Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dagger of Admiral d’Estaing

In the chapter on the 1900’s in his monumental work Cutlery from its Origins to the Present Day, Camille Page writes: “Estaing knives: knives with this name were designed in 1780 by Admiral Estaing for use on board his ship. These knives can be used for dining, for cutting or for defense. There is some doubt though as to the true origins of this highly original knife that is no more no less than a straight folding knife. A first of its kind since up until then knives had been either straight or folding, but certainly never both at the same time. But let us attempt to penetrate the veil of mystery by exploring the legend of this unusual character.

Born in the castle of ravel (Puy-de-Dome) in 1729, Count Charles Henri d’Estaing joined the military establishment at a very young age. Musketeer to the king in 1738, aide-de-camp of the Marechal de Saxe in 1742, he was promoted to Captain in the Rouergue regiment in 1745 at just fifteen years old. Wounded for the first time during the War of Flanders, he was promoted to major in 1747 and two years later became ambassador’s secretary to the English Court. Soon he was in America, followed by the West Indies and Pondicherry. He participated in the taking of Madras (during which he was again wounded) and then went to Reunion. Appointed governor of the Leeward Islands, then vice admiral of the seas of Asia and Africa. He played a heroic part in the American War of Independence, took Grenada in 1779 and was wounded once more in Savannah. Appointed governor of Touraine, he became commander of the French National Guard in that terrible year of 1789 (The French Revolution), before finally being promoted admiral of France in 1794. However, he was arrested on the 28th of April of the same year during the Great Terror and guillotined, despite his republican and avant-garde convictions.

Estaing sailed all over the world and was clearly a man whose sixty-five years of life were amply filled. He was curious about everything. How could one not be I this century of Enlightenment that saw such illustrious names as Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Bach, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. A freemason, interested in both symbolism and the hidden side of things, it was clear that not just any knife would do for this man. The original model has never been found, and we have no detailed description of it. However we can get quite precise idea from the two models from this era exhibited in the Cutlery Museum of Thiers. One is composed of a long blade with an ivory handle that swivels on an axis partially fold over this blade. The handle of the second model does not pivot; instead the blade slides partially into the handle, enabling it to be used in the position required. Why such s particularity? Well, certainly for the simple pleasure and originality of it, but also for convenience. This knife enables one to carve a superb leg of lamb before sitting down at a table to consume it, after having folded the blade back down to a manageable size. It makes for easier carrying, enabling one to have an effective weapon for self defense since the admiral was rarely far from the front line.

But was such a mechanism the fruit of his own imagination? Or did “secret” knives inspire it? Or from “butterfly” models seen in the West Indies during one of his voyages? Or else from knives seen in London or America? Unfortunately, Admiral Estaing took his secret with him to his grave.

The ingenuity of such a system certainly did not escape the notice of the cutlers of Thiers, which was not far from the admiral’s estate. They modernized this knife to make it suitable for hunting, and today this is a particularly popular model.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Beaver Tail, For Bartering With The Indians

The vast American territories contained diverse resources that were exploited as soon as they were discovered. So it was that in 1807 a fur merchant named Manuel Lisa foresaw what could become a pelt empire. He established the first trading post on the Yellowstone to handle all of the skins in the region. In doing so, he blazed a trail that would stretch beyond the Rocky Mountains. There was no lack of furry animals on the continent, primarily beavers, but also gray, brown and black bears, as well as the enormous grizzlies, raccoons, lynxes, wildcats, silver and red foxes, wolves, coyotes, weasels, badgers, martens, otters, minks, ermines, polecats, wolverines, muskrats, sable, marmots, and squirrels, as well as mountain goats, mouflon sheep, moose, wapitis, and of course bison. Such a plethora of wildlife and potential pelts could not escape the attention of the governments of the various colonizing powers, England in particular. Two English trading companies were established in Oregon, the North-West Company and the Hudson Bay Company, whose goal was to collect as many pelts as possible and transport them back to England by sea. The number of pelts handled by these companies in the years up to 1840 was impressive. The famous “skin book” in which all transactions were noted, is most edifying on this point.

More than two hundred forts were built to safeguard transaction, which gives an idea of the extent of the operation that played an important role in the development of the continent. This trade gave birth to a new type of individual, the “mountain man,” a fearsome trapper who knew his territory like the back of his hand. Living on his own in the wild for months on end, after which time he would haul his pelts to the nearest fort either to sell them or exchange them for supplies, which might run from whiskey to a rifle and powder, a canoe, or a knife.

The Native Americans were also tempted to trade their pelts, which is how they were able to procure either knives or simply blades that they mounted on handles of their own manufacture. They were also greatly interested in tools, which they used for working the land. They started to make modifications to them after learning some of the secrets of the forge. This is how knives with large blades appeared as well as metal spearheads. Hatchets intended for shopping wood were turned into fearsome tomahawks and pipes of peace.

The type of knife most representative of this period of trade with the Hudson Bay Company is undoubtedly the “beaver tail” knife.

At this time, the vast majority of knives in the territories came from Sheffield, and certainly those traded by the company, since it was English. The shapes and sizes that suited the pioneer requirements the best were frequently developed and had nothing in common with the usual production. Having received an order for rustic blades to trade with the Native Americans, the English blade smiths opted for a “spearhead” model, sharpened on both sides. One series was flat sole, while another was mounted on a tang with two transversal fins. Nothing was simpler that fitting a handle to the flat sole and the tang to a shaft to make a spear, the fins enabling a sturdy ligature. But those two fins did not in any way prevent the blade from being used as a knife. When the company eventually closed, the Native Americans forged this kind of blade themselves from old files.

But in both Canada and America such models were later produced by various manufactures, which explains why so many of them were trades to tribes who had great difficulty in mastering the special technique required to produce double edged blades. Numerous engravings from the period show a brave or a chief carrying a beaver tail in a sheath slung around his neck, stuck in his belt, or on the end of a spear shaft or even on a “gunstock”, one of those sinister clubs that they wielded so artfully.

The beaver tail is certainly a fine representative object of this legendary time in American history.