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Frontier Shorthand: Beaded Gauntlets as a Symbol of Western Authenticity

by Steven L. Grafe


Gauntlets are protective gloves that have a flared cuff. For centuries, these cuffs protected European and Asian bow hunters and military archers from being snapped on the wrist by their bowstrings. Medieval soldiers and knights began wearing chain-mail gauntlets during the 1300s, and armored gauntlets appeared in Europe during the 1400s. Four hundred years later and halfway around the world, leather gauntlets appeared in the American West as military uniform accessories. They were soon appropriated by Indian artists, embellished with diverse ornaments, and incorporated into the civilian wardrobe. Here they became intrinsically linked with Western people, history, and landscape, and a symbol of the frontier. The original European form was reworked with a wild American veneer.

In the American imagination, fringed leather garments have long been synonymous with the frontier. James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, an early American literary hero, entered the nineteenth-century national consciousness dressed in a foxskin cap and a deerskin coat, leggings, and moccasins. From an early date, Bumppo's persona, appearance, and nickname -- "Leatherstocking" -- were intrinsically linked to the attire of those who lived in the wild margins of the American colonies.

Bumppo's attire was consistent with that of individuals who traversed the western boundaries of the thirteen colonies throughout the late eighteenth century. Daniel Boone and the frontiersmen who crossed Cumberland Gap into the wilds of Kentucky were frequently buckskin-clad. Washington Irving was among the authors who confirmed this regional stereotype. Describing St. Louis in 1810, he recalls that "a stark Kentucky hunter, in leathern hunting dress," could still occasionally be seen. [8]

Rules are often tested by their exceptions, and the most celebrated Western explorers are the ones who defied the buckskin tradition, such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The history of the West is populated with a variety of rugged and flamboyant individualists, but the Lewis and Clark expedition was a regimented military operation. Popular representations of the explorers mistakenly transfer fringed leather garments to them and their company; however, the Corps of Discovery was generally clad in military uniforms. Some of the company's enlisted men made leather clothing after their uniforms wore out, but the expedition's officers did not join them in the undertaking. Two members of the Lewis and Clark expedition surely did wear buckskin clothing. In 1806, John Colter left the Corps of Discovery near the headwaters of the Missouri. George Drouillard returned to the interior West the following year. Both men then made their living as independent fur trappers, or "mountain men."

Fringed buckskins were standard attire for Rocky Mountain trappers, as animal hides were generally the only materials available to them. Those who desired feminine companionship took wives from the surrounding Indian nations, and Native technologies and garment designs resulted in heavily fringed leather wares . Of these men, Irving elsewhere wrote:

You cannot pay a free trapper a greater compliment, than to persuade him you have mistaken him for an Indian brave. . . . His hair . . . is carefully combed out, and either left to fall carelessly over his shoulders, or plaited neatly and tied up in otter skins, or parti-colored ribands. A hunting-shirt of ruffled calico of bright dyes, or of ornamented leather, falls to his knee; below which, curiously fashioned legging, ornamented with strings, fringes, and a profusion of hawks' bells, reach to a costly pair of moccasins. [9]

This clothing style became the standard for those who lived in the mountains. It was also the uniform affected by many who traveled to the Western interior, regardless of their prior frontier experience. During the decade following 1833, Scotsman Sir William Drummond Stewart attended multiple Rocky Mountain fur trade rendezvous (annual trade fairs where the mountain men swapped their furs for supplies). Stewart's first foray into the West is recalled in a fictional autobiography titled Edward Warren. Upon leaving St. Louis for the frontier, he reports that his initial marching outfit included a leather shirt worn over a cotton shirt and leather leggings, a butcher knife, rifle, ammunition, and powder horn. [10]

The artist Alfred Jacob Miller (1810­1874) accompanied Stewart to the fur trade gathering in 1837. By this time, Sir William had adopted a white buckskin suit as his signature attire, and he may be seen wearing it in numerous Miller paintings. Most of the mountain men whose likenesses Miller captured also wear fringed leather garments.

During the mid-nineteenth century, embroidered leather jackets resembling European frock coats were produced in several métis (mixed-blood) communities in the Upper Missouri region. The coats provided both a proof and a souvenir of one's Western adventure and were marketed, as David W. Penney writes, to those

. . . whites who wished to identify with the individualism and rigor of life in the western territories. The mid-nineteenth-century frontier was poised, literally, between "savagery and civilization" and many whites saw themselves in the "leatherstocking" position of being half-savage in order to prepare the West for the white vision of its destiny. The Métis-style, leather frock coat decorated with bead or quill embroidery floral style became something of a uniform for this white persona; George Armstrong Custer owned two of them, and William F. Cody rarely appeared in public without one. [11]

These coats were mainstays of frontier wear for many years, with early examples dating to the 1820s. John James Audubon secured two of them during an 1843 trip up the Missouri River. Museum collections in St. Louis include coats that are associated with Robert Campbell, Honore Picotte, and the Choteau family.[12] Catholic missionary priest Pierre Jean De Smet commissioned one for the king of Belgium during the 1860s.

The demand for leather garments was not limited to either the northern part of the continent or to visiting "dudes." During the summer of 1859, William Napton, a sojourner traveling on the Santa Fe Trail came upon "an extensive buckskin tailoring establishment" in an adobe ranch house situated between Fort Union and Las Vegas, New Mexico. The inhabitants "were manufacturing quantities of buckskin clothes of various patterns . . . . The clothes were made to fit with tailor-like precision and exactness."[13] The garments were said to be a favored attire of many New Mexico residents.

Despite the westward advance of so-called civilization, the men who found employment as expeditionary and military scouts preserved the frontiersman persona and mystique. Former mountain men -- Jim Bridger and Kit Carson among them -- occasionally worked guiding emigrant trains and military units through little-known country. They also helped track renegades of diverse stripes. These scouts were colorful characters, highly skilled, and not required to maintain a military dress code. Their attire was subsequently functional, comfortable, and drawn from a variety of media and cultural sources. By the 1870s, long and abundant fringe was in style and pinked edges provided decorative flair to leather clothing that was by nature quite showy. The "Flamboyant Fraternity" in Figure 1 is dressed in this type of attire.

Following the Civil War, the U.S. military switched its focus to the interior of the country and turned its gaze upon the American Indian population. Western soldiers were obliged to wear Civil War­style uniforms until the early 1870s, but some officers adopted unique field dress and much of this nonstandard clothing mimicked earlier frontier garb. When passing in review several days before their debacle on the Little Big Horn River, the Seventh Cavalry troops were attired "in every variety of costume." Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Captain Thomas Custer, Lieutenant William W. Cooke, and Captain Myles Keogh were then dressed alike, wearing buckskin jackets and broad-rimmed scouting hats.

Leather gauntlets were among the Indian War­era uniform accessories that were worn in both standard and nonstandard issue. In August 1872, General Orders No. 76 mandated that field officers of artillery, cavalry, and infantry wear white gauntlets or gloves. [14] Twelve years later, leather gauntlets were authorized for the enlisted men of all mounted regiments.[15] Buckskin gauntlets remained as uniform wear for both cavalry and artillery soldiers until 1912. New orders then mandated that they only remain in use until existing supplies were exhausted, after which time they were to be replaced by white or olive drab woolen gloves. [16]

Numerous military units served in Indian country and interacted with Indian populations. Skilled Indian seamstresses quickly took patterns from commercially manufactured gauntlets and reproduced them for cash sale and trade. By the 1870s, many Plains and Plateau people were making and selling both decorated gauntlets and utilitarian gloves. Following the 1877 Nez Perce War, more than 400 Nez Perce and their allies were exiled in Indian Territory. Between 1879 and 1885, they lived at the Oakland Agency, in what is now north-central Oklahoma. The October 5, 1881, edition of the Arkansas City Traveler reported, "The Nez Perce Indians have almost stopped the glove trade for our merchants, by the gloves of their own make. During the past year they have disposed of more than one thousand pair of gloves, besides moccasins and numerous other Indian trinkets."

By the end of the nineteenth century, decorated leather gauntlets were paired with fringed buckskin outfits to produce showy frontier clothing ensembles. The stars of Wild West shows popularized this look. The men who promoted Western mythology to outsiders also had their roots in the West. Being at home in the wilds and literate about polite society, they attired themselves in tailored versions of the frontier style. They carefully adapted both their garments and their accessories, and their military-style gauntlets were remade with buckskin fringe and beaded adornment.

Individuals with real Western experience generally fronted the Wild West shows. In 1832, artist George Catlin, an easterner, began touring his collection of Indian portraits and artifacts to diverse eastern cities. He lectured to his audiences, sometimes wearing Indian garments or brandishing a tomahawk. After he opened his Indian Gallery in London in 1840, he hired several traveling groups of Indians to perform for him. One of these ensembles brought tipis with them, and Catlin sold tickets to their camp. He then added horses and sold admission to exhibitions of Indian horsemanship. When the artist gave up show business and returned to painting in 1846, his recreation of Plains Indian life in his shows through the use of authentic clothing and objects had set a standard for the Wild West shows that followed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, several American circuses included Western-themed acts. In 1860, James C. "Grizzly" Adams brought his California Menagerie to New York, where he enjoyed a brief partnership with P. T. Barnum. In performances, Adams appeared with his animals while dressed in a fringed buckskin hunting costume.

During the mid-1870s, Donald McKay and a group of Warm Springs Indian scouts also toured Europe and the United States. McKay was the son of Thomas McKay, a well-known fur trapper, and a Cayuse Indian woman. The group was billed as the "Heroes of the Lava Beds" because of their success during the 1872­1873 Modoc War. Their handbills promoted parades in Native dress, performances of Indian songs and dances, and an Indian medicine man who provided cures for various ailments.

The best-known Wild West show is linked to another famous scout, William Frederick Cody. Cody began his celebrated career in 1860 as a fourteen-year-old Pony Express rider. During the Civil War years, he served variously as a guide and scout for the Ninth Kansas Volunteers, with a Kansas militia, and with the Seventh Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. After the war, he began working as an Army scout out of Fort Ellsworth, Kansas. The "Buffalo Bill" nickname appeared in 1867, when Cody hunted buffalo to feed Kansas Pacific Railroad construction crews. The following year, he began working as chief of scouts for the Fifth U.S. Cavalry and took part in a number of battles.

Beginning in 1869, dime novelist Ned Buntline created a Buffalo Bill character whose exploits were eventually celebrated in more than 500 books. In 1872, the author convinced Cody to play a fictional version of himself on stage in Buntline's own play The Scouts of the Plains. Following Custer's defeat in 1876, Cody briefly returned to service as an Army scout. An embellished retelling of his activity during that period was interpreted on stage as the melodramatic The Red Right Hand; or, Buffalo Bill's First Scalp for Custer. In all, Cody spent eleven seasons working in the theater. When he was not acting, he worked as a Western hunting guide for a variety of wealthy easterners and European nobility.

"Buffalo Bill's Wild West" had its origins in an 1882 Independence Day celebration in North Platte, Nebraska. After learning that no local festivities were planned for July 4, Cody organized something called the "Old Glory Blow Out." Its attractions included Buffalo Bill demonstrating his buffalo-killing technique and a thousand cowboys competing in roping, riding, bronco-busting, and shooting events. [17]

The success of the "Blow Out" inspired a Wild West show, and "The Wild West, Hon. W. F. Cody and Dr. W. F. Carver's Rocky Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition" premiered in Omaha, Nebraska, during May 1883. In its initial incarnation, the program featured Cody, two noted marksmen-Dr. William F. Carver and Captain Adam H. Bogardus-Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, and diverse wild and domestic animals.

For the next two decades, Cody fronted Wild West shows that crossed the United States and Western Europe. They entertained massive crowds, European royalty, and, on one occasion, a pope. In addition to skilled marksmen, the shows featured diverse feats of horsemanship and rodeo-style acts, which eventually became their centerpiece. Unlike the shows of Catlin and those who had followed him, the various incarnations of Buffalo Bill's Wild West gave the public a romanticized picture of valiant Americans resisting Indian onslaughts and winning the West. As Buffalo Bill, Cody routinely saved stagecoaches, settlers, and wagon trains from annihilation.

Between 1883 and 1915, popular interest in the American West was high, and other Wild West shows appeared, flourished, and folded. During these years, Buffalo Bill was allied with various partners and presented a diverse configuration of performers. When the first of Cody's shows appeared in 1883, it included a small contingent of Pawnee Indians whose interpreter was a man named Gordon W. Lillie, also known as "Pawnee Bill." In 1885, Lillie took a group of Indians on tour with the Healy and Bigelow Medicine Show but returned to work for Cody the next season. The success of Buffalo Bill's 1887 European tour spawned a variety of imitators and during 1888 Pawnee Bill was on the road with his own company. Lillie enjoyed successes but also flirted with financial ruin. After 1901, he began adding Asian and African horsemen to his performers, and the show was eventually restyled into "Pawnee Bill's Historic Wild West and Far East." A contemporary portrait of Pawnee Bill, taken with Buffalo Bill and Buffalo Jones, appears in Figure 2.

Lillie and Cody worked a merger in 1908 and Lillie eventually became owner of the entire undertaking. The new show was popularly called "The Two Bills Show," but it was more formally known as "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Great Far East Combined." Financial difficulties forced its closure in 1913. Lillie returned to business enterprises in Oklahoma, while Cody traveled with the 1914 and 1915 Sells-Floto Circus. He was part of the "Buffalo Bill (Himself) and 101 Ranch Wild West Combined" show during 1916, and died the following year.

The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West had its origins on a huge spread of leased Indian land in north central Oklahoma. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 101 was a working showplace that was home to several thousand employees. It was a self-sufficient operation that housed its workers, guests, and a dude ranch. After the death of founder George W. Miller in 1903, the ranch was taken over by his three sons-Joe, Zack, and George. Two years later, Joe started the 101 Ranch Wild West Show. This traveling show was an extension of yearly ranch rodeos featuring riding, roping, bulldogging, Indian dancers, and shooting. From an initial hundred-day appearance at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentary Exposition, the 101 Wild West Ranch Show toured domestically after 1908, and went to Europe in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, the Miller Brothers' livestock and vehicles were appropriated there for military use. The 101 Ranch was lost to creditors during the early 1930s, although versions of the show appeared sporadically until 1952. Some historians credit the 101 Ranch with shaping Hollywood's (and America's) infatuation with the West. In addition to the 101 alumni who starred in early films, the ranch itself was a favorite filming location for many early westerns.

North America's earliest cattle ranches and its first cowboys were associated with Spanish-speaking communities in what are now New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The cattle industry expanded from Texas onto the Great Plains after the Civil War, and by the 1880s, ranches were economic mainstays of the arid regions of the West.

Cattle raising was also an important economic pursuit in Indian country. As ranches spread north into the interior of the continent, some Indians became cowboys and others became ranchers. The Native people of the Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin -- the former owners of the developing ranch lands -- were generally excellent horsemen. The skills required for moving livestock were not too different from those required for hunting buffalo and maintaining herds of horses. Indian animal husbandry experience was also akin to what was needed for cattle breeding. After the 1880s, ranch work was in demand in Indian communities, and growing numbers of Indian men took it up (Fig. 3).

Many of the featured ropers and riders in the Wild West extravaganzas were former working cowboys. When Buffalo Bill put together the 1882 North Platte "Blow Out," organized rodeo-style events were on the increase. Pecos, Texas, references a July 4, 1883, event when it calls itself "Home of the World's First Rodeo." The Prescott (Arizona) Frontier Days rodeo is also billed as "the world's oldest." It has appeared each year since 1888.

The Cheyenne (Wyoming) Frontier Days celebration now includes one of America's great rodeos. When it was founded in 1897, its stated purpose was to employ authentic veterans of the local frontier to "revive the thrilling incidents" of life from that period. In addition to six types of horse races, bronc riding, and roping contests, the 1897 bill included a sham battle, Pony Express riders, and a mock stagecoach robbery and hanging by vigilantes. This slate of performances was consistent with what transpired in the period Wild West shows and, in fact, Buffalo Bill's Wild West appeared as part of the Cheyenne celebration during its second year.

The Miller Brothers 101 Ranch also linked the Wild West shows to rodeo. Among the 101 ranch hands and performers were Bill Pickett, Yakima Canutt, Lucille Mulhall, and Hoot Gibson. Pickett is known as the originator of bulldogging (steer wrestling). Canutt won all-around cowboy honors at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1917, 1919, 1920, and 1923. He went on to become a highly successful Hollywood stuntman and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an honorary Academy Award. Will Rogers called Mulhall the "first cowgirl." In addition to other skills, Lucille could throw steers, bust broncos, and rope up to eight running horses at one time. She competed against, and frequently beat, male competitors in rodeo steer roping events. Gibson won both the all-around championship at Pendleton and the world championship of steer roping at the Calgary Stampede in 1912. He later starred in silent films. Other 101 alumni who became show business personalities included Will Rogers and Tom Mix.

Generally speaking, rodeos were located within the boundaries of both Indian country and cattle country. The Western authenticity of rodeos was affirmed by the early presence of American Indian competitors. The most famous of these was Jackson Sundown. As a teenager, Sundown had been among the non-treaty Nez Perce who sought to escape to Canada in 1877 during the Nez Perce War. When Chief Joseph surrendered at the conclusion of that conflict, Sundown was among those who slipped across the international boundary. He later returned to Idaho's Nez Perce Reservation. Sundown competed in rodeos throughout the Pacific Northwest and California. In 1916, at the age of fifty-three, he captured the saddle bronc championship and all-around cowboy honors at the Pendleton Round-Up. His win was a source of great pride and galvanized Indian interest in rodeo. Figure 4 shows Sundown in Pendleton in 1916, shortly after winning his championship.

With the advent and the growing popularity of rodeo, several new classes of people began wearing gauntlets. Newly arrived residents and visitors desired them because, like fringed jackets, they lent an air of experience and authenticity to their wearers. Photographers sometimes used gauntlets to provide a Western theme in their studio portraits, as is evident in Figure 5. Numerous pairs were also carried east and to urban areas as souvenirs of time spent in the West.

Many organizers of early rodeos and frontier pageants were former pioneers turned civic leaders. They had experienced the West as it existed in the popular imagination. The events they promoted celebrated bygone days while seeking to attract new citizens to their communities. These old-timers had endured primitive conditions and now welcomed population growth and the changes that it brought. The wearing of beaded gauntlets allowed them briefly to acknowledge the past and affirm the role they played in it. During other seasons, they looked to the future and its promises.

At rodeo time, beaded gauntlets were also dressy accessories for cowboys and cowgirls. Fancy leather gloves were a little too hot and cumbersome to be practical for everyday wear, but they were a neat way to dress up plain boots and a shirt. Cow towns were often in close proximity to Indian communities, and showy beaded cuffs could be inexpensively acquired. They gave a festive look to men and women outside the arena and after hours. They vouched that a person was tied to the West. They were wear for "real" Westerners.



8. Washington Irving, Astoria: Adventure in the Pacific Northwest (New York: KPI, 1987), 107

9. Washington Irving, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 69.

10. William Drummond Stewart, Edward Warren (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1986), 51.

11. Penney, "Floral Decoration and Culture Change: An Historical Interpretation of Motivation," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 15, no. 1 (1991): 66.

12. The Campbell coats are at the Campbell House Museum, and the Choteau and Picotte coats are at the Missouri Historical Society.

13. William Barclay Napton, Over the Santa Fe Trail, 1857 (Santa Fe, NM: Stagecoach Press, 1964), 59.

14. Randy Steffen, The Horse Soldier, 1776-1943, vol. 2, The Frontier, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, 1851-1880 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 110

15. Randy Steffen, The Horse Soldier, 1776-1943, vol. 3, Last of the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, Brink of the Great War, 1881-1916 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 13.

16. Steffen, The Horse Soldier, 3:160­61.

17. Don Russell, The Wild West, or A History of the Wild West Shows (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1970), 1­2.

About the author

Steven L. Grafe is Curator of American Indian Art, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City


About the exhibition

Real Western Wear, Beaded Gauntlets from the William P. Healey Collection, an exhibition of decorated gloves that reflect the diverse backgrounds of the American frontier, will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from September 29, 2007, through January 6, 2008.

This exhibition, drawn from the private collection of William P. Healey, presents 73 pairs of decorated gloves crafted by American Indian artists from the Plains, Plateau and Great Basin regions. These unique objects were produced from the 1890s through the 1940s, and they effectively blend the practicality of everyday items geared for use in the frontier with beautiful designs from the tribes in those areas.

For centuries, American Indian artists have embroidered porcupine quills, bird quills and moose hair onto a variety of objects and surfaces. They soon integrated new materials such as glass beads and silk thread into existing traditions, merging these new design elements into their art. Despite being foreign goods, these imported items soon became identifiers of American Indian identity and aesthetics to both Native and non-Native people.

Euroamerican leather gloves were among the objects adorned with Native beadwork and worn in both Indian and non-Indian communities. Indian women found that settlers desired all of the buckskin work gloves that they could produce.

By the late 19th century, beaded gauntlets had become necessary components of cowboys' fancy dress wardrobe and favorite items of eastern "dudes," who kept them as souvenirs of their western adventures. The numerous rodeo and western pageants founded after 1910 further fueled demand for the gauntlets.

Real Western Wear was organized by the Georgia Museum of Art, with Marilyn Laufer, director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn (Ala.) University, serving as guest curator and Dennis Harper, the museum's curator of exhibitions, acting as the in-house curator. It will travel to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Okla., and the C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Mont.

The exhibition is accompanied by a large-scale full-color catalogue that illustrates each pair of gloves and contains essays by Joyce M. Szabo, professor of art and art history at the University of New Mexico, and Steven L. Grafe, curator of American Indian art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, that illuminate the history and context of beaded gauntlets.




(above: Yakama, Eagle and flag on pink , ca. 1920. Collection of William P. Healey)


(above: Paiute or Goshute, Cowboy on horse , ca. 1920. Collection of William P. Healey)


(above: Columbia River Plateau or Shoshone, Pink and white flowers on blue , ca. 1920. Collection of William P. Healey)


(above: Columbia River Plateau , Flowers and strawberries on white , ca. 1910. Collection of William P. Healey)


(above: Yakama, Elk and floral motif on white , 1907. Collection of William P. Healey)


(above: Nez Perce, Floral, shield, and S motifs on white , ca. 1910. Collection of William P. Healey)



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