“It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find.
— Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, in his surrender speech, 1877
Indians wrapped in blankets — it’s an enduring image of the Old West. And that image speaks mightily of the complex, interwoven relationship that Indians and whites shared as they at times coexisted peacefully and at others fought over land.
Indians acquired wool blankets from white traders and from the Navaho. Navaho women probably learned weaving from their neighbors the Pueblo Indians in the late 17th century. The Pueblos originally wove with cotton, which they grew, but the Navahos used wool from sheep that were introduced into the New World by the Spanish and taken in raids on white settlements. The blankets were highly prized by other Indians and were traded from tribe to tribe across the West.
Before white traders brought trade goods that made Indians increasingly dependent on whites if they wanted to survive in an escalating use of technology, Indians on the Plains wore buffalo robes for warmth.
“The robes of the animals are worn by the Indians instead of blankets — their skins when tanned, are used as coverings for their lodges, and for their beds …” wrote chronicler George Catlin, who in the 1830s spent several years among the Indians, mostly in the Plains. He made reams of notes and sketches for paintings while studying the habits and customs of the Indians and in 1837 he gathered his immense collection of pictures and artifacts and retired to Albany to prepare “Catlin’s Indian Gallery,” which he exhibited around the United States and Europe to great acclaim. His journals were published in 1841, and in those journals he lamented the imminent doom of the Indian culture, as in this comment about the white fashion of buffalo robes:
“It seems hard and cruel (does it not?) that we civilized people with all the luxuries and comforts of the world about us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury, leaving their carcasses to be devoured by the wolves — that we should draw from that country some 150 or 200,000 of their robes annually, the greater part of which are taken from animals that are killed expressly for the robe, at a season when the meat is not cured and preserved, and for each of which skins the Indian has received but a pint of whiskey!” Catlin suggested that capital be invested in the manufacture of woolen robes, “encouraging growers of wool and the industrious manufacturer, rather than cultivating a taste for the use of buffalo skins.”
“It is not enough in this polished and extravagant age, that we get from the Indian his lands, and the very clothes from his back, but the food from their mouths must be stopped, to add a new and useless article to the fashionable world’s luxuries. The ranks must be thinned, and the race exterminated, of this noble animal, and the Indians of the great plains left without the means of supporting life, that white men may figure a few years longer, enveloped in buffalo robes — that they may spread them, for their pleasure and elegance, over the backs of their sleighs, and trail them ostentatiously amidst the busy throng, as things of beauty and elegance that had been made for them!”
It seems odd now, but in the 1800s a wool blanket was worth more than a buffalo robe. In trade, three buffalo robes equaled one white blanket; four robes equaled one scarlet Hudson’s Bay blanket; and one robe equaled three metal knives, 25 loads of ammunition, a 1-gallon metal kettle, three dozen arrow points, or 1 1/2 yards of calico.
Indians at first supplied buffalo hides to the white man, which seemed like good business at first, and by the 1840s they were delivering at least 100,000 hides a year to traders, who shipped the pelts east to be sold as lap robes. But white men took over most of the hunting and killed the animals in droves.
The end of the buffalo removed the Indians’ source of food, clothing and shelter. Indians depended on a fickle government for blankets and food, and they had no choice but to repair to reservations, where nations that formerly roamed the plains were reduced to starvation, disease and poverty. But I prefer to remember them as they were, riding free or clad in blankets as they gathered around a fire.