The pipe tomahawk (or “smoak tomahawk”, as it was called by the English colonials) was recorded as early as 1700. It was a major commodity used in the fur trade that dominated north-eastern North America between 1650 and 1870. American or European blacksmiths and trade companies, as well as their agents and contractors.
The first pipe tomahawks were likely invented by enterprising traders circa the turn of the beginning of the 18th Century. The word tomahawk is a variation of the Algonquian word tomahac (also spelled in English multiple ways), which means “to strike.” It was a term that was used originally for any striking weapon, from wooden clubs to axes made of stone. Many of the hatchets used by Native people during the 1700s, however, were not of Native manufacture; they were designed and made by Euro-American blacksmiths in Europe or in the colonies in America or France. Before colonial contact, Native people had routinely used various flint and stone cutting tools, but during the early 1600s, they embraced the iron axe as a sharp substitute. Small axes (also called hatchets, belt axes, or hand axes) became a staple and highly desirable trading item during the fur trade era in the Americas. Small axes, without smoking pipes attached, were carried and used by Native people and settler colonial peoples alike, including soldiers and civilians. The pipe tomahawk served many purposes. Its hollow wooden handle and the pipe bowl on one side of the head allowed it to be used as a ceremonial smoking pipe, while the other side was a blade, allowing it to become a weapon with just a flip of the wrist.
Believed to have been developed by a blacksmith from England, this dual-purpose invention was highly valued by Indigenous traders. It represented the complex relationship between their communities and Europeans — which included both war and peace.
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