Houses of the Crow Tribe

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Before the separation of the Crow from the Hidatsa they may have occupied permanent villages of earth-covered lodges, such as the latter continued to erect and use until very recent years. But after the separation the Crows moved into the mountains, the region drained by the upper tributaries of the Missouri, and there no longer built permanent structures but adopted the skin tipi, so easily erected and transported from place to place. Many of their tipis were very large, beautifully made and decorated, and were evidently not surpassed in any manner by the similar structures constructed by other tribes of the Upper Missouri Valley.

Parfleche box "Crows, Montana Ter. J. I. Allen." Length 28 inches, width 13 1/2 inches. (U.S.N.M. 130574)
Plate 54c - Parfleche box "Crows, Montana Ter. J. I. Allen." Length 28 inches, width 13 1/2 inches. (U.S.N.M. 130574)

During the summer of 1805 Francois Antoine Larocque, a clerk attached to the Upper Red River Department of the Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, visited the Crow and in his journal recorded much of interest respecting the manners of the people. Larocque had, during the winter of 1804-05, remained near the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, and thus met Captains Lewis and Clark in their winter encampment. A large party of the Crow, the Rocky Mountain Indians of the journal, came to the Hidatsa villages on Knife River. There they were met by Larocque, with whom they departed for their distant country on Saturday, June 29, 1805. His narrative contains a brief reference to the people. He wrote: “This nation known among the Sioux by the name of Crow Indians inhabit the eastern part of the Rocky Mountains at the head of the River aux Roches Jaunes (which is known by the Kinistinaux and Assiniboine by the name of River a la Biche, from the great number of elks with which all the Country along it abounds) and its Branches and Close to the head of the Missouri.

“There are three principal tribes of them whose names in their own language are Apsarecha, Keetheresa and Ashcabcaber, and these tribes are again divided into many other small ones which at present consist but of a few people each, as they are the remainder of a numerous people who were reduced to their present number by the ravage of the Small Pox, which raged among them for many years successively and as late as three years ago. They told me they counted 2000 Lodges or tents in their Camp when all together before the Small Pox had infected them. At present their whole number consist of about 2400 persons dwelling in 300 tents and are able to raise 600 Warriors like the Sioux and Assiniboine. They wander about in Leather tents and remain where there are Buffaloes and Elks. After having remained a few days in one place so that game is not more so plentiful as it was they flit to another place where there are Buffalo or deer and so on all the year around. Since the great decrease of their numbers they generally dwell all together and flit at the same time and as long as it is possible for them to live when together they seldom part.”1 The narrative continues: “They live upon Buffalo & Deer, a very few of them eat Bear or Beaver flesh, but when compelled by hunger; they eat no fish.” The Crow were at that time in their primitive condition, “They have never had any traders with them, they get their battle Guns, ammunitions etc. from the Mandans & Big Bellys in exchange for horses, Robes, Leggings & shirts, they likewise purchase corn, Pumpkins & tobacco from the Big Bellys as they do not cultivate the ground.”

Unfortunately, Larocque did not describe the appearance of the tipis, but such information was supplied by later writers.

"Crow lodge" George Catlin
Plate 46a - "Crow lodge" George Catlin

Catlin visited the Crow during the summer of 1832 and saw many who frequented Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, during his stay at that post. He wrote at that time: “The Crows who live on the head waters of Yellow Stone and extend from this neighborhood also to the base of the Rocky Mountains, are similar, to the Blackfeet: roaming about a great part of the year.” And describing their habitations, he said: “The Crows, of all the tribes in this region, or on the Continent, make the most beautiful lodge, they construct them as the Sioux do, and make them of the same material; yet they oftentimes dress the skins of which they are composed almost as white as linen, and beautifully garnish them with porcupine quills, and paint and ornament them in such a variety of ways, as renders them exceedingly picturesque and agreeable to the eye. I have procured a very beautiful one of this description, highly ornamented, and fringed with scalp-locks, and sufficiently large for forty men to dine under. The poles which support it are about thirty in number, of pine, and all cut in the Rocky Mountains This tent, when erected, is about twenty-five feet high.” 2 Catlin’s original painting of this most interesting tipi is in the National Museum, Washington, and is here reproduced in plate 46a.

As told elsewhere in this work, Maximilian, on June 18, 1833, arrived at Fort Clark. At that time representatives of several tribes were gathered in the vicinity of the fort. These included Crow, “of which tribe there were now seventy tents about the fort.” Referring to these in particular, he remarked: “The tents of the Crow are exactly like those of the, Sioux. and are set up without any regular order. On the poles, instead of scalps, there were small pieces of colored cloth, chiefly red, floating like streamers in the wind.”3 Later in the day Maximilian accompanied the Indian agent to the tipi occupied by the Crow chief Eripuass. This he found to be of much interest. ” The interior of the tent itself had a striking effect. A small fire in the centre gave sufficient light the chief sat opposite the entrance, and round him many fine tall men, placed according to their rank, all with no other covering than a breech-cloth. Places were assigned to us on buffalo hides near the chief, who then lighted his Sioux pipe. which had a long flat tube, ornamented with bright, yellow nails, made each of us take a few puffs, holding the pipe in his hand, and then passed it round to the left hand.” And speaking of the tribe as a whole he wrote: “The territory in which they move about is bounded, to the north or north-west, by the Yellow Stone River, and extends round Bighorn River, towards the sources of Chayenne River and the Rocky Mountains. These Indians are a wandering tribe of hunters, who neither dwell in fixed villages, like the Mandans, Manitarie, and Arikkara, nor make any plantations except of tobacco, which, however, are very small. They roam about with their leather tents, hunt the buffalo, and other wild animals, and have many horses and dogs, which, however, they never use for food. The Crow women are very skillful in various kinds of work, and their shirts and dresses of bighorn leather, embroidered and ornamented with dyed porcupine quills, are particularly handsome, as well as their buffalo robes, which are painted and embroidered in the same manner.”

Crow camp at the old agency on the Yellowstone, near Shields River. Photograph by W. H. Jackson, 1871
Plate 46b - Crow camp at the old agency on the Yellowstone, near Shields River. Photograph by W. H. Jackson, 1871

During the spring of 1863 a peculiar type of log house was discovered in the Crow country which had probably been erected by members of that tribe. They may have resembled the cabins mentioned by Matthews as standing at the Fort Berthold Reservation nine years later. On May 2, 1863, a member of the Yellowstone expedition entered in his journal: “In the timber along the river, we saw many houses built of dry logs and bark; some are built like lodges, but the most of them are either square or oblong, and among them were many large and strong corrals of dry logs. The Crows evidently winter along here, and, from the sign, they are very numerous.” The following day, “We camped three miles below Pompey’s Pillar, on which we found the names of Captain Clark and two of his men cut in the rock, with the date July 25, 1806. Buffalo to be seen in every direction, and very tame. No wonder the Crows like their country; it is a perfect paradise for a hunter. About sundown a large band of buffalo came in to drink at a waterhole about two hundred yards in front of our camp.”4 This may have represented a winter camp ground, with permanent huts to which the Crow returned from year to year. It was in the northeastern part of the present Yellowstone County, Montana.

A very interesting description of a Crow camp is to be found in Lord Dunraven’s narrative of his hunting trip to the Yellowstone region performed during the year 1874. The particular camp stood not far from the present Livingston, Montana. In describing the camp he wrote: “The lodges are tall, circular dwellings, composed of long fir poles planted on a circle in the ground. These slope inwards and form a cone, meeting and leaning against each other at the apex; and upon them is stretched a covering of buffalo hides. They make very comfortable, clean and airy houses, and are far preferable to any tent, being much warmer in winter and cooler in summer. A tepee will hold from twelve to fifteen or even twenty individuals; several families, therefore, generally occupy one in common. The earth is beaten down hard, forming a smooth floor, and in the middle burns the fire, the smoke finding an exit through an aperture at the top. The portions of the tepee assigned to each family or couple are divided by a kind of wicker-work screen at the head and foot, separating a segment of a circle of about eight or ten feet in length and five or six in breadth, closed by the screen at either end, and at the outer side by the wall of the lodge, but being open towards the interior. The fire is common property, and has a certain amount of reverence paid to it. It is considered very bad manners, for instance, to step between the fire and the place where the head man sits. All round, on the lodge poles and on the screens, are suspended the arms, clothing, finery, and equipment of the men and their horses. Each lodge forms a little community in itself.

“The tepees are pitched with all the regularity of an organized camp, in a large circle, inside which the stock is driven at night or on an alarm or occasion of danger. Outside the door is struck a spear or pole, on which is suspended the shield of the chief and a mysterious something tied up in a bundle, which is great medicine.”5

A camp in a cottonwood grove. Photograph not identified, but probably made by J. D. Hutton
Plate 47 - A camp in a cottonwood grove. Photograph not identified, but probably made by J. D. Hutton

A white shield supported outside a tipi is visible in the photograph reproduced as plate 47. This remarkable picture has not, unfortunately, been identified, but it was undoubtedly made in the Upper Missouri Valley, and from the nature of the tipis, many appearing to be quite small, it may be assumed that it was a party of Indians who had come on a trading trip, rather than that it represented a regular village.

Several accounts are preserved of large structures discovered in the region frequented by the Crow which, although not positively identified, were possibly erected by members of that tribe. Thus Lewis and Clark on July 24, 1806, arrived at an island in the Yellowstone River between 5 and 6 miles below the mouth of Clark’s Fork, and wrote: “It is a. beautiful spot with a rich soil, covered with wild rye, and a species of grass like the blue-grass, and some of another kind, which the Indians wear in plaits round the neck, on account of a strong scent resembling that of vanilla. There is also a thin growth of cottonwood scattered over the island. In the centre is a large Indian lodge which seems to have been built during the last summer. It is in the form of a cone, sixty feet in diameter at the base, composed of twenty poles, each forty-five feet long, and two and a half in circumference, and the whole structure covered with bushes. The interior was curiously ornamented. On the tops of the poles were feathers of eagles, and circular pieces of wood, with sticks across them in the form of a girdle: from the centre was suspended a stuffed buffalo skin: on the side fronting the door was hung a cedar bush: on one side of the lodge a buffalo’s head; on the other several pieces of wood stuck in the ground. From its whole appearance, it was more like a lodge for holding councils, than an ordinary dwelling house.” 6 This was undoubtedly a ceremonial lodge, and it was probably quite similar to another observed a few years later. To quote the description of the second example: “In the country of the Crow Indians, (Up-saro-ka,) Mr. Dougherty saw a singular arrangement of the magi. The upper portion of a cotton-wood tree was implanted, with its base in the earth, and around it was a sweat house, the upper part of the top of the tree arising through the roof. A gray bison skin, extended with oziers on the inside so as to exhibit a natural appearance, was suspended above the house, and on the branches were attached several pairs of children’s moccasins and leggings, and from one of the limbs of the tree, a very large fan made of war eagle’s feathers was dependent.”7

Footnotes

  1. Larocque, Francois Antoine, Journal of. . . from the Assinibolne to the Yellowstone, 1805. Publications of the Canadian Archives, No. 3, Ottawa, 1910, pp. 55-56. 

  2. Catlin, George, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1844. 2 vols., I, pp. 43-44. 

  3. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, p. 172. 

  4. Stuart, James, The Yellowstone Expedition of 1863. In Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana. Vol. I. Helena, 1876, pp. 176-178. 

  5. Dunraven, Earl of, The Great Divide: Travels in the Upper Yellowstone in the Summer of 1874. London, 1876, pp. 94-95. 

  6. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., II, p. 386. 

  7. James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., I, p. 272. 



MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 19 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/crow-tribe-houses.htm - Last updated on Jul 14th, 2014


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