Women of
             the
             Fur Trade
Bullboats and the WFT       

       

    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
   many mermaids.

 

    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

 

Bullboat Adventures

 

    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 
   awaiting us."

   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
   West did. 

   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
   Day.                     

 

    
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.

     
Tied Bullboat

    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
   sometime.

    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
   overturned bullboat.

 

  
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
   willow frame.

 

 

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
                           rabbit@tctwest.net .


                        Sandy Hunt (Lays with horses)

                      Jill Barber (Stargazer)

                                                                              

 

 

                     Thank you to Rabbit!

                  

    

 

 

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