COLORFUL EXCHANGE:
AMERICAN INDIAN TRADE BLANKETS

Charles J. Lohrmann

Many an Indian has accomplished his own personal salvation by "going back to the blanket." The Indian blanket or buffalo robe, a true American garment, and worn with the significance of language, covered beneath it, is the prototype of the American Indian, one of the bravest attempts ever made by man on this continent to rise to the heights of true humanity.

—Luther Standing Bear, from his 1933 autobiography, Land of the Spotted Eagle.

The history of American Indian trade blankets (blankets made by non-Indians specifically for trading purposes) is as much a story of advances in commercial weaving technology as it is a chronicle of the North American Indian trade or of United States policy toward Native Americans. The blankets themselves, with their rich colors, complex geometric designs, and great warmth, were only one part of the enormous Indian trade that was a historically important component of international commerce. The trade blankets stand out, however, through the extraordinary visual impact they convey, as well as their direct association with the Indian people.

Romantic illustrations and some written accounts describe the Indian trade in terms that suggest it was a small-scale interaction among hardy adventurers. In fact, far from being a few isolated individuals occasionally bartering furs for beads, it was an important component of a competitive international industry. Writing about the Blackfeet, ethnologist John C. Ewers explained that by the 1840s,

The great manufacturing centers of Europe and eastern America supplied the growing wants of the Indians. There were bells and mirrors from Leipzig, clay pipes from Cologne, beads from Venice, calico and other cloths from France, woolen goods and firearms from England, clothing and knives from New York and vicinity, shell ornaments from the Bahamas and the West Coast, guns from Pennsylvania, and powder and shot from St. Louis. An inventory of goods remaining after the spring trade at Fort Benton in 1851 shows the great variety of goods offered the discriminating Indian in the drygoods and hardware fields. Among the items listed were twenty-two kinds of yard goods (some in several colors), fourteen types or colors of blankets, three kinds of shawls, four kinds of handkerchiefs, four types of men’s headgear, twenty-one kinds of men’s or boys’ coats or overcoats, and at least eight varieties of beads (some in several colors). There were also four sizes of tin kettles, six kinds of knives, four kinds of axes (including one termed "battle axes"), four varieties of guns and all the parts needed to keep them in repair, ready-made ammunition and both molds and lead for making one’s own shot. There were also the old favorites, carrot and twisted tobacco. [1]

Given this cornucopia of trade goods, it is in some ways surprising that one category of exchange item, the trade blanket, would stand out and become such an important symbol of the Indian trade. Even though the blankets were only a modest component of the era’s total commerce, they came to represent the stereotypical image of the Indian who held to the old ways. The blankets were made to be worn, and traditionals often were called "blanket Indians" because they wore these blankets or robes wrapped in different ways over the head and shoulders or around the torso. Based on Luther Standing Bear’s words quoted above, it is easy to see that those wearing blankets carried an almost spiritual significance.

The trade blankets we know today trace their origins back three centuries. The history of the blanket trade can be divided into four general periods. It was during the era of the fur trade that the trade blanket became established as a medium of exchange. Then, with the westward expansion of the United States, the diversity of blankets available for trade increased. Next, the annuity period and the transition to the reservation marked the beginning of more competitive marketing, particularly to non-Indians. Finally, in the twentieth century, advances in weaving technology enabled manufacturers to produce more complex designs for even wider distribution.

The Early Years

The commercial story of the American Indian trade blanket begins with the North American fur trade in the mid-seventeenth century. Commercially manufactured fabrics ("yard goods") and trade blankets were among the earliest items of exchange bartered between Native Americans and Europeans. The first trade blankets exchanged with Native people in North America were designed and manufactured in England, then transported to America by trading companies, notably the Hudson’s Bay Company. As testimony to the importance of trade blankets, their adoption and use by Native Americans encompassed virtually the entire North American continent. [2] An American-based trade blanket manufacturing industry was slow to develop in response to the commercial opportunity presented by the fur trade and the expansion of Indian trade in the West. During the colonial period, England controlled the wool and weaving industries in the American colonies. Small manufacturing operations were set up in New England, where there was a combination of skilled labor, water power, and raw wool to make the process economically viable, but in general American manufacturers did not produce commercially viable trade blankets until the nineteenth century.

The Nineteenth-Century Background

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the remaining free-moving groups of American Indians either surrendered to U.S. Army personnel or were tracked down, subdued by force, and moved onto reservations. One of the most poignant of these episodes came to an end when Chief Joseph surrendered. His emotional speech summarizes the plight of those who tried to hold out:

It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food, no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.

This difficult period has been widely covered in history texts, but the negotiations between Native American people and the United States government actually began in 1776, when the newly formed federal government undertook the negotiation of treaties regarding land and mutual-defense issues with the individual tribes. In addition to agreements regarding rights to lands, the treaties almost always required the government to deliver trade goods to the Indian people.

The Factor System

Just as important as the political wrangling that surrounded the government’s Indian policy was the official policy on trade with the Indians, known as the factor system, which was initiated in 1786. The basic principle of the system was that the government would provide for the physical needs of the Indian people but would not make a profit on that commerce. Trade stations were established along the frontier, and the Indian agent, originally called a factor, would supply a wide range of goods, described as commodities (food and rations) and annuities (material goods, including blankets).

Officially, the factor system was an attempt to maintain control over the Indian trade and prevent corruption. In spite of some good intentions, there were charges of corruption from the beginning, as private individuals saw the opportunity for tremendous profit from the fur trade. By 1822, private trading companies had become powerful enough to supplant the government trade organization.

Against this turbulent panorama relating to the Indian trade and Indian policy, the trade blankets themselves seemed to play a limited role. The blankets are referred to in straightforward terms in entries in various trading post logs, traders’ journals, manufacturers’ invoices and Indian agency records. At times, there is some description of the quality of manufacture, but there is little or no discussion of blanket design. This lack of specific reference should not obscure the importance of the trade blankets in Indian culture.

The Relationship of Trade Blankets to Traditional Robes

It is clear from many accounts that trade blankets were not considered ordinary trade goods. "We see in the machine-woven American Indian trade blankets the historic replacement for the painted buffalo robe of the Plains and the hand-loomed striped blanket designed and created by the Navajo and Pueblo weavers." [3] The traditional robes of the Plains tribes included painted, quilled, or beaded hide examples. In other regions, the trade blanket replaced different kinds of woven robes, such as cedar bark and mohair blankets in the Pacific Northwest. The processes required to create traditional hide robes and natural fiber weavings were, as a rule, extremely elaborate and time-consuming. While the traditional robes and weavings remained important as ceremonial objects or as trading items, the woolen trade blankets became a convenient and popular alternative.

The machine-made trade blanket was also known as the "wearing blanket." There is a mystical dimension to the wearing blanket. The designs of classic Navajo wearing blankets and trade blankets have important elements in common. When a blanket is wrapped around the shoulders with the two sides joined in front, the design comes together and completes itself. Joining both sides of the blanket also completes a circle. In a metaphoric sense, the wearer is placed at the center of the universe and becomes the circle (and the cylinder). It’s both mystical and practical.

The blankets themselves can take on a personality. Older heirloom blankets in Native American homes convey their experiences by the sheen of patina that they gain through exposure to smoke and generations of reverent use. The blanket can tell a story and share its life. Trade blankets can come to life dramatically and take shape when a person gets inside and is wrapped in the circle of the blanket. Certainly the design is intended to wrap around a person, and the person wearing a blanket becomes a blanket cylinder. Older blankets often have worn places where the user held the two sides of the blanket together, and this kind of detail in the wear of a blanket adds to its appeal and its personality.

Many of the finest blanket designs convey a sense of motion. When they’re worn, blankets are aswirl in color and suggest the impression of existing in perpetual motion. There are no square corners, just fluid lines of color and texture. When the blanket or shawl becomes part of a Native American dance, it flows. This is particularly evident with the more intricate and colorful designs. One Navajo writer noted:

As the light from the fire illuminated the moving bodies and blankets, the swirling shapes, lines, patterns and colors sprang to life. I no longer saw blankets, but rather the familiar designs of the Holy People coming to life from the sand paintings. I saw moving clouds, glowing sunsets, varicolored streaks of lightning, rainbow goddesses, sacred mountains, horned toads, and images like desert mirages—all dancing before my eyes. [4]

In this vision, the blankets are no longer literal but illusory and magical as they create a surreal landscape. A blanket lying inert or hanging flat on a wall can be visually striking, like a window of stained glass. But when a person whirls the blanket around and over the shoulders, blanket and human are transformed into a three-dimensional blanket cylinder that can move and communicate.

Early Blanket Designs and Commerce

The first trade blankets that came to this continent were almost exclusively utilitarian and did not exhibit the evocative designs that were to follow in the late 1800s and 1900s. The early blankets, including the Hudson’s Bay blankets, offered quite straightforward designs. The classic Hudson’s Bay blanket design had a white background broken by two sets of stripes in primary colors—green, red, yellow—and black. They were attractive, weighty, and warm, but they lacked any pretense of uniqueness.

An important feature of the Hudson’s Bay blanket design derived from a commercial necessity. Along with the colored stripes that ran all the way across both ends of the blanket, one set of short black stripes was woven into the edge of the blanket. These short stripes, on one side only, are called points, and they usually numbered from one to four. In the point system, a widely accepted guideline of the fur trade, one point equaled the value of one beaver skin. The number of small black stripes, or points, determined a blanket’s value. A one-point blanket was the lightest weave, and one point represented one beaver hide. The four-point blanket, much heavier, exhibited four of the black point stripes—four beaver hides.

The point- beaver pelt exchange rate was not static, but rather changed regularly with fluctuations in the European demand for beaver hides and other circumstances. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote that, in 1733:

With the skin of one full-grown beaver, a native could buy a half a pound of beads, or one pound of Brazil tobacco, or half a pound of thread. A gallon of brandy cost four beaver skins, broadcloth, two beaver skins, and blankets, six beaver skins each. [5]

The simple, straightforward designs of the Hudson’s Bay blanket set the standard for trade blankets until the American mills acquired the more advanced looms required to produce blankets with elaborate designs and the marketing infrastructure necessary to distribute them across the continent. The new, more colorful blankets and elaborate designs attracted increased enthusiasm from a broader universe of Indian and non-Indian customers.

There is no way to know definitively how many different trade blanket designs have been produced during their long history. Old photographs document many designs, but trade blankets were used and worn out, handed around until there was nothing left.

Today, Pendleton Woolen Mills is the best-known manufacturer. Yet there were at least four other manufacturers active during the "golden age" of the trade blanket in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Pendleton is the sole survivor, however, and continues to be the major trade blanket manufacturer. A number of companies currently produce "throws," or inexpensive cotton camp blankets with formulaic designs, and several manufacturers produce a limited number of well-woven woolen blankets of sufficient quality to be called trade blankets.

Trade Blanket Designs and Categories

There was intense competition among the woolen mills producing trade blankets to develop new, popular designs. The introduction of advanced looms ultimately made it possible to produce complex, very colorful blanket designs. Each of the companies involved in the production of American Indian trade blankets promoted its blankets by explaining how the designs were tied to American Indian tradition. Some of the more important and popular design elements, like the cross, the arrow, and the zigzag lines, are easy to trace to their roots in Native American tradition. In some cases, the cross represents the morning star or the four directions, while the double cross, with two horizontal bars, could be a dragonfly. Zigzag lines often represent lightning, stripes represent trails, and terraced triangles symbolize mountains.

Overall, there were seven general design categories used in American Indian trade blankets: striped, banded, center point, framed, overall, nine-element, and six-element. Most designs fit into these seven categories, but some of the more complex, eccentric, or commemorative designs are in categories of their own. There were also some variations in the blankets themselves. Bindings along the blanket edge could be suede or flannel, while the fringed borders are typical of women’s shawls. The individual manufacturers distinguished their own blankets in varied ways, so it is useful to review the history of the major trade blanket manufacturers to gain a perspective on the industry.

Trade Blanket Manufacturers

During their heyday, each trade blanket manufacturer attempted to use advertising concepts and slogans that played to Victorian-era romanticism in order to capture the imagination of the buying public. Their promotional material read more like a dime novel than a description of historical reality.

J. Capps and Sons
"Blanket Makers to the Indian Tribes"

Between 1883 and 1910, Buffalo Bill Cody shrewdly enhanced the worldwide success of his Wild West Extravaganza by highlighting the popular, romantic myths of the nineteenth-century American West, which portrayed the American Indian as noble savage. Tapping into the same vein of romanticism, trade blanket manufacturer J. Capps and Sons, of Jacksonville, Illinois, informed all non-Indian customers that to wrap up in a warm and colorful Capps blanket was to realize "a dream of the far prairie and a covered fire." Buffalo Bill himself endorsed Capps products, and the company’s 1913 catalog featured a photograph of Buffalo Bill with a group of his Indian employees wearing Capps blankets. His testimonial read:

I am pleased to say, that for characteristic Indian designs, beauty and brilliancy of color, and for quality, the ‘Capps Indian’ blanket is superior to any blanket that I am acquainted with, made for the Indian trade.
—Colonel Wm. F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody
July 28, 1911

Buffalo Bill’s words testify not only to the quality of the Capps blankets, but also to the marketing acumen of the firm that promoted itself as "Blanket Makers to the Indian Tribes." Homebound readers back East could see actors from the Wild West show modeling blankets covered in striking patterns created by the riotous blends of reds, blues, and oranges. To acquire a Capps blanket and display it in your home was to own a piece of the vanishing romance of the American West and to achieve the blissful harmony of the Noble Red Man—or that’s what the advertising promised.

The Capps company produced a number of blanket designs that incorporated the centuries-old, traditional whirling logs design, later called the swastika. Of course, when Capps was designing and producing its blankets, the symbol, also known as "four directions in motion," had yet to take on the horrific association with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Between 1890 and 1917, Capps attributed "an important volume of business" to the manufacture of blankets for sale to federal Indian agents on western reservations, yet the history of the firm (published in its centennial year of 1939) offers less than one of its twenty-nine pages to the discussion of the Indian blanket business.

Buell Manufacturing Company
"The Original Power Loom Manufacturers of Indian Robes"

Buell, based in St. Louis, Missouri, was the only one of the major trade blanket manufacturers to produce three-color blankets. These blankets—known as the "Cheyenne" and "Shoshoni" designs—were heavier than most trade blankets, because each horizontal line included three colors of yarn rather than the standard two. Buell developed a weaving sleight of hand that enabled it to place the third strand of yarn between the other two to hide that strand from view, or it could create a more complex design using the third color as an option. A robe could thus exhibit three colors in a horizontal band that normally would have shown only two.

Buell marketed three trade blankets with designs based directly on earlier traditional Native American weaving styles. These were "Honolchadi," a third-phase chief’s blanket design; "Zuni," a striped Hopi manta design; and "Shoshoni," based on a regional Navajo weaving style.

Racine Woolen Mills
"The Indian’s Instinct Has Become the White Man’s Reasoning Choice"

Around 1915, John S. Hart, owner of Racine Woolen Mills (located in Racine, Wisconsin, south of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan), proclaimed to a newspaper reporter that his firm could claim more than forty Indian tribes as regular customers. On a selling trip through the Southwest, John Hart’s father, Sands Hart, noticed that Indian people from different tribes chose to wear brightly colored trade blankets "instead of conventional clothing." "The Indian’s love for gaudy colors and loose garments despite all the civilization that the white man has forced upon him, retains for the Racine Woolen Mills a very valuable source of income." From a contemporary viewpoint, the company’s promotional concepts seem rather racist and strangely condescending, especially considering that popularity among Indian customers was essential for success in the larger non-Indian market.

Fancy shawls were another characteristic product of the Racine Woolen Mills. These shawls were similar to trade blankets in design and construction, but they almost always measured closer to square and always featured fringed edges. Among American Indian people, these fringed shawls were worn exclusively by women. In many photographs from the reservation era, the fringed shawls worn by the women are from the Racine Woolen Mills.

Oregon City Woolen Mills
"Perfectly Woven ‘Navajo Art Craft’ Fabric"

Dating its origins back to 1864, Oregon City was one of the older of the major manufacturers of American Indian trade blankets. The company opened its first sales agency in New York in the 1890s, and during its heyday, Oregon City was a major competitor of Pendleton Woolen Mills. In fact, the two firms struggled to dominate the Indian blanket trade. Following World War I, when Racine Woolen Mills, Buell Manufacturing Company, and J. Capps and Sons were no longer manufacturing trade blankets, Oregon City still played a major role. The mill was located near the falls of the Willamette River, south of Portland, Oregon. A 1914 Oregon City catalog proclaimed that "we have naturally reproduced the Indian’s most cherished patterns. Our designers are men steeped in Indian lore. They have worked side-by-side with the Indian and come into possession of his favorite designs and colorings, along with their symbolism." The company told a romantic story of itself and its product,

Closely interwoven with the history of Oregon is the history of the Indian—his onslaughts, his brave battles, his retreat, and in the end the pitiful vanquishment of a noble race. To the Indian, everything is symbolic. The brilliant, resplendent colors so dear to his heart are an expression of his interpretations of Life—the green of the earth, the blue of the heavens, the flight of a flock of birds, the sweep of the winds and the splash of the waves. We are preserving the rare charm of Indian weaving by modern methods. All the beauty and significance originally woven into fabric by the Indian, on his crude hand loom, are retained in our perfectly woven Navajo Art-Craft fabrics.

Actually, there was little that could really be called "traditional" about the designs for Oregon City blankets, but the company produced beautifully designed and well-woven trade blankets.

Oregon City created a successful business strategy. Its retail stores in the West and Midwest prospered through the 1920s, and the company even made significant inroads into the lucrative southwestern market and C. N. Cotton’s trading company. But during the Depression, the chain of stores shrank to just four—Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Tacoma.

Pendleton Woolen Mills "The Wild Indian’s Overcoat"

Pendleton is undoubtedly the most recognized name in American Indian trade blankets. The original mill was located in Oregon, and its name became synonymous with quality across the United States. When C. N. Cotton established his regional wholesale business in Gallup, New Mexico, he illustrated his business acumen by "obtaining exclusive regional control of two items basic to the Navajo Trade: Arbuckle’s Coffee and Pendleton Blankets. To most Navajos of that time, any coffee or blanket under another name was either counterfeit or an inferior substitute." [6] This unqualified endorsement helped to ensure Pendleton’s success, and it is the only surviving company among the five major manufacturers of American Indian trade blankets that flourished in the early 1900s.

Pendleton produced its first catalog around 1901, a three-by-five-inch brochure featuring a cover photograph of a be-robed Nez Percé Chief Joseph, and titled "The Story of the Wild Indian’s Overcoat." The company emphasized its associations with the American Indian people in its marketing programs and made an effort to describe native traditions and customs in its advertising literature. As was typical of the period, the information was at best romanticized and at worst racist:

This reservation [the Umatilla] is recognized not only as a social center, but as the emporium of Indian fashion. What a Paris hat is to a Chicago girl on Easter morning, a Pendleton robe is to the debutante of every reservation from Arizona to the Dakotas. The Umatilla buck is a fashion plate. . . . She [Mrs. Yellow Hawk] is a lady of judgement, she is willing to pay a good price for a Pendleton robe, knowing that it will be bright and serviceable long after the cheaper grades have been thrown aside for saddle blankets. . . . Our pale-face trade is not unlike that with the red man. We make robes in college colors, crimson and white, orange and black, crimson with navy blue, etc., each college town preparing its own colors.

The Pendleton Woolen Mills virtually transformed itself with the purchase of its first Jacquard loom in July 1901. The company’s management couldn’t have known how important the decision would be for the future of the company, but the timing could not have been more fortunate. Because the Jacquard loom, a French invention, was so advanced, a specially trained technician accompanied it to the installation site. For the Pendleton project, serendipity brought Englishman Joseph Rawnsley to Oregon along with the impressive machine. Much to Pendleton’s good fortune, he didn’t go home. Rawnsley took over the development of Indian designs for the company and continued his association until his death in 1929. During the course of his career, he traveled widely among the American Indian people. Rawnsley created many of the most popular blanket designs, and he was the only blanket designer to gain individual notice. One measure of his success is the high percentage of blankets that Pendleton still sells to Native Americans. In fact, Pendleton notes that currently it sells at least half of its production of blankets to the American Indian population.

The technology of the Jacquard double-shuttle loom used so effectively by Rawnsley enabled all the mills to produce the more colorful and intricate designs typical of the uniquely American trade blankets. The older looms—such as those on which the early Hudson’s Bay blankets were woven in England—could weave a blanket with only one color of yarn, so they were unable to alternate colors in a single horizontal row. As a result, the early trade blankets were simple striped designs like that of the Hudson’s Bay blanket.

The Jacquard loom could alternate yarn colors on each individual row of the blanket, so that the blanket could present a doubled-sided image. The designs were essentially the same on both sides of the blanket, but the colors alternated. One way to distinguish the two blanket sides is to refer to the side where the pattern is dominant as the "patternization" side. The side opposite the "patternization" side will show the color dominant, and is called the "colorization" side. The Buell Manufacturing Company, as already noted, developed a technique to weave with three yarn colors on a single row. The third color was essentially hidden between the other two colors so the design could be the same on both sides. This was particularly important for the Buell designs that more closely represented traditional Navajo weaving designs.

A sense of competition and the urge to provide the most innovative designs to the Indian and non-Indian markets kept the blanket companies creative and tested the limits of their technical ability. World War I was a turning point for the industry, as companies turned their production capacity to meeting wartime demands. Oregon City maintained its production of trade blankets until it ceased operation in the late 1920s. Following the closure of the Oregon City operation, Pendleton emerged as the market leader.

Now, at the turn of a new century, trade blankets are still valued as gifts on special occasions and are much in evidence at social and ceremonial gatherings. Special, limited editions and commemorative designs are popular as well. A few small companies, including one that specializes in producing blankets from Navajo-grown wool, have made an impact on the market, but Pendleton Woolen Mills remains the leader. The name Pendleton is still synonymous with American Indian trade blankets.

Poetry in Motion

The future will present another chapter based on the interwoven plotlines of design, commerce, and Native American people constituting the history of the American Indian trade blanket. New weaving technology allows even greater flexibility in design. Native American artists have taken a greater interest in textile design and are collaborating with Pendleton to produce unique designs for trade blankets.

Contemporary blanket designs are being inspired by all kinds of influences, from baskets and basket designs to classic Navajo weavings. They convey the power of ideas, and they represent the life that people transfer to the objects they revere.

The fact that trade blankets are machine-made and not handwoven has never prevented them from occupying an important place in the history of weaving. They have been integral to the lives of many groups of North America’s indigenous people. It is important to remember that trade blankets are functional items made beautiful not only by those who design and produce them, but also by those who wear, use, and appreciate them.

These blankets have transcended the strictly utilitarian roles that might have been assigned to them originally. They eagerly offer flashes of color and texture to all those open to experiencing them. While trade blanket designs may demand a unique humanist, creative sensibility that enables the viewer to find beauty in unexpected places, they amply reward the effort.

  1. John C. Ewers, The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 69.
  2. Patrick W. Houlihan, foreword to The Language of the Robe, by Robert W. Kapoun with Charles J. Lohrmann (Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith, 1992), vii.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rain Parrish, "A Woman’s Experience," in The Language of the Robe, 2.
  5. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the Northwest Coast, vol. 1, 1543–1800 (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Co., 1884), 466–67.
  6. Frank McNitt, The Indian Traders (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 222.

Published in Chihuly's Pendletons, Portland Press, 2000

Also from Chihuly's Pendletons:
Collecting Trade Blankets, Dale Chihuly
The Indian Influences Upon My Work, Dale Chihuly

THE CHIHULY COLLECTION OF AMERICAN INDIAN TRADE BLANKETS