Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Preparing Robes and Hides:

While he was staying at Fort Union in 1852, Rudolph Kurz made the following observations about preparing robes and hides (Reference). 

When Madame David came to get "le dur" from me so that she might improve some robes Mr. Denig [the factor] thought too imperfectly prepared for market, I could not understand for a long while what "le dur" could mean.  I was conducted by her to the meat house, where she pointed out the liver.  This organ, also the brain of deer, or in the case of emergency, fat of any sort, tallow, etc., are all used to soften hides.  One woman dresses a buffalo hide in 3 or 4 days just as well, makes the skin just as soft and durable, as our leather dressers do in 6 months.  First of all, they stretch the raw hide on the ground and fasten it down with pegs or wooden pins, and with some sharp instrument, or a piece of bone perhaps, they scrape off every particle of flesh, which is eagerly devoured by the hungry dogs.  If the skin is not to be dressed until later they leave it spread in the air to dry until it becomes quite hard.  If, on the other hand, they intend to prepare the robe at once, they rub the hide for one entire day with liver, fat, or the brain of a deer to soften the skin, leave it 2 or 3 days (according to the season or extreme temperature) until the grease soaks in, then they dry it at a slow fire, constantly beating or rubbing it meanwhile with a stone until it becomes uniformly soft and pliable.  This rubbing is of the greatest importance in the dressing of skins after Indian fashion.

As soon as the hide has been prepared in the manner described above and is quite dry they begin the fatiguing process of rubbing it around a taut rope of horsehair or braided leather to make it smooth; then it oftentimes receives a final polish with pumice stone.  Such work is most burdensome from start to finish; even the scraping of the hides has to be done in a stooped position that is very fatiguing.  As the brain of a deer is finer and more rare than liver or tallow, it is used primarily in the preparation of deerskins (except skins of elk).  Hides of deer are placed in the final stage of preparation over a slow fire covered with green sprays of sumac and smoked; owing to this process they suffer less injury from water, they become golden brown in color, and retain for quite a while the smell of smoke, which repels mosquitoes and moths.   


Lewis Garrard made the following observation in his journal regarding thinning buffalo skins while working out of Bent's Fort in 1847:  "Near them were industrious squaws: bringing, by dint of constant exertion, buffalo skins down to the required thinness by means of the dubber, which, as it struck the hard and dry robe, sounded like the escapement of steam from a small pipe."
Garrard elsewhere describes the dubber as an adze-shaped piece of iron fitted to an angular section of elk's horn, used to chip off pieces of the hard skin until it is reduced to the required thinness.  The photo at the above right is of a Cheyenne "Chipper" made of Elkhorn with an iron blade from the collection of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska.  
According to Rufus Sage in Rocky Mountain Life:
"The usual mode of dressing skins, prevalent in this country among both Indians and whites, is very simple in its details and is easily practised.
It consists of removing all the fleshy particles from the pelt, and divesting it of a thin  viscid substance upon the exterior, known as the "grain," then, after permitting it to dry, it is thoroughly soaked in a liquid decoction formed from the brains of the animal and water, when it is stoutly rubbed
with the hands in order to open its pores and admit the mollient properties of the fluid, -this done, the task is completed by alternate rubbings and distensions until it is completely dry and soft.  
In this manner a skin may be dressed in a very short time, and on application of smoke, will not become hardened from any subsequent contact with water."