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The Humble Tumpline pt. II

The Humble Tumpline pt. II

After receiving a lot of positive feedback and questions regarding the first blog posting on tumplines, I have decided to write a follow-up.  In this posting, I would like to give a few quotes on tumplines and their use, show a few more historic images, and give a brief how-to on tying up a tumpline to your gear.

For employees of the fur trade, tumplines were usually personal property and were supplied by the individual.  They were typically not the property of the company, although there are some examples of tumplines as part of the outfit provided to a voyageur by contract. This was often along with a couple blankets, a couple shirts, trousers, a pair of shoes (possibly moccasins), and occasionally a pound of tobacco.  The non-issued tumplines could lead to a variety of different tumplines used within a crew, but most likely, they were purchasing from the same outfitters in Montreal and would have been very similar.  For the French military in North America, these were issued items.

Looking over a large number of list of goods, we most often see them issued to the soldiers and militiamen in winter.  On could assume that other means of hauling gear were used in the summer (possibly even the havresac) but these do appear suddenly (often, two of them per person) with winter gear.  Most of these lists also include a toboggan and it can be assumed that one of the tumplines was used to pull it as is noted in the Joseph Charles Bonin quote below.  A couple exceptions to this are militia lists from prior to the Seven Years War.  During the War of Austrian Succession, frequently we see militiamen being issued tumplines in the summer.  This is seen in the goods issued to militamen for the expeditions of La Corne and Rigaud in 1747, this is also seen in lists of goods for militiamen in the Fox Wars (goods issued in 1715)… just to name a few.

The tumpline can be used in many ways.  The most common among voyageurs is to haul goods over a portage.  In these situations, the tumpline was worn on the forehead.  Sometimes the use of two tumplines at ones is seen.  This is shown in the Krieghoff painting below as well as in detail on the Kreighoff painting posted in the first blog post on tumplines. When hauling lighter loads over distance, such as personal goods, a bedroll, etc. (as would be the case of a hunter, traveller, native man, etc.) we commonly see the band of the tumpline worn across the shoulders and chest.  Tumplines were also used in this manner to pull toboggans in the winter time.

Joseph “Jolicoeur” Charles Bonin, a French soldier in Canada during the Seven Years War, describes the tumplines the men used to pull toboggans,

“…on attache une courroie nommée collier, faite de corde de bois de bouleau de la longueur d’environ trois brasses et dont le milieu a une largeur d’environ trois à quatre pouces, sur une longueur de seize à dix-huit pouces. Ce collier sert encore à porter une charge et sa largeur du milieu s’appuie sur le front ou en travers sur la poitrine et les épaules quelques fois en écharpe.

“…one attaches a belt named a collar, made of cord of birch approximately three brasses long and the middle has a width of approximately three to four pouces, over a length from sixteen to eighteen pouces. This collar is still used to carry a load and its middle rests on the front, across the chest and the shoulders as a sling.”  (my translation)

I have always assumed that J.C.B. was mistaken in the identification of the wood and that more likely these were tumplines woven of basswood.  I still think, this is the case, but in 1829, George Head also describes the use of a birchbark band as a tumpline by Ojibwes to haul a canoe.

” … and for this purpose he fixed a broad strip of birch bark to the center thwart, making the ends fast to each opposite gunwhale… he contrived to lay the greater part of the weight of the canoe on his forehead by means of the strip of bark, which at the same time kept all steady.”

This appears to be a crude strip of bark being used as a temporary tumpline, not the long tumpline made of “cords” as explained by J.C.B.  I still think he was describing a woven tumpline of prepared bark (likely basswood).  Something that I did not mention in my last post, but worth noting is that a lot of the older woven tumplines in collections are elegantly decorated with moose hair embroidery.  These are beautiful works of art and certainly ended up in the hands of non-natives, but it is questionable whether we would see many of these getting common use by non-natives.

Many writers explained the use of tumplines by voyageurs in hauling goods across portages.  Here is a small sampling of quotes…

Alexander Mackenzie in 1789 – “The voyagers are frequently obliged to unload their canoes, and carry the goods upon their backs, or rather suspended in slings from their heads.  Each man’s ordinary load is two package, though some carry three.”

Malcolm McLeod (whose father was head of Thompson’s River district in 1823) explains, “The ordinary load is 180 lbs. in two ‘pieces’, one tied like a ‘pacton’, with the small long ends of the ‘Collier’, and which lower piece is made to fit into the small of the back as it were, and to rest on the ilium, or ‘upper big back-bone’ of the hip.  THe second piece is generally some bag shaped thing, or even a barrel or a box is thrown on, and rest as in a hollow, long and convenient on the back between the shoulder blades.  The broad part of the ‘Collier’ is put across the brow…”

McLeod also explain the tumpline as follows, “The carrying strap… is made of a strong piece of stiff tanned leather, about four inches wide at the broadest parts, and about eighteen inches in length, to this are sewed strips of equally strong leather about ten feet long, and from two inches to half an inch, tapering in breadth.”

The loads being carried by voyageurs changed over time, but were usually rather standardized.  Tim Kent, in his first volume of Birchbark Canoes of the Fur Trade, does a fabulous job analyzing a large number of sources in order to find some common themes.  In 1684, Lahonton mentions that the packs in the canoes were 50#, in 1694 accounts show a number of packs at 57#.  By the 1715-60 period of the French regime, this size becomes more standardized and typical bales weigh in at 90-100 lbs.  This weight continues through most of the British period in the Great Lakes fur trade.  There were, however, exceptions to this.  Some of these were based on French law.  For example, gunpowder was required to be in barrels of 50#.  Also, some packs of hides tended to be weighed out differently.  In the French period, packs of beaver generally pressed into bales of #75 while deer were in bales of 90#.  By the later British period, it seems that beaver were also pressed into 90# bales.  Additionally, some bills of laden mention “small bales” or “half bales.”

As seen in the above quotes, voyageurs were often responsible for multiple packs/boxes/barrels/etc. and often carried at least two at a time.  This would be the load for goods, in the case of a traveller or hunter, these weights would be much different depending on the circumstances and what they happened to carry.

Please excuse the shakiness of the video… my camera-woman was a 6 year old.

Here are a couple more good blogs on tumplines…

Jim Mullin’s Blog, Of Sorts of Provincials

2nd SC Reg’t.

Wynne Eden’s Amohkali Creek


2 Responses to “The Humble Tumpline pt. II”

  1. Matthew says:

    Great video. You should do more of them concerning other basic skills that are useful to know.
    I’ve read so much on tumplines but to see it used gives it a whole new meaning.
    Thanks again for posting.

  2. Keith says:

    Off topic for this post I know, sorry about that, but had to post somewhere.
    Would you by any chance be able to point me in the right direction for info online regarding 18th century fur trade bar lead sizes & production. Who made these trade lead bars. Would also love to see an image of one of the casting moulds used, an original.
    Thank you for your time.
    Regards, Keith.


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