Friday, January 31, 2014

18th Century Woodsmanship and Its Modern Applications

As I have written before in the context of The Modern Woodsman, I believe woodsmanship to be a continuum, where skills and tools are improved and refined over the generations by successive waves of woodsmen going into the wilderness. For many, bushcraft shares a similar understanding of woodsmanship, seeking to apply skills and equipment from the past, to our modern wilderness travels. To that end, I wanted to take a look at how the 18th century woodsmanship (with 19th and early 20 century to follow in future posts) has developed into, and has effected the modern woodsman.

Looking to the past for knowledge, especially when it comes to living in the wilderness is a valuable tool. We are in a privileged position to be able to look at the experiences of others over centuries of time and pick out what worked and what didn’t, a luxury those men never had. There is however a danger in the fact that if we look at the past out of context and consequently apply any particular skills or equipment from the past out of context, we can easily lose our way and render those skills and equipment less than useful. Too often we look at the past through the eyes of our current woodsmanship experience, and try to force particular aspects of woodsmanship from earlier times into our modern experience and expectations.

I believe that if we are to search the past for information, we have to view it in the context in which it occurs. Pulling individual skills and equipment without seeing how they were used and how they worked together, and then trying to force them into our modern wilderness experience creates more problems than it solves.

The modern outdoorsman tends to be a backpacker. Usually, the gear ends up being carried in a backpack on one’s back. As such, we often assume that when we look at historical accounts and gear lists, those men carried their equipment in a similar way. Even those of us who do not travel on foot but rather prefer methods such as canoeing, when looking at historical examples, we tend to brush over exactly why, how, or in what context certain gear was carried.

So, when one reads about a gear list carried by a favorite Long Hunter, and sees that he carried two blankets, a tent, a bear fur, a flint striker and a pot, too often we get focused on the list, and forget to look at the surrounding circumstances such as how the gear was used, and how it was carried. Did the particular long hunter carry that gear on his back, or did he carry it using his two pack horses? Did he expect that the two blankets he had would keep him warm during the winter months as he slept under a tree, or did he intend them to be used in a permanent camp that was built three years prior? The answers to these questions and others, will make a huge difference as to whether we can now take that same gear list, toss it into our backpack and go into the woods as we would with our modern gear. 

So all that being said, I want to take a look at the 18th century woodsman, the most popular example these days being the Long Hunter. I will not be focusing on any specific piece of gear that they used, but rather on the overall approach they took to the wilderness, in particular their mode of transporting their gear, and the expectations they had once in the woods.

 Squire Boone crossing the mountains with stores for his brother Daniel and brother-in-law John Stewart encamped in the wilds of Kentucky.

The Long Hunts originated in the 18th century whereby men from Virginia and the surrounding areas pushed into Tennessee and other western areas in order to hunt, trade, and trap. Such hunts date back to the 1700s. The expeditions typically lasted about six months, from October through March. Notable long hunters included Daniel Boone, Richard Callaway, James Smith, Joseph Martin, and others.

So, how did the long hunters do it? How did they transport their gear, and how did they use it? What expectations did they have of their gear?

From the little that I know on the subject, the image that we have of the long hunter, as a solitary woodsman, traveling into the wilderness with a bedroll and a rifle slung over his shoulder, living off the land, is not all too accurate. It appears that the standard long hunt involved a sizable group of men, well equipped with supplies, both food and gear, traveling into the wilderness along routes established by Native Americans or prior parties, using large pack trains to transport their equipment. Once the desired area was reached, a permanent camp would be build, and from there smaller parties of two or three men would brake off with their horses and supplies and spread out. Each man had two or three horses with him. 

Emory L. Hamilton in The Mountain Empire Genealogical Quarterly, l984 writes “The long hunters went out together in large parties, built a station camp, then
fanned out in twos and threes to range and hunt over large areas…It is thought his party consisted of eighteen or nineteen men…

In certain cases, like the long hunt lead by James Knox in 1769, there were over forty hunters in the party. After arriving to the hunting or trading grounds, the group would split up.

In a story reported by a long hunter, John Reed of Pittsylvania Co Virginia, he writes “He returned in l775 and established his Station… three men, with two horses each, and with their traps, guns and other necessary equipment for a long hunt, settled down in the bottom above alluded to; built a camp and spent the fall, winter and part of the spring there in hunting.

Hamilton also states that “The long hunters set out with two pack horses each a large supply of powder and lead, a small hand vise and bellows, a screwplate and files for repairing their rifles, and while he makes no mention of it, they also carried a supply of flour and bread. In fact, on the way out they could carry quite a lot of supplies as each hunter had two pack horses.”

In the Life & Times of Col. Daniel Boone, 1775 he writes that “A day was soon appointed for the march of the little cavalcade to the camp. Two or three horses furnished with pack−saddles were loaded with flour, Indian meal, blankets, and every thing else requisite for the use of the hunter.”

While the individual gear would have varied, it is clear that horses for transportation of equipment and supply were seen as a necessity, just as were supplies which were brought along. In Daniel Boone’s Adventures, 1784 he writes “We continued not in a state of indolence, but hunted every day, and prepared a little cottage to defend us from the winter storms. We remained there undisturbed during the winter; and on the first day of May, 1770, my brother returned home to the settlement by himself, for a new recruit of horses and ammunition, leaving me by myself, without bread, salt or sugar, without company of my fellow creatures, or even a horse or dog. I confess I never before was under greater necessity of exercising philosophy and fortitude.”

Once Tennessee was reached, it appears that the men typically built a a main camp, and then dispersed to build smaller camps for their individual sub group, where most of the time was spent. At times numerous, or chains of permanent camps were established, and Daniel Boone speaks several times of moving from one of his camps to another. There are some descriptions of the camps which can be found. 

Emory L. Hamilton in The Mountain Empire Genealogical Quarterly, l984 writes “The first known station camp established in Powell's Valley was that of Elisha Wallen in l76l… Wallen's station camp, set up at the mouth of Wallen's Creek, was probably like other station camps, built of poles, sometime only eight-ten feet, covered with puncheions or bark, walls on three sides the front open, along which a fire was built for warmth. Upright poles were set up---often a forked pole was driven into the ground, with a cross pole on which the bark or pucheons were laid, sloping toward the back in order to drain melting snow or rain away from the fire. This type of shelter was known as ‘Half-faced’”.


John Reed also writes in a letter, "The remains of the camp I saw in Powell Valley were on its north side; and as well as my memory serves me, were within forty or fifty yards of the mouth of Wallen's creek at the ford of Powell/s river. The camp was built beside a large limestone rock which served for the back of the camp. The names of the persons whose bones I saw there I should be unable to accurately distinguish were I to hear them. This may be possibly the camp pitched by Bonne's war party. The bones I saw were not known certainly to be those of the two long hunters having gone on a long hunt in Powell Valley in l773, who had not returned. The camp was eight or ten miles from Martin's Station.”

It appears the procedure was relatively well established, especially in the later years. The groups followed a known route each year into the wilderness, and utilized a network of camps and forts until finally splitting up once the hunting grounds had been reached. At that point individual, semi-permanent camps were established, where most of the time was spent, particularly during winter.

General William Hall, of Lucustland, Tennessee, in 1845 writes “The long hunters principally resided in the upper country of Va., and North Carolina, on the New River and Holston River, and when they intended to make a long hunt, as they called it, they collected near the head of Holston, near where Abingdon now stands. Thence they proceeded a westerly direction passing through Powell's valley crossing the Cumberland mountain where the road now crosses leading to the Crab Orchard in Ky. Then crossing the Cumberland River where the said road now crosses Rockcastle, and leaving the Crab Orchard to the right and continuing nearly the said course, crossing the head of Green River, going on through the Barrens, crossing Big Barren River at the mouth of Drake's Creek; thence up Drake'c Creek to the head, crossing the ridge which divides the waters of the Ohio river from the waters of the Cumberland, and the hunters, after crossing the ridge, either went down Bledsoe's Creek, or Station Camp Creek to the river and then spread out in the Cumberland ready to make their hunt.”

Since the standard procedure, or at least as reflected in the writings I have been able to find, was to travel by pack train, with about three horses per person, and stay in permanent or semi permanent camps, most of the information is not directly relevant to a modern woodsman who carries his gear on his back. The gear list of what a person carried on his two pack horses would not translate very well into gear that could be carried in a backpack. Similarly, gear intended to be used in a permanent shelter for the duration of the trip would be different from gear which has to be moved each day and allow you to sleep without such a shelter. I had a much harder time finding any descriptions of time spent in the woods without the aid of pack horses on established camps. Certainly it was done, especially during warmer weather.

In Daniel Boone’s Adventures, 1784 he describes one such instance “I kindled a fire near a fountain of sweet water, and feasted on the loin of a buck, which a few hours before I had killed. The sullen shades of night soon overspread the whole hemisphere, and the earth seemed to gasp after the hovering moisture. My roving excursion this day had fatigued my body, and diverted my imagination. I laid me down to sleep, and I awoke not until the sun had chased away the night.”

For more of a glimpse into how a person of that time might have spent time in the woods with man-portable gear I had to look beyond descriptions of long hunts. Some military gear lists for infantry provide interesting information. While most armies move with supply train where a lot of the gear is carried, some lists point more to items that were carried by the individual soldier.

The best list I have been able to find is from the papers of Francois Charles de Bourlamaque, 1757, who at the time was commanding Fort Ticonderoga in New York. The corresponding gear list is therefore suited for an environment further north than that of the long hunters, but I imagine there is a lot of overlap.

  • Summer Equipment For the Officer: 1 capot; 1 blanket; 1 woolen cap; 2 cotton shirts; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 1 breech-cloth; 2 skeins of thread; 6 needles; 1 awl; 1 firesteel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 pair of moccasins every month; 1 tomahawk.
  • Winter Equipment For the Officer (in addition to the summer equipment above): 1 bearskin; 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 2 folding knives; 1 pair mittens; 1 vest; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings; 2 pairs of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes.
  • Summer Equipment For the Soldier: 1 blanket; 1 capot; 1 cap; 2 cotton shirts; 1 pair of breeches; 1 pair of underpants; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 2 skeins of thread; six needles; 1 awl; 1 fire steel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 tomahawk; 1 pair of moccasins every month.
  • Winter Equipment For the Soldier (in addition to the summer equipment above): 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 1 pair of mittens; 1 vest; 2 folding knives; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings; 2 pair of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes; 1 bearskin.
  • Summer Equipment For the Militiaman: 1 blanket; 1 capot or bougrine (capot or a loose blouse or cape?); 2 cotton shirts; 1 breech cloth; 1 pair of leggings (mitasses); 2 skeins of thread; 6 needles; 1 awl; 1 firesteel; 6 gunflints; 1 butcher knife; 1 comb; 1 gunworm; 1 tomahawk; 1 pair moccasins every month.
  • Winter Equipment For the Militiaman (in addition to the summer equipment above): 2 pairs of short stockings (socks); 1 pair of mittens; 1 vest; 2 folding knives; 1/2 aune of blanket to make leggings (mitasses); 2 pair of deerskin shoes; 1 greased deerskin; 2 portage collars; 1 toboggan; 1 pair of snowshoes; 1 bearskin.
  • Additional/Group Equipment For Soldiers and Militiamen: 1/2 pound (livre) of gunpowder; 1 pound (livre) of balls; 1 pound (livre) of tobacco; 1 axe for 2 men; 1 tarpaulin and 1 cooking boiler for every 4 men.

Referencing another military campaign from the same year, a letter published in the Boston Gazette, April 18, 1757 (the letter being dated April 12, 1757), describing the French-Canadian army lead by Francois-Pierre Rigaud, Governor of Trois Rivieres against Ft. William Henry, at the time commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Eyre, we are provided a very similar list: "This morning an account was bro't to town, that a large army of French and Indians were seen at a small distance from the German flats, but few here believe it. Sir William Johnson is still in readiness, with 1500 of the militia. Every man in the French army that came against Fort William Henry, was equipped in the following manner, viz. With two pair of Indian shoes, 2 pair of stockings, 1 pair of spatterdashes, 1 pair of breechees, 2 jackets, 1 large over-coat, 2 shirts, 2 caps, 1 hat, 1 pair of mittins, 1 tomahawk, 2 pocket-knives, 1 scalping knife, 1 steel and flint, every two men an ax, and every four a kettle and oyl cloth for a tent, with one blanket and a bearskin, and 12 days provision of pork and bread; all which they drew on little hand-sleighs." From the way the letter is written, it appears that every four men had one oil cloth tarp, one blanket and one bearskin. This may simply be poor wording with respect to the blanket and bearskin. It is more likely that each man had an individual blanket and bearskin, while sharing a tarp. This list refers to a winter gear list, as the gear was pulled on sleighs across the frozen Lake George. This account was re-published in The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783 by Mary Jane Corry, Kate Van Winkle Keller, and Robert M. Keller

Another source from the period, a letter written by George Bouchier Worgan in 1788, he states: “As for my part I shall be obliged soon to make a Virtue of Necessity for I have torn almost all my Cloaths to pieces by going into the Woods; and tho' we do not want for Taylors, We do, Woolen Drapers. Our Excursions, put me in Mind of your going a Steeple Hunting, We sometimes, put a Bit of Salt Beef, or Pork, Bisket, a Bottle of 0 be joyful, in a Snapsack throw it over our Backs, take a Hatchet, a Brace of Pistols, and a Musket, and away we go, scouring the Woods, sometimes East, West, N. S. if Night overtakes us, we light up a rousing Fire, Cut Boughs & make up a Wig-Wam, open our Wallets, and eat as hearty of our Fare as You, of your Dainties, then lie down on a Bed, which tho' not of Roses, yet staying out all Night, accordingly We laid down our Bread an Cheese Wallets, make up a Wig-wam of green Boughs, cut some dry Ferns for a Bed, lit two or three rousing Fires near our Hut, and set down to Dinner. We sung the Evening away, and about 9 O’Clock retired to Rest, taking it by turns to keep watch, and supply the Fires with Fuel.

In his journal in 1744, chronicling his travels from Pennsylvania to Canada, John Bartram gives another example: “the night following it thundred and rained very faft, and took us at a difadvantage, for we had made no fhelter to keep off the rain, neither could we fee it till juft over our heads, and it began to fall. One of our Indians cut 4 fticks 5 feet long, and ftuck both ends into the ground, at 2 foot diftance, one from another ; over thefe he fpread his match coat and crept through them, and then fell to finging : in the mean time we were fetting poles nflantwife in the ground, tying others crofs them, over which we' fpread our blanket and crept clofe under it with a fire before us and fell faft afleep. I waked a little after midnight, and found our fire almoft out, fo I got the hatchet and felled a few faplings which I laid on, and made a roufing fire, tho' it rained ftoutly, and laying down once more, I flept found all night.

There are some interesting things which can be noted from the above lists with respect to the 18th century woodsman who carried his equipment on his back, and expected to stay outdoors during the night rather that in established shelters.

The first thing that struck me is that individuals did not appear to carry their own, personal size tarps. When traveling alone, the expectation seems to have been that a shelter would be built from the surrounding plants and resources or perhaps in times of heavy rain, that the blanket would be used as a tarp. Tarps and tents seem to have been devices reserved for large groups, and they took the form of group shelters. See above lists.

The second is that it doesn’t appear that people carried their own personal pots. Again, the pot seems to have been a communal implement. That is not so surprising, since water purification was not a practice back then, and most food was roasted near the fire. See above lists.

Another noticeable characteristic is that when traveling on foot, only a single blanket seems to have been carried. There appears to have been no expectation that a person would be able to spend the night out in the woods comfortably without the use of a fire simply by using the blanket. In virtually all accounts, fires were kept burning through the night for warmth. In his journal, Rufas Putnam, 1754 writes: “Our custom on this march was to encamp ten men at a fire.” Spending the night without fire was only done in emergencies as David Thompson write in 1798: “…a most terrible Storm came on…we are quite without shelter…passing our Time sitting in the Snow under an Oak with a Blanket wrapped round us.” Also see above lists.

It should also be noted that winter travel was significantly limited. As mentioned further above, most Long Hunters remained in permanent camps during winter. Similarly, in 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark’s men spent the winters in a permanent camps. When travel was necessary, such as during military operations, additional insulation for sleeping was provided not by more wool blankets, but rather by animal furs. Consequently, the weight of a person’s gear would be too much, and modified forms of transportation would be required. In the case of the gear list form Fort Ticonderoga, each man was issued a toboggan for transporting his equipment. As the only main difference in the gear lists between summer and winter was the additional furs, it can be assumed that this was the main source for the need for a toboggan. See above lists.

Please keep in mind that the above observations are just based on my own research, and speak to the larger trends I was able to notice. Certainly there must have been people, as there always are, so did things their own way, and they would have done things differently.

So, what impact does the equipment and approach to the wilderness of the 18th century woodsman have on the modern woodsman?

I think we always see things through our mind’s eye, and I believe we have come up with a skewed image of the 18th century woodsman, and as a result of how that would translate into a modern version of the Long Hunter.

A common approach to recreating the 18th century woodsman, or creating a modern version of the Long Hunter, has been to take a modern woodsman, and simply replace his gear with 18th century inspired gear in a one to one equivalency. The nylon tarp or tent becomes a canvas tarp or tent; the sleeping bag is replaced with enough wool blankets to equal the same warmth, the sleeping pad is replaced by another blanket; the titanium pot is replaced with a steel one; the flashlight with a candle lantern. We then stuff it all into a canvas pack, and go into the woods the same way we have been doing with our modern gear, except that now our kit is ten times heavier and bulkier.

In my opinion that approach does not match up to the wilderness experience and tool use of those 18th century woodsmen.

For one, we are often times looking at gear lists intended to be carried by pack train and used in permanent shelter. Applying those lists to a person carrying their gear on their back is not an easy task, nor does it give us the true 18th century experience.

However, even when we do look at 18th century gear lists designed to be man-portable, we tend to try to force them into the way we do things with our modern gear instead of seeing how a woodsman of the time would have used them.

Both of the above errors lead us to create a hugely heavy and cumbersome kit. The reality is that there have been significant changes in the technology of outdoor gear, which has not only transformed out experience in the wilderness in degree, but also in kind. A modern sleeping bag is not just slightly warmer and lighter than a wool blanket. It is different enough so that it allows us to sleep comfortably in any weather without the use of a fire; a task unthinkable to an 18th century woodsman in anything other then an emergency. Similarly, a nylon tarp is not just a lighter version of a canvas one, it is light enough so that it can be carried by the individual; something that does not appear to have been common practice in the 18th century.  

Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the subject. I have tried to list a few primary sources above, so you guys can make your own conclusions. If you have any other information, please feel free to share it. This subject seems to be full of speculation, but lean on actual sources.

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