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Trappings of Expansion: Tools key in successful exploration

Discovery, expansion and survival during the establishment of the American West wasn't for the faint of heart, or weak tools, as Antoinette Rahn shares in this story about frontier accoutrements.

By Antoinette Rahn

Depending on to whom you speak, a myriad of “frontiers” have been discovered, encountered, braved and settled within the history of humanity, the origin of the United States and even in fictional space storylines. Does the “final frontier” ring a bell?

A common thread among these decidedly different frontiers, especially the earlier frontiers, is the fact

Powder Horn

14-inch, engrained edge Moses Walcut powder horn, made at Fort Edward in 1758, sold for $25,850. (Photo courtesy Cowan's Auctions)

that everyday tools and accouterments were few, and each one had a purpose. Every item served a function in the daily survival and development of purposeful people. The items mattered in the most basic and primitive way, and with that awareness came the knowledge that upkeep and preservation of said tools and accouterments was essential.

“Generally, the first settlers had few possession, and what possessions they did have were necessary for such basic activities as cooking, sleeping and farming,” said David Puckett, director of the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia.

Most accounts of earlier frontier life suggest the most common accouterments include axes, firearms, hoes, knives, cast-iron pots, frying pans, wooden/pewter/tin dishes and blankets, Puckett explained. In some instances, something as simple as eating utensils and cookware, beyond cast-iron pots, were seen as luxuries, offered Greg Bray, executive director of the Pricketts Fort Memorial Foundation. Pricketts Fort, located in Fairmont, West Virginia, is a living history museum, like the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia.

More than 100 years after these accouterments were key elements of survival in the frontier, they generate considerable interest on the secondary market. A belt axe, discovered near a fur trade encampment in the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado, sold for $875 during an auction presented by Guernsey’s in July 2013. In addition, an original Blackfoot Native American hand-crafted Bowie knife with an elk antler handle and copper rivets, believed to be from 1800-1880, realized $345 during a January 2015 auction facilitated by North American Auction Co. During the same January auction, a hand-forged copper pot, from the same time period, sold for $177.

Fur trade map

At left, 1838 map identifying trading depots or forts connected with fur trade in the West. Sold for $674 in 2012. (Photo courtesy PBA Galleries)

Before finding their way into the hands of the winning bidders at auction, the accoutrements above may have traveled many miles in the hands of various people as they crossed unchartered lands of the American frontier. With this settlement period occurring between the early 17th century through the early 20th century, that affords a lot of time for discovery and development to occur. As the English moved westward from the Atlantic Coast, settlers from France, Spain and Holland followed decisively different routes, as explained on With many French fur traders moving north to Canada, across the Great Lakes and west to the Rocky Mountains, their paths were more migratory than permanent. Unlike the Dutch, who established villages and trading posts largely within the Hudson River Valley.

As history reveals, one impetus of expansion into new territories, unfortunately, was warfare and battles. Whether it was the French and Indian War of the 1760s, the American Revolution which began in 1775, various battles which took place during the 1800s between European settlers and Native Americans who were displaced from the lands they resided in within the West or the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, the migration was marked by conflict, bloodshed and great challenges. At the same time, it was also seen as a period of significant advancement, historic discovery and cultural evolution.

This dichotomy is an important aspect of the nation’s “backcountry” history that personnel of the Frontier Culture Museum share with visitors.

“Simply put, the backcountry refers to the lands that lie west of the Atlantic coastal plain where Europeans first settled, and could be said to constitute America’s first frontier,” Puckett said. “We also make the point that the ‘frontier’ is a zone where different cultures (Europeans, Africans, Native Americans) interacted with each other. Often, these interactions result in mutually beneficial exchanges, but they were also characterized by conflict.”

With the earliest settlers quickly calling the East Coast home, by the time the West was settled, several years had passed, and with it came a uniquely diverse society from one part of the country to the next. The cultural landscape of the Old West during the Gold Rush was decidedly different from that of the colonies established along the Atlantic seaboard. Yet, despite the contrasts, many of the accouterments utilized remained the same. Among those items are firearms.

Winchester 1866

Exceptional Special Order Winchester Model 1866 Lever Action Rifle. (Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions)

Today, the interest in firearms associated with the frontier and Old West is widespread and steeped heavily in history, explained Joel Kolander, Interactive Production Manager for Rock Island Auctions.
“Not only the history of firearms development, as firearms moved from blackpowder, to breech loaders, to cartridge guns and so on, but the history of our young nation,” he said. “That period in history has been romanticized for a long time, and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

“The cowboys, the cattle drives, the gamblers, the Native Americans, the boom towns, plus the battles between the law and outlaw, and man versus nature, generate an enormous amount of interest. It’s survival and making your own destiny. People want to touch and own that — their own little piece in their hands.”

When it comes to firearms, those that attract the largest bids always have up to three primary characteristics, with a kicker, Kolander described. Immaculate craftsmanship, rarity or ties to well-known history are the three that influence price, but condition, as in most antiques and collectibles, is the key.

belt axe

This Hudson Bay belt axe, mounted on wood, was found in the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado, near the site of a fur trade encampment, and sold for $875 in 2013.(Photo courtesy Guernsey’s)

“Ultimately, condition determines the highest prices,” Kolander added. “Many guns can get to the 90-97 percent condition, and those are already excellent guns, but that last 2-3 percent is what can really skyrocket a value.”

As discussed earlier, those for whom these items — now fascinating collectibles — were essentials of daily survival had great incentive to maintain and protect the operation of their accouterments. In many cases, their lives depended on it.

An example of the impact meticulous care can have on a firearm, and the impression it has among collectors, can be observed in auction results involving an iron frame Henry rifle sold by Rock Island Auctions in September 2013. The firearm, part of the Mac McCroskie Collection, was appealing because Henry rifles are largely recognized as the predecessor to the perpetually popular Winchester firearms, according to Kolander. In addition, the Henry rifle’s brass-framed counterparts add to its rarity, and finally, the condition of the rifle was “miraculous.”

“It’s near impossible for a gun to survive in that condition, for over a century-and-a-half, especially in eras without climate controls, humidity controls, white gloves or any other type of museum-grade preservation tools.” By the time the gavel fell during the 2013 auction, the sale price of the Henry rifle reached $603,750.

At Pricketts Fort, events like the School of the Longhunter appeal to those who seek to learn more about the accouterments and elements of the frontier settler. This year’s event, Bray explained, attracted 18th century re-enactors from across the United States to learn about birch bark canoes, forts located in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, trapping, blanket cots and dying wool. In the 21 years the Fort has offered this program, topics including firearms, powder horns, knives, tomahawks, and packhorses have been explored. Although most re-enactors use reproductions in their experiences, on rare occasions some original objects are used; and it’s about learning and doing as your ancestors did, Bray added.

For those who are more interested in learning about the frontier life, without trying to completely relive it, both Pricketts Fort and the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia appeal to those interests.
The Frontier Culture Museum, established in 1975, occupies 180 acres, and contains various exhibits and displays, related to the period of 1640 to 1860, with an emphasis on the 18th century. Although the museum uses reproduction items for demonstrations, there is a permanent collection of original artifacts, many dating back to the 18th century. The museum attracts 65,000 visitors each year.

Of the various exhibits of the Frontier Culture Museum, one of the most popular is the 1740s


Re-enactors embrace the frontier and colonial spirit during gatherings at Pricketts Fort, Fairmont, West Virginia. (Photo courtesy Pricketts Fort)

American Farm exhibit, Puckett said. It consists of a small, one-room log cabin, furnished very simply with cookware, bedding, simple farm tools and a few chests.

“I think most visitors are amazed by the crude nature of frontier life, but I also think many find the simplicity of frontier life appealing, in comparison to modern life,” he said. “However, we hope that the emphasis we place on the diverse nature of life, on the colonial American frontier, is what resonates most; and that the Appalachian frontier is where people from the Old World (Europe and Africa) mingled together with Native Americans to create a ‘frontier culture’ which eventually became a unique American culture.”

Another shared space among collectors, historians and re-enactors of frontier and Old West interests are shows.

Brian Lebel, founder and director of Brian Lebel’s Old West Events, has seen the market change in his three decades of involvement. Lebel’s offerings focus more on the Old West period of discovery and development, from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

“When I first started doing this 30 years ago, the market was really strong, and then it slowed down a bit, but the momentum picked up again a few years ago, and today it is great,” Lebel said.
Among the factors influencing the appeal of the market, Lebel explains, is the ongoing fascination with the historic elements of that time period — the desire to know more about this part of the American heritage, the interest in owning pieces of history that are hard to come by and the appearance of more frontier and Old West accouterments on television shows dedicated to antiques and collections.

“It’s a time period that really tells a story,” he said. “Western expansion, the cattle drive, the Gold Rush, people looking for jobs and new lives in a part of the country that was an unknown, are all part of the story of this time in history.”

That story comes alive during the shows and auctions Brian Lebel’s presents twice a year. During the Fort Worth Show (held June 6-7) visitors were sure to find spurs, Bowie knives, firearms and beaded garments, among other artifacts. The variety of items presented by dealers at the shows also makes it a great atmosphere for learning, Lebel added.

Bear trap

Early American Fur and Trade Company Hudson Bay Company Number 6 Grizzly Bear Trap. Measures 44 inches long with a 6-1/4 inch pan, sold for $1,652 in 2015. (Photo courtesy North American Auction Company)

“Many knowledgeable people are in the same place, and visitors can talk to them and get immediate information about an item or about pieces from that time period,” he said. “The majority of people who set up at our shows also want to educate people about the items of the Old West. They want to share the correct information, because they truly care about what they’re doing.”

In addition to learning, buying and selling, the opportunity to view, in person, accouterments with a storied history or ties to legendary people has its appeal.

During the auction portion of Lebel’s Fort Worth show, a grouping of items related to Annie Oakley, including her Remington 12B “Gallery Special,” was expected to fetch between $300,000 and $325,000, while the revolver that killed Morgan Earp was also expected to cross the auction block. The .45 caliber, U.S. Calvary Colt SAA, circa 1873, which was used by Frank Stilwell to shoot Morgan Earp, and ultimately retrieved from Stilwell’s body by Wyatt Earp after avenging the death of his brother, was expected to command between $175,000 and $225,000.

As with any antique and collectible market, fakes are part of the frontier and Old West accouterment landscape, which makes educating oneself, through books, by participating in auctions, attending shows and visiting museums, an important aspect of being a collector, Lebel explained.

“Authenticating items is something we talk about every day,” he said. “We take people consigning things, and buying, very, very seriously. My best piece of advice is to ask for provenance, check out the person you are dealing with, and examine items as closely as you can.

“The other thing that’s important is knowing and respecting the difference between reproductions and fakes. People who duplicate items and sell them as authentic are committing fraud. When it comes to reproductions, so many things people are selling (as reproductions) at our shows are made by those who’ve learned the trade from a family member — using the same techniques passed down through generations.”

Whether the interest in frontier accouterments is based on the desire to own something with a storied past, explore a culture long gone but not entirely forgotten or to simply have a more tangible or deeper connection to the American heritage, the opportunities to fulfill that interest exist – just as there are people who are ready and willing to assist with the discovery.