Tumplines

The tumpline, also called a burden strap, was used by natives to carry items and to drag loads.  There are a reasonable number of northern tumplines in collections in the US, Canada, and Europe.  From written descriptions and a few images, most notably one of von Reck’s images (Hvidt, Kristian, ed.  Von Reck’s Voyage; Drawings and Journal of Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck.  Savannah, GA: Beehive Press, 1990) – available here, it’s apparent that similar items were being used in the south.

My tumpline

My tumpline - made by Rob't Norment, TX

The existing tumplines with native provenance seem to have all been twined in the browband (center section), fingerwoven on the straps, and either fingerwoven or plaited (braided) on the ties themselves.  They were constructed of the common cordage materials available in the area: basswood, elm, mulberry,  “indian hemp” cordage.  The latter are probably the more common southeastern materials.

From what I’ve been able to find, most of the straps in collections are embroidered and even beaded.  I assume they were collected because they are ornate and truly beautiful works of art.  See the examples in the links below for a better idea of what I mean.

I tend to think that there were undecorated straps in use, though I don’t have much evidence except for a few paintings (the one by von Reck mentioned above, for example)

I spent months trying to figure out how to do the three things required for a tumpline correctly: twining, oblique fingerweaving, and plaiting.   As far as I can tell, there aren’t any instructions on the web or in print telling you how to do either a correct twined strap.  If anyone finds one, please post the URL or reference.  I’ve posted some information and links, along with a book or two worth reading about these skills in a couple of articles here and here.

Tara Prindle, on her Native Tech site, has posted information on twining, specifically as it relates to false embroidery on twined items.  You should read the instructions here just to understand the complexity of the process.  It allows you to appreciate the cost of reproduction items.

The following are links to images or information on tumplines collected in the Northeastern and Great Lakes areas of North America.  My emphasis in collecting these links was on images and descriptions rather than the period they were created.

  • Milwaukee Public Museum http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/24479.html  Iroquois hemp “burden strap” Collected by S.A. Barrett at Ontario, Canada, 1918.  I include it here, and first, on purpose.  It’s not a burden strap, in my opinion, but a prisoner harness.  Note the narrow center band and the “buttonholes” in the ends of the center band.
  • Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, has an example of a tumpline in the Daily Life Gallery off of the Village exhibit. no online image.  From the site when it was still available: “The following text discusses an image called “The Four Kings”, painted by Verelst: “Each of the sachems is also shown with a colorful belt around his waist. In the painting of Etow Oh Koam this belt is shown in its entirety as a sword hanger. There has been much speculation on this one article of attire and most researchers believe that it is a woven tumpline or burden strap decorated with dyed moose hair or porcupine quills – rather than a sword hanger1 . Indeed, there are several of these tumplines in museums around the world and at least one in the British Museum that is attributed to the “four Indian Kings.” The Museum is located at: 110 Pequot Trail, P.O. Box 3180, Mashantucket, CT 06338-3180
  • Oracle: a journey through Canadian history and Culture has an image of a beautiful Iroquois tumpline on a page about pulling sleds.  The fourth image down is Iroquois Tumpline
  • New York State Museum: lists a burden strap in its collection here.  There is an excellent description of both the construction and use of the item.  Be sure to take a look at the image.  It’s worked with both false embroidery and beads.  NYSM catalog number: 36778 Object: Burden strap Origin: Seneca Iroquois (Tonawanda, NY) Materials: Bark, elm; Hair, deer or moose; Glass Short Description: Burden strap (tump line), woven and braided of natural and brown-dyed elm bark cordage, with “false embroidery” using moose hair dyed red, blue, and white; stepped triangle design. White glass beads along edges. (“GUS-HA-AH. Moose hair and bark burden strap”) Maximum dimensions: 157 x 2.5 in; 398.78 x 6.35 cmPresent condition: Fair; some moose hair worn off, beads missing, braided area damaged
  • American Museum of Natural History North American Ethnographic Collection- try searching for “strap”, “tumpline”, etc.
  • National Museum of the American Indian (search term: burden strap)
  • Other styles of tumpline:

    If you are looking for a native tumpline, here are couple of people I know of that make correct tumps (in alphabetical order).  You can also check the Frontier Folk message boards here. If you make (or know someone who makes) an 18th century tumpline and would like to be listed, please contact me.

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