Saturday, September 1, 2012

Personal Items Part I: The Fixed-Blade Knife/Couteau Boucheron

"Table knives were not common, but the habitant's hunting knife served very well."  - From Kaskaskia Under the French Regime by Natalia Maree Belting, page 42

"Marie Catherine Baron, when she died in July, 1748, owned:

14 napkins
4 linen tablecloths, one of diaper linen, and two of Beaufort linen
3 window curtains of brown linen
2 chests and 1 valise well bound and closed with a lock
2 caskets closed with locks and covered with red copper
3 calico window curtains
1 bed furnished with a straw mattress, a pillow, a bolster, a calico counterpane, a feather bed, a green wool blanket

1 cot
1 large framed mirror
1 hunting knife, 1 silver pistol
1 small cupboard with 6 wine bottles
1 old chest closed with a lock
2 silver goblets
2 crystal goblets
1 bullet mold
1 armchair
1 square table with drawers
20 plates, 1 large dish, 1 small dish, 1 pot
14 iron forks, .. (?) .. dozen iron forks and dinner knives
6 crockery plates
1 small copper cauldron
1 old pie dish, 1 small cauldron
1 medium-sized frying pan, 1 grill, 1 fork to draw food from the pot
2 medium-sized pans
2 pails hooped with iron
1 small cauldron
1 pothook with iron chain
1 old wardrobe
6 plates and 1 dish, 6 spoons, 1 small bowl, 1 covered bowl weighing about 11 pounds, 6 forks
1 frying pan
2 medium-sized pans and 1 small pan
1 silver goblet
1 small pan of yellow copper, 1 pail
8 napkins, 1 tablecloth of Beaufort linen
2 caskets covered with red copper
1 small framed mirror
1 cauldron holding about 40 pots"
(Belting, 45-46 emphasis mine)

Hopefully fall and winter weather will free up time for more how-to posts in the future, but I felt it was just as important to look at some of the common things a habitant would have carried or used daily.  Among those items used daily, if not carried daily, would have been the common hunting/butcher knife or couteau boucheron.

This posting will take a look at fixed-blade knives used in the Pays des Illinois during the 18th century.  My target for acquiring materials for my living history impression continues to be 1750.  

The inventory of Marie Catherine Baron listed above has been translated as containing a "hunting knife".  This raises the question: What makes a knife a hunting knife?  My personal thoughts on this is that the knife would be a fixed-blade knife used in dressing game for the table and it would have been sheathed for portability so that the user can wear it for use in the field.  

My next question: What is a common French fixed-blade knife?

We French reenactors are fortunate that a set of wonderful articles have recently been written by Kevin Gladysz and Ken Hamilton for the Journal of the Early Americas.  To date, there are three articles entailing the topics of French knives and the fourth, most recent, article is about French Biscayne axes.  Gladysz and Hamilton's article on boucherons, "French Knives in North America: Part III" can be found in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of JOTEA (Volume I, Issue VI).  

From "French Knives in North America: Part III":

The couteau boucheron was not only extremely popular in the Indian trade, but was frequently considered as a frontier weapon.  According to surviving French archival documents, the couteau boucheron was by far the most numerous fixed-blade knife of the period.  (p. 7, emphasis mine)

The article goes on to mention that around 10,000 boucherons were recorded to be in the King's storehouses at Quebec and Montreal in 1749.  It is pretty evident that LARGE numbers of these knives were available in Nouvelle France and could have easily found their way into every reach of France's holdings in North America.  Archaeological examples have been found from Michilimackinac to Ticonderoga and south into Louisiana.  

In an Illinois context, examples have been found at the Duckhouse Site in Cahokia.  The three Duckhouse Site examples shown below are from French Colonial Cahokia 1765 - 1800.  Although the date is a bit late for my use, I believe it is worthy of note because a knife that was dropped or lost in that period may have been manufactured in an earlier year closer to my target date of 1750.  

Note the half-tang construction
Image from At Home in the Illinois Country by Robert F. Mazrim (page 67)
Now let's compare the blade profiles to dug examples from Ticonderoga in the Gladysz/Hamilton article:  

Image from "French Knives in North America: Part III" Journal of the Early Americas,  Volume I, Issue VI (page 14)
Flipped horizontally for comparison

Something sticks out right away when I compare the two photos.  The top knife from the Duckhouse site has a VERY pronounced upward sweep to the blade.  From my understanding that is a tell-tale sign of an English scalper/trade knife.  Choosing an English knife in French territory appears to be completely correct.  After all, global trade was in full swing and on the flip side of things, the English bought boucherons from the French and continued to ship them to the English colonies even after the French and Indian (Seven Years) War according to Gladysz and Hamilton.  

The next thing that stands out is the use of the half-tang construction on both sets of examples.  The examples found in Cahokia seem to lack the pin holes that are prominently shown in the lower picture, but it may be the bubbling oxidation covering the holes.  

Now to apply it to my goal: There is written proof in primary documents of hunting knives in the Pays des Illinois.  There are local archaeological examples have been dug from around the target time period. Secondary source research shows that the boucheron was prolific throughout North America.  It sounds like a safe bet to add one to my kit!  

When a boucheron became available from Ken Hamilton, I snatched it up!  They sell like hot-cakes!  Besides co-authoring the articles about French knives, he also produces excellent reproductions of period items.  In this case, I received a medium boucheron and sheath.  No detail is overlooked:  all measurements are in French "pouce" (1 pouce = 1 1/16 inch), the handle is made of boxwood and it has actual French makers marks.  Here it is!

Overall length is 10 inches, with a 6 1/8 inch blade

Note the half-tang construction detail

Wowee!  Even the sheath is pretty!  

I keep begging Ken to make a large boucheron for me.  Perhaps he will read this and continue to hear my plea!  I do love my medium boucheron!  The quality is superb.  

If you are interested in learning more about Colonial French artifacts found in the Illinois Country, Robert F. Mazrim's book entitled At Home in the Illinois Country is unbeatable!  This title and several others are available from my friends at the Fort de Chartres Store.  Please check out all they have to offer:  

Fort de Chartres Store Website

I also recommend a subscription to Journal of the Early Americas. They are by far the most professional publication of research for living historians.  The articles on French knives and axes alone have been worth the subscription!