The Power of woman existed even in 1830's, as you can see when you read my favorite story from Catlin.




LETTER -- No. 24.


 "The old chief, having learned that we were to cross the river, gave direction to one of the women of his numerous household, who took upon her head a skin-canoe (more familiarly called in this country, a bull-boat), made in the form of a large tub, of a buffalo's skin, stretched on a frame of willow boughs, which she carried to the water's edge; and placing it in the water, made signs for us three to get into it. When we were in, and seated fat on its bottom, with scarce room in any way to adjust our legs and out feet (as we sat necessarily facing each other), she stepped before the boat, and pulling it along, waded towards the deeper water, with her back. towards us, carefully with the other hand attending to her dress, which seemed to be but a light slip, and floating upon the surface until the water was above her waist, when it was instantly turned off, over her head, and thrown ashore; and she boldly plunged forward, swimming and drawing the boat with one hand, which she did with apparent ease. In this manner we were conveyed to the middle of the stream, where we were soon surrounded by a dozen or more beautiful girls, from twelve to fifteen and eighteen years of age, who were at that time bathing on the opposite shore.


They all swam in a bold and graceful manner, and as confidently as so many otters or beavers; and gathering around us, with their long black hair floating about on the water, whilst their faces were glowing with jokes and fun, which they were cracking about us, and which we could not, understand.


In the midst of this delightful little aquatic group, we three sat in our little skin-bound tub (like the "three wise men of Gotham, who went to sea in a bowl," &c.), floating along down the current, losing sight, and all thoughts, of the shore, which was equal-distant from us on either side; whilst we were amusing ourselves with the playfulness of these dear little creatures who were floating about under the clear blue water, catching their hands on to thesides of our boat; occasionally raising one-half of their bodies out of the water, and sinking again, like so many mermaids.


In the midst of this bewildering and tantalizing entertainment, in which poor Ba'tiste and Bogard, as well as myself, were all taking infinite pleasure, and which we supposed was all intended for our especial amusement; we found ourselves suddenly in the delightful dilemma of floating down the current in the middle of the river; and of being turned round and round to the excessive amusement of the villagers, who were laughing at us from the shore, as well as these little tyros, whose delicate hands were besetting our tub on all sides; and for an escape from whom, or for fending off, we had neither an oar, or anything else, that we could wield in self-defense, or for self-preservation In this awkward predicament, our feelings of excessive admiration were immediately changed, to those of exceeding vexation, as we now learned that they had peremptorily!: discharged from her occupation our fair conductress, who had undertaken to ferry us safely across the river; and had also very ingeniously laid their plans, of which we had been ignorant until the present moment, to extort from us in this way, some little evidences of our liberality, which, in fact, it was impossible to refuse them, after so liberal and bewitching an exhibition on their part, as well as from the imperative obligation which the awkwardness of our situation had laid us under. I had some awls in my pockets, which I presented to them, and also a few strings of beautiful beads, which I placed over their delicate necks as they raised them out of the water by the side of our boat; after which they all joined in conducting our craft to the shore, by swimming by the sides of, and behind it, pushing it along in the direction where they designed to land it, until the water became so shallow, that their feet were upon the bottom, when they waded along with great coyness, dragging us towards the shore, as long as their bodies, in a crouching position, could possibly be half concealed under the water, when they gave our boat the last push for the shore, and raising a loud and exulting laugh, plunged back again into the river; leaving us the only alternative of sitting still where we were, or of stepping out into the water at half leg deep, and of wading to the shore, which we at once did, and soon escaped from the view of our little tormentors, and the numerous lookers-on, on our way to the upper village, which I have before mentioned. "



Sandy in her Bullboat


Bullboat Adventures


A bullboat is a boat made with a Frame of Willows or Cottonwood and covered with a Buffalo hide. It was circular in form. It was used to carry cargo, meats, and humans down or across a River.


 Bullboats were used by Native American Tribes, especially those along the Missouri River but we have also found documentation that they were seen and used on the Maropa River, the Yellowstone River, the Missouri River, the Bighorn River and the Knife River.Buffalo Bird Woman, Hidatsa, talks about transporting the meat from a hunt down the river in bullboats. Chief Plenty Coup of the Crow tells about playing in bullboats as a child.


Mountaineers saw their use by the Natives and adapted them for their own use.


Lewis and Clark tried one with an iron frame and failed. They built more with success that exceeded their expectations; they also made one of their own design with two hides.


Pryor of the Lewis and Clark expedition was traveling near Billings, Montana but they

lost their horses within a day or two, probably to the Crow Indians. They constructed two bullboats and headed down the Yellowstone and the Missouri, overtaking Clark on August 8, 1806 in McKenzie County, North Dakota."


William H. Ashley in June, 1825 constructed a hide boat 16 by 7 feet out of six Buffalo Hides,

"That I will transport the goods and extra baggage down the river to some conspicuous point not less than 40 or 50 miles from this place" He was very pleased with the performance of his boat.


Thomas James of the Missouri Fur Company, 1809-1810, wrote this.

"Here we made three canoes of buffalo bull's skins, by sewing together two skins, for each canoe, and then stretching them over a frame similar in shape to a Mackinaw boat. Our canoe contained three men, about sixty steel traps, five hundred beaver skins, our guns and amunition, besides other commodities. Nine of us started down the river in these canoes and in two days reached Clark's river where the boats with the goods was awaiting us."


In addition to these, W.A. Ferris and Osbourne Russel, talked about using Bullboats.


  What better way to really know the bullboat than to build and use one. Thats exactly what I did. Of course I had successes and failure, just as the explorers of the West did. What better way can you really experience the past and get the feeling of living history than to just do it. What fun it was. (At times) What frustration it was. (At times)


     In June of 2005, 5 members of the WFT traveled to Basin, Wyoming where we built 5 bullboats with the assistance of Dale Bollman (aka: Rabbit).

Rabbit and Jill





    He showed us how and helped us build our bullboats. We started out by building the frames of willows. This took the entire day, and a lot of time and patience tying all those willows with rawhide. I mean a lot of rawhide ties. There were blisters forming on our fingers.


Jill tying her bottom rings


We built 3 round circles, each a little bigger than the last. Then we tied the Willows for the outside frame. There were 10 all together. After tying these 10 straight pieces, they were laid out and the bottom circle placed on top of them. The bottom circle and the Willow sticks were tied together at this point with Rawhide ties.



Sandy tying her bottom frame on.


We then tied the last two rings onto the willow sticks, making sure to bend the Willows and make a bowl shape. Lots more rawhide ties and at this point it is a good idea to have two people doing one. This way they can help bend and hold the Willows in shape while the other person ties them in place. 



Rick and Sandy tying their frame together.



On the 2nd day we got to attach the green Buffalo hide to the boats. But first we had to scrape the hides, which Rabbit did with ease. He could actually scrape a Buffalo hide with a sharp knife, in just under two hours. I was impressed. He gave us a lesion on scraping, where we learned a lot.



     We then sewed up any holes in the hide from the gunshot or scraping. We then attached the hides to the Willow Frames. Stretching them to fit snuggly on the Frame was not easy. We then attached them at the top of the frame by sewing them on and wrapping each Willow knob at the top. This took most of the Day.


Chris sewing up the holes in her hide


     We then tied the knobs at the top of the boats, running rope from one stick to the other on the opposite side and pulling them tightly to hold the frame in shape while it was drying. They were then placed aside to dry.

Tied Bullboat

     On the 3rd day we were going to give them a test run.  Rabbit took us to a local Lake where we all placed our Boats in the Lake and went for a test run. There was a little leakage in some of them, and Joe's had a big leak. But all in all, they floated and it was fun!

     To get in and out of your Bullboat, You need to get down low and stay low as you get in and out. When climbing out you need to catch it and keep hold of it with  your foot. We don't wear Buckskin in the boat. We wear our wool dresses because buckskin gets too heavy when wet. Believe me, You will get wet at sometime.

     According to Good Bird, Hidatsa,"A bullboat is usually paddled by one person kneeling in the forward part of the boat and dipping the paddle directly before. In old time the bullboat was rather a womans craft though men used it also." Men stripped to the breechclout when crossing the river. A women removed her moccasins and leggings, but retained her dress.

     Rabbit showed us to put our bedrolls in the bullboat and sit astride it, like on a saddle, which makes for a comfortable ride. We used two wool blankets wrapped in oil cloth. We kept the extra gear in the back of the boat for balance. His hand carved paddles are very long and work much better than the short modern ones. We have tried both. Bullboats tend to spin. So to control it you need to switch from side to side, paddleing once per side. The spinning can be used to your advantage at times. You can use the spin to get off the rocks that you get stuck on, of course, it is fun to sit and spin.


     When we got home, we took the bullboats out on Hawkins Reservoir to learn how to use and control them. We spent the day playing, paddleing and spinning for fun. We thought we had learned boats and was ready for faster water.


     On longer trips the bullboat can be used as shelter for the night. You can prop up one side with the paddle, or if it is really stormy you can sleep under the overturned bullboat.



WFT with their Bullboats on the lake.


                 Jill on the Bear River


We were so confident that we decided it was time to try the Portneuf River. Jill, Sandra and I took our boats to the river for an all day trip. Started out very well. Then we hit some rocks and I got thrown out. Sandra was thrown out once also, when she was reaching for flowers on the bank and wasn't paying attention to the river. We learned an important lesion, when you finish floating for the day and your hide is wet, be sure to tie your boat tightly at the top, going across from knob to knob, and let it dry. Just like we did when first making them.We hadn't done this and our boats now looked like saucers, contributing to the accidents on the River. We floated about 3 miles in our saucers and then had to portage them out about 1/4 of a mile. You can carry a boat on your back with a burden strap, but easier yet, with a wet boat, is to just carry it across your back and over your head, holding onto the willow frame.



Sandy Portageing her Bullboat


    Because of our neglect to properly care for the boats, we had to build new frames and reattach the hides before our next adventure on the Bear River. Our first boats were made of bundles of small willows. On our 2nd frames we took the opposite approach and used big willows. But soon found out they were not flexible enough and as a result it tore a  hole in the side and bowed way up in the bottom. We have now decided that about a 3/4 inch is the best size of willow to use.


We are still experimenting with our boats in order to be completely period correct. So far we have no one who has succeeded in patching leaks with natural materials. Rubber cement has been substituted, but we plan to try a mix of Spruce gum, tallow and charcoal, from hints given by the Mountaineers Journals. Will let you know how it goes.


     If you want a Bullboat, hand hewn paddle, or a scraped hide for your boat. Contact Rabbit at .

                                                                              Sandy Hunt (Lays with horses)

                                         Jill Barber (Stargazer)




Thank you to Rabbit!

You can contact Rabbit at:





Home Page | Membership and Requirements | Application/Contact us/Other Links of Interest | Pictures of the Sisters | Camping Primitive Style | The Two Hide Dress of the Upper Missouri | Trade Wool Dresses | Wool in the Fur Trade | Decorating the Two Hide Dress | Belts, Bags,Headcoverings and Other Assessories | Side fold and Winter Moccasins | Winter Doings for Women | Fort Bridger-2006 | Aux Alimente DuPay | Bullboats and the WFT | Dog Travois | Nationals 2007 | Decorative Robes | Natural Pigments | 5-day travel down the Snake River
Copyright © 2007 women of the fur trade.. All Rights Reserved.