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Leather Trousers

By the late 18th century, leather breeches were a common garment, worn for horse riding as well as working by all classes. In colonial America, professionally made leather breeches were commonly seen. With the Great Lakes Fur Trade, it appears that leather breeches were also worn at times; and there are even accounts of breeches being made in the interior from local animal hides. Over the past years of reading fur trade journals and accounts, I have frequently seen mention of these and have discussed this topic with numerous individuals.
Something that recently caught me attention, however, was the mention of leather trousers. Although the British military adopts leather pantaloons (form-fitting trousers, not a female garment) for horse mounted soldiers by the early 19th century; I have rarely seen any mention to them in contemporary accounts here in North America. In the western, Rocky Mountain fur trade, there are numerous mentions of leather trousers/pantaloons and even some images that show fringed, form-fitting pantaloons (see the below Alfred Miller painting).

Unfortunately there are no images of Great Lakes fur trade personnel in the 18th or early 19th century wearing leather trousers (actually there are very few images of them to start with). We do, however, have a number of tantalizing quotes from written sources. To continue, I am simply going to list a number of these quotes…
“The men were all French Canadians, with long red or blue caps, half of which hung down the head; they wore grey capote, or blanket coats belted around their waists, their trousers of grey cloth or dressed leather, and their shoes of the same.” – David Thompson Narrative (1786 Near the Pacific Coast of Canada)
“… December 16th, Friday Finished making my Leather Trousers which is a very great acquisition to me. Broke all my needles in making them. the leather being so stiff & hard, went to work in the Indian manner with an awl and sinnews before I completed them, having at first only 4 needles.” – Peter Fidler, A Journal of a journey with the Chippewayans or Northern Indians to the Slave Lake, & East and West of the Slave River in 1791 & 2.
“he [Girardin]is making me a pair of Deer skin trowsers…” – Archibald N. McLeod (1801 in the Swan River Dept. between the Red River and Lake Winnipeg)
“…& got a pair of Jumping Deer Skin Trowsers also made…” – David Thompson 1798 (in Early Fur Trade in the Northern Plains p. 128)
“Mr. Chaboillez had on a Capot, which had been once white, a good leather Brix, & a weather-betten Hat, with a stout black Beard of nine day’s growth – Mr. Henry differed only in the Capot for he had on a corduroy Jacket…” – Charles Mckenzie 1806 (in Early Fur Trade in the Northern Plains p. 285)
My note: The word “Brix” here is likely the Scots word Breeks. This translates as breeches, but I believe he means trousers here. My understanding of Scots is that this word continues on after the use of breeches to also mean trousers and due to a lack of mentioning leggings or other leg-ware, I think these are trousers. Add this to Alexander
– “At daybreak we saddled, but on moving I found my seat very uncomfortable, having a blister the size of a hen’s egg under each thigh- occasioned by the excessive heat of yesterday and the continuous friction between my saddle and leather trousers.” – Alexander Henry the younger 1806 (in Coues “New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest” p. 309)
As the quotes show, there are a number of mentions of leather trousers from the late 18th and early 19th century. Although these were not overly common, they were certainly present. Not surprisingly, most of these mentions come from areas that are more remote in the west/northwest and many are in areas where horse travel seems common. Without images or good description, a number of questions plague my mind, mostly on their construction. Where they built using fabric trouser construction or like leather breeches (VERY different techniques in tailoring and sewing)? Where these loose or tight/form-fitting? Did these have fringe like those worn in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade? If anyone has thoughts or answers, please email me. I would love to continue the discussion.
A somewhat late (early 1820s) image that is perhaps useful, is the following image by Peter Rindisbacher of Red River settlers. The man seated on the right appears to have tight fitting, fringed trousers. These could be leggings, as shown on the standing man, but there appears to be no garters. Most all of Rindisbacher’s leggings (including fringed leather) have garters being worn with them. Also, the Red River is right amidst the region where most of the written mentions of these are found. Could this possibly be what these trousers looked like? Rudolph Friederich Kurz shows similar pants worn by Métis two decades later.  More Métis painted by Alexander Moncrieff in 1857. The man on the right appears to possibly be wearing leggings, but the men on the left appear to have trousers/pantaloons.  Another painting showing Métis hunting buffalo. This one is from Paul Kane and is from the late 1840s. Like the other images, this is past the period of interest that the quotes are from, but it is the same area and groups of people. PERHAPS… MAYBE, there is a connection. Many more images can be seen if looking at the “West” and later periods, but it does make a person wonder just what these leather trousers were.

 

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