Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Hatchets Used by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



These implements, made of iron or steel, and hafted with wood, were an important factor in the colonization of northern America, and the value of the hatchet, as well as that of the axe, was soon recognized by the natives, who obtained these tools through trade. Large numbers of hatchets and axes of both French and English manufacture are obtained from aboriginal dwelling sites. It is not known with certainty just what aboriginal implements and weapons were supplanted by the European hatchet, but it probably superseded, in large part, the grooved axe, the celt, and probably the tomahawk or war club among tribes that used these implements. So far as can be judged by the forms, the term "hatchet" may be applied with equal propriety to both the hafted axe and the hafted celt, as both were wielded usually with one hand and were equally effectual in war and in the arts of peace. So far as colonial literature refers to the uses of these implements, it would appear that the tomahawk or club, among the eastern tribes, was the weapon of war par excellence, while the axe and the celt were employed more especially in domestic work and for other ordinary industrial purposes (McCulloch). Both the hatchet and the war club doubtless rose on occasion to the dignity of ceremonial objects.


It is clear, not only from the practice of the living tribes and of primitive peoples generally, but from traces of handles remaining on both stone and copper specimens obtained from the mounds, that the celt was hafted after the manner of the hatchet. An interesting group of implements showing that this was the archaic method of hafting celt-like objects, are the monolithic hatchets in which the blade and the handle are carved of a single piece of stone. Several specimens of this type are on record; one, found by Joseph Jones, in Tennessee, is made of greenstone, and is 13½ in. in length; another, from a mound in York district, S. C., now in the U. S. National Museum, is also of greenstone; the third is from Mississippi co., Ark., and is owned by Mr. Morris of that county (Thruston); the fourth, from a mound in Alabama, and now in possession of Mr. C. B. Moore, of Philadelphia, is 11½ in. long, of greenstone, and a superb example of native lapidarian work. Specimens of this class are much more numerous in the Bahamas and the West Indies . As all are carefully finished, some being provided with a perforated knob or projection at the end of the handle for the insertion of a thong, it is probable that they served as maces or for some other ceremonial use. On the Pacific coast the stone war club sometimes took the form of a monolithic hatchet (Niblack.)


The combination of the iron hatchet with the tobacco pipe as a single implement, often called the tomahawk pipe, became very general in colonial and later times, and as no counterpart of the device is found in aboriginal art, it was probably devised by the whites as a useful and profitable combination of the symbol of peace and war. To "take up the hatchet" was to declare war, and "to bury the hatchet" was to conclude peace. According to some authors the hatchet pipe was a formidable weapon in war, but in the forms known to-day it is too light and fragile to have taken the place of the stone axe or the iron hatchet. It has passed. entirely out of the realm of weapons.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 194-195.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College