A Bag of Beads and Silver

A Mini-Monday Missive…

A solitary gobble beckoned. Cedar by cedar by cedar elk moccasins crept along, below the ridge crest, in the shadows. The woodsman’s course meandered east. The steep hillside leveled. Cedar trees gave way to oaks. One red oak in particular, short trunk, broad limbs and hollow, broke apart in 1791, the summer prior.

In October of 1792, Samuel the Trader’s hired hunter discovered the damage. After careful thought, he hacked a lair within the tree’s top branches. The gobble that first week of November teased the woodsman back. Once sitting cross-legged, his fingers fumbled for the single turkey wing bone, nestled in his hunting bag, beneath the New Testament and the bag of beads and silver. He drew air twice, his lips snug about the bone’s oval end. “Aarrkkk, arkk.”

“Aarrk, arrkk.” An answer echoed, square ahead, in the sedge grass near the mucky trail coming off the north island in the great swamp. The stalk sought the dawn gobbler, but any wild turkey would fill Samuel’s impetuous craving.

A traditional woodsman returns to his lean-to shelter with a wild turkey.

The Northwest gun’s muzzle eased over the oak’s rough bark, pausing at the little clearing, twenty paces distant. But the hen did not appear. Seconds weighed like months, minutes like years. The backcountry hunter knew better than to call again. Patience was the only option. His thumb stopped fidgeting on the firelock’s hammer screw. The tarnished-brass butt plate relaxed, too.

When all seemed lost, a glimpse of bronze and brown stepped from the shadows, still ahead, but uphill, veiled by the dead branches at the base of a tall cedar. The wary hen had circled, unsure of the soft clucking in the treetop, and a bit perturbed the hen that called out had not come when she clucked back. That wild turkey was fair-sized, mature but not old and tough eating. The hired hunter had little choice but wait the bird out…

Trifling Details

Three or so years into the post hunter’s humble existence, accessory accoutrements became the center of my research. A degree of comfort was developing with this alter ego, and it was time to further flesh out his being.

As a dedicated living historian, I tried to test and document every accoutrement that accompanied Samuel’s hired man into the glade. The hunting bag is a separate, somewhat larger, deerskin bag for transporting additional necessities into the wilderness. It contains a variety of documented items taken on longer hunting trips.

Sometimes the hunting bag stays in camp and at other times it tags along on a simple pursuit. In either case, the hunting bag is never too distant from the hired trading-post hunter. If the bag is left behind at the shelter, often times my alter ego takes specific items on his person for a woodland sojourn. The wing bone call, journal envelope and New Testament come to mind. Depending on the hunt’s scenario, a buckskin bag of beads and silver is slipped inside the linen hunting shirt.

Trading clerk journals, like that of Michel Curot, an employee of the XY Company who wintered in Wisconsin’s St. Croix region, contain references to daily dealings. On September 20, 1803, Curot records:

“I bought 2 lynx and one deer skin For a little sugar and a few Beads…”

On April 22, 1804 he wroted:

“I got a lynx skin and two rats for a few beads…”  (Curot, 410 & 463)

There are other references scattered throughout the primary documentation that supports this character portrayal. After all, this is an individual closely associated with an interior trader’s post. Some of those passages record impromptu transactions, leaving the impression the clerk was out and about in the countryside. In addition, clerks sometimes sent their employees out to a known village with a pack or two of goods to secure food or peltry. Silver trinkets are listed with the same frequency as beads.

At some point in the research, it struck me that my character should have the ability to execute backcountry barters.  If he paddled along the River Raisin, encamping near its banks, a pack or two might not be out of place. Likewise, whether chasing reluctant wild turkeys or elusive white-tailed deer, the post hunter should never be without “a few beads or silver”—petty cash in today’s jargon.

A buckskin bag with glass beads and trade silver poured out in a man's palm.

The drawstring buckskin bag is small; palm-sized weighing but a few ounces. From time to time the contents vary, depleted by wilderness deals and dictated by Native demand. Larger, colorful glass beads are favored, because the clerks’ journals deem them more valuable, perhaps four or five worth a prime beaver. Six or seven silver ring broaches, two or three larger broaches, and maybe a unique trade silver piece are included. Sometimes a gun worm or two or a couple of priming wires fill out the assortment.

Years ago I was shooting the smoothbore aggregate, up the valley on the Max Vickery primitive range at Friendship. It wasn’t named after Max then; he was still very much alive. Ricky Roberts was the range officer and kept score.

At the end of the round, a wry smile spread across his face. He told of a similar match, and at the end the range officer announced that anyone who had beads or silver to trade on his or her person would earn five extra points. That wasn’t allowed in this match. Ricky was just dropping an historical thought out for discussion, of course.

The hunting bag was back at camp, but the bag of beads and silver was in my shot pouch, left over from the Woods-N-Water News Outdoor Weekend. The unloaded Northwest gun leaned against my chest. Nimble fingers retrieved the bag of beads and silver. I loosened the drawstring and poured some of the contents into my left palm. “Do you have peltry to trade?” I asked, stifling a naughty smirk.

Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.

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