Nov/Dec 2012





Staff Writer

Blowin' Smoke




It was 1818 and heavy smoke filled the air as Lindsey Carson cleared more land to farm by burning acres of forest. Unfortunately for the sometimes Indian fighter, a burning limb fell and killed him instantly. The farm was located along the Missouri River in the section called Boone's Lick, named after the Carson 's good friend, Daniel Boone. Of the 10 children left at home, eight year old Christopher (nicknamed Kit) was left to perform duties normally done by grown men. His schooling soon stopped. The only new learning that captivated him was when he ventured into the forests for hunting. With his rifle and natural abilities he put meat on the table during very lean times.

In 1822, Kit's mother remarried, The new head of the household and Kit did not get along. When Kit was but fourteen he was apprenticed out to a saddler named David Workman who was located in Franklin , Missouri . For two years Kit sat in a shop he found hateful, not because of Workman, but because he felt cooped up. That feeling did not suit his restless nature. Learning to shape leather, use awl, shears, and crimping tools while listening to the tales of western trappers who hung about the shop, Kit's future was determined and it did not include workshops or the repetitive motions of a job in a town. Probably with the connivance of Workman, Kit escaped. The rest is well known and is detailed in books easily found. What is not so well known is the trade for which he was apprenticed the making of saddles and harnesses.

Without going into the many intricacies necessary to the saddler, a catalog of the tools involved will provide a modicum of understanding of the skill, patience and knowledge required of the trade.

Basically, there were a couple of different saddles or harnesses the saddler turned out: those custom made for a specific horse and those A common ones sold to be used by less fortunate animals. In crafting a custom piece for a particular horse, measurements of many parts of the animal=s body are made and the leather shaped in both thickness and size. The sewing of the different types of leather used were done with the utmost craftsmanship. Saddles and harnesses built for retail sales did not receive the same amount of detail. Among the tools the saddler used were spoke shaves, cutting gauges, dead punches, compasses, hand irons, cutting punches, round knives, hand knives, clamps, lead blocks, pricking irons, hammers, edging irons, pricking awls, seat awls, sewing awls, double creasers, single creasers, nail claws, screw creasers, varnish, and sponges, pincers, files, and pliers.

The hardest part of the business was not the working of heavy leathers for harnesses, but the making a saddles. To fit the pigskin (used for the upper parts of the saddle) and arranging the padding was a very difficult and painstaking task. Here was where the use of the hand iron and spoke shave were called for. This same attention to detail and leather was called for in the making of harness collars.

Clamps were used to hold the leather between his knees. The sewing awl was for drilling holes as was the pricking iron. Strong, waxed thread was used throughout. The various knives were used for cutting and paring. The cutting gauges and compasses were for determining where to cut. The cutting punches (hollow with cutting edges) were used for making holes for the tang of buckles. The lead was used beneath the leather to prevent the tools from becoming dulled. The seat and padding awls were used for just what they sound. The creasers made channels in the leather edges so that in sewing, the thread is below the surface so as to not wear out in use. The edging iron suited the same purpose for different areas.

The various leathers the saddler used required a great knowledge of the tanning and finishing processes of many different kinds of leather. These could involve sheep skins, imitation morocco, pig, horse, lamb, goat and kid, and deer and antelope (dressed in oil these last two were often used in the manufacture of clothing). Dog (great stuff!), hog and seal were very important as were the leathers from buffalo and cattle.

To learn all of these skills and more required many years of apprenticeship: an effort that Kit just did not have the patience nor inclination for. But aptitude or not, he certainly used the saddler’s products during his long and adventuresome life.


Page 9     


This website may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the North American Frontiersmen. All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2013.