Women of
             Fur Trade


The Plains Womans Belt Bag

    The belt bag is a subject of controversy.  Did it exist
   before the introduction of the flint and steel?  Did
   women use them only on occasions when she needed
   to carry tool items while working in another womans
   lodge or away camp, but not in her own camp?  Were
   they another ceremonial item to be worn only during
   special occasions?  Were their belt bags that held
   tools for separate jobs or crafts?  We know there
   were different storage bags for different items, were
   there different belt bags?  Why did Bodmer, Miller,
   Catlin and Rindisbacher not paint the women with
   belt bags or any other belt accessory?  Were they
   considered unimportant subjects for the artists work
   or did the women remove them thinking they were
   unimportant?  There are many original knife and awl
   cases so we know they were worn but not painted by 
   the artist.  Have you read any journal entry
   mentioning a woman with a belt bag?  Is it
   comfortable to always have a belt with a bag, knife
   and awl case attached and would you do it every day
   of your life?  I dont think there is a right or wrong
   answer and you should take your needs, comfort and
   thoughts into consideration to decide.  As long as
   your bag is made from period materials, design and 
  decoration you cant go wrong.

   The women of today, who wear a belt bag in a pre-
   1840 camp, is a woman away from her home and,
   therefore, in need of something to accommodate her
   flint and steel, tools and toiletries.  BUT, I do believe
   there should be a difference between a womans
   rendezvous bag and a womans camp, hunt or trail
   ride bag.  The work bag could simply be a braintan
   or deer leg bag with a flap or draw string top with
   little or no decoration.  When we attend a
   rendezvous, and wish to show our finest
gee gaw and
   foofera, is the time for our decorated bags.  Yes, this
   is a difficult feat to accomplish because we want to
   show the accoutrements we work so hard on, but
   what would our sisters have done 165+ years
   ago?   When ever I have a question or doubt about
   something with little or no documentation, I always
   try to put myself in the place of a woman who is in a
   primitive life, every day of her life, not just for a 5-7
   day camp and then back to her modern home.  Life
   was hard then and comfort while working,
   convenience and preservation ruled.

   Ok, lets talk about pre-1840 plains bags.  They were
   constructed of materials of the time:  Braintan deer, elk
   or buffalo and leg hawks.  Maybe wool or some sort of
   cloth when in a pinch and possibly even parfleche.  Most
   bags that were collected and saved were made of
   braintan and smoked hides of either of the above
   mentioned animals.  Bird and porcupine quills, beads
   and natural paints were the most common decoration. 
   Necklace beads, brass beads and tin or brass cones hung
   from fringe.  Closures were made of leather thongs,
   trade buttons, bone or horn.  The means for attaching
   the bags to belts were either single or double leather

    The shapes of the bags were of an assorted styles and
   sizes.  The most common was the rectangular bag with a
   rounded or squared flap.




    The bag consist of four pieces; the back flap, front, weld,
   and the attachment thongs. The weld is a .25" strip of 
   leather sewn between the front and back. it is used to
   secure and strengthen the seam between two pieces of
   leather so the leather does not tear.


    The weld can be cut wider to insure the stitching does
   not get too close to the edge of the weld or mss it all
   together.  Once the item has been completely sewn, and
   is ready to be turned outside out, the weld can be
   trimmed for neatness. When turned, the weld can then
   be trimmed again.  Always use doubled or heavy thread
   and double back and sew seams twice.  Use a three sided
   needle to make the first run of stitching but when going 
   back through the same holes, from the first run of
   stitching, use a dull needle so you dont cut the threads
   from the first run of stitching with the sharp needle
   edges.  When adding the thongs to the back of the bag,
   add a tab of leather to the inside and run the thong
   through it also.  It is a type of weld that will make the
   holes for the thongs stronger.  A weld should always be
   used when sewing leather but it will also add extra
   strength to a seam when sewing wool for a utility item,
   such as a bow case or leggings.


    The hairless square or rectangle leather bag was not the
   only bags made.  The toe bag was also a popular
   womans bag.  It is constructed like the square bag but
   the front and, sometimes, back is replaced by the skins
   from dear or elk hawk with the dew claws attached.  The
   back can be made of pieces from the deer leg or braintan
   without hair.  The flap can be decorated or
   undecorated.  Note the wool welds and extra tabs even
   on the outside, added to strengthen the belt thongs, as
   well as decorative.



    Another variation in belt bag shapes is the pouch type
   with a draw string top.  Note the welds as fringe on both



    A rawhide or tanned bag that can be used for a strike-a-
   light, or a dice bag, is a Ball or Scrotum bag.  Materials
   are self explanatory.  Elk, Deer, Antelope, buffalo, or
   moose can be used according to the size needed.  Every
   woman should have one.


    The pictures of the bags in this article have shown the 
   different types of materials that can be used for
   decoration.  Anything that is period correct and durable
   can be used.  As always, for the plains style bag the
   modern size 8/0 beads should be about 98% of your
   beads with the pony trader blue being the dominant
   color, white second, then black, greasy yellow and the
   red white heart and barely any cobalt blue.  The modern
   size #10, or smaller, beads were used but only in very
   small quantities.  The southern plains, Eastern and
   Southwestern tribes had a larger amount of the  
   #10 beads in various colors because they were closer to  
   the white men, the knowledge and techniques of beading
   and better needles and thread.  Many people of the
   interior Continental tribes were still using awls and sinew
  for beading.  And, since 8/0 beads are what the Native
  Americans wanted the fur companies supplied the 


    The bead designs for the plains and Southwest tribes, of
   the pre-1840 time period, were simple geometric designs. 
   Squares and triangles were dominant.  The quill work
   was far more elaborate and still the most used form of
   decoration.  The quill work had circles, multi-colored
   edge trim and different appliqud stitches that gave
   different patterns.  There was a greater variety of colors
   for quills compared to beads since the women were only
   limited by the plant life available, and it was vast.  But,
   beading was more desired since it showed wealth and

    In the future, I hope to add an article on the Pacific
   North West Sallie bag, which was mentioned by Lewis
   and Clark.  It was constructed of various natural
   materials; prairie grass, sea grass, rye grass, inner cedar
   bark, willow and Indian hemp.  The Corn husk and wool
   yarn Sallie bags were created during and after the
   reservation era.


                                Christina Langstein

                                "She Who Lights the Way"

                                Women of the Fur Trade



                  Womens Belts 

    We should start with the belt itself. The most
    predominant type was the flexible rawhide belt. The belt
    would consist of a 2” to 4” wide strip of scraped rawhide
    with heavy leather thongs on each end for securing the 
    belt. Work belts most likely were tied in the front for easier
    fitting and removal. Dress belts were tied in the back to
    show the pattern of decoration across the stomach.



    The Work belts were left plain but the dress belts were
    decorated with earth paints or incising, much the same
    way as parfleche. The painted designs on the belts
    followed the same designs that were used on parfleche
    but on a smaller scale. They were painted on a wet hide so
    the paint would imbed into the hide surface. When the
    hide had dried completely each color was sealed with 20-
    30 layers of cactus juice, covering only one color at a time.
    Without the seal the paints would wear off and soil

    Incising on rawhide was done either on summer buffalo
    hide, which is dark without any pigment, or covered with
    paints or blood while wet. The designs were incised,
    scratched or cut into the leather while wet. When the
    rawhide dried it pulled taught making the incised lines
    pull apart thus creating the line designs. Sealing with
    cactus juice would be needed only if the hide were
    painted with paint before the design was created. This
    makes paint the less popular color medium for incising.
    Incising is thought to be the most primitive of design
    work. Few original incised items, of any use, exist today
   and are highly prized and collected.


    Check out the rawhide belt that was completely covered
    with elk ivory. Some or most may have been bone carved
    filler imitations but impressive all the same. There may

    have even been belts covered with cowry shells in this
    same fashion. Brass sequins, or some refer to them as

    brites, could also be used to decorate belts since they
    were a feminine decoration item. Chinese coins, wool, and
    quills could be used as decoration but the quill work is
    very fragile and may be less practical since the
    accessories tied to the belt would rub and wear on the
    quills very quickly.


    The soft leather belts were in a couple different styles
    also. The work belt was simply a 2”–3” strip of leather that
    tied at the waist. It may have been double wrapped for
    comfort and durability. After the introduction of beads,
    some rawhide belts were covered with brain tan leather
    and beaded.

    Karl Bodmer painted a woman wearing a beautiful belt
    that was covered with blue and white beads. The designs
    were simple white triangles that pointed inward toward the
    stomach on each side. They were thinking about slimming
    designs even then.



    Some leather strap belts, called drop belts, had long
    tassels with decorations on the ends of tassels only. The
    decorations would consist of anything available; quills,
    beads, coins, wool, shells, hawk bells,etc.


    There were alsosoft leather belts that were beaded or
    decorated with cowry shells but to me they would seem to
    collaps when the wearer bent over and folded over upon
    itself unless they were made from very thick tanned
    buffalo or elk.


    Currently we have no documentation of women wearing
    harness leather or commercial tan leather belts. The black
    foot women wore them but not until the 1850’s. Without
    harness leather we do not believe they wore metal belt
    buckles or brass tacks. These items were considered a
    masculine item. Women’s belts were held together with
    tied leather thongs or bone pins inserted through both
    ends of the leather.

    When working, such as tanning a hide, a braintan dress or
    wool dress can be very warm when worn with a belt. At a
    time such as that, I have found removing my belt is not
    only more comfortable but much much cooler. Other than
    that, the women would have always
worn their belt to
    accommodate their daily tools.




    Headcoverings for Women


    What did fur trade women wear for headgear? I've heard
    that the Indian women did not wear hats, so while riding for
    days in the hot sun or hiking in the snow or rain, I've
    wondered just exactly what they did do for protection from
    the elements. A large amount of body heat is lost through
    the top of your head, so it makes sense that they used
    something. Also with what we know now about the cancer
    risk from sunburn we should take proper precautions. With
    that in mind, the WFT started trying to find documentation
    on what various types of headgear the Native American
    Women used.


    A Rawhide sun visor was in common use by both men and
    women. These were rectangles ranging from 12 to 17
    inches long, and about 10  inches wide. The edges were
    often pinked, which helped keep the rawhide from curling,
    and the circle for the head was cut into pie shaped wedges. 
   The back corners were usually rounded off.



    The rawhide visors were painted like any rawhide, and
    were decorated with fur, ribbons, feathers, and beads.  
    Arapahos slit the edge about every half inch and then
    turned up every other section. Shoshone used bundles
    of feather fluffs to decorate them. One specimen has an
    eagle feather tied loosely at the back so it could flutter 
    in the wind.
    Assiniboins put a strip of fur around the crown and let the
    ends hang down over the crown. Sometimes the Indians
    cut the crowns of felt hats in the same way as their old
    rawhide hats.

             ( Indian Rawhide & American Indian Parfleche)

Jean and her visor


                      Chris and Jill wearing rawhide visors 


    Besides the rawhide hat, women painted their faces as
    protection from the sun as well as for style. Buffalo Bird
    women talked about doing so when she was young. "She
    now opened her paint bag, put a little buffalo grease on her
    two fingers, pressed the tips lightly in the dry paint, and
    rubbed them over her cheeks and face. She also put a little
    paint into the part of her hair." "...we Indian girls had dark 
    skin and painted our cheeks." (Waheene) Vermillion in the
    part of the hair saves some nasty sunburn, believe me!



Jill with painted face


    A scarf was a very common item worn, and one of wool
    serves it's purpose quite nicely in the winter. "Many of these
    mountaineers have taken squaws for their wives, by whom
    they have children....On their heads they wear nothing but 
    handkerchiefs, and their feet are enveloped in moccasins."
                                        (Warren Ferris)


Jill with a wool scarf


    She was the most beautiful Indian Woman I ever saw....Her
    hair was braided and fell over her shoulders, a scarlet
    handkerchief tied on hood fashion, covered her
                                       ."(Joe Meek)


Sandy with scarlet handerchief


                             Melissa wearing a scarlet handerchief


    On the subject of women not wearing hats, it was
    uncommon, but here are two instances of them doing
    so. "Among others was an Indian Women who deserves
    notice, from her extraordinary beauty. Their constant
    exposure and hard life soon destroy all traces of feminine
    loveliness-in the present instance, her natural comeliness
    seemed to defy the ravages of climate, her jet black eyes
    sparkled under the long languishing lashes, and her long
    hair hung in disheveled masses over her well rounded
    bosom..."Lt. Warre did this sketch of her, entitled Indian
    woman, Dog River, C..May 26,1845. This was done several
   days out from Lake Superior.



    Here is another instance: "She wore a man's hat with long
    black feathers fastened in front and drooping behind
    gracefully. Her short dress was of rich broadcloth, leggings
    beautifully embroidered with gay beads and fringed with
    tiny bells.(Eyewitness account, 1830, Trail to California,
    Dillon 1981).


     It appears the women wore fur caps, too. Chisipee herself
    was a picture, her fine beaver cap was bound with gold lace
    and girlews....(Isaac Rose). Here is a picture of Susie
    wearing her Bobcat fur cap. Might have Chisapee's looked
    something like this in style?


    One more style in the women's hood  worn by women of     
    such tribes as the plains Cree, who did occasionally               
    come to trade at Fort Union. Both Catlin and Bodmer make
    mention of them at the fort. Cree women occasionnally           
    wore peaked hoods of skin, tied under the chin, with a long
    tail that was fastened to the belt in back and these could be
    ornamented with Quill or bead work. The hood
    was  worn  predominately in the winter, but summer
    Plains Cree did not use them as much as did their relatives
    the Woodland Cree. The hood has been described as a
    strip of cloth sewn at the ends to fit the head. (The Plains
    Cree) The sketch of Walker's wife by Miller shows what
    looks like this hood type head covering.


This is from a watercolor by Richard Williams, showing
a HBC man and his Indian Wife who is wearing a
decorated hood.

(No, that's not a beard, it's a fur chin cloth)


   A Cree doll from the mid 1700's showing a cloth hood
decorated with beadwork.


    We have not talked about the Nez Pierce basket style hat
    woven out of bear grass, which takes specialized skills too
    involved for this article but it may be a topic for another time. 

    I hope this information helps some of you ladies with your
    period headgear. When your out in the weather, whether it
    be blazing sun or freezing snow, remember it's what's on
    top that counts!


  This article was a group effort from some of the members of the

Women of the Fur Trade


Happy Trails!   

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