Billy Bow-Leg Moccasins
By Dan Beard
We have in the American woods some beautiful orchids. These wild flowers from the shape remind one of a moccasin and were appropriately called moccasin flowers, but some super conventional souls, who could not rise to the poetry of things or cut loose from their village garden flowers, have dubbed these flowers of the forest "lady slippers"! Ladies nothing! No lady ever wore a slipper that looked anything like the moccasin flower, besides which we have domestic flowers to which that name properly belongs (Fig. 14).
Lately, while down in the land of the Seminole, I ran across what is, to me, an entirely new style of moccasin; a very simple style and probably the most primitive form of moccasin used by the American Indian. It is still in use by a few of the Seminole Indians in the swamp and lakelands of Florida. This form of foot covering, one of which I now have in hand, can be of little protection against thorns or snake bites.
A moccasin of this description is really nothing more than a buckskin stocking. However, it will protect the feet and ankles from the attack of insects and makes one of the best of foot-coverings in the woods where there are no sharp stones or thorny plants; and when made of heavier skin it can be used by snowshoers and tobogganers. The moccasins of this description that I procured from the Everglades are made of very light buckskin, but to tell the truth most of those Seminole Indians today when not dressed in civilized clothes are bare legged and bare footed.
Figs, 15 and 19 show this buckskin foot-covering. In describing it I will use the dimensions of the moccasin I have before me. Of course the dimensions will vary according to the size of the feet of the person who is to wear them-but to get busy. Cut an oblong piece of buckskin 19 1/2 inches long, 11 1/2 inches wide,
Fig. 11; fold it in the center at E F, Fig Fig. 12; then while the skin is folded cut out the piece M H A. This will also cut out N B K, making it 6 inches from A to H and 3 1/2 inches from E to M. Figs. 11 and 12. It will be necessary to make some buckskin strings, each about 30 inches long, leaving the tabs G at the end of them, Fig. 13. When the pattern is now folded at the line E P you will have Fig. 14. About 3 inches above F start to stitch the heel, as in Fig. 14.
When gathering be careful in pulling the thong, which you are using for thread, so as to bring the heel together in a neat pucker, with the pleats folded in naturally and regularly, as in Figs. 15 and 16. Then sew up the back of the moccasin to a point about 11/2 inches below the top. Pull the string through and allow about 4 inches of the end to dangle in the back; tie a knot in it for safety, but the friction of the buckskin against the buckskin will prevent this from unraveling.
Fig. 17 shows how to take another string and sew up the open end of the toe. Run the buckskin thong through the bottom of the toe, Fig. 17 A, and then give a herringbone stitch along the opening as in Fig. 17.
When this is drawn taut it should make a neat braided appearance like that shown in Figs. 18 and 19. There are, in the moccasin which I have before me, nine stitches in the gathered or puckered part of the toe. After that there are about three ordinary stitches in and out and then the string is pulled through and a knot tied in it to prevent its slipping back through the hole, and a dangling end of between 1 1/2 inches to 2 inches left hanging down on the shoe.
Now, that's all there is to the making of this moccasin. Of course, there is the shoestring, so to speak, which also has a tab on the end to prevent the string pulling through. This string is 30 inches long and is used to bind round and round the ankle and thus fasten the moccasin to the leg and keep sand and insects out. Any fellow who cannot make a pair of Billy Bowleg moccasins had better not attempt any other style, because in construction this is the simplest Indian footgear of which I have any knowledge. I would hardly call them moccasins; it would be more appropriate to call them buckskin socks.
I never saw a Seminole Indian in Seminole dress with anything on his feet except the skin the Lord put there, but, unfortunately, the Seminoles, like all the other Indians, are now wearing so-called civilized clothes and discarding their native dress, which in this case is the wammus worn by the early pioneers, but the Seminole tunic is gathered at the yoke and the sleeves are very full and also gathered in like the the smock of European peasants, which have probably modified the original pattern among Indian costumes; it is unique, for no other tribe now dresses in this manner and even among the Seminoles this picturesque costume is worn by only a few of the old-timers, or by Indians employed by the fashionable hotels to of the picturesque to the establishment.
The New York State Indians formerly wore tunics of similar pattern and of as brilliant colors, but not of so many colors in one tunic. When Sam Houston of Texas fame was inaugurated Governor of Tennessee he wrote a similar Indian tunic in place of a coat.
In 1842, after we whites captured Osceola, by the reported false and dishonorable use of a flag of truce, the Indian War in Florida ceased. All the real warriors and fighting men of the Seminoles were transported to the West, beyond the Mississippi. A few Seminoles who were considered harmless, and have proved to so, were left in Florida, and it is their descendants who now live in the Everglades.
Why Not Make Your Own Tools?
But, before we go any further, let us begin at the beginning and have our tools ready. We are out in the woods, or pretending that we are, which is the same thing, and we need an awl to punch the holes in the hide of the shank. Shall we go to the hardware store and buy one? Not on your life! We are real woodsmen; we will make our own awls (Figs. X1 and X2). We will do this by taking an ordinary wire nail (Fig. X3), and filing off its head (Fig. X4).
From a stick from the woods, preferably a birch, but almost any other wood will do, we will make the handle (Fig. X1), into which we will force the nail by first working a hole in the end with another smaller nail, and then driving the nail (Fig. X5) into place, being careful not to split the handle while driving the nail. Then we make a scabbard, or thimble, for the sharp point of the nail (Fig. X2). This will protect the point and keep it ready for service. Next grind or file a point on the nail as shown in Fig. X5. Now take
The Shank Of A Moose
and peel back the skin from the lower end, then cut two holes in the meat under the sinews in order to hang it upon a tree, as in Fig. X7. Next run a thong, rope or cord through the holes, which are cut in the shank, and tie it up to a tree or post; then peel the skin off the shank, working down and using a knife to carefully cut the little parts of flesh and muscle which adhere to the skin, as you draw the latter down (Fig. X7). Continue until the hide comes off at the end of the shank, wrong side outwards of course (Fig. X8).
Fig. X8 shows a drawing made from the shank of a bull moose; the drawing was made exactly the size of nature, but of course the cut on this page has been very much reduced. The shaded part between A-B on the moose leg in the adjoining drawing (Fig. X6) indicates the part used for the moccasin.
When the skin is removed it is soft and pliable; it is what we call rawhide, and you will note that it is almost the shape of a shoe. Now then, put on about four pairs of good thick stockings and pull the shank over your foot, as in Fig. X9; then mark the point where you intend to cut off the end at the toe and be sure to leave plenty of room for your toes. Push back the hairs and plaster them back with soap, if necessary, then cut off the end, as in Fig. X10. This will leave a moccasin with a hole in the toe. Carefully again push back every hair that protrudes through this opening, so that not a single hair escapes your attention, because one hair would let the water in your shank shoe.
After you have pushed all the hairs back, use your awl to make the holes for the thread and use a fine strip of rawhide for thread, or a bit of sinew; or if these things are unattainable use catgut, such as fiddle strings or fish-leaders are made of. Wet the catgut until it is soft and pliable and sew the opening in the toe neatly up, as in Fig. X11. When this is done carefully turn the moccasin with the hair side out, Fig. X12.
Take a large pair of cotton socks and fill them with sand, then sew the tops of the socks up so that the sand will not come out. Use this as a shoemaker's last and over it pull your woolen socks as you would on your foot, (Figs. X9 and X13). Fig. X13 also shows how the toe of the moccasin is sometimes bent over and sewed to the top of the moccasin. Next, pull the moccasin over your socks and improvised last and set them away in a cool place to dry, or put your socks over a shoemaker's last and pull the moccasin over the last.
It is well to allow the skin (Fig. X11) to partially dry before you turn it inside out. But do not allow it to become so dry as to be stiff and hard, otherwise you will be unable to reverse it.
When your moccasins are sufficiently dry to wear, you can use them for snowshoeing, and no matter how much snow you get on them your feet will remain warm and dry. The hair on the outside of the moccasin will shed the water as it was intended to do when it grew upon the animal's legs.
It was while the author was camping in the fairyland of the Northern wilderness that he learned how to make shank moccasins. Up there, there is little need of werewolves or loupgarou because there are still plenty of real ones to do the howling. No need of imaginary fairies, for Jack Frost is there and he touches the beaver dams of sticks with his hand and changes them to dams of glistening crystal rods; he breathes on the dark evergreens and they are transformed into diamond covered Christmas trees. He floats lightly over reeds and sedges on the moose meadows and lo! they no longer are withered yellow and brown vegetation, but diadems of flashing diamonds and loops of glittering jewels!
Magic? Of course it is magic! Why the land is full of it and it needs something like magic to transform the hocks of a bull moose into warm, almost waterproof, serviceable moccasins. This, Isaac, the Indian, did, while the magic of a hot fire, a frying pan and some bacon grease was transforming the dark, almost black, uninviting moose steak into one of the most savory of dishes. Yes, it is all magic, but some of it we can imitate and with patience become proficient magicians ourselves.
The Indians especially the Sauk and Fox tribes, believed that the Great Spirit made the sun, moon and stars, the birds and game and fishes especially for the Indians, and to prove it they would call attention to the fact that these things do not exist in the cities or on the farms of the white man. The Great Spirit also showed the Indians how to make birchbark canoes, snowshoes and moccasins; so we poor white people who do not own any suns, moons or stars, big game, birds, or fishes, must go to Mister Lo, the poor Indian, to learn some of his magic and how to make snowshoes, birch bark canoes and moccasins; it is from the Redmen that we learned to make the moccasins here described.
But do not think that it is necessary to travel hundreds of miles in the winter woods of the North in order to make a pair of shank moccasins; use your own magic, the real magic, and make them at home.
You don't believe in magic? How absurd! Why man alive, you see it used every day and call it gumption-- well, use gumption and get the shanks (Figs. X13 and X14) of freshly killed beef (Fig. X14) and from it make your moccasins.
I have shown in the pictures the moose, first, because I got my shanks from the moose I was mean and savage enough to shoot and, second, because a moose is a much more picturesque and romantic animal than a domestic cow, and makes a more interesting picture and also makes me feel ashamed of myself for killing such a splendid animal, even though we had no fresh meat in camp.
How to Make Moccasin Stockings and Half Soles
How to Make Winter Gear & Clothing
Native American Resources
Ojibway, Sioux, & Sneaker Moccasins
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.