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illustration, 1880's, Sugar Making

Having looked at the use of brass kettles over an extended period of time (for they remained in use well into the 19th century), we’ll look at the brass kettle as used by Native Americans who acquired it by trading with the whites.  Brass was so much more durable than their native pottery vessels that once a line of trade was established few tribes continued making pottery pots. 

In 1684, La Salle wanted 2000 pounds of small brass kettles at Ft. Frontenac, costing 1 livre, 5 sous, a pound.  They would sell for four francs a pound, yielding a great profit.  The English and Dutch sold them and included them among presents.  In 1693, Gov. Fletcher gave the Mohawks 24 brass kettles for cooking to replace those the French had destroyed earlier, some two or three pounds weight, are among the presents of the following year.  They prized small brass kettles, but large ones were needed for public occasions. 

When Schuyler and Livingston went to Onondoga in 1700, the Indians, “according to their custom, hung over a great kettle of hasty pudding made of parched Indian meal, and sent it to us.  The great kettle is now of iron, but is still a feature of the New York reservation life”.  (1)

In 1694, presents recommended for the Five Nations were, “50 brass kettles of two, three, and four pounds apiece, thin beaten, and light to carry when they go a hunting or to war…”.  Another 30 small and 14 large were called for in 1696.  (2)

Kettles dug up at the turn of the 20th century included many approximately 5 ¾ inches in diameter and about 3 inches deep.  Some were tapered, about 5 ½ inches at the top and about 4 1/8 inches at the bottom, still about 3 inches deep.  The ears were cut out and riveted in place. 

Nesting kettles were found in the early digs varying in size from the largest which held about two pails to the smallest which held about two pints.  (3)

When the brass kettles were no longer serviceable they were used to make arrowheads, knives, saws, and ornaments of many kinds.  Early histories are filled with accounts of such articles that were turned up by the plow.  The ears, however, served no purpose for the Indian and were usually discarded, thus early digs often yielded large numbers of them in relation to the number of kettles that were found.  (4)

One dig produced a penny dated 1728 which left no doubt as to the time the items were put aside.  With the penny were found a brass spoon made from a kettle, a comb cut from a fragment of a kettle, and some pewter pieces.  (5) 

Plowing often turned up buried items, the bodies and belongings buried as shallowly as seven inches.  (6)

In some areas, Canada for instance, dug brass kettles often had holes knocked in the bottom.  Damaging the kettles discouraged looters from taking them because a kettle with a hole in the bottom was of no use in the earthly world, but it was still serviceable in the spiritual world and would serve the deceased well. 

Both Europeans and Natives hid kettles along routes they traveled frequently so that they could be retrieved and used without the burden of carrying them along on the journey.  An account penned in 1750 documented that practice, “There we found the kettle which we had concealed when we passed here the last time”.  (7)

When carving a farm out of the wilderness, a hired hand dug up a brass kettle while plowing and gave it to the farm wife who cleaned it up and began using it in her kitchen.  After some years, an Indian man came to the farm and told her husband when he was a boy his father had buried their belongings before fleeing the area and that he, himself, had carried a “kettle of gold” which was buried with the other possessions.  The man and his family had gone to great lengths to find the farm in the hopes of retrieving a valuable golden kettle, and were much disappointed to learn that the golden kettle he remembered from his youth was brass and had little value.  The farmer dispatched his son to the house to fetch the brass kettle and gave it to the Indian as he felt it was rightfully his.  (8) 

The following account from present-day Alabama will dispel any doubt that brass kettles were used by Native Americans in the South since the previous accounts have come from New England. 

In 1894, a Creek town near the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers [where Ft. Toulouse and Ft. Jackson stood], the oldest Creek town known at the time, was noted for a skeleton that was unearthed from a depth of about three feet with a brass kettle filled with glass beads, brass buckles, brass rings made from wire, and bell buttons.   Other skeletons were found at various depths with earthen pots and various other items including brass plates.  (9)

A captive taken in the 1780’s left an excellent description of an Indian woman’s possessions including her brass kettle:

Her household furniture consisted of a large brass kettle for washing and sugar making; a deep close-covered copper hominy kettle, a few knives, tin cups, pewter and horn spoons, sieves, wooden bowls, baskets of various sizes, a hominy block, and four beds and bedding comprising each a few deerskins and two blankets so that altogether her circumstances were considered quite comfortable. (10)

While the early Native Americans left no written accounts, the early explorers and settlers did leave appreciative accounts of the food the Natives prepared in those brass kettles ranging from wild rice or, “the three supporters of life, corn, beans, and squashes”, and hasty pudding made from Indian meal to, “boiled pig and Indian corn”.  Their accounts substantiate the earliest use of brass kettles among the Native people. 

Bib: 

  1. New York State Museum.  Bulletin 55.  1901.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid
  5. Skinner, Alanson.  The Pre-Iroquoian Algonquin Indians of Central and Western New York.  1920.  NY. 
  6. Mather, Increase.  Early History of New England.  1864.  Boston.
  7. Callaghan, E.B.  Documentary History of New York.  1849-51. NY. 
  8. Catlin, George.  Life Among the Indians; A Book for Youth.  1861.  London.
  9. Smithsonian Institution.  Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology.  1894. 
  10. Spencer, Oliver M.  The Indian Captivity of O. M. Spencer.  [1780’s].  Pub. 1852.  NY. 
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