Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Knives:

The design of knives used by the mountain men in the early 1800’s, including “long knives” and “bowies” differed little from designs used throughout Europe back to the middle ages.  Important types of knives used or shipped to the mountains included clasp knives, butcher knives, scalpers, bear knives and skinning knives. Important variations were the Green River Knife, and the Bowie Knife.   

In the early 1800’s most knives in use in the United States were imported from England.  The knife-making guilds of Sheffield manufactured a product of superior and consistent quality.  Although blacksmith manufactured knives of domestic origin were available, these never found widespread acceptance for lack of consistent quality.  It wasn’t until the J. Russell & Company – Green River Works began manufacturing cutlery in the later part of the 1830’s that domestic knives began to find widespread acceptance by the U.S. Consumer.

The figure below shows general naming conventions for the parts of a knife.  This figure is modified from that shown on page 4 of the Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook, by James Hanson.  

Frequent use of knives for butchering and skinning would have quickly dulled the cutting edge.  A sharpening stone or whetstone would have been a necessary part of the trappers outfit.  

Clasp Knives or folding knives (jack knives) were often used in trade with the Indians.  Even though the clothing usually worn by the Western Indian had no pockets, these knives turn up at historical sites everywhere.  The blade of these knives might be as much as 4 inches long, which would fold into a handle of wood or bone.  The blade would be held in the open or closed position by a spring, however, these were not switchblades.  Used for light duty cutting.  

Butcher Knives or Scalpers, were a rigid one piece knife.  These knives were the everyday implement of living and survival in the mountains and were used for most meat and game processing, butchering, skinning and other light and heavy duty cutting tasks, including occasional scalping (a specialized form of skinning) and digging graves  Butcher knives came in multiple shapes and sizes, some of which were better suited to certain tasks, such as skinning than others.  A Scalper is the name given to a particular style of butcher knife. In which the back of the blade ran straight to the tip. Although called a scalper, the pattern was no more effective at taking scalps than any other pattern of butcher knife.  The pattern was a favorite among the Indians because it was relatively less expensive than the standard butcher knife.  The cost difference was due only to the shape of the blade, being a simpler shape the blade required less effort and produced less waste than the standard butcher pattern which swept up at the tip.  Below is an image showing a scalper, a butcher and a Bowie knife.  

The most famous domestic manufacturer of butcher knives was J. Russell & Company – Green River Works, and the Green River Knife has come to be synonymous with the mountain man and the fur trade in popular lore.  In fact the "Green River Knife" on which the reputation and fame of the company rested was not produced until near the end of 1837, and the earliest western inventory on which I’ve seen it listed is 1843, years after the last rendezvous was held (See the myth of the Green River Knife).  The Green River Knife was in fact the knife of choice for the Oregon and California emigrant, buffalo hunter, gold miner, Indian and trapper alike.  The “Green River Knife” was named after the factory location at which  it was manufactured, The Green River Works, located on the Green River at Greenfield, Massachusetts, not Green River, Wyoming.  The Green River Works manufactured a variety of butcher and kitchen knives, and the name came to be synonymous with quality. Company manufactured knives were equal or superior in quality to those made at established European cutlery makers such as Sheffield, and at comparable prices.  “Green River Works” was stamped on the blade of the knives, often near the handle.   By the 1840's, the Green River Works was shipping more than 50,000 blades a year and from 1840 to 1860 sent more than 60,000 dozen knives out west. Ultimately, the European manufacturers copied the Green River styles, even to stamping “Green River” on the blades.  The expression “Up to Green River” was commonly used to describe a “job well done” – a metaphor for perfection or high quality.  Another variation was the phrase “Up to the Green River” meaning someone was stabbed, with the knife penetrating up to the handle.  For more information regarding the Green River Works, J. Russell & Co., or the Green River Knife

Bear Knives were used in close combat situations for fighting.  With it’s thick heavy blade this type of knife was useful for light duty chopping, disarticulating joints of elk or buffalo, or to dig the grave of a fallen comrade.  In August of 1827, a party traveling under Jedediah Smith along the Colorado River, were attacked by Mojave Indians while crossing the river.  More than half the party was killed in the crossing, and most of the party’s guns were lost.  Smith and his remaining eight companions found they had five guns and their knives remaining to fight off hundreds of Indians. Smith wrote “With our knives we lopped down the small trees in such manner as to clear a place in which to stand.  The fallen poles formed a slight breastwork, and to the ends of some of the light poles we fastened our knives with cords so as to form a tolerable lance.”  The most famous subtype of the Bear Knife is the Bowie Knife.   

The Bowie Knife had a large heavy blade, commonly as much as 12 inches long. The knife had a clipped point, or drop point, which may have been sharpened on the upper edge as well.  Finally the Bowie Knife had a guard.  Although knives of similar design are known from Europe back to the middle ages, the “Bowie Knife” design was made famous by Jim Bowie, a result of his notorious character and a well publicized altercation in which the knife played a major role.  In 1830 Jim Bowie placed an order with an Arkansas blacksmith, name of James Black, for a knife to be made to Bowie’s specifications.  Supposedly Bowie had whittled a model of the knife out of wood for the blacksmith to follow.  Shortly after taking possession of his new knife, Bowie was confronted by three men, hired to kill Bowie.  Using the knife, Bowie proceed to dispatch all three men.  Thereafter, customers would approach James Black to make them a “knife like Bowie’s”, which eventually was shortened to Bowie Knife.   

Skinning Knives.  The skinning knife is one type of specialized knife used for removing hides and skins from the carcass.  This knife is another variation of the butcher except the tip is swept up far more than the standard butcher.  Although any knife could be used for skinning an animal, these knives were designed or modified to allow more rapid removal of skin from the carcass while minimizing risk of damage to the hide. Both white and Indian alike would often regrind the knife so that there was a bevel on only one side to minimize slashing the hide during removal.  For the same reason, these knives also often had an edge with a pronounced curve, and lacked a sharp point.  This type of knife came into widespread use by the buffalo hunters following the Civil War.  

I’ve not found documentation that hunter/trappers in the mountains used trap springs in the following manner.  According to one contemporary source who reported that those (trapper/hunters originally based out of Taos and moved on to settle in California) who owned vineyards found that the steel springs of the beaver traps "had just the right shape to be forged into pruning knives," (source Foster, "Pioneers of Los Angeles," Historical Society of Southern California, 1887, 35.)  It’s my opinion that it is not likely that only mountain men turned vintners noticed that trap springs could be used for knife making material.  Trap springs may well have provided source material for emergency fabrication of knives in the mountains as well.  

For more information about knives and cutlery see the following references:

Hanson, James A.   The Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook, 1994, published by The Fur Press, Crawford, Nebraska. 

Russell, Carl P. Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men, published by University of New Mexico Press, 1967.  448 Pages.  

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