Adirondack Pack Baskets

Basket weaving is the oldest and most widespread art in the history of human civilization; from Native Americans to diverse African clans to the American Shakers, many cultures have practiced this art over the centuries in their own unique, characteristic manner. Materials utilized for baskets include reed (also known as rattan), oak, hickory, willow, grass, animal hide, hair and byproducts like porcupine quills, various woods, grasses and stems—basically anything that can be plied, bent and woven.

Hunters using traditional basket packs. (Image courtesy of Adirondack History Museum)

Hunters carrying Adirondack pack baskets. (Image courtesy of Adirondack History Museum)

The exact beginnings of basket weaving are unknown due to the typically decomposable, organic materials, but the oldest known basket fragment  has been carbon-dated to about 17,000 BCE. The earliest wares were receptacles for food and grains, traded as currency and used in religious ceremonies. They were equally valued by early Americans as well; in 1993, archeologists working in the Olympic National Park of Washington state found a remnant of a basket that was dated to 2,900 BCE.

Apache girl carrying a basket, 1902.

“Apache girl with basket,” by Carl Werntz, circa 1902. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

The most famous basket maker is Dat-so-la-lee (1829-1925), aka Louisa Keyser, of the Washoe tribe in Nevada. Her work was highly publicized and sold to a wide market. A basket made by Dat So La Lee fetched as much as $25,000 at auction.

Dat-so-la-lee, Washoe artist. (Image courtesy of Nevada Historical Society)

Dat-so-la-lee (1829-1925), famous basket artist. (Image courtesy of Nevada Historical Society)

Pack baskets, woven containers originally used by early indigenous American peoples to carry game, fish, and gathered fruit, were slung over the back, leaving the hands free. This simple design was later adopted by early settlers and hunters that began inhabiting the mountainous areas of New York state, Vermont and Maine. Today, these are colloquially referred to as “Adirondack pack baskets” due to their use by outdoorsmen and women in this region, especially in the mountainous range of New York by the same name.

Fish baskets, 1909. (Image courtesy of shorpy.com)

Men selling fish in baskets in 1909. (Image courtesy of shorpy.com)

A traditional Adirondack pack basket is woven with wood harvested from the interior of the Black Ash tree. This particular species yields splints that are satiny in finish and have the ability to withstand moisture. First, a suitable tree, growing straight and free of knots, must be identified. The harvested logs are then pounded into ten-foot strips that are scraped smooth. Finally, the strips are woven together into the desirable bowed shape, with a protruding “belly” to maximize the volume of objects that can be carried.  These original packs made by Native Americans had woven straps of grass; settlers and hunters preferred theirs with leather or webbed fabric harnesses called “Shaker straps” which ensured a comfortable yet secure fit.

Two hunters carrying pack baskets. (Image via adirondackhistory.org)

“The distinct lifestyles of guide and sport are obvious from dress and stance.” (Image via adirondackhistory.org)

With the perfection of plastics in the 1950s, the widespread popularity of natural baskets eventually declined. Still, the benefits of these light, pliable, durable containers continue to be held in high regard throughout the rural Northeast. These days, they can even be found on the backs of city dwellers who use them to carry their heirloom tomatoes and pixie tangerines from the local farmers’ market.

Man standing in the forest with a pack basket on his back. (Image via adirondackhistory.org)

Man with Adirondack basket. (Image via adirondackhistory.org)

FURTHER READING

The Arts of the North American Indian: Native Traditions in Evolution by Edwin L. Wade

Basketmakers.com, Adirondack Pack Baskets

 

 

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