Lewis's Shoshone Tippet

"the most eligant peice"

Meriwether Lewis wearing the tippet
Cameahwait gave to him.

Painting by Charles B. J. F. de Saint Memin, 1807,
Watercolor over graphite.
Actual size, 6-1/8 x 3-3/4 inches

Although William Clark was said to have considered this "an excellent likeness" of Lewis, the facial features seem graceless beside the better-known charcoal profile by St. Memin, or Charles Willson Peale's famous oil painting. Compare this portrait of Lewis with that of his younger contemporary Stephen Decatur in terms of pose, attire and setting.

It is untypical of St. Memin because of the frontal pose rather than a profile, and because it is a miniature only six and one-eighth inches high. Furthermore, although St. Memin usually produced multiple copies of his portraits, this is the only copy known to exist. The artist William Strickland, more famous as the architect of the U.S. Mint and Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, produced an engraving of the little portrait for the Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle in 1816, making it possibly the first image of Meriwether Lewis ever to be published.1

Lewis gave the tippet to artist Charles Willson Peale for display in his Museum of art and natural history (established 1784), along with a peace pipe of unknown description, but possibly the Shoshone pipe that Lewis had admired. Peale draped the Indian mantle on a life-sized wax figure of Lewis, with its right hand on the breast, and the pipe in its left hand. "My object in this work," Peale explained, "is to give a lesson to the Indians who may visit the Museum, and also to show my sentiments respecting wars." The description mounted nearby read:

This mantle, composed of 140 ermine skins, was put on Capt. Lewis by Comeahwait, their Chief. Lewis is supposed to say, "Brother, I accept your dress – it is the object of my heart to promote amongst you, our neighbors, peace and good will – that you may bury the hatchet deep in the ground never to be taken up again – and that henceforward you may smoke the Calmut of Peace and live in perpetual harmony, not only with each other, but with the white men, your brothers, who will teach you many useful arts." Possessed of every comfort in life, what cause ought to involve us in war? Men are not too numerous for the lands which we are to cultivate, and disease makes havoc enough amongst them without deliberately destroying each other – If any differences arise about lands or trade, let each party appoint judicious persons to meet together and amicably settle the disputed point. I am pleased when I give an object which affords a moral sentiment to the Visitors to the Museum.2

The tippet may have survived as part of the collection P. T. Barnum bought in 1848, for the auctioneer's catalog included, under the heading of "American Indian (Contents of the 'Indian Room')," the item "1 case, Wax Figure of Captain Lewis, and curiosities." Most of Barnum's huge collection of historical artifacts, probably including the wax figure and the "curiosities," was destroyed by fire in 1865.

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ameahwait and some of his people agreed to help the Corps of Discovery carry its baggage over the divide to the valley of Lewis's River. On August 15 the entire party camped about fifteen miles west of the forks of the Jefferson. The next morning, still fearful of betrayal by the white men to unseen enemies, a number of the Indians turned back. The remaining 28 men and three women proceeded on somewhat hesitantly, until Cameahwait called a halt in the early afternoon. "We now dismounted," wrote Lewis, "and the Chief with much cerimony put tippets about our necks such as they temselves woar." Lewis perceived immediately that the mantle was intended to serve as a disguise, to give enemies the impression that the Americans were actually Shoshones. To complete the clever ruse de guerre, Lewis placed his cocked hat on Cameahwait's head, his men followed his example with other Indians, "and we were so[o]n completely metamorphosed." The whole party then rode briskly on toward the forks with one of the Indians carrying the American flag, "that our own party should know who we were." After another tense night, Clark and his contingent showed up on the morning of the seventeenth.

The next day, after Clark set out on his reconnaissance of the Salmon River, Lewis put the men to work making preparations for the portage. During the next several days Lewis wrote voluminous accounts of the Shoshone people, their physical appearance, manner of dress, and various aspects of their lifestyle. His entry for the twentieth included a detailed description of their tippets.

The tippet of the Snake Indians is the most eligant peice of Indian dress I ever saw, the neck or collar of this is formed of a strip of dressed Otter skin with the fur.    it is about four or five inches wide and is cut out of the back of the skin reaching from the nose and imbracing the tail. this is sewed arround a small cord of the silk-grass3 twisted for the purpose and regularly tapering in such a manner as to give it a just proportion to the tail which is to form the lower extremity of the stran.    thus arranged they are confined at the upper point in little bundles of two – three, or more as the disign may be to make them more full; these are then attatched to the collars as before mentioned, and to conceal the connection of this part which would otherwise have a course appearance they attatch a broad fringe of the Ermin skin to the collar overlaying that part.    little bundles of fine fringe of the same materials is fastened to the extremity of the tails in order to shew their black extremities to greater advantage.    the center of the otterskin collar is also ornamented with the shells of the perl oister.    the collar is confined around the neck and the little roles of Ermin skin about the size of a large quill covers the solders [shoulders] and body nearly to the waist and has the appearance of a short cloak and is really handsome. these they esteem very highly, and give or dispose of only on important occasions.    the ermin whic is known to the traiders of the N. W. by the name of the white weasel is the genuine ermine, and might no doubt be turned to great advantage by those people if they would encourage the Indians to take them.    they are no doubt extreemly plenty and readily taken, from the number of these tippets which I have seen among these people and the great number of skins employed in the construction of each timppet.    scarcely any of them have employed less than one hundred of these skins in their formation.4

The nondescript headdress Lewis is wearing in St. M'min's watercolor has never been explained. However, on August 21, 1805, continuing his descriptions of Shoshone lifeways, Lewis remarked that "the men frequently wear the skin of a fox or a broad strip of that of the otter around the forehead and head in form of a bando,"5 and it may be that Cameahwait gave him one of those, too. It is more likely, however, that he had already shipped this very headgear back east from Fort Mandan, for there on December 12, 1804, with the thermometer reading more than thirty degrees below zero, he wrote: "I line my Gloves and have a cap made of the Skin of the Louservia (Lynx) (or wild Cat of the North) the fur near 3 inches long."

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ippets like Lewis's are rarely if ever seen today, but for hundreds of years it was a popular, practical, one-size-fits-all garment that covered the neck and shoulders like a scarf or shawl, with long ends that could be overlapped, or were held to the torso with a belt or sash. It was made of cloth or, more likely, fur. When fashion dictated, it might be made of feathers or swansdown. In early Medieval times armoured knights wore so-called tippets of chain-mail to protect their necks. Royal or ecclesiastical attire often included a tippet as a decorative mantle of patrimonial authority. Around 1800, stylish women wore tippets with evening dress.6 Lewis may have seen them often in Philadelphia and among the social circles that revolved through Jefferson's parlor. At any rate, when he saw Shoshones wearing them he clearly recognized the garment as something their respective cultures had in common.


1. Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle, Philadelphia, Vol. 7 (January-June 1816), 329. Paul R. Cutright, "Lewis & Clark: Portraits and Portraitists," Montana,The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1969), 42-43. ______, A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), 92.

2. Peale Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia; quoted in Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale's Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art (New York: Norton, 1980), 187-88.

3. Moulton (3:131n) suggests "silk-grass" might have been a species of Apocynum (ap-o-CY-num), or dogbane. Cutright suggests it might have been Indian hemp, Apocynum cannabinum. Gilmore mentions that yucca leaves were often macerated, or soaked, and split into threads. Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), 189n. Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (1914; enlarged ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 19.

4. Among the Nez Perce, on May 13, 1806, Lewis was to see "a kind of collar or brestplate" made of otter skins and decorated with "whatever they conceive." He would also observe a grisly tippet worn by Chief Hohots Ilppilp "which was formed of human scalps and ornamented with the thumbs and fingers of several men which he had slain in battle."

5. Probably Lewis's phonetic spelling of the French word bandeau, meaning headband.

6. François Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1967), 346.

This page is supported in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.