“Fire Strikers,” a.k.a., “Strike-a-Lites” in the American fur trade

A popular tool in the days of the 18th century North American frontier was the “fire striker, or “strike-a-lite,” or “fire steel” or, well there are a number of names for these things. The purpose is obviously to start a fire. The design is simple: a piece of carbon steel, which is struck against a piece of flint, chert, or similar rock, thus making sparks, which would then fall onto some sort of tinder, thus creating fire.

These items were of utmost important for the european and American fur traders. They were necessary for whites and natives alike when venturing through the wilderness, as evidenced by the fact that they can still be found on early sites. They were especially prominent in the French fur trade. Fire strikers have been found on numerous historic sites in North America, including:

  • Womack Site, Texas (Harris and Blaine 1965:351)
  • Ada, Michigan (Herrick 1958:7)
  • Lasanen, Michigan (Cleland 1971: 20, 21)
  • Grand Portage, Minnesota (Woolworth 1967:13)
  • Longlac, Ontario (Dawson 1969:48)
  • Woods Island, Alabama (Morrell 1965:43-44)
  • Birch Island, Ontario (Greenmail 1951: 43-44)
  • Fort Ligonier, Pennsylvania (Grimm 1970:147)

While I’m primarily concentrating on the 18th century, evidence indicates that they were in common use throughout the entirety of the historic period in North America. In 1721 one gross of “fire-steels” were distributed to “Monsieur de Louvigny for his Equipment and that of the officers who accompanied him, for buying provisions and for making presents to the savages . . . .” (Thwaites 1902: Vol. 16, 403).

I saved this pic from somewhere, but I’m pretty sure these were all finds by Bob Bennett, from Ottawa sites in Michigan, in the vicinity of Ft. Michilimackinac.

Monsieur de la Porte Louvigny was first appointed commandant at Michillimakinac in April of 1690. He remained there until 1694, when he was replaced by Monsieur de la Mothe-Cadillac. In 1712, he was reappointed to that post. It’s no wonder that many of these early French trade strikers have been found in the vicinity of Michillimackinac. These are all finds by Bob Bennett from that vicinity:

Although they were a recent arrival to North America, they have quite a history in the old world. In Europe, ever since the Iron Age, striking flint with steel was the predominant method of fire making, until the invention of the friction match around 1830. They were in use by the Romans and the Vikings, and their fire strikers don’t look much different from the strikers found on North American sites.

Assorted reproduction firesteels typical of Roman to medieval period
Late 18th century firesteels from Brittany

As far as I know, there was no use of fire steels among the North American native population prior to European import. Perhaps there were some in use by the Viking explorers to Nova Scotia, but aside from that, they were new to people in North America. The most common method of fire making in North America prior to the introduction of fire steels, was described by Pere Lafitau, in reference to the Hurons and Iroquois:

They take two pieces of cedar wood, dry and light; they hold one piece firmly down with the knee and in a cavity which they have made with a beaver-tooth or with the point of a knife on the edge of one of these pieces of wood which is flat and a little larger, they insert the other piece which is round and pointed and turn and press down with so much rapidity and violence that the material of the wood agitated with vehemence falls off in a rain of fire by means of a crack or little canal which leaps from the cavity over a match [slow match]. This match receives the sparks which fall, and preserves them for a long time and from which they can make a large fire by touching it to other dry materials.

Fire-making Apparatus in the U. S. National Museum, by Walter Hough, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53531/53531-h/53531-h.htm

As for the value of the strikers during the fur trade of the 18th century, by comparing them with other items on period invoices, it can be determined that 40 fire strikers were of the same value as 1 trade gun. 20 gunflints were as valuable as 1 fire striker. They were one component of a fortune’s worth of goods, which would be packed into the wilderness by the early fur traders.

The traders who engaged in the fur trade with the Native Americans were risking more than their lives in the business venture. The cost of their goods, adjusted for today’s values, “could easily exceed $80,000.00, adjusted for today’s currency. Likewise, the average Native American customer probably compiled hundreds of furs in preparation for trading.

It was not unusual for one hunter to obtain the following items just for his family:

3 tomahawks, 5 yards of flannel, 1 rifle, 1 tin kettle, 6 pairs of stockings, 6 pairs of women’s stockings, 6 large blankets, 6 coats, 6 plain shirts, 3 ruffled shirts, 4 silver arm bands, 3 pounds of vermillion, 4 large silk handkerchiefs, 1 large silver cross, 4 pairs of silver ear bobs, 4 silver wrist bands, 10 pounds of gun powder, 20 bars of lead, 2 women’s silver hair plates, 6 gallons of run, 15 beaver traps, 36 gun flints, 1 pound of White Wampum, 3 children’s stockings, 1 large knife, 1 silver brooch, 1 looking glass, and 2 combs.

The exchange of goods with just one Shawnee hunter could amount to $15,000 worth of beaver or deer skins for the trader. In return, the trader offered about $7,000 worth of merchandise to the Shawnee hunter. Within weeks, the fur traders headed back east with approximately $200,000 in beaver and deer skins.

“How Could a Beaver Start a War?” The History Teacher, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Feb., 2010), pp. 278.

That’s “if” they arrived back east, however. And the price of admission was high. “To get started, you needed approximately $50,000 to $150,000. Id. at 279.

The strikers shown below were found at Fort Albany (James Bay), circa 1610-1686. Only one complete striker was found, which is 8.4 cm long, with a striking edge of 3.5 mm in thickness:

The striker below is an oval fire steel found at the site of Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan. This type appears among French artifacts of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, found at early French-influenced, or inhabited, sites. This striker consists of a single piece of steel. Either side could have been used a striking edge, or a handle, so it was a useful design. It appears to be marked with a depiction of two claws, facing opposite directions.

Here are three flat oval fire strikers with holes in the center which were found at the site of an Ojibwa village at Grand Portage, Minnesota. One is stamped “G.A.E.” or “G.R.E.”

This one is marked with the name I*VIAL. The name VIAL is documented in the St. Etienne, France records as a 17th or 18th century maker of coffee makers and other metalware. Possibly French flint strikers were also made there and then exported to the French colonies as part of the fur trade.

These relics, along with a tinder box, were found in the Mackinaw City vicinity:

These two oval strikers were found on 18th century Ottawa sites in Michigan by Bob Bennett. the first, which is slightly smaller, has some sort of marking. But I can’t make it out.

By no means are all fire strikers oval. They are found in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are some more unusual shaped fire strikers, all of which were found by Bob Bennett in Michigan:

Here’s an incomplete style oval striker in the Smithsonian, coupled with the flint it was found with. This was attributed to the Otoes. The flint is a chipped piece of gray chert, “probably an ancient implement picked up from the surface.

Fire-making Apparatus in the U. S. National Museum, by Walter Hough, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53531/53531-h/53531-h.htm

Another Smithsonian piece. A leather pouch with a striking kit, attributed to the Cheyenne, with a bone cup used to hold the tinder while striking a spark into it.

Fire-making Apparatus in the U. S. National Museum, by Walter Hough, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53531/53531-h/53531-h.htm

Another leather pouch in the Smithsonian, with fire-making kit, attributed to the Comanche, found in Texas. It includes a broken rasp, a piece of chert, and a piece of spunk. The bag is made from a saddle skirt.

Fire-making Apparatus in the U. S. National Museum, by Walter Hough, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/53531/53531-h/53531-h.htm

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