Object: Bow

Image Credits

An Algonkian archer 1624-1645, modeled by Russel Reed of the Atakapa Ishak Nation.

Object Type(s)

Bows,arrows and archery among the Algonkian people of southern New Netherlands

For thousands of years bows and arrows were the primary hunting tool and weapon for all the Native American people of North America.  Among Algonkian people, it was the men who made and used bows and arrows. Uncles: the primary teacher for boys, instructed them on how to select, harvest, cut and carve their bows and arrows from a variety of woods.

Bows were typically made in the late spring and early summer when hardwoods like hickory, slippery elm and ash have so much water stored in their trunks from the spring rain that there is a space between the wood and the bark that is water, this makes it very easy to peel the bark off a stave without damaging the back of the bow which will hold the tension when the bow is made, strung and used. Before the advent of European trade axes, stone tools were used to carve bow from green trees. These trees would be cut using a stone headed axe known as a “Celt” and then the stave would be split using antler or wood wedges; from there the bark is peeled off and the bow is carved into a rough shape of a near finished bow. The bow stave is heavily greased with bear oil or deer tallow which seeps into the wood replacing the evaporated water that was inside the fibers of the wood and held its shape, the grease penetrates the wood, fills the space and keeps the wood from substantially cracking the bow.

Once the bow has dried in the sun for several days it can be worked further until its final shape is completed and it is ready to use and fire. The string used for the bows could be made from many different materials.   Natural fiber made into cordage, sinew, rolled gut (from a bear or deer) that is spun and wound and let to dry on a branch attached to a heavy stone left to dry till it becomes a hard cord, or animal rawhide made in the same fashion was used.

Arrows are made similarly to bows. Arrows were collected in late winter early spring (February – early March) this is when the wood is just becoming green again but is still very dry making it easier to have ready for an arrow shaft. Bog and wetland shrubs in the viburnum family were used heavily for arrow-shafts due to their pith core and very dense and hard wood that holds up to impact very well, however during the 17th century split wood arrow shafts made from a large piece of wood and whittled down were also used. These arrow shafts would be gathered 10-20 a bundle, hand straightened then put into a tight bundle to dry for a few days. Over the course of a week to two weeks, arrow shafts would be scraped of bark and hand straightened getting rid of all undesirable knots and bends that will alter the flight of the arrow.

 Once these shafts have been straightened and dried, they then can be scraped down to the correct diameter so that they fly correctly neither too heavy nor too light. From this point on, the arrow will have nocks cut in (a nock is a groove cut into an arrow shaft to receive a bow string and an arrowhead) and fletching will be cut and glued on. Unfortunately, very little is recorded about Algonkian archery and bow craft during the 17th century. Much of what is known is passed through oral tradition in various indigenous American communities as well as through the efforts of experimental archaeology. What is known through the numerous bows and arrows collected during the 17th and 18th century from all over the northeastern United States is that the preferred bow woods tended to be hickory, slippery elm and American white ash. In southern New Netherlands the preferred bow woods would have been hickory and slippery elm. (1)

Arrow woods could have varied significantly and it is very difficult to know what was used through what remains in museum collections. Any straight growing sprig tree or perennial bush will do, but as stated prior, members of the viburnum famil , namely Viburnum dentatum (arrow wood viburnum) was some of the most used. However, by the 17th century, with the advent and adoption of European iron and steel tools like trade knives, axes and occasional wood working tools, split arrow shafts made from cut down large pieces of wood were made and used.  These typically were used to make blunt arrows for hunting birds, squirrels and chipmunks, animals whose bodies you did not want to pierce due to impact damage and desire to preserve a pelt.

From the museum collections that survive, both in the United States and in Europe, the typical or most common bows found in the northeastern United States that would have been seen in southern New Netherlands Colony were known as “flat D bow”, flat because they generally lack a defined handle section (unlike examples from the Wampanoag, Narragansett and Onandaga nations who do have examples of bows with defined handle sections). These bows when strung from themselves into the shape of a letter D. (2)

Arrows, from what has survived, are believed to have been used in a pinch style release system. Here the thumb and pointer finger are used to pinch the arrow to the chest or corner of the mouth when drawn and then released. To give the arrow flight, fletching must be used and secured on to the arrow shaft. Fletching refers to the feathers of birds; such as goose, turkey, eagle and hawk feathers were all used. Fletching would be prepared by taking the stiff wing or tail feathers of these birds and carefully splitting the feathers in half by hand and then carefully carving down the quills till they are flat. These feathers would then be places on the arrow shaft using hide glue or pine pitch resin and secured with natural cordage or sinew. Both two and three feathers were used on arrows, each feather an opposite to each other in order to give the arrow flight and spin. In southern New Netherlands colony some of the most common fletching would have been two feather fletcher arrows some that were overlapping (one of the most common styles of fletching) and other were two opposite feathers that made the arrow propel forward. Though two would have been most common, three fletched arrows do appear in collections that have come from New York State.

Unfortunately bows, arrows and archery are scantly recorded in the primary sources of 17th century New Netherlands and New England. What survives, are accounts of how bows and arrows were used and how they were used in warfare, though there are very few records of how bows and arrows were used in made in southern New Netherlands, primary sources from New England shed light on what was likely used. “Their weapons are bows of five or six foot long of witch hazel [likely another wood like slippery elm or hickory, the tree used was unknown to Europeans but resembled witch hazel], painted black and yellow, the strings of three twists of sinews, bigger than our bow strings. Their arrows are of a yard and a handful long, not made of reeds but of a fine light wood very smooth and round, with three long and deep black feathers of some eagle, vulture, or kite as closely fastened with some binding matter as any fletcher of ours can glue them on. Their quivers are full a yard long and made of long dried rushes wrought about two handfuls broad above and one handful beneath with pretty works and compartments [designs], diamond-wise of red and other colors [Plymouth, Massachusetts](3).

“We went on shore to trade with them, in one of their canoes I saw their bows and arrows, which I took up and drew an arrow in one of them, which I found to be of strength able to carry an arrow five or six score strongly; and one of them took it and drew as we draw our bows, not like the Indians. Their bow is made of witch hazel, and some of beech [ likely these are not the woods used but elm or hickory was likely what was seen], in fashion much like our bows; but they want nocks [notches], only a string of leather out through a hole at one end and made fast with a knot at the other [the bowstring , made of braintan leather , which can be very strong, is tied in a loop one one end , usually the top end of the bow which allows the string to slide on and off by bending the limbs and is tied on to the bow at the other end]. Their arrows are made of the same wood, some of ash, big and long, with three feathers tied on, and nocked very artificially [skillfully], headed with the long shank bone [a femur] of a deer, made very sharp with two fangs in manner of a harping iron [like a harpoon head], they have likewise darts, headed with like bone, one of which I darted among the rocks, and it brake not. These they use very cunningly to kill fish, fowl, and beasts.[Coastal Maine] (4)

William Woods 1634 account, gives us the closest visualization of bows and arrows used in southern New Netherlands from 1634-1660 “Their bows they make of a handsome shape, strung commonly with the sinews of mooses. Their arrows are made of young eldern [elderberry] feathered with feathers of eagles’ wings and tails, headed with brass in the shape of a heart or triangle, fastened in a slender piece of wood six or eight inches long [ a fore shaft of a harder wood inserted into a softer arrow shaft), which is framed to put loose in the pithy eldern that is bound fast for riving. Their arrows be made in this manner because the arrow might shake from his head and be left behind for their finding and the pile only remain to gall the wounded beast…they draw their arrows between the forefingers and the thumb. Their bows be quick, but not very strong [compared to an English Longbow], not killing but six or seven score [120-140]. These men shoot at one another, but with swift conveyance shun the arrow; this they do to make them expert against time of war.

It hath been often admired how they can find their arrows, be the weeds as high as themselves, yet they take such perfect notice of the flight and fall that they seldom loose any. They are trained up to their bows even from childhood; little boys with bows made of little sticks and arrows of great bents with smite down a piece of tobacco pipe, every shoot a good way off. As these Indians be good marksmen, so are they well experienced where the very life of every creature lieth, and know where to smite him to make him die presently.[Massachusetts Bay](5)

Combat with bows and arrows is also recorded , this particular account comes from the Pequot War of 1636-37 “When we saw we could have no advantage against them in the open field, we requested our Indians for to entertain fight with them; our end was that we might see the nature of the Indian war, which they granted us and fell out, the Pequots, Narragansett’s, and Mohegan’s exchanging a few arrows together after such a manner, as I dare boldly affirm, they might fight seven years and not kill seven men. They came not near one another, but shot remote, and not point blank, as we often do with our bullets, but at rovers, and then they gaze up in the sky where the arrow falls, and not until it is fallen so they shoot again. This fight is more for pastime than to conquer or subdue.”(6)

Among the Dutch, Adrianne Van Der Donck gives us an idea of how Algonkian people were beginning to adopt European flintlock muskets and trade goods for hunting and warfare i the mid to late 1640’s, slowly abandoning the use of the bow and arrow, likely Van Der Donck is writing about people who lived closer to Dutch forts and settlements where trade goods were readily accessible in large quantities since bows and arrows continue to show up through the 18th century. “Youths and fit men like hunting bears, wolves, fishers, otters, and beavers. Deer are hunted and killed in great numbers in the coastal areas and near riverbanks, where most of the Christian’s live. They used to catch deer only in traps or shoot them with arrows; now they also use guns.”(7)

“Their weapons used to be, always and everywhere, bow and arrow, war club [either a ball club or sword club] on the arm and, hanging from the shoulder, a shield big enough to cover the trunk up to the shoulders. They paint and make their faces in such a manner that they are barely recognizable, even to those who know them well. Then they tie a strap or a snakeskin around the head, fix a wolfs or fox’s tail upright on top, and stride imperiously like a peacock. Nowadays they make much use in their war-fare of flintlock guns, which they learn to handle well, have a great liking for, and spare no money to buy in quantity at high prices from Christian’s. With it they carry a light axe in place of the war club, and so they march off”(8)

Drew Shuptar-Rayvis

  1. Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows&Quivers , Steve Alley and Jim Hamm , Volume 1, Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest,  Copyright 1999, Bois d’Arc Press , pgs 20-28
  2. Encyclopedia of Native American Bows, Arrows&Quivers , Steve Alley and Jim Hamm , Volume 1, Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest,  Copyright 1999, Bois d’Arc Press , pgs 20-28
  3. Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 92 paragraph 2 , Martin Pring (1603) pg 63
  4. Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 93 paragraph 1,  James Rosier (1605), pg 328
  5. Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 93 paragraph 2,  William Wood (1634) pgs 101,97-98
  6. Indian New England 1524-1674, Ronald Dale Karr, page 150 paragraph 2, John Underhill (1638), pgs 36-43
  7. A description of New Netherland, Adriaen Van Der Donck, pg 99, paragraph 1, Adriaen Van Der Donck (1647)
  8. A description of New Netherland, Adriaen Van Der Donck, pg 101, paragraph 2, Adriaen Van Der Donck (1647)