nav-left cat-right

The Humble Tumpline pt. III

The Humble Tumpline pt. III

I know… part three… really?   I was recently looking over the first two parts of this blog series (part I  and part II) and realized (and am ashamed) that I did not include much information on the use of tumplines by women.  I did mention that many of these tumplines were made by women, but I should really emphasis that for native women in the Americas, this was a major way of hauling burdens.  From rolled up bark and cattail mats, to all their worldly belongings, to harvested corn or large game, to their children; the tumpline was the main means of carriage.

One of the most common seen uses of the tumpline both in the written record an in period images is for the carrying of children in cradleboards.  The following few quotes are a hand-picked sampling of these.

Father Gabriel Sagard speaking of the Huron cradle board in the 1620s, “…with this bard on their back fastened by a belt, which is supported on the forehead;”

Nicholas Deny about the Micmac (published in 1672), “To this board there is attached at the top, by the two corners, a strap, so arranged that when it is placed on the forehead the board hangs behind the shoulders; thus the mother has not her arms encumbered and is not prevented wither from working or going to the woods…”

Beyond the use to carry a cradleboard, basically any burden needing to be carried by a woman, could be carried with a tumpline…

Deny again speaking of a moving hunting camp, “The women and girls carry the wigwam, their dishes, their bags, their skins, their robes, and everything they can take, for the men and the boys carry nothing, a practice they follow still at the present time.”

This is echoed by many authors including Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz over one hundred years later (1797-1805), “We met many of them, the men walking briskly, their guns on their shoulders while the poor squaws or women carry all the burdens.  These were the provisions, clothes, tomahawks or weapons, and, besides all this, one or two papooses (that is how they call their children).  All this load is attached by a band that they pass around the forehead.”

It should be noted that although Deny and others makes the work of men seem cushy and the women seem like beasts of burden, they are talking specifically about hunting, where the men would need to be without a large load so that they could hunt.  Also this was done to have the men ready to protect the tribe/band/ or family from danger if so needed.  At times, men did  indeed carry some of the load.  The following quote shows the need of men to be ready to hunt.

John Heckewelder on the Delaware, “A man who wishes his wife to be with him while he is out hunting in the woods, needs only tell her… and she will be sure to have provisions and every thing else that is necessary in complete readiness, and well packed up to carry to the spot; for the man, as soon as he enters the woods, has to be looking out and about for game, and therefore cannot be encumbered with an burden…”

Another quote that just continues to reaffirm the use of tumplines and brings up both how they are used and the possibility of long term effects comes from David Zeisberger  in the Ohio (1779-80) “The women who carry everything by means of a carrying girth fixed to the forehead, whence the whole burden – and a hundred weight is not considered heavy – is suspended down the back, suffer in back and neck as they grow old.  The men carry everything hung to a carrying girth fixed across the chest. ”

Although the use of a tumpline ergonomically is not overly damaging on its own if used correctly, over use or oversized burdens could certainly cause injury.  Zeisberger is not the only to make such comments.  Again in the Ohio in the final decades of the 18th century, George Henry Loskiel states, “The women carry every thing on their head, fastened by a thong round their foreheads.  By this, they frequently support above an hundred weight, the load being placed so as to rest also upon their back, with which the old women are so frequently afflicted.”

The earlier Zeisberger quote also brings up a question of different ways of using the tumpline by the different genders.  Is how you wear the tumpline a gender-determined item?  This is mentioned by Rev. John Heckewelder (written in 1788) “It is very common to see a hunter come in with a whole deer on his back, fastened with a hoppis, a kind of band with which they carry loads; it rests against the breast, that which the women rests against the forehead.”   The reasoning for the different means of carrying makes complete sense.  A heavier load can more easily be hauled from the head.  This is why the very heavy burdens, carried by women, were done this way.  This is also why voyageurs (men, however) hauled their loads this way.  The problem with head carriage is that you immobilize the neck, making it harder to see 360 degrees and making it harder to maneuver in some ways.  For a hunter, this would not be a good thing.  I know that in the past, some reenactors have taken a very hard stance that women should be seen hauling from the head and men from the shoulders; but ultimately, this does not hold true to all that we know from the past.  There are plenty of instances of men using a tumpline from the head (especially voyageurs) and there are examples of women using a shoulder carriage (many can be seen in the images below).  I think that ultimately, the way the tumpline was worn depended on the circumstances of what a person was doing and what they were hauling.

A final comment/thought/question… what about European women and tumplines?  Honestly, I can not say as this is not an area that I have researched.  My first question would be to ask, how many European descent women were wandering the woods, lakes, and prairies like native women?  European men we know did use these but were also traversing these areas for travel, hunting, trade, war, etc.  It is quite possible that if needed, a European woman could adopt this means of carriage, but I have not seen a lot of historic evidence of this.  One fun image that I included below is of a woman in the Shetland Islands of Scotland.  She is hauling a load of peat while knitting.  The load is carried in a basket-like bag that very much resembles a native twined bag.  It is being carried with the use of a strap across the chest, much like a tumpline.  In many ways, this is just a very simple and universal means of carrying burdens.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *