People interested in primitive skills and history might appreciate Zenas Leonard’s account of primitive tanning used by the Crow.
One of the primitive skills I find most useful in daily life is tanning. Tanning not only allows you to use more of each animal you harvest, but can help you to create useful products. Over the past few years I’ve made moccasins, quivers, pouches, and plenty of hunting equipment. Few things are softer and have a more comfortable feel that good brain tanned buckskin. It is a process that I enjoy and it also has real world application.
Usually while brain tanning, I often wonder about how people of the past did primitive tanning. With the luxury of steel fleshing knives, plastic buckets, and other specially made tools for the job, I think about how Paleo people would have done it. I imagine the process certainly would be more difficult. As luck would have it, while reading the journal of mountain man Zenas Leonard I came across an entry that described in detail the process used to brain tan buffalo hides.
The entry comes on page 57 of his 59 page journal. Near the end of his time in the mountains, Leonard takes the opportunity to live with a band of Crows. One interesting dimension of Leonard was his fairly good eye for, and interest in, anthropology. He not only enjoyed living with the Crow, but he was eager to learn about their lives, and record it as well. His journal begins by describing the buffalo hunting process and all the rituals that surrounded it. One who wonders about bygone days can get a clear picture of what a buffalo hunt may have looked like from reading the journal.
Leonard next records how buffalo hides were cared for after several had been killed. He records;
“The Indians would go out in large companies and kill a great number of these animals (buffalo), when it would be the duty of the women to follow after and gather up the hides, which they would convey to the camp, and dress them ready for market. It is the duty of the squaws to dress the buffalo robes alone, which is done by stretching the hide tight on the ground and there let it dry, when they have a piece of iron or sharp stone, fixed in a stick, making a tool similar to a foot-adze, with which the cut and scrape the fleshy side until it becomes thin and smooth—after this they have a mixture composed of the brains and liver of the animal mixed together, in which they soak the hide a couple of days, when it is taken out and again stretched on the ground, where it is beat and rubbed with a paddle until in becomes perfectly soft and dry.”
If you are interested in primitive tanning you no doubt find the passage interesting at least. Still though, this passage raises a few questions in my mind.
First off, he says they “soak the hide a couple of days” in the brain and liver mixture. I have to wonder what is it soaking in? They didn’t have plastic buckets? I wonder if the hide was saturated and then folded upon itself to retain the moisture. That would make sense, and would be similar to the way I tan fur-on garments, except only one side is being covered in the tanning agent. Secondly I wonder if the paddle method is better, or worse, than the regular breaking method I normally use? Breaking is no doubt the most difficult step in the process and this method could be useful.This may be one of those questions I’ll have to answer by experimenting on a small hide.
Again, tanning is a great primitive skill to understand. It has utility and extends the bounty of the hunt. People have tanned differently all across the world to meet the same goal; material for clothing and gear. This particular primitive tanning method is laid out in plain fashion by mountain man who witnessed the process firsthand. For those folks interested in such things, we are fortunate he took the time to record it.
If you have experience with this primitive tanning method, I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article about the Mountain Man Possibles Bag.
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In a land that may seem bleak, knowing the uses of soapweed yucca is a must.
One of the most alluring aspects of learning about skills of the past is the new perspective you develop about the world. You’ll see things you never saw before, and begin to see abundance where you once saw only barrenness. Where once you saw a forest, you start to see a multitude of individual treasures scattered all about. Some food here. Some fire starting material there. The more you learn, the more incredible a few simple acres of woods becomes.
The same can be said for the expansive grasslands of our prairie lands. Our great prairie is where I call home at the moment. Historically, this area has always been one of low human population. For good reason too. There is an obvious lack of timber and running water, two things that have always been vital for human settlement. Prior to the migration of European Americans, Native American societies called these grasslands home. They were also sparsely settled and many had adapted a nomadic life well suited to this vast land. When the first European Americans came through this land in large numbers, it was only to pass through our Great American Desert. The thought of actually staying didn’t even cross their mind.
The misconception of our Great Plains as a vast wasteland is a myth that some still hold today. In truth though, our great grassland can in fact be a difficult place to scratch a living from the land. This is especially true when you talk about primitive living. Although difficult, there are a variety of plants and animals available that humans have been using for millennia to subsist in this exapansive land. One plant that people of the plains have traditionally found very useful is the ever-so-common soapweed yucca.
Soapweed yucca is one of the many varieties of yucca on the North American continent. It is characterized by the same features of many species. It has thin green leaves that terminate with a sharp needlelike point. Soapweed also has a woody center from which the plant’s flower blossoms grow. Chances are, if you’ve been through the Great Plains, you’ve seen this prolific plant.
Although soapweed is not a plant that will keep you alive for an extended period of time, it is a plant that can provide a variety of materials we can benefit from. That being said, here are the 4 uses of soapweed yucca that you can begin to experiment with.
The first way that I came to realize the utility of yucca, was when I started making cordage from the leaves. Yucca has strong and fibrous leaves that make it ideal for that sort of use. For an in-depth explanation of how to turn yucca into stout cordage, reference this article I penned for Offthegridnews.com. Within an hour you can make a good amount of cordage for future use.
Another way to use yucca as cordage is to put the naturally spiked end of the plant to work. Anyone who has walked across the yucca covered plains will testify to the prickly nature of the plants. However, what we classify as a nuisance, can quickly be turned into a benefit with a change in perspective. To use the natural needle on each yucca leaf, you still have to get the outer layer off the leaf to bare open the fibers. To do so, pound the leaf between two pieces of wood. As you do so you’ll begin to notice the outside beginning to flake off. At that point you just need to scrape off the waste to access the fibers. Pound the entire leaf except the last 2 or 3 inches. You can separate the fibers to make them more flexible, decrease the number to decrease the diameter, or leave them as they are.
After the quick process you’ll be holding an all-natural needle and thread in your hand. The point is strong and sharp enough to punch through denim, and can sew up nearly anything. This quick and easy cordage surely wasn’t lost on the ancestral people of this land.
Another of the many uses of soapweed yucca to start friction fires. It has one of the lowest combustion temperatures of any wood, which makes it a great wood choice. The portion to use is the woody stalk at the center of the plant. As with any wood, make sure to select dead and seasoned stalks. Personally, I’ve had the best luck using yucca as a hearth board and a mullein spindle when practicing my hand drill. That being said, many people out there can quickly bring a coal to life using yucca as the spindle and hearth board. It was one of the favored woods of people in the past for starting friction fires.
Perhaps the most well-known use of soapweed yucca is where it derives its name; making soap. The natural soap yucca provides has been used for eons on this continent, and still cleans just as good as it ever has. Within the root of the plant there is a compound called saponin. This compound is the agent that you need to get at to make soap.
To make soap you’ll first have to gather some yucca root. When digging, give a fairly wide berth around the plant to get as much of the root as possible. Once the plant is removed from the soil, take a few minutes to shave off the woody exterior of the root. Next, dice the root into smaller portions. The smaller you make the pieces, the easier making soap will be.
With your yucca root chopped into smaller pieces, drop them into a sturdy container and add a small bit of water. Don’t overdo it on the water. You can easily add more water, while removing it once you start the process can cause you to lose some of the soap. Once your water is added, begin to mash the roots. You can use stones, wood, or whatever tool you can devise. As you mash the roots you’ll begin to notice a small bit of saponin secrete from them. Mix this with the water and soon you’ll have a very foamy soap you can use as needed. You can also use it as both a soap and a natural shampoo. Before you dive into using it though, you may want to do a skin test. Some people are allergic to the saponin that creates the soap.
Like all primitive skills, if you give making yucca soap a try, you’ll not only better understand our natural world, but you’ll have a better grasp of the past as well.
The final use of soapweed yucca is its value as a food source. While this prolific plant doesn’t provide us with copious amounts of calories, at certain times of the year it does offer a small snack. What you’ll need to search for are yuccas in bloom. The flowers of soapweed yucca are a crisp and tasty treat if you catch them at the right time of year. Be sure to shake them out, as the creases of the flower are a great place for insects to roost. I’m sure you can cook the leaves somehow, but enjoying them off the plant provides a refreshing snack on a hot day.
As you can see, soapweed yucca is a very useful plant. Although it can’t be regarded as an abundant food source, it can provide other necessities that can add to your knowledge of primitive skills. It is a very useful plant in regards to cordage, and is one of your only option for fire on the grassy plains. You can also make a fine soap if you want to experiment with primitive skills. As with all primitive skills, it is one thing to know about the process. It is another thing entirely to practice it. By actually putting the ancestral knowledge into action, we can continue to keep our most ancient knowledge alive.
Thanks for reading this article on the 4 uses of soapweed yucca. If you enjoyed it, please follow this blog by clicking the button near the bottom of the page. For those interested in learning more about the uses of different plants, you might find this article useful about the 8 uses of cattail from hunting to dinner plate.
A recent overnight gave me the opportunity to experiment with a primitive shelter in mildly cold weather. The results were eye opening.
Time sure does fly. Days that seemed endless as a boy, now slip by in the blink of an eye. Weeks slide into months, and entire seasons pass by in what seems like a breath. Maybe it’s my middle-age starting to catch up with me, but the fleeting nature of life is beginning to sink in. Time wasted is just that; wasted. That doesn’t necessarily mean wasting time isn’t good for the soul every now and then. It just recognizes time is not something you get back, and you must strike while the iron is hot.
With that being the case, I recently decided now was the best time to practice living outside in the cold. I’ve always been curious as to how people of the past felt, adapted, and handled primitive cold weather camping. These day, most people, myself included, are getting further and further away from these types of trips. I’ve done a few cold weather trips, but all of them had been with modern gear. If I ever wanted to experience a semi-primitive cold weather camp, I needed to take advantage of the winter I was living in. I didn’t want to have to wait again until next year.
With a cold weather camping trip as the goal, I just needed to find a good weekend. I didn’t want my first trip to be in ultra cold temperatures of below zero temps. Call me timid I guess. I also wanted it to be cold enough to actually put me to the test. It happened to work out that my wife was taking our girls to her parent’s house one weekend in February. As luck would have it, the night temps were going to be right at 20˚. This fell smack dab into a Goldie Locks zone for me. Not so cold I might get in over my head, but still plenty cold enough to figure out if my approach was working. With everything coming together, I kissed my girls adios and got my limited gear in order.
I headed toward my favorite camping spot with high hopes. Although my primitive shelter building experience is certainly what you’d call limited, I had what I thought would be a good design in mind. I was actually going to steal my design from a bushcrafter on YouTube. The design was simple and I really felt like it would be a suitable shelter for the conditions. For the cold temps I was bringing along a Hudson Bay wool blanket and an oilcloth I made myself. Both of these were items used by longhunters of the 18th century and mountain men of the 19th century. I figured the trip would offer me a better understanding of their lives.
Once I arrived at my camp, I began straight away with construction. The structure used a tripod design with an extended rear leg. The rope that lashed together my blanket pack also held my tripod together. I figured this was a way to make what little gear I brought more versatile.
With the tripod made, it was time to start putting the shelter up. It started with a row of sticks up the rear of the tripod. I started with very small sticks and gradually they got longer and longer. When it was all done, the original tripod looked like it had a ribcage. At that point I started to fill the structure with bedding. For this task I gathered dead cottonwood leaves that were lying all around. I filled the interior of the structure with dead leaves about two feet deep. These leaves not only gave me a soft bed to lie on, but insulated me from the worst heat-thief out there; the cold ground.
With the interior filled, it was time to start piling dead leaves on the structure’s exterior. I aimed for a depth of 2 to 3 feet covering the entire shelter. This provided obvious protection from the outside, but also served as a good way to trap heat on the inside. As I piled the leaves on, I was thankful there was no wind. I didn’t figure the leaf shelter would stand up very good against high winds. Before long that theory would be put to the test.
Gathering the leaves for the structure took quite a while. This chore consumed the bulk of the time it took to build my structure. However, it wasn’t the last task I needed to complete. I built a little tunnel off the front of the tripod. This tunnel would trap in more heat, and allow me to somewhat close the gap at the front of the tripod. I used more small sticks for the tunnel frame, and then once again blanketed them with leaves. All told, the structure took me around 3 hours to build. I put my oilcloth and blanket inside while I still had some light. My other camp gear went inside as well.
With the structure complete I made a quick and unsuccessful hunt with my longbow. As dark descended I turned back toward camp. I was looking forward to spending the night tucked away in my night’s home. As I returned, I started to get worried as the wind picked up at dusk. Soon, the air was rushing all around me and stirring things up. Not only that, but I had faced my tunnel entrance to the east, doing my best to avoid a direct wind coming in my hut. Wouldn’t you know it, the wind not only picked up, but was dead out of the east. I guess it was just putting my experiment to the test.
Although the wind was high, I didn’t notice too much damage to my leaf exterior. Sure enough, it was holding up adequately to the wind. Also, it was still cozy enough with the blowing wind. As the night marched on, I eventually climbed into my shelter and wrapped myself in the wool blanket and oilcloth. I was anxious to see how the night would go in the fairly cold temperatures.
I got an adequate night’s sleep under the brilliant full moon. As morning approached, and gray light shone in the east. I emerged from my lodging to start my day. At this point, I was a little disappointed. I had hoped to test out the shelter and blanket/oilcloth combination in cold weather. It was hard to say for sure, but I didn’t think it had even dropped below freezing during the night. Thinking I had lost an opportunity to test my gear, I crawled out into the awakening world.
After emerging, I checked my water. To my surprise it had frozen almost solid during the night. I guess my setup had proven more than adequate for the cool February night. My pickup was close at hand, and curiosity was now getting the better of me. I opened the door, and turned the key to check the thermometer. Sure enough, it clicked on and 20˚ appeared on the glowing green lights. It had actually gotten much cooler than I had thought. The overall test was a success to me and was a pleasant surprise.
In truth, I did have a bit more than just the shelter, blanket, and oilcloth for warmth. Under my regular clothes I had knee high wool socks and a full set of long underwear. Not only that, but my young pup Huck accompanied me all night. He crawled right in the blanket with me and cuddled up. I’m sure the extra heat had something to do with my comfortable sleep.
All in all, I was satisfied with how my overnight primitive camp went. I had showed up with much less gear then I’ve taken on summer trips, but I had managed to stay comfortable. It helped teach me a little about staying warm in the winter, and put some of my historically proven gear to use. Although I couldn’t call the trip an accurate historical recreation, I can say it taught me a little more about ways of the past.
More than anything, I’m glad I made the trip because I capitalized on the moment I had. Had I let the opportunity slide past, I could have gone another winter without actually experimenting and learning. I know I’ve let plenty of learning experiences slip by in my life, but hopefully I’ll grab ahold of more as they come. I’ll look forward to doing some more primitive camping should I catch a free weekend.
Thanks for giving this post a read! If you enjoyed it and like to learn about the past, you may enjoy a similar post about Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
The mountain man possibles bag was an essential piece of equipment those mountain adventurers simply could not live without.
“It kind of looks like a purse,” I commented after I had completed it. I had just put the final few stitches through my first mountain man possibles bag and was admiring my creation. My wife just smirked as she tends to do when one of my projects is complete. As I ran my fingers over the supple brain tanned buckskin, I couldn’t help but a bit of pride creep in. About a year ago that particular piece of deer hide had been wandering the quiet land it inhabited before my well-placed arrow laid it down. Now it would help tote along gear I needed close at hand on my next hunt. Completing these kinds of full circle projects is always deeply satisfying.
The mountain man possibles bag was one of the trapper’s most necessary pieces of equipment. Besides his knife, and his rifle, it may likely his next most essential belonging. In actuality, without his possibles bag his rifle would likely have been almost near useless. Almost.
A possibles bag carried what mountain men referred to as their possibles. Possibles were all things the man might possibly need while out traveling. Things like shooting tools, fire starting materials, and bullets could be carried in this pouch. Oftentimes an interior pocket was sewn to the inside to allow for more organization to the bag. The possibles bag is a good representation of how resourceful the mountain men were. All of the basics tools they needed to survive in their rugged landscape was what they could carry on their person. It helps to prove that if you can take more knowledge with you as you travel, you don’t need nearly as many tools.
For my possibles bag I chose to blend a few bits of historic resources I had at my disposal. There was a photograph of an Lakota shooting bag in James Hanson’s book titled Little Chief Gatherings that caught my eye while reviewing the artifacts. Although I didn’t copy this shooting bag completely, it served as the guide for dimensions and basic structure. I also examined a few of Alfred Jacob Miller’s paintings and the possibles bags of the American Mountain Men Rocky Mountain Outfit. After viewing the historical examples I came across, I created my own unique bag to fit my taste.
Making the Bag
As mentioned the bag I designed was created from buckskin I tanned from last year’s deer. I hand sewed the entire project and used artificial sinew as my thread. My bag ended up being around 22 cm wide and 25 cm deep. The strap is 4 cm wide and 110 cm long also made of buckskin. One little accessory I wanted to include was a bullet pouch I noticed on the Lakota example. This pouch was 7 cm wide by 14 cm deep. Whether it is historically accurate for mountain men, it’s hard to say. I’m sure certain men had their own preferences when they constructed their gear. Either way I thought it would be a handy extra pocket to have to carry bullets, shells, or even extra arrow components.
When it came to putting the bag together the process unfolded pretty straightforward. I cut my front flap to the dimensions I desired. I then traced around that pattern and left extra material at the top that would become the flap of the bag. Next I needed to cut a piece of fringe material I would welt into the bottom seam. With that, most of my material was cut to size and ready for stitching.
Attaching this fringe was the biggest challenge I faced. When putting the project together I wanted to sew the project inside out to conceal the stitching. The problem was the fringe would have been trapped if I just sewed all the way around the edge. This was due to the fact I cut my fringe as a U shape. Looking back if I had simply cut the fringe straight it would have been much easier. I decided that if I started by sewing the bottom edge first I could manipulate the fringe piece easier as I sewed.
Once the stitching started it went pretty quickly. I first punched holes with my awl, widened them to size, then threaded the bag using a whip stitch. With the bag complete, I just needed to cut and attach my shoulder strap. Fellas used to wear this generally just below the elbow near the waistline. It just made it easy to access. Rather than sew the strap on, I attached it with a bit of buckskin so it would have the ability to “float”. I got this concept from the Lakota bag I saw. The bullet bag is connected in much the same way.
With the mountain man possibles bag complete I now have a major component of my gear complete. The bag accomplishes a few important things. One, it gives me a handy bag for lots of things I need while out and about. Secondly though, the possibles bag gives me some boundaries to work with. In today’s world we are so used to loading up bags, and pickups, and campers with gear that we think we have to pack along everything but the kitchen sink. It’s just not the case. The possibles bag gives me some real dimensions to work with when it comes to limiting my gear. It’s true that mountain men used packhorses extensively and they had much more gear than their possibles. It is also true however that with their knife, rifle, and possibles, they could stay alive for extended periods of time.
The mountain man possibles bag is a great piece of gear. Not only it is a historically accurate aspect of gear, but it can force you to really scrutinize your gear. Finally, the possibles bag is a very functional piece of gear. Even just the first few times I wore it, it became apparent how convenient it would be on hunting and trapping trips. All that being said…I still think it looks like a purse.
If you liked this brief how-to on making a mountain man possibles bag, you might enjoy another article I put together titled 18th century fire starting with a Twist.
Using this 19th century fire starting technique with a modern twist might make you understand the past more than you’d think.
When I think about the mountain men, longhunters, and other adventurers, it’s hard not to be impressed. These men used a dash of technology, combined with a hard earned Rocky Mountain College degree, to live in the wilds for extended periods of time. For example, the mountain men of the rendezvous period only got resupplied once a year with a new outfit. These woodsmen didn’t have the luxury of forgetting something on the list and running back to the store a few weeks later. The rendezvous was it. If they didn’t buy it then they had to go without it, make it, or see if they could trade for it.
It is a time which, in my opinion, is a nice blend of technology and a working knowledge of the world. They had luxuries like steel knives, steel tomahawks, wool blankets, and metal cookware that made their lives easier. On the other hand, even with a few pack horses you could only drag along so much stuff across the landscape. In order to survive a full year, the mountain men also needed a working knowledge of the land around them. Dressing deer hides, making clothes, finding food, and learning to barter, were all skills they needed to succeed for a year at at time. One implement pivotal to the men’s survival was an everyday 19th century fire starting tool; the flint striker.
Flint and Steel Fire Starting
The flint and steel fire making method is a great long term fire starting method. Although it was not exclusive to the mountain men, it does serve as a representative symbol of their lives. With a little bit of technology (the striker), a little bit of natural material (char and tinder), and a good deal of know-how, the men could light fires all year with no problems. Although these rugged men had other methods of fire starting available, the flint and steel was most widely used and was a very easy process to learn.
Lighting a flint and steel fire takes only five ingredients. These ingredients are; a steel striker, a piece of flint, charred material, good tinder, and some knowledge. Four of these are easy to procure, and one takes a bit of experience. To make the fire you simply strike the flint against the steel to create a spark. Your goal is to land the spark on your char. Good char will catch the spark and create a glowing ember. If you’ve got good tinder, you just drop the ember in the tinder and blow it to life. It’s a very straight forward process if you’ve got experience with primitive fire making. Learning to make a flint and steel fire is not extraordinarily difficult.
The Modern Twist
Personally I’ve found the most difficult aspect of starting a flint and steel fire to be getting my sparks to land on the char. In my own defense, most folks using this method are using char cloth. I use char cloth and can catch sparks easily with it. Lately though, I’ve been using charred punk wood to start my ember. This material would have been much more likely to have been used as a fire starter by mountain men, as cloth came at a premium. The problem with punk wood is that it doesn’t catch a spark as easily as charred cloth does. What I decided to do next may not sit well with hard core traditionalists out there.
In order to create more sparks I sometimes employ the use of a modern ferro rod. These rods are very effective and greatly used by survival and bushcraft folks today. A ferro rod throws many sparks at a much hotter temperature than a flint and steel striker. When working with charred wood this comes in handy. I simply cast a few sparks into my char tin and get an ember going in just a few seconds. After that, the process is just the same as creating a flint and steel fire.
Blending the Old and the New
Although the ferro rod/char combination is not a traditional 19th century fire starting method it is still nice to know. Whether using a flint striker or a ferro rod, I prefer this concept for several reasons. One, it doesn’t require excessive gear. A simple steel, or ferro rod, and you can make fire all year. Two, both devices are fool proof. These tools work every time you use them and are nearly impossible to break. Lastly, although both use a bit of technology, the main ingredient is natural material and a skill set. Even though a ferro rod is pretty advanced in the chemistry department, it’s not something you can just start making fires with. You still need know how, knowledge of natural materials, and the right touch to get a fire going.
Again, the ferro rod/char fire starting method is not a traditional 19th century fire starting technique. However, it can be a good way to get started using other char materials rather than cloth. It is also a great tool for anyone interested in long term survival. Finally, I personally don’t feel like it is a total disregard for the mountain man time period either. The mountain men were interested in traveling light, starting fires, and having all they needed for a year’s time. The ferro rod fits all of those requirements remarkably well. It may not be the 19th century fire starting method the mountain men used, but perhaps the means of making fire for the 21st century mountain man.
If you like learning about the ways of the mountain men, you might enjoy this piece about Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.