Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Measurements 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 American 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.]



Measurements. Among civilized people, previous to the introduction of the metric system, linear measurements were derived mostly, if not exclusively, from the human body, and although in later centuries these measurements became standardized, it is not long since they were all determined directly from the human frame. It is still common, even for white men, in the absence of a graduated rule, to compute the inch by the transverse dimension of the terminal joint of the thumb, and for women to estimate a yard by stretching cloth from the nose to the tips of the fingers - the arm being extended and thrown strongly backward - or to estimate an eighth of a yard by the length of the middle finger. The use of the span as a standard of lineal measure is also still quite common. Within the last 30 years it has been a custom for traders to sell cloth to Indians by the natural yard or by the brace, and although this measure on a trader of small stature might be much less than 3 feet, the Indians preferred it to the yardstick. Below is given a list of what may be called natural measures which are known to have been employed by Indians. Some of the larger measures have been in general use among many tribes, while some of the smaller ones have been used by the Navaho and Pueblo shamans in making sacrificial and other sacred objects and in executing their dry-paintings. Some are also employed by Pueblo women in making and decorating their pottery.


Linear measures. - 1. One finger width: the greatest width of the terminal joint of the little finger in the palmar aspect. 2. Two finger widths: the greatest width of the terminal joints of the first and second fingers held closely together, taken in the palmar aspect. 3. Three finger widths: the greatest width of the terminal joints of the first, second and third fingers, taken as above. 4. Four finger widths: the width of the terminal joints of all four fingers of one hand, taken under the same conditions. 5. The joint: the length of a single digital phalanx, usually the middle phalanx of the little finger. 6. The palm: the width of the open palm, including the adducted thumb. 7. The finger stretch: from the tip of the first to the tip of the fourth finger, both fingers being extended. 8. The span: the same as our span, i. e., from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the index finger, both stretched as far apart as possible. 9. The great span: from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger, all the digits being extended, while the thumb and little finger are strongly adducted. 10. The cubit: from the point of the elbow to the tip of the extended middle finger, the arm being bent. 11. The short cubit: from the point of the elbow to the tip of the extended little finger. 12. The natural yard: from the middle of the chest to the end of the middle finger, the arm being outstretched laterally at right angles with the body; this on a tall Indian equals 3 feet or more; among some tribes the measure is taken from the mouth to the tip of the middle finger. 13. The natural fathom, or brace: measured laterally on the outstretched arms, across the chest, from the tip of one middle finger to the tip of the other; this is twice the natural yard, or about 6 feet. The stature of white men usually equals or exceeds this measure, while among Indians the contrary is the rule - the arm of the Indian being usually proportionally longer than the arm of the white. This standard was commonly adopted by Indian traders of the N. in former days. They called it "brace," a word taken from the old French. There seems to be no evidence that the foot was ever employed by the Indians as a standard of linear measure, as it was among the European races; but the pace was employed in determining distances on the surface of the earth.


Circular measures. - 1. The grasp: an approximate circle formed by the thumb and index finger of one hand. 2. The finger circle: the fingers of both hands held so as to enclose a nearly circular space, the tips of the index fingers and the tips of the thumbs just touching. 3. The contracted finger circle: like the finger circle but diminished by making the first and second joints of one index finger overlap those of the other. 4. The arm circle: the arms held in front as if embracing the trunk of a tree, the tips of the middle fingers just meeting.


Scales and weight were not known on the western continent previous to the discovery. There is no record of standards of dry or liquid measure, but it is probable that vessels of uniform size may have been used as such.


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. 280-281.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College