Let’s take a look at the footwear of Native Americans before Columbus arrived. I’ve been looking at the “Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume”, by Josephine Paterek, and it says a lot about footwear.
I also suspect that she has overestimated things a bit.
In some ways it’s rather difficult to know just how things were in 1491. After all, many of the descriptions of the dress of American Natives (and by the way, the book seems to think “American” means just the United States and Canada) came long after contact. Remember, the Mayflower landed in 1620, 129 years after 1491. Jamestown was 1607.
Another way to look at this was that Hernando De Soto did his expedition, as far north as the Carolinas and Tennessee, in 1539-1541. That affected a lot of things.
What we know also depends on what was written at the time, and at just what time it was written. For instance, most of what we know about the Plains Indians is from the early 1800s, over 300 years after the arrival of the horse on North America. What we see then has probably been highly modified from how things were in 1491. That said, it appears that bare feet were extremely common.
What Paterek says is that generally Southeast Indians went barefooted, but wore “swamp moccasins” into the swamps or forests. In the Northeast, she generally described the design of the moccasins without saying how often they were worn. In California, they went barefoot nearly all the time. In the book, she describes tribe-by-tribe their footwear (although how she picks the tribes she describes is beyond me—she leaves a lot out).
I’ve put together a map that summarizes what’s in the book. On the map, I’ve located in red tribes that were described as always going barefoot. Slightly orange signifies tribes that were described as going barefoot most of the time, but donning moccasins for things like travel. A purpley-red is for tribes that mostly went barefoot but donned sandals for travel. The blues are for tribes in which she only described their moccasins, and light blue is for those that wore sandals.
Here’s the map:
We can look at some of the tribes. For instance, for the Nootka (on Vancouver Island), Paterek says
Men usually went naked. * * *
The Nootka and Makan, like most other Northwest Coast people, went barefoot. * * * Moccasins were used by both sexes in the coldest weather, probably obtained from the Salish people in trade.
We get a good look at that in this photo from Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian”.
On the other side of the country, in the southeast, we are told
Both sexes normally went barefoot, but when they went into the swamps or forest they wore the ankle-high “swamp moccasin,” which was a one-piece affair of skin or hide laced up the back and at the toes with thongs. The back laces were left long so they could be tied about the ankles for security. Beverly, an early traveler, said that at times an extra piece was sewn on the bottom to make a heavier sole.
From the map, you can see that the farther south the tribe lived, the more likely they were described as going barefoot all the time.
This picture, presumably of the Powhatan around Jamestown, is by De Bry and appeared in “Hariot’s Narrative of the First Plantation of Virginia”.
Of them, Paterek says
Normally the Powhatan people went barefoot, but when they wore moccasins, they were the typical swamp moccasin, the pouch-like article laced at the toe and the back, and with the laces tied around the ankle; some had a piece of leather sewn to the bottom to thicken the sole.
We also have this illustration, from Le Page du Pratz’s 1758 “Histoire de la Louisiane: contenant la découverte de ce vaste pays” (History of Louisiana: covering the discovery of this vast country).
He is is probably referring to somewhere in western Tennessee. There, he says
Il est rare que les hommes ou les femmes portent des souliers, si ce n’est en voyage.
It is rare for men or women to wear shoes, unless they are traveling.
In the northeast, Paterek talks only about their moccasins, with nothing about going barefoot. For instance, among the Delaware Indians (mostly the New Jersey area), she says
Moccasins were simple one-piece affairs of tanned moose or deer hide with a seam at the back and up the front. Cuff flaps were large, almost brushing the ground. Temporary moccasins of cornhusks have been reported. In winter snowshoes were necessary for travel in the mountains.
But there has to be more. When Peter Lindestrom of Sweden visited in 1702, this is his depiction of the Delaware (Lenâpé).
Or, for instance, here’s Paterek’s description of the Hurons:
The Huron moccasins were soft-soled, carefully puckered into the vamp in a style called “bullnose,” or else with a seam from toe to instep that was covered with a decorative strip. Like others of the Iroquois family, they preferred buckskin that had been dyed black with their native black walnuts. Many favored a combination of quillwork and dyed moose-hair embroidery on the vamps and cuffs. In the heavy winter snows they wore snowshoes.
But in 1535, Jacques Cartier told us that they went barefoot in summer:
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.
So, even in the spots that Paterek tells us only about moccasins, Native Americans mostly went barefoot and only used footwear as tools, when they really needed them: either for long-distance traveling or for extreme temperatures.
When you get to the desert southwest, instead of moccasins, sandals were the usual footwear, at least when footwear was worn.
Here’s what she says about the Mojave:
Normally the Mojave went barefoot, only wearing fiber sandals for traveling; these were fashioned from untwisted bundles of mescal that were woven back and forth over a looped cord forming a thick sole. Later, rawhide sandals were worn, but since deer were scarce, these were soon replaced by “store” shoes.
We have this picture from Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian” (Vol. 2).
But again, I suspect that everyday barefooting isn’t mentioned. For instance, here is what Paterek says about the Hopi:
Early sandals were plaited or woven of yucca fiber like those of the Basketmaker ancestors of the Hopi. Later moccasins were of deerskin fashioned in one of two styles.
But Curtis, in Volume 12, shows us this Hopi.
So again, even if footwear was available it wasn’t always used.
I actually added a point on the map, along the Texas Gulf Coast. That is for the Karankawa, who were also called by neighboring tribes, Yákokon kapá-i, “the unshod” (ok, the “unmoccasined”). Along those same lines, there was a division of the Comanche (Plains Indians described by Paterek as moccasin-wearers) who were called the Ketá’htone, “never wearing moccasins.”
This rather reinforces the idea that moccasins were in general use, or why would there be special names for those who never wore any. On the other hand, it’s also clear that going barefooted was the order of the day when possible. After all, both moccasins and sandals were, all things considered, rather expensive. Just think about the labor of tanning hide or weaving a sandal. You’d try not to wear them out if you didn’t have too.
One more item I’d like to mention. Take a look at Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Here’s what Paterek says about them:
The Aleut went barefoot almost exclusively. However. the eastern Aleut, near the Alaska Peninsula, occasionally wore a boot made of dark leather on the sole and lower part, and light leather on the upper section, with a border of fur and tufts of red yarn as trim. Some slippers were made from the very thin membrane of an animals kidney, which retained its original shape with a few tucks added for fit.
The climate there is actually not bad for going barefoot, with the ocean being a moderating influence. Wikipedia says that the average temperature is about 38°F (3°C), with about 30°F (-1°C) in January and about 52 °F (11 °C) in August. Yes, it is cold for folks who wear shoes all the time, but we barefooters know that those temperatures are actually pretty comfortable once your body adjusts to them.
So, with some exceptions, bare feet were the order of the day in 1491 (and before). Footwear was generally for when it was needed, like traveling or temperatures, not because a culture demanded it.
There’s no reason it can’t be that way today.