Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Tipi Life:

In 1847, Lewis Garrard recorded the following description of a Cheyenne lodge while working out of Bent’s Fort.  

A lodge, generally, is composed of seventeen or more slender poles of pine, three inches in diameter at the butts, finely tapering to the small ends, and eighteen to twenty-three or four feet in length.  These poles are tied together a few inches from the small ends, with the butts resting on the ground, so that the frame resembles a cone, over which a covering of buffalo skin is neatly fitted, divested of hair and rendered pliant by means of the dubber-an adze-shaped piece of iron fitted to an angular section of elk's horn-which chips off pieces of the hard skin until it is reduced to the requisite thinness.  Brains are then rubbed on it making it still softer.  The skins are then cut and sewed together with awl and sinew, so that they fit neatly the pole frame.  By rolling up the lower edge of this covering, it makes a commodious, airy habitation in the summer, and , by closing all the apertures, a warm shelter in winter.  At the apex an opening is left, through which the ends of the poles protrude and by which the smoke finds its way out. The fire is built in the center: and to prevent the smoke being driven back by the wind, there are two flaps or continuations of the upper skins, with poles attached on the outside.  These flaps they shut, shift, or extend, as occasion requires.”  


In a journal entry from early 1852, Rudolph Kurz describes pitching a tent. From the description of the tent it is apparent that what is being pitched is a tipi.  

As soon as ground was cleared for a tent, pieces of bark were laid all around the place where the fire was to be built, so that the apischimos [raw buffalo hides] or whatever was used for bedding would not lie directly upon the wet earth.  The size of the tent was determined by the number of occupants; accordingly each required a larger or smaller amount of work. To construct a tent three or four poles were bound together at the ends, then set up to form the first framework;  their lower ends were extended as far apart as the diameter of the tent was intended to be.  In the spaces between them other poles were added until a circular framework was formed.  The tent cloth, made of several dressed skins sewed together, cowhides [buffalo cow hides] from which the hair had been removed, was bound fast by its upper edges to another tent pole which was erected inside the framework and fitted in at the top where the other poles join.  This awning was then pulled over the poles and fastened together with wooden pins or cords, an opening having been left at the top for the egress of smoke and at the bottom for entrance to the tent.

Along its lower edge incisions were made through which wooden pins were driven into the ground to hold the tent cloth down.  The two flaps at the top were sewed together like a pocket and weighted down by means of long slender rods to prevent their being blown about by the wind in such a way as to drive the smoke back into the the tent.  This pocket and ends of tent poles left uncovered were frequently used by Indians to display their decorations and ornaments.  An animal skin stretched between two staves was hung before the lower opening that served for door, a most uncomfortable arrangement; one had to bend almost double to crawl through under the pelt.  As the wind was blowing violently and the ground too solidly frozen to permit our putting much faith in the wooden pins we had driven down, we secured the awning further by weighting it with heavy boughs, even sections of tree stems, in order to hold it fast to the ground.  As a further precaution we heaped up snow all around, so as to ward off the wind as much as we could.  Our tents were then ready, so far as the exterior was concerned.  On the inside we spread our beds over against the fireplace; we put up two posts nearby that were to serve for cupboard; higher up, about 5 or 6 feet from the ground, we extended a thick beam straight across the fireplace, made each end secure to a tent pole, and suspended from this another smaller one with a hole in the middle over which we set our kettle. Opposite the entrance we deposited our stores of meat.  

In 1848, Kurz also made this observation regarding construction of the tipi;

"The Indians...pitched their tents of skins (or, as often happened, of white cotton cloth)...." indicating that by the late 1840's canvas was not an uncommon material used for tipis.


 Rufus Sage provides the following description in Rocky Mountain Life

"At the time of our arrival at the Fort [Fort Platte], Two villages of Indians were encamped near by.  Their lodges, being the first I ever saw, proved objects of great interest to me.  

The lodge of a mountain Indian consists of a frame work of light poles, some twenty-five feet long, bound together at the small ends, and raised by planting the opposite extremities aslope, at given distances apart, so as to describe a circle, at the base, converging to a triangular apex, for roof and sides; -over this is spread a covering of buffalo robes, so nicely dressed and seamed, it readily sheds rain and excludes the fierce winds to which the country is subject.  A small aperture at the top, affords passage for the smoke emitted from the fire occupying the centre ground work.  The entrance is at the side, where a large piece of undressed buffalo skin (hung from the top and so placed as to be opened or closed, at pleasure, on the ingress or egress of the inmate) furnishes the simple substitute for a door.

These lodges (some of them containing quantities of roofage to the amount of ten or fifteen buffalo skins) are large and commodious; and, even comfortable, in the severest weather; the heat from the centre fire, being refracted on striking the sloping sides, communicates an agreeable warmth to every part.

An Indian lodge, in the summer, is admirably adapted to the pleasure of its occupants, -by raising the lower extremities of the envelope and securing them at the proper elevation, a free passage of air is obtained, which greatly contributes to increase the merits of the delightful shade afforded by the superstructure.  

A lodge of the largest size may easily be made to accommodate fifteen persons.  The interior is arranged by placing the fixtures for sleeping at the circumference of the circle, which afford seats to the inmates, and thus a sufficient space is left vacant between them and the centre fire."  


During the winter of 1834-35, Warren Ferris records the following observations in Life in the Rocky Mountains about living in a tipi:

"One who has never lived in a lodge, would scarcely think it possible for seven or eight persons to pass a long winter agreeably, in a circular room, ten feet in diameter, having a considerable portion of it occupied by the fire in the centre; but could they see us seated around the fire, cross legged like Turks, upon our beds, each one employed in cleaning guns, repairing moccasins, smoking, and lolling at ease on our elbows, without interfering with each other, they would exclaim, Indeed they are as comfortable as they could wish to be! which is the case in reality.  I moved from a lodge into a comfortable log house, but again returned to the lodge, which I found much more pleasant than the other.  These convenient and portable dwellings, are partially transparent, and when closed at the wings above, which answer the double purpose of windows and chimneys, still admit sufficient light, to read the smallest print without inconvenience.  At night a good fire of dry aspen wood, which burns clear without smoke, affording a brilliant light, obviates the necessity of using candles."

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