Spontoon Style Pipe Tomahawks in Colonial America

“Spontoon” style pipe tomahawks are perhaps the earliest style of pipe tomahawk, which itself is a truly North American invention arising from the clash of cultures and power converging in 18th century colonial America. Early europeans arriving in the new world commonly carried pole-arms with them, which were relics-themselves from European battlefields and the old manners of waging war.

Pole arms were basically fancy spears, many times used to equate status, rather than for actual combat – especially by the 18th century in British Colonial America. The natives observed this, and probably traded for them, and used them for fancy tomahawks. Which in turn also likely spurred the creation and trade of tomahawks crafted specifically to appear like small halberd type pole arms.

Pole arms were involved in both of the major military conflicts of 18th century America

Many scholars believe that these pole arms saw widespread use in early America military activities. These activities would have been observed by the natives, who understood its importance as being both a weapon and a symbol of authority, respect and power.

These diagrams show some of the early examples of halberds and spontoons which saw use in Colonial America in the wars of the 18th century:

The very first spontoon tomahawks were basically knives on a haft, though with a little glam, as with this contemporary piece by Ken Hamilton.

Here’s an original example of this style in a display by Gordon Barlow from several years back, at lower left (with a pipe version above it, and an original spike tomahawk to the right):

Peterson wrote that “the spontoon blade is known in the earliest pictures of pipe tomahawks. The spontoon blade is pictured with a pipe as early as 1757.” This naturally progressed into being paired with a pipe. While the pipe tomahawk was primarily a Native American object per se, and intended for the fur trade, they were almost all made by non-natives. American or European blacksmiths and trade companies, as well as their agents and contractors. 

This original piece below was collected in Pennsylvania, and if I recall correctly was found in a barn on a farm near the site of the Fort Juniata Crossing, a British fortification during the French and Indian War period along the Forbes Road. Some believe it may have been of French manufacture.

The contemporary haft was made by Frank House, following a period of study as to what his best guess was as to how the original haft would have appeared. This piece is featured in the spontoon section of the Hartzler & Knowles tomahawk book, which provides the following info:

Well-made knife configuration piece that was probably made in France with large, turned-down basal processes. Oval eye and very fancy facetted bowl of 6 diamonds with molding around the base. Forged iron mid 18th century. 8 1/2″ x 2 1/2″.

Indian Tomahawks & Frontiersman Belt Axes, by Daniel D. Hartzler and James A. Knowles, at pp. 71.

Blacksmith Josh Wrightsman is in the process of making a contemporary version of this spontoon pipe hawk:

Here’s the spot associated with this particular tomahawk, which was a strategic location associated with the French and Indian War, also remaining an important crossing point through the Revolutionary period:

Juniata Crossing on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River in Bedford County, PA, from the east bank looking west. The crossing ford is visible just left of center. The fort site is to the right. Tyler, John. “Juniata Crossings: Frontier Outpost.” Pioneer America, vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 4–10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44897822. 

After a close examination of the site, the author believes that the supply wagons were encamped on top of a hill on the western bank of the crossing, above the fort. A steep climb up a winding road brought them to a large area, now an open meadow, which would have been ideal for the massing of large numbers of vehicles and men. The fort itself would have been too small. The fort site, still clearly visible with remnants of its earthworks along the riverside was, as Bouquet mentioned, commanded from all sides by high hills and hence indefensible. A deeply rutted and washed out track leads from the fort and crossing site up to the hilltop camping area, and yielded several interesting artifacts.

Tyler, John. “Juniata Crossings: Frontier Outpost.” Pioneer America, vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 4–10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44897822. 

This 1970 article provided some idea of artifacts which had been scavenged at the site:

The fort saw a good amount of traffic that summer as members of the Highland Regiment, the Pennsylvania Regiment, and waggoners with small conestoga wagons tramped down the steep hill and splashed through the river to the newly built stockade on the western bank. The camping place above the fort must have provided a welcome respite after the grueling haul from Fort Littleton over the stony Sideling Hill and Ray’s Hill. The roadway at the crossing will still yield artifacts indicative of their trials, and of those travellers who passed that way later on.

In the fall of 1969 the author and his wife, with Mr. J. Duncan Campbell and Mr. Robert Ditchburn, aided by metal detectors, retrieved a number of artifacts from the center of the road leading from the fort site up to the camping ground. Unlike the rutted wheel tracks, the crown of the road has not been heavily washed, and many items dropped on it over the years have remained.

Several buttons were found, one of which is of the “Old French War” period. Part of an 18th century snaffle bit, as well as two iron chain links, one broken and the other badly worn, were also found. It was on this steep grade, rising from the crossing, that wagon chains parted from the strain of heavy loads, and men, toiling along with packs of military gear, lost buttons.

Tyler, John. “Juniata Crossings: Frontier Outpost.” Pioneer America, vol. 2, no. 2, 1970, pp. 4–10. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44897822. 

In May of 1763, the fort at Juniata Crossing was in disrepair, and being mostly indefensible, and less strategic following the end of the war, it was burnt to the ground. I’d love to know the story of how this spontoon pipe axe arrived at this particular location. Was it dropped at one time and picked up by early settlers. Was it obtained by an early frontiersmen or soldier who settled at this location? We’ll never know. But I have no doubt that often that’s for the best, and properly relegated to our imaginations.

Spontoon hawks continued in popularity for many years, especially in the West, where they took on a second life of their own, often having a diamond shape, like this ground find relic.

Or this later style found among the Osage in Missouri:

Gold plated brass spontoon pipe tomahawk found in Missouri, Osage Indians, circa 1880s. Perino, Gregory. “Some Historic Missouri Indian Artifacts.” Central States Archaeological Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, 1966, pp. 156–158.

Some original pieces I found on the interwebs:

18th century style pipe tomahawk, sold at Morphy’s. Description: Forged head of 6 – 3/4″ overall with spontoon type blade featuring two serrated spurs forward of the eye. Both sides feature moldings and pipe is attached in the saddle fashion. Rounded bowl with brass band inlaid around base. Later Hickory haft with carved mouthpiece. Haft has an encircled “5” painted on it and a small white tag, yellowed from age numbered “149”, these appear to be museum or collection numbers. Dark patina with some edge wear and scattered areas of pitting and marks from use. Haft has some scattered light scratches and is slightly loose.
Spontoon Pipe Tomahawk, Attributed to Seneca Chief Cornplanter, auctioned by Cowan’s. Description: delicate handle crafted of fruitwood; diminutive forged blade having upturned tines and engraved linear decorations on bowl; inked on handle is the inscription: 103: Pipe Tomahawk belonged to Chief Cornplanter Seneca Indians. Ft Harmer(sic) Treaty. 1789. M.C. Lore(?) Collection then(?) to J.G. Braecklein, length 15 in., length of blade 6.75 in., late 18th century
Early spontoon pipe tomahawk, offered at auction by Cowan’s in 2002. Description: probably 18th-century. Classic example of a rare, early type with two bands of pewter inlaid into wooden handle, with pewter end caps, pipe-tomahawk with double-edged blade with scrolled ends and short pipe segment, blade with clearly visible laid-in steel bit; haft 15″ long, blade and pipe 10″ long, 1.75″ widest dimension. 
Condition:Fine overall patina, pipe bowl broken off and professionally reattached; blade with old hand-forged repair, minor pitting.
From the collection of Steve and Marcy Hench. Offered at auction by Morphy’s. Description: Probably circa 1770. This spontoon pipe tomahawk has excellent form and diminutive proportions. The handforged iron head measures 7-1/2″ overall with a double edged blade of about 3-3/4″ with two decorative loops following and moldings both in front of and behind the eye. The small 1-1/8″ bowl has a brass band around the top. Complete with a later silver banded and silver inlaid wooden haft with a brass cap at the top. A very nice pipe tomahawk with excellent form. CONDITION: Head retains a corroded, heavy brown surface. Tip has been rounded. Some minor losses due to thinning around the top of the bowl. Haft retains a dark patina. Name Value Blade Length 5″ Overall Length 20″ Paperwork

1 thought on “Spontoon Style Pipe Tomahawks in Colonial America

Leave a Reply