The Power of woman existed even in 1830's, as you
can see when you read my favorite story from Catlin.
LETTER -- No. 24.
MINATAREE VILLAGE, UPPER MISSOURI,
"The old chief, having learned that we were to cross
the river, gave direction to one of the women of his
numerous household, who took upon her head a skin-
canoe (more familiarly called in this country, a bull-
boat), made in the form of a large tub, of a buffalo's
skin, stretched on a frame of willow boughs, which
she carried to the water's edge; and placing it in the
water, made signs for us three to get into it. When we
were in, and seated fat on its bottom, with scarce
room in any way to adjust our legs and out feet (as
we sat necessarily facing each other), she stepped
before the boat, and pulling it along, waded towards
the deeper water, with her back. towards us, carefully
with the other hand attending to her dress, which
seemed to be but a light slip, and floating upon the
surface until the water was above her waist, when it
was instantly turned off, over her head, and thrown
ashore; and she boldly plunged forward swimming
and drawing the boat with one hand, which she did
with apparent ease. In this manner we were conveyed
to the middle of the stream, where we were soon
surrounded by a dozen or more beautiful girls, from
twelve to fifteen and eighteen years of age, who were
at that time bathing on the opposite shore.
They all swam in a bold and graceful manner, and as
confidently as so many otters or beavers; and
gathering around us, with their long black hair
floating about on the water, whilst their faces were
glowing with jokes and fun, which they were cracking
about us, and which we could not, understand.
In the midst of this delightful little aquatic group, we
three sat in our little skin-bound tub (like the "three
wise men of Gotham, who went to sea in a bowl,"
&c.), floating along down the current, losing sight,
and all thoughts, of the shore, which was equal-
distant from us on either side; whilst we were
amusing ourselves with the playfulness of these dear
little creatures who were floating about under the
clear blue water, catching their hands on to the sides
of our boat; occasionally raising one-half of their
bodies out of the water, and sinking again, like so
In the midst of this bewildering and tantalizing
entertainment, in which poor Ba'tiste and Bogard, as
well as myself, were all taking infinite pleasure, and
which we supposed was all intended for our especial
amusement; we found ourselves suddenly in the
delightful dilemma of floating down the current in the
middle of the river; and of being turned round and
round to the excessive amusement of the villagers, who
were laughing at us from the shore, as well as these
little tyros, whose delicate hands were besetting our tub
on all sides; and for an escape from whom, or for
fending off, we had neither an oar, or anything else,
that we could wield in self-defense, or for self-
preservation In this awkward predicament, our
feelings of excessive admiration were immediately
changed, to those of exceeding vexation, as we now
learned that they had peremptorily!: discharged from
her occupation our fair conductress, who had
undertaken to ferry us safely across the river; and had
also very ingeniously laid their plans, of which we had
been ignorant until the present moment, to extort
from us in this way, some little evidences of our
liberality, which, in fact, it was impossible to refuse
them, after so liberal and bewitching an exhibition
on their part, as well as from the imperative
obligation which the awkwardness of our situation
had laid us under. I had some awls in my pockets,
which I presented to them, and also a few strings of
beautiful beads, which I placed over their delicate
necks as they raised them out of the water by the side
of our boat; after which they all joined in conducting
our craft to the shore, by swimming by the sides of,
and behind it, pushing it along in the direction where
they designed to land it, until the water became so
shallow, that their feet were upon the bottom, when
they waded along with great coyness, dragging us
towards the shore, as long as their bodies, in a
crouching position, could possibly be half concealed
under the water, when they gave our boat the last
push for the shore, and raising a loud and exulting
laugh, plunged back again into the river; leaving us
the only alternative of sitting still where we were, or
of stepping out into the water at half leg deep, and
of wading to the shore, which we at once did, and
soon escaped from the view of our little tormentors,
and the numerous lookers-on, on our way to the
upper village, which I have before mentioned. "
Sandy in her Bullboat
A bullboat is a boat made with a Frame of Willows or
Cottonwood and covered with a Buffalo hide. It was
circular in form. It was used to carry cargo, meats, and
humans down or across a River.
Bullboats were used by Native American Tribes,
especially those along the Missouri River but we
have also found documentation that they were seen
and used on the Maropa River, the Yellowstone River,
the Missouri River, the Bighorn River, the Snake
River and the Knife River. Buffalo Bird Woman,
Hidatsa, talks about transporting the meat from a
hunt down the river in bullboats.
Chief Plenty Coup of the Crow tells about playing in
bullboats as a child.
Mountaineers saw their use by the Natives and adapted
them for their own use.
Lewis and Clark tried one with an iron frame and
failed. They built more with success that exceeded
their expectations; they also made one of their own
design with two hides.
Pryor of the Lewis and Clark expedition was traveling
near Billings, Montana but they lost their horses
within a day or two, probably to the Crow Indians.
They constructed two bullboats and headed down the
Yellowstone and the Missouri, overtaking Clark on
August 8th, 1806 in McKenzie County, North Dakota."
William H. Ashley in June, 1825 constructed a hide
boat 16 by 7 feet out of six Buffalo Hides, "That I
will transport the goods and extra baggage down the
river to some conspicuous point not less than 40 or 50
miles from this place" He was very pleased with the
performance of his boat.
Thomas James of the Missouri Fur Company, 1809-
1810, wrote this. "Here we made three canoes of
buffalo bull's skins, by sewing together two skins, for
each canoe, and then stretching them over a frame
similar in shape to a Mackinaw boat. Our canoe
contained three men, about sixty steel traps, five
hundred beaver skins, our guns and amunition,
besides other commodities. Nine of us started
down the river in these canoes and in two days reached
Clark's river where the boats with the goods was
In addition to these, W.A. Ferris and Osbourne Russel,
talked about using Bullboats.
What better way to really know the bullboat than to
build and use one. Thats exactly what I did. Of course
I had successes and failure, just as the explorers of the
What better way can you really experience the past and
get the feeling of living history than to just do it. What
fun it was. (At times) What frustration it was. (At times)
In June of 2005, 5 members of the WFT traveled to
Basin, Wyoming where we built 5 bullboats with the
assistance of Dale Bollman (aka: Rabbit).
Rabbit and Jill
He showed us how and helped us build our bullboats.
We started out by building the frames of willows. This
took the entire day, and a lot of time and patience tying
all those willows with rawhide. I mean a lot of rawhide
ties. There were blisters forming on our fingers.
Jill tying her bottom rings
We built 3 round circles, each a little bigger than the
last. Then we tied the Willows for the outside frame.
There were 10 all together. After tying these 10 straight
pieces, they were laid out and the bottom circle placed
on top of them. The bottom circle and the Willow
sticks were tied together at this point with Rawhide ties.
Sandy tying her bottom frame on.
We then tied the last two rings onto the willow
sticks, making sure to bend the Willows and make a
bowl shape. Lots more rawhide ties and at this point
it is a good idea to have two people doing one. This
way they can help bend and hold the Willows in shape
while the other person ties them in place.
Rick and Sandy tying their frame together.
On the 2nd day we got to attach the green Buffalo
hide to the boats. But first we had to scrape the hides,
which Rabbit did with ease. He could actually scrape
a Buffalo hide with a sharp knife, in just under two
hours. I was impressed. He gave us a lesion on
scraping, where we learned a lot.
We then sewed up any holes in the hide from the
gunshot or scraping. We then attached the hides to
the Willow Frames. Stretching them to fit snuggly on
the Frame was not easy. We then attached them at
the top of the frame by sewing them on and wrapping
each Willow knob at the top. This took most of the
Chris sewing up the holes in her hide
We then tied the knobs at the top of the boats, running
rope from one stick to the other on the opposite side
and pulling them tightly to hold the frame in shape
while it was drying. They were then placed aside to dry.
On the 3rd day we were going to give them a test run.
Rabbit took us to a local Lake where we all placed our
Boats in the Lake and went for a test run. There was a
little leakage in some of them, and Joe's had a big leak.
But all in all, they floated and it was fun!
To get in and out of your Bullboat, You need to get
down low and stay low as you get in and out. When
climbing out you need to catch it and keep hold of it
with your foot. We don't wear Buckskin in the boat.
We wear our wool dresses because buckskin gets too
heavy when wet. Believe me, You will get wet at
According to Good Bird, Hidatsa,"A bullboat is
usually paddled by one person kneeling in the forward
part of the boat and dipping the paddle directly before.
In old time the bullboat was rather a womans craft
though men used it also." Men stripped to the
breechclout when crossing the river. A women removed
her moccasins and leggings, but retained her dress.
Rabbit showed us to put our bedrolls in the bullboat
and sit astride it, like on a saddle, which makes for a
comfortable ride. We used two wool blankets wrapped
in oil cloth. We kept the extra gear in the back of the
boat for balance. His hand carved paddles are very
long and work much better than the short modern
ones. We have tried both. Bullboats tend to spin. So
to control it you need to switch from side to side,
paddleing once per side. The spinning can be used to
your advantage at times. You can use the spin to get
off the rocks that you get stuck on, of course, it is
fun to sit and spin.
When we got home, we took the bullboats out on
Hawkins Reservoir to learn how to use and control
them. We spent the day playing, paddleing and
spinning for fun. We thought we had learned boats
and was ready for faster water.
On longer trips the bullboat can be used as shelter for
the night. You can prop up one side with the paddle,
or if it is really stormy you can sleep under the
WFT with their Bullboats on the Lake
Jill on the Bear River
We were so confident that we decided it was time to try
the Portneuf River. Jill, Sandra and I took our boats to
the river for an all day trip. Started out very well. Then
we hit some rocks and I got thrown out. Sandra was
thrown out once also, when she was reaching for
flowers on the bank and wasn't paying attention to
the river. We learned an important lesion, when you
finish floating for the day and your hide is wet, be sure
to tie your boat tightly at the top, going across from
knob to knob, and let it dry. Just like we did when
first making them.We hadn't done this and our boats
now looked like saucers, contributing to the accidents
on the River. We floated about 3 miles in our saucers
and then had to portage them out about 1/4 of a mile.
You can carry a boat on your back with a burden
strap, but easier yet, with a wet boat, is to just carry it
across your back and over your head, holding onto the
Sandy Portageing her Bullboat
Because of our neglect to properly care for the boats,
we had to build new frames and reattach the hides
before our next adventure on the Bear River. Our first
boats were made of bundles of small willows. On our
2nd frames we took the opposite approach and used
big willows. But soon found out they were not flexible
enough and as a result it tore a hole in the side and
bowed way up in the bottom. We have now decided
that about a 3/4 inch is the best size of willow to use.
We are still experimenting with our boats in order to
be completely period correct. So far we have no one
who has succeeded in patching leaks with natural
materials. Rubber cement has been substituted, but
we plan to try a mix of Spruce gum, tallow and
charcoal, from hints given by the Mountaineers
Journals. Will let you know how it goes.
If you want a Bullboat, hand hewn paddle, or a
scraped hide for your boat. Contact Rabbit at
Sandy Hunt (Lays with horses)
Jill Barber (Stargazer)
Thank you to Rabbit!