Knives and Daggers of the Pacific Northwest Coast
Prior to European colonization, Indigenous peoples on the Pacific Northwest Coast used a variety of knives and daggers. These were most commonly made from bone and, in the northern region, copper. When the first European colonizers encountered Indigenous peoples along the coast in the late 1700s, they already had terms for iron and steel and were familiar with their uses as well as basic forging techniques. It is speculated that iron and steel found their way to the coastal nations as a result of trade and ship wrecks.The majority of knives and daggers that have survived, and which are today largely in museums, were produced by the Tlingit. Often described as “Tlingit daggers” these weapons were not solely produced by the Tlingit, nor were they all knives and daggers. Some of the larger specimens would be more correctly called short swords, measuring over 20 inches in length.
While some of these weapons were simply modified European swords or knives, many were files or other pieces of metal that were forged into blades. The following articles provide more information, and the accompanying photographs (taken from a variety of sources) show the high levels of skill obtained by Indigenous metalsmiths.
Tlingit Steel and Horn Dagger
Length: 14 1/2 in.
From a written assessment on this piece by Steven C. Brown:
“Tlingit daggers were made in two main types. Perhaps the oldest type was made with a one-piece, double-ended blade. In these the primary, double-edged blade was below the grip, and a much shorter blade of the same shape made up the pommel of the weapon above the grip. These would have been formidable weapons in hand-to-hand combat, able to do damage to an opponent both coming and going. The second type, which was more common in the historic period, was made of a blade with a decorative pommel above the grip, usually depicting a clan emblem or in some cases a revered ancestor. Within this general type are two sub-categories. In one, the blade and pommel are both made of one piece of metal, usually steel but sometimes copper, and the pommel area is cut in a silhouette, hot-chased to create dimension in the design, and engraved for detail. This type probably evolved from the double-ended, functional style of pommel. In the second sub-style, the blade can be of either steel or the much less common copper, and the pommel is a separate piece of material, to which the tang of the blade is attached by overlapping, and the two are wrapped together to form the grip. The materials of which these pommels were made could be various types of wood, of which walnut was common, sourced from Euro-American gunstocks, and also Pacific yew. The pommel could also be of bone or ivory, or, as in the case of the subject dagger, a piece of mountain sheep horn. Wood, bone, ivory, and horn pommels were often, like this example, inlaid with pieces of abalone shell. Carved in these kinds of workable materials, sculptural form became the emphasis of their makers. Some of these sculptural pommels were singular images, like this one, while others were composed of double or multiple images, compactly formed into a tightly knit design.
This superbly sculptured pommel represents a humanoid-animal visage, a kind of transfiguration taking place within the carving. On top of the head, it appears as though the image once had upright, bear-like ears that have been shaved down due perhaps to ancient damage. These were likely not very tall to begin with, to keep them from being too delicate, but for some reason they were cut down completely. The large nose has the feel of a mammalian snout, rather than a merely human nose, and the engraved abalone pieces in the mouth indicate large teeth. At one time, it appears as though the eyebrows were once overlaid with copper sheet, and now only the holes for three small attachment pins remain. The large eyes, typical of northern Tlingit sculptural style, are also inlaid with abalone shell, and their lower rims are deeply set into the eyesockets. The broad lips are firmly defined, and a bulging cheek form bends around the eyesocket to form the temples at the back of the head. The originally pale-colored dall sheep horn has taken on a deep, warm honey color over time, and has been smoothly polished by nearly two centuries of handling.
The grip area is wrapped with leather thong, and has absorbed a lot of color and oils from handling. A brass bolster has been nicely fitted on the tang of the blade, and forms a protection for the user’s hand. The blade is forged in the Native Northwest Coast form, with twin single bevels, a flat or slightly concave back, and a narrow, flat ridge down the center of the blade. Some daggers were made with recycled Euro-American blades, cut down from the length of a sword, bayonet, or a large knife. Native metalworkers also forged their own blades, which were often extensively cold-worked, as shown by modern analysis. In some instances, blades were forged on order for Native people by Euro-American blacksmiths, such as in the case of John Jewitt, armorer aboard the ill-fated American trading-ship Boston anchored at the village of Yuquot, Vancouver Island. The ship and its crew was destroyed in revenge for a slight against the Mowachaht chief Maquinna, who spared the life of Jewitt because of his iron-working skills. These he practiced on their behalf for two years, making knives, daggers, whale harpoons and lances, before he was able to escape and make his way back to Euro-American society.
The presence of steel as well as copper knives and daggers was noted among Northwest Coast Native peoples at the time of the first explorers in the late eighteenth century. Native placer copper was traded from deposits in the Copper River area of south central Alaska, and had been worked into tools and ornaments over a long period. All the coastal peoples had names for iron or steel in their languages, indicating an extended familiarity with this material as well. The earliest record of steel blades on the coast comes from the Ozette archaeological site on the Washington coast, where 37 steel-bladed tools and but one beaver-tooth knife were found, indicating the ubiquitousness of the material. Prior to the advent of Euro-American trade, iron and steel would have arrived either via Native trade north from California and Mexico, or in the form of ship’s fittings in Asian wrecks that came ashore on the Pacific coast. Some such shipwrecks arrived as weather-beaten fragments of Chinese or Japanese vessels, while others arrived essentially intact, though dismasted and without their steering rudders, blown out to sea by typhoons along the Japanese coast and carried east by the prevailing currents. In some cases even some crew members survived, to be taken in by the resident populations*. In addition to ship’s fittings, woodworking tools were usually aboard these vessels for maintenance and minor repairs, and were also carried on some sailings as cargo. All of these materials and tools would have had a great impact on Native society and technology.
Daggers were carried in leather sheaths hung from the neck or shoulder and were used as personal weapons by Native men. Their use had become widespread in the early historic period and continued into the late nineteenth century, as noted by several observers at the time. Some daggers attained the status of clan heirloom objects, and were passed down through generations of clan caretakers along with the stories of their origin and history. Perhaps the most famous Native metalsmith was a woman from the Haines/Chilkoot area named Sayeina.aat. She is said to have forged one-piece decorated daggers from iron that ‘fell from the sky’, or what science would describe as a meteorite. One of these is known by the name Ixde Xook Gwala, the ‘Shaman’s Thrust’. A copy of this original dagger is in the Seattle Art Museum and is illustrated in “The Spirit Within: The John H. Hauberg Collection at the Seattle Art Museum”, Brown, 1995, Catalog #7, pgs. 41-42.”
Knife and sheath associated with Chief Shakes VI (Tlingit b.?–1916)
A dagger is called gwálaa, literally “it strikes” or “it hits.” It is also referred to as x´aan.át, “something close to one’s hand.” It is something used in battle and kept close at hand.
The figure of the man in the Raven’s beak, carved in ivory and inlaid with abalone shell, is executed in classic Tlingit formline designs. The dagger’s carving and the brass overlay on the hilt covered with leather show the skill of its creator. The dagger dates from the 19th century.
The sheath, with its beadwork in Taal taan (Tahltan) style and valuable dentalium shell (táx´xee) obtained in trade, complements the craftsmanship of the dagger and the history of the Tlingit. Much beadwork of this style has been found among the Shx´at kwaan (Stikine people) of Wrangell.
—Ghooch Shaayí, Hít Tlein T´aakhu khwaan (Harold Jacobs, Big House of the Taku River Tlingit), cultural specialist, Tlingit–Haida Central Council
Appendix II (An overview of the general types of Daggers)
Tlingit type Daggers
From Royal BC Museum, an article on Kwah’s Dagger, a Nak’azdli dagger passed down over generations beginning in the 1700s.
Two of the main dagger types discussed here can be seen in figure 8a, the Tlingit type daggers include five of the nine shown here – two examples at each end. The others are of the type with wood or bone handles.
In figure 8b, the Tlingit type daggers include the two at the bottom. Six daggers are of the type with wood or bone handles. The dagger at the top with the circular handle end is the one later drawn in Niblack (1890) and mentioned by Adrian Morice.
This type of dagger is often double bladed or having an iron/steel pommel shaped with an (often pointed) animal or human head. When double bladed, it has a short blade at one end and a much longer blade at the other end. One side is often concave with a fluting pattern across its surface and the other side is slightly concave.
Dixon collected one of these among the Tlingit in 1789(King 1981, Pl.38; Niblack 1890, Pl.28). Kyrill Khlebnikov made an observation among the Sitka Island Tlingit, probably in the later part of the time period that he was there (c.1817 to 1832). He said the Tlingit made a dagger “which resembled an English dirk and in beauty of craftsmanship was in no way inferior to the original. They make the common two-edged daggers from iron and decorate them with colorful shells” (Dmytryshyn, 1976:33). As mentioned, Wrangell had stated in the 1830s that the Eyak of Cooper River were the only metal workers who know how to forge iron at that time (Dmytryshyn et. al. 1989).
The Tlingit were clearly heating and hammering iron at this time. We cannot be certain from the information provided as to weather this forging activity was only done at moderately low temperatures – and with no knowledge of how to temper iron to produce a higher grade steel. Georg Erman (1841-1866 period), had the opinion that the native cooper was worked “without any smelting through mechanical means and that iron was used in the same way, patience replacing the technical knowledge” (Krause 1956:148).
By the 1830s it does appear that a small number of aboriginal people were using more advanced European iron working techniques. Tlingit metal smiths excelled at the making of highly refined steel daggers decorated with crest designs. These often have multiple tapering flutes down the center of the blade and overlay sheet copper at each end of the grip area. These were often made from steel files. John Dunn described these in the early 1840s as “beautifully fluted daggers … as highly finished as if they had been turned out of a first rate maker’s in London ” (Dunn, 1844).
Alexander Mackenzie (Hudson’s Bay Co. agent), while on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1884, obtained information on one of these daggers [Canadian Museum of Civilization – CMC VII-B-948]. The steel dagger was designed to represent a dogfish. The Haida told McKenzie that the knife was: “said to have been carved and tempered by a women who came from northern Alaska . Its history is known for two or three generations, it having passed from one chief to another, but its true origin is lost in obscurity” ( Dawson , 1891). The information provided suggests this dagger dates back to at least, the 1850s. Similar daggers were being made in Alaska by this time.
Six of these Tlingit-style daggers, five made from ferrous metal (wrought iron or steel) and one of copper were part of a group of 14 daggers from the Northwest studied by Wayman, King and Craddock (1992). Their study included a re-examination of the two knives previously examined by Lang and Meeks (1981).
These previous studies of early iron from B.C. involved x-ray fluorescence analysis using a scanning electron microscope and x-radiography studies that can reveal information about the material and technologies used to produce the knives. The x-ray fluorescence analysis is limited because it can only accurately detect most elements at around 0.1%. X-radiography can define weather the basic material of the knife is made from an older or more modern technique and weather it has been re-forged by high temperature techniques not practiced in Northern North America by First Peoples prior to the early 19 th century. It can also show that forging occurred at low temperatures and therefore – with other information – suggest which iron/steel knives could have been or were likely to have been modified or finished by First Nations smiths.
The Wayman, King, Craddock study concluded that “of the six daggers, at least five have been shown to have been made using the materials and technologies expected from the contact period which followed the onset of the maritime (sea otter) fur trade in the last two decades of the 18 th century. No speculation was possible with regard to the origin of the ferrous materials. …The forging of the blades to their final shapes seems to have been carried out at a surprisingly low temperature, consistent with this being the work of local smiths”.
Although the Tlingit type of dagger was around in the 1780s, the more artistic specimens seem to have been collected and donated to Museums around the world in the period between the late 1860s and 1890s. These daggers were likely made in small numbers in the 1840s period. Larger numbers and many of the more artistically designed specimens were likely made in the 1850s to 1880s period. Earlier, less artistic knives collected in the late 1700s – such as dagger # 1596 in the Spanish, Museo de America, collected as part of the Malaspina expeditions of 1776 to 1792 – may be proto-types for these later “Tlingit” daggers.
Y-Handled or Athapaskan Knives
An early form of dagger has a Y-shaped pommel or proximal end. The two extensions are cut off square. The blade is flat on one side and beveled on both edges on the other side. This type exists in drawings and collections from the 1780s to 1790s period and is found in archaeological sites in the Fraser River Basin . These latter specimens may be from the late 1700s or belong to an earlier pre-contact period. Some of these have a very large spiral and others a small spiral on the end of a straight or curving proximal end of the handle. One of these is illustrated by Dixon (1789) and referred to by Leroi-Gourhan (1946) as one of his “antenne” types (1946:298, fig. 489). Another (No.1596) in the Museo de America was collected during the Malaspina expeditions of 1776-1792 (Wayman, King and Craddock 1992:19-20). One specimen (de Laguna 1964, fig. 13) was found at an archaeological site in Yakutat Bay . According to de Laguna the site was used after the Russians were expelled in 1805 (de Laguna, 1964:126).
One of the best descriptions of the varieties of this type comes from the diary of Joseph Ingraham who drew sketches of the three types he observed on the Queen Charlotte Islands in September of 1791 (Ingraham 1791:2).
Later, more refined, versions of this general type are the ones referred to as Athapaskan knives (see Rogers 1965). These later versions include the Y-shaped proximal end and a single extension of the Y that is tightly curved or spiraled.
These have been called Athapaskan knives because they were common among Dene speakers of the Interior of Alaska and northern B.C. Many of these exist in Museum collections and many are represented on drawings on Dene people in the mid 1800s.
Museum specimens are often poorly documented. One of these, however (CMC VII-A-261) collected on the Chitena River , a branch of the Copper River in Alaska , was made by “Chief Escalada of the Chitena band”. Escalada noted that the proximal end was “split to represent the horn of the mountain sheep” (Rogers 1965:3,Pl.3G).
Many of this style are made of copper as well as Iron/steel. A specimen from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC945; old #1331) is of “tempered copper, the mode of its manufacture being said to have been possessed by the ‘ancients’, who could hammer out native copper and give it a keen edge.” ( Dawson 1891).
The Wayman, King, and Craddock study analyzed four specimens of this type. Two steel specimens (1944-Am-2- 178; 1944-Am-2-179) were possibly collected around 1828, when George Simpson visited what is now northern British Columbia . Two other specimens collected in 1888-9 (1890.9-8.77; 1890.9-8.78) from the Kutchin of Interior Alaska have their tang or proximal forged into a Y shape, but the tips of the Y have been cut and rolled around into tight spirals. It was concluded that the latter two “are likely to have been fabricated from files, probably by native smiths” (Wayman et. al. 1992).
Iron bladed Daggers with wood or bone handle
A common type of dagger or knife has a raised center or flute on one side of the blade and a hide-wrapped wooden or bone handle fastened to the tang or proximal end. Sometimes the blade is flat on both sides or is a piece of a European manufactured sword blade. The handle has zoomorphic features. The carved end in the form of a bear, raven or human head are common. These often have eyes, ears or teeth decorated with inlaid abalone shell. This diverse type seems to be mostly collected in the 1870s to 1890s and made mostly in the 1840s to 1860s period. Modern imitations of some of these were made in the 1960s-70s and are often sold on the market as older specimens.
This knife is flat with a long straight tang and distinct side notches near the base of a beveled edged blade. This type was most typical of those mass produced by European and American manufacturers for the North American fur trade and based on a similar military “pike”. These have been found in 19th century archaeological contexts across North America. Many of these are stamped with manufacturer’s marks.
The RBCM dagger # 13345 once belonging to chief Louie Billy is one of these notched varieties and does not appear like the 18th century daggers made from a piece of wrought iron.
Ring handed Daggers
One type of dagger usually dating to the last half of the 19th century have bone handles with an open metal circle at the proximal end of the handle. The bone part is often carved with a circle and dot motif. Some of these were made from the broken halves of steel bear traps. The trap part was composed of a folded piece of steel with a circular hole in each end that came together when sprung. A frilled design was often carved around the proximal end. When not made from a bear trap part, a separate brass end was added in imitation of the latter type. This iron or brass proximal end of the handle was usually notched to give it an overall frill design.