In 1908, Deer Creek was still wild, but the linemen little expected the appearance of a naked Indian. Brandishing a spear, he rose suddenly from the bushes with a snarl. They fled in panic.

They returned the next day, armed, and probed the brush toward the base of a rock slide. When two arrows whistled by, they gave chase, but found only a wizened squaw near a hut in thick laurel.

Three years later and 32 miles away, a barking dog alerted a butcher’s boy to an emaciated Indian huddled in the corner of a corral. A posse captured him.

Wild Indians had long been assumed gone from California. Silent and obviously frightened, this one seemed unfamiliar with the dialects of Indians brought to visit him. English and Spanish drew blank stares. He neither ate nor drank. Then T.T. Waterman, of the University of California’s Department of Anthropology, arrived. On a hunch, he tapped the wooden edge of a cot and said: “Siwini.” Pine. The feral man’s mouth twitched. He had responded to the lost Yana tongue.

Clothed and fed and calmed with kindness, the Indian was taken to San Francisco. His name was Ishi, he said: “strong, straight one.” Physically well-proportioned, with “beautiful hands and unspoiled feet,” he knew nothing of shoes, cloth, metal or roads. But Ishi was a quick study. He parlayed Stone Age skills into deft use of modern tools. But Ishi could not so easily adopt immunities to the diseases of this new society. He contracted tuberculosis, faded fast and died in 1916.

But the hapless Indian left his physician, Dr. Saxton Pope, with an abiding interest in the bow. Ishi’s bow, made of natural materials, has been mis-labeled a longbow. But his man-nee was properly a flatbow, fashioned from a broad stave of mountain juniper. Just 42 inches long, it was maneuverable in cover. The limbs, a generous 2.5 inches wide near their mid-point, gave the bow a draw weight of about 45 pounds at Ishi’s draw length of 26 inches. Though he lived far from the Plains, Ishi carried a bow that looked much like those of mid-country Indians who killed bison with arrows from horseback.

Ishi’s Flatbow

flatbow, american flatbow, flatbow history
Take-down bows have abrupt limb/riser junctures; not so for traditional longbows, flatbows.

Dr. Pope noted that Ishi chose a clear tree limb for his stave, splitting it to include heartwood and sapwood. He roughed out the bow’s form by scraping with sandstone and bending the stave’s ends over a hot rock. He then bound it to another length of wood so it would hold its shape. After seasoning the stave several months in a cool, dark place, Ishi removed the splint, then applied a glue of boiled salmon skin to the scabrous back. On this he laid deer leg sinew–after chewing the fibers so he could tease and overlap the strips. He bound the sinew in place with willow bark and let it dry. Removing the bark, he wiped on more glue. He finished the bow with a rub of sandstone; a wrap of buckskin thong formed a grip. A string of deer tendon, chewed and twisted into a cord with one permanent loop, was fitted to square-shouldered nocks. Ishi insisted that no one step over a bow, no child handle it, no woman touch it. Such disrespect, he said, would make it shoot crooked. However, a wash of sand and water could restore its accuracy.

Ishi preferred witch hazel for arrow shafts, which he cut initially to a length of 32 inches, shaving them to about 3/8-inch diameter. He straightened each over hot embers, smoothed it, then trimmed it to 26 inches. As he liked a footed arrow, heavy up front, he bound that end with buckskin to prevent splitting, secured a sharp bone upright between his toes, then twirled the shaft on its point. The resulting hole, 1.5 inches deep, received the fore-shaft’s spindle. He glued the heavier 6-inch peg in place, wrapping it with glue-soaked sinew. With an obsidian shard, he notched both ends of the footed shaft, to take the obsidian head and the string. (Ishi later used three hacksaw blades for this task!) He painted the arrow with natural dyes, to make it easier to find, but also to show ownership. Fletching came from raptors or turkeys.

Pope & Young Field Research

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Today’s bowmen truly owe a lot to traditional archery’s mavericks, like Arthur Young (left in photo) and Saxon Pope.

After Ishi’s passing, Pope and his pal Art Young began bowhunting in earnest. Pope’s university connections helped them get museum permits from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to hunt grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.

Rifles were the logical means to collect a diorama of bears. But Pope and Young convinced their guide, the legendary Ned Frost, that arrows could be deadly.

The bows Saxton Pope and Art Young brought were little more advanced than Ishi’s—albeit they hewed more closely to English design and drew 75 pounds. The 144 hand-made arrows wore steel heads.

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During the next month, the bowmen took a female grizzly and her cub. Ned had to stop the sow with his rifle. “We had killed her with our arrows, but she did not know it.” She fell eight steps away. As Frost left to attend other business, Pope and Young packed “bed rolls, a tarpaulin and a couple of boxes of provisions” to the head of Cascade Creek, where they got word of a big bear-killing elk at Dunraven Pass. On a promontory near a path traveled by the bear, the bowhunters built a ground blind. They waited there every night under “one blanket and a small piece of canvas.”

The great bear showed up after a week of rain, in the middle of a dark night. Pope whispered to Young, “Shoot the big fellow,” then drew an arrow to the head and loosed it at the oncoming female. It struck her full in the chest. “She reared, threw herself sidewise, bellowed with rage, staggered and fell…”. The big boar galloped off as if untouched.

After skinning the female by flashlight, the hunters waited for dawn. They scoured the ground for arrows. One of Young’s was missing! A bloody smear on a log pointed them to a piece of shaft. He was hit! Alas, rocky ground swallowed the track. For five hours the men searched in vain. Then, “worn with disappointment and fatigue, we lay down and slept…”. Near dusk they awoke and renewed their efforts. Climbing for a topside view, they let themselves down by toe-holds onto a narrow ledge. There the huge bear lay still. One arrow had killed him, penetrating 26 inches of his chest. “By flashlight, acetylene lamp, candle light, fire light and moonlight, we labored…cleaned the pelts [and], dripping with salt brine…staggered to the nearest wagon trail.”

American Bow Evolution

flatbow, american flatbow, flatbow history

Saxton Pope and Art Young would take their bows as far afield as Alaska and Africa, promoting archery as Will and Maurice Thompson had before them. The Thompson brothers returned from the Civil War to find their Georgia farm in shambles. Denied firearms, they hunted for subsistence with hand-made bows. Maurice, badly wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor, wrote lyrical compositions on archery. They caught the eye of magazine publishers and appeared in his 1878 book, The Witchery of Archery. The Thompsons’ bows were “local Indian” in form—but also resembled English longbows.

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The evolution of bows and arrows in North America hardly escaped European influence. Around 1170, a band of Welsh under Prince Madoc is said to have sailed for the Americas. Traces of that language and culture carried into the 19th century, until smallpox razed Mandan villages on the upper Mississippi. The Plains Indians, and tribes of Eastern forests, may have combined their own ideas of bow design with those from 12th-century Europe long before the English established seaboard colonies. As native hunters shot from horseback or snowshoes, and tree species differed from those in England, bow design changed. Limbs became flatter and shorter.

The Chinese had earlier designed bows for mounted archers and charioteers, and Turkish recurves put more power in short, flat limbs. The compact bow was not new. But the American Indian refined the straight-tipped limbs of English longbows (D-shaped in cross-section, round at the belly). He substituted hickory and osage for English and Spanish yew. Bow design in the Americas borrowed, too, from peoples migrating from Asia across the Bering-Chukchi Isthmus.

Pope noted that the longbow, in its most advanced form, incorporated sapwood (outside, white) and heartwood (center, red). Sapwood excels in tensile strength, but heartwood trumps it in compression strength and resiliency. A longbow with a belly of heartwood and a back of sapwood makes best use of both. Sinew backing and horn belly laminates in Indian bows made them faster, as does fiberglass now.

Howard Hill

flatbow, american flatbow, flatbow history

The man who carried archery’s torch after Pope and Young was Howard Hill. Born November 23, 1899, in Wilsonville, Arkansas, he picked up a bow at age four. Hill was athletically gifted, excelling in several sports. Inspired by Maurice Thompson’s writings, he began making longbows—then winning tournaments. In 1928, he set a flight record. Hill went to Hollywood and shot for Errol Flynn in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. He produced 23 reels on archery for Warner Brothers.

Hill conceded the merits of the longbow, and of the recurve. But he favored a modified longbow—one with shorter, flatter limbs. He considered the recurve “sensitive,” and, while fast and acceptable for target archery, too unstable afield. In Hunting the Hard Way, Hill insisted a hunting bow be “durable, steady, accurate, gentle in the hand, and smooth on the draw, yet with enough speed of cast and follow-through to throw a heavy arrow. Of these, durability and steadiness are most important.” He found these qualities in what he called the “straight-end American semi-longbow.”

For selfbows (of one-piece construction) Hill preferred lemonwood staves—not from a lemon tree, but a South American hardwood that yellowed with long exposure to the air. He emphasized getting “flat-grain, thoroughly seasoned wood.” As for length, he advised using a 6-foot stave and 28-inch arrow as standard measures. “For every inch taken from the length of the arrow, take twice that from the length of the bow.” Acknowledging that some archers had longer draws than 28 inches, he said long arrows were hard to balance (this in the day of cedar, not carbon shafts!).

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Howard Hill’s arrows dropped the biggest African beasts, but he took as much pleasure hunting small game. On the American prairie, he arrowed bison as the Indians did, from a galloping pony. “In a few strides,” he wrote, “the horse and the fleeing bull were cantering in time with each other. I quickly drew my arrow to the head…Not more than 30 feet separated the horse and the ton of buffalo. The arrow flew straight to its mark and slipped through the carcass…the bull faltered, his front legs buckled and he went end-over-end…”.

Candid about his shooting, Hill admitted to missing game. In defense of the straight-tipped bow, he declared, “I am not skilled enough to shoot a short recurved bow accurately.” A remarkable claim from an archer of almost unbelievable talent! With his semi-longbow, he described skewering a pronghorn on the run at 70 yards! Hill could also hit at great distance. Once hunting elk, he ran out of cover 185 yards from a bull, “too far for any degree of accuracy with the bow,” Hill conceded. But after some deliberation he loosed a shaft. It flew high. The next struck low. The elk hadn’t moved. Carefully, Hill shot one more arrow. The broadhead “buried itself to the feathers” in the animal’s chest.

Now, launching arrows in five-second arcs to distant elk or flinging them at sprinting pronghorns is irresponsible by any standard. You’ll miss and cripple many animals. But we reflect the values of our times. Howard Hill lived in another day, writing matter-of-factly about hitting an eagle at 150 yards.

Today’s Designs

flatbow, american flatbow, flatbow history
Colorado success! Don Ward hand-fashioned this semi-longbow, of reflex-deflex design.

Hill’s hunting exploits inspired youngsters. His thoughts on hunting bow design live on.

“It’s why I make my own bows,” said my friend Don Ward. He’s been shooting for years, but built his first semi-longbow last season. “Actually, I built several,” he grinned. “This one worked.” His 62-inch composite bow is of reflex-deflex design (the grip being the forward-most point in the rosewood riser, the limbs leaning forward when unstrung), with a gentle curve to the tips. Two bamboo veneers and a maple core, sandwiched between zebrawood and fiberglass, give the limbs 56 pounds of thrust. Hunting in his native Colorado, Don slipped within 40 yards of an elk. But the angle wasn’t right so he waited. Then the bull turned his way! “I drew when a tree hid his eye. His chest came clear at 9 steps, and my arrow buried to the fletch.” Don has “at least 35 hours” in that bow, plus the cost of materials. But he says using a bow you made yourself makes any hunt better!

Utah bowyer Aram Barsch agrees. He’s built several semi-longbows from osage, backing some with rattlesnake skin he prepares himself. “That’s decorative, not functional.” A 60-inch bow wears the skin of just one snake. “Quite the rattler, give a few inches of waste at each end.” Aram makes his own arrows, too. “When I drew a bison tag for the Henry Mountains, my pals told me to take a rifle,” he told me. “I didn’t. They thought I was nuts.” But Aram put that coveted tag on a cow bison.

flatbow, american flatbow, flatbow history
Wayne shoots a new October Mountain recurve, more stable than recurves in Hill’s day.

Recently I loosed a few arrows from two of Barsch’s hand-made bows. More American Indian in form than my Schultz longbow, they were long enough to have satisfied Howard Hill. I found both bows remarkably fast, very stable, and accurate with the beautiful cedar arrows Aram dropped into the quiver. “Those are too snazzy to shoot,” I said. He shrugged: “They’re too snazzy not to shoot!” I almost lost one in the sagebrush. Quickly calculating the hours Barsch had in that arrow, I resigned myself to looking for it through the weekend. He found it sooner.

I had to ask about the bow with the knot-hole in the upper limb. A 12-bore shotshell might have slipped through it. “How did you build a bow around that defect? And why?”

Aram grinned. “I figured I could. The limb isn’t working hard there. It’s just above the grip.” He pointed. “I left a lot of wood around it. That limb’s as strong as if the wood were straight instead of taking a detour.” Lest you think this an amateur’s task, I’ll add that Aram has also built fine flintlock rifles from scratch. “I’ve hunted a lot with these bows,” he told me. “Having built them, I enjoy just having them in hand, whether or not I get game.”

Ishi would probably have agreed. So would the archers who since have married flatbow design with that of the classic English longbow.


This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN® magazine are available here.

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