I was going to write about silk ribbons and colors, but got distracted by quillwork.  It has become tradition amoung Southern peoples to incorporate quilled items into their regalia.  This practice is more recent than the 18th century, however.  Sadly, interpreters have been lead astray by those who are less than scholarly and balanced in their approach to studying the 18th century Southeast.  It is important to incorporate oral tradition with the study of documents and artifacts.  But we have to also recognize that no piece of the puzzle really outweighs another piece.  Is there some fact to the notion that the Cherokee used porcupine quills in the 18th century?  Yes.  Were they using them for knife sheaths, bags, leg ties, and straps?  No.  
 Where did this idea of the widespread use of quillwork in the Southeast come from?  Some of it came from blurring "tradition" with "historical practice".  That something is traditional does not mean it is an ancient, or even old practice.  To be traditional, something only has to be passed from one to another.  Before I get too side tracked..

 Unfortunately, a lot more of the problem with quillwork came from misunderstanding what constitutes documentation.  I have actually been shown the following images as proof that Cherokee used quilled bags and knives:
 Now, Robert Griffing is a really talented artist.  The problem is, he is a modern artist who paints reenactors.  The only thing you can really document with these images is what reenactors wear.  That is not history. 

 So what did the Cherokee really decorate with quills in the 18th century?  The answer can be found in the writings of more than one trusted 18th century source who weas actually on hand to see for themselves. Henry Timberlake is an excellent example:

 describing the calumet, or peace pipe:
.."The stem is about three feet long, finely adourned with porcupine-quills, dyed feathers, deers hair, and such like gaudy trifles."

 describing the clothing:
..."mockafons, which are shoes of a make particular to the Americans, ornamented with porcupine-quills..." 

 While he describes all of their clothing in great detail, these are the only two items described as decorated with quillwork.  Similar descriptions can be found in the writings of Adair, Busso, and others.  The one other item these other authors relate as being decorated with quills is a diadem, or crown.  Diadems, like the calumet, were for special occaisions, not everyday wear.  So we can infer, that because porcupines, whose habitat only extended into NW West VA, were not a source of artistic materials for everyday things.   If quillwork was so widespread among the Cherokee and the rest of the Southeast, why does is show up so infrequently in the historic record?  The answer is obvious to me: because the quillwork wasnt there in the quantities many wish it was.

There is another item which quite frequently appears in hair decorations of both Northern and Southern interpreters of 18th century Native culture is out of place... porcupine guardhair in roaches.  There are a number of red deer hair roaches which survive from the 18th century.  Some are round, some are U shaped.  None of them feature porcupine hair.  None at all.  In fact, porcupine guard hair on roaches doesnt begin to show up until the 19th century!  Why is it being worn by 18th century interpreters?  Take a look at the pictures I posted above.  It was painted (and continues to be painted) by modern artists.  Wearing porcupine guard hair in your roach is incorrect for 18th century interpretation!  For the love of the porcupine and history, please stop!

 I am sure that someone along the way will be offended by this.  That is not my intention.  The Cherokee, along with the rest of the peoples of the Southeast had other outlets for their artistic expression.  Ever seen the cane basket work the Cherokee were famous for, even in the 18th century?  How about their pipes? 
Cherokee River Cane Basket
collected in 1753, British Museum.
Cherokee Pipes, circa 1759
Ft Loudoun Museum/Visitor's Center
Russell Young
5/27/2013 09:04:21 pm

Jason, nice post, as usual, hope getting married doesn't cut into your time to write these... am curious, how did you determine the range of porcupines in the 18th century? Thanks.

Jason Melius
5/30/2013 11:43:23 am

Hi Russ. Sorry for the delay in responding.

There have been a few scientific studies published about the range of the porky. This is a good one where folks were looking to prove the presence of the critter:

For those unfamiliar with the terms "Archaic" and "Woodland" periods and the like... The Archaic period lasted from about 8000 - 2000 BCE and the Woodland period from about 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.


Fred Lucas
7/1/2013 01:33:13 am

Jason, Great posting as always. Did I ever show you the Panamanian and Colombian baskets and grass weavings that replicate a number of quillwork designs?

Thomas Edward
1/26/2016 08:45:44 pm

The use of porcupine quills in the southeast is well documented,! Also the range of the animal has a bit to do with the art form, sort of like obsidian to arrow heads, also bird quillworkers is often mis ided as porcupine quills! How many Huron false embroidered moose hair pouches are there? About 6 ! How many examples or mention of southeastern quill work is there about 6! How many museums items lack any identification, properly ided and and wrongly ided? You figure it out its your web page¡

Jason (Owner)
1/26/2016 08:51:26 pm

Thomas, did you actually read my blog post?

BTW, there are exactly 0 examples of documented SE quillwork.


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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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