Monday, June 15, 2020

A brief history of Native American Moccasins

(Image via Leather Moccasins)

Moccasins are thought to be the oldest shoe and date to 12000 BC but are probably older. According to Gannon (1911), Indigenous Americans sewed two or three pieces of leather together to make a sock like cover for the foot. Close examination of the prehistoric footwear demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship with evidence of repair. Until comparatively recently it was generally agreed the first humans to inhabit North America were Mongolian tribesmen who started migrating across the Bering Straight before 30,000 BC. It now seems from archaeological evidence humans inhabited Central America about the same time. The general belief is migrants from North East Asia brought with them moccasins.

(Powhatan Image via Encylopaedia Britannica )

According to Muzquiz (2018), moccasin comes from the Algonquian language, which was spoken widely among the indigenous population from the east coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains. Virginia Algonquians ( Powhatansa) had close contact with European settlers and 'moccasins.' became the general term used to describe Native Indian sewn footwear. Every tribe had their own take on the Algonquin moccasin and across the Native American nation tribes wore subtle differences like seams and soles which differentiated one tribe from another. Early European colonists were not especially interested in indigenous clothing, however when supplies from England became scarce and the absence of skilled craftsmen, meant locally made shoes were of inferior quality colonists choose shoes made by indigenous Native Americans, The term moccasin described a foot cover made from deerskin.

Early Mongols were known to use felting for clothing and tents and had developed a simple sheepskin cover for the feet (valenki or ugg boot). This was probably used to protect them from the cold. The felt boot would be a precursor to the moccasin. Later felts were replaced by animal skins. Moccasins and boots (Mukluks) subsequently appeared. The first people to inhabit the Canadian Artic were thought to be Paleosskimos who had migrated across the Bering Straight. Some stayed whilst others moved to Canada or crossed land and ice on foot to reach Greenland. It is unlikely they made this journey barefoot.

(Fremont-style moccasin Image via Wikimedia Commons )

Earliest evidence of human occupation in Middle and South America dates from about the same time as the Mongolian migration (30,000 BC) and ten millennium later major Palaeolithic cultures populated the Great North American Plains. These were communities of semi-nomadic hunters. By 8000 BC, Indigenous Americans had spread throughout the Americas and the rise of North American Indian civilisation is thought to have taken place between 5000 BC and 1000 BC. This marked the end of the Stone Age as agriculture, pottery, and complex social systems were developed. Moccasins were made from one-piece pigskin or deer hide. The shoes were held together with soft stitching on the upper made from stiff leather straps (thongs) of the same materials. The openings through which the straps were drawn were wedge-shaped with holes made with a sharp knife with a single-sided sharpened cutting edge. To protect the foot from moisture the leather may have been tanned chamois style, using animal fat or natural vegetable.

(Image via Museum of Natural History)

To the modern eye early moccasins might resemble sandals but were extended onto the upper of the foot where they were tied. Moccasins provided toe protection and heel counters. A variety of toe shapes (heart shaped, pointed, tapered, scalloped, round, and square) and heel counters (cupped, puckered, jog, squared, and rounded) indicated individual styles and craft range which varied from tribe to tribe. Worn artifacts had unique wear marks and scuffs indicating occupational footwear e.g. someone working on a ladder and stone cutter. Again some finds indicated an absence of sweat marks on the inside of the shoe suggested feet and legs were covered. Other finds elsewhere indicate the use of straw, as an insulating insole which was probably essential in cold dry climates.

(Image via Pinterest )

As the centuries passed shoes were individually stylised by the indigenous tribes with accessories such as fringes and tassels added to depict rank and occupation. Bead designs incorporated traditional patterns and symbols sacred and specific to each tribe. Most Native American tribes wore moccasins that were hand-sewn, made from a deer-hide, with the gathered toe. The puckered U-shape above the toe was the detail that marked a true moccasin. The footwear was adjusted to suit geographical needs and Prairie dwellers wore moccasins with thick soles to protect the feet from cactus prickles. Woodland Indians preferred softer moccasins. Once hides could be waterproofed, winter shoes were made from well smoked skin tops of old lodges with both upper and sole made from the same materials. The process seasoned the leather and prevented it, when wet, from cracking and hardening. .

(Image via Pinterest )

Some moccasins were worn high to protect the ankles and these were made from buckskin and tied around the ankles with long leather thongs. Winter moccasins were made from either animal hair turned inward or cut extra large with heavy inner wrappings added. These were not decorated like other shoes. To keep feet warm and comfortable, leaves, sagebrush bark and clipped buffalo hair were matted into insulation pads of various thickness. The soles of moccasins left tracks which could be read by enemy scouts and sometimes long heavy fingers or animal tails were attached to the back of the heels. These dragged over the footprint to make it impossible to follow. Ceremonial Moccasins had decorations covering the entire upper portion and moccasin tongues. Older styles were colourfully quelled.

(Comanche Moccasin Image via )

Comanche Indians wore moccasins with pointed toes and strong diagonal lines in the beading. The Southern Cheyenne wore moccasins in the shape of broad scallops. California Native Americans developed basketry to a high level and incorporated this into their clothing and footwear. The males of Eastern Woodlands Indians wore deerskin clothing, face and body paint, and scalp locks. They developed a stratified society which observed elaborate rites including sun worship and burial mounds. Ceremonial shoes were part of these tribes clothing.

( Iroquois corn husk funeral moccasins Image via Pinterst )

Iroquois Indians sent their deceased to the Happy Hunting Ground wearing corn husk funereal moccasins. Not all tribes wore moccasins and some had developed turn shoes and boots.

The Apache were South West Indians and wore moccasins similar to boots worn to the knee. Each one was made of buckskin turned over in two or three folds allowing them to be drawn up as a protection to the thighs. The soles were made from undressed cow hide with the hairy side out and the toes turned up several inches for protection when running. It is thought this design of boot was developed to provide protection from poisonous snakes and prickly thorns called 'cat claws'. A signature of the Apache hard-soled footwear was a turned-up toe, which guarded the seams from rocks and other hazards

The Anasazi (Navajo for “Ancient Ones”), people inhabited parts if Utah , Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico from AD. 1 to 1300. As early as 3900 BC made sandals from yucca leaves and used the leaf, whole, split or separated. Sometimes the leaves were shredded and spun before being twisted into cordage. The yucca was woven (two or more fibres were interlaced) into the soles with ties and loops added to secure against the foot. This was similar to the Stone Age sandal found elsewhere in the world but had colourful, geometric patterns incorporated into the sandal design. Archaeological finds include small sizes suitable for children and miniature sandals which may have served a ceremonial purpose. The earliest sandals had square heels and toes woven in a twining and wrapping technique. Ties were made from yucca leaves, yucca cordage, but some had hide strips. Sandals were attached to the foot in ways similar to those employed today, with the addition of centre toe loops extending over the second and third toes. Cordage was used for both passive and active elements in weaving sandals, as well as for attaching a sandal to the foot. The most intricate and finely woven sandals, had scalloped or heart shaped toes and heels were rounded, squared, cupped or puckered and were sometimes coloured. These dated to AD 500-700. Between 700-900 weavers used coarse cordage to produce sandals with pointed or rounded toes. In later times, yucca leaves were used in plain weave and plaited sandals (AD 900-1300). Sandal soles used different weave to create ridges with which to grasp the ground.

(Image via Pinterest )

The Sioux Indians wore decorative moccasins which had a top quilled in long red and green triangles , with beads in white , red blue and yellow and stepped edges. Crow Indians wore beaded moccasins with a 'U' shaped beaded area on top or green and red designs interweaving across the top. Later the women Indian scouts used to find Buffalo herds wore buckskin suits with tall boots. ago. These were crafted from animal hide and lined with bulrushes.

(Burial moccasins Image via Canadian Museum of History )

Braves of the Siksika (Blackfoot) wore moccasins with beaded soles to pipe and bundle ceremonies. These were much admired and sometimes used as funereal shoes.

(Fort Rock Cave Image via

Shoes found in a Nevada cave have been dated to 11.5k years The Oregon Sandal dates about 8000 BCE. Some shoes were made of rabbit fur and the sole of the sandal was made of grass and shredded sagebrush bark twisted into ropes which were tightly woven together with thinner ropes. The rope was interlaced back and forth leaving loops at the sides through which a tie string was drawn to fasten the sandal to the foot. Basket making techniques were well-developed 10,000 years ago. The inhabitants of Missouri 8-9000 years ago wore tough, well-made shoes with a remarkable wide range of styles. According to a reported find in a Missouri cave, sandals, moccasins and slip-ons were common place. Some shoes had pointed toes and others were rounded. Shoe styles included mule type slip-ons, as well as sling-back type retaining medium. The oldest specimen was a sandal made from a woven, fibrous material and dated from about 7,400 BCE . In the collection a shoe dated to 1,000 years old, was a deerskin moccasin, probably made for a child and the only shoe made in leather. Many believe leather shoes may date from this period. The remainder was made with dried leaves plaited into cording then woven into a tough fabric and used as an upper, sole and quarters. The espadrille type shoes were fabricated from a yucca-like plant, locally known as rattlesnake master. Many of the moccasins were cushioned with dried grass (bull rushes) insoles. Wear marks were consistent with modern wear and many of the specimens showed signs of skilled repair. Although people were known to wear jewelry no decoration was found on the artifacts nor was there evidence of colouring. The style and construction of the Missouri shoes were similar to specimens found in the Ozark Mountain range but different from those found in caves in Kentucky and those constructed by the Anasazi people who inhabited Southwest deserts.

Cressman, Luther S. 1942 Archaeological Researches in the Northern Great Basin. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 538. Washington, D. C.
Crontz G (ed) 1986 Historic dress of the old west Poole: Blandford Press.
Gannon FA 1911 Shoe Making Old and New Newcombe and Gus Mass
Kankainen K 1995 Treading in the past: Sandals of the Anasazi Utah Museum of Natural History.
Kuttruff, J.T., S.G. DeHart, and M.J. O'Brien. 1998. 7500 years of prehistoric footwear from Arnold Research Cave, Missouri. Science 281(July 3):72.
Muzquiz A 2018 The Complicated History of the Moccasin Heddels

Reviewed 22/02/2019

1 comment:

Unknown said...

GREAT Reading of Tribes that wore the moccasins.