Few trade items were as important in the shrewd game of frontier diplomacy than the pipe tomahawk, and no European power was as successful in forging tribal alliances than France. Pipe hawks were gifted to favored chieftans and came to be a potent status symbol among tribal leaders. From trade negotiations to war councils, the pipe tomahawk was a vital tool for striking backcountry agreements.
This year's CLF fundraising auction will feature a fine example of an early French trade hawk crafted by artist Paul Bigham. A skilled rifle maker and bladesmith, Bigham has proved that exemplary craftsmanship can make surprising use of discarded materials. Starting with an antique wrought iron gun barrel, the artist hand-forged the blade of a classically styled pipe hawk before fitting it with a sharpened steel bit. The curly maple handle, finished with aqua fortis and hand-rubbed oil, is drilled and ready for smoking. The blade is further embellished with an engraved fleur-de-lis, a traditional Gallic motif drawn from the French royal coat of arms.
For Bigham's pipe tomahawk, it's a fitting symbol. The artist is based in Illinois, a locale first penetrated by French explorers in the 17th century. But even after the passage of several hundred years, CLA craftsmen like Paul Bigham ensure that the remarkable creative disciplines of a vanished culture will persist for future generations.
Paul Bigham can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Copy by Heinz Ahlers with photos supplied by CLF.