Anyone who has talked Southeastern material culture with me in the past several years would have noticed a trend in my rants: simple is better.  Blue Strouds, red wool twill tape, check shirts,... very simple stuff.  Admittedly, this has been somewhat reactionary.  Reactionary to what?  Well, there's a lot of honest to God bad stuff out there.  So many makers are providing complete B.S. items like "Southern style quilled neck knive sheaths", "Southeastern style quilled bags", "Southern style painted bags", on and on and on.  I mean, the list could very litterally go on and on.  
 The problem is, all of these are pure fantasy.  They are based on 100% imagination.  We dont have a single reference to quilled knife sheaths or bags in the SE.  There are no references to painted bags, knife sheaths or leggings either.  So why does everyone want a quilled neck knife if they are doing a Catawba (or Cherokee, or Seminole...) impression?  Lack of imagination?  It "looks" Indian?  It was in X painting by R____t G______g?  No matter what the reasoning, it is a distortion of history... or in other words... a lie.  

 Ok, off of the soapbox of redundancy, sorta.  So, if you can't use quillwork, what the heck can you use to look "Indian" when doing a Southeastern portrayal?  There is one item rarely seen on SE reenactors, commonly seen on NE reenactors; but the historic SE peoples were likely dripping in it.  Give up yet?  

That's right.  SILVER 

 But before we discuss the fancy stuff, I need to clarify something. For so long, I've discussed "dressing down" and now I'm talking about dressing up?  "Make up your mind, Melius!"  I know, I know... just hear me out.  

Carefully read the following quotes, paying close attention to the underlined and bolded phrases:

James Adair:
 "... decorated with silver ear-bobs, or pendants to their ears, several rounds of white beads about their necks, rings upon their fingers, large wire or broad plates of silver on their wrists,..."

"The Indian nations are agreed in the custom of thus adourning themselves with beads of various sizes and colours; sometimes wrought in garters, sashes, necklaces, and in strings round their wrists; and so from the crown of their heads..."

"...they wear ear-rings and finger-rings in abundance..."

" is a common trading rule with us, to judge of the value of an Indian's effects, by the weight of his fingers, wrists, ears, crown of his head, boots, and maccaseenes - by the quantity of red paint daubed on his face, and by the shirt about the collar, shoulders, and back, should he have one."

"I did myself the honour to fit them out with silver arm-plates, gorgets, wrist-plates, ear-bobs &c. &c. which they kindly recieved, and protested they wouldn't ever part with them, for the sake of the giver..."

"For it being their custom to carry their ornaments, and looking glasses over their shoulders, on such public occaisions, my companions were fully trimmed out, and did not strip themselves, as they expected no such disaster [they were ambushed]..."

and from Henry Timberlake:

"They that can afford it wear a collar of wampum, which are beads cut out of clamshells, a silver breast-plate, and bracelets on their arms and wrists of the same metal, a bit of cloth over their private parts, a shirt of English make, a sort of cloth-boots, and mockasons,... but when they go to war they leave their trinkets behind, and the mere necessaries serve them."
 I should be clear why I advocate simplicity of dress!  Most events are centered on some historic or not-so-historic battle.  In the SE, we are used to seeing Indian reenactors on the field heavily ornamented- wearing tons of silver, super nice garters and sashes, silk covered leggings and breechcloths...  This is NOT how Southern Indians went to war!  Adair, Timberlake, and others make it very clear that all the fine stuff was packed away for battle - they carried only what they needed.  A gun, shot pouch, knife, club/spear/ax, paint, mirror, breechcloth, leggings, mocs and a blanket.  That's it.  

So, yes, for battles, plain and simple is the only authentic way to go.  After the battle, if the portrayal for the entire weekend is not that of a war-party on the move, put the good stuff back on.  Change out the plain blue wool leggings for blue wool adourned with silk ribbon.  Put on the silver armbands, beads and gorgets.  Put the big, fancy feathers and hair ornaments on your scalplock.  Off of the battlefield is the time for all of that.  

Up next, good vs bad ornaments... or not all silver was created equally...  

Yes, its next already.  I decided to make this into a really long blog post.  If you get distracted by the squirrel in the tree, come back later.  I understand...

 Above, we examined the quotes proving that Indians in the SE dressed up ... and dressed up real nicely.  Some might still doubt it.  So let us take a look at another aspect of the trade network: the number of deerskins exported from Charleston, SC compared to the goods available.  

 Sites like Wikipedia echo what can be found in numerous secondary sources regarding the annual quantities of deerskins shipped out of Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA.  In the 1750's, both cities were averaging over 100,000 deerhides per year.  That is a heck of a lot.  But where is the hard evidence?  Well, here are the shipments of deerskins sent to England by Austin, Laurens, & Appleby (Henry Laurens joint trade corporation) in 1759 alone - the year the Cherokee War began:

3rd Aug
2 hogs heads

5th Oct
10 hogs heads

26th Oct
12 hogs heads

Each hogs head averaged 350 hides, or about 625lbs.  That accounts for approximately 8400 deerskins at 15000 lbs; from just one company

Now, at that time, a common trade gun (most expensive item a trader offered) officially cost 16 lbs in deerskins (roughly 8 hides) and a pair of ear-bobs cost 2 lbs.  I could keep going with the crazy math, estimating hides per Indian and all that, but frankly I am not that good at math. Just look at the amounts and understand that the vast majority of those hides were coming from INDIANS. 

 Take a look at the number of armbands, wristbands, and gorgets purchased in Charleston, SC over the course of 7 days by E. Atkins:
Sept 16 - 23, 1758
Silver arm bands:  43 pair
Silver wrist bands:  27 pair
Silver gorgets:  39
Gilt (gold plated) gorgets: 13

I honestly can not begin to quantify the silver broaches, rings, and ear-bobs.  In the end, the point is, silver was very plentiful on the typical SE Native who was not on the battlefield.  The vast quantities of deer hides brought in by the Indian hunters proves that these men were wealthy and they were shopping.  Silver, beads, silk ribbon, blue wool.... they were fancy when they were not on the battlefield. 

  What I would like to do next is show examples of a couple archaeological pieces and compare them to what is available today.

Lets look at this picture from the TVA archaeology projects:
In the three images immediately above, the middle image is the original.  Notice how the ball is not free-floating on the wire.  The wire actually passes through a hole in the bottom of the ball to form a loop, which the cone is suspended from.  When worn, the wire passes through the hole in the ear and is slipped back into a hole on the back side of the ball.  The pair on the left are not constructed correctly.  The ball is suspended from the wire by a loop. The wire is closed with a fastening technique not seen on any original earbobs.  The cones are hollow; another feature not seen on original examples.  From 20 feet away, these might look sorta... nah, never mind, they don't.  Pieces like this, and others are also often made of German silver; a material which was not used in the 18th century for trade silver.  (Remember the story about the Cherokee killing a few traders to get a better price?  You really think they would not have noticed the difference between real silver and fake silver???)

The sets on the right are all constructed in the correct fashion (there are archaeological examples of flat bottomed cones from the SE!!!).  They are made just like the piece in the center picture.  At this time, there is only one manufacturer offering correctly made, real silver earings - At the Eastern Door (click on the pic!).  Please, if you are going to buy silver, don't waste your money on crap!  And there is a lot of crap out there. 
Drawing of a the hundreds (thousands?) of surviving 18th century earbobs.  This is how reproductions should be made. Thanks to Fred Lucas for reminding me of this image drawn years ago by Alan Gutchess.

Now let's talk briefly about nose rings!

Ever seen someone wearing one of those semi-flattened gorget style nose rings?
Well, I am sorry to say, this is another one of those things that just didnt exist in the 18th century.  Sure, they show up in the 1800's, but for what ever reason, we have absolutely no evidence of their existance in the earlier period.  Best bet is to leave it at home and go without until a quality reproduction can be found or, just don't wear one at all! 

Now, if you absolutely must have a nose ring - they were made in the same exact manner at the above shown ear-bobs.  In fact, the 18th century nose rings were nothing more than earings worn in the shnozz.

Now that we have gone from the presence of vast quantities of silver in the SE to what makes quality reproductions ear rings... toss the cheap brass armbands, German silver broaches, 19th century nose gorgets and save your pennies for the good stuff.  18th century Indians were tough customers... we should be too.  As with everything else, it is our duty to do our best at interpreting the past, especially so if you choose to interpret a culture which is not your own. 

(Maybe I'll chat about silk ribbon, bed lace, gartering and other fun textile ornaments in the next episode.....)

eddie coleman
1/27/2014 10:54:16 pm

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Ken Hamilton
8/28/2015 10:20:31 pm

Hello Jason,
Does not the James Adair quote describe a RED painted shirt?
Although the use of a "comma" seems to start another "thought"...I always concluded that when he says (besides the ornamentation with jewelry) they (the traders?) would "judge" the Natives' worth
" the quantity of red paint daubed on his face and by the shirt about the collar shoulders and back, should he have one..."?

I understand a RUFFLED shirt being more expensive that a PLAIN one...but this seems to continue the red-paint theme (expensive vermillion) and extend it to the supper shirt area.

Also, do we think that Oconnastota's commission image shows BLOOD? I doubt it very much. I think it is vermillion....admittedly possibly random smearing and not deliberate placement???

Best regards,
Ken H.


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    J Melius

    If you found yourself here, you are more than likely aware of my passion for researching Southeastern American Indian material culture.  Its a sickness I've been wrapped up in since the early 1990's.  While some of my thoughts might come across as somewhat abrassive; they are not meant to offend.  No, I dont call myself and expert, only a student of history and culture.  Hopefully we all seek to further our education and this is intended as an extention of my unending desire to learn and share.


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