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Login Name Post: Documented fire starting- charcloth not!        (Topic#236931)
jbtusa 
45 Cal.
Posts: 596
jbtusa
08-11-09 07:37 PM - Post#747990    


No one seems to be able to historically document the use of charcloth to start fire with a flint and steel in any pre Lucifer (sulfer matches) era. I have only found one quote on how the fur trappers used to start fires from scratch. It supports my speculation that the old timers used gunpowder to start their fires because cloth and tin boxes were too expensive and in too short of supply to use for making fire or making charcloth. The quote is from "James Pattie's Personal Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific"; 1830; page 145: "When my father struck fire with his pistol, they gave a start, evidencing a mixture of astonishment and terror, and then re-examined the pistol, apparently solicitous to discover how the fire was made." (He was talking about the Indians of course.) Therefore, until the use of charcloth can be documented, I suggest that buckskinners stop promoting this falsehood about using charcloth as being historically correct. What say ye all?

 
Pichou 
54 Cal.
Posts: 1523
Pichou
08-11-09 07:53 PM - Post#747996    

    In response to jbtusa

Try looking for "rag tinder" instead of "charcloth." Documentable. If you mean for the "West," then no, but tinder fungus is well documented. I repeat, well documented.

It pays to do your homework before making definitive statements based on one source.

 
Claude 
Cannon
Posts: 13742
Claude
08-11-09 08:46 PM - Post#748017    

    In response to Pichou



 
Mike Ameling 
45 Cal.
Posts: 855
08-11-09 09:49 PM - Post#748031    

    In response to jbtusa

A lot of people have been looking for documentation for the use of charcloth. But so far nothing has shown up before the mid 1800's - Civil War era. That's just how it goes.

But they knew about the function of charred cloth catching sparks to start a fire. They knew about it all the way back to the early cannons and matchlocks. That matchcord - even though matchcord was treated with chemicals to control the burning. The end was previously charred, and would then catch a new spark redily. So that was ... known technology well back into the 1600's, 1500's and earlier. But they didn't write down using charred cloth to start a fire. Why?

The same thing with brass Tinder Tubes in the very early 1800's. It had cloth/cord inside it. You charred the end, and then pulled it back into the tube to go out. To use it again, you pushed that charred end back out and struck your sparks into it. And then used that to start your fire, or light your pipe. But once again, they did not write down about using charred cloth to catch a spark to start a fire. Why? Something ... lost to history.

There is also an early 1800's quote from England complaining about the lack of rags because of people using them for "tinder". But it is my opinion that they were using those rags for building their "bird's nest", not charring it and then using it to catch sparks. Natural material for building a "bird's nest" would have been in very short supply in large cities. Thus people resorting to using rags to build their "bird's nest" for fire starting.

One of the primary methods for fire starting in the "civilized" areas was charred wood from a previous fire - in a "tinder box". You saved some "coals" from your previous fire in your tinder box, where the lid would extinquish the fire. You then struck sparks down into those bits of charred wood until one caught a spark and started to burn. You then fished it out and built your fire with your "bird's nest" like normal. And you put the lid back onto your tinderbox to put out any coals still burning. Most wooden tinderboxes are well scorched inside - burned before the lid put the fire out. When you were running low on charred wood, you fished some coals out of your current fire and refilled your tinderbox.

So charcloth references have been searched for by many people over many years. It just hasn't been found - so far. Another little ... detail ... lost to history.

Mikey

 
Rod L 
50 Cal.
Posts: 1418
Rod L
08-11-09 11:16 PM - Post#748045    

    In response to Mike Ameling

I've come to pretty much the same conclusion, at least for the era/area of my interest. I've gone completely over to using charred punky wood to catch the spark. Cottonwood and elm work very well, ash not so great. Semi rotted punky stuff is best--just light one end in a fire, blow on it to get the end glowing good, then extinguish--either by burying beside the campfire, or (what I do) just drop the lit punk into the tinderbox and close the lid. Lack of oxygen will make it go out, but it'll char a bit more before it does. Good to go for the next fire.

I have tried tinder fungus, and it works great---the only problem is the dearth of birch in my area, and what few there be are remarkably fungal-free.

Rod

 
Pichou 
54 Cal.
Posts: 1523
Pichou
08-12-09 07:55 AM - Post#748100    

    In response to Mike Ameling

Well, Mike, why is it that we find charred cloth in old tinderboxes, but not charcoals?

Granted, most of us portray people who were far removed from population centers and abundant rags, regardless of how the rag tinder was used. So, we go with the punk wood and tinder fungus, which are both fairly well documented.

Which is to say... I think your arguments are incorrect in a general sense, but for the frontier, rags are pretty much out.

 
crockett 
Cannon
Posts: 6195
08-12-09 12:24 PM - Post#748166    

    In response to Pichou

Pichou: I notice that jbtusa is from Idaho and I think he is concentrating more on the mountain men of say 1825-1840. We had this talk a while back and I remember you posted a lot of documentation on the tinder fungus but if I recall the tinder fungus was used a lot by folks like David Thompson and other, early explorers. I think what JB is talking about is that in the 1825-1840 journals of the mountain men the reference to char cloth as well as tinder fungus seems lacking. William Drummond Stewart speaks of "spunk and a match of tow" Altowan p194, Ruxton's LaBonte speaks of punk p.354, and the later Marcy of wetting a patch, rubbing gun powder on it and using that to catch a spark p.157. There are also a lot of references to using the mechanism on a flintlock to start a fire. In any event there is no doubt tinder fungus pre-dates this 1825-1840 period (as well as the tinder rags, etc)but why it isn't mentioned in the mountain man journals of the 1825-1840 dates- seems puzzling.

 
Anonymous 
08-12-09 12:32 PM - Post#748167    

    In response to crockett

  • crockett Said:
,,,there is no doubt tinder fungus pre-dates this 1825-1840 period (as well as the tinder rags, etc)but why it isn't mentioned in the mountain man journals of the 1825-1840 dates- seems puzzling.



What do they mention using for tinder?

 
Rancocas 
45 Cal.
Posts: 551
08-12-09 06:23 PM - Post#748260    

    In response to Wolfen

I remember reading about green wood. No, not living wood, but the little spots of dark green colored rotten wood that is sometimes found on old, well rotted logs. But, for the life of me I cannot remember what the article said. Was it something about fire starting, or using this green colored punky wood as a dye, or for something else?

Anyone know what I'm talking about?



 
Pichou 
54 Cal.
Posts: 1523
Pichou
08-12-09 06:38 PM - Post#748266    

    In response to crockett

  • Quote:
spunk and a match of tow



Spunk describes punkwood or tinder fungus.

Punk can be rotten wood or tinder fungus (or Pichou, if you don't like my posts )

So here it is quite possible that you have documentation for a Mountain Man-tinder fungus alliance.



 
crockett 
Cannon
Posts: 6195
08-12-09 08:19 PM - Post#748311    

    In response to Pichou

so, with spunk or punk, do you think it was charred to some extent? I think I remember reading about someone sending a shower of sparks down into their tinder box and then digging out the glowing ember.As stated- it seems when the lid was shut on the box it would snuff out the oxygen and leave soot on some of the char- to catch a spark next time.
Also- there are a few accounts of some individuals trying to start a fire with a flintlock ( and a lot of them failed)and also Fitzgerald supposedly started a fire rubbing two sticks together (hand drill?)
What about burning lens? I think I remember them on some of the lists but I can't recall any accounts of someone starting a fire with one of them.

 
Pichou 
54 Cal.
Posts: 1523
Pichou
08-12-09 09:04 PM - Post#748321    

    In response to crockett

Household tinder boxes had a damper plate... if you think about it, it would really only work with rag tinder.

MacKenzie wowed the Natives by lighting his pipe with a burning lens.

 
Eric/WV 
40 Cal.
Posts: 245
Eric/WV
08-13-09 12:22 AM - Post#748375    

    In response to Pichou

I found a large amount of tinder fungus a few weeks ago. That stuff works great...and you don't have to char it first. I found it works best if you take a large chunk and scrape it with a knife into a fine powder. Knock a spark on the powder and it will ignite really fast. Take a larger piece and light with the powder.



 
LaBonte 
Passed On
Posts: 2238
08-13-09 02:19 AM - Post#748406    

    In response to jbtusa

  • Quote:
It supports my speculation that the old timers used gunpowder to start their fires because cloth and tin boxes were too expensive and in too short of supply to use for making fire or making charcloth.


Perhaps you should take a look at the rendezvous trade lists before deciding to make that statement??? And those trade lists are only a part of the story, by the mid-1830's there were dozens of American trading posts throughout the Rocky Mtns (the Roubidoux Bros had one in eastern Utah circa 1828 and Ft Union was built in 1829), plus there were the HBC posts farther north and west and Taos in the south.
Even a quick study of the published trade lists (which is just the tip of the iceberg) will show that cloth by the yard was neither expensive (dependent on material and color) or in short supply. Cloth was in fact the most widely traded item of the fur trade anywhere/anytime - whether it be the Eastern, Great Lakes, or 1800's RMFT.
Besides cloth by the yard in the RMFT you have pre-made cloth items, including:
Shirts, handkerchiefs, pants of various types, capotes, blankets, and much more - all items not only documented as being available to, but also as being purchased by trappers.
Cloth during the RMFT ran the gamut from cotton of many types including calicos and ticking, Russian sheeting, linen, woolens, silk, and osnaburg which was often used for covering and wrapping packs.
Price - just one example from 1826: cotton cloth ran $1.00-1.25 a yard while powder ran $1.50-2.00 a pound...not expensive in comparison.
Other uses for cloth: what did they use for patching or wadding? Cloth can be documented as being used for both in the RMFT.
As to being expensive - IMO this "idea" is far too over emphasized in the RMFT. Most trappers were company men and more often than not ran a tab so to speak. They often went into debt to the company whether they were freemen (aka skin or contract trappers) or employees, who had the basics including guns, powder, lead, and traps supplied and were on a salary beyond that. The famed "on their own hook free trappers" were in fact a tiny percentage of the overall number in the field and usually had plenty of plews to spend.
A couple of examples of running a tab: Jim Beckwith signed a note for $217.50 when he left the employ of Smith, Jackson, & Sublette and Peter Ogden noted that HBC could collect the dept owed by Pierre Tevantigan (sp?) from his estate when he heard he had been killed.
As for rags - not a complete dearth. There were undoubtedly a fair amount since cloth shirts (one of the most widely purchased and best documented items of trapper's clothing), cloth pants, pack cloths, etc. wore out.......

Tin boxes - There is one trade list reference to 'fire steel' boxes, but otherwise there are plenty of small and large tin kettles and tin pans on the trade lists and they were not expensive - a tin kettle was real handy for cooking up ones coffee, an expensive item frequently purchased along with sugar by many trappers and that doesn't include liquor a VERY expensive commodity frequently purchased.
Besides which one does not need a tin box or pan to either make char cloth or for carrying it. One field expdient method for making char cloth is by wrapping around a stick and carefully charring it over the fire or by wrapping some coals in several layers of cloth and then covering it with dirt until the coals die out - not always the best char but it does work.
To carry char of any type one only needs a basic container - wood, antler, or horn work. I used a section of antelope horn with a wooden plug in the wide end for years to carry my char and tinder in.

Does the above prove that char cloth was used in the RMFT? - nope but it does prove that cloth was neither in short supply or expensive and thus makes it a possibility.

As for the quote from Pattie and the few other references to using guns to start a fire - they are unclear as to just how they were used to start a fire. They could in fact be used as was noted above by Crockett by throwing sparks from the lock into a piece of cloth with some powder on it, by firing off a patch with a pinch of powder - a method noted by Rex Allen Norman in one of his articles, or by putting a piece of char in the pan and igniting with the lock - a method I've used that works quite well.

There are also references, off the top of my head - Hugh Glass, Osborne Russell, and Ruxton all described the trappers carrying their "fire starting gear" in their shot pouch or on their belt. There are also hundreds of fire steels showing up on the trade lists as well as magnifying glasses which could be used as burning lenses. These cites at least imply that char of some type was used.
In the Southwest there is period documentation for tinder tubes often used with a burning lens -these are real handy for lighting ones corn shuck (or paper wrapped) cigarillo or ones cigar as well as ones fire...
BTW - charred corn shucks make a pretty good char and anyone near a Missouri River post or in the Southwest near the villages would have had access to them.......
Bottom line: other than the references posted here and a few others alluded to there is a dearth of ANY real solid documentation about fire making using any method in the RMFT other than that it is mostly speculation based on what was available.
Until the time that more info may come to light char cloth is just as valid a possibility as powder since we know char cloth was being used in the east at that time and since cloth was available to the RMFT. Otherwise using some type of charred punk as Rod does is the only absolutely defined method, but even it has a very small data base at best.

Finally - powder was not always reliable for starting anything: in 1834 Wyeth noted they had to percuss their guns due to the poor quality of the powder which would not ignite in the pans of their flintlocks and Robert Campbell noted that the entire load of powder brought to rendezvous in 1826-27 was of such poor quality that their guns would seldom fire if at all and it was thus putting the men in grave danger!
and those are just a couple of references to the problems with powder at times in the West......



 
Kansas Volunteer 
45 Cal.
Posts: 634
08-13-09 12:25 PM - Post#748542    

    In response to jbtusa

As much as I enjoyed reading and rereading James Ohio Pattie's narrative, you have to remember he was given to stretching the truth. Perhaps his Pa's starting of the fire is just one of those elements. I studied the book quite hard, and cross checked many of the "facts" with more reliable sources, and amongst other conclusions came to believe James had put his father on a pedestal, and was having a hard time living up to his fathers expectations, as he perceived them to be, just to get all psychological about it. The fire starting incident could be just hero worship. Right now I wish I still had a copy of the book for reference, it would help, but I sold mine to a book dealer years ago, along with more valuable works on the era.

 
LaBonte 
Passed On
Posts: 2238
08-13-09 03:22 PM - Post#748589    

    In response to Kansas Volunteer

  • Quote:
Right now I wish I still had a copy of the book for reference, it would help



Here ya go - it's on line and searchable......
http://www.xmission.com/~drudy/mtman/html/pattie/index.html

 
Russ T Frizzen 
70 Cal.
Posts: 4762
08-13-09 05:57 PM - Post#748639    

    In response to Kansas Volunteer

Have you tried lighting a fire with the pan flash from your flint lock? It can work with the right tinder and a bit of luck. A bunch of us tried this one time just to see if it was possible and had a lot of fun with it. But, if you were in dangerous country, it would mean having an unloaded weapon for a time, maybe too risky. And flint and steel is a surer bet from what we could tell. It was a fun experiment though and anyone can do it. Lots of very dry tinder seems to be the key along with an empty pistol of course.

 
jbtusa 
45 Cal.
Posts: 596
jbtusa
08-14-09 09:40 PM - Post#748981    

    In response to Russ T Frizzen

Russ T Frizzen: Yes, that is how I envision the fur trappers starting fire; with gunpowder. I speculate that they used their flintlocks to start a dot of powder in their bird's nests or simply used a flint and steel to ignite the gunpowder. I so speculate this because like any human, when hungry, tired, cold and miserable, start the fire now! Gimme gunpowder or gasoline and forget that darned charcloth business! I'm sure the 1820's fur trappers were no different.

 
Blizzard of 93 
Cannon
Posts: 7211
08-15-09 09:04 AM - Post#749072    

    In response to Rancocas

green (rotted) wood when dryed on a flat rock in the sun will produce dust when rubbed and crumbled.
this dust when placed on fairly dry bark will catch when sparked onto.
can't recollect if it was Osborne Russel or not but seems a journal I read mentioned useing this method of fire starting as well as shooting out a patch.

 
Pichou 
54 Cal.
Posts: 1523
Pichou
08-15-09 09:37 AM - Post#749086    

    In response to jbtusa

21st century reenactor logic is not proof. If it must have been so, there must be documentation. If you cannot find documentation, keep looking. Rule of 3 applies, as always.





 
crockett 
Cannon
Posts: 6195
08-15-09 09:08 PM - Post#749263    

    In response to jbtusa

jbtusa: I agree with Pichou. I think whenever possible it is best to stick with methods that were written about at the time. I am just working from memory here but using a flintlock- I am sure I have read about that quite a bit. The Donner Party (1846) has it as well as the Pattie and there are others. There is also accounts of sending a shower of sparks from flint and steel into the tinder box plus waving a bird's nest in the air, etc. The punk, spunk, etc is spoken of quite a bit.
Trouble is (at least for me) there just wasn't enough details to be certain about some of the things like was the spunk/punk just dried wood/tinder Fungus, etc or had it been charred a bit, etc. That Marcy reference to gunpowder on a rag is from 1859 however Marcy had by that time been west for 25 years.

 
jbtusa 
45 Cal.
Posts: 596
jbtusa
08-24-09 09:49 AM - Post#752266    

    In response to jbtusa

Here's another quote about the fur trappers using a gun; i.e., gunpowder to start fire. It is from Rufus Sage, "Rocky Mountain Live; 1841", Chapter V:

"The night succeeding the departure of his companions, in an attempt to light a fire with his pistol, to disperse by its smoke the myriads of musquetoes that swarmed around and nearly devoured him, an unknown charge it contained was lodged in his thigh-bone."

 
crockett 
Cannon
Posts: 6195
08-24-09 01:18 PM - Post#752344    

    In response to jbtusa

jbtusa: If we get back to your original question on the char cloth and combine that with the several quotes you have given on using a firearm to light a fire, plus my Marcy and Donner references on the same thing- I think we can draw the conclusion that firearms were used to start fires. Obviously if a flint and steel was carried- that too was used.
Now about the char cloth...
It seems to me we have to figure how the firearm lit the fire. Marcy also said- which I didn't add before- that if a percussion gun was used to put the rag rubbed with gunpowder at the muzzle and enough fire came out the bore from a cap alone to ignite the rag- so, since Marcy arrived in 1834 and since he uses gun powder- even if rubbed on a rag, it seems that is at least one way to use a firearm to light a fire. If such a rag was not used to light a fire when using a firearm, then something still had to be used to catch a spark or flame. What would it have been? Tinder fungus? Punk?
On the cloth being too expensive- I would figure that expensive or not may not be the issue. Patches were used on bullets and maybe to clean the bore so cloth was used for such things and using a patch sized rag to have fire was probably a worthwhile trade off. So I would say rags or cloth were used to start a fire.It seems Marcy confirms this. BTW Stewart speaks of a "TOW MATCH" so if anyone carries bits of tow as tinder- it would seem pc.
I've never lit a fire using a firearm- if anyone has- how did you do it????

 
Anonymous 
08-24-09 01:32 PM - Post#752349    

    In response to jbtusa

  • jbtusa Said:
It supports my speculation that the old timers used gunpowder to start their fires because cloth and tin boxes were too expensive and in too short of supply to use for making fire or making charcloth.




And I'll 'speculate' that since they used cloth for patches, using cloth for fire-making may have been just as important. Clothes were wearing out all the time. Not all the worn out clothing was make into patches or thrown away.

There's no doubt that a fire can be started with a firearm. I speculate that it was much more practical, and cheaper in the long run, to use charred cloth than gun powder. Firing or unloading your gun every time you needed a fire doesn't seem as practical as carrying a little cloth (or other material).

 
Rod L 
50 Cal.
Posts: 1418
Rod L
08-24-09 02:05 PM - Post#752360    

    In response to Wolfen

But did they use cloth for patches? I'm just playing devil's advocate here, but there are solid references to using leather (presumably thin braintan) for rifle patches for the era/area. John Palliser, for one, specifically mentions using leather patched balls---and he's at Ft. Union--where they had plenty of cloth had he wanted it.

I'm just throwing that out to illustrate that they may or may not have used an item even if it was available to them. Yes, plenty of textiles were available, and I 'think' that they could well have been used for both patching and fire starting. I surely wish they'd have written more about the subject.

Maybe Palliser charred all his cloth so he had to use leather patches?

Rod

 
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