Reflections in Nature: Early hunters carried purses

We celebrated the Christmas holiday with our son’s family in Arlington, Va. Our oldest granddaughter, Maggie, received a purse, which was quite chic and expensive.

On our long, snowy drive home on Wednesday, I got to thinking about the early frontier and mountain men who headed west in search of their fortunes.

They usually dressed in leather from head to foot, with buckskin shirts, leggings, moccasins and coonskin caps with plume-like tails. Over their shoulders, pouches, horns and haversacks were suspended by several straps.

Each man carried a heavy rifle, with a muzzle that reached to is shoulders, usually 6 feet in height, and at least 4/5th of the rifle would have consisted of the barrel. A belt of leather worn around the waist held a knife with a strong blade and a buckhorn handle and, perhaps, a tomahawk.

The mountain men’s shoulder pouches were simply made and contained their most valuable possessions. The earliest pouches were made of buckskin with fringed trimmings; however, in later years, calf skin was favored.

A pouch would be equipped with a charger, balls, shot, wadding, powder horn, crude knife, turkey call, bone whistle, lead balls, chunks of tow (flax, hemp or jute) for cleaning the bore, patches of homespun linen and pieces of buckskin for clothing repairs, awls, flints, steel, powder, funnels and countless other items such as lead and bullet molds.

The bag always was kept within easy reach. If it was necessary to leave an area fast, the purse would have been the first item grabbed, even before the rifle, for without the purse, the rifle would have been useless.

Several years ago at our local Heritage Days, Charlie Fox and I, with the aid of reference books, gave estimates on the value of guns that people brought in to show us. One man had a musket rifle and a hunting pouch and, after being told what we believed the value to be, he asked if one of us wanted to buy the pair. Now, I was really interested and, after talking to my wife, Mary Alice, I bought the pair.

These hunting pouches date back to Europe and have been found in North America since its earliest settlements.

The bag that I bought is very similar to one found at Annapolis, Md., in 1762, and is very rare. It is made of leather and the flap is covered with what I believe could be elk hair. Whenever I am asked to display early hunting items, the bag and gun are proudly shown.

In time, the repeating rifle and the famous Colt six-gun came into use, and the pouch was no longer needed. Extra rounds of ammunition were carried in small loops on a belt.

Many of today’s hunters carry purses; however, they are called fanny packs that contain survival items such as matches, compasses, whistles, mirrors and, most importantly, candy bars.

The state Game Commission has a flintlock season that came in after Christmas, in which the hunter only is allowed to use primitive firearms or reproductions of these firearms. The hunters carry pouches containing all the implements that the early hunters had to carry.

The pouch now is known as a possible bag because everything the hunter could possibly need is carried in it.

Today, craftsmen not only are building early flintlock rifles, they also are reproducing the leather pouches. These artists generally opt for older leather tanning methods, using either fish oils, alums, salts or tannic acid, to be historically correct. They know that leather will not hold its shape when using today’s chromed tanning methods.

Depending on the maker, historically correct reproduction bags can fetch up to $750.

Without a doubt, my hunting pouch resembles the shoulder bags worn by women today – well, maybe not the fancy one our granddaughter received.

I peeked into my wife’s purse and found it jammed full of items that she thinks might be needed someday. Among these items were a tape measure, level, magnifying glass, sewing kit, flashlight, whistle, etc. I really laughed when I noticed two toothbrushes. I guess you could say Mary Alice carries a possible bag.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.