CHAPTER III. The Early History of the Navaho Blanket

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER II. The Birth and Growth of the Art of Navaho Blanket-Waving Next: CHAPTER IV. The Bayeta Blanket of the Navaho

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I HAVE already traced the broad and general development of the art of weaving among the Navahos both before and after the coming of the Spaniards. In this chapter let me show the condition of the art when the Americans first came in contact with the Navahos up to the time when blanket-weaving began to deteriorate.

Long before the country of the Navahos—New Mexico—came under the control of the United States, stories were told, now and again, by that intrepid race of men, the trappers, who have generally been the forerunners of civilization, of Indians who wove marvelous blankets, and—rarer even than the stories—a trapper would buy and bring home to his friends one of these remarkable specimens of aboriginal weave. As they somewhat resembled the fine serapes of the Mexican they were generally termed Serape-Navahos, or Navaho-Serapes, and were regarded as great curiosities, and by the informed as remarkable specimens of the weaver's art. But, as practically nothing was known of the Indians who wove them, nor of the primitive loom upon which they were constructed, their wonderful qualities were insufficiently appreciated even by those who realized somewhat of their superlative workmanship.

Josiah Gregg, in Commerce of the Prairies (New York, 1844), gives one of the earliest comments upon the Navahos and their blankets, viz.:

They reside in the main range of the Cordilleras, one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles west of Santa Fe, on the waters of the Rio Colorado of California, not far from the region, according to historians, from whence the Aztecs emigrated to Mexico; and there are many reasons to suppose them direct descendants from the remnant, which remained in the north, of this celebrated nation of antiquity. Although they live in rude jacales, somewhat resembling the wigwams of the Pawnees, yet, from time immemorial, they have excelled all others in their original manufactures; and as well as the Moquies [the Hopis], they are still distinguished for some exquisite styles of cotton textures, and display considerable ingenuity in embroidering with feathers the skins of animals, according to their primitive practice. They now, also, manufacture a singular species of blanket, known as the Sarape-Navaho, which is of so close and dense a texture that it will frequently hold water almost equal to hum-elastic cloth. It is therefore highly prized for protection against the rains. Some of the finer qualities are often sold among the Mexicans as high as $50 or $60 each.

Fig. 4 is a blanket of this type. For full description, see page 34.

FIG. 11. Old Bayeta Saddle Blanket. (Author's Collection.) [PAGE 34]

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When the conquest of New Mexico was undertaken the outside world began to hear further, and see more, of these specimens of aboriginal handicraft. In September, 1846, Major Emory, U.S.A., sent out on a military reconnoissance, visited the pueblo of Santo Domingo, New Mexico. He says:

We were shown into his reverence's parlor, tapestried with curtains stamped with the likenesses of the Presidents of the United States up to this time. The cushions were of spotless damask and the couch covered with a white Navaho blanket worked in richly colored flowers.

I have seen this very room and the blanket to which he refers. It was not a Navaho blanket, but a ceremonial blanket of Pueblo Indian weave, made of native cotton, and the ‘‘„flowers„’’ were the embroidered work in colors done by hand, exactly as the Hopis embroider their ceremonial blankets and kilts today. (Fig. 5.)

A little later in his report Emory tells of meeting some Indians that he took for ‘‘„Pimos-Apaches.„’’ He thus describes their spinning and the loom:

A woman was seated on the ground under the shade of a cottonwood. Her left leg was tucked under her and her foot turned sole upward; between her big toe and the next was a spindle about eighteen inches long, with a single fly of four or six inches. Ever and anon she gave it a twist in a dexterous manner, and at its end was drawn a coarse cotton thread. This was their spinning jenny. Led on by this primitive display, I asked for their loom by pointing to the thread and then to the blanket girded about the woman's loins. A fellow stretched in the dust, sunning himself, rose leisurely and untied a bundle which I had supposed to be a bow and arrow. This little package, with four stakes in the ground was the loom. He stretched his cloth and commenced the process of weaving.

J. T. Hughes, in his story, Doniphan's Expedition, 1847, thus tells of his colonel's reception and appreciation of several blankets:

The chief presented Colonel Doniphan with several fine Navaho blankets, the manufacture of which discovers great ingenuity, having been spun and woven without the advantage of wheels or looms, by a people living in the open air, without houses or tents. Of these the colors are exceedingly brilliant, and the designs and figures in good taste. The fabric is not only so thick and compact as to turn rain, but to hold water as a vessel. They are used by the Navahos as a cloak in the day time, and converted into a pallet at night. Colonel Doniphan designs sending those which he brought home with him to the war department at Washington, as specimens of Navaho manufacture.

Lieut. J. H. Simpson, in his Report on the Navaho Country, 1852, already takes it for granted that his readers are familiar with the Navaho blanket, for he says in one place:

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It seems anomalous to me that a nation living in such miserably-constructed mud lodges should, at the same time, be capable of making, probably, the best blankets in the world!

In 1854 Dr. Letherman wrote to the Smithsonian Institution about the Navaho blanket as follows:

The spinning and weaving is done by the women, and by hand. The thread is made entirely by hand, and is coarse and uneven. The blanket is woven by a tedious and rude process, after the manner of the Pueblo Indians, and is very coarse, thick, and heavy, with little nap, and cannot bear comparison with an American blanket for warmth and comfort. Many of them are woven so closely as to hold water; but this is of little advantage, for when worn during a rain they become saturated with water, and are then uncomfortably heavy. The colors are red, blue, black, and yellow; black and red being the most common. The red strands are obtained by unravelling red cloth, black by using the wool of black sheep, blue by dissolving indigo in fermented urine, and yellow is said to be produced by coloring with a particular flower. The colors are woven in bands and diamonds. We have never observed blankets with figures of a complicated pattern. Occasionally a blanket is seen which is quite handsome, and costs at the same time the extravagant price of forty or fifty dollars; these, however, are very scarce, and are generally made for a special purpose. The Indians prefer an American blanket, as it is lighter and much warmer. The article manufactured by them is superior, because of its thickness, to that made in the United States, for placing between the bed and the ground when bivouacking, and this is the only use it can be put to in which its superiority is shown. The manner of weaving is peculiar, and is, no doubt, original with these people and the neighboring tribes; and, taken in connection with the fact of some dilapidated buildings (not of Spanish structure) being found in different portions of the country, it has suggested the idea that they may once have been what are usually called ‘‘„Pueblo Indians.„’’1

John Russell Bartlett, who was connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, in his Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas and New Mexico, 1854, thus speaks of the Navaho and his blanket:

On one occasion our camp was visited by a band of Navaho Indians, four hundred of whom were encamped on the banks of the Gila. This is a formidable, warlike, and treacherous tribe which descends from their strongholds in the canyons west of Santa Fe and robs the inhabitants of New Mexico of their cattle and sheep. They had heard of our party, and had taken advantage of the friendly manner in which the Apaches came to us to accompany them. With the exception of a different style in their boots, and in the manner of arranging their hair, their dress appeared the same. Their bows, arrows, and lances were the same, and the helmet shaped headdress did not materially differ. The Navahos had a very fine description of woolen blankets of their own manufacture, which they used to cover their bodies when it was cold, as well as for saddle cloths. These blankets are superior to any native fabric I have ever seen; in fact, they are quite equal to the best English blankets, except

Fig. 12. Rare Old Bayeta. (In American Museum of Natural History.) [Page 35]

Fig. 13. Rare Old Bayeta. (In Metropolitan Museum of Art.) [Page 35]

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that they are without any nap. I have been told that they spin and dye the wool, which they raise themselves; though others assert that the richer colors are obtained by unravelling fine scarlet blankets of English manufacture, the threads of which are then used in the weaving of their own. Whether this is true or not I am unable to say. At any rate, even if true, this forms but a very small portion of the fabric, the remainder of which is undoubtedly spun and woven by themselves.

We had some little bartering with these people, giving them shirts and other wearing apparel for their bows and arrows and caps, and some of our party were so fortunate as to obtain some fine specimens of their blankets. I got a small one of inferior quality, but sufficient to show the style of their manufacture.

The ‘‘„Boy Scout,„’’ William F. Drannan, who published in 1908 his Thirty-one Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, states therein that in 1865 he was scouting with Lieutenant Jacobson, of Fort Yuma, in southern Arizona and there saw an unusual Navaho blanket. Here is what he says, page 420:

One day, while I was out on a scouting tour, I ran on to a little band of Navaho Indians on their way to the St. Louis Mountains for a hunt. They had some blankets with them of their own manufacture, and being confident that the lieutenant had never seen a blanket of that kind, I induced them to go with me to our quarters to show their blankets to the lieutenant and others as well. I told the lieutenant that he could carry water in one of those all day and it would not leak through. He took one of them, he taking two corners and I two, and the third man poured a bucket of water in the center of it, and we carried it twenty rods and the water did not leak through it. The lieutenant asked how long it took to make one of them, and the Indian said it took about six months. He bought a blanket for five dollars, being about all the silver dollars in the command. The blanket had a horse worked in each corner, of various colors, also a man in the center with a spear in his hand. How this could be done was a mystery to all of us, as it contained many colors and showed identically the same on both sides.

In 1854 the Indian Commissioner's Report contained the following in speaking of the Navahos: ‘‘„They are the manufacturers of a superb quality of blankets that are waterproof, as well as of coarser woolens.„’’

It is evident, therefore, that over sixty years ago the Navahos were experts in the art of blanket-weaving, making an object ‘‘„whose quality and artistic execution excited the attention and appealed to the esthetic tastes of cultured and educated men.„’’

These are the rare blankets of the olden days that are so much prized today by museums and collectors. They are practically worth their weight in gold. Charles F. Lummis, in his Some Strange Corners of Our Country, thus speaks of their rarity and value:

The very highest grade of Navaho blankets is now very rare. It is a dozen years since any of them have been made; the yarn blankets which are far less expensive and sell just as well to the ignorant traveler, have entirely supplanted

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them. Only a few of the precious old ones remain—a few in the hands of the wealthy Pueblo Indians and Mexicans—and they are almost priceless. I know every such blanket in the Southwest, and, outside of one or two private collections, the specimens can be counted on one's fingers. The colors of these choicest blankets are red, white, and blue, or, rarely, just red and white. In a very few specimens there is also a little black. Red is very much the prevailing color, and takes up some four-fifths of the blanket, the other colors merely drawing a pattern on a red ground.

Fig. 14. Portion of Center Panel of Fig. 13. [Page 35]

Fig. 15. Fine Bayeta. (In Metropolitan Museum of Art.) [Page 35]


1. Smithsonian Report, 1855, P. 291.

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