From the time Irishman James McCullough arrived in "ye Back Country" of Pennsylvania, he earned his living as a weaver, throwing the shuttle to provide his neighbors on Conococheague Creek with all types of linen, woolen, and cotton cloth. His journal shows that, between 1750 and 1758, he turned out "chaker," "hickrey," and white "shirtin;" "stript" linsey for breeches; "bagin" and "tow clouth" to make sacks; and "girthin" for horse blankets. When he concealed his loom shafts, "wolling reed," "puley Stocks," and "other youtencels" in hollow trees during Indian alarms, he was protecting not only the means of his livelihood but a community resource. For the non-weavers who lived beyond the reach of McCullough's services, or couldn't afford them, there was always deerskin, used for breeches by nearly everyone in colonial times, and for a lot more by the first European settlers on the Delaware.
In the 1650s, Finns and Swedes, whose log homes dotted both sides of the Delaware above Wilmington, used deerskin to make men's "waistcoats and breeches" and women's "jackets and petticoats." The Finns' woodsfaring ways impressed the native Lenape who called them "akoores" or "nittappi" (those who are like us).
Beginning in the late seventeenth century, English, Irish, and German settlers interacted with and occasionally married Finns and Swedes. Some Quakers were attracted by the prospect of creating a second Eden in "uncleared" land whose "inhabitants were lazy," their income "scarely more than was necessary for their sustenance." The Protestants' love of plainness and simplicity, together with the go-with-the-flow infuence of their Scandinavian neighbors, inclined many to follow a pioneering lifestyle, and their offspring took knowledge of buckskin tailoring into the Great Valley of the Appalachians.
Buckskin, however, did not necessarily mean primitive. There were skilled craftsmen who fashioned leather garments that lasted a long time, while others less skilled stitched pairs of breeches no better than the pantaloons worn in 1785 by Kentucky surveyor George Bedinger—born in 1756 on Conewago Creek in York County, Pa. and raised after 1762 near Shepherdstown in the Great Valley. "Instead of the seams being stitched regularly, [Bedinger's pants] were tied with leather strings from a half to an inch and a half apart with the knots outside, and the ends sometimes dangling down." The "tyings" opposite the knee and hip joints were "pretty close together, while along the thigh and below the knee" they were wider apart because they were less important. Strings "supplied the place of buttons."
One Scandinavian descendent, Edward Swanson, told historian John Haywood that the first male settlers of the Cumberland River in Tennessee wore "dressed deer Skins entirely for over clothes" to keep ordinary inside clothing from being torn by brush. "Little tanning was done," he said. Women "were industrious and preferred their clothing of flax, hemp, cotton, wool, [and] Buffaloe wool ..." Nashville pioneers painted much the same picture for historian A. W. Putnam, telling him how they made deerskins "pliable" and "velvety" with brains before turning them into "vests, pants, and even shirts, to be worn next to the person, as well as ... 'hunting-shirts,' as outside covering."
Kentucky's first settlers arriving in the fall of 1775 used wild fibers to lessen their dependence on deerskin. In the spring of 1776, after the home weavers had built looms, and the snow and rain had rotted fallen nettles, settlers gathered and broke the stalks, then hackled and spun the fiber as if it were hemp, trading meat and hides for the weavers' skill with the shuttle. Weavers mixed thread from nettles with thread spun from buffalo wool to make a substitute for linsey-woolsey. The combination of a nettle warp and buffalo wool filling was "very strong," and according to Olive Boone socks "made of Buffalo wool alone [were] quite soft." William Clinkenbeard told John D. Shane that settlers prized the long, springtime wool of yearling buffalo, even to make felt for hats—"they did destroy and waste them then, at a mighty rate." In 1780, Sarah Graham's mother planted cotton at Fisher's Station to avoid cold-and-clammy, hot-and-sticky deerskin, while the militia wore "no other shirts than buckskin hunting shirts."
|Packs of timber wolves (above) once played havoc with settlers' livestock from Appalachia to the Mississippi, but are now only rarely found in states bordering Canada. Mountain lions (below), known as panthers in the backwoods, were more often heard than seen, their cries described as being like the screams of a woman.|
At the same time in the Great Valley of the Appalachians thickening settlement had pushed panthers and wolves to the high ridges, making them less of a danger to sheep than the poisonous leaves of rhododendron and mountain laurel. But by the 1760s only poor folk needed to wear homespun. Families with money could buy ready-made fabric from traders like Alexander Boyd who hauled a variety of textiles to his store in New London, Va. and across the Blue Ridge to Fort Lewis near the headwaters of Roanoke. People who in 1750 made do with dressed deerskin could—if they had the means—buy osnaburg, calico, flannel, Irish linen, and silk among other things.
On the Pennsylvania frontier in 1775 Philip Fithian found ladies in Buffalo Valley (Lewisburgh, Pa.) dressed in "the greatest Number & the greatest Variety of Silk Gowns ... that I have yet seen." And in Kishacoquillas Valley near Reedsville were "several Men" he said "made as an important a Figure as I could wish to see in Town." In the same year a hunter in Virginia's New River valley could exchange his buckskins and venison hams at James McCorkle's Dunkard Bottom store for cloth to make "leggons," but also for broadcloth, shoe buckles, jacket buttons, or a raccoon hat, which wasn't a coonskin with a tail in back, but a broad felt hat made of coon fur that a hatter sheared off and mixed "with a sticky preparation [to] spread over a form or hat block ..."
Styles of clothing, more than types of material, revealed essential differences between cultures of the back country and the coast. In the southern colonies, for instance, dissenting religious sects—Presbyterians and Lutherans, Quakers and Mennonites—who filtered into the mountains and foothills from Pennsylvania, showed by their plain dress that they observed principles of humility in contrast to worldly high church folk. Some differed only slightly, wearing round hats instead of three-cornered hats. Others more austere used hooks and eyes instead of buttons, and leather strings instead of shoe and knee buckles. And since dissenters of one stripe or another set the tone for life in backwoods, sober attire became a regional as well as a religious symbol, a sign that they held not only the moral but the geographical high ground against tidewater Episcopalians in their lace finery. According to John Hedge, who came to Kentucky from the Monongahela River in 1789, people adhered so rigidly to the way they dressed "you could tell where a man was from, on first seeing him."
In the late 1760s Charles Woodmason, an Episcopal Minister assigned to Pine Tree Hill (later Camden) South Carolina, had much to say about Quakers and other "sectaries" from Pennsylvania who invaded his up-country parish. Quakers he called "a vile, licentious Pack ... Absolute Deists unfit [for the] Title of Christians." But Woodmason saved his choicest venom for the Presbyterian Irish who had settled "this Part of the Province ... within these 5 Years ... from Belfast, or Pensylvania." They were the "lowest vilest Crew breathing ... the worst Vermin on Earth ... mean, worthless, beggarly ... the Refuse of Mankind," who lived "wholly on Butter, Milk, Clabber and what in England is given to Hogs and Dogs." Their children, he said, "run wild here like the Indians."
The contest for souls waged by Baptists, New Lights, Presbyterians, Independents, and Episcopalians (whom the backwoodsmen called "Damned Black Gown Sons of Bitches") only made the unchurched "so pleas'd with their native ignorance, as to be offended at any attempts to rouse them out of it." Most horrifying to Woodmason was that these free thinkers lived in "Logg Cabbins" unchinked, "unfloored and almost open to the Sky," and slept "altogether ... in one Room [where they] shift and dress openly." They had naught to drink from but gourds, "Not a Plate Knive or Spoon, a Glass, Cup, or any thing—It is well if they can get some Body Linen, and some have not even that ... And many live by Hunting, and killing of Deer."
Woodmason found "some few well-dispos'd Religious Persons ... whose Knowledge," he added, "is very circumscribed," but "no genteel or Polite Person, save Mr. Kershaw an English Merchant," and a congregation of fifty "Young Ladies all drest in White of their own Spinning—Many of them Baptists." There was "a fine farm" on the head of Wateree Creek and "the best drest People that [I] have met with," but no "literate or well travel'd Person, [no] ingenious Mind ... of any Capacity." For the most part gentlemen lived near the coast where they ran their plantations and the legislature. "So rich, so luxurious, polite a People," Woodmason said of the tidewater gentry. "Yet they ... look on the poor White People [Set down here ... between the Rich Planters and the Indians] in a Meaner Light than their Black Slaves, and care less for them ..." Woodmason himself had little sympathy for the poor settlers on Flat Creek, "as rude in their Manners as the Common Savages ... Their Dresses almost as loose and Naked as the Indians, differing in nothing save Complexion."
|A shortgown (sometimes called a bedgown) covered the upper body to the waist and a little farther down. A petticoat—not then considered an undergarment—was a skirt that covered the lower body from the waist to the calves.|
|A woman wearing a shortgown and petticoat. By way of decoration she wears a kerchief around her neck. Women also sometimes wore aprons over petticoats.|
|A shift was an undergarment worn under a woman's shortgown and petticoat. For comfort in hot weather, women often went without a shortgown, leaving the upper body covered only by the shift, which exposed more bosom.|
Woodmason criticized women in particular for immodesty because, although a woman usually wore a linen shift next to the body, a sleeved shortgown over that, and a petticoat from the waist to the calves, Woodmason's female parishioners often dispensed with the shortgown, exposing more bosom in the thinner shift. He understood "the heat ... admits not of any [but] thin clothing;" however, girls who wore shifts and petticoats tight enough to reveal "the roundness of their Breasts," their "slender Waists," and "the fineness of their Limbs" aroused his concern among other things. He complained too because they rubbed "Bears Oil" on their skin and in their hair, which they tied up behind "in a Bunch like the Indians—being hardly one degree removed from them." A true gentleman, Mr. Woodmason refused to dress down, traveling in clothes that "the Canes, and impenetrable Woods" tore to pieces, sweating profusely under his wig and gown in church, and suffering attacks of mosquitoes and wood ticks rather than keep them off with bear grease.
In January of 1767 Woodmason preached to a large Irish congregation in the Waxhaws, a densely settled area "thro' which the dividing Line between North and South Carolina Runs." It's possible that among the "very curious" who came to hear Woodmason at the Presbyterian meetinghouse was an immigrant couple from Twelvemile Creek, Andrew Jackson and his wife Elizabeth who was seven months pregnant. Elizabeth's husband died about a month later, tradition says while working in the fields—something her unborn child would never have to worry about. By 1788 young Andrew had read law and got himself appointed prosecuting attorney for the isolated Cumberland settlements of Mero District in present Tennessee, and by 1791 Attorney General.
In old age Jonathan Ramsey remembered seeing Andrew Jackson and John Overton of Louisa County, Va. enter Eaton's Station near Nashville "wearing three cornered cocked hats, the fashion then with lawyers." To the Cohees who dominated the trans-mountain west Jackson's fancy head gear carried a subtle message. It meant that he'd cast his lot with would-be aristocrats from the east, whose property rights he was there to protect. Jackson would never feel the soil between his toes as did the settlement's founder James Robertson, hoeing corn beside his slaves of a summer's morning in 1789 when Creek Indians opened fire, or have five inches of hat brim cut by a fusee ball whistling past his ear like Robertson's son Jonathan, "as good a soldier as ever pulled a trigger—great nerve—powerful strength."
Attorney Jackson came as a civilizing force, a symbol of the passing of a folk culture that had allowed people "by general consent" to appoint one of themselves to perform the rite of marriage as James Shaw did in 1781 at French Lick Station [Nashville] for "three couples all [standing] up at the same time in the fort yard ..." Nevertheless, Jackson himself took advantage of the frontier's informal view of matrimony to marry the not-quite-divorced Rachel Donelson Robards, whose wealthy father, Colonel John Donelson, had come west by stages from the eastern shore of Old Virginia, to George's Creek in Pittsylvania County, and by flatboat down the Tennessee and up the Cumberland to Clover Bottom of Stone's River.
In 1786 Colonel Donelson became a casualty in an Indian war that had raged on and off since 1755. The threat of Indian attack would have to be eliminated before cotton and tobacco fields and porticoed brick mansions pushed aside the grain fields and log-and-stone houses of the Cohees. Ironically, these upcountry dissenters—with almost as much to lose as the Natives—had learned directly from Indians the very tactics needed to defeat them. And their clothing reflected the influence of their Indian tutors.
In 1774 flatlander Daniel Trabue so "admired the looks of" troops going against the Ohio Indians from near Richmond, uniformed all alike with cockades of red ribbon on their hats, "I would have been glad to have went with them if I had been old enough." West of the Blue Ridge, however, Cohee Alex Alexander's "earliest childish ambition ... was to have a pair of moccasins and a hunting shirt" like "all soldiers" near his home on Irish Creek, in the limestone hills of Rockbridge County, Va.
Alexander was nine in 1781 when British Colonel Banastre Tarleton chased the General Assembly over the mountains from Charlottesville. Some of his neighbors and kin were no doubt part of Samuel McDowell's "large force" of riflemen near present Waynesborough, Va. that stopped Continental officer Captain Francis T. Brooke from proceeding to the new seat of government in Staunton. Brooke assumed it was because "at that time ... a regimental coat had never been seen on that side of the mountains—nothing but hunting-shirts ..."
Daniel Boone's son, Nathan, said the hunting shirt was an "outer garment," and contemporary accounts confirm it wasn't meant to be worn by itself, but over a shirt, a waistcoat, a jacket, rarely over a coat. Individual tastes dictated minor differences, but the consensus among contemporary observers is that a true hunting shirt was a "frock" with an open front, made of coarse homespun or "dressed deer skins" with a cape or large collar for shedding water, but no pockets or buttons. The wearer would wrap one side of the open "bosom" over the other and belt it with a long piece of cloth to make space inside for storing small articles.
General Washington’s recommendation in 1775 that the army adopt "Indian or Hunting Shirts" suggests they had a Native American origin. He was better qualified than most to know, having frequently met with Native Americans since he first saw them in 1748 at Thomas Cresap's Oldtown, Md. trading post. Washington himself had worn "Indian walking dress"—matchcoat, leggings and moccasins—in 1753 to the French posts in western Pennsylvania.
Author David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion's Seed says the hunting shirt was an American version of "linsey or leather shirts" popular in Northern Britain, made with "the same broad cut across the shoulders and chest, the same horizontal seams, the same heavy stress on masculinity." He also claims that north country folkways were transplanted undiluted to the American backwoods, far away from the influence of Quaker society on the Delaware.
Fischer is wrong. Daniel Boone, who more than any other American made frontier dress a national symbol, was Cornish on his father's side, Welsh on his mother's, and was raised as a Quaker in an area of Pennsylvania—Owatin Creek in Berks County—settled largely by Finns and Swedes, Swiss Mennonites, and Quakers from England and Wales.
The fact that Quakers like the Boones dominated large areas of the backwoods destroys the myth that pacifists avoided the frontier. In 1738 Thomas Chalkley penned a letter to "Friends, who inhabit Shennadore and Opeckon." He advises these "far and back inhabitants to keep friendly Correspondence with the native Indians ... and purchase your Lands." In 1741, Quaker missionary John Churchman visited "a few families settled up Shanondoa, above the Three-topt mountian [about six miles south of Strasburg] and had a meeting amongst them ... I admired how they had notice, for many came to it, and some ten miles or more." Churchman believed it was "the delight in hunting, and a roving idle life, drew most of them under our name to settle there." Near present Broadway, Va., a creek entering the north fork of the Shenandoah was named for hunter William Linville, a Quaker who settled there before 1739; and tradition says that Daniel Boone launched his first long hunt to North Carolina from his family's temporary home on Linville Creek.
Quakers were the plainest Protestants on the frontier, and because of William Penn's fair dealing with Indians the least suspicious to Natives. The Friends' belief that God communicated with them in visions and voices born of meditative silence appealed to the Natives' sense of their own spirituality; and a belief that their inner light lived also in the Indians made religious sharing between Quakers and Natives common practice. Quakers had no ordained clergy, and although they licensed "public Friends" to travel and speak about spiritual matters, they were as likely to learn as to teach. In 1763 John Woolman visited the Munsee Indian town of Wyalusing "that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them."
When William Penn died in 1718, his non-Quaker heirs became Proprietors of the colony, signaling a shift toward agressive land acquisition and frontier expansion. The Quaker-dominatited Provincial Council usually took the Indians' side in disputes with Penn's descendents; and although Quaker concern for the Natives' welfare was motivated as much by fur trade profits as by fairness, the Indians' respect for them rose as it declined for the Proprietors. This mutuality of interests occurred at a time when Indians more and more were choosing to abandon cold deerskin clothing for warm textiles. As John Woolman understood, "their way of clothing themselves is now altered from what it was ... in bringing their skins and furs to trade with us," a task made more difficult because English hunters and settlers depleted "those wild beasts they chiefly depend on for a subsistence ..." And if the traders made them drunk to cheat them of skins and furs "with which they intended to buy clothing ... they suffer for want of the necessaries of life ..."
|Daniel Boone, in an engraved copy of a lost 1819 Chester Harding portrait, wears a blue hunting shirt with a large collar resembling lapels.|
|An extremely plain hunting shirt made c.1800 in Greene Co., Pa., very near the childhood home of pioneer chronicler Joseph Doddridge. Note the narrow collar or cape and the small amount of fringe. Button holes on the cuffs show it wasn't for lack of buttons that the open front doesn't include them.|
On the other side of the frontier Quaker men, fired by enthusiasm for a spiritual awakening, proclaimed their uniqueness by decking themselves out in wide hats and plain coats with few buttons or pockets. In 1742 a gang of seamen, egged on by politicians anxious to forestall the Council's opposition to armed defense against a possible Spanish attack, came ashore in Philadelphia wielding clubs against the Quaker councilmen. They had been told to look for men with "Broad hats and no pockets."
It makes sense that the trend among Indians toward textile clothing would follow the conspicuously plain style of allies who stood with them against corrupt proprietors and land hungry immigrants. Their imitation coats would therefore most likely have been made without pockets or buttons, and might well have been called Indian shirts by white men, and later—when white hunters adopted Indian dress in which to practice their vocation—hunting shirts. Nineteenth century mid-western descendants of Pennsylvania's Delawares and Shawnees used buckskin to make the same types of open and caped garments, which they called "hunting coats."
This Native adaptation, designed to be simple and comfortable, was attractive to Protestants, who took pains to differentiate themselves by dress and deportment from an over-refined and dissipated aristocracy. Whoever provided the inspiration for the hunting shirt, its utilitarian simplicity made it an ideal mode of dress for Quaker woodsmen like Boone.
Speculation that the hunting shirt was an adaptation of the British laborer’s smock-frock is unconvincing. Why then was the hunting shirt so fundamentally different—caped and open in front? Why is there no mention of hunting shirts, except in areas connected by emmigration routes from eastern Pennsylvania? British traveler J. D. F. Smyth said the "rifle shirt" only "somewhat" resembled a "waggoner's frock," obviously describing not its form but its function—the protection of inside clothing. In style, he said, a backwoodsman’s clothing was "not very materially different from that of the Indians."
The earliest printed reference to a hunting shirt of which I am aware appears in the Virginia Gazette of June 16, 1768, describing the apparel of convict servant George Wilkinson who ran away from the forks of the James in present Rockbridge County. The casual mention of Wilkinson's hunting shirt by backwoods residents Robert Whitley and John Maxwell who were seeking return of their human property, proves that by that date these garments were common enough for the general public to recognize by name, and it's possible they went by other names before becoming widely known. On January 1, 1768 Charles Woodmason described men "as wild as the very Deer" dressed in "Frocks or Shirts" in South Carolina's backwoods. In 1765, William King, a miller on Middle River in the Virginia Valley, was allowed a reduction of his debt in part by what it cost him to make "13 soldiers' shirts." And in the summer of 1761 Thomas Brown brought "a quantity of shirts" to Samuel Stalnaker's on Holston River to sell to the backwoods troops encamped there. Might these have been hunting shirts?
Harriet Arnow in her influential book Seedtime on the Cumberland cites the absence of hunting shirts from early Tennessee will books as evidence that most backwoodsmen did not wear them, an assertion flatly contradicted by Nashville pioneer Edward Swanson who in 1819 informed Judge John Haywood that "for many years" after 1780 "Hunting Shirts of dressed deer Skins ... were very common." In 1793, near Greenfield Station, north of Cumberland River, militiaman William Hall wrapped his hunting shirt around beautiful, seventeen-year-old Betsy Steele just before she died of stab wounds inflicted by Indians who wrenched off her "long black hair" and cut off "a large portion of her dress." As late as 1812 local militia on the Tennessee River, who assembled to salute General Thomas Johnson of Robertson County on his return from a fifteen-day scout after some marauding Creek Indians, were unable to distinguish the General from his men because "a hunting shirt, and a cup hanging at his side, was the simple garb in which he appeared."
|Hunting shirt of carefully tanned and fringed deerskin, made about 1830 west of the Mississippi. It has a collar that can be turned up against the cold, and an attached belt that can be tightened or loosened. A far cry from hastily made garments of dressed deerskins, it still follows a pattern familiar in the eighteenth century, having a cape, a buttonless open front, and no pockets.|
What the Davidson and Sumner County will books actually prove is that hunting shirts were usually in pretty bad shape. And since they were often of dressed, untanned, and extremely perishable deerskin they were not included in lists of the property left by the deceased. These "over Clothes," however, were extremely useful in preserving the shirts, jackets, and coats Arnow did find. Any man on the Cumberland whose work took him into the woods would have been equipped with a "buckskin hunting shirt" like the one Kentucky surveyor George Bedinger wore in 1785 to protect his "camlet jacket" and green "baise shirt."
In 1776, after taking part in the successful pursuit of Indians who had captured Daniel Boone's and Richard Callaway's daughters, Nathan Reid—who was born to Pennsylvania Irish parents on Rockfish River in Virginia—loaned Samuel Henderson his own hunting shirt so Henderson would not have to marry Betsey Callaway in one that had become "threadbare [because of] time and rough usage." In Kentucky, as in Tennessee, purely protective garments like hunting shirts—ripped by brush and stained by grease and blood—would have been left out of inventories of personal property.
Even if it hadn't been common practice for Indians to strip victims of useable clothing, Cohee and Quaker burial customs—their objection to fancy funerals and stone markers—meant victims of Indian attack were usually buried on the spot where they died, with the clothes they died in. A 1782 burial party from French Lick removed a tomahawk from Joseph Freeland's cheekbone before burying his body "as well as we could." Freeland had gone into Stoner's Lick Creek to wash off ticks he had picked up while skinning deer, and afterward had "got his breeches on and was ... puting his shirt on [when] the Indians shot him down." Against the odds, a few hunting shirts did find their way into inventories. One was listed with Solomon Kendrick's "2 coats, four pair drawers ... 3 shirts, and silver buckles" after he was killed on Clinch River in 1782.
Kendrick's drawers were not underpants, although men sometimes wore them under trousers. They were knee breeches or "small clothes," worn most often in plain sight. William Row wore "drawers ... of coarse country linen" with "leggins" of the same material when he ran away in 1776 from "the levels of Green brier" near present Lewisburg, W.Va. He also took a "waistcoat of [almost white] linen" that was obviously not an item of fine dress. The waistcoat of the period could be any garment, no matter how plain, that covered the upper body to the waist. They were frequently made of wool or flannel, and often with sleeves like a jacket.
To understand just how backwoodsmen dressed we must try to see them through eighteenth century eyes; something Harriet Arnow did not do, or she would have understood that the rawhide "overals" a Captain Budd had made for him in 1784 along with a pair of "mockersons" on Big Creek of Holston River did not include straps and a bib like the denim overalls of twentieth century hill farmers. They were coarse trousers like the "leather pants" hunter William Baker wore in 1790 when an "enraged" buffalo bull hooked his thigh and tossed him through the air on the banks of Cumberland River below present Palmyra, Tenn.
Backcountry settlers straddled a line that separated the white and Native worlds, and could slip into Indian attire whenever it suited their purpose. Joseph Doddridge suggests a purpose when he says "Indian dress" was worn "especially" by woodsmen and warriors "much in habit of hunting, and going on scouts and campaigns." Such were the Virginia brothers Joseph and Nathaniel Evans who settled in present Sevier County, Tenn. Both "dressed like Indians" in 1792 to recover horses stolen by the Cherokee, and in 1813 when Joseph volunteered against the Creek Indians he "always wore his hunting shirt, carried his rifle and was a capital shot."
It was simple enough to make a hunting shirt if the need arose. In 1770 Samuel Holiday imagined his "Irish servant man" would make a hunting shirt from "a coarse sheet" he stole when he ran off from the Juniata in Pennsylvania. And in the spring of 1780 Virginia surveyor Daniel Smith "used 11 dollars ... for the making of a hunting shirt" at "Gaspar Manscoe's Lick" in middle Tennessee.
The primitive state of the Cumberland settlements in 1780 suggests that Smith's tailor used deerskin. Smith does not say. Some settlers may have packed out extra linen and linsey-woolsey, and they certainly brought flax and hemp seed for the future. Jeptha Kemper, who lived near Lexington, Ky. in 1785, said the settlers spun more hemp than flax in the early days. "Every family had to wear their own make," he said. "They had no stores, and if they had, they had no money to take to them." The lone store in Lexington was so poorly stocked "two or three families would have bought it out. But it was so hard to get the goods there, and they cost so much at first, that there were but few purchasers." William Clinkenbeard first got hemp seed in 1781 at Strode's Station in Kentucky. "Saved the stocks [stalks] and broke it up and my wife made me a shirt out of it. Raised a right smart patch next year."
When the frontier people began cutting out and sewing hunting shirts from homespun they used light-weight tow linen in summer, sun-bleaching it because impurities in the fiber made it difficult to dye. In cooler weather they used linsey-woolsey dyed brown with black walnut hulls, or yellowish with "butternut" hulls, and occasionally red with pokeberry juice. Fanciful tailors and seamstresses often "ornamented" capes, skirts, facings and cuffs with a few or "a great many" fringes of contrasting "raveled" cloth. In 1776 bond servant James Conner "had on a white hunting shirt, much fringed" when he made off from present Morgan County, W.Va., and John Ceaton's "white hunting shirt" had "striped wristbands" when he ran away from near Staunton in 1770.
But in spite of decorative touches a hunting shirt's primary function was protection, including protection against the cold. Many wore them as an extra layer over "warm waistcoats" (jackets of flannel or wool) like the one John Cock had on in December of 1781 when the Cherokee sank a tomahawk in his brain outside of John English's cabin on Clinch River, leaving him partially paralyzed for life. The Indians took a piece of his waistcoat with them as well as his hunting shirt and scalp. Keeping warm and dry seems also to have been on the mind of Hugh F. Bell, enveloped in the loose folds of a hunting shirt near Nashville on a sleety day in January 1789 when Indians from ambush only fifteen feet away riddled it with seventeen holes. Only three balls "penetrated his body."
|German woodcuts of riflemen from descriptions brought back by Hessian mercenaries. The fringed linsey hunting shirts and trousers are accurate enough. Their caps were formed by cutting off most of the brims of their hats except for a piece they pinned up in front. Depictions of some riflemen as barefoot may have been because moccasins made them appear shoeless. The bayonets are an artistic conceit. Rifles were hunting weapons unequipped with lugs for bayonets.|
Part of General Washington's rationale for recommending hunting shirts to the army was that they kept the men "cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather." But although a backwoodsman's role as hunter required prolonged exposure to the elements, his unique war dress was also a reminder that he and his comrades were the best practitioners of guerilla tactics learned by hard experience from the Indians. Their warrior status is the main reason Congress called on Pennsylvania for eight companies of riflemen, and on Virginia and Maryland for two companies each in the spring and summer of 1775. Pennsylvania actually sent nine companies from counties with borders on or close to the frontier—two from Lancaster, two from Cumberland, and one each from York, Bedford, Northumberland, Northampton, and Berks. Of the rifle companies raised outside of Pennsylvania Michael Cresap's was recruited from the upper branches of the Potomac, and Daniel Morgan's from the Shenandoah Valley.
The experience of the commanders reflected the experience of their men. In 1757, while riding dispatch between forts connected by miles of deserted backwoods trails, Daniel Morgan was struck in the neck by an Indian ball that ripped through his cheek, shattering his back teeth on the left side. In 1763 Michael Cresap "arrive[d] in [Frederick Town, Md.] with Mokosins on his Legs, taken from an Indian whom he killed and scalped, being one of those who shot down Mr. Welder" And in 1756 Irish-born William Thompson from Carlisle, Pa.—commander in 1775 of Thompson's Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion—was on the Kittanning expedition, the first successful militia raid into Indian country. A veteran of Braddock's campaign, Morgan knew the way to defeat British regulars was the way the Indians had defeated Braddock. His riflemen's sniping at artillery officers at Saratoga in 1777 may have seemed nothing less than murder to the British, but was critical to the Americans' success.
Almost as soon as these warriors strode out of the woods they transformed the look of the army. On August 31, 1775 New Jersey's Committee of Safety "Resolved, That the ... Minutemen in this province ... are directed, for the sake of distinction and convenience, to adopt, as their uniform, hunting frocks, as near as may be similar to those of the Riflemen now in the continental service." In 1776 a substantial portion of the regular army adopted hunting shirts because "the bounty of clothing ... provided by Congress [made it] impracticable to obtain a sufficient quantity of cloth for regimental coats." In other words, necessity forced Jersey militiamen, southern Tuckahoes, and New England Yankees into hunting shirts. Only a backwoodsman wore one because it suited his fancy.
|Daniel Morgan in a fringed rifle frock or hunting shirt. Unlike most backwoodsmen he was an Episcopalian, but like most Quakers he was an emigrant from the Delaware Valley.|
Washington hoped the disguise would deceive the enemy into believing he faced an army of backwoods snipers whom the redcoats dubbed "shirttail men," and their "twisted" guns "widow-and-orphan-makers." The hunting shirt, said Washington, "is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete Marksman." The British were so impressed with the backwoods snipers they sent one specimen, George Merchant, to England—"hunting shirt and all."
When Cresap's riflemen "from the Mountains and back Woods" passed through Frederick, Md. on their way to join the army near Boston, one resident wrote with obvious pride that they were "painted like Indians [and] dressed in hunting Shirts and Mockasons." That same summer the appearance of Daniel Morgan's Virginians so impressed American painter John Trumbull, then a soldier in the Continental Army at Cambridge, Mass., that he later wrote admiringly of the rifleman's "elegant loose dress reaching to the middle thigh, ornamented with a great many fringes ... meeting the pantaloons of the same material and color, fringed and ornamented in a corresponding style."
A Connecticut Yankee, Trumbull was obviously unfamiliar with the term hunting shirt. Nevertheless, he bristled at a suggestion that this unique style of uniform was anything like a wagoner's frock, "a long coarse shirt reaching below the knee." The hunting shirt was shorter and opened in front like a coat, and no more resembled a wagoner's frock, he said, than a coat resembled a cloak.
It's certain that before the war hunting shirts were unknown in New England where Washington found it necessary to send one around with a pattern for tailors and seamstresses to copy. According to rifleman John Joseph Henry, a "principle distinction" between New England troops and the Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen on the Quebec campaign in 1775 "was in our ... dress." And it continued so even after the war when the hunting shirt all but faded from the Yankees' memory yet remained standard equipment west of the mountains where backwoodsmen had immigrated from Pennsylvania and the southern mountains and foothills.
Henry wore "a deep ash-colored hunting shirt" in the rifle company of Matthew Smith who in 1763 had been a leader of the Indian-hating Paxton Boys. Henry's grandfather Robert Henry was an Irish Protestant who settled on the Delaware in 1722, and later on Doe Run in Chester County, Pa. His father, William, became a Lancaster gunsmith, learning to make rifles from German master Matthias Roesser. And his uncle John Henry took him to trade with Indians at the wilderness outpost of Detroit in 1772.
In his memoir Henry wrote "it was the silly fashion of those times for riflemen to ape the manners of savages," wearing leggings and moccasins "if [they] could be procured." On the wilderness march to Quebec Henry saw Daniel Morgan himself dressed in "leggins and a cloth in the Indian style," his thighs "lacerated by the thorns and bushes." Nathan Boone said Indian leggings were "fastened to a body belt" and "tied around below the knee." But they were not always of buckskin. Like Euro-Americans, Natives preferred leggings of cloth like the ones of "negro cotton" that Shawnee chief Blue Jacket tossed into the bushes in Kentucky to throw off the scent of some trailing dogs. A practical reason for wearing a breech cloth and leggings, according to Nathan Reid, was that pantaloons like the ones he and the other men wore on the Sunday Boone's and Callaway's daughters were taken "somewhat impeded our movements." The rescue party sent someone back to Boonesborough after "breechclouts," which must have included leggings, so they could move fast through the canebrakes and underbrush. The main difference between Indian leggings and those made by men of European descent was that Indians wore theirs only a little higher than the knee; a backwoodsman's leggings came to "the upper part of the thigh." As Nashville pioneer Edward Swanson confirms, settlers wore "long" leggings with their "breach cloths" and "deer skins mocasins."
Henry didn't follow the "silly fashion" of other riflemen. Over his "half worn buckskin breeches" he wore leggings of a style called "Indian boots," described by British traveler J. D. F. Smyth as "coarse woollen [leggings], that either are wrapped round loosely and tied with garters, or are laced upon the outside, and always come better than half way up the thigh."
|Trumbull's fanciful 1787 depiction of riflemen at the death of General Montgomery on the Quebec campaign. Their hunting shirts do not come to the middle thigh as he says they did when he saw them in 1775. And they are wearing fringed trousers in the Canadian cold. After marching through the Maine wilderness their legs would most likely have been covered with woolen leggings called "Indian boots."|
Long fringed trousers like the ones Trumbull described were not part of a rifleman's Indian dress; but they were a common form of backwoods attire since early times. In 1725 Quaker Robert Parke, who lived a few miles northeast of Robert Henry's Doe Run homestead, wrote back to Ireland that linen trousers were "breeches & Stockings all in one [and] fine Cool wear in Summer." And J. D. F. Smythe says backwoodsmen near the Carolina-Virginia border dressed "more frequently [in] thin trowsers" than in breeches "made of Indian dressed elk, or deer skins." Evidently riflemen preferred leggings for wilderness duty, and fringed trousers and shoes in gentler country. Nevertheless, General Washington asked Morgan in 1777 to "gall" the British flanks in New Jersey with "a Company or two of Woods Men [dressed] in the right Indian Style ... screaming and yelling as the Indians do."
The "right Indian style" obviously did not include the European-style clothing rifelmen concealed under hunting shirts, which told as much about how they differed from Indians as their outer clothes showed how much they learned from them. John Joseph Henry's "roundabout jacket, of woolen," which he wore underneath his hunting frock on the Quebec campaign, is but one example of a backwoodsman's mundane "under dress." Numerous other examples can be found in contemporary newspaper descriptions of backwoods runaways. The Pennsylvania Gazette tells us in 1772 that John Baker "had on, and took with him, when he went away [from Brock's Gap in the Shenandoah Valley], two hunting shirts, one of deer leather, the other of tow linen," but also "two jackets, without sleeves, one blue cloth, the other white halfthick, [and] a tow linen shirt." We likewise find in the Virginia Gazette that John Thrift wore "a brown hunting shirt [and] a light coloured sagathy waistcoat" when he ran away from McKittrick's Branch in 1775; and Ned Barry wore "a white hunting shirt [over a] white coat of country made cloth, and a striped linsey jacket" when he escaped from near Staunton in 1776.
Others got away with not much else on their backs but hunting shirts. Christopher Dolton took only "three old shirts" in addition to "an old hunting shirt" from "Calf Pasture" River in 1771; and Thomas Welsh apparently wore only "a hunting shirt filled with wool" (i.e. of linsey-woolsey) when he disappeared in 1775 with a "smooth-bore gun" from near "English ferry on New river." In the same year two African slaves and a white convict servant in "linsey frocks" stole "a Rifle and ... a large Buck-skin and Elk-skin" from Jacob Brake on the South Fork of the Potomac in Hampshire County when they decided to make for sea ports and ships home.
Also in the Virginia Gazette are descriptions of fourteen deserters in hunting shirts who took leave of their Continental regiments near Williamsburg in the years 1776 and '77. Ten of the fourteen were identified by their commanders as recruits from the backwoods attempting to return to homes in the west: one in "a blue hunting shirt" to Frederick County, one in "an old hunting shirt dyed black" to Pittsylvania, five in "hunting shirts trimmed with red" to Amherst County, and three in "dark coloured hunting shirts" to Halifax. Commanders were often unable to remember a deserter's "inside Clothing," but now and then recalled a "blue Duffil Waistcoat," a "gray coloured broadcloth waistcoat," a "suit of gray broadcloth," or a "jacket and pair of breeches of light coloured sagathy." These men were from rifle companies recruited in the shadow of the Blue Ridge or in country adjacent to the Carolina Road (Highway 15)—a migration route from Pennsylvania next in importance only to the Great Road up Valley.
|Shawnee chief Col. John Lewis in 1825. He wears a caped hunting shirt that appears not to open in front. This rare slip-on style required a front and a back piece, taking more time and effort to make, and denying access to the bosom as a place for storing things.|
In July 1775 a corps of "minutemen" from Virginia's Culpeper County—which straddled the Carolina Road and hugged the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge in present Rappahannock and Madison Counties—turned out in "hunting shirts made of strong brown linen ... on the breast of each in large white letters the words 'Liberty or Death'!" Unused to seeing backwoodsmen dressed for war, the gentlefolk of Williamsburg should be forgiven if they wondered whose death? when they laid eyes on these men with buck tails in their hats, and tomahawks and scalping knives hanging from shot pouch straps. As seventeen-year-old private Philip Slaughter noted in his journal, "Many People hearing that we were from the backwoods, near the Indians, and seeing our dress, were as much afraid of us for a few days as if we had been Indians."
In the same year, west of the Blue Ridge, Philip Fithian describes backwoods troops at Winchester, Va. "All in a Hunting-Shirt Uniform & Bucks Tale in their Hats [to represent that they are hardy resolute, & invincible Natives of the Woods of America]—Indeed," he said, "they make a grand Figure." The irony of hunting shirts was that, although these warriors were copying Indians who may have been copying Europeans, they created a stir among people in eastern society who believed these white men were as alien to European culture as the Indians themselves. Even Governor Dunmore, who knew them, declared in 1774 to the secretary of state for the colonies that "back-woods-men [were] Hunters like the Indians and equally ungovernable."
The use of Indian dress for campaining in the wilderness got a boost from George Washington in the French War, when the British expected all provincial forces to wear the uniform of colonial militia. As early as October of 1757 Washington realized if the British couldn't recruit southern Indians to fight for them, they would have to make do with the next best thing. The "men most proper" he said should be "huntsmen, who have been used to arms from their childhood, and in a particular manner acquainted with the country from which many have been drove."
In May of 1758 Washington touted "Indian dress" for the 1st Virginia Regiment preparing for General John Forbes' campaign against Fort Duquesne, and wrote to Philadelphia for "as much green half-thick's as will make Indian-leggings for 1,000 men." "If green cannot be had," he wrote to quartermaster David Franks, "get white; if there is not enough of that, then get any other colour." His official excuse was that his men were "very bare of Cloathes (Regimentals, I mean)." In reality he wanted to turn his troops into light infantry better able to cope with wilderness warfare. "Were I left to pursue my own inclinations," he wrote, "I wou'd not only order the Men to adopt the Indian dress, but cause the Officers to do it also, and be the first to set the example myself, leaving my Regimentals at this place and proceeding as light as any Indian in Woods."
Washington believed the new style was "unbecoming," but there was no denying its practicality. At the end of June he dispatched Major Andrew Lewis' company of Augusta County men in breech clouts and leggings to the British encampment near Raystown (Bedford, Pa.). Washington must have breathed a sigh of relief when second in command Colonel Henry Bouquet enthusiastically endorsed the new uniform, "Thank God we see nothing but shirts and Blanketts," he wrote. "Their dress should be our pattern in the expedition." It was probably the first time any of these men—who had worn the same kit in 1756 on Lewis' failed expedition against the Shawnee towns—were praised for looking like Indians.
Encouraged by Bouquet's response, Washington immediately sent a quartermaster from Fort Cumberland to Winchester "with all the stuff he has for Breech Clouts." As Bouquet suggested, Washington ordered Adam Stephen "to make the dress of the Officers and soldiers of Major Lewis' Company a guide to come at my meaning; that all may, even in this trim, have some regard for uniformity."
But Washington harbored doubts about the ability of his troops to compete successfully with Indians in the woods, a suspicion confirmed by an incident recorded by Christian Frederick Post in his diary. When Post's two Indian companions, British allies Isaac Still and Pesquitomen, mistook "three men, in Indian dress" from Forbes' army as enemies, "preparation was made on both sides for defence." Discovering the mistake, "Isaac Still shewed a white token, and Pesquimeton gave an Indian halloo; after which [the white men] threw down their bundles [that contained all their food] and ran away as fast as they could."
The propaganda value of Washington's substitute Indians was priceless, however. According to James Smith, who was an adopted member of the Caunawagha tribe in Ohio, Indians returning from the defense of Fort Duquesne brought alarming news. In a skirmish at Fort Ligonier on Loyalhanna Creek, there was "a great number of American riflemen along with the redcoats, who scattered out, took trees, and were good marks-men." When the French tried to rally the braves for another fight "the Indians said if it was only the redcoats they had to do with, they could soon subdue them, but they could not withstand Ashalecoa, the Great knife, which was the name they gave the Virginians."
The shirts Bouquet mentioned as part of the light dress of Lewis' troops were probably hunting shirts, a term that wasn't used until years later. But just because Bouquet didn't mention them by name doesn't mean hunting shirts weren't there. He said nothing about breech clouts and Indian leggings either, but we know Washington's men wore them because Washington referred to them specifically in correspondence. As late as Dunmore's War in 1774, when the term "hunting shirt" was well known, Colonel William Christian also used nonspecific language to describe Andrew Lewis' backwoods army as equipped with "all goods necessary for the men such as Shirts Blankets Leggons." This time, however, there is no doubt Christian meant hunting shirts, as we see by Captain William Russell's report that his Clinch River men were "badly fix'd, for want of Hunting shirts, and Blankets; But as I hear Mr. Branders Waggon, is on this side New River; I hope we shall get supply'd."
By their choice of clothing backwoods soldiers told the world that, like Indians, they placed a premium on individual combat, and fought as they did against the Shawnee at Point Pleasant in 1774, "not compact—but ... every man fighting for himself pretty much ... except once in a while ... when a squad of daring men would concert and make a dash (as we used to call it)." These dashes were led by "officers [who] fought but a good deal like the Indians, leaders rather than commanders. So that command was more nominal than real; and in fighting it was always expected the officers would lead on ..."
|Cherokee warrior Hop Frog wears a hunting shirt with a collar similar to Boone's (above).|
It helped officers to "lead on" if they looked like their men. William Martin remembered his father, Major Joseph Martin, returning in 1781 from a campaign against the Cherokee wearing a "hunting shirt and leather leggins" instead of his usual coat, breeches, skirted vest, and neck stock. Five years earlier General Griffith Rutherford wore "a dingy colored ordinary" hunting shirt against the Cherokee, to show his men dressed "principally [in] rude cloth made from Hemp, Tow and wild Nettlebark"—some with "LIBERTY OR DEATH" in white letters on black hunting shirts—that he too was a warrior.
In 1789 one of Rutherford's proteges, a young cousin from Halifax County, Va., Major Robert Weakley, joined fifty horsemen from near Nashville on the trail of thirty Creeks who had attacked Robertson's Station. To prevent ambush Weakley had the men dismount on Knob Creek (in present Maury County, Tenn.). He assumed command of twenty-three volunteers, including Andrew Jackson, and followed the Indians to Duck River where he and Sampson Williams "crept through the cane" and watched as one of the Creeks on the southern bank "rudely" bowed a captured fiddle. Weakley sent runners to Knob Creek with orders to bring up the rest of the men and post them opposite the Indian camp while he and Williams led their men in pairs though arm-pit-deep water at "a shoal ford" a mile upstream. They groped in "the dark of the moon" to a spot where they laid up, waiting for the dew to keep the cane from crackling underfoot. In the pre-dawn light they split into two wings and, "in the form of a halfmoon," assaulted the camp, driving the Indians across the river where the rest of the men had been posted. Major Weakley commenced the attack, dashing ahead to a tree and firing two rifle balls into the chest of an Indian who had got up on "his shanks to punch up the fire ... the Indians raised the whoop—the whites also raised the yell ..." A few Indians were wounded; most escaped. And as was customary after a successful engagement the whites appropriated Indian moccasins, leggings, and deer skins.
It was common practice for both Natives and whites to strip vanquished adversaries and wear their clothes as trophies of victory or revenge. But there was often a more practical use for plunder. In 1787, following a raid on the Chickamauga village of Coldwater (Tuscumbia, Ala.), soldiers from the Cumberland River divided "about two thousand deer and bear skins." The rest of the "Indian goods" went on "public sale" at Eaton's station, and brought in "upwards of five thousand dollars [to be] apportioned among the men; but like all such sales, credit was given, notes taken, and little or nothing ever collected." According to Thomas Hickman the real value of the plunder, which included a number of "striped silk shirts," was to provide clothes for "the needy backwoods pioneers."
Such poverty was an old story on the frontier. In 1749 Moravian missionaries Leonhardt Schnell and John Brandmuller encountered similar conditions near the mouth of Licking River on the upper Potomac where they met a German family entirely "clothed in Indian fashion," not for reasons of utility or because they admired the look, but because goods and stores were scarce and they were poor.
Farther south Schnell and Brandmuller found "the manner of living rather poor" on Cowpasture River in present Highland County, Va., where home seekers had only recently settled. They shared the last of their bread with the family of Hercules Wilson, "as the people had none," and accepted bear meat in return. East of present Clifton Forge they discussed religion with Mr. and Mrs. James Scott over a breakfast of hominy and buttermilk. And just west of Eagle Rock, on Craig's Creek, in present Botetourt County, they spent the night on bear skins with John Crawford's family among a people they said lived "like savages," and whose "clothes [consisted] of deer skins." But the Wilsons, Scotts, and Crawfords didn't intend to eke out a living from the woods forever. They endured deerskin clothing, bearskin bedding, and a diet of "Johnny cakes, deer and bear meat," believing that things must get better.
Although Indians later killed one of the Crawfords and wounded another on Craig's Creek, John Crawford stubbornly refused to be moved, and in 1774 he was still accomodating travelers, including William Fleming who stopped there on his way to Staunton after the battle of Point Pleasant. In a quarter of a century the Crawfords' clothing must have improved since 1749 when Schnell and Brandmuller said "hunting [was the people's] chief occupation."
In 1789 Benjamin Allen, a fifteen-year-old youth traveling to Kentucky, had money to buy a coat of frieze cloth in Hancock, Md., a few miles from where Schnell and Brandmuller had met Germans in Indian clothing forty years earlier. In Kentucky the following year Allen's Shawnee captors—who themselves wore nothing but leggings and breechcloths—made him take off his coat and vest. As a preliminary to adoption they "brought two calico hunting shirts, sort of red with half the arm worn off, and put them on me. They then tied on a blanket round me, with a buffalo tug; and then tied a piece of blanket round my head. They then patted me on the head, and said, 'Indian.'" Allen escaped to the settlements near present Winchester, Ky. where Joshua Baker gave him a blue hunting shirt and a new hat" to replace the fanciful Indian gifts he had worn with his shirt, long pants, and moccasins.
For decades conditions of poverty persisted wherever the edge of white settlement touched the wilderness. In 1831, on the San Bernard river in Texas, Noah Smithwick dined with the family of Thomas B. Bell, all "dressed in buckskin," ranged on stools around a clapboard table in a "little pole-cabin," eating from wooden platters with cane forks and their butcher and pocket knives, and drinking milk from cups of "little wild cymlings, scraped and scoured until they looked as white and clean as earthenware." It was a way of life their family had carried from frontier to frontier. And yet, said Smithwick, "in the course of time the pole cabin gave place to a handsome brick house [and] their rude furnishings [to] the best the country had to offer."
In 1773, five-year-old George Christian, at his father's camp on Reedy Creek of Holston, encountered Daniel Boone "dressed in deerskin collord black" as mourning for his son James, murdered by Indians in Powell Valley while driving cattle for what would have been the first white settlement in Kentucky. But Boone was a poor man. In 1771 he had returned destitute from a long hunt, robbed twice by Indians and in debt to investors for the cost of lead, powder, and traps. In 1773 he had sold all his land and was living in a cabin on David Gass' Clinch River farm. When George Christian saw him it isn't likely he had the means to dress as decently as when he appeared in 1781 at the Virginia Assembly in a "common jeans suit." Nevertheless, even in Richmond, Va. Boone couldn't resist wearing buckskin "leggins beded vary neately ... by the Indians."
While many of Boone's neighbors bought osnaburg, striped cotton, Irish linen, hanks of silk, broadcloth, and buckram at Evan Shelby's store in the winter of '72-3, others as poor as he resorted to nettles and buckskin for clothing. The only purchase recorded for Boone that year was on January 26, 1773 when Shelby extended him enough credit for "17 1/2 lbs. loaf sugar [and] 2 quarts rum."
No doubt Shelby figured the hunter's credit was good enough. Boone might be on his feet after another season. Killing deer, preparing and transporting the hides, was arduous but potentially lucrative work. If a hunter were skillful or lucky enough to avoid robbery he could make a fortune. In 1767 near the "roundabout" on Smith River, in present Henry County Va., Elisha Walling, who "never cultivated the soil" but "always returned home with his horses laden with skins and furs," could afford to keep a slave, Jake, probably to grow food while he hunted. In better times Boone also belied the stereotype of hunters as less well off than frontier farmers, and could afford a watch that he "plade away at dise," a pocket flask for his rum, and a copy of Gulliver's Travels to read aloud to fellow hunters.
Most hunters settled down once age had caught up with them. In 1784 schoolmaster John Filson ghosted an autobiography of fifty-year-old Daniel Boone "formerly a hunter," and in 1785 William Martin met long hunter Isaac Bledsoe who, at fifty, "was rather old for the woods."
In later life these "common finders of Back Lands" often became paid guides. James Burke and Charles St. Clair ("a white man in Indian garb") demanded rich tracts from James Patton for their services. And some like Boone learned to survey a little. Virginia Governor David Campbell of Washington County remembered that Elisha Walling and his brother Thomas "located lands in both Virginia and [Tennessee] ... near the line of the two States," getting their names "mixed up ... with almost every old land claim [either as] first owners or locater or chain carrier when the survey was made." At fifty, Walling had apparently done all right for himself. In 1785 at Calland's store on Dan River in Pittsylvania County, Va. Walling bought "a fine apron ... handkerchie ... and silk" to take home to his wife and daughters on Holston. But even at sixty he hadn't settled down. When John Redd called at Walling's cabin eighteen miles above Knoxville in 1796 "his wife informed me that he had ... been absent a month" on a hunt.
During the revolution New Englanders called riflemen "buckskins" because of their preoccupation with hunting, not because of their clothes. The Yankees no doubt got an ear full of stories such as James Knox from near Wolf Hills (Abingdon, Va.) might have told in camp at Saratoga and Stillwater about a time in Kentucky when Indians ripped open valuable bales of deerskin, allowing wolves and weather to destroy a year's work.
|Delaware Indian chief and army scout Black Beaver in 1850. He wears a caped and buttonless Indian hunting coat (called hunting shirt by whites) over a dark calico shirt. His legs are covered by Indian leggings, and his feet by moccasins. With his European style hair, he seems the very image of a long hunter forced to get most of his clothing from the woods.|
As disagreeable as buckskin was to wear, extended stays in the wilderness—often close to two years—made it impossible for hunters to avoid. James Dysart told his son that once he and the other long hunters had put civilization behind them they depended upon their rifles for both food and clothing. In autumn of 1766 Pennsylvania backwoodsman James Smith left his "good clothes" at the home of George Adams near Fort Chiswell in southwest Virginia before traveling into the wilderness "south of Kentucky" with William Baker, Uriah Stone, Joshua Horton, and Horton's eighteen-year-old "mulatto" servant Jamie. At the start Smith and his companions likely wore linsey hunting shirts, leather breeches, and "Indian boots." In these clothes they would have made as rough an appearance as convict servant George Wilkinson " when he ran away in 1768 wearing "a new felt hat, hunting shirt and callico waistcoat, with old buckskin breeches, blue leggings, and old shoes." Smith's party would have worn moccasins for wilderness travel.
They had got as far west as the mouth of Tennessee River when Smith swapped horses for ammunition and the loan of Jamie and turned back. In October 1767, a year after they had set out, Smith and Jamie appeared on the Carolina frontier wearing buckskin leggings attached to belts over which hung the flaps of breech clouts, exposing their hips to view and the weather.
Smith's jacket and shirt had long since been whipped into rags by canebrakes and underbrush, but he still wore his hat of beaver felt, and for the rest made do with items furnished by acquaintances who had recently moved to Carolina from Pennsylvania—"a white shirt [he] wore loose, and an old blanket" he threw over his shoulders like an Indian match coat. At George Adams' he made himself presentable in the clothes he left on the way out.
Jamie didn't change out of the clothes Smith had made for him until he was delivered to "Mr. Horton's negro-quarter [at] Fort Chiswell." In addition to his leggings Jamie wore "a bearskin dressed with the hair on ... and a raccoon-skin cap," probably patterned after garments Smith recollected from his captivity with the Caunawagha Indians. Genuine bear skins, however, should not be confused with a shaggy woolen material called "bearskin," commonly used in the eighteenth century to make overcoats. One Draper correspondent remembered his father buying a woolen "bear-skin coat for a trip to Williamsburgh," but said his father would not wear such a fancy garment near their home at Kearn's fort on the Monongahela River "for fear people would think he was proud."
Even hunters preferred plain but civilized attire when they weren’t chasing bear through the brush. In 1779 loyalist raiders twice plundered the home of long hunter John Cox near Peach Bottom fort west of New River. On their first visit they stole three of his "five Rifle Guns." A short time later they returned and took his "Stallion, Saddle and Bridle" and made him hand over his "new Coat [and] Breeches ... with his Pocket Book, papers and all the money ..." His deposition given in 1781 doesn't say if his breeches were linsey or buckskin, as they would have been in 1761 when he hunted in Kentucky with Elisha Walling. But it does suggest that at home he preferred wearing a coat, not a hunting shirt.
The thieves apparently left Cox in his shirt, stockings and shoes—or perhaps moccasins. Because as much as backwoods settlers disliked wearing buckskin on their backs, they showed an actual fondness for wearing it on their feet. In 1775 near present Shirleysburg, Pa. Philip Fithian noted it was "the custom in these back Woods almost universally with Women, to go barefooted.—Men in common I observe wear Mockisons, or Indian's Shoes." They were made of single pieces of dressed deerskin sewn together with awls and leather strings called "whangs," with a gathering stitch at the top of the foot and a seam in the heel, leaving flaps at the ancle that could be turned down or tied up to keep out pebbles, dirt, and snow.
The childhood necessity of going shoeless in the backwoods had conditioned most young men in spring and summer to prefer Indian footwear as "a decent way of going barefoot." James Robertson, the founder of Nashville, "was fond of wearing moccasons even in after life when necessity no longer required it." And since moisture from sweat, rain, and the damp earth caused an inflamation known as "scald feet," backwoodsmen were forever inventing various methods of waterproofing, sometimes stuffing moccasins with deer hair, or lining them with "dry beach or white oak leaves." George Bedinger took the precaution in winter of keeping his moccasins frozen "in order to prevent the leaves within from becoming wet and uncomfortable." Hugh F. Bell did the same with "Buffalo-skin" moccasins. These he said were best for hunting in the woods, explaining to Lyman Draper that "buffalo hide [with] the hair side turned in ... would not easily saturate," but he added that hunters preferred wearing deerskin moccasins in camp.
Moisture destroyed deerskin moccasins so rapidly they were in constant need of repair or replacement. Numerous references in Dr. Thomas Walker's journal of 1749-50 show what a struggle it was for him and his companions to keep from going barefoot in the Kentucky wilderness. Near the beginning of the journey, on Clover Creek west of Cumberland Gap, Walker made a new "pair of Indian Shoes, those I brought out being bad," and near journey's end paused "nigh the top of Alleghany Ridge" to shave, shift, and make "new Shoes" before descending to the settlements on Jackson's River.
In 1775 James Ewing from near near Wright’s ferry on the Susquehanna worried that a stolen pair of "whitish Indian leggings and mockasons" would allow his runaway servant to pass for "a backwoods man." In 1768 a real backwoods man, Frederick Stump, born in Heidelberg Township in present Lebanon County, Pa., was dressed in "Mockasons," blue leggings, leather breeches, a light brown coat, and a blue great coat when a mob broke him out of Carlisle jail. Stump was a murderer. With help from his servant, John Ironcutter, he killed six Indians at his home on Middle Creek and shot four more in a cabin a few miles upstream, burning the cabin over the bodies. His German-born accomplice walked away from jail in a pair of "Shoes with Brass Buckles."
In winter it was not uncommon for many backwoods residents to make (or have made) cowhide shoes blacked with soot and lard, and sealed with tallow to keep out cold and snow. Joseph Doddridge's father made his family's shoes from home-tanned leather that was "coarse but substantially good," and boasted that "no woman could spin shoe thread as well as he could." Oliver Johnson, son of an Indiana settler, went barefoot in the frost until his sisters were shod. Boys, he said, didn't generally get a pair of shoes until Christmas. And rifleman John Joseph Henry, although he started in moccasins for Quebec on September 11, 1775, "[closely hoarded] a pair of tolerably good shoes" for use in cold weather; and later, when his shoes split at the heel, he tied them on with bark.
Considerations other than comfort also dictated styles of footwear. Oliver Johnson said "grown girls" wanting to "fix up" for Sunday meeting wouldn't put on shoes and stockings "until they come in sight of the meetin house," and afterwards "wouldn't be more than out of sight when they would take em off ... they was so used to goin barefoot their shoes felt a mighty sight more comfortable carried in the hand." And John Joseph Henry, on his way home from British captivity following the failed expedition to take Quebec, borrowed money at the Harp and Crown in Philadelphia so he could "exchange ... leggings and moccasins, for a pair of stockings and shoes." He wanted to be presentable when he arrived home in Lancaster. Wedding infares and house warmings likewise required a degree formality, and dancing on new-made puncheon floors required footwear that could stand up to splinters. Wedding guests in Kentucky or Tennessee may have been as resourceful as some east Texas settlers in 1831. When the boys in shoes "had danced a turn," said Noah Smithwick, "they generously exchanged footgear with the moccasined contingent, and we just literally kicked every splinter off the floor before morning."
A compromise form of footwear that mediated between short-lived moccasins and uncomfortable shoes was the shoepack, a sort of a moccasin that didn't meet in one piece over the toe but was attached with a gathering stitch to a tongue piece like the modern day "moc toe." The shoepack sometimes included a sole. Of nine references to shoepacks in the Pennsylvania Gazette between the years 1731 and 1778 seven were to runaway servants who escaped from various places in southeastern Pennsylvania and West Jersey. The other two references were to runaways from the Virginia Valley, one in 1768 from near Staunton, and the last in 1778 from the Mossy Creek Iron Works in Augusta County, Va. The owner of the iron works, Henry Miller, had come to the Valley from Berks County, Pa. with the family of Squire Boone, and was Daniel Boone's frequent hunting companion in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
But if a partiality for deerskin footwear fits our stereotype of backwoodsmen, their reluctance to wear coonskin caps does not. Felt hats were the norm in the backwoods as elsewhere, but overwhelmingly hats with respectable, protestant round brims. Whatever their shape, hats everywhere were described in newspapers by the type of felt they were made of. "Wool," "fur," "beaver," "castor," and "raccoon" were all descriptions of felt hats, and not knit or animal skin caps. Oliver Johnson explained how in the backwoods of Indiana in the 1820s and '30s coon fur was used to make the felt and nap of bell-crowned hats. They "looked purty slick [when they was smoothed up]," he said, but they "fuzzed up like an old mad coon for sure" when wet. Johnson's father refused to wear the "bell-crown style" of his day for the same reason backwoodsmen west of the Blue Ridge refused to wear cocked hats a century earlier: fancy head gear "made him feel stuck up." Like most dissenters, Mr. Johnson "always wore a plain, broad-brim wool hat." Most frontiersmen would probably agree with the Draper correspondent who thought surveyor George Bedinger's "old Revolutionary cocked hat" was "an oddity" on a par with the feathered goose skin cap worn by his chain carrier.
J. D. F. Smyth described backwoodsmen as wearing "flapped hats," so called from the flexible brims that might be "flapped before," pulled down to shield eyes from the weather. Such hats should not be confused with the skin caps colonists of New Sweden "provided with flaps." The "fur caps" Peter Kalm mentioned no doubt resembled the "catskin hunting cap" worn by Maryland volunteer John Neilson, who also wore a hunting shirt when he deserted from the Continental army in 1776. I assume Neilson's cap had the head of a bob cat on it, perhaps a mountain lion's—certainly not a house cat's.
According to Edward Swanson, early settlers near Nashville sometimes "wore bear Skins caps for hats." As Hugh F. Bell explained, hunters sometimes left the skin of a bear's head on the rest of the hide, putting their arms into the hollow forelegs as if they were sleeves, and using the skin of the head as a type of hood. From all accounts, coonskin head coverings like that worn by James Smith's companion Jamie were extremely rare. Oliver Johnson says "some coonskin caps was worn" in 1820s Indiana, "but not many with the tail left on." One early reference indicates they were of Indian origin. At Fort Pitt in 1777 Captain Samuel Brady ordered "Indian spy" George Roush of Hampshire County, W.Va. "to tan his thighs and legs with wild cherry and white oak bark and [to put on] a breechcloth, leather leggins, [and] moccasins ..." Complying with orders, Roush painted his face red "with three black stripes across the cheeks ..." and topped it all off with a cap "made out of a raccoon skin, with the feathers of a hawk, painted red, fastened to the top." Still, counterfeit Indians were unusual enough in the Kentucky settlements of 1780 that a Mr. Cassidy "fired at a couple of spies ... in Indian dress, and killed one of them."
At the time of Mr. Cassidy's unfortunate accident Indian clothing had been in use by backwoods militia since the French War. In December of 1756, in the aftermath of Braddock's defeat, Washington wrote to Captain John Ashby at his fort on Patterson's Creek, "it is impossible to get clothing here [Winchester] for your men. I think none so proper for Rangers as Match-coats: therefore would advise you to procure them." A match coat was a light weight robe a warrior draped over his shoulders and tied round his waist. It was better in the cold than a military greatcoat because it allowed a man to move quickly and quietly through the brush.
|European depiction of a traditional Indian matchcoat made of fur that was turned to the inside.|
Before Europeans came Indian match coats were made by matching the skins of fur-bearing animals like otter and beaver; but by the eighteenth century most were made of blanket-like material. Washington could remember a time in December of 1753 when he "tied [himself] up in a Match Coat," and in leggings and moccasins walked through the snow to the French posts in northern Pennsylvania with Christopher Gist "fitted in the same manner." In North Carolina Daniel Boone hugged his young son, James, close inside his own "blanket coat" to save him from the cold on a winter hunt in the Blue Ridge. And in February of 1764 Pennsylvanians near Germantown described a party of Indian-hating vigilantes from Paxton Township as dressed in "blanket coats and moccasins, like our Indian traders or back country wagoners, all armed with rifles and tomahawks, and some with pistols stuck in their belts."
|A short hunting shirt from the Revolutionary era. According to Joseph Doddridge of western Pennsylvania, some hunting shirts were so short the belt that held the bosom together also supported a breech clout and strings for Indian leggings, "leaving the upper part of the thighs and part of the hips naked." This warm weather shirt is made of white linen. In cooler weather hunting shirts were made of more substantial cloth and almost reached to the knees.|
Indian fashion got an additional boost from former captives. In 1763 James Smith turned his four years with the Caunawagha Indians to advantage when neighbors in the Conococheague Valley hired him to recruit a company of riflemen to patrol the frontier. Two of Smith's officers were "active young men" who had also been captives, and they dressed their men "uniformly in the Indian manner, with breech-clouts, leggins, mockesons and green strouds, which we wore in the same manner that Indians do, and nearly as Highlanders wear their plaids. In place of hats we wore red handkerchiefs, and painted our faces red and black, like Indian warriors."
In autumn of 1764, when Col. Henry Bouquet—now the British commandant of Fort Pitt—undertook an expedition to force the Ohio tribes to sue for peace, he asked Major Andrew Lewis of Augusta County to recruit one hundred fifty backwoods Virginians to go with his regulars. Lewis put out a call to frontier stations for volunteers to go on the expedition with his brother Captain Charles Lewis. Bouquet valued the participation of these men whose Indian-like appearance impressed him on Forbes' campaign. Again they did not disappoint, and Bouquet praised "their light dress, and activity," which he said "has made Impression upon the Savages."
The expedition offered some backwoods soldiers an opportunity to find lost kinfolk, many of whom had been taken as young children, and who naturally resisted being torn from Native parents. Archibald Hamilton had been captured on Kerr's Creek at the impressionable age of seven and had been an Indian for nearly two years when a party of Virginians, including his father Robert Hamilton, left Bouquet's army in the dead of winter, extending their search to the lower Shawnee towns. Among nine captives delivered to them at Mackwayack were Hamilton's two daughters but no son. The Indians said Archibald was "at a camp on the Scioto" and agreed to send him to Fort Pitt with other prisoners in the spring. Before letting him go, "his mother squaw took him, and dressed his hair in [Indian] fashion [with] bears oil, and told him to ... tell his people she had treated him well." He arrived at Fort Pitt in March of 1765 and promptly demostrated how difficult his assimilation would be, throwing off all his civilized clothes from "the King's store" except "enough to make a breech clout." His family was able to identify him only because a neighbor "taken [prisoner] while digging ginseng on the Mountains near [Kerr's] Creek knew [Archibald] when he got out there, and was bro't into Pittsburgh at the same time."
Thomas Ingles—taken from Draper's Meadows as a toddler in 1755—remained with the Shawnee until his father, William Ingles, ransomed him in 1768. His brother remembered how Thomas came to Ingles' Ferry on New River at age seventeen, "an entire Indian in his manner and appearance," and how his parents experienced "considerable difficulty in getting him to change his Indian custom of wearing his clothes ..." Whenever he would disappear two and three days at a stretch they must have been as anxious as Rebecca Linn near Stoddart's Fort in Maryland when her son Isaac "put on his Indian dress and took his gun ... afraid he was going to go off to the Indians again, but he only went to hunt."
Similar instances of rebellion occurred along the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers as nearly two hundred recovered captives came to terms with their birth families. But if the former captives brought problems, they also provided solutions. Their woodsmanship and knowledge of Indian warfare made them uniquely valuable as warriors and Indian spies. Not only were they the best men for these jobs, they became wilderness masters to young apprentices, inspiring imitation and making "Indian dress" more a source of identity and pride than ever before.