The word "moccasin" comes from the Cree, or Algonquian,
word maskisina, meaning shoes or footwear.1 Gerald McMaster
(Plains Cree), curator of contemporary Indian art at the Canadian Museum of
Civilization in Hull, Quebec, says that while the word has become synonymous
with a soft leather slipper-like shoe, it also includes footwear worn by Indians
such as boots made of fur from the most northern parts of the continent to the
sandals constructed of vegetable fibers worn in the desert lands of the southwest.
These moccasins (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acc. #1999-73, 1-2) are deerskin decorated with an applied design of blue and red silk fabric, white glass beads, metallic braid, and shaped tin cones with red tassels. They date from Eastern North America sometime between 1750 and 1780. In her book What Clothes Reveal, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's curator of textiles and costumes, Linda Baumgarten, writes that "according to family history, these (Eastern) Woodland Indian moccasins were collected by Colonel Frederick Thomas, a British officer during the American Revolution, and taken back to England around 1780." The moccasins also "show the interaction between Native American design traditions and imported materials."2
Descriptions from eighteenth-century observers such as "J.C.B.," whose account was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in its book Travels in New France, also describe much of what you see in this pair of shoes. In the 1750's a French soldier wrote, "On their feet they wear a covering made of deerskin, scraped, robbed, and smoked, which by this process, becomes as supple as tanned sheepskin. The women prepare the skin, and make the shoes for the men and for themselves. These shoes or "mockassins," are gathered at the toe and are sewn above and behind with a raised flap on either side. This is turned down over the cord below the ankle (that) ties on the shoes. Often these folded edges, as well as the front and back of the shoes, are decorated with ribbon or dyed porcupine quills of various colors, with red predominating. Sometimes, they add some glass beads and tiny copper bells, which are either round or long and trumpet-shaped."3 The decoration is primarily on the top and ankle flaps of the shoes allowing the wearer to appreciate and admire the design and artistry at his or her feet.
Jonathan Carver, in Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, wrote about Indian moccasins, noting they were "made of the skin of the deer, elk, or buffalo: these, after being sometimes dressed according to the European manner, at others with the hair remaining on them, are cut into shoes, and fashioned so as to be easy to the feet, and convenient for walking. The edges round the ankle are decorated with pieces of brass or tin fixed around leather strings, and about an inch long, which being placed very thick make a cheerful tinkling noise either when they walk or dance."4 He describes not only how the moccasins were manufactured, but also worn with an emphasis on the sensory importance of the design, that of their musical quality!
Moccasins were functional, natural footwear worn in early America by Indians of many nations for protection, and comfort. They are felt to be a part of what allows them to be close to the earth-literally. They are not sacred items (unless used in a special ceremony), but rather very personal items for the owner. Ornamenting the natural form using imported silk ribbon, metal "bells" or cones, glass beads, and metallic braids created this particularly beautiful example of the joining of two aesthetics.
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Colonial Williamsburg Foundation museums calendar, including "The Language of Clothing" exhibit (on display through February 16, 2004)
To purchase Linda Baumgarten's book What Clothes Reveal, The
Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America
1 W. Richard West, ed., All Roads are Good, Native Voices on Life and Culture (Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1994), pg. 115.
2 Linda Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal, The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, 2002), pg. 67.
3 James F. O'Neil II, ed., Their Bearing is Noble and Proud II: A collection of trade lists and narratives regarding the appearance of Native Americans from 1740-1815. (J.T.G.S. Publishing, Dayton, OH, 1995), p. 29.
4 Ibid., p. 39.
This article was written by Frances Burroughs, Associate ProducerEducational Media, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.