The Plains Womans Belt Bag

The belt bag is a subject of controversy.  Did it exist before the introduction of the flint and steel?  Did women use them only on occasions when she needed to carry tool items while working in another womans lodge or away camp, but not in her own camp?  Were they another ceremonial item to be worn only during special occasions?  Were their belt bags that held tools for separate jobs or crafts?  We know there were different storage bags for different items, were there different belt bags?  Why did Bodmer, Miller, Catlin and Rindisbacher not paint the women with belt bags or any other belt accessory?  Were they considered unimportant subjects for the artists work or did the women remove them thinking they were unimportant?  There are many original knife and awl cases so we know they were worn but not painted by the artist.  Have you read any journal entry mentioning a woman with a belt bag?  Is it comfortable to always have a belt with a bag, knife and awl case attached and would you do it every day of your life?  I dont think there is a right or wrong answer and you should take your needs, comfort and thoughts into consideration to decide.  As long as your bag is made from period materials, design and decoration you cant go wrong.


            The women of today, who wear a belt bag in a pre-1840 camp, is a woman away from her home and, therefore, in need of something to accommodate her flint and steel, tools and toiletries.  BUT, I do believe there should be a difference between a womans rendezvous bag and a womans camp, hunt or trail ride bag.  The work bag could simply be a braintan or deer leg bag with a flap or draw string top with little or no decoration.  When we attend a rendezvous, and wish to show our finest gee gaw and foofera, is the time for our decorated bags.  Yes, this is a difficult feat to accomplish because we want to show the accoutrements we work so hard on, but what would our sisters have done 165+ years ago?   When ever I have a question or doubt about something with little or no documentation, I always try to put myself in the place of a woman who is in a primitive life, every day of her life, not just for a 5-7 day camp and then back to her modern home.  Life was hard then and comfort while working, convenience and preservation ruled.


            Ok, lets talk about pre-1840 plains bags.  They were constructed of materials of the time:  Braintan deer, elk or buffalo and leg hawks.  Maybe wool or some sort of cloth when in a pinch and possibly even parfleche.  Most bags that were collected and saved were made of braintan and smoked hides of either of the above mentioned animals.  Bird and porcupine quills, beads and natural paints were the most common decoration.  Necklace beads, brass beads and tin or brass cones hung from fringe.  Closures were made of leather thongs, trade buttons, bone or horn.  The means for attaching the bags to belts were either single or double leather thongs.

The shapes of the bags were of an assorted styles and sizes.  The most common was the rectangular bag with a rounded or squared flap.






The bag consists of four pieces; the back and flap, front, weld, and the attachment thongs.  The weld is a .25" strip of leather sewn between the front and back.  It is used to secure and strengthen the seam between two pieces of leather so the leather does not tear.




The weld can be cut wider to insure the stitching does not get too close to the edge of the weld or mss it all together.  Once the item has been completely sewn, and is ready to be turned outside out, the weld can be trimmed for neatness. When turned, the weld can then be trimmed again.  Always use doubled or heavy thread and double back and sew seams twice.  Use a three sided needle to make the first run of stitching but when going back through the same holes, from the first run of stitching, use a dull needle so you dont cut the threads from the first run of stitching with the sharp needle edges.  When adding the thongs to the back of the bag, add a tab of leather to the inside and run the thong through it also.  It is a type of weld that will make the holes for the thongs stronger.  A weld should always be used when sewing leather but it will also add extra strength to a seam when sewing wool for a utility item, such as a bow case or leggings.


            The hairless square or rectangle leather bag was not the only bags made.  The toe bag was also a popular womans bag.  It is constructed like the square bag but the front and, sometimes, back is replaced by the skins from dear or elk hawk with the dew claws attached.  The back can be made of pieces from the deer leg or braintan without hair.  The flap can be decorated or undecorated.  Note the wool welds and extra tabs even on the outside, added to strengthen the belt thongs, as well as decorative.




            Another variation in belt bag shapes is the pouch type with a draw string top.  Note the welds as fringe on both bags.



            A rawhide or tanned bag that can be used for a strike-a-light, or a dice bag, is a Ball or Scrotum bag.  Materials are self explanatory.  Elk, Deer, Antelope, buffalo, or moose can be used according to the size needed.  Every woman should have one.




            The pictures of the bags in this article have shown the different types of materials that can be used for decoration.  Anything that is period correct and durable can be used.  As always, for the plains style bag the modern size 8/0 beads should be about 98% of your beads with the pony trader blue being the dominant color, white second, then black, greasy yellow and the red white heart and barely any cobalt blue.  The modern size #10, or smaller, beads were used but only in very small quantities.  The southern plains, Eastern and Southwestern tribes had a larger amount of the #10 beads in various colors because they were closer to the white men, the knowledge and techniques of beading and better needles and thread.  Many people of the interior Continental tribes were still using awls and sinew for beading.  And, since 8/0 beads are what the Native Americans wanted the fur companies supplied the demand.


The bead designs for the plains and Southwest tribes, of the pre-1840 time period, were simple geometric designs.  Squares and triangles were dominant.  The quill work was far more elaborate and still the most used form of decoration.  The quill work had circles, multi-colored edge trim and different appliqud stitches that gave different patterns.  There was a greater variety of colors for quills compared to beads since the women were only limited by the plant life available, and it was vast.  But, beading was more desired since it showed wealth and prestige.

In the future, I hope to add an article on the Pacific North West Sallie bag, which was mentioned by Lewis and Clark.  It was constructed of various natural materials; prairie grass, sea grass, rye grass, inner cedar bark, willow and Indian hemp.  The Corn husk and wool yarn Sallie bags were created during and after the reservation era.


Christina Langstein

"She Who Lights the Way"

Women of the Fur Trade










Womens Belts

We should start with the belt itself. The most predominant type was the flexible rawhide belt. The belt would consist of a 2” to 4” wide strip of scraped rawhide with heavy leather thongs on each end for securing the belt. Work belts most likely were tied in the front for easier fitting and removal. Dress belts were tied in the back to show the pattern of decoration across the stomach.




The Work belts were left plain but the dress belts were decorated with earth paints or incising, much the same way as parfleche. The painted designs on the belts followed the same designs that were used on parfleche but on a smaller scale. They were painted on a wet hide so the paint would imbed into the hide surface. When the hide had dried completely each color was sealed with 20-30 layers of cactus juice, covering only one color at a time. Without the seal the paints would wear off and soil dresses. Incising on rawhide was done either on summer buffalo hide, which is dark without any pigment, or covered with paints or blood while wet. The designs were incised, scratched or cut into the leather while wet. When the rawhide dried it pulled taught making the incised lines pull apart thus creating the line designs. Sealing with cactus juice would be needed only if the hide were painted with paint before the design was created. This makes paint the less popular color medium for incising. Incising is thought to be the most primitive of design work. Few original incised items, of any use, exist today and are highly prized and collected.


Check out the rawhide belt that was completely covered with elk ivory. Some or most may have been bone carved filler imitations but impressive all the same. There may have even been belts covered with cowry shells in this same fashion. Brass sequins, or some refer to them as brites, could also be used to decorate belts since they were a feminine decoration item. Chinese coins, wool, and quills could be used as decoration but the quill work is very fragile and may be less practical since the accessories tied to the belt would rub and wear on the quills very quickly.


The soft leather belts were in a couple different styles also. The work belt was simply a 2”–3” strip of leather that tied at the waist. It may have been double wrapped for comfort and durability. After the introduction of beads, some rawhide belts were covered with brain tan leather and beaded. Karl Bodmer painted a woman wearing a beautiful belt that was covered with blue and white beads. The designs were simple white triangles that pointed inward toward the stomach on each side. They were thinking about slimming designs even then.



Some leather strap belts, called drop belts, had long tassels with decorations on the ends of tassels only. The decorations would consist of anything available; quills, beads, coins, wool, shells, hawk bells,etc.





There were alsosoft leather belts that were beaded or decorated with cowry shells but to me they would seem to collaps when the wearer bent over and folded over upon itself unless they were made from very thick tanned buffalo or elk.

Currently we have no documentation of women wearing harness leather or commercial tan leather belts. The black foot women wore them but not until the 1850’s. Without harness leather we do not believe they wore metal belt buckles or brass tacks. These items were considered a masculine item. Women’s belts were held together with tied leather thongs or bone pins inserted through both ends of the leather.
When working, such as tanning a hide, a braintan dress or wool dress can be very warm when worn with a belt. At a time such as that, I have found removing my belt is not only more comfortable but much much cooler. Other than that, the women would have always worn their belt to accommodate their daily tools.




    Headcoverings for Women


     What did fur trade women wear for headgear? I've heard that the Indian women did not wear hats, so while riding for days in the hot sun or hiking in the snow or rain, I've wondered just exactly what they did do for protection from the elements. A large amount of body heat is lost through the top of your head, so it makes sense that they used something. Also with what we know now about the cancer risk from sunburn we should take proper precautions. With that in mind, the WFT started trying to find documentation on what various types of headgear the Native American Women used.


     A Rawhide sun visor was in common use by both men and women. These were rectangles ranging from 12 to 17 inches long, and about 10  inches wide. The edges were often pinked, which helped keep the rawhide from curling, and the circle for the head was cut into pie shaped wedges. The back corners were usually rounded off.



     The rawhide visors were painted like any rawhide, and were decorated with fur, ribbons, feathers, and beads. Arapahos slit the edge about every half inch and then turned up every other section. Shoshone used bundles of feather fluffs to decorate them. One specimen has an eagle feather tied loosely at the back so it could flutter in the wind. Assiniboins put a strip of fur around the crown and let the ends hang down over the crown. Sometimes the Indians cut the crowns of felt hats in the same way as their old rawhide hats.

(Indian Rawhide & American Indian Parfleche).



  Jean Heinbach and her visor                                      Chris and Jill wearing rawhide visors


     Besides the rawhide hat, women painted their faces as protection from the sun as well as for style. Buffalo Bird women talked about doing so when she was young. "She now opened her paint bag, put a little buffalo grease on her two fingers, pressed the tips lightly in the dry paint, and rubbed them over her cheeks and face. She also put a little paint into the part of her hair." "...we Indian girls had dark skin and painted our cheeks." (Waheene) Vermillion in the part of the hair saves some nasty sunburn, believe me!



Jill with painted face


     A scarf was a very common item worn, and one of wool serves it's purpose quite nicely in the winter. "Many of these mountaineers have taken squaws for their wives, by whom they have children....On their heads they wear nothing but handkerchiefs, and their feet are enveloped in moccasins." (Warren Ferris)


Jill with a wool scarf


     She was the most beautiful Indian Woman I ever saw....Her hair was braided and fell over her shoulders, a scarlet handkerchief tied on hood fashion, covered her head....."(Joe Meek)



   Sandy with Scarlet handerchief                              Melissa wearing a scarlet handerchief


     On the subject of women not wearing hats, it was uncommon, but here are two instances of them doing so. "Among others was an Indian Women who deserves notice, from her extraordinary beauty. Their constant exposure and hard life soon destroy all traces of feminine loveliness-in the present instance, her natural comeliness seemed to defy the ravages of climate, her jet black eyes sparkled under the long languishing lashes, and her long hair hung in disheveled masses over her well rounded bosom..."Lt. Warre did this sketch of her, entitled Indian woman, Dog River, C..May 26,1845. This was done several days out from Lake Superior.



     Here is another instance: "She wore a man's hat with long black feathers fastened in front and drooping behind gracefully. Her short dress was of rich broadcloth, leggings beautifully embroidered with gay beads and fringed with tiny bells.(Eyewitness account, 1830, Trail to California, Dillon 1981).


     It appears the women wore fur caps, too. Chisipee herself was a picture, her fine beaver cap was bound with gold lace and girlews....(Isaac Rose). Here is a picture of Susie wearing her Bobcat fur cap. Might have Chisapee's looked something like this in style?



     One more style in the women's hood  worn by women of such tribes as the plains Cree, who did occasionally come to trade at Fort Union. Both Catlin and Bodmer make mention of them at the fort. Cree women occasionnally wore peaked hoods of skin, tied under the chin, with a long tail that was fastened to the belt in back and these could be ornamented with Quill or bead work. The hood was worn predominately in the winter, but summer Plains Cree did not use them as much as did their relatives the Woodland Cree. The hood has been described as a strip of cloth sewn at the ends to fit the head. (The Plains Cree) The sketch of Walker's wife by Miller shows what looks like this hood type head covering.


This is from a watercolor by

Richard Williams, showing

a HBC man and his Indian Wife who is

wearing a decorated hood.

(No, that's not a beard, it's a fur chin cloth)



A Cree doll from the mid 1700's showing a cloth hood

decorated with beadwork.


     We have not talked about the Nez Pierce basket style hat woven out of bear grass, which takes specialized skills too involved for this article but it may be a topic for another time. 

     I hope this information helps some of you ladies with your period headgear. When your out in the weather, whether it be blazing sun or freezing snow, remember it's what's on top that counts!


This article was a group effort from some of the members of the

Women of the Fur Trade


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