Saturday, September 1, 2012

Personal Items Part I: The Fixed-Blade Knife/Couteau Boucheron

"Table knives were not common, but the habitant's hunting knife served very well."  - From Kaskaskia Under the French Regime by Natalia Maree Belting, page 42

"Marie Catherine Baron, when she died in July, 1748, owned:

14 napkins
4 linen tablecloths, one of diaper linen, and two of Beaufort linen
3 window curtains of brown linen
2 chests and 1 valise well bound and closed with a lock
2 caskets closed with locks and covered with red copper
3 calico window curtains
1 bed furnished with a straw mattress, a pillow, a bolster, a calico counterpane, a feather bed, a green wool blanket

1 cot
1 large framed mirror
1 hunting knife, 1 silver pistol
1 small cupboard with 6 wine bottles
1 old chest closed with a lock
2 silver goblets
2 crystal goblets
1 bullet mold
1 armchair
1 square table with drawers
20 plates, 1 large dish, 1 small dish, 1 pot
14 iron forks, .. (?) .. dozen iron forks and dinner knives
6 crockery plates
1 small copper cauldron
1 old pie dish, 1 small cauldron
1 medium-sized frying pan, 1 grill, 1 fork to draw food from the pot
2 medium-sized pans
2 pails hooped with iron
1 small cauldron
1 pothook with iron chain
1 old wardrobe
6 plates and 1 dish, 6 spoons, 1 small bowl, 1 covered bowl weighing about 11 pounds, 6 forks
1 frying pan
2 medium-sized pans and 1 small pan
1 silver goblet
1 small pan of yellow copper, 1 pail
8 napkins, 1 tablecloth of Beaufort linen
2 caskets covered with red copper
1 small framed mirror
1 cauldron holding about 40 pots"
(Belting, 45-46 emphasis mine)

Hopefully fall and winter weather will free up time for more how-to posts in the future, but I felt it was just as important to look at some of the common things a habitant would have carried or used daily.  Among those items used daily, if not carried daily, would have been the common hunting/butcher knife or couteau boucheron.

This posting will take a look at fixed-blade knives used in the Pays des Illinois during the 18th century.  My target for acquiring materials for my living history impression continues to be 1750.  

The inventory of Marie Catherine Baron listed above has been translated as containing a "hunting knife".  This raises the question: What makes a knife a hunting knife?  My personal thoughts on this is that the knife would be a fixed-blade knife used in dressing game for the table and it would have been sheathed for portability so that the user can wear it for use in the field.  

My next question: What is a common French fixed-blade knife?

We French reenactors are fortunate that a set of wonderful articles have recently been written by Kevin Gladysz and Ken Hamilton for the Journal of the Early Americas.  To date, there are three articles entailing the topics of French knives and the fourth, most recent, article is about French Biscayne axes.  Gladysz and Hamilton's article on boucherons, "French Knives in North America: Part III" can be found in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of JOTEA (Volume I, Issue VI).  

From "French Knives in North America: Part III":

The couteau boucheron was not only extremely popular in the Indian trade, but was frequently considered as a frontier weapon.  According to surviving French archival documents, the couteau boucheron was by far the most numerous fixed-blade knife of the period.  (p. 7, emphasis mine)

The article goes on to mention that around 10,000 boucherons were recorded to be in the King's storehouses at Quebec and Montreal in 1749.  It is pretty evident that LARGE numbers of these knives were available in Nouvelle France and could have easily found their way into every reach of France's holdings in North America.  Archaeological examples have been found from Michilimackinac to Ticonderoga and south into Louisiana.  

In an Illinois context, examples have been found at the Duckhouse Site in Cahokia.  The three Duckhouse Site examples shown below are from French Colonial Cahokia 1765 - 1800.  Although the date is a bit late for my use, I believe it is worthy of note because a knife that was dropped or lost in that period may have been manufactured in an earlier year closer to my target date of 1750.  

Note the half-tang construction
Image from At Home in the Illinois Country by Robert F. Mazrim (page 67)
Now let's compare the blade profiles to dug examples from Ticonderoga in the Gladysz/Hamilton article:  

Image from "French Knives in North America: Part III" Journal of the Early Americas,  Volume I, Issue VI (page 14)
Flipped horizontally for comparison

Something sticks out right away when I compare the two photos.  The top knife from the Duckhouse site has a VERY pronounced upward sweep to the blade.  From my understanding that is a tell-tale sign of an English scalper/trade knife.  Choosing an English knife in French territory appears to be completely correct.  After all, global trade was in full swing and on the flip side of things, the English bought boucherons from the French and continued to ship them to the English colonies even after the French and Indian (Seven Years) War according to Gladysz and Hamilton.  

The next thing that stands out is the use of the half-tang construction on both sets of examples.  The examples found in Cahokia seem to lack the pin holes that are prominently shown in the lower picture, but it may be the bubbling oxidation covering the holes.  

Now to apply it to my goal: There is written proof in primary documents of hunting knives in the Pays des Illinois.  There are local archaeological examples have been dug from around the target time period. Secondary source research shows that the boucheron was prolific throughout North America.  It sounds like a safe bet to add one to my kit!  

When a boucheron became available from Ken Hamilton, I snatched it up!  They sell like hot-cakes!  Besides co-authoring the articles about French knives, he also produces excellent reproductions of period items.  In this case, I received a medium boucheron and sheath.  No detail is overlooked:  all measurements are in French "pouce" (1 pouce = 1 1/16 inch), the handle is made of boxwood and it has actual French makers marks.  Here it is!

Overall length is 10 inches, with a 6 1/8 inch blade

Note the half-tang construction detail

Wowee!  Even the sheath is pretty!  

I keep begging Ken to make a large boucheron for me.  Perhaps he will read this and continue to hear my plea!  I do love my medium boucheron!  The quality is superb.  

If you are interested in learning more about Colonial French artifacts found in the Illinois Country, Robert F. Mazrim's book entitled At Home in the Illinois Country is unbeatable!  This title and several others are available from my friends at the Fort de Chartres Store.  Please check out all they have to offer:  

Fort de Chartres Store Website

I also recommend a subscription to Journal of the Early Americas. They are by far the most professional publication of research for living historians.  The articles on French knives and axes alone have been worth the subscription!  

Sunday, July 1, 2012


From the Kaskaskia Manuscripts Notarial Records found in The Village of Chartres in Colonial Illinois 1720-1765 pg. 807, K-342:

List of what was sent to me from Cahors, belonging to the late LaFrance, who died in the said place, 30th day of March, 1723.
One old gun.
One jerkin.
One poor pair of red leggings.
One poor pair of linen breeches. 
Some linen breeches that no one wants. 
One pair of leggings adjudged to Leveille-- 18. paid
One lined suit adjudged to Dessablons--    50. 
One Gun adjudged to Beausoleil--             46. paid

Page 926, record K-432:

Sale of (ms. damaged) Monsieur de Frenchomme, officer of this garrison, done at Fort de Chartres on the sixth of August one thousand seven hundred twenty-eight.
One pair of breeches of Petersburg adjudged to Monsieur de St. Ange at one hundred sols ... 5. 
One waistcoat and one pair of old black silk stockings, adjudged to Monsieur Chassin at nine francs ... 9.
One pair of leggings, one pair of shoes and one shot pouch of black kidskin decorated with porcupine quills, adjudged with one calico handkerchief to Monsieur de Terisse at ten francs ... 10.

There appears to be enough primary source proof in the Kaskaskia Manuscripts that leggings/mitasses were a fairly common item, so I decided to make a pair!  

The only color that I found when glancing through the HUGE (like 1000 pages huge...) Village of Chartres book was the set of red leggings listed above.  It would make the best sense to make a pair of red leggings, but wouldn't you know it, I have an excess of really nice indigo broadcloth.  So now I'm probably doing a "no-no" for a good living historian in trying to prove something that I already have as being correct for the time/place.  

From my initial research on the Pays des Illinois, many of the early settlers of the Kaskaskia area came south from Canada.    My assumption (yes, I know...) is that the Mississippi River provided a highway for the transportation of both goods and cultural ideas, so it would be expected that much of the clothing would resemble items worn by the French in Canada.  New Orleans in the south was not founded until 1718, so much of the cultural "sharing" in the early times of the Illinois Country would have had to come from the northern reaches of New France.

In short, if certain types of clothing and cloth is available in the upper parts of New France, then it probably would have appeared in the Kaskaskia area.  

From the introduction of The Equipment of New France Militia 1740-1760 by Steve DeLisle:

The clothing issued to the militia on campaign was no different than what a voyageur or any traveller from New France would have worn.  Generally speaking, it is a hybrid between a western French sailor's clothing and Amerindian clothing designs which were well adapted to the environment.  

From Costume in New France, 1740-1760: A Visual Dictionary by Suzanne and Andre Gousse, page 66:

Parish of Saint-Antoine-de-Longueuil
The body of a man found drowned in the Sault St-Louis opposite the house of Andre Lamarre; approximately five feet and a half tall, long auburn hair with a braid held against the head with a rosary, a shirt of common linen, a pair of breeches of homespun linen, a white short waistcoat, another brown one and a waistcoat fastened with a double row of pewter buttons, blue leggings

Now that I've researched and second-guessed myself into the ground, let's actually do something and make some mitasses!  

The first thing I did was cut the legs out of some old dress pants to use as a pattern before cutting up the good material.
Using a pattern before cutting the good stuff! 

Using the old pant leg, I wrapped it around my leg and safety-pinned it on the side of the leg where the seam was to be sewn.  It took a little adjusting and an allowance had to be made for moving/squatting in the leggings, so be sure to move around while fitting the pattern!  A far as height goes, I measured to mid-thigh.  

DeLisle's book mentioned above gives a great description of leggings on page 6.  There are measurements given that show how a Milice soldier was to cut apart his allowance of issued wool to make a pair.  Unfortunately, these measurements will not work for me as I am no where near the size of an 18th century Frenchman!  Custom fit with my makeshift pattern will have to do for now.  

It is mentioned, however, that "...leaving on the side an excess of material 'four fingers wide'.  They went up to mid-thigh."  A four-finger excess measures out to 2 1/2" to 3" and can be seen in my pattern.  The marker line is where the seam will be, with the excess material being the side flaps.  

Once the pattern is made, cut the wool to size.  On a straight cut of material, a period method was to pull a single thread from the cloth and tear at the area where the thread is missing.  Since the mitasses pattern is angled to allow a taper on the leg, I was unable to do this, but it worked well for making the garters to hold up my leggings near the end of the project!  

Cutting the broadcloth

After cutting the broadcloth from the pattern, I pinned the flap edges together and tried the leggings on for a final check before sewing.  Once the fit was right, a chalk line was drawn for my stitches to follow.  

Wool folded before pinning
Measuring the "Four Finger Width" for the side flaps

Leggings pinned for a final fit before sewing
Time to sew!  I used a medium-weight natural linen thread, waxed with beeswax to prevent fraying and make sewing easier.  The stitch was a backstitch, which can be learned by watching a youtube video!  

A tip to sewing is to use a length of thread that is about your arm's length and not longer.  This makes knotting less likely when pulling your thread through the material.  It is easy to start out with a long thread, thinking that you'll not have to finish and start new threads as often, but for me, I waste more time trying to undo knots and fighting the excess thread.    An arm's length from chest to fingertips works great!  

My backstitch.  Not pretty, but I'm practicing!
Stitch each seam on each legging and then it is time to add the garters that will be used to hold them up.  No one wants their mitasses on the ground.  That's just embarrassing.  

For the garters, I used the same broadcloth, tearing 1" strips by about 30" in length.  I figured they could always be shortened if too long.  The strip is then sewn just behind seam on each legging.  

Garter is 1" wide by 30" long

Garter sewn to back part of legging

Back side of legging, showing the rear of a backstitch and the garter stitching
That pretty much sums up my legging project.  I am open to legitimate suggestions, with research being a plus!  Additional research is most helpful to me.  Again, this is just a personal journey of a guy that really doesn't know what he is doing, but is willing to learn!  

The final set of leggings.  I may have strayed from my chalk line on the left legging... or I may have a weird bump on my thigh there.  I'm not telling which one is the case!  

If you wish to learn more about 18th century sewing techniques, I highly recommend the set of books by Kannick's Korner.  

The Lady's Guide to Plain Sewing is a great resource for basic stitches and just starting out in hand-sewing.  There is a second Lady's Guide in the series as well as a Workman's guide.  I personally find the Lady's Guides to be most helpful!  They are small books (around 30 pages), but show the details needed to construct 18th century clothing.  

Jeff Pavlik was kind enough to allow me to link to his instructions for brayet and mitasses construction.  Thanks Jeff! 

Jeff's main site,, has been an inspiration for my postings and direction in the hobby.  Be sure to view his work.  He is a very talented fellow!   

Saturday, June 30, 2012

French Homes in the Illinois

It has been quite some time since the last post and I wanted to share this link to a very comprehensive list of primary and secondary sources on the Illinois Country during the time of the French.

As far as my progress goes on creating a 1750 French habitant kit, I have created a set of blue broadcloth mitasses and a brayet.  It is overdue that I post some pictures of the projects and some research.

On another topic, I did get a chance to visit the historic district of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri a few weeks ago.  There is a collection of French homes dating from the late 18th and early 19th century that are rather interesting to look at.  A couple of the examples are the poteaux-en-terre and the poteaux- sur-solle types of construction.  I like to call them a typical French log cabin of the time.  You'll notice the structures are built of vertical logs.  

Model of Bolduc House, poteaux sur solle construction

Bolduc House in Ste. Genevieve, MO

Model of poteaux en terre construction

Bequette-Ribault House located on St. Mary's Road near Ste. Genevieve, MO

Friday, March 9, 2012

In Search of Clothes

Something that has come to my attention during the research process for habitant clothing is that there are no known surviving examples or artist depictions of habitants in the Illinois Country during the French period.  This makes trying to nail down specifics all the more challenging.  It is important for me to acknowledge the guidance given to me by a couple of friends in the hobby and the contributors at in the Nouvelle France forum.  There is a tremendous amount of expertise and goodwill that has been shared with me in this adventure. 

A great amount of reliance will have to be made upon inventories, lists and descriptions from the time period in and around de Chartres.  Since the target date is 1750, particular attention will be given to texts that predate that specific year.  Some allowance for years beyond the 1750 target will be allowed, to around 1760.  For visuals, portraits and other artwork will be used, however these will be of French canadiens and must be taken in context, since no examples for the Pays des Illinois exists. 

Another research challenge that has been encountered is the aspect of word meaning being “lost in translation”.  The original texts are in the French language and translated into English.  Some words, such as “casket” in English are a derivative of “cassette” in French, which is a small, lockable trunk or box.  Numerous inventories have “caskets” listed within, but it is important to note that the meaning is actually for the small storage box instead of leading to the conclusion that the Illinois French were vampires with caskets in every household!  Some other words that are more “English” in nature, like “great coat” may indeed be “capot” or “surtout” in the original text, but I do not have the original available for comparison.  A little conjecture and reading between the lines will be necessary to make sense of the translations.  

Presently, my focus is on clothing for the habitant for Fort de Chartres, 1750. 

Some of the sources I am using for clothing descriptions in inventories are: 

Brown, Margaret Kimball and Lawrie Cena Dean. The Village of Chartres in Colonial Illinois, 1720-1765. New Orleans: Published for La Compagnie des Amis de Fort de Chartres by Polyanthos, 1977.

Brown, Margaret K.;Dean, Lawrie Cena. The French Colony in the Mid-Mississippi Valley.  Amer Kestrel Books, 1995.

Ekberg, Carl J.  Colonial Ste. Genevieve: An Adventure on the Mississippi Frontier (Second Edition).  Patrice Press, 1996.

Belting, Natalia Maree.  Kaskaskia Under the French Regime (Shawnee Classics).  Southern Illinois University Press, 2003 (reprint). 

It has been important to learn some common French nouns for specific pieces of clothing.   An excellent book to help with this is Suzanne and Andre Gousse’s Costume in New France From 1740 to 1760. 

As a primer, here is a simple list of a common man’s clothing from head to toe: 

English            =            French

Hat                   =            Chapeau
Knitted Hat        =            Tuque
Scarf                 =            Echarpe
Shirt                  =            Chemise
Waistcoat          =            Veste, Gilet, Juste
Capote (Coat)    =             Capot
Overcoate          =            Surtout, Volant
Breeches            =            Culotte
Breechclout        =            Brayet
Stockings           =            Bas
Leggings            =            Mitasse
Shoes                =            Soulier, Chaussure


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Finding a Research Approach

A good first document to post is Alan Gutchess' "A Modest Proposal".   Mr. Gutchess has a set of "rules" for reenactors that should be considered when building a believable persona and kit.  

A Modest Proposal - Alan Gutchess

Right now I am brainstorming my research approach.  I have thought about primary and secondary sources, period artwork, and surviving artifacts as my sources to give direction to my goal.  Perhaps I was over-complicating things, but I have been thinking of what the minimum amount of documentation would be needed to go ahead with accepting an item in my "kit".  For example, just one secondary source description (or any single source) is too minimal to make a good, educated decision.  Artist depictions are also sometimes too vague or may have a bit of "artistic license" used and aren't accurate at times.

So what am I to do for documentation?  Should I have a system for "weighting" the documentation?  Should very reliable documentation, such as dug and surviving artifacts should be given priority over other sources?   Maybe I'm making this way too difficult.   I tend to over-think things WAY too much!

Time to prioritize sources for research.  My little list of "source awesomeness" is listed from best to worst (in my opinion):

1.  Dug artifacts:  They have been in the ground for 250 years.  There are no "my daddy said great-uncle Willy got this from his paw paw Jim...." stories about the artifact.  It is in a specific place at a specific time.  That makes it REALLY good!

2.  Non-dug artifacts:  This is the stuff that survives in attics and trunks for 250 years.  The best stuff is in reliable museums.  There's probably a story with it... who knows how true it is, but if it matches a written description or other artifacts, then it is a good source.

3.  Primary sources:  Journals, articles and descriptions recorded at the time it happened are pretty good for research.  Time can fade memories and accuracy, so primary resources are pretty helpful. I especially will seek out inventories, probate records, etc.  Essentially lists of stuff that existed at a specific time and place.  

3.  Period Artwork: A painting, sketch, engraving, etc. from the time of study may shed light on things.  There is some apprehension in using this because we all know that artists tend to use some "artistic license" and change details or do not add enough detail in certain aspects of the artwork.   

4.  Secondary Sources: Descriptions written after an event happened or books by authors based on their research.  Now I put this at the bottom of the list, but books by experts are a BIG help to me.  I don't have a doctorates degree in research and most of them do.  I'll rely on their expertise and why reinvent the wheel?

5.  The guy that has been reenacting for years:  He may have a lot to share, but unless he can offer the above four resources for my own perusal, then I'll just have to take it with a smile and a grain of salt.  I don't want to sound snooty, but like in any academic subject such as history, new stuff is out there.  One thing I have noticed is the value of friends that urge me to "get into the research" before they make recommendations or give me a direction.  I really appreciate that they have the attitude of "here is the evidence I have found.....  see what you can find and we'll compare".   That is so much more helpful than, "THIS is how they did it!" and "They had wood, they had leather, they had cloth..... so they musta made one of these to use."  

The plan is to get a good set of primary sources (at least 3) before I buy or make anything for my kit.  Since there is occasionally scant amounts of information for some items, a "best guess" may be needed, but I welcome input and suggestions from anyone who may have more primary sources regarding specific items.  

My next step is to get a brief history and cultural context on Les Pays des Illinois.  I need to know who was here in 1750, where they came from and what they were doing at the time.   Lots more work to do..... but let's start it with a couple of articles that give nice little descriptions of the area.  

Colonists and Colonizing in the Illinois Country

Illinois Country - Wikipedia

Before and Working on the After

I hope Oprah can give this guy a makeover! 

I figured a before pic was in order.  Here it is...    That's right, GENERIC!  Exactly as I had described earlier.  It is enough to pass a jury according to some of my more serious living history buddies, but I'm just not satisfied.  Plus, it is is definitely NOT French here in the Illinois Country, 1750.  I had originally tried to put together something from a Virginia/Anglo context.  Here's what I've got on from top to bottom:  

Wool Monmouth cap 
Scrap of cotton cloth for a neck scarf
Linen/cotton blend shirt 
Waistcoat in cotton 
Cotton canvas French-fly breeches 
Cotton Socks 
Leather buckle shoes with brass buckles

Oh, the fusil?  That's a French "D" that I built from a kit.  It's staying!   I do have a Fusil de Chasse as well, but my "D" is a tack-driver if it can get me to cooperate.  Shooting is how I got into this crazy hobby and enjoy a good shooting competition as much as any other part of the hobby.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

It's a Start

The internet is a great thing for hobbyists.  If you're into woodworking, sports, or even toddler beauty pageants, there are like-minded people with the same enthusiasm for a subject as yourself.

My passion is history.  Passion is a strong word.  Perhaps obsession is stronger, with a negative connotation, but either word will describe my interest in history.  The internet has helped me discover that there are people with a similar passion/obsession in my main area of interest: 18th Century American History.   That's right.... the colonial period.

Now we tend to think of the American Revolution, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin when it comes to colonial history.  For non-history buffs, the influence of the French in the heart of the present-day United States is a long-forgotten topic.  This is my main area of interest, although I do find eastern frontier history intriguing as well.  

I've been involved in 18th century "living history" for about 9 years.  Most people call us "reenactors", but I prefer "living historian".  My reason for this is that reenactors are often thought of by the general public as strictly a soldier recreating a battle scenario.  My interest is in the mundane daily life of the common person.  This is where ALL of our ancestors came from.... and they lived it every day.  Accurately recreating these daily life scenarios is what I believe "living history" is all about.

Generic.  That is a word that best describes my current status in living history.  I have the gear needed to camp, hunt and cook in the 1700's, but it is a hodge-podge of things loosely based on historical artifacts, with little regard for time, location and the type of person using it.   My goal here is to create a more correct living history "persona" and get away from the dreaded "generic" colonist that I have been for far too long.

The plan isn't to "be" a person from the 1700's.  That is, I do not wish to act in a "first-person" role like an actor in costume.   I am not an actor and really don't enjoy being a center of attention.  However, if I am camping or demonstrating a skill that a person finds interesting and they wish to talk about it, try it, or ask questions, then my teacher mode kicks in and I get a rush out of being able to share what I have learned.

My Goal: To portray a habitant (farmer/citizen) from Pays des Illinois or the "Illinois Country" of New France from around the 1750 time period.   

The Pays des Illinois or Illinois Country
My area of focus is found within the red oval.

This area includes the historical settlements of Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, St. Philippe, Cahokia and DeChartres in the southwestern parts of modern-day Illinois along the Mississippi River.