Comment(s)

Those of us who spend time in the backwoods certainly enjoy the comfort and confidence that the knives on our belts provide. I have been in the backcountry from the Alaskan bush to the rivers of the Yukon Territory to the hills and hollows of the Appalachian Mountains. I would never think of venturing far from the road without carrying a carefully considered knife of superb quality. So when we study our history and discover that the mountain men, who lived “a life wild and perilous” about as far from the road as you can get, carried only a common butcher knife (aka Hudson Bay Camp Knife), we are in awe.

The mountain man’s butcher knife was in use all day, every day, for months on end—dressing and butchering game for the pot, skinning furbearers, preparing hides, shaving and scraping tinder, digging fire pits and occasionally creating mayhem in a Taos cantina. The trapper Osborne Russell writes in his journal of cutting footholds in the ice with his knife, and Jedediah Smith writes of forting up behind his horses and his men lashing their butcher knives to poles to provide a weapon of last resort. No matter how plain and common, now that is a knife!

Hudson Bay Camp Knife

With the efficacy of the mountain man’s butcher knife established, allow me to introduce a knife of the fur-trade era that was as dramatic as the butcher knife was plain. This was the Hudson Bay camp knife, and it was traded up and down the buffalo range from western Canada to the American Southwest. Also called the buffalo knife or “the knife with eyes,” referring to the large brass rivets that secured the horn handles, it was a prized trade item for almost a century.

We know that the Hudson Bay knife was remarkable in this era of simple and utilitarian tools because we have wonderful firsthand accounts of the knife and its use. Any student of historical cutlery will concur with the disappointing fact that so little detail is typically contained in descriptions of knives. Clothing and firearms get pages of description. But knives, being so much a part of every day 19th century life, often go unnoticed. Not so with the Hudson Bay camp knife.

Firsthand History

In the fall 1977 issue of the Journal of the Museum of the Fur Trade, the narrative of the Earl of Selkirk as he crossed Canada in 1859 is quoted. “The Edmonton hunters always carry very strong and large knives, for the purpose of cutting through branches when traversing the dense fir woods that cover a great part of the country; some of them are extremely heavy ones, half knife half axe—like a narrow sort of butcher’s cleaver with a point instead of a squared off end.”

In his 1879 book The Great Fur Land, or Sketches of Life in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, H.M. Robinson provides us with this descriptive scene of butchering a buffalo. “The half breed goes through the whole process with a very large and very heavy knife, like a narrow, pointed cleaver, which is used for cutting wood and performing all the offices of a hatchet; but as unwieldy as it is, a practiced hand can skin the smallest and most delicate creatures as easy as with a pocketknife.”

A contemporary description of the Hudson Bay knife by Carl P. Russell in his book Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men provides us with greater detail. “The thick horn scales are held to the hilt by oversized rivets holding brass washers and by a heavy metal ferrule riveted to the front end of the hilt. The blade is about 8½ inches long but of such thickness and shape as to be quite stiff. Here is a knife ‘made to order’ for the hunter or cook responsible for breaking out chunks of carcasses of game animals to be served up to trappers.”

Fur-Traders’ Knife

The knives of the fur-trade era in general, and the Hudson Bay camp knife in particular, were commonly believed to be almost exclusively the product of the cutlery shops of Sheffield, England. However, in the January-March 1997 issue of Rendezvous magazine, writer Phil Sanders described an encounter that challenged some of these long-held ideas.

While attending a mountain man rendezvous in Taos, New Mexico, an older gentleman approached Phil Sanders and showed him some fur-trade artifacts that he had collected over the years. Among the relics was a heavy knife in a large tack sheath. The sheath was split down the seam. This allowed the knife to be removed. When Sanders withdrew the knife from the sheath, he looked for the cutlers’ mark on the blade. Expecting to see Jukes Coulson, Wostenholm, Unwin and Rodgers or another of the Sheffield cutlers known to supply the knives to the Hudson Bay Company, Sanders was surprised when he discovered this three-line stamp. The first line read, “Sublett Campbell,” the middle line was unreadable and the third line read, “St. Louis.”

Here we had a buffalo knife that apparently was of American origin. Thus challenging a well-established historical assumption. To make the discovery even more interesting, the notion that the Hudson Bay camp knife was primarily a trade item of the period of 1860 to 1880, the era of the buffalo hunter, was also challenged. The firm of Sublett & Campbell was established in 1832 and was dissolved in 1842. Sublett & Campbell were doing business in the heyday of the beaver trade.

Modern Steel

To view the Hudson Bay knife only as an interesting relic to be admired in a museum is to overlook a piece of kit that is as useful and functional today as it was during the fur trade. A knife that can cut shelter poles, cut and split firewood and dress, skin and butcher big game is a handy tool to carry when afield. Today’s cutlery market offers many big knives. However, few of them carry the pedigree of the Hudson Bay knife. From Native Americans hunting and trapping in the far north for the Hudson Bay Company to free trappers in the southern Rockies to buffalo hunters on the Great Plains, the Hudson Bay camp knife was a most useful and valued piece of mountain man equipment.

The 21st Century mountain man is privileged to have access to Hudson Bay knives that would have pleased any hivernant who wintered in the high country. Tim Ridge of Swamp Fox Knives provided me with a Hudson Bay knife whose description could come directly from those writings of the old-timers. Tim’s knife is light and nimble enough to dress, skin and butcher whitetail, and shave fuzz sticks. Yet it is stout enough to do the heavy work of a hatchet. Tim forges 1095 high-carbon steel, and his long experience at the forge is evident in each period knife he offers.

Modern Makers

Dean Hazuka of Montana Americana is both a knifemaker and a student of the Hudson Bay knife. Dean has traveled over much of the West visiting museums and studying the big camp knife. His Hudson Bay knife is not an interpretation. Rather, it is a museum-quality, woods-worthy reproduction. Working in zone-tempered 1075 high-carbon spring steel, Dean offers a knife patterned after an original knife from Unwin & Rodgers of Sheffield. Unwin & Rodgers was licensed in 1833, thus providing knives throughout the periods of both the beaver trapper and buffalo hunter.

Dean’s knife is a burly piece well suited to chopping shelter poles, splitting firewood and hammering trap stakes. The excellent balance of the knife makes it capable of fine work as well. With the cutting edge tempered to a Rockwell hardness of 57, Dean’s knife holds an edge yet is easily sharpened in the field.

Anyone who saw the movie The Revenant saw the Hudson Bay knife that is offered by Mike Mann of Idaho Knife Works. Mike’s knife was a real scene-stealer in that final fight between Hugh Glass and Fitzgerald. Mike’s Hudson Bay knife is no stranger to accolades. It has won awards at blackpowder events and has graced the cover of several magazines.

Mike has been forging period knives since the 1980s. His mountain man knives have turned up on the belts of the military, far-north canoe guides, survival instructors and big-game guides and outfitters. Mike uses 5160 spring steel in his big knives. His knives are as rugged and functional as they are period perfect. His Hudson Bay camp knife is a piece of functional art that connects the mountain men of the past with those of us who presently seek the challenges that the backwoods provide.

This article is from a previous issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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