Alaskan Aleutian Island Basketry Wallet, c. last quarter 19th century, made from natural grasses, natural and red-dyed sea mammal gut, blue-dyed wool or mammal hair, and native tanned rawhide, wd. 11, ht. 4 1/2 in.
Provenance: Collected by Captain William Trotter (1769-1822).
Literature: Eighteenth Century Global Trade, The Logs of Captain William Trotter, Maryanne Tefft Force, 2012.
A complete essay by Sarah and William Turnbaugh:
Wallet or basketry case (Qiigam aygaaxsii). Probably Unangan Aleut, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, ca. 1790s. American dunegrass or beach wildrye grass (Leymus mollis ssp. mollis, syn. Elymus mollis), natural and red-dyed sea mammal gut, blue-dyed wool or mammal hair, native-tanned rawhide closure-remnant stub swabbed red on outer surface only, two-ply S-twist sinew. Close two-strand twining, about 26 twined rows by 20 stitches per inch (520 stitches per sq. in.), three simple bound selvages with warps folded down, one simple clipped selvage (right side). Remnants of undyed and red-dyed sea mammal gut edging all selvages, nine rows of decorative false embroidery using natural and variously colored grasses to create stripes, six decorative false-embroidered interrupted bands of blue-dyed wool or mammal hair. Collected by Capt. William Trotter in the Northwest Coast trade, 1793 or 1797. Measurements: 4.5 in. high by 11 in. wide.
The Unangan Aleut are known for exceptionally fine twining, an indigenous technique on both sides of the Bering Strait. This wallet falls well within the Unangan Aleuts' long tradition of twined grass matting and basketry-in terms of its form, technical construction, methods of decoration, and materials-extending from at least late prehistoric times into the period of European contact.
Arriving at the island of Unalaska during his third circumnavigation of the globe in October 1778, Capt. James Cook observed Aleut-made "mats and baskets of grass, that are both strong and beautiful. Indeed there is a neatness and perfection in most of their work that shows they neither want ingenuity nor perseverance." He was not the first nor the last European to admire them. Beginning several years earlier, a series of Spanish expeditions had sailed from Upper California to assess Russian expansion into the Northwest following upon Bering's 1741 probe. Juan Pérez, commanding the first of these missions in 1774, acquired basketry hats and "a quadrangular pouch also of basketry without any stitching" as well as a "pouch or bag of very delicate basketry, very beautifully made."
European encounters with the Indians of the Northwest Coast and Alaska generally involved at least some opportunistic exchanges, including barter for "curiosities" valued as souvenirs. As Cook traced North America's Pacific coast all the way into the Bering Sea before turning south in frustration at not discovering a Northwest Passage, he too traded with local groups. When the sea otter furs Cook obtained fetched remarkable profits in China, seafaring merchants soon crowded his wake. Yankees first entered these waters in 1787 under captains Kendrick and Gray aboard two trading vessels sent out by a Boston syndicate. Six years later, in 1793, William Trotter of Providence arrived as master of the American-flagged French brig Amelia. He sailed the larger merchant ship Susan back to the Northwest Coast in 1797 to trade again with local Indians. Either of these voyages may have afforded Capt. Trotter the chance to acquire as a memento the item offered here, which he retained through his lifetime and which until now was preserved alongside his ships' logbooks.
A fortuitous coincidence of style on opposite sides of the globe seems to have presented a ready opportunity for trade. The Aleut themselves made use of this type of flat envelope-like pouch, wearing them suspended on a cord from the neck. This apparently indigenous form happened to be closely analogous to a kind of wallet that was just then quite fashionable in Europe and America. Both men and women from just before the Revolution until sometime after Washington's presidency fancied flame-stitch crewelwork cloth wallets as useful accessories to safeguard currency, important papers, and other small items. Seamen and homemakers likewise employed a similar type of case, commonly referred to as a "housewife" or huswif, to hold needles, thread, and other sewing notions. Euramerican wallets were created, as was this Aleut example, by folding a length of fabric that could be stitched along two sides to form a pocket protected by a fold-over flap.
Unangan Aleut mat and basket making has been primarily the work of women. After harvesting stems of the slender grasses that flourished on their windswept shores, curing them, and splitting them into fine weaving strands, a skilled basketmaker used plain two-strand twining to fabricate this wallet. Likely working a few hours a day for perhaps as long as several months, the weaver began by twining a small flat mat. Upon its completion, one edge was cut to form an 11-inch by 12-inch rectangle, which then was turned sideways (90 degrees). One edge was folded two-thirds of the way upward to form the pocket of the wallet, and the two sides were stitched together using a running stitch of two-ply sinew. The opposite edge was then folded over the lower portion of the wallet to form the 2-inch top flap. (Technically, the warp elements run from left to right and the horizontally-twined wefts, including the false-embroidered stripes and blue blocks, now run from top to bottom in the finished wallet.)
During the twining process, the fineness of the maker's materials; evenness of her strands and stitches; complexly wrought decorative geometric stripes and blue-dyed blocks; and cheerful natural and red-dyed gut edging attest to the remarkable skill of the unknown weaver. Both the red-dyed gut and the remaining stub of the once-longer red-swabbed, native-tanned strap closure recall the popular red trim and closure cords found on many contemporary Western flame-stitch crewelwork examples. Blue-dyed blocks reflect the local Northwest Coast natives' love of the color blue, whether produced with native dyes like wild iris or acquired as trade goods like woolen blankets. William Trotter noted in his logbook entries in September 1793, while aboard the Amelia, "Indians trading for Nothing here but Copper and Coarse blue Cloth which articles we are verry short of." Again, when returning to the Northwest Coast with the ship Susan, Capt. Trotter entered several references, including January 18, 1797: "... we were visited by three Canoes [likely Tlingit] from whom I bot. Near therty Skins. Leather Trunks being most in Demand & Blue Cloath."
The Unangan Aleut were then and are still renowned for crafting exceedingly fine basketry and matting as well as other useful items. The extreme delicacy of their best work, with hundreds of stitches per inch, produced grass basketry as pliant as European linen cloth. Indeed, natives of this region sometimes lined their sealskin boots with supple basketry socks and even wore basketry mittens, hats, and pouches, in addition to relying on more typical basket forms for carrying and storage. Though rarely preserved, archaeological examples of Aleutian grass basketry, matting, and cordage have survived with late prehistoric mummy burials in the caves and rockshelters excavated by Dall and Hrdli?ka on Kagamil, near the eastern end of the archipelago. Attributes of these archaeological remnants are consistent with those for this wallet. Indeed, one of the recovered specimens, previously exhibited at the Smithsonian (see Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, p. 128, fig. 8), closely resembles the current lot.
Even in pre-contact times an intertribal trade network had conveyed these desirable products down the Aleutian chain and along the coast and among the islands of the Alaskan gulf as far south as Vancouver. By the time western European and Yankee merchants entered this exchange in the late 1700s, Aleutian basketry was already a highly esteemed commodity. The two Aleut wallets or flat-woven bags in the British Museum, at least one of which (Am,NWC.14) is traced to Cook's 1778 voyage through Sir Joseph Banks, are both comparable to Capt. Trotter's wallet, offered here, except for being slightly larger (Am,NWC.14 is 39 cm x 18 cm (folded), or 15.2 in. x 7.0 in.). After Cook, Vancouver and subsequent British explorers also obtained Aleut basketry, as did the Spanish and the Russians before them. Native weavers responded to this interest by applying their skills to merchandise that readily appealed to their customers, especially with the invention of novel forms and design elements. The Baron de Langsdorff, on-scene between 1803 and 1807, observed, "At their leisure hours, particularly in long winter evenings, the women make fine mats, little baskets, and pocketbooks, of straw, which are woven together with so much regularity and in such symmetrical figures, that they might be supposed the work of very skillful European artists." American sailors, too, eagerly purchased examples of this remarkable handiwork as prized souvenirs. Ship's crew sometimes later swapped their curios or exchanged them advantageously with natives in other regions, so ethnographic items often traveled far afield.
Seldom can a specific artifact from the early contact period be assigned a provenance with direct reference to an entry in a ship's log. The lot offered here is a rare survivor, a relic of Capt. William Trotter's documented participation in the early trade between New England mariners and Northwest Coast Indians before the close of the eighteenth century.
William A. Turnbaugh
Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh
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