Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Axes & Tomahawks:

The iron axe, when introduced to the Indians, swiftly became one of the most important items of trade, rivaled only in importance behind firearms, knives and alcohol in desirability.  Axes were constructed in a great number of designs, which are often definitive of the country of origin, or even region within the country of origin.  Axe designs are gradational into hatchets and tomahawks. During the 1800’s specialization of axe types increased to the point that one company manufactured about three hundred different types.  Iron axes distributed in the Rocky Mountain West had four main sources: those brought in from the north by the French and later the English starting in the early 1700’s; from British, American and Russian sources along the Pacific Coast starting in the 1790’s; by Spanish, Mexican and French interests from the south and southwest starting in the early 1700’s; finally from U.S. sources from the east up the Missouri River starting with Lewis and Clark in 1804.

During the earliest 1800’s, blacksmiths in Philadelphia and Georgetown were receiving $1.00 for a five-pound axe, 62 ½ cents for a 2 ½ pound half-axe and 33 1/3 cents for one-pound hatchet-tomahawks.  The cost of these axes in the bush would vary depending on the remoteness of the location, and local demand. Mountain prices were often 1,000% to 1,600% higher than prices charged in St. Louis.  

During the winter of 1804-1805 while Lewis and Clark were camped near the Mandan villages, a large number of axes were forged in the field by blacksmiths accompanying the expedition.  These axes were used successfully for trade with the Mandans, but not for furs and skins, but for corn and other food stuffs.  Not all of these axes remained with the Mandans, but were subsequently traded to other Indian peoples.  Some of these “Mandan” axes were subsequently found by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, on their return, in the possession of “Pahmap” Indians at the mouth of the Potlatch River, Idaho.  The Potlatch River is 750 miles as the crow flies from the Mandan villages, attesting to the efficiency of trade relationships between the various Indian tribes.  

Starting in 1826, the Collins Company began manufacturing high quality axes in Connecticut.  Axes produced by this company were of sufficient distinction that on many fur trade inventories there is a separate line item for Collins Axes.  For more about Collins Axes.

Pipe-Hawk:  The pipe-tomahawk is a specialized type of ax or tomahawk. Because the Indian coveted both the pipe and the tomahawk, it is not surprising that the two were combined to form the pipe-tomahawk, or  pipe-axe, melding the symbols for for both war and peace into a single tool.  The date of the first pipe-hawk is unknown, but it is known to have been in use early in the seventeen hundreds.  A more complete description of the pipe-tomahawk may be found at Pipe-Tomahawks.  The  pipe-hawk was not just a ceremonial object, but has been recorded as being used in many deadly attacks, including the slaying of Dr. Marcus Whitman during the Whitman Massacre.

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