Hudson's Bay Camp Knives

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Notchy Bob

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The topic of Hudson's Bay Camp knives came up in the Classified section, and rather than divert attention from the forum member's ad, we can move the discussion over here.

Just to be clear, we are talking about knives like this one:

Buffalo Knife.jpg


I don't remember how I first heard about these, but it was some time in the early seventies. Maybe from Carl Russell's book, Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men. There was an illustration of an HBC camp knife in that book, and a long paragraph of text discussing it. Not long after, I met a fellow who owned one, and he was kind enough to trace it and fill in the tracing with a very detailed drawing of the knife. I wanted one of my own after that. I narrowly missed getting an original at a very good price a few years ago, and as a consolation, I bought one from Dean Hazuka of Montana Americana. Dean makes a very good reproduction. This is the picture he took of my knife before he mailed it to me:

Hazuka HBC Knife 1.0.JPG

This is a big knife. She weighs 20 ounces without her nightgown, and the blade is 8-3/4" long by two inches wide at the choil. The blade is .232" thick, or just under a quarter of an inch. The handle is five inches long. The walnut scales are pinned on with iron pins through very large (3/4") sheet brass washers. The originals, when new, were typically hafted with water buffalo horn, imported from Asia to the cutlers of England. You occasionally see these with other materials for handles, like this one in the McCord Museum:

Nakoda, 1900-1906.jpg

This one reportedly has a "bone" handle. I suspect the original handle split or came off somehow, and was replaced in the field. You sometimes hear that these knives, as well as butcher knives, were sold as blade "blanks," to be hafted by the end users, but I haven't found anything in the primary source material to corroborate this. In my opinion, the "country made" handles were replacements.

The best information I have indicates these were first introduced by the HBC sometime in the mid-19th century. This was from a short article in Canada's History magazine (December 2012 - January 2013 issue), Spectacular Knife. Also, in an article entitled "Collection Corner - The Buffalo Knife," apparently by Charles Hanson, in the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly (Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall 1977), the author said, "During the last half of the nineteenth century a very spectacular knife was popular with the buffalo hunters on the western plains of Canada." If you are a hard-core reenactor, dates like this are important. The point being that you probably would not have seen one of these at a pre-1840 rendezvous. However, just today I found a listing online for a knife that may have been a direct ancestor of the camp knife. This one is dated 1834. It differs from the camp knife in some particulars, but you can see some similarities, too:

HBC 1834 Knife.jpg

In any event, these knives were very popular with the native and Metis hunters. In Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains (published in 1875), author James Carnegie wrote:

Southesk p. 214.png

In The Great Fur Land, published in 1879, Henry Robinson wrote:

Robinson p. 285-6.png

So, these knives were used for skinning and butchering animals large and small, and for cutting wood. John Ewers wrote that Blackfoot raiders carried "heavy knives," and these were used in construction of war lodges, which were A-framed structures of logs and poles used to provide shelter for men out on the trail. In the book, Piegan, by Richard Lancaster, it was recorded that large knives were used for digging "foxholes," or rifle pits. In his book, On Snowshoes to the Barren Grounds, Caspar Whitney reported his Dogrib companions carried similar knives:

Whitney, p. 180.png Whitney, p. 196.png

I have not really found any indication that the Anglo hunters or trappers used these much. You see frequent references in the literature to "butcher knives" and "scalping knives," but it appears from the reading I have done that the white fellows preferred hatchets for chopping. Dick Wooton said, "In a belt, which he [the typical trapper] always wore, he carried a couple of pistols, two large knives and a tomahawk. What we called a tomahawk was a kind of hatchet which we used to chop our meat up with, and in fact to do all the chopping that we had to do" ("Uncle Dick" Wootton, p.55). In My Sixty Years on the Plains, Bill Hamilton said, "Each man had his tooth-pick or large knife in his belt, besides a trapping hatchet. The latter contained two pounds of steel, a sharp and dangerous weapon in the hands of determined men who were contending for their lives" (p. 151).

So, what we have here is a very useful, multi-purpose wilderness tool that came into being sometime in the mid-1800's. This was a unique type of cutlery, specifically developed for the fur trade, and used for skinning everything from ground squirrels to buffalo. I think of it as primarily a Canadian knife, but we know for sure a few of them were carried south of the Medicine Line on the belts and in the hands of native and Metis hunters. The people who used these knives seemed to appreciate them, and more than one 20th century writer called them "spectacular."

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 
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Good topic!
I live in Minn, right there next to that Canada thing, and the Wisconsin thing, and actual early trade,,
(i think they call it history).
, and the Hudson Bay Camp Knife has been "morphed" into so many variations available today that,
,, it's just as easy to buy a Bowie Knife and change the name.
Just simply look at the offerings in our own forum,,

In my searching, I've found that the knife is a large, thick, low carbon steel blade. It was sought after not only for it's size, but the ability of the steel to easily be brought to a razor edge\ even after hard use.
I hope this topic finds someone with ,,, at least something to dispel the myth.
 

Notchy Bob

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@necchi ,

Thank you for your comments. Your point about low-carbon steel is appreciated. The quote above from James Carnegie, Earl of Southesk, mentioned touching up the edge on a smooth river stone, and Edwin Thompson Denig, in his monograph on the Assiniboine, specifically mentioned "soft steel" blades on trade knives. I believe ease of sharpening was much appreciated.

I would also agree that there are many modern iterations of this knife which differ from the originals in various particulars. Bark River Knives has made at least two versions of it, and Matt Lesniewski of ML Knives offers his own variant. Condor Tools actually nailed the blade shape and outline of the handle with their version of the HBC Camp Knife, although I don't really care for their pebbled blade finish, and they use walnut scales with simple pins for attachment. However, the Condor knife does provide a real sense of the true "feel" of these big choppers. Somebody with the right skills and tools could re-work one of the Condor HBC knives and make it into an excellent replica.

I hope forum members will show us some of their own camp knives.

Best regards,

Notchy Bob
 
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Thanks for posting this Brent, very timely for me as I have been researching this knife and intend to make an accurate replica very soon. If I may, I can add a little bit more information about this interesting knife. These knives were made for HBC by Jukes & Coulson and imported from Sheffield England. There were many different variants but basically two models. The Chiefs model with two pins and brass bolsters and one with three pins and no bolster. The Chiefs model had Buffalo horn scales, I'm assuming probably Asian Buffalo , the three pin knife had Walnut scales. This knife could have possibly been around in the 1830's but the information I have found about Jukes & Coulson dates them to the 1850's. Hudson Bay Co. had this knife in there inventory as late as the 1890's .I am sure that many of the surviving HBC knives could have been possible rehandled. These knives were used and abused, Bovine horn does not age well and is susceptible to insect damage. As with any items from this time period nothing is absolute, take a look at this one pin
484884360_fd51929d-d2d4-41ee-9287-3539861ab8c1.jpg
marked Jukes & Coulson with what appears to be Walnut scales
 

Notchy Bob

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Thank you, Dan. Good post! That adds to our fund of knowledge regarding these interesting knives. I did not know about the walnut handles being used on originals. I had heard that ebony was sometimes used, but I have been unable to verify that.

The photograph of the original HBC knife is appreciated. I've collected a lot of images of various frontier knives, but I haven't seen this one before.

I don't doubt that these knives took a beating, and the handle would probably be the part most susceptible to damage. The handle of the "musk ox hunting knife" illustrated by Caspar Whitney and reproduced in post #1 appears to have been wrapped. There is an HBC Camp Knife in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), collected from one of the Athabaskan groups in the Northwest Territories, has a very tight wrapping of hide covering almost all of the handle. We wonder if this might have been to reinforce a fractured handle slab.

I agree that the horn used for hafting the originals was likely from Asiatic water buffalo. I have examined and worked with a number of American bison horns, from young bulls, large, fully matured bulls, and females. Bison horns just don't have sufficient solid material in them that is thick enough for knife handle slabs. I did see one knife of the general type being discussed that had horn scales of a light, honey color, but it was the only one of its type that I know of.

I'm sure a lot of us are looking forward to seeing your HBC Camp Knife reproduction. I hope you'll show it here on the forum!

Notchy Bob
 
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Interesting piece about HB camp Knives the late Freddy James of Broomspring Lane Sheffield used to make such knives I think I still have a pattern & Black buff was heated & compressed Indian Water Buffalo bought in & cut up on Rockingham Street at the works of Scarlet & Whitting much from a concern called Hallsown Horn Co they sawed it & Stag to order for scales . I bought all sorts to supply the Middletons Cutlers at Halfway Nr Sheffield formally of Rockingham Street & Georgy Watts smithed out blank blades for me Ide buy them down Shales Moor way & tie them onto my pushbike & wheel the strips up to Broomspring lane for Georgy who later went & worked at the Kelham Industrial Museum just free shop & he did any ones order & Rowland Swindon ground me Blades but the Middletons where the best finnish . Ivy James continued at Broomspring lane she gave me a Bowie we got on very well but Geoge was much dearer so I bought the Middelton's mostly & they where good but I think they are all gone now probably along with Stan Shaw on Garden Street Not sure the only bad cutler was a young crook worked at Kelem cant even remember his name but he was a crook right enough. The Damn Master Cutlers at the' Cutlers Hall where most all steel works executives couldn't cuttle a knife if they tried But allowed all the rubbish churned out by the likes of German Rickarts / Richards gas lamp mark junk . just trading on the name of Sheffield while the Communist Council couldnt care less and happily tore down the ratty garrets, of real Cutlers to make car parks
.Rudyard Bitter ? yup he is .
but Ime about to join the real cutlers There are many knifes in the U S Bare my My name (Not' Rudyard' mind )& Mark but while I can Cuttle I mostly was a '' Factor or Merchant I mostly made dirks mid 18th style carved Knot work sort with sheath & by knives no silly forks or ginger bread stones .There ' Scottish foppery 'I sold that stuff too of course' moneys money - Regards Rudyard
 

Notchy Bob

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Mr Flint Do you intend to annoy me ? There was an idiot called black hand tried his damnest to offend me . He got his come uppance , Couldn't see the woods for the trees . Thats 2,118 Posts ago & even more' likes'. Don't come the "I know my grammar " with Me Charlie Brown.
Rudyard
 

Loyalist Dave

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Mr Flint Do you intend to annoy me ? There was an idiot called black hand tried his damnest to offend me . He got his come uppance , Couldn't see the woods for the trees . Thats 2,118 Posts ago & even more' likes'. Don't come the "I know my grammar " with Me Charlie Brown.
Rudyard
Relax folks, he's gone,

Lets get back to taking about knives..., :thumb:

LD
 
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Hi fellas and folks,
I am a long time student of the North American blades tradition, but somehow I missed a knife...

Thank you for the good photos of originals and comments



This hbc unit and following exmple with Metis infuenced handle, has a critical role in the early development of the allamerican knife.

Amazing as I now see it is directly related the imported sheffield.

Everything that was old, is new again.




161598-HBC-1834-Knife.jpg


james-black-blacksmith-1d552059-5b21-4aa2-8b01-dd822b59da5-resize-750.jpeg

157580-Buffalo-Knife.jpg
 
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SBJ

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Oddly, all of these are HB Trade knives, and a few more. People focus on the "Camp Knife" because its big and shiny.
 

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Notchy Bob

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Oddly, all of these are HB Trade knives, and a few more. People focus on the "Camp Knife" because its big and shiny.
Very true. However, this particular thread was intended to focus on that one specific style, the Hudson’s Bay Camp Knife. We like big, shiny knives!

It would be great to have some additional discussions of the fur trade bayonets, dags, and crooked knives, in addition to the scalpers, butcher knives, and myriad others traded by the HBC. Most of these actually pre-dated the HBC Camp Knife, which I believe was introduced some time in the 1850’s.

Thanks for your comments!

Notchy Bob
 
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I recall I did write of' Crooked' /' canoe ' knives, R & left handed &' Indian awls' the' small change' of the fur trade . Plus different sizes of Blackfoot Dags I had these made & all or most all went to Canada & the US They should have a Bear & My name if there from my exporting The Bowies Middletons or any name the customer wanted . Cutlers didn't care what name or mark their work had So long as they got paid . If a firm sold Skinners & the customer wanted scissors they didnt make, They didnt say " cant do" They got a firm that did make scissors & had their name & mark on that order ' Factoring ' normal business practice .Nothing has 'Rudyard' on it no gun no knife ,Just these posts . All I cuttled where Scots dirk hilts & Sheaves with added by knives now & then .Oh & one brass hilted sword
Regards Rudyard
 
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