Primitive Tanning Techniques from Mountain Man Zenas Leonard

Buffalo Hunt painting.

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.

Raccoon fur mittens.
Primitive tanning can be useful to make beautiful products like these fur mittens.

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.

XXXXX

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.

Follow the author through his Facebook page.