The Native-American Mocotaugan / Couteau Croche / Crooked Knife
© 2007 by Paul H. S. Gaboriault
The CROOKED KNIFE is a one-handed draw knife and was an invention of the woodland Native-Americans who were canoe, sled, and snowshoe builders. Because it is most often associated with carving the wooden ribs and other parts for canoes, it is sometimes called a “canoe knife.” Among the several nations of the Abenaqui (Abenaki), who were the predominant Algonquian people of New England, New Brunswick and the Canadian Maritimes, the crooked knife is called the bikahtagenigan (bee-kah-tah-gen-i-gan). Prominent among them as canoe builders are the Penobscot. Among the more western Algonquian people, whose most northern nation is the Cree, the crooked knife is called a mocotaugan. The most numerous of the Algonquian people are the Ojibwe, some of whom call the crooked knife a wagikoman, but most of whom call the crooked knife by the same word as the Cree, mocotaugan.
From its shape French-Canadians call the knife “le couteau croche,” which translates directly to English as “the crooked knife.” The one-handed draw knife need not have any turn-up at the end of its blade, but if it does, as many of them do—hence its name in French and English—it may be used as a gouge to carve cups, bowls and spoons. But experience with the knife shows that there is a practical reason for many crooked knives to have a blade that is upswept at its end, even if the knife is never used as a gouge: the blade will not dig its end into the wood. This is appreciated when one shaves the blade of a canoe paddle, which is wider than the length of the knife and must be shaved from both edges of each flat side, which means two edges with the grain and two against it—unless (which is unlikely) both a left-hand and a right-hand knife are used and the wood is shaved from top to bottom and from bottom to top, according as the wood is grained. The upswept blade is particularly appreciated when shaving wood against the grain. Also, the slight upsweep of the blade enables a smooth release of the shaving that is removed and allows a better control of the blade as one changes the direction or placement of the blade from one shaving to another. Curiously, many illustrations of a crooked knife being used show the upswept tip of the blade shaving wood, but that would be done only for gouging, not shaving, a piece of wood.
— from Dan Beard, 1882
The principal characteristic of the crooked knife is that it is used without a vise or other means of holding the wood that is being carved, such as a shaving horse (“chevalet planet” in French), or a wedge against a solid object. That means that a worker holds a piece of wood in one hand and shaves or carves it with the tool held in his other hand. Therefore, the blades are shaped and sharpened so that they are specialized for a right-handed or a left-handed user, that is, the bevel is always on the upper side of the blade; the bottom side that is against the wood is flat. So the blade is sharpened like a scissors blade. The blade is hafted so that the wielding hand is supinated, or nearly so; that is, the haft is held and the knife is drawn towards the chest with the palm held upward. Accordingly, such a knife is very safe to use, since only small shavings are removed at the strokes and the tool is never “crowded” to remove more than the hand which holds the work can brace easily against the stroke.
Among Native-Americans the mocotaugan, crooked knife, is known as a man’s knife, but a woman may use it if she assists in building a canoe or makes snowshoes, frames for baskets, and so on. There is a woman’s knife for chopping and scraping, called a madaigan, which is similar to
the Inuit oolu or ulu knife. A man may use a madaigan as a scraper if he works on hides to tan them, but usually a woman does that kind of work.
George Leonard Herter (1911-1994), whose death is no less lamented than the demise of his outdoorsmen’s outfitting company in 1976, once sold a “crooked knife” that was actually a skinning knife. His father, Edward, founded Herter’s, Inc., of Waseca, Minnesota, as a hardware store in Waseca in 1893, and George L. became manager of its sporting goods section in the 1930s. After he returned from U.S. Army service in World War II, George Leonard Herter made Herter’s a world famous mail-order business long before there was a Cabela’s or a Gander Mountain. Because he wrote his own advertising copy and numerous books in an entertaining and inimitably hyperbolic style and knew what he was talking about most of the time, he had a large personal following. Sometimes he was a Pied Piper playing two tunes at once: on page 497 of his 1967 catalogue, he sold a “crooked knife,” its name obviously derived from its rocker-shaped blade. But on page 246 of that catalogue, the same knife with the same catalogue number and price was advertised (correctly) as a skinning knife—and the text of the advertising for each was the same. The blade of his so-called “crooked knife” was crooked, all right, but in the same plane; and it was sharpened for skinning game, not for shaving wood.
A crooked knife is not so-called by the shape of its handle but by the shape of its blade, and that shape determined its use. Very often a set of kitchen knives will be made with different kinds of blades, such as a boning knife, roast beef slicer, ham slicer, butcher knife, steak slicer, French cook’s knife, etc., but will be all hafted with identical handles. Similarly, outdoor knives are differentiated by the blade, such as camp knife, skinning knife, bowie knife, fighting knife, etc., and will all have handles of about the same size and shape—to fit the hand. Yet, the term “crooked knife” is a misnomer, because the blade of a one-handed draw knife need not have an upswept tip nor an angled tang. It need not even have a tang, for the earliest type of drawknife known was a beaver or porcupine tooth set into a handle, or was even a section of the mandible of a beaver with the tooth in its socket. Ancient copper knives had socket tangs, as will be discussed infra.
It is claimed by those who would deny a Native-American (aboriginal) origin for the crooked knife that (1) such a knife could not have been made of materials available before the European incursion into North America and (2) that its shape is based on certain knives of European design, such as the farrier’s knife (horseshoer’s hoof knife). Both arguments are based on the shape of the blade as it came to be standardized about the turn of the 18th century, when the fur trading companies began to sell blades smithed in Europe, particularly in Sheffield, England. The upswept end of the blade probably dates from about that time, though possibly it is earlier.
But there were “crooked knives” long before then. Blades for crooked knives before the arrival of Europeans were of bone, such as the rib bone of a buffalo, with one edge sharpened; or a piece of slate, obsidian (volcanic glass), knapped flint, or worked copper, inset into a curved bone handle or into a wooden handle, virtually always made from a section of a tree branch with the desired curve. There are ancient surviving wood-working tools from archaeological sites, such as a beaver tooth set into a hole bored into a piece of antler that constituted a miniature adze, probably very efficient for gouging. Copper blades called “celts” that were set into wooden handles to make larger adzes are in several museum collections. A celt can also be set into a handle to make an axe for chopping wood. But what of tools for removing layers of wood by shaving it off, as does an European plane, two-handed drawknife or spokeshave? There was the mocotaugan, the one-handed draw-knife, which, at its final evolution, would be called the “crooked knife,” though many made and used even today have absolutely straight blades—as did the original, probably, though a copper blade could have had an upswept tip.
Large collections of copper tools testify that the native-Americans of millennia past were makers and users of tools. Five classes of knives are listed by Halsey (1983, 8). Some of those knives were doubtless used as one-handed draw-knives. Numerous ancient copper knives have the top and bottom edges of the tang bent toward each other on the left side, as seen from the haft end, to form a partial socket. It may yet be possible to determine, by inspecting ancient blades, whether or not they were sharpened by a single bevel on the upper side, typical of a draw-knife. Interesting features those ancient North American knives have: a sure-enough blade and a sure-enough tang, perhaps 2,000 B.C., the same parts as European knives have. Form follows function. Such socket tangs are seen on spear points and even on some arrow points (though the latter could be attached otherwise to an arrow shaft), because copper is too soft for a knife to have a tang that is a slender, integral extension from the blade. BUT, instances are known where the entire back of a copper knife blade was set into a bone handle which, by its curve, powerfully suggested that it was a wood-working tool, a draw-knife for a right-handed man.
Copper in the Great Lakes region of North America existed in a free state as natural nuggets in sizes and shapes from specks and wires to huge masses weighing tons, such as the famous Ontonagan Boulder, now in the Smithsonian Institution. Ancient peoples mined it, and learned the rudiments of metallurgy. Because copper already existed in a nearly pure state as nuggets, there was no incentive to learn to smelt it as did the peoples of Mexico. But they may have smelted it in the Great Lakes area ca 1000 B.C, according to evidence found by Ellis J. Neiburger (1991). Certainly, Native-Americans learned enough about copper to use it. Copper is malleable; that is, it can be shaped by hammering it while it is cold. Small nuggets of copper cannot be fused or coalesced into larger masses by hammering, so a large enough piece of copper must be found for the object that is wanted. Then the piece of copper can be formed by hammering it into a useful object, such as a knife. After a certain amount of hammering, copper becomes brittle and may break apart. But heating it to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit for a few minutes, called “annealing,” will restore its malleability, so that it can be hammered further. Judicious hammering, according to experience, will harden the edge of copper to an optimum amount, so that it will bear a sharp edge yet not be so brittle that it will break apart. Then the hammered edge can be improved in sharpness by stroking it with an abrasive stone. So a copper blade can be made sharp enough for shaving wood, but it will not stay sharp very long.
A worthwhile experiment would be to make a copper-bladed mocotaugan to learn how well it works and the techniques of cold-working the blade to keep it as sharp as possible. It is probable that the handle would need to be removed while the copper was annealed. Doubtless the handle would need to follow the line of the entire back of the knife blade and enclose it somewhat, or else the tang, that part inset into a handle or haft, would need to be as wide as the blade; a narrow tang, such as a steel knife has, probably would not be strong enough to withstand the strain exerted on a copper blade. A handle inset with the full length of the back of a blade—or most of it, if the tip were upswept—would likely require the blade to have a compound bend along its length in order to provide clearance from the wood being worked for the bottom side of the handle. How often the
cutting edge would need to be hammered would be learned, as well as how much hammering would be needed, how much stoning of the newly hammered edge, and so on. Perhaps a copper mocotaugan would not be a good wood-working tool. I suspect not. But what were the alternatives available to the Native-Americans of antiquity?
Iron or mild steel was substituted for any preceding type of cutting edge as soon as it became available. Instances are known when the steel buttplate of a trade gun was removed as unnecessary for the use of the gun but as a good source of metal for two or more mocotaugans. Blades for crooked knives became a trade item of the Hudson’s Bay Company early in the fur trade days and were staple trade items of the North West Company and the American Fur Company. It is tempting to suspect that their invariable upswept tip was specified by Native-Americans from experience with the advantages of the upswept tips of copper knives, but there is no proof of that. But why else were the blades manufactured for the “Indian trade” by the fur companies designed the way they were? Who would know better than Native-Americans how the steel blades should be designed? The blades were sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company at its Winnipeg post until at least into the 1940s, for my father (John N. [Gaboriault de] LaPanne) and I bought several left-hand and right-hand blades at the HBC Store there—my father was left-handed—just after World War II, about 1946 or 1947; and they may have been sold at the HBC’s northern posts much later. They have been made until recent times at Fort William, Ontario, as the historian Herbert J. Wagner and I learned when we visited there as part of the entourage of the Mayor of Superior, Wisconsin, in May of 1994, when we attended a trade show in Thunder Bay. In the blacksmith shop of the fort was a nail keg filled with both left-hand and right-hand blades. Perhaps they are sold to the public there yet.
But most Indians and trappers and others who live in the bush fashion their own crooked knives from small pieces of “found” steel. Old files are a prime source of metal for making all kinds of knives, and some men prefer pieces of saw blades. But even the soft steel of barrel hoops has been used, as the steel is certainly harder than the wood it is used to shape, though soft steel needs frequent sharpening and, consequently, is soon used up.
It is said by some that before the European incursion and the introduction of steel that there was no material available that would enable a knife to be made with an upswept tip or an offset tang. Therefore, it is claimed, since the term “crooked knife” depends on the shape of the blade, there could have been no crooked knife before the European incursion. It is a very tight, if mean-spirited and perverse argument, for every tool evolves in shape, size, material and use until it is superseded by something else; and a one-handed draw-knife, whether its tip is upswept or straight or its tang is offset in any plane, or straight, is nevertheless a draw-knife. Do the nay-sayers imply that the concept of a one-handed draw-knife eluded native-Americans and that they did not use such a tool until the fur companies sold them blades? Perhaps the argument might better be stated that a drawknife with a bent blade or a bent tang or both depended upon steel, and that a drawknife of that shape did not originate among the indigenous people of North America. Well, what of it? But, perhaps a copper blade with an upswept blade tip may yet be found at an archaeological site—or in a museum collection. If the latter, would the nay-sayers then state that the tip “got bent” by accident?
The aboriginal peoples north of Mexico in the regions of woods and lakes crafted many items of wood from time immemorial: canoes; paddles; snow shoes; bows; arrow shafts; toboggans; dog sleds; decoys; fishing lures; lacrosse sticks; ball-ended war clubs; pipe stems, some of which were very large, intricate and ornamental; flutes; split ash baskets; cradle boards; backrests; canes, used mainly as a badge of office; poles for spear hafts and for supporting bedrolls; handles for knives and hammers—all dependant on the use of a tool that peeled bark and removed shavings, a draw-knife. Later there would be axe handles and, sometimes, gunstocks to carve. And there were bowls, cups, spoons, and pots for grease and paint–all of them dependant on the use of a gouge, preceded by judicious burning.
Crooked knives are very rarely made commercially today, and those that are on the market seem to be almost always made of steel that is too thin and springy for use in accurate carving. Yet
the crooked knife is so useful to woodworkers that the methods to make it have never been lost and most workers in wood make one sooner or later. For those who do not have the skills or opportunity, or for those who collect knives or desire to own occasional examples of Americana, there are a few custom knife makers, Native-Americans and others, who accept commissions to make custom mocotaugan knives. Woodworkers often adapt commercially made carving tools, such as those made by Mora, to the style of the crooked knife. The use of the crooked knife in the bush has lessened proportionately as the use of bark canoes and canvas-covered wood canoes has diminished, since it is no longer needed to make repairs. In addition, snowshoes are usually made by commercial, mechanical means, now. But a crooked knife is still worth having in one’s kit even today, as it is extremely useful if a canoe paddle must be made in a remote place. Then, only an axe is more necessary, but for making a paddle a crooked knife is a precious accompanying tool. And no one who depends upon snowshoes or dog sleds should be without one.
Because excavated specimens of ancient tools are almost always without their wooden handles, though the excavation of a fossilized specimen may be hoped for, and only occasionally do they have bone handles attached, irrefutable proof of the ancient and indigenous origin of the North American crooked knife is not available. But the need for a one-handed draw knife far antedated the incursion of Europeans in the Americas, and there is certainly some circumstantial evidence as well as logical inference of the draw-knife’s antique age and origin on this continent. That its development into its final stage as both a utilitarian tool and, with a haft embellished with chip carving, an “art form,” required steel and dates no later than the last quarter of the 18 th century and especially from about 1810 onward will not be gainsaid here. But I cannot resist stating that, in my opinion, the more complicated patterns of handles, such as playing card motifs and women’s legs, balls in cages and sculptured violin scrolls, exemplify items made for the tourist trade and are no more representative of native-American art than anything that might be found along the Mohawk Trail in northwestern Massachusetts or any other tourist trail in North America.
Making a Mocotaugan / Couteau Croche / Crooked Knife
Using a file from about eight to ten inches long and about three-fourths of an inch wide, the steps to make a blade for a crooked knife are these:
(1) Anneal the file to soften the steel so that it can be worked. This is done by heating it to a cherry red color (about 1250 degrees F) and quenching it in water. A propane torch will generate enough heat.
(2) File or grind off the scored surface or “teeth” of the file until both sides are smooth.
Then hold the blade horizontally and point the tang toward the hand that will hold the crooked knife. Sharpen only the top side of the edge toward you, filing or grinding it at an angle of about 45 degrees until the bottom of the edge is sharp, striving for a hollow grind. The bottom of the file is left dead flat like a chisel with no sharpening. More explicit instructions are given infra under “Sharpening A Mocotaugan.” The tip may be upswept by pounding it over the horn of an anvil or by using two bolts in a vise, puting the last inch of the blade toward the tip between the bolts and bending it up to the angle desired. Reheating the tang if necessary, put half an inch of the end of the tang between the jaws of a vise and bend it up at a right angle. Notice that both bends are upward with the flat side of the blade on the bottom. Decide now if you want the tang and an inch of the blade to point away from your hand at a 30- to 45-degree angle. If so, heat the steel again, grip all of the blade that won’t be bent in the vise jaws and bend the end of the blade and tang with vise-grip pliers, reheating the blade if necessary. It almost certainly will be. Reheat the blade yet again and pound the bent angle on an anvil or billet of steel, for you want all of the blade but the upswept tip and the tip of the tang in the same plane. Reheat a final time and quench the blade in oil.
(3) Temper the blade by heating it until it is a bright cherry red (about 1550 degrees F) and the steel loses its magnetic attraction. Any small magnet held in pliers will provide the test. A propane torch and a MAPP gas torch may be used together or an oxy-acetylene torch may be used
to generate the required heat. Quench the blade in oil.
(4) Heat-treat the blade by putting it into a 500-degree oven for one hour and then letting it cool gradually, overnight. A burnisher or a butcher’s steel may be used to remove the wire edge that
formed on the sharpened side of the blade from grinding. Hone the bottom side of the blade on an oilstone or on a waterstone or on both.
(5) Any of the steps requiring heat may be accomplished in a coal fire or charcoal fire, using a small bellows, or, lacking that, a long blowpipe, as is used to raise the heat in a forge. I bent the tip and the tang of the blade of my crooked knife made in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, during 2006/2007, by using a traditional coal-fired and bellows-drafted forge owned by Dan Dosinger, a blacksmith in Rhinelander. According to my father, in the woods the steel can be worked over a fire made with charcoal culled from several days’ campfires and a rolled-up scrap of birch bark as a blowpipe. If one uses charcoal, it is necessary to know from experience the colors that steel assumes at various temperatures. Heat treating can be accomplished by leaving steel overnight in the embers of a charcoal fire. The biggest problem then is to find a hard enough stone to use as an anvil.
(1) Ideally, a small tree limb is procured which has a bend in it of the angle suitable to the intended user’s hand. Such a handle is not likely to split when stressed. But hard maple may be used,
if care is taken that the grain of the wood runs horizontal to the long axis of the handle. The handle should be about seven inches long with a bend, so that the last three inches are at a 45-degree angle.
(2) For a right-handed crooked knife, place the handle flat on a bench with the 45-degree bend at the right pointing away from you. Using a chisel, a sharp knife, or a piece of metal heated in a fire, you will cut and/or burn a groove on the bottom of the long part of the handle, from its left, for the
tang of the blade and perhaps three-quarters of an inch of the blade itself. There will be a depression
at the end of the groove for the upturned half-inch of the tang, which will prevent the tang from coming out of the handle.
Alternatively, the handle may be raised from the flat position so that the 45-degree angle bend is not only away from you but also at a 30-degree to 45-degree angle upward from the table. The groove will be made just as if the handle were flat on the table. This procedure will provide a grip for the hand that allows a raised thumb. This second angle of 30 to 45 degrees, which raises the handle from the flat plane of the knife edge, was preferred by my father for his left-handed crooked knives and was utilized as well by my left-handed son, Blaise, when he built a knife. I also utilize the second angle of 30 to 45 degrees for my right-handed knives. The second angle allows a grip that places the palm in a nearly horizontal position, much more comfortable—hence more accurate, perhaps—for many to use. The “traditional” handle, which is on the same plane, or nearly so, as the width of the blade, places the hand in a supinated, or, palm-up position. Blaise has stated, correctly, that the hand fully supinated places the thumb in a more powerful position for a stronger (deeper) cut into wood; but since the shavings are better controlled when they are shallow, a position of the hand with the thumb raised, that is, nearly upright, almost half-way between supinated and pronated, is adequate for serious, controlled shaving of wood for those who prefer that hand position.
(3) The groove is made deep enough to allow a piece of wood about a half-inch thick to be inset on top of the tang.
Alternatively, a section of the handle is cut away so that there is a flat surface in which the groove is cut. If this is done the groove is cut just deeply enough so that the tang is flush with the flat surface. Then the section cut away is placed back in its original position. This method is easier and quicker but not so strong unless epoxy glue is available.
(4) The tang of the blade is mounted in the handle with spruce resin (or a substitute, such as epoxy), and the small piece of wood inset over the tang—or the section of the handle that was cut away—is glued in place with fish glue, boiled from the skin and bones; hoof glue, boiled from the hooves of deer, moose, elk or caribou; or spruce resin—or, today, with epoxy cement. When the glue is dry, the handle over the tang is marked about a half-inch in from its end and then for a distance of two inches or more, and the wood is cut away at least an eighth of an inch deep and optimally a quarter inch deep completely around the handle.
(5) The depression cut completely around the handle over the tang is wrapped tightly with
ashkimaneiab (in French, the famous “babiche”), that is, rawhide, or with raw fish intestines, or with sailmaker’s or butcher’s linen twine. Fish intestines are prepared simply by stripping them of their contents by pulling them between the fingers. They may be frozen until needed. In a pinch, years ago, my father used part of a spool of Aunt Lydia brand carpet binding thread. The wrapping is tight, to strengthen the handle as much as possible. Raw-hide or raw fish intestines will shrink as they dry, providing an extremely tight wrapping. The latter is preferred for a crooked knife unless rawhide can be sliced extra thin; otherwise, the wrapping becomes somewhat bulky for utility or appearance. Linen twine, braided fishing line or carpet thread will not shrink but is easily available, and if it is used the wrapping should be done in a vise with the cord wrapped around a stick, obtaining the most tension possible. Then the cord should be painted or varnished to protect it and keep it tight.
Red paint is preferred by some people as a sealant, as it helps to prevent the loss of tools in snow or forest duff. My father preferred red paint to help indemnify all woods tools against loss, and I and my son have followed his lead. Both old and new mocotaugans are found with wire wrapping, usually copper; but wire is difficult to wrap tightly, unless it is looped through a hole bored in a cross-piece to keep it under tension while it is being wrapped; and the end of it is difficult to secure, even if it is tucked into a hole bored or burned for the purpose that is then filled with resin and pinned by a sliver of wood. It is not difficult to begin a wrapping with wire, as it can be wrapped over itself to hold the beginning end secure; the end of the wrapping may be secured under a tack after it is wrapped around the tack a turn or two. I have seen one example where the tack was countersunk so that its head was flush with the surface of the handle. An unusual nicety. All varieties and levels of craftsmanship and taste are demonstrated by hand-made tools, no matter when they are made or by whom.
(6) Alternatively, the blade may be attached to the haft by making a mould of clay around the blade and haft with the blade cramped into place by miniature wedges, and pouring lead into the mould. If the haft is grooved appropriately, so that the lead surrounds the tang of the knife at an even depth, and sufficiently, the joint will be very strong. The principal difficulty in making such a leaded joint is the time it takes in the preparation and in scraping and filing down the lead to the level of the haft after the mould is removed.
(7) The wood handle of the knife should be finished with oil; never varnish or lacquer it, or
you will raise blisters shortly upon using it. Boiled linseed oil is good; tung oil is better. Avoid gunstock finishes, as they often contain resins suspended in oil, which fill the grain well, and give the
impression of an oil finish, but they will blister your hand raw when used on a knife handle.
(8) If the bent-up crook at the end of the blade is pronounced, as is true of many late 18th and 19th century crooked knives, the blade cannot be put into an ordinary sheath. I have seen Penobscots and Micmacs wrap a crooked knife in a scrap of leather to protect other items from it
in a pack basket. Cloth may be used as a wrapping. But one kind of sheath for a crooked knife is a wooden box just big enough for the blade, with one side of the box inset for a cover. The knife in its box is then inserted in a sheath made to fit it and most of the handle up to its crook.
Sharpening a Mocotaugan:
There are three steps to putting a sharp edge on the business side of a crooked knife, and they are not done all at once; that is, sharpening takes time and the gradual development of expertise.
Step (1): After the blade is annealed and has cooled, the steel is relatively soft. File it or grind it as necessary, beveling the edge at about 45 degrees with the objective of keeping the bottom of the bevel, where it meets the flat, bottom side of the blade, as straight as possible. A home-made jig of wood scraps will help to keep the bevel true and at the correct angle. If the blade is moved laterally back and forth against a grinding wheel, so that the bevel is slightly hollow ground, you gain an asset, though not enough of one to strive for it arduously. It is of no consequence if the upper part of the bevel is not perfectly straight. At this time the tip of the blade is not upswept.
Step (2): After the blade is worked and tempered, the plot thickens. The blade has been beveled and is somewhat sharp, but not enough. Now is the time to put a good edge on it. One of the best media for beginning a sharp edge is a synthetic abrasive stone, silicon carbide, known by the trade name Carborundum. It is sold in many grits from coarse to fine. One of the best media for the final sharpening is a scythe stone. The best natural scythe stones were quarried in Littleton, New Hampshire, by the Norton Pike Division of the Norton Company. As a resident of New Hamphire, my father had a quantity of Norton scythe stones, for we still used scythes at our Vermont home until 1950, when he bought a two-wheeled Montgomery-Ward garden tractor with a cutter bar. It was more work to keep sharp and maintain the cutter teeth and to pull the contraption backward, for it had no reverse gear, than to work a scythe; and it turned me into a Luddite straight away. Natural scythe stones are no longer quarried or sold, but Norton manufactures excellent synthetic scythe stones of Alundum, an aluminum oxide. Most natural and synthetic scythe stones are from eight to ten inches long and are approximately canoe shaped with parallel flat sides. Following the initial sharpening, the blade is heat treated, and final sharpening is done when the steel is perfectly cool.
An alternative to stones are dowels with sheets of emery cloth of coarse to fine grit wrapped or glued around them or dowels with canvas glued around them so that buffing compound can be applied to the canvas. The technique of working the stone or dowel in a sweep across the edge to be sharpened, so that the edge is pushed against the stone or dowel as if it were to cut it, and at the same time twisting the stone or dowel to follow the upswept curve, is a dance and a wiggle that must be acquired by trial and error. Because it seems easier for a right-handed man to sharpen a left-hand blade, and vice versa, my father, a lefty, and I sharpened each other’s crooked knives.
Step (3): Since sharpening any blade will turn a tiny “wire” or lip at the edge of a blade, one may use a butcher’s steel or slipstone across the flat back of the crooked knife to remove the wire edge. Honing the sharpened edge with a strip of leather drawn through a container of buffing compound will finish the sharpening process.
The “Men of Three Knives”:
French-Canadians were known by some in the 19th century and earlier as “the men of three knives,” since they often carried (1) a sheathed small patch knife (i.e., for cutting patches to cover the ball for loading a black powder musket or rifle) slung around the neck on a cord; (2) a sheathed small knife for table and other light personal use inserted into a sock or boot; and (3) an all-purpose large sheath knife worn on the belt or gun belt, or stuffed below a sash and secured to the sash or the belt by a thong. Such a man could be of four or even five knives if a curved skinning knife and a crooked knife were carried! That is reminiscent of the character M. Tartarin, in Tartarin de Tarascon, the novel by Alphonse Daudet (1872). For, when he left his native Tarascon, on the Rhone River in the south of France, to go lion hunting in Algeria, Tartarin carried two heavy rifles, one on each shoulder, a huge hunting-knife at his waist, and a revolver in a leather holster. That’s all.
Adney, Edwin T., and Howard Chapelle. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. U.S. National Museum Bulletin 230. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1964.
(This is the definitive ethnological work on the bark canoe, though several contemporary craftsmen have much to say about construction techniques that they have learned from experience. In John McPhee’s 1975 book, Henri Vaillancourt credits his first instruction in canoe making to this document.)
Beard, Daniel Carter (1850-1940). The American Handy Boy’s Book. Foreword by Nöel Perrin. Centennial Edition. (Nonpareil Books, No. 29). Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1983. Facsimile reprint, originally published : New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882, 1890. 441 pp.
(There was—and is, in the form of a reprint by David R. Godine, Publisher—an American Girl’s Handy Book, by Dan Beard’s sisters, Lina & Adelia Beard, published in 1887. 472 pp. They were instrumental in founding The Campfire Girls in 1910, which has been co-ed
since 1975 as “Camp Fire Boys and Girls” and which, since 2001, has been known as “Camp Fire USA.” The Camp Fire Girls, not the Girls Scouts, which organization was founded later, is the historical counterpart to the Boy Scouts, though all three organizations have always been autonomous.
Pages 390 to 406 of Dan Beard’s American Handy Boy’s Book provide explicit in-
instructions and a few illustrations for constructing a birch bark canoe, from gathering the bark and packing it for carrying, to sealing the leaks of a completed canoe, equipping it with
protective “shoes,” paddles and poles, and properly lifting and carrying it. Beard credits the procedure to his “young friend, Mr. E. T. Adney, the artist, naturalist, and backwoodsman, returned from the North Woods”—of which northern state he does not reveal—but earlier in the text he mentions Maine. Remarkably, the instructions are for building a canoe in the Indian way, not by building a framework and ribs and then fitting an outer covering, but by making an envelope of bark, placing a frame within it, fastening the bark to the frame, and then stuffing in the ribs, making them of a length to fit tightly to the bark, wedging them down from one gunwale, along the contour of the bark, across the bottom and up the other side to the opposite gunwale. When one thinks about it, there is no other way that the ribs can be made to fit tightly to the bark. Beard does not use the word “stuffing,” so the concept of it does not leap from the page to the reader—unless, as I have, he has seen a master canoe maker, such as Henri Vaillancourt, the greatest living maker of birch bark canoes—in the process of making a bark canoe. But Beard’s instructions are lucid, and his illustrations are precise.
☞ Moreover, on page 397 he illustrates (caption:) “Indian Method of Whittling,” fig 276, which shows a hand using a crooked knife, removing a shaving from what is surely a cedar canoe rib. Just below that depiction are the words “Crooked knives used by canoe makers,” under which are two drawings of the knives, the upper a straight-bladed knife with an offset tang, the lower a swept-blade knife with the usual straight tang. All of the illustrations are tiny, but they are correct. Unfortunately, they are too small to show whether the tangs are fastened below or above the handle, and it is a pity that the terms “crooked knife” and “canoe knife” do not appear in the index to this remarkable book.)
Conlon, Paula. “The Flute of the Canadian Amerindian: An Analysis of the Vertical Whistle Flute with External Block and Its Music.” M.A. thesis. Ottawa: Carleton University, 1983.
Hagar, Albert D. “Ancient Mining on the Shores of Lake Superior.” Atlantic Monthly. 15 (Mar. 1865): 308-315.
Halsey, John R. “Miskwabik — Red Metal: The Roles Played by Michigan Copper in Prehistoric North America.” Michigan History Magazine (September/October) 1983: [pp. - ].
(Physical descriptions explain and photographs illustrate many but not all of the prehistoric types of copper knives that have been excavated in North America, made from beaten copper from ca 3000 B.C.E. et seq.. Notable is a crescentic (demi-lune) knife with two parallel projections perpendicular from the back of the blade to which was affixed a handle of wood or bone. The shape is identical to that of the Inuit ulu knife (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, “ooloo”), which may mean contact with the Inuit via the Algonquin Montagnais of lower Labrador and their allied Naskapi tribes of upper Labrador, though the knife may be an independent invention. The Montagnais I met north of Lake Manomen, west of the Peribonca River in Quebec in 1947, carried mocotaugan knives, though I did not see a madaigan, since the Montagnais were unaccompanied by their families. It is also possible that the Inuit obtained the ulu knife from Algonquians, by trading with northern tribes, such as the Montagnais and Naskapi, though the term “ulu” is an Inuit word for the Algonquian
madaigan. Halsey states that the prehistoric “metalsmiths produced at least sixteen varieties
of projectile points, five varieties of knives, nine varieties of crescentic knives or ulus, four varieties of a socketed ax or adze, awls, punches, eyed needles, pikes, drills, celts [a wood-working tool much like a hatchet head], chisels, wedges, gouges, axes, adzes, fishhooks, gorges [sic: “gorgets,” small pieces of armor that, used singly, protect the throat], harpoons, gaffs, spatulas, bracelets and beads” [p. 8].)
Hanson, James A. The Voyageur’s Sketchbook. Chadron, Nebr.: The Fur Press, c. 1981.
(Page 25 provides a full-size sketch of a mocotaugan blade, made for the fur trade in Sheffield, England. Unfortunately, the maker failed to realize that the end of the tang should bend up rather than down, so that the blade could be inset at the bottom of the handle, not at the top.)
Herter, George Leonard. Catalog No. 77R. Waseca, Minnesota: Herter’s Inc., 1967.
Jaeger, Ellsworth. Wildwood Wisdom. Illustrated by the Author. New York: The MacMillan Company, c. 1945. First Edition, 491 pp. Hardcover. Many reprints through 2003.
Jaeger was Curator of Education and the Hayes Professor of Science at the Buffalo Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York. Author of many books about woodcraft and Indian lore, his Wildwood Wisdom includes information about the crooked knife, including simple drawings on page 374 of its construction. His version attaches the blade’s tang in a mortise carved into the top of the straight part of the handle, whereas the preferred method of attachment is in a mortise carved into the bottom.
Jalbert, Russell and Ned. Mocotaugan: The Story and Art of the Crooked Knife, the Woodland Indian’s Indispensable Survival Tool. Nantucket, MA: Metacom, Publishing Company, Inc., 2003. 170 pp, 11" X 10" with 39 photographs by Luigi Pelletieri and 17 other illustrations, including drawings by Jim Owens. ISBN 0-9742804-0-2. Published in three formats, the first two being hard-copy editions identical in size and page content: (1) A collector’s edition of 500 copies, signed and numbered, with a hand-crafted binding, for sale to individuals and institutions; (2) A no-frills machine-bound edition of 100 copies donated to national and regional libraries and museums; (3) An on-line edition as a PDF document with access at no charge.
(This work, which may be called definitive, traces the history of the mocotaugan from its stone-age origin to the present. The book is based on substantial documentary research and the direct contributions of more than 100 knowledgeable people, ranging from eminent anthropologists to woodlands Indian natives who still make and use the knife. The many illustrations concern both the utilitarian and artistic aspects of the knife. However, metallurgy is little mentioned.)
Kirkland, Turner W. Dixie Gun Works Catalog No. 139, 1990. Union City, Tennessee: Dixie Gun Works, Inc., c. 1989.
(Pages 148-9 provide a list of the colors of steel when heated at various degrees from 430 to 2350 Fahrenheit. This is a very useful bit of knowledge, gained empirically through the ages).
Langsner, Drew. Green Woodworking: Handcrafting Wood from Log to Finished Product.
Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1987.
(There is a line-drawing of a crooked knife obviously based on one made by HenriVaillan-court, which is shown in a photograph and looks exactly right. No mention is made of bending up a half-inch of the tang, probably because the tang could not be seen in the Vaillancourt example. I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Vaillancourt at his canoe yard in Greenville, N.H., in 1975. He is the greatest living builder of traditional Indian-style bark canoes. His canoes are meant to be used but are of such exceptional craftsmanship and so beautiful that numbers of them are in museums.)
Martin, Susan R. (1947 - ). Wonderful Power: The Story of Ancient Copper Working in the Lake Superior Basin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, c. 1999. 286 pp.
(Includes a section on annealing, tempering and heat treating native American copper.)
Mason, Bernard S. The Book for Junior Woodsmen. Drawings by Frederic H. Kock. New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, c. 1945. 120 pp.
(Pp. 88-89 provide an excellent short description of the crooked knife and a good, usable drawing of how to fit a handle to one. It is noted that the drawing shows the tang of the knife blade set into the top of the handle, whereas the preferred way is to inset it into the bottom of the handle, so that the handle does not project below, or not much below, the cutting edge of the knife—a subtlety, but one worth knowing and observing.)
Mason, Otis Tufton. The Man’s Knife Among North-American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1899.
McPhee, John. The Survival of the Bark Canoe. New York: Warren Books, 1975.
(“The book features bark canoe builder Henri Vaillancourt of Greenville, New Hampshire and a journey [voyage!] that McPhee, Vaillancourt and two others took in bark canoes. ... The book has elements of humor, mostly having to do with Vaillancourt’s approach to camping.”)
Miles, Suzanne W. “A Revaluation of the Old Copper Industry.” In American Antiquity, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Jan., 1951): 240-247.
Neiburger, Ellis J. “Melted Copper from the Archaic Midwest (1000 B.C.).” In North American Archaeologist, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1991): 351-360.
Sanger, David. The Carson Site and the Late Ceramic Period in Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick. Gatineau, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC), Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper No. 135, 1987. [Until 1986, the CMC was the National Museum of Man.]
(Among the plates in this work are illustrations of modified beaver teeth from the Carson Site, Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick, dating from 1,000 A.D., that “show evidence of having been used in the same fashion as crooked knives, chisels or small gouges.” Another shows beaver mandibles from the Sand Point Site on the St. Croix River of Maine and New Brunswick that were used as tools to work wood.)
Schneider, Richard. Crafts of the North American Indians, A Craftsman’s Manual. Stevens Point, Wisconsin: R. Schneider, Publishers, c. 1972.
(Though he mistakenly asserts that crooked knife blades were never produced commercially
as trade items, the author gets the construction methods right. The text is about as good as texts get, but his illustration for wrapping the handle over the tang of the blade shows a wrapping that is two-thirds too short.)
Simmons, William S. Cautantowwitt’s House: An Indian Burial Ground On the Island of Conanicut in Narragansett Bay. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1970.
Snow, Dean R. The Archaeology of New England. New York: Academic Press, 1980.
Speck, Frank G. Decorative Art of Indian Tribes of Connecticut. Anthropological Series 10. Memoire of the Canadian Geological Survey 75. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Department of Mines, 1915.
Wagner, Herbert. “Wisconsin’s Ancient Copper Miners.” Originally published in Wisconsin Outdoor Journal. Online: SEE <Herbert Wagner’s At the Creation.Com>.
Woodward, Arthur. The Denominators of the Fur Trade. Pasadena, California: Western-lore Press, c. 1970.
(Page 118 shows an illustration of a crooked knife blade and of a blade mounted in a handle. The illustration of the blade is hard to interpret, but when it is studied it becomes apparent that the blade is correctly formed. It was made in Sheffield as a trade item for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The illustration of a mounted blade does not pertain to the unmounted blade but is a different one from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s “Mosse” [sic: Moose] Factory, dated 1884. It is correctly formed and it was mounted correctly.)
Many thanks are due to Mr. James Spiering, of Superior, Wisconsin, for his advice, technical expertise, and personal assistance in annealing and tempering steel by using oxyacetylene and propane welding equipment, when my son, Blaise Gaboriault, made a left-hand crooked knife in 1997, as a Boy Scout in Troop 213, Superior, Wisconsin, of which
I was an Assistant Scoutmaster. Blaise made the handle unassisted except for a little direction from me. The work on the blade and handle was done correctly, except that the tang of the blade was bent down and the tang mounted on the top of the handle, an acceptable way but not the best way: see the text infra. At that time it was believed that the crooked knife was of native American origin, but I had not yet researched the subject, nor had my father, when he made crooked knives back in the 1920s over a charcoal fire in the bush as a hunting and fishing guide in Maine and New Brunswick, under the supervision of his employer and cousin, Vincent Royer—Grey Eagle—a Penobscot of the band situated at Moosehead Lake, Maine. It should be noted that the main band of the Penobscots, makers of the superb Old Town canoes, have a reservation on Indian Island at Old Town, Maine. Also not researched then (1997), was the possible use of MAPP gas for tempering the blade. Mr. Spiering gave freely of his time and allowed the use of his tools. His kindness is deeply appreciated.
Additional thanks are due to Mr. Daniel Dosinger, a blacksmith of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, who, on eight Monday nights in October and November of 2006, during a merit-badge course for Boy Scout Troop 673, Rhinelander (of which I was the Troop Committee Chairman and Brian Walter Dana the Scoutmaster), set up three portable forges at Pioneer Park in Rhinelander and, when done helping the boys each evening, assisted me in annealing, hammering and tempering two Mocotaugan blades ground from old files. Mr. Dosinger is not only an accomplished blacksmith but a superb teacher and mentor. He is owed much by the Scouts and Scouters of Troop 673. At a Boy Scout Court of Honor on 29 October 2007, he was awarded a special plaque prepared for him, which was a framed copy of the middle English poem, Smoke Smatered Smiths, also known as “A Complaint to the Blacksmith” (Anonymous, 14th Century, Arundel MS 292, British Museum), with a parallel translation in modern English.
10 Jan. 2008