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Moccasin Lasts

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  • Moccasin Lasts

    Moccasin Lasts

    A “last” is one of a pair of mechanical forms with a similar shape to the human foot used in the making (or repairing) of leather footwear. Typically they are sized or customized to match a person’s feet and the type of footwear being produced, but those used for repair-work may be single-size. In historic times, they were typically made from hardwood or cast iron. The purpose of a last is to provide a firm three-dimensional support for the stretching and shaping of “hard” leather which has been softened with water. The leather is then allowed to dry and shrink onto the last to create a “stiff” shoe.

    The general archaeological consensus is that Native American foot-wear was not produced with the assistance of a “last” and that feet-shaped stones claimed to be such artifacts are mistakenly identified. Most probably, the majority of such stones are geofacts coincidentally shaped like feet. Here’s a couple of typical items posted on the forum:

    Posted by Amanda Newton [a.newton33]

    Posted by Thomas Jesso [PaArtifactHunter]

    This old article “The Problem of the Stone Lasts” from the Washington Historical Quarterly by J. Neilson Barry is frequently cited as an “authoritative” source:

    J. Neilson Barry as a Reference Source

    It’s worth a quick look at Barry’s credentials before critiquing his opinions.

    J. Neilson Barry was an Episcopal clergyman, born in Virginia around 1870. He published numerous books and even more numerous articles about the early history of the north-west. In October 1947 he began corresponding with the University of Idaho via its president (J.E. Buchanan) and librarians (M. Belle Sweet and Lee Zimmerman) on the subject of Idaho history and geography. His letters were reported as tiresomely repetitive, often recounting the same anecdotes over and over again, in addition to being highly critical of the University’s lack of information about the State and attempting to “hard-sell” detailed historical maps that he had created, based on his researches.

    In 1953 he began corresponding with members of the University’s Board of Regents, one of whom became alarmed at the “your library isn't any good” tone of the letters and referred the correspondence to Buchanan who, in turn referred it to Zimmerman for a reply. This extract comes from Zimmerman's response:

    “For your information, Mr. Barry has been writing similar letters over the years to the president ... myself and to other institutions… He is an elderly man in years, 82 or 83 I believe, and probably carries on this type of correspondence for want of something else to do... Members of both the history and geography department are skeptical of his scholarship. He makes statements based only on his own authority and does not indicate from where he obtains his facts.”

    [ref: University of Idaho Library Special Collections and Archives]

    As Barry says: “stones with the approximate shape of the human foot have been found… in western Oregon and western Washington where the known Indians either went barefooted or wore moccasins which did not require a stone last.”

    In fact no known Native American footwear required a stone last since stiff shoes were not produced, as far as we know. “Hard” leather or rawhide was only used for the soles of moccasins (and some were also made from pliable leather), the upper parts being soft and supple. There was no particular need for a three dimensional last – a simple flat template for the sole would have sufficed and the foot itself would readily serve that purpose. Having cut a pair of soles from rawhide, there’s no reason why those soles could not have been used as templates for successive pairs of shoes if a template was needed at all. If stone lasts were used, they would surely turn up in huge numbers.

    Barry also states (in relation to a “cache” of these stones which he regards as indicative of a “factory” site): “It seems highly improbable that these artifacts were made by the Indians who occupied the region where they are found at the time when white men reached the northwest coast. Some earlier people must have used some form of foot-covering which required such lasts.” That final sentence is pure speculation. There is no evidence of an earlier people wearing different kinds of shoes than the traditional moccasins with which we are familiar.

    Barry further speculates that: “thick skin of some animal was wrapped about the stone which was boiled in some process of tanning.” There is no tanning process used by Native Americans that we know of which involved boiling leather on a form. It doesn’t make any sense since sewing thick, stiff leather tightly onto a form would be impossible to achieve. Boiling it would cause it to stretch and loosen – not shrink and tighten.

    I don’t know what the finds were that Barry reported, and he provides no pictures. He describes the items at one of the “cache” sites as being produced from split andesite cobbles, broken and ground to shape by rubbing with hardstone. If the items were laboriously produced in that manner then ritual significance rather than a utilitarian purpose would seem more probable – if what he is describing are artifacts at all.

    Other Reference Sources

    There are numerous anecdotal references in various publications. For example C.G. Yeager briefly mentions moccasin lasts in his book “Arrowheads and Stone Artifacts: A Practical Guide for the Amateur Archaeologist” and remarks that he has seen only one in a collection… if what he saw was actually a moccasin last. Several small provincial museums are reported to display such items with unattributed labelling as “moccasin lasts”

    The poster Amanda Newton reported reading somewhere that such pieces might have had ritual use – the left “foot” for black magic and the right “foot” for white magic, but I cannot find any attribution for that belief beyond anecdotal.

    How to Make a Moccasin

    There are some interesting notes on “how to make a moccasin” on the Palaeoplanet forum here:

    [Additional helpful contributions by Tyson Arnold [Neanderthal] & Cliff Jackson [CliffJ] as “unbelievers”; Thomas Jesso [PaArtifactHunter] as a “believer” and Amanda Newton [a.newton33] as a “neutral”]
    Last edited by painshill; 01-27-2016, 06:20 PM.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.