Native Baskets

By: Bob Anderson

Volume 13, Issue 12, December 2018

On occasion, an event would occur which caused great excitement in  the dog days of summer. Sometimes it was Captain Snider arriving with  passengers who had missed the departure of his tour boat in Brockville.  We’d all wave like crazy to have the tour boat pull into our big main  dock. Other times, it would be running down to the boathouses to see  Budge Smith’s beautiful mahogany runabout springing a leak and sitting  on the bottom. For a few years in the late ’40s and early ’50s, there  was an annual visit, which was special. Someone would shout “They’re  coming, they’re coming! The Indians are coming”, and we’d all run down  to the big main dock to look down the River, past the cliffs where we  painted our names, near the fool’s gold mine, to see a skiff, loaded to  the waterline with baskets, being rowed towards us.

Example basket

The word soon spread among the 31 cottages at Butternut Bay and in  time, our parents would join the kids on the dock awaiting their  arrival. It seemed agonizingly slow, but eventually, the skiff would  pull alongside the dock and the occupants would display and sell their  baskets. Every year our parents would buy a couple, but sadly today  almost all of them have disappeared. The ravages of time it seems.

example Mohawk baskets

The baskets were handmade from black ash ‘splint’ and sweet grass,  and typically were relatively small and used as sewing baskets, for  keepsakes, or coins or jewelry. They had a lid with a tufted knob on top  and was usually an attractive combination of green and wheat colors, or  the colour of corn silk, although some other colors were used  occasionally. Although most cottages bought them, today very few remain  because they were made with natural materials without a preservative  coating and deteriorated over time.

There is a museum called “Akwesasne Cultural Center” on the New York  side of the reservation at Hogansburg, N.Y., which features an extensive  collection of Mohawk baskets, among other artifacts, and includes some  treasures from the other tribes of the Iroquois nation. ( It is worth a  visit.)

Smith Basket

A  lifelong Butternut Bay cottager, Richard Hunt, told me that he believes  the baskets were only sold along the Canadian shore, but he has no idea  why. Presumably, they stopped at other Canadian communities such as  Fernbank, Hillcrest, Lily Bay, Woodbridge, Hudson’s Point, Jones Creek  and perhaps Brockville. It would be interesting to hear from old timers  along the River who remember them and hopefully could add to the  stories. They may even have baskets, which survived.

The couple who brought the baskets dressed like ordinary working folk  and did not wear anything traditional. The only thing unusual that they  wore were odd-shaped flat top hats and strange shoes. I was dying to  know if the man had the traditional Mohawk haircut, but he never removed  his hat and I was afraid to ask. English was presumably their second  language, but they had no trouble communicating to sell their wares.

They came for a few years, maybe 4 or 5, and probably stopped coming  because after a few years the cottagers had bought all the baskets they  wanted. As their sales dropped, presumably it no longer made sense to  come. Or, maybe there’s a totally different reason, something  mysterious, and lost over time.

In any case, when they stopped coming we missed them. They were a  welcome diversion on a hot summer day, and they added to our Butternut  Bay enjoyment.

These are the summer memories we River Rats treasure.

By Bob Anderson, Butternut Bay

Bob Anderson is a lifelong summer resident of Butternut Bay and a  besotted river rat.  His grandparents first arrived at the Bay in 1920;  Bob and his wife Sandra and their 3 children and six grandchildren,  constitute the fourth and fifth generations of his family at the Bay.  After graduating from Carleton University in Ottawa, Bob worked in the  food industry for his entire career with various senior management  positions at Dominion Dairies (Sealtest) and Burnbrae Farms, where he  retired as President, in 2012. He was also President of the Butternut  Bay Association Inc,. for over 30 years.

Editor’s Note: the third photo in this article, “Native Baskets with  faded colors” is a picture of a basket I found on our Island.  There are  stories about the Native Peoples from west of Kingston coming down to  Gananoque on the train with their basket wares. They rented skiffs and  paddled around the nearby islands. We would appreciate having others  relate their basket stories in the comment section.


Comment by: Jean Macintosh
Left at: 8:15 AM Sunday, December 16, 2018
Reading the article by Bob Anderson brought back memories for me!
I too remember the canoe coming towards Lily Bay,where I spent the summmers as a child. Everyone would rush to the beach where the canoe would be pulled up and baskets unloaded for inspection. I still have one. My memory is of three women being in the canoe who were wearing traditional dresses.
That could well be my imagination,however I do remember how excited we all were! Thanks for sharing Bob!

Comment by: Andrea Deans
Left at: 4:43 PM Thursday, December 27, 2018
My father grew up in the Hammond area and we would visit there a few  times a year.  About 1960 we stopped at a stand (or table) on the side  of the road where an old Native American woman was selling baskets she  made.  I see the one I have in this article.  I think I paid two  dollars.  We stopped at a small store and the woman wanted to see my  basket.  She lectured me - did I know what a work of art this was?  I  just thought it was pretty at 8, I still have it in my 60s and yes I see  that it is a work of art.

Comment by: Lynn McElfresh
Left at: 10:55 AM Saturday, January 5, 2019
Bob, I didn't arrive in the islands until 1975, 100 years after  my husband's family, who arrived on Grenell Island in 1875. We have lots  of these baskets in our cottage. From stories passed down through the  family, Mohawks would paddle through the islands and sell their baskets.  I've recently come across an 1891 newspaper clipping that speaks of an  "Indian camp" near Fine View where Mohawks were engaged in basket  making. I've also seen a stereoscope of a similar camp on Grindstone  Island around the same time period. We have a photo in our river album  of a man standing on our north rock surrounded by baskets. While the  photo is not dated (I'm thinking 1940s) it is labeled at the bottom  Chief Two Buttons. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by: Sally Kittredge
Left at: 9:14 AM Friday, January 11, 2019
We also have a couple of the small baskets on our island near Gananoque.   I remember my grandmother and mother talking about the Native American  women who came to the front dock to sell the baskets.  They are a  treasure!

Posted in: Volume 13, Issue 12, December 2018, History, Places, People

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