Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Buffalo Robe Beds

On a tour last summer of the Louis Bolduc House in Colonial Ste. Genevieve, I noticed a child's bed with a buffalo robe sitting atop a simple mattress.  Here is an old photograph of the family bedroom, however the bed that caught my attention would be located nearly where the photographer is standing and is out of the picture:

Louis Bolduc House Bed Chamber ca. 1792-1793

Although the Bolduc House is a bit later than my area of interest as a 1750's French habitant from the Village of Kaskaskia, it did get me to think about French Colonial bedding and the commonality of buffalo robes being used in a habitant's home.

So the questions for today are:

Would a 1750's Kaskaskia habitant have used a buffalo robe for bedding? 

If so, should I use a buffalo robe for my living history impression? 

Of course the easiest (and my favorite) method of determining the plausibility of this is to consult the notarial records, specifically the house inventories of deceased individuals.

While going through some of the inventories found in Belting's book, Kaskaskia Under the French Regime, I noticed an interesting pattern in the choice of bedding for the Illinois habitant (pg. 45):

An inventory of September 1725:

1 bed with 1 feather bead with 2 buffalo robes
2 pairs of bed curtains containing altogether 10 ells
1 pair of bed curtains of brown stuff, 10 ells

In a separate list of household goods (pg. 46):

Francois Bastien, a habitant of Prairie du Rocher, left these household goods, according to the inventory made June 10, 1763:

3 buffalo robes, 3 pillows, 1 cot
1 bed, 1 robe, 1 coarse wool blanket, 1 pillow

Even as early as 1704 in Kaskaskia, hides appear in the estate of Jacques Bourdon (pg. 66):

4,443 pounds of beavers
84 deerskins
12 doeskins
6 buffalo hides
10 otter skins
54 pounds of tallow

A quick look at three inventories from a huge timespan of 1704 to 1763 shows that buffalo hides were available.  Even better, the 1725 and 1763 inventories list "buffalo robes" with other bedding items such as pillows, beds, blankets and cots.  Things are looking good at this point...

Mary Elizabeth Good shares a report entailing the trading procedures among the French and Indians in Guebert Site: An 18th Century Historic Kaskaskia Indian Village (pg. 34):

1723, Diron d’Artaguiette, Inspector-General for the Company (of the West), came to the area on an inspection tour:

The trade of the inhabitants of the Ilinnois, who are Canadians, French or discharged soldiers, consists in selling their wheat and other products to the company for the subsistence of the troops, in exchange for merchandize (which they are obliged to fetch from New Orleans) which they trade to the Indians for quarters of buffalo, bear oil and other meats, which serve them for food or which they sell in exchange for merchandize.  They also trade in skins, such as beaver, buck and deer, buffalo and bear skins, and other peltries, which they get very cheap from the Indians, and which they sell at a very high price to the traders who come down from Canada every spring and autumn, and who give them merchandize in exchange.  For it is not necessary for them to rely upon having their needs supplied from New Orleans, whence very few convoys come, and even when they do come they bring so few merchandizes that they are not nearly sufficient to pay a part of the debts which the company is obliged to incur every year. 

To me, it looks like d'Artaguiette is suggesting that the buffalo pelts are pretty cheap and plentiful, therefore I believe it stands to reason it would be a common thing to use for a bedspread.  The buffalo robe's modern equivalent is the "Bed in a Bag" or the micro-fleece throw that just about everyone has thrown across the back of the couch.  Both are available at your local Wal-mart or Target.  However, buffalo robes are not! 

Just this little bit of research scratched the surface of something much deeper and eye-opening for me.  We have all been taught the "Buffalo were very important to Native Americans.  They used their stomachs for kettles and boiled buffalo soup by throwing in hot rocks."  Yes, this is true, but what struck me was how the "sauvage" (French for wild/untamed i/e the Indian and from silva, which is Latin for from the forest) became so quickly "Frenchified" once European contact in the area commenced.  I wouldn't say this is an evolution in culture, this is a quick mutation of culture over just a generation or two.  It has opened up an interest in the native side of reenacting for me and I hope to make acquaintances with some good native historians to share ideas and so that I may learn more.  The good part is that this is helpful with my habitant impression because the two cultures are so intertwined and interdependent that I should have a better knowledge of the sauvage.

… The Ilinnois are in general the handsomest and the best built savages that I have seen.  Proud and arrogant at home, they are the most cowardly of men when they are out of sight of their own village.  They live on maize and their hunt, which consists of buffalo, deer, roe, wild turkeys and other game, which is in abundance.  They clothe themselves and also their women with buffalo skins, which they dress on the flesh side and leave the hair which is long and fine, but after a while when the French came among them, they began to learn the French way of dressing.  (Good, pg. 34)

This side-tracking of research showed that the natives where adept at weaving clothing from the spun hair of the buffalo and early French businessmen thought there might be a market in France for clothing made from buffalo wool.  The buffalo was to be the French "golden goose", but the difficulty involved in processing the wool and factors in shipping did not make it a cost-effective venture.  It looks as though the buffalo was a cheap source of meat, leather and fur for those already in the Americas.  

Now to answer the earlier question:  

Given the following:
  • A prevalence of buffalo hunting by both the native people and the French
  • The existence of trade records of buffalo hides being and shipped throughout New France  
  • The widely recorded use of buffalo robes by the native people, including the Kaskaskia people 
  • Most notably, the household inventories of French settlers that encompass my target date of 1750 
The use of a buffalo robe in my living history impression would be a pretty safe item to use.  

So I set out to find a buffalo robe for my camp.  At the time, there was a baby on the way and my budget was (and still is...) on the low side of buffalo robes.  I really figured the robe I could afford would end up looking like a picture of those scary hairless cats that gets posted around the internet.  Off to Ebay I went with my little bid...

A beautiful, large, thick robe was listed and just for the heck of it, I put in my bid.  Of course it wasn't even close to the reserve price, but I tried.  A few days later, the seller contacted me.  She had noticed that my username on Ebay had a "history reenactor" feel about it and wondered if I was into reenacting.  I showed her this blog and explained what I was planning with the buffalo robe.  In return, she shared memories of her late brother's love of reenacting.  He had purchased two buffalo hides to use in his western fur trade camp.  Unfortunately, he passed away too soon to fully enjoy the hides and she wanted to offer them to a fellow reenactor.  We made an agreement that I would use the hides and keep them in a living history camp as they were originally intended.  I'm honored to own them and made a wonderful friend out of the deal!  

Once I get a good photo of my robes, I will remove this stock photo. 

Duke is checking out the new robe in the living room

The robes made their first trip to Fort de Chartres during the November encampment.  I don't know the overnight low temperature, but there was a fair amount of ice in my trade kettle, which I had full of water the previous night.  With one robe above me and another robe under me on my bed of straw, I have never been so warm when camping in below-freezing temperatures.  Not even when using modern sleeping bags.  I now understand how Le Page du Pratz felt:

My companions soon raised a cabin, well-secured to the North. As we resolved to continue there for eight days at least, they made it so close as to keep out the cold: in the night, I felt nothing of the severity of the North wind, though I lay but lightly covered. My bed consisted of a bear's skin, and two robes or coats of buffalo; the bear skin, with the flesh side undermost, being laid on leaves, and the pile uppermost by way of straw-bed; one of the buffalo coats folded double by way of feather-bed; one half of the other under me served for a matrass, and the other over me for a coverlet: three canes, or boughs, bent to a semicircle, one at the head, another in the middle, and a third at the feet, supported a cloth which formed my tester and curtains, and secured me from the injuries of the air, and the stings of gnats and moskitto's. My Indians had their ordinary hunting and travelling beds, which consist of a deer skin and a buffalo coat, which they always carry with them, when they expect to lie out of their villages. We rested nine days, and regaled ourselves with choice buffalo, turkey, partridge, pheasants, &c.

From: The History of Louisiana, Or of the Western Parts of Virginia and Carolina: Containing a Description of the Coutnries that Lie on Both Sides of the River Mississippi: with an Account of the Settlements, Inhabitants, Soil, Climate, and Products – Le Page du Pratz

Here are my buffalo robes in my camp at Fort de Chartres in November.  Remember, all of my stuff is a work in progress and I hope to downsize and historically verify the things I use.  Right now, it is a hodge-podge of times, places and stuff that didn't exist:  

Buffalo robes in the back of the shelter make for great winter sleeping!


  1. Good one.
    Regards, Keith.

  2. What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the serendipitous story of how you got your buffalo hide. Those things, when they happen are the best. I know I have collected most of my antiques this way. The budget is miniscule, and I have such great memories of 'being in the right place at the right time' and gotten some of my best things for a relatively small price. The stories they tell and the people I've met are an important part of the piece itself.

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