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Cultural Treasures

Two Early Maliseet or Passamaquoddy Splint Ash Baskets

(private collection)

knitting or work basket
knitting or work basket
open sewing basket
open sewing basket


The owner of these two rare baskets has an exceptional and innate ability to select early quality baskets without knowing their history. The knitting or workbasket she acquired at a local auction and the sewing basket she saved from being sent to the dump. When she contacted me to look at her modest collection I immediately told her that the open sewing basket was an early 19th century splint wood basket as the design is typical of what I had seen in Museums and in paintings of the period. The knitting or workbasket I could honestly say I had never seen before. But, because of the extensive research I have done on Wabanaki splint wood basketry, I was able to subsequently identify both as probably Maliseet baskets. The following is copied from a portion of the research report I provided for the collector after photographing, examining, measuring and researching the baskets.


knitting or work basket

“This basket is in remarkably pristine condition. It is extremely rare because as far as I am aware no museum in Canada has a Wabanaki basket with these colours of natural dye [traces of purple and green on the inside of the cover]. However, it was believed these colours were being used by the Wabanaki (Ruth Holmes Whitehead – Micmac Quillwork, p.68-69) No museum has a Wabanaki basket with djikajidj predating the early 1850s. [djikajidj (my spelling) is a Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot word referring to an inserted splint that is twisted to form a three dimensional decorative weave.


I believe this basket is probably Maliseet or possibly Passmamaquoddy because of the careful attention to details such as the attempt to neatly hide the ends of the standards under the weavers, the careful tucking of the binding on the hoop (the Mi’kmaq most often passed it down through the weavers). Although this basket was not made on a mold the careful weaving and the use of djikajidj does camouflage its imperfect shape. Mi’kmaqs rarely made round baskets unless they were tapered or straight sided. Also, the base ring helps the basket maintain its steadiness. Again base rings are not common on Mi’kmaq baskets. Over all, this slightly potbellied basket is aesthetically very pleasing in its balanced design and this is another Maliseet quality. It must have been spectacular with its purple and green coloured splints.


This basket predates the early 1850s because :
1. gauges were used to divide splints into narrow strips for fancy baskets after 1850 and there does not appear to have been any use of a guage on this basket
2. Indigo was a popular dye on fancy splint baskets in the 1850s and 60s. This dye penetrated the wood and there are always traces of it when it has been used [there is no evidence of indigo dye on the basket].
3. There is no use of sweet grass which is always used in weaving the center of the cover by the 1860s and on the top and outside of the hoops by the 18880s


4. The Maliseet and Passamaquoddy always used molds on fancy round baskets by the 1860s and this basket was not made on a mold. Fanny Hardy Eckstorm, in The Handicrafts of the Modern Indians of Maine pp.28-29, assumed that all early baskets were simple in form (square, rectangular, or round with square bases) because she learned from her Penobscot contacts that molds were not used before the 1860s. This is the second early basket I have found that disproves her theory. There is a late 18th or early 19th century Mi’kmaq cutlery basket in the Acadian Museum at l’Université de Moncton. She also assumed that this type of djikajidj was probably introduced about the same time, 1862-63 p.25. This basket seems to disprove this theory as well. The maker of this basket was a very skilled artisan as the djikajidj is both graduated and even in its execution. The skillful application of the djikajidj also seems to suggest that at this early date djikajidj was already a common method of decoration. This basket may date to the early 19th century but a safe date would be circa 1840.”

open sewing basket


“It is probably Maliseet or possibly Passamaquoddy because of the lack of a weaver on the base which is seen on most Mi’kmaq baskets with square or rectangular bases. Also, the balance in both construction techniques and decorative elements is typical of Maliseet or Passamaquoddy baskets.


The fact that the basket was made without the use of gauges and that it has both indigo and natural dye [trace of yellow dye was found under the weavers on the outside of the basket] suggests it was made some time between 1750 and 1850. The lack of handles and the fairly simple decorative design suggests late 18th or early 19th century. Since it does not have any evidence of blue-green dye, it may be earlier than 1820 as this dye is very common and popular on this type of basket between 1820 and 1860. [Because of the chemical composition of this dye, it always leaves traces on the basket no matter how old]”

Two Mi’kmaq Artifacts from
the Kings County Museum, Hampton

Quillwork wall match box basket doll's cradle

These two artifacts are examples from the ethnology collection of the museum that also includes Mi’kmaq and Mohawk beadwork, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Mohawk basketry.

fireplace match box front fireplace match box back

1974.017 Wall or Fireplace Match Box Quillwork

“Made by Maliseet Indians about 1859. Donated by Miss L.Alice White Sussex, Kings County and Moncton, N.B.” [extract from Museum donor’s label]


“The front and sides of the rectangular wrapped bark are decorated with a chevron mosaic. As the triangular portions at the top and base of the chevron are not delineated and are filled with a solid colour this suggests that it was made in the early 19th century. As the 19th century wore on the chevron became wider and known as the zigzag design. This chevron is not spread out and is not reduced to a narrow band. (Whitehead, 1982, pp. 145-153.)


On the triangular portion, two designs dominate the mosaic panel. One is a stepped design that surrounds the second, which appears to be a church design with what may be a rectangular blue door. Notice the cross overlay at the top of the triangle. It may also be a wigwam with a door and the traditional equilateral cross above and around the wigwam. These two designs (the steps and the large triangle) are delineated with a simple single stitch overlay. In addition, there are other overlay cross patterns in the step design. Other indistinguishable overlay patterns (quills are missing) are seen in the church or wigwam design and in the blue rectangle. In Micmac Quillwork, p. 30 there is a variation on this motif of a stepped design surrounding a triangle with a square or rectangle in the middle that dates 1790. Other illustrations showing this motif are seen on pp. 50, 51, 79 & 90. By the mid nineteenth century when the designs and overlay patterns become busier this motif is altered as its initial significance is lost.


Ruth Whitehead believes that the Mi’kmaq were the only Wabanaki people to do quillwork on bark. The Maliseet providence is therefore uncertain on this match box quillwork. Also, the method of box construction; the fact that the quills seem to have natural dyes; the simple uncluttered early designs; and relatively simple overlay application, suggest this quillwork is from the first quarter of the 19th century, probably circa 1810 and not 1859 as the donor’s label suggests.”

Basket Doll's Cradle Inside of Basket Doll's Cradle

1971.063 Ash Doll’s Cradle

“Very few basket doll’s cradles have survived because they were well used by little girls who were not always gentle with their toys. The damaged hood shows that the cradle had been picked up at its weakest point.


There is a blue green natural dye weaver (weft) on the sides and traces of purple natural dye on weavers near the base. There may have been other dyes that have completely disappeared. The blue green dye was made from a plant having a waxy substance that protected it from ultraviolet light. However, this dye does not penetrate the wood and will rub off. Each natural dye has a different texture when applied to the wood and some could only adhere to rough surfaces. (see a late 18th early 19th century cutlery basket in the collections of the Musée Acadien, l’Université de Moncton). Natural dyes also react differently to ultraviolet light. In addition, they do not penetrate the wood in the same way. Some remain on the surface others penetrate the wood and some penetrate the splint through and through (see my unpublished report Hat Box Type Basket, 1992, p.5 Centre Culturel Malecite in Cacouna Québec). Natural dyes were swabbed on one side of the splint before the splint was woven into the basket (Eckstorm, 1980, p. 24). These dyes took time to harvest and prepare, consequently, they were applied sparingly. When commercial aniline dyes became available, they were cheap and plentiful; therefore, the whole splint could be dipped in the dye vat. On commercially dyed baskets, all the colours have the same texture and fade at more or less the same rate.


On most basket dolls cradles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries the rockers were added by the buyer. In earlier examples it seems the rockers were added by the basket maker. On this cradle they were probably added on at the time the basket was made. The rockers and the interior wooden base are made of cedar. Cedar was also used in the first half of the 19th century on Mi’kmaq quill boxes and on Mi’kmaq and Maliseet bark boxes. Etched bark boxes from the turn of the 19th century have cedar bases as can be seen in the collections of the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John NB and the Musée Acadien, l’Université de Moncton. In addition there is a cedar base and rockers in the Mid 19th century quillwork doll’s cradle in the New Brunswick Museum (acc. No. 6065). The nails used to attach the rockers to this basket cradle are hand forged and appear also to originate from the first half of the 19th century. Finally the wear on the bottom of the rockers shows this cradle has had much use.


This basket dolls cradle may be Maliseet but is probably Mi’kmaq and dates from circa 1855. Both Wabanaki peoples made basket dolls cradles and used cedar bases. I have not seen any Maliseet dolls cradles from this period but the NBM Mi’kmaq dolls quillwork cradle, from the mid 19th century, has about the same proportions as this cradle. In addition, the rockers have about the same shape as those on the Mi’kmaq quillwork cradle. This basket cradle predates 1868 because natural dyes were used until the mid to late 1860s. It was made after 1850 because a splint guage was used to cut the widths of the splints on this basket. This tool was introduced about 1850 (Nicholas N. Smith, “The Economics of the Wabanaki Basket Industry”, in Actes Du Vingtième Congrès Des Algonquinistes, 1989, pp. 308-16). Consequently the suggested 1889 date given by the donor is unlikely.”

Maliseet Etched Birch Bark Box

(Private Collection)
Maliseet Birch Bark Box Top of Maliseet Birch Bark Box

Small etched birch bark box (one of a set of nesting boxes, private collection)


The owner almost over looked this box in an antique shop because it had nails in it and was uncertain about its authenticity as native historic art. The investment was well worth it as this box is a genuine expression of Maliseet history, culture, and art.


This box has signs of repair. First it has nails securing the cedar base to the bark sides. Secondly, the box sides and edge of the cover are stitched with aniline dyed ash splints. Finally, on the edge of the cover are strands of sweet grass under the binding. Native people from the Atlantic provinces or Maine probably made these repairs between 1880 and 1910. By this period, most Maliseet and Passamaquoddy artists were more involved with splint basketry than bark work. Those that did make bark containers stitched a bark base rather than treen peg a cedar base at this period. Consequently, they probably didn’t have the knowledge of treen pegging wood and didn’t want to take the time to gather spruce root when ash splints were handy. In fact there are examples of Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq bark work or quillwork in Museums which date from this period with ash splint binding instead of split spruce root. In addition, by the 1880s sweet grass was always used on the hoops of “fancy” baskets unless there was a special construction or allergy requirement.

The cedar base, the broken treen pegs near the base of the box, the bark, and design are original to the box.


The etched design on this box is not typical of what one expects on 19th century bark work. Most examples in museums have double curve motifs. However, in the collection of the Musée Acadien, l’Université de Moncton, one can see examples of Mi’kmaq wooden boxes with incised and painted designs that are similar and which also lack double curve motifs. These wooden boxes date from the late 18th to the early 19th century.


In the center of this birch bark box cover is an etched drawing of a spring birch tree. Spring birch trees seem to unravel their small leaves several at a time so that initially one sees leaves sparingly on the trees like the one depicted on this box. This may be a symbol indicating that the season is a significant message in the design. Of course the birch tree was important to native culture in the North East (Butler & Hadlock, Uses of Birch Bark in the North East, 1957) because it had so many uses for the culture. Possibly the artist intended the symbol to have more than one meaning.


Following the edge of the cover are alternating triangles and semi-circles with a single line drawn from the edge to about the middle of each triangle or semi-circle. These lines may represent openings in the symbolic conical single-family dwellings and the rounded multiple-family dwellings. On the sides of the box are symbols of corn each of which is separated by a vertical line. This box seems to depict an important aspect of Maliseet culture. It has been historically recorded that the Maliseet annually gathered at Meductic in the spring to renew contact after a winter of living in small family groups. At this time the Maliseet planted corn and beans. The beans protected the corn from weeds while the Maliseet hunted and gathered plants and animals in larger co-operative groups through the summer and fall. The gathering at Meductic was also a traditional period of festivity and ceremonial activity when it was possible to bury those who dyed through the winter and celebrate marriages, births and so on. This traditional activity is recorded in the earliest historical records and continued to about the mid 19th century.


In addition, Meductic became a rallying place for the Wabanaki Confederacy in the early 18th century (Clarke, 1968, p. 55) because the Abenaki, the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot, and the Mi’maq peoples could easily meet there by canoe due to the well established system of portage routes from Maine, Québec and the Bay of Fundy. Meductic means end of the portage or trail in the Maliseet language (Clarke, 1968, p. 47). Clarke also found documentation that indicates that Meductic was an important political rallying place for the Maliseet, Penobscot and Kennebec peoples in the 17th century. (1968, p.61). Even though Meductic had been granted to the British Loyalist DeLancy’s First Battalion Regiment in 1783 (p. 63-64) without any treaty being signed with the Maliseet, it was not until after the 1840s (60 years later) that the Maliseet were finally forced to abandon the area. According to Clarke the Maliseet continued to plant corn and other vegetables at Meductic up until this time.


Shakers in Maine made and sold oval shaped wooden stacking boxes from the 18th century and well into the 19th century as did other people in Atlantic Canada during the same period. These nesting boxes were no doubt the inspiration for etched bark, quillwork, or wooden nesting boxes made by the Wabanaki peoples for sale to the increasing European populations living in their traditional hunting and fishing territories. Several water colour paintings from the first half of the 19th century by John Stanton in the New Brunswick Museum and the Mc Cord Museum show the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet selling a wide range of crafts. Newspapers from the early 19th century advertise the sale of native crafts in millinery stores in Saint John, NB.


This etched birch bark nesting box is probably Maliseet and dates from the late 18th to the early 19th century. It is the earliest etched birch bark box I have ever seen in any Canadian Museum or private collection. It is a treasure not only by its rarity but also because its symbolism seems to depict and document an important Maliseet historic and cultural event – the Maliseet spring gathering at Meductic.”

A Maliseet Nose or Horse Feed Basket

(Private Collection)

Maliseet Nose Basket

The owner said that this basket was found at a country auction and as its function was unknown there were no opposing bids. It is in pristine condition and a type very hard to find as most were eventually broken and discarded. The horse sometimes banged the basket against trees trying to shake the last oats hiding under the splints or at the bottom. Farmers were also known to line the inside with burlap or canvas cloth. A leather strap or a rope would have been tied through each of the small holes near the hoop. This leather strap or rope would then be slipped over the horse’s head to keep the basket on the horse’s nose. Consequently, it was called a nose basket.

Maliseet horse feed basket horse feed basket inside


“This basket is made of white ash with a rounded maple hoop. It has many quality constructions details. The base ring, consisting of two twisted splints, was added to protect the edge where the standards or warps are bent up. This is a vulnerable part of the basket that could break when the horse hit the basket against a tree. The binding on the hoop is double and added on in the same direction to ensure that the binding does not unravel in the event that a part of it breaks. The hoop is well rounded, causing less stress on the binding splints of the hoop.


This basket is very similar to nose baskets in the Kingslanding Historic Village above Fredericton, NB. except for the base ring which is probably an earlier construction detail. Staff at Kingslanding found these baskets in Saint John River valley barns that were transported to the Village. In addition, the New Brunswick Provincial Archives has photos of horses wearing nose baskets quite similar to this one at the City Hall farmer’s market, Fredericton. The Maliseet elders, I interviewed in the 1970s, described making nose baskets similar to this one. The Mi’kmaq elders on the east coast of New Brunswick spoke about making nose baskets with heavy wooden supports nailed to the base or adding a wooden piece on the inside of the base. Consequently there is little doubt that this is a Maliseet nose basket.


As the splints have been cut with a guage the basket was made after 1850. The base ring and other careful construction details suggest it was probably made before 1900. As this type of basket would have seen few modifications since it was invented until its use was abandoned, it is more difficult to discern a precise date. This Maliseet nose basket dates between 1850 and 1900.

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