Monday, September 9, 2013

What type of wood were Beothuk bows made from?

Beothuk Bow and Arrows from
a 1773 map by Cartwright 
According to the letters, journals, and interviews compiled by James P. Howley in his book The Beothuck or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland, the preferred bow woods of the Beothuk were Maple (sycamore), Mountain Ash ("dogwood" in Newfoundland), Spruce, and Fir.  

The most detailed references to Beothuk bow construction cover the period from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century and they suggest a number of different tree species were used during that time.  Interestingly, the earliest account from 1768 by John Cartwright suggests that hardwood from sycamore or maple was the only wood fit for bow construction and he described a peculiar asymmetric bow design with one bow edge being thicker than the other.  Cormack's observations from the early 19th century suggest that Mountain Ash or Dogwood was preferred although sometimes spruce or fir would be acceptable.  When the elderly George Wells was interviewed about his recollections of the Beothuk in 1886 he only mentions softwood spruce and fir bows.   The later observers do not mention any asymmetry in the bows and the few bow fragments that survived into the 20th century showed no evidence of this design element (Chute 1976).  It may be a coincidence that the earliest observers recorded seeing hardwood bows and the later observers happened to record the softwood bows, but its also possible that there was an evolution in Beothuk bow design over the people's last 100 years of existence.  The Beothuk population was in terrible decline at this time and perhaps the shift from the peculiar hardwood bows to comparatively simpler softwood bows was a reflection of more time being spent on survival with less time available for crafting bows from hard woods.

All of the quotes below are taken from Howley (1914):
The bows are all sycamore, which being very scarce in this country, and the only wood it produces which is fit for this use, thence becomes valuable. The sticks are not selected with any great nicety, some of them being knotty, and of very rude appearance; but under this simple rustic guise they carry very great perfection; and to those who examine them with due attention admirable skill is shown in their construction. Except in the grasp the inside of them is cut flat, but so obliquely, and with so much art, that the string will vibrate in a direction coinciding exactly with the thicker edge of the bow. This seems to be essential to the true delivery of the arrow, but is a principle that appears not to be generally understood among archers. The bow is full five and a half feet long. The arrow is made of well seasoned pine, slender, light, and perfectly straight. Its head is a two-edged lance, about six inches long, and the stock is about three feet more. Like the famous arrow that pierced the heart of Douglas, it was feathered with the "Grey goose wing." -  Lieutenant John Cartwright 1768

These whether offensive or defensive, or for killing game were simply the bow and arrow, spear and club. The arrow heads were of two kinds viz. -- stone, bone or iron, the latter material being derived from Europeans, and the blunt arrow, the point being a knob continuous with the shaft. The former of these was used for killing quadrupeds and large birds. Two strips of goose feathers were tied on to balance the arrow, and it has been remarked by many persons who have seen the Red Indian arrows, that they have invariably been a yard long; the reason of this would seem to be that their measure for the arrow was the arm's length, that is from the centre of the chest to the tip of the middle finger, that being the proper length to draw the bow; -- the latter was about five feet long, generally made of mountain ash, but sometimes of spruce. - W.E. Cormack 1829
The bow is about five feet long, made of the Mountain Ash (Dogwood), but sometimes of spruce and fir, seasoned over fire. - W.E. Cormack undated 
Plate XXXIII from Howley 1914. #3 are bow parts,
#4 are miniature bows and arrows from a child's grave
Their bows were fully 6 feet long made of spruce or fir and were very powerful. They were thick in the central part but flattened away towards either end, where the spring chiefly lay. The string was of plaited (twisted)(?) deer skin. There was a strip of skin fastened along the outer, or flat side of this bow. The hand grasping the bow passed inside this strip, with the arrow placed between the fingers to guide it. So dexterous were they in the use of this weapon, that they could arrange five or six arrows at a time between the fingers, and shoot them off, one after the other, with great rapidity, and unerring aim. The point or spear of the arrow was made of iron, and was fully 6 inches long. - George Wells, aged 76, interviewed 1886


Chute, Janet Elizabeth
1976  A Comparative Study of The Bark, Bone, Wood, and Hide Items Made By The Historic Micmac, Montagnais/Nascapi and Beothuk Indians. MA Thesis, Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John's.

Howley, James P.
1914 The Beothuck or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge

Photo Credits:
Plates from Howley 1914

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails