I recently was reminded of Benjamin West’s famous painting of Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. The picture was commissioned by William Penn’s son, William, and was done in 1772.
It shows a barefoot Lenâpé Indian. But is it historical? And didn’t all the Indians wear moccasins?
Here’s the painting.
[Image from Wikipedia Commons.]
The treaty itself occurred in 1683, so the painting itself was done 90 years after the fact. In fact, there is no contemporary account of the treaty, only accounts of it described a decade or so later.
The treaty was an important one for Pennsylvania, and also happened to demonstrate the extraordinary nature of William Penn, who was a Quaker (and a bit of an embarrassment to his father for being one). Penn was not about to just take land from the Indians—instead he dealt in equality and fairness.
Here is one of my favorite quotes from Penn, from 1687:
What sort of Christians must they be, I pray, that can hate in his name who bids us love, and kill for his sake, that forbids killing and commands love, even to enemies?
Though people say to God, Thy will be done, they do their own; which shows them to be true heathens, under a mask of Christianity, that believe without works, and repent without forsaking; busy for forms and the temporal benefits of them; while true religion, which is to visit the fatherless and the widow, and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world, goes barefoot, and, like Lazarus, is despised.
But let me come back to bare feet. Might a Native American have been barefoot there? Didn’t they all wear moccasins? Or is this just artistic license, or even ignorance?
We can see such ignorance popping up all over the place. Benjamin West’s painting was used as the basis for all sorts of other pictures, with odd changes. For instance, here’s a painting, also called “Penn’s treaty with the Indians,” from the 1917 book This Country of Ours, by H. E. Marshall.
He has the Indian Chief Tamanen dressed in 1850s Plains Indians regalia. This is obviously not accurate at all.
Despite the common folklore, from what I can tell, bare feet were extremely common among Native Americans. Yes, moccasins were available, and so were sandals, too. But across many parts of the continent bare feet were a large part of everyday life and it is only with the arrival and take-over by Europeans that that diminished.
We can see that from early on, in Jacques Cartier’s 1535 “Bref récit et succincte narration de la navigation faite en 1535 et 1536 par le capitaine Jacques Cartier aux îles de Canada, Hochelaga, Saguenay et autres”, that is, his Relation of his second voyage to the area around Montreal and Quebec:
L’yuer ſõt chaulſez de chauſſes & ſouliez qu’ilz font de peaulx : & l’eſté võt nudz piedz.
In winter they wear hose and shoes made of animal skins, and in summer they go barefooted.
Paul le Jeune said the same thing in his Relation of 1633:
L’eſté ils vont pieds nuds, l’hyuer il faut que leurs ſouliers ſoyent d’vne peau maniable, autrement ils gaſteroyent leurs raquettes.
In the summer, they go barefooted; in the winter, their shoes must be of a pliable skin, otherwise they would spoil their raquettes (showshoes).
He mentioned the same thing in his Relation of 1634, again discussing the use of snowsnows.
Pendant les neiges nous nous ſeruons tous, François & Sauuages de cette forte de chauſſure, afin de pouuoir marcher ſur des Raquettes; l’Hiuer paſſé nous reprenons nos ſouliers François, & eux vont pieds nuds.
During the snows we all, French and Savages, have made use of this kind of foot gear, in order to walk upon our Snowshoes; when the Winter had passed, we resumed our French shoes, and the Savages went barefooted.
It wasn’t just in the Northeast; other tribes were shod (or unshod) similarly. Here’s a description by Henri de Tonti, who accompanied LaSalle down the Mississippi in 1682. This description is probably from around where Memphis is today.
A l’égarde des vêtemens, la plûpart ne s’en ſervent pas, & vont tout nuds; leurs corps ſont accoûtumez & endurcis à toutes les injures de l’air, & leurs pieds inſenſibles aux épines.
In regard to clothing, for the most part, they don’t use it, and go totally nude; their bodies are accustomed and hardened to all the challenges of the air, and their feet insensitive to thorns.
There are also pictures, including this one of a Powhatan around Roanoke in 1588. The picture is by De Bry and appeared in “Hariot’s Narrative of the First Plantation of Virginia”.
There is even a picture by Peter Lindestrom of the Lenâpé, which appeared in “Kort abeskrifning om beskrifning om provincien Nya Swerige uit America” by Thomas Campanius Holm, published in 1702.
Of course, by the time of Penn’s Treaty, the Lenâpé had been in long contact with Europeans, and may have started acquiring a more European attitude towards footwear. Or not.
The bottom line is that we really have no idea whether the Native Americans at Penn’s Treaty really were barefoot or not. But it is not unreasonable, and it is certainly not ahistorical.
Let me finish with noting that this also isn’t an eastern thing, and even tribes that we always see in movies wearing moccasins often went barefoot. I’ve shown this photograph before, a Smithsonian photograph from 1871 of two Mojaves.
And here’s one of an Apache, from Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian”.
I think it is pretty clear that bare feet were common all over the continent, whenever practical. After all, moccasins and sandals wear out and required a fair bit of labor to produce. Going barefoot when such footwear was not really needed was simply practical.
Over time, the soles of footwear degenerate while the soles of bare feet regenerate.