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Top hats on the plains.

After researching and writing "Umbrellas and Parasols on the Plains" [Whispering Wind, Volume 32, No.5], I began paying more attention to European objects that were adopted and then transformed by American Indians. In addition to umbrellas and parasols, other items such as vests, jackets, gauntlets, pants and top hats were adapted and decorated by native artisans.


The three objectives of this article include: a focus on top hats with a brief overview of how the beaver felt hat was manufactured; second, historic images of various Indians wearing top hats; last, a focus on one outstanding Lakota decorated top hat and contemporary reproductions.


The top hat of European and American manufacture was considered both fashionable and a status symbol. "The beaver felt top hat was the status symbol of authority for all bourgeois (translation: 'middle class shop keeper') on the frontier and the major millinery business in Europe and the Americas" [Lepley 23]. Furthermore "the trade in beaver fur was almost totally dependent on the hat trade" [Hanson 1]. In England, a single factory employing 1500 people was simultaneously making beaver hats, silk hats and felt hats from lesser quality furs and wools for sale in Europe and America.

One of the first images of an Indian and a top hat was the George Catlin painting of the Assiniboin man, Wi-ju-jon, or The Pigeon's Egg Head (also known as The Light) in 1832, going to Washington, D.C. in his traditional clothing and returning home in a military outfit and wearing a high-crowned beaver hat with a broad silver lace band, mounted with a two foot high red feather (Figure 1). Delegations to Washington, D.C. frequently received hats as gifts in recognition of their signing various treaties. This is illustrated by the 1858 photograph of a somber Indian treaty delegation to Washington, D.C. (Figure 2).


In the manufacture of a top hat, using beaver hair pounded into felt made the best hats. Beneath the beaver's guard hair is a soft layer of hair. "Shaved from the hide, the fine under fur was gently beaten into a layer of felt. The felt 'blank' was then steamed, shaped, rolled, pressed, and blocked until it assumed the appropriate shape of a hat. Like no other, beaver fur makes incredibly durable and water resistant felt" [Hanson 37]. The leather portion of the beaver hide was either discarded, or tanned and made into small items such as gloves. Lesser and inferior quality furs like rabbit, nutria, and muskrat were also used in making felt.

The expression "mad as a hatter" of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland fame comes from the use of mercury salt diluted in nitric acid which were used to break down the keratin coating on rabbit fur, thus making it felt properly. Prolonged exposure to the fumes and treated fur lead to palsy-like movements and dementia called "hatter's shakes". "In the final stages of hatter's shakes, the afflicted hatter went mad, the victim of a mercury induced psychosis" [Lepley 40]. Thus, "mad as a hatter" became common lexicon in the English language along with other fur trade slang like a "buck" for a dollar. A dollar was the common price for a deerskin in 1800. "Other fur trade connections include hooch; lock, stock and barrel; and a flash in the pan" [Hanson 31]. The opposite side of the fur trade created health problems as well: "one of the most popular trade goods, vermilion, a gaudy red, mercury-based paint whose prolonged use must have exacted a gruesome toll in mercury poisonings" [Nestor 79]. Plains Indians preferred Chinese vermilion paint to American paint.


The beaver fur trade was an important economic factor in the West: "In the year 1760 the Hudson Bay Company exported beaver fur for 576,000 hats to England" [Brundl 15]. It is ironic then that "most furs that the Indians trapped had little or no value to them. Before the traders began buying beaver for example, Native Americans rarely hunted them except for their own personal clothing and for food. Indians generally burned the hair off the beaver carcasses (as well as most other fur bearers) in the cooking process" [Hanson 29]. Trapping beaver was only the first challenge: "skinning a beaver was even more time consuming than trapping it. Beaver muscle adheres more intricately to the skin than that of other animals and thus takes more care and time to separate" [Nestor 89].


There is a prevailing myth that the availability of the silk top hat caused the end of the beaver fur trade and mountain man rendezvous. The reality is that the silk hat was invented long before the advent of the first rendezvous. "Substitutes such as nutria, muskrat, raccoon, and sheep wool had always been used in place of beaver and their use had driven down the price of beaver as long ago as the reign of William and Mary (1689-1694)" [Hanson 78]. Furthermore, the earlier high prices paid for beaver led to excessive trapping, and the increasing scarcity of beaver caused other furs to be substituted and the availability of even more silk hats.

Examples of the various shapes and colors of top hats can be seen in a photograph (Figure 3) of an exhibit at the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. Not far from Chadron, down the road, is the Heritage Center of the Red Cloud Indian School at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This collection has one of the most unusual and beautifully decorated top hats of that era (Figures 4 & 5). The exhibit documentation reads: "Chief American Horse's top hat, Oglala Sioux. The beaver skin felt top hat is typical of the clothing the federal government gave the Indian Chiefs to impress them. When American Horse got home, his wife thought the top hat was plain, and used her talent to decorate it giving it more meaning and culture as fitted her eye. This is believed to be the only known top hat so decorated to have survived."

I was so impressed with this top hat I prevailed upon Jack Scholl of Weather Hat Company in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to make a reproduction. I then asked Kathy and Bill Brewer of Indian Images to decorate it. The end result (Figure 6) is nearly identical to the original. Kathy related that her husband Bill did all the work on the reproduction top hat. He used regular 12/0 size seed beads around the brim. The bead colors are white, white-center red, and medium blue. The military eagle plate is an old one acquired off of the Internet. The brass chain is from an antique store--possibly a clock chain, and an old flag was used as the bunting around the base. Hand painted imitation eagle and hawk feathers, and white and red dyed turkey fluffs complete the project. Additional modern top hat reproductions (Figure 7) made by Chippewa artist, Michael McLeod, are available through the Prairie Edge store in Rapid City, South Dakota.

The Brewer reproduction top hat was photographed with three beaver skins on a four point Hudson Bay blanket, another staple of the fur trade with the Indians of the northern and central plains. "Points" are the small lines woven into a corner of the blanket that were used to indicate the finished size or weight of the blanket. "The 'point' became a unit of trade, equivalent to a currency standard. One point equaled one good, full-size 'made beaver'. The value of any trade item, previously stated in number of skins--the beaver standard--was eventually stated in points. By this point system, a trade blanket valued at three points was worth three good, full-size beaver skins" [Kapoun 27].


With silk hats becoming the fashion norm, the fur trade evolved in the early 1840s from beaver plews to buffalo robes. The growing demand for floor coverings, and buggy and sleigh lap robes in the Eastern United States and Western Europe, along with the demand for leather machine belts in the emerging industrial revolution, put great pressure on the herds. "While the robe trade increased, the beaver trade was dying. The tribes gained far more in trade for robes with less labor. Hunting buffalo was easier than trapping beaver, but not for women whose work increased considerably. They spent the winter preparing and tanning robes. One woman averaged about twenty robes a season. Polygamy increased during those years so each family would have more trading stock" [Lepley 117].

It is often observed that Native Americans were "resilient" and "adaptable" in their dealings with American-European cultural forces. "Fashion conscious" should apply to their acceptance of the top hat as a status item which they quickly adopted and decorated to their personal tastes.





Brundl, Heinz. Mythos Wild West. Germany: Hudson Bay Trading Post Publishing Co., 1999.

Hanson, James A. Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly 40:1 (Spring 2004). Chadron, Nebraska.

______ Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly 35:2,3 (Summer/Fall 1999). Chadron, Nebraska

______ "Say It Ain't So Joe Meek: Myths and Misconceptions of the Fur Trade Frontier." Proceedings, National Fur Trade Symposium (2003). Ft. Benton, Montana.

Kapoun, Robert W. Language of the Robe, American Indian Trade Blankets. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 1992.

Lepley, John G. Blackfoot Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2004.

Nestor, William R. The Arikara War--The First Plains Indian War, 1832. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 2001.

Pettit, Jan. Utes--The Mountain People. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Printing Company, 1990.

Special thanks to the following individuals in researching and preparing this article: Jane Rae, Larissa Lindsay, Jack R. Williams, Benson Lanford, Paul Goble, Ann Marie Donoghue, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Ruba Sadi of Colorado Historical Society, Kathy and Bill Brewer, and Jack Scholl.

Last, extra special thanks to Brother Simon S. J. of Red Cloud Indian School and Gail De Buse Potter, Museum of the Fur Trade, for access to their respective collections.
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Author:Durkin, Peter J.
Publication:Whispering Wind
Date:May 1, 2006
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