Chippewa Snowshoes




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By Dan Beard

Fig. 64

The shoe I have before me is 30 inches long and widest at the toe-cord, where it spreads 12 inches. It is pear-shaped but both ends of the shoe are rounded with no heel to drag, which makes it much easier to travel through the brush and also to climb steep hills and mountain sides. Many a ridiculous and embarrassing tumble I have had when climbing the mountainside wearing the long narrow shoes shown by Fig. 64A.

The Bear Paw just described is the pattern used by the men of the Conservation Committee of the Camp Fire Club of America when they take their midwinter vacation in the mountains and forests of the Adirondacks. The first shoe of this model I saw about fifty years ago, was picked up on the prairie of the Flathead reservation; but in the open country a shoe about 4 feet long, tapering down to a spur 8 inches long, Figs. 65, 66 and 67, is popular. 

The spur, or tail, acts as a sort of rudder and also has a decided tendency to kick the foot forward two or three inches as it falls on the snow; the extra leverage, or push of the tail, or spur, of the shoe adds considerably to the possible speed of the snowshoer and also lessens the fatigue on long journeys. See diagram to the right of Fig. 81, for Bear Paw.

The snowshoes used by athletes for racing are naturally made light, some not weighing over 1 1/2 pounds apiece. As a rule they are also higher in front than the ordinary snowshoe and made to fit more snugly. Originally all snowshoes were fastened on with buckskin thongs--see illustration of the costume. Our diagram shows two ways of fastening the shoe to the foot. The knot is always tied over the heel at the back. There is one other method shown in Fig. 64. 

You will note that only at the toe is the shoe fastened to the snowshoe itself. This is so that in walking the heel may be naturally raised; for otherwise it would be next to impossible to walk with snowshoes. Now lampwick is generally used to fasten on the shoe and many big outfitting places have a supply of this on hand for the use of snowshoers.

In Northern British Columbia, up at the head of the Stickine River, in the rugged, timbered land where the winter snows vary from three to ten feet in depth, trapper and Indian use

Tahl Tahn

shoes, which are from a foot to sixteen inches wide, with a length to suit the wearer, varying from four to six feet. The Tahl Than Indians look with contempt upon all the oval snowshoes with or without wooden tails, and derisively call such contrivances "tenderfoot frying-pans ".

The Tahl Tahn use white spruce saplings, or birch; further south the light, strong frame is made of water ash, pse-ya-pi, white or yellow birch, zi-tan-pu. Select a white ash, if you can locate one; if not, take the birch, tan-pa, or hickory, can-su.

The law of the wilderness is to use the material at hand. If you are fortunate enough to locate white ash by all means use that, but hickory will answer the purpose when there is no ash. Should your choice, however, be birch, pick out a tall and shapely tree, one that is not "wind shook" but of a straight grain. Wind shook trees will have cracks following the grain. Avoid a tree with red bark and upright branches, because woodsmen tell me that its wood is not as strong as that of a tree with dropping branches. Also, if one cuts in the month of August a sapling, 5 or 6 inches in diameter, and strips it of its bark and cuts another one as near like the first as possible in the Winter or Spring, the one cut in August will be found to be twice as strong as the one cut in Winter.

How To Split and Quarter Your Wood

Fall the tree and chop from the log a piece about 10 feet long and 6 inches in diameter; hunt for a good handy log, lying on level ground, Fig. 96, hew a place on the log to hold your 10 foot piece while you cut a straight groove from one end of the latter to the other; turn the 10 foot piece over, not the log, and cut a similar groove upon the opposite side. You will find that it can easily be split in half by light blows of the axe- blade made carefully on both sides in the grooves made for that purpose. If you are using white ash you should find little difficulty in making a clear straight split, but to make sure that the wood splits evenly, drive gluts, (wooden wedges), into the crack made by the axe-blade at the end of the ton foot piece. Let the gluts follow the split made when driving them in.

Select the best half of the log and cut one more groove along the middle of the outside, from end to end; split as before, thus quartering the original piece, and you will now have material for two frames. The wood may be used green or be put away for a few weeks to air dry. Lumber dried by artificial heat in kilns has not the life in it that is possessed by air- seasoned material. Remember this when making bows for archery.

When using green wood for the frame, allowance should be made for shrinkage; remember that all wood shrinks in drying. I once built a log house and used exactly 100 green big pitch pine logs. The logs varied from 1 foot to over 1 1/2 feet in diameter. When the logs dried out they averaged a quarter of an inch less in diameter. That meant that the house was 100 quarters of an inch or over 2 feet smaller than when it was first erected; but don 't be worried about that-your snowshoe will not shrink 2 feet. it will, however, be a trifle smaller when dry.

Of course, if you are not in the forest you will not have a log to use for a chopping block. You must remember in all this sort of work not only to use the material at hand but also the implements at hand. Snowshoe frames can be made in the city and I have seen several good ones made at the Sportsmen's Show in Madison Square Garden by Northern Indians and guides while the band played and the tenderfoot crowd looked on with a total lack of understanding Or appreciation. Next, make yourself a Paper Pattern

Hunt up a piece of stiff wrapping paper over a foot wide and over four feet long. Sketch the outline of one side of the snowshoe from stem to heel. Then fold your paper along the dotted line, Fig. 68, and while still folded cut out the pattern. This will insure both sides being alike. Place the pattern on the

Molding Board

Fig. 66. Next, carve out a toe block, Fig. 66A; in this case it is 5 inches long and 6 inches wide at base. Screw or nail it to the molding board, Fig. 66; the other blocks may be attached as required and should be prepared beforehand by driving the nails through them so that their points show on the under side and are all set to be quickly driven home. You will note in the snowshoe frame Figs. 65, 66 and 67, the wood is cut much thinner at the toe, it being a trifle less than a half inch thick at the bend.

A boy's snowshoe can be made as small as 10 inches by 40 inches, but the average boy can waddle along without trouble, using larger shoes. Big boys can use men size, which are about 14 1/2 inches by 44 inches. The average woman's shoe is a trifle larger than the boy's shoe. One authority gives it 12 inches, by 42 inches, and not being a woman myself I will take his word for it. That ought to be all right for the average boy too.

The frame should be 7/8 inch wide, 5/8 inch in the center; that is in the widest part of the shoe between the two cross braces, and 3/8 inch at the toe and about 1/2 inch thick at the heel; sticks trimmed down to 1 1/8 inches and 3/8 inch thick make good cross braces.

Steam The Frame Work

It is absolutely necessary to steam seasoned wood in order to bend it properly without breaking. This can be done by wrapping the wood loosely with woolen cloths and pouring hot water over the wrapping. Do not try to bend the wood until after it has been well scalded, either as described or by placing the stick over a vessel of boiling water and using a rag mop to keep the wood wet with hot water. An old barrel, or wooden vessel, filled with water may be heated by dropping hot stones in the water, as the Indians and also our grandparents did at pig-killing time. I have seen them use this method in Kentucky during the Civil War. An old fashioned wash boiler would be just the thing to hold the hot water; it can be kept heated on the stove or over an open fire outdoors.

When the wood is steaming hot, bend the toe piece first, because that is the most difficult. After that fasten the rest of the frame in place as indicated by Fig. 66. One half hour spent in applying hot water to the frame will so soften the fibers in wood that it may be gradually bent to the form required. Do not be sudden, take time, and you will save time.

Most snowshoes tip up slightly at the toe, as shown in the horizontal view, Fig. 67. This shoe is 1 1/2 inches from the ground at the extreme point of the toe. A tip can be given to the toe by bending it up while still smoking from the hot water, placing a wedge under the end and weights along the rest of the frame, so as to keep that part flat and horizontal while it dries.

The reader will note that besides the toe block A there are three


B, C and D. These spreaders, or braces, must be long enough to fit tightly into the frame when adjusted. The braces should be made of wood taken at the same time as the frame so that they will dry and shrink evenly.

Figs. 65-77.

The square-toed snowshoe, Fig. 65, which a Chippewa Indian made for me, while I took notes, is made square at the toe by whittling the frame down to one quarter of an inch at the corners where it bonds. The Chippewas use a fid 1 1/4 inches by l 1/2 inches and 28 inches long and also a wooden needle 6 inches long, Fig. 72, a trifle over one half of an inch wide in the middle and one quarter of an inch thick, whittled up to be very thin at the two blunt points. The fid is handy to lift up the mesh or pry apart strands. The holes through the sides of the frame at the heel and toe are in pairs and the pairs are 2 inches apart, Figs. 65A, 66, 69, 71 and 78.

The toe and heel braces, or spreaders, are sprung into the frame at points 14 1/2 inches from the toe and about 18 inches from the heel. The brace near the toe and the brace near the heel of the shoe fit into holes cut for that purpose on the inside of the frame, Fig. 71. The heel of this Chippewa shoe is 3 1/2 inches long, the frame one half of an inch high and three quarters of an inch broad. The tail of the Chippewa shoe, Fig. 65, has the heel fastened by rawhide thong running through holes 1/8 of an inch in diameter in the two parts as shown at B. This thong runs down under the heel, up on the opposite side, and into the holes made there to receive it. A slight groove is cut in the wood to protect the thong. But in the white man's snowshoe, Fig. 67, the tail is held together by two copper rivets, which gives it a shop made look that no real snowshoer loves. I have seen homemade shoes in the farming districts with the tails bound together with wire.

The Indian does not use a carpenter's rule or dressmaker's tape line for his canoe, toboggan or snowshoe; he measures with his eyes and judges by experience; he arranges the braces in the snowshoe so that when he attempts to balance the frame at a point midway between the braces, the tail will gently dip down, showing that it weighs slightly more than the toe.

When the spot for the braces is thus determined the places are marked on the frame and the mortises cut at the points marked, Fig. 71.

Do not shellac or varnish the shoe frame. You will find that it slips often enough without any artificial aids, besides which a varnished or shellacked snowshoe smells of the stores and indoors, while we want ours to smell of the big outdoors.


To "fill" the snowshoe, that is, to make the basket work, or netting, it is best to use one-sixteenth of an inch "Ba-bitch" (Autumn killed) caribou hide, because that is considered the best for the toe and heel.

For the middle part filling use a quarter of an inch moose hide. It is not good form to have knots in your netting, but if you must tie knots, Fig. 73 shows methods of doing so. However, the best way to join two pieces of rawhide is to cut slits in the ends of the rawhide and put the other ends through the loops, thus forming Fig. 74.

Figs. 74, 75 and 76 show how the middle netting is begun and woven and attached to the frame. The process as begun here is continued until the whole network is complete. In order that the lacing in some places may not protrude too far from the frame, some slight grooves may be cut in which it will fit, like a counter-sunk nail.

Make the toe and heel mesh about three eighths of an inch and the middle mesh about one quarter of an inch, though commercial shoes are made much coarser and with a wider mesh, see Fig. 64 B. It is not to be supposed that persons in the cities and settled sections of the country can procure green moose and caribou hide, but from their butchers, all of them may secure rawhide of cows and calves.

The Lanyard

is the light line running along the inside of the frame at both toe and heel, Figs. 75, 76, 77 and 78, to which the lacing is attached. It should be about five sixteenths of an inch wide and laced through the double holes in the toe, Figs. 71, 77 and 78, and the heel. Fig. 77 shows how to loop the lanyards through the holes. In netting, use a wooden needle, which varies in shape from a long dull-pointed wooden needle 6 inches in length, Fig, 72, to a more or less elliptical or lozenge shaped one. All of the net work and filling is put in while the rawhide is moist, but the lanyard is allowed to dry before the netting is filled in the frame. The lanyard should be stretched as tightly as possible; it is shown loose in Fig. 77 so as to be better understood. If you use whang string, or belt lacing, as it is sometimes called, purchase it in the form of strips a dozen feet long.

I have seen snowshoes from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Ungava, with frames excessively wide, Fig. 79, and with no tail stick, but the netting was much finer in every way than on any other specimen I have ever examined and the work was most beautifully done. This shoe was 3 feet long and almost as wide as it was long.


The Co-Yukon shoe, 4 feet long, of the Yukon River, has a curved toe.


The Sioux is pointed and slightly turned up.


The Oregon and Utah shoes are oval.

The Iroquois pattern, the Montreal shoe, are made rights and lefts, the difference being that on the inside the frame sweeps in more sharply from the greatest breadth toward the tail. This enables one to walk more naturally. They are from 4 to 4 1/2 feet in length.

Of course, when a thing is made to sell and made for sale by the white people the first thing we do is to discover how near we can come to the original and at the same time save labor and material. This produces snowshoes with much coarser netting and with the heels fastened with metal rivets.

Figs. 75 and 76 Show where to begin the netting in the toe and heel and how to continue it. Figs. 79, 80 and 81 show how to lace up middle part.

Figs. 79-81.

Fig. 64 shows the snowshoe with all the parts named and the detailed drawing of the lanyard. The lanyard is also shown under Fig. 77.

You have been told how to make one snowshoe. Of course the two snowshoes should be exactly alike. If you make the two at the same time, it would necessitate two mold-boards and two sets of braces, B, C and D, and two toe pieces A, exactly alike, or, if you are not in a hurry, you can make one snowshoe and after it is finished and dried, you can remove it from the board and make the second frame. In this particular all I can say is to again call upon the Yankee's friend, Mr. Gumption, and he will always help you out.

Remember we are doing the work of primitive men and the primitive man uses the material at hand. If we can not secure our material from the caribou, moose and the deer we will have to look to the butcher for rawhides of domestic cattle; or, if we happen to be on the farm, we can even make snowshoes of withes or string, made of the twisted inner bark of trees. Withes were formerly used for baling hay, making crates for merchandise, and for the various purposes where binders were necessary. I have seen snowshoes used by the Black Foot Indians made of withes.

How To Make Withes

This quotation from an ancient book tells the properties of the withes which they used in making birch brooms,

"A besom of birch A withe that will wind".

A withe is made by twisting a green rod, or twig, until the fibers part like strands of string and thus render the material flexible and the wood becomes so pliable that it may be bent like a rope without breaking it. Place the green rod upon a flat stone, or log, and with a club or mallet hammer the rod along its whole length; then, put your foot on one end and grasp the other in your hands and, with all your might and main, twist it until you have a withe which you can use as you would twine or rope, or small withes with which to make snowshoes. The old time backwoods men and backwoods farmers, brawny, with powerful hands, would twist the withes without taking the trouble to beat it.

I have in my hand, as I dictate, a pair of serviceable snowshoes in which the network is all made of twine. When I say serviceable, they are snowshoes that have seen considerable use by my son and are still in working order. These Connecticut snowshoes have lanyards made with copper wire. Bits of zinc bent over the frame are used to fasten tile foot braces, and copper rivets to fasten the heel sticks together.

Understand you are not advised to use twine. The advise is to use the very best material at hand, but if it is necessary for an emergency or pleasure to have snowshoes and nothing else can be procured, use picture wire. It will be better than the twine; its greatest defect lies in the fact that it will rust after it has been wetted.

Remember what I have told you in some of my other talks. Don't sleep on a rock when you can get a soft bed of balsam tips, but if necessity compels you to sleep on the rock, don't whine about it, but thank Providence for the moss on the stone. This is the frame of mind of the real wilderness man. This is the sort of philosophy that enabled George Rodgers Clark to make his "impossible" march to capture General Hamilton; this is what enabled Zebulon Pike to reach and ascend the mountain bearing his name; this is what enabled Lieutenant Donaphan to make his explorations through the unknown deserts of the South West; this is what enabled Captain Cook to make his voyage around the world. It was this same philosophy that made George Washington famous as a general, Abe Lincoln famous as a statesman, and Daniel Boone famous as a Scout.

Note: The shoe is usually fastened to the moccasin covered foot by a deer thong, the ends of which are passed down through two strengthened meshes back of either side of the toe opening, see hitches along the side of Figs. 64 and 82 the thong being brought back through the adjoining meshes forms a loop into which the front part of the foot is placed, and by drawing the ends of the thong the slack loop is pulled tightly down over the lower part of the instep. The ends are then passed under the loop, and being half hitched a little way up on either side, see diagrams on Figs. 82 and 64, are drawn back and fastened around the angle. This fastening holds the foot firmly to the shoe and yet permits the toe to play freely through the opening when walking, thus allowing the freest scope to the muscles.

Fig. 82

Other Snowshoe Plans:

Simple Snowshoes Made from Wood Boards

Primitive Snowshoes Made from Ash or Hickory Sticks

Traditional Alaskan Eskimo Snowshoes

Other Bindings


(See Also: Beard's Introduction to Snowshoes)

Buckskin Book






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.