right through, then they don’t wear off. That’s the way.” [E.]

So they worked away, clumsily, while Guy snickered and sizzled, and Sam suggested that Si Lee would make a better squaw than both of them.

The sole as well as the upper being quite soft allowed them to turn the moccasin inside out as often as they liked–and they did like; it seemed necessary to reverse it every few minutes. But at length the two pieces were fastened together all around, the seam gap at the heel was quickly sewn up, four pairs of lace holes were made (_a, b, c, d, in D), and an eighteen-inch strip of soft leather run through them for a lace.

Now Yan painted the uppers with his Indian paints in the pattern that Caleb had suggested, and the moccasins were done.

A squaw would have made half a dozen good pairs while Yan and Caleb made the one poor pair, but she would not have felt so happy about it.


Part I  •  II  •  III  •  IV  •  V  •  VI  •  VII  •  VIII  •  IX  •  X  •  XI  •  XII  •  XIII  •  XIV  •  Part II  •  II  •  III  •  IV  •  V  •  VI  •  VII  •  VIII  •  IX  •  X  •  XI  •  XII  •  XIII  •  XIV  •  XV  •  Part III  •  II  •  III  •  IV  •  V  •  VI  •  VII  •  VIII  •  IX  •  X  •  XI  •  XII  •  XIII  •  XIV  •  XV  •  XVI  •  XVII  •  XVIII  •  XIX  •  XX  •  XXI  •  XXII  •  XXIII  •  XXIV  •  XXV  •  XXVI  •  XXVII  •  XXVIII  •  XXIX  •  XXX  •  XXXI  •  XXXII

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Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
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