Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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M ELEY 27th December 2020 08:56 AM

Native American spike tomahawk, fur trade pole axes and skinning knives
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Although my primary collecting has always been maritime, I became fascinated with spike tomahawks when I learned that they were contemporary 'cousins' of the boarding ax. Here is one I just picked up recently and it may surprise some that they were not all huge beasties! This rather petite example is actually more the classic size, with an 11" haft, head measures approx 10" with the cutting edge at 1 1/4" inch. This cast steel head probably dates ca. 1825-50. I believe the wood haft is contemporary to the piece.

Some of the amazing facts about spike tomahawks; they predate the later (and more recognized pipe tomahawks), they were first introduced in the early 18th century and continued to be traded all the way up to the Indian Wars of the 1880's, most of the early ones were iron with steel bit inserts for the edge and sometimes the tip, they were primarily used as weapons but could also be used as tools to skin game, puncture leather, cut bark into strips, etc. Later steel examples were made by trip hammer forgings as early as 1800. Tool companies actually made these in catalogs and sold them to the Indians! The Underhill Tool Company made a 'hawk that often ended up in native hands. After later troubles and the Little Big Horn, the government looked down on the tool companies making these for 'the enemy' and discouraged it. The companies were too greedy to stop the trade and simply kept making them, but without their company logo!!

M ELEY 27th December 2020 08:58 AM

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Here are similar examples from the trade tomahawk page and also museum examples.

M ELEY 27th December 2020 09:04 AM

Of course, the question always comes up as to what is a real tomahawk, what is just a tool and what is a downright fake. If you decide to go into this field of collecting, you sometimes have to take chances and, of course, try to educate yourself. I am no expert, but have been doing research on these for awhile now.
Spike axes in particular are shifty. Axes that closely resemble them include fire axes, taffy cutting tools, ice hatchets, camp axes, mining tools and foreign axes (fokos, etc). Some excellent resources include Hartzler's book on tomahawks, Peterson's treatise on Native American axes and the following two web-sites-

M ELEY 27th December 2020 09:26 AM

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Of course spike tomahawks were not exclusive to Native American use. Fur trappers, colonial soldiers, 'mountain men', scouts, etc, also used such pieces. During the French and Indian War, there were several Scottish regiments that rejected the Brown Bess bayonet in favor of a tomahawk ax as sidearm. Here are two more spike 'skull hammers' from my collection. Both are early, possibly pre-1800 based on their styling/iron forging and have their original hafts. The smaller of the two has a steel bit and a steel spike forged into the iron. The larger specimen has an 'eared' base, lozenge shaped eye and an old blacksmith repair where a lug secures the head where it cracked through the eye.

Understanding the culture from which these axes emerged is truly amazing. During the trade years, a white blacksmith would often in good faith take a native wife in order to bond with the tribe that he was supplying trade items. Often, the smith would set up shop right on the perimeter of that particular tribe's land. This practice of taking a native wife was most popular with the French fur trappers, but many of the Hudson's Bay Company Brits did it as well.

Some will note the 'nail pulling slot' and call foul. Tomahawks never have nail slots like lathing axes, shingle hatchets, etc. The exception to this rule, however, is when they were drilled and cut later in the axe's life. These tools were often used for a century or more! Also, if the 'slot' is more square-shaped, they were often not for nail pulling, but were a trap chain pulling slot. Imagine sticking your arm down into icy water all day long to haul out a trapped beaver! The ax slot served as an extension of the arm to pull the trap from the chill river.

M ELEY 27th December 2020 09:41 AM

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The fascinating thing about these axes is that they truly 'walked the path' between two separate worlds. Made by Europeans, but sold to and used by Native Americans, they are both Ethno and non-Ethno pieces! Although a gruesome weapon in a fight, they were as essential as side knives for these warriors.

Here is another from my collection. This early piece might in truth be only a tool as it is very stocky and heavy (most, but not all spike tomahawk heads weigh less that a few pounds at most while this one might tip the scale!). Early iron spike ax with forging flaws and nice patina. Haft is probably modern replacement.

M ELEY 27th December 2020 10:01 AM

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Hammer pole axes were another popular ax of this era (18th-19th c.), but with very rare exception, were not used by the native peoples. These types were carried by soldiers, fur traders, explorers, etc. Some were mostly for tool use first, but also as a weapon in a pinch. Here are two early examples. The smaller piece is a true tool ax from around the time of the American Revolution. The 'hammer' end was indeed used for driving in nails/pegs. Note the nail pulling slot is a much later addition to this ax, which was drilled out and cut to form the slot.

Compare the smaller ax to the larger example and you will not the huge hammer end to the head. This end was NOT used as a tool, but served as a counter weight to give heft to the ax. This second example is a type known as a 'rifleman's belt ax', Second Pattern as identified by Hartzler's book and Neumann's 'Swords and Blades of the American Revolution'. If you didn't know what you were looking at, most would swear this is just a common shingling tool. This is why collecting these types can be tricky. Spike axes of old influenced the trench axes and fire axes and boy scout axes later!! Likewise, these hammer pole axe/tomahawks certainly morphed into the patterns of later tool axes. This ax is both tool and weapon and does deserve the title of 'tomahawk'. It should be noted that hammer pole tomahawks were issued to Sam Houston's 'Texican Army' and were used to graphic and bloody effect against Santa Anna's army after the Alamo. Likewise, Davie Crochet himself carried a presentation hammer pole tomahawk presented to him by friends in the 1820's.

M ELEY 27th December 2020 10:14 AM

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Finally, just to cap off the subject of fur trade weapons, no collection would be complete without the side knives carried during the period. Here is a primitive bowie-style knife with clipped point, wood slat grips with copper pins securing it to the tang.

The other piece is one that is fit for Paul Hogan! ;) :D Measuring almost 19" long, the hilt is an old honey patina stag horn while the trade blade is spear-point style. You will note the maker's stamp, which I unfortunately can't make out, that was so typical of trade blades being sent out to the western territories in the early to mid-19th century. This piece might have been used by a frontiersman or Native American. She's a true beast of a knife!! For similar examples, see Neumann's guide.

M ELEY 29th December 2020 01:57 PM

In 'Native American Weapons" by Colin Taylor, we see a very similar knife to my stag hilted piece on pg. 55

colin henshaw 29th December 2020 03:06 PM

Hi Mark

Interesting thread. I do like the primitive knife with the antler handle.

Regarding "American Indian" tomahawks and pipe tomahawks ... I've seen quite a few around here in the UK over the years, but always been kinda wary of them in general, as many seem to have little wear and signs of use. I understand the American Indians more or less just kept on making many of their weapons, accoutrements etc for resale. In addition there seems to be a thriving market in modern replica American Indian type weapons. So provenance is extra important in this field.

Is the above an accurate view do you believe ? How would you see the situation in the US ?


CutlassCollector 29th December 2020 08:04 PM

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Great display Mark,

Apart from fire axes boarding axes, being light, were also a useful substitute for a tomahawk or belt axe with the haft shortened. Many found their way ashore.
Some have been recovered from Native American sites and at least one from a burial site.
This one reputably found in New York State still has the remains of the broad arrow and with the spike removed or broken off.


Jim McDougall 29th December 2020 09:26 PM

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Originally Posted by M ELEY
The fascinating thing about these axes is that they truly 'walked the path' between two separate worlds. Made by Europeans, but sold to and used by Native Americans, they are both Ethno and non-Ethno pieces! Although a gruesome weapon in a fight, they were as essential as side knives for these warriors.

Here is another from my collection. This early piece might in truth be only a tool as it is very stocky and heavy (most, but not all spike tomahawk heads weigh less that a few pounds at most while this one might tip the scale!). Early iron spike ax with forging flaws and nice patina. Haft is probably modern replacement.

They very much did walk in two worlds, and while often colonist tools simply made by local smiths, they did find their way into tribal hands.
This one corresponds remarkably with an example in "Firearms, Traps and Tools of the Mountain Men", Carl P.Russell (1967, p.288, fig.75 a).
This is listed as from Onondaga, N.Y. as specimen #582, American Museum (Smithsonian).

William M. Beauchamp, "Metal Implements of the New York Indians" (N.Y.Museum, Bulletin 55, pp.1-86, Albany, 1902) includes this example and notes it has the initials J.G. on both sides of the 'bit'.

Onondaga in the 18th century was the capital of the Iroquois League, and during Revolutionary War , the Onondaga tribe allied with British. After the war they moved north into Canada as veterans were awarded land bounties under the Colonial New York Military Tract (1798).

The initials on the listed example in the museum suggests of course European use initially, but certainly these also fell into Onondaga hands.

Jim McDougall 30th December 2020 01:32 AM

Bone handle butcher knife
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In post #7, the top example with bone handle:
As Mark noted, the blade on p.55 ("Native American Weapons" , Colin Taylor) is very similar.
In "Firearms, traps, and Tools of the Mountain Man" (Carl P.Russell, 1967, p.197, 49a) is a knife with blade similar to these, and is listed as a "...battered and rusty big butcher knife illustrated in figure 49a and was taken from an Indian grave. It is now in the U.S. National Museum where records refer to it merely as 'bone handled knife; J.H.Devereaux. The haft is 5" long; the blade is 11" long and 1 1/2" wide. The broken point has been rounded".

It is noted further that in 1822-23, the U.S.Indian Trade Office , George Town, D.C. in its orders listed 50 dozen 'white bone knives' like this one.

M ELEY 30th December 2020 03:16 AM

Hello Colin and thank you for responding to the thread. Yes, you are absolutely correct that there are many fakes out there, but 95% of them are the pipe tomahawks, which fetch thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars. Spike tomahawks are also faked on occasion, but outside of diehard collectors, many don't register these as 'true tomahawks'. The faked ones typically have false patina or modern rust. The fakers use old tool heads that they grind down to fit the right shapes. What remains is a minefield of misunderstanding, axes that AREN"T tomahawks but resemble them, foreign look-a-likes, etc. I find what helps me is understanding what isn't a tomahawk, look at those traits and compare them with examples I come across for comparison. Again, I'm no expert, but feel comfortable that most of my examples are solid. That being said, just because they are spike tomahawk weapons doesn't necessarily mean they were used by natives. That, as you pointed out, requires provenance. In any case, I won't deny this is (like boarding axes!) a slippery slope of collecting. Ten years ago, I had three other examples that I ruled out as look-alike and thus got rid of them- :shrug:

M ELEY 30th December 2020 03:19 AM

Hello David. Thank you so much for posting that piece! Yes, I had heard that boarding axes sometimes wound up in Native hands. It makes total sense, as both trade spike axes and boarding axes resemble each other and are contemporary. Likewise, one can see situations where sailors would encounter coastal tribes and make trades. I've even seen one documented boarding ax made up with brass trade tacks and sinew grip. Pretty fascinating!

M ELEY 30th December 2020 03:33 AM

Hello Jim! Wow, do you have all of these sources? I'm still working on getting my hands on several of the sources you mention here. I'm making a copy of this thread for my own records, so thanks for that! I greatly appreciate the information you provided to support these pieces. I am still looking for a copy of Peterson's tomahawk book, which I hear is exceptional. Thanks also for posting a pic of that knife. I was apt to believe my example might be either a frontiersman versus Indian piece until I saw Taylor's book. After I saw several native examples including this one, I'm leaning more towards the latter now!

Hombre 9th January 2021 01:51 PM

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I find this thread extremely interesting... Tomahawks and Bowie knives... Unfortunately it is not easy to find books about the topic and when you do, you must order from the U.S.A and that will not be cheap...
Here are a few books I have about the tomahawk... have a few about the Bowie knife too..


M ELEY 10th January 2021 03:33 AM

Thank you very much for these references, Stephan! I have that last one and hope to pick up a copy of Baldwin's soon. Of course, Peterson would be the jewel to the crown, but as it is out of print, the copies go for obscene prices!! Again, my thanks for these recommendations-

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