Some Thoughts on Butchers & Other Knives

By Gene Hickman


Most butcher knives did not look much different in the 1800s than they do
today. According to Charles E. Hanson, Jr. in The Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly (Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall 1987) The term “butcher knife” began to appear in trade goods lists toward the end of the 18th century. In different periods of history a “butcher knife” might mean widely differing styles of knives by 1816 in Sheffield it meant a knife very much like today’s average butcher knife.


A few years ago I contacted a company in Sheffield England that has been in the knife business since 1700. I was trying to obtain knives that would have been available in 1803 and perhaps used by the Lewis & Clark expedition. The company I contacted told me that the majority of their utility cutlery was going to North America and Africa all through the 1700 & 1800s. Their records show a common butcher knife just like those used today. They sent me drawings and dimensions of what they were making as butcher knives from the 1700s on. The only difference in the earlier to the later 1800s knives was that the nose got broader, otherwise they were the same width as the handle. Of course the older knives had tapered tangs and pins rather than brass cutler's rivets, which date from the 1890s. Most early butchers had blades as wide as the handle with the characteristic fat nose with up-swept point.


Butcher knives came into their own as the most popular knife in the Indian trade and for general use on the frontier from the Revolutionary War on through the 1800s. Although the term “butcher” knife can a somewhat generic term that could also include those knives with an arcing or curving single-edged blade. Others use the term "scalper" for this style knife, although scalper is also another generic term for knives of several different styles. The same company I contacted in Sheffield shows their scalper of the 1700 & 1800s as what we would recognize today as a French kitchen knife, which historically was also known as a Frenchmen’s knife.


According to Carl P. Russel Jr. scalpers may not be what you think, as the term "Scalping Knife" was used by fur traders of the period to designate a certain style of knife for trade to Indians, and Russell described them as "any cheap butcher knife." On the other hand, Charles E. Hanson, Jr. has confirmed the existence of a specific pattern for the trade good known as "the scalping knife." In the Quarterly Journal of the Museum of the Fur Trade, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring 1987), Hanson illustrates and describes the knife from notes and letters of Alexander Mackenzie & Co., a partner of the North West Company.

"These scalpers are of the simplest pattern possible-a generally straight or very slightly curved blade 6 or 7 inches long, fairly straight and unsharpened on the top, ending in a point from which the sharpened bottom edge begins and runs along the bottom back to the grip, making a curved edge suitable for skinning and slicing. The grip is a single piece of wood split with a saw for two-thirds of its length. The short tang of the knife blade was shoved into this split and fastened by two or three rivets inserted into holes drilled from side to side. With a minimum of machine polishing, the knife was completed and ready for sale."

Hanson goes on the say that "hundreds of blades of this general style have been found at fur trade sites of the 1780-1840 period."


The company in Philadelphia, John Wister & Charles Jones Wister (143 High Street), that Lewis buys his butcher knives from, advertised in the local papers as carrying only the finest English knives. He pays $2 for his 4 dozen butcher knives. Incidentally he also buys scarlet cloth, fancy handkerchiefs, binding (probably like bias tape or ribbon) and card beads from the Wister's. The Director of the Frontier Army Museum and the former Army Historian and L&C "point-man" both agreed that the "scalper" that L&C got from the Purveyor General most probably looked like the French kitchen knife. The knife guys in Sheffield confirmed that this was very possible as it is what they made a lot of at the time and they were variously known as Frenchmen's knives or
scalpers, depending on the customer.

The Sheffield guys told me that some of the handles were also of the extreme octagon shape and that other handles were originally nothing more than the rectangular slab handle with the corners angled. They also told me that tangs were made both half and full. Full tangs were easier to haft and were stronger, but cost slightly more. Pin numbers varied as to the size of the blade it supported and whether it was full or half tang. You'll see 4, 5, or 6 pins commonly, usually depending on the size of the knife. Either way it was always more than 3 pins. The 3 pins become standard with the big fat brass cutler's rivets of the 1890s. Iron and less often brass p
ins are correct for the time period and not the large brass cutler’s rivets. Brass pins are also acceptable. Some of the 19th century examples even have 3/32” to 1/8" iron pins. The norm, based on years of handling and looking at originals in collections and other research, is wood handled with iron pins.


 I have 4 old (pre-1890) I. Wilson butcher knives. Three have 6 pins and one has 5 pins. Two are 10", one 8" and one 6". One 10" and the 8" are half tanged the other two are full tanged. All have rectangular slab handles with the corners "shaved." I had two other I. Wilson butchers which I gifted to an anthropologist friend for his collection. Can't remember details on them, they were about 6" & 8" knives. I have a bunch of other old butchers where the marks are indistinguishable. Most have had the blades sharpened so much they've lost their original shape. All have multi-pins, tapered tangs, and rectangular slab handles. All of these knives are pre-1890, but may all have been manufactured well after the Civil War. However, it seems that the basics of the butcher knife have not really changed much in the last 200 years.

The knives I eventually got from Sheffield, for our L&C interpretation, had the old company name and logo stamped on them. The only thing they added was Sheffield, which is required by law. Otherwise the original stamp had: John Nowill & Sons Ltd. Est A.D. 1700 flanked by crossed keys on the right and a D with an asterisk above it on the right. The 8" butchers I got from them had 5 pins, and the 5"-6" butchers and the Scalpers (6 1/2" blade) had 4 pins. All had full tangs. My Wilson knives have an X with o's in each of the four spaces and a
diamond to the right of it.

Don't know whether L&C had Wilson knives. Here's a reference to
Wilson butcher knives in the fur trade of 1835: and here's
another for 1837:

We know a lot about knives in the 18th & 19th century, but then again we don't know a lot of detail. I think that the modern buckskinner and his fascination with knives of all kinds has really turned our heads as to the kinds of knives that most trappers, traders, hunters, Indians, etc. carried. I believe that the butcher has got to be the most prevalent knife of the time. It certainly is the dominant knife in fur trade records. I also think that in the early half of the 18th century the cartouche knife was dominant and after the Rev War the butcher seems to have become more dominant. I can't give you direct references for this, as I’ve not had time to quantify the numbers. I’ve looked at lots of museum specimen knives, reviewed lots of early newspaper ads, and read lots of trade records. Unfortunately none of these sources have pictures or detailed descriptions of what the knives looked like. Butcher knives are mentioned by “name” in a number of period journals too. Much of my information also came from the knife guys in Sheffield and the Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook by James A. Hanson.

Knives can generally be categorized into three general categories: butchers, scalpers and cartouche knives. If you want more information on the Scalping knife it may be found in The Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 1987 and for the Cartouche knife it is in Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer 1987.

The knives commonly known as the "ripper" and the "skinner" are considered in the butcher knife category and were developed in a later historic period for the buffalo hide hunters. The skinner, as a specific pattern developed from the butcher, even though it has a more radical curve to the blade. I would refer you to the Fur Trade Cutlery Sketchbook for more information. Many folks try to tell us that the Green River was the knife of the fur trade and even for Lewis & Clark. However the Green River dates to the Civil War. The company was not started until 1834 and it did not manufacture knives until 1841. I often see “Skinners,” Green Rivers, Bowie knives, and other large chopping knives, many with all kinds fancy handles, antler handles, animal jaw handles, and many other outrageous innovations at modern rendezvous, and all are purported by their owners to be what the "Mountain Man" carried.

There are a lot of guys that know more about knives than I. I got into it trying to find the L&C knives. The Museum of the Fur Trade has a number of knives which I have studied and they also have written knife articles in their Fur Trade Quarterly. I think that Carl P. Russell's book "Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men" is also a reference worth looking into. Another source would be to look up the knife makers in Sheffield, England. Many have been in existence for 100s of years. Those that responded to me, I found most helpful in what knives they were making in the 19th century, and seemed to know everything about what they were making and where they were going. One thing I learned from them is that until about the 1950s most knives were made by one company and the handles were made and assembled by a totally different company. All of these were family businesses. John Nowill & Sons, where I got my knives, was a knife maker, which company is now owned by the family that was formerly the handle maker. Just recently Crazy Crow Trading Post started carrying a “Snake Brand” Sheffield butcher knife, which I consider to be an excellent example of the kind of knife carried during the fur trade period.


That’s my 2 pence worth on knife ramblings.

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