Sunday, May 21, 2006



Ted Orcutt, The Karok Master, King of the Flintknappers. at the he
turn of the last century there were many flintknappers working at
their craft. One of these knappers stands out among the rest as he
carried on a sacred tradition, the white deer knapper. The White Deer
knapper had the honor of knapping the massive obsidian blades for the
world renewal ceremony known as the White Deer Dance. The White Deer
Dance was very a huge undertaking and organizers spent years planning
for one event. The event was not only time and labor intensive but
was also financially very costly. To make things work out, each tribe
took a turn hosting the event that often lasted 3 solid days. The
actual dance involved dancers carrying stuffed albino dear skins on
polls followed by obsidian dancers that carried a set of two- twin,
massive obsidian bi-faced blades tied in the middle with a buck skin
thong. He who knapped the sacred, giant, ceremonial blades for the
Karok, Hupa and Yurok was a man of honor. The man who last held this
honor was known as king of the flintknappers, he was Theodore Orcutt.
Theodore Orcutt was born February 25, 1862 near the Karok Indian
settlement of Weitchpec on the Klamath River. Weitchpec is now at the
upper or north edge of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in
northern California. His mother was a full blooded Karok Indian, born
at the Karok settlement of Orleans, Oleans is only a short distance
from Weitchpec on Hwy 96, his father was a Scotsman. Theodore's
father, Albert Stumes Orcutt had fair skin, blue eyes and light hair
and was about 5.11 inches tall and ran Orcutt Hydraulic on the South
fork of the Salmon River at Methodist creek, Albert came to this area
from Maine where he was carpenter, although he had been a sailor
earlier in life. Later in life Albert had a small farm and Orchard on
the Klamath River.
Theodore's mother, Panamenik -Wapu Orcutt, was closer to 5 foot 6
inches , with jet black hair, brown eyes and dark skin. His mother
had the characteristic traditional female Karok tattoo on her chin, 3
vertical strait lines. At adolescence all traditional Karok girls had
their chin tattooed with three vertical lines, or stripes. Using a
sharp obsidian tool, soot and grease were stitched into the skin, the
same tattoo was on the biceps. The tattooing was for several purposes
all relating to gender and Klan affiliation. She was considered a
good cook and hard worker, she could make baskets, new the ins and
outs of herbalism and acted on occasion as a midwife. She also spoke
both the Hokan language and English. Theodore's mother stayed close
to him all his life and even in old age she made trips to visit with
him. His mother lived to the advance age of 107 years old.
In about 1865 young Theodore was given his Indian name, "Mus-su-peta-
nac" translated to English means "Up-River-Boy", Karok traditional
names were not given for several years after birth so if the child
died at a young age they would not be remembered by name and the
grieving would be less. The infant mortality rate for Karok in the
late 1800s was not good, at the Federal census of 1910 there were
only 775 Karoks living in 200 Karok homes.
As a child, Theodore road his pony to the local one room school house
and was a quite and good student. He was a quit boy and a very good
writer, had excellent penmanship and was well read, he was, however
largely self taught, because of his many other obligations. He helped
around the house and was diligent in his chores. While the country
was celebrating its first centennial, 1876, Ted was 14 years old and
had begun his flintknapping apprenticeship with his Karok uncle "Mus-
sey-pev-ue-fich" , his mother's brother, whom was a master
flintknapper and was considered the village specialist. It was a
great honor for Ted to be chosen to such a prestigious mentor (mentor-
a wise and trusted counselor) and he practiced when ever he could.
The raw material of choice for stone workers in northern California
at the time was obsidian. Obsidian is a volcanic, colored glass,
usually black, which displays curved lustrous surfaces when
fractured. According to Carol Howe (1979) "the amount of control that
a skilled workman can exercise over obsidian is amazing. Teodore
Orcutt, a Karok Indian, one lived at Red Rock near Dorris,
California. He learned the arrowhead maker's art from his father, who
was the village specialist. The giant blade in figure 1, now in the
Nevada Historical Museum at Reno, Nevada, is an example of his work,
though not ancient, it represents the almost lost hertage of an
ancient art. Orcutt told Alfred Collier of Klamath Falls that it took
years of practice for him to became proficient."
While still in his teens he began to master the art of flintknapping.
First he learned the percussion method of knapping (Percussion method-
the act of creating some implements by controlled impact flake
detachment) and after several years he could reduce a fairly large
mass of obsidian into a flat plate like biface (biface-a large spear
head shaped blank with flake scars covering both faces), he was also
becoming more adapt to the pressure flaking techniques with a hand
held antler tine compressor (Pressure flaking- a process of forming
and sharpening stone by removing surplus material with pushing
pressure- in the form of flakes using an antler tine). His
arrowheads, spear points and other flint work became quite nice and
he began to experiment with eccentric forms and often knapped
butterfly, dog, eagles and other zoomorphic (zoomorphic-abstract
animal shaped art) and anthropomorphic (anthropomorphic-abstract
human shaped art) forms out of fine quality, fancy obsidians provided
to him by his uncle. He was also in his teens when he learned the art
of bead weaver, brain tanning of hides and arrowsmithing.
In 1885, Ted was 23 years old and spend nearly all his time after
work flintknapping and crafting traditional Karok items. It was at
this age that one morning Ted's uncle told him to get his bed roll as
he was now ready to participate in the sacred act of collecting
lithic material. This was an honor that Ted had looked forward to for
many years and he was very excited. Ted ran back to tell his mother
but she was already standing outside with Ted's bed role and some
food she had prepared.
Their first few lithic collecting trips were to Glass Mountain, near
Medicine Lake in eastern Siskiyou County, California. Ted was aware
that not only the obsidian collecting was important but the
cerimonialism involved in doing so as well. Obsidian mining was
something that had been done by hundreds of generations of Karok and
it was not to be taken lightly. Before white mining laws came about,
Native Americans relied on the concept of "neutral ground", even
tribes which were bitter enemies could meet at the obsidian quarries
and share knapping and lithic information.
As their buckboard wagon arrived at the obsidian outcrop, Ted jumped
out of his seat down into the dark damp soil, his boots leaving
imprints in the half dried mud, it was early spring and the grass was
vibrant green. Black obsidian chips glistened and sparkled all over
the land scape. When Mus-su-petafich showed young Ted how to mine and
quarry obsidian he first left an offering of tobacco, when he
performed lithic reduction (lithic-greek for stone, term most often
used in science, reduction-the miners often made preformed artifact
blanks to lessen the bulk for transport) Mus-su-petafich drove the
obsidian flakes off the core with a soft hammer stone. Large blocks
of obsidian were quarried by splitting them off giant boulders with
the use of fire. Mus-su-petafich would build a bon fire against the
rock. As each flake came off, no matter what the method of
extraction, he would set it in a pile and categorized them as his
ancestors had and said "this one is for war, this one is for bear,
this one is for deer hunting, this one is for trade, this one is for
sale". The various piles were kept separate until they were knapped
to completion and were all set aside for their original purpose. Mus-
su-petafich told Ted why each flake (or spall) had a special purpose
based on its form, structure, fracture-ability, texture, hardness and
color. There was a different Karok word for each type and variability
in the obsidian. Red obsidian was considered ritually poison and
these were usually saved for war or revenge, at this time in history
many of the customs had changed and Mus-su-petchafich made beautiful
points for sale and trade with varieties of obsidian that were once
reserved for the kill. There were numerous instances when Mus-su-
petchafich had to obtain subsurface, unweathered material, but these
were for the most part small pit mines.
It took Ted many years of mentoring with his uncle before he began to
fully understand the Karok lithic tradition. The two men made
thousands of arrowheads, lithic art and traditional Karok costumes
and marketed them, not only to traditional Indians but also, to a
wealthy eastern clientele. As Ted got older flintknapping became an
obsession, nearly all his extra time was spent either collecting
extravagant lithic material or flintknapping, in bad whether and at
night he would plan his strategy for some lithic challenge he was
working on and his quest for every better lithic material began
taking him farther and farther from home. Oregon's Glass buttes,
Goose Lake, Blue Mt., in Northern California, Battle Mountain
Chalcedony in Nevada Opal, agate and jasper from the coastal areas
and the inland deserts. On several occasions Ted Orcutt made trips to
Wyoming, the Dakotas and many locations in Utah and Idaho where he
would find specific lithic materials for special orders. Herb Wynet
was Orcutt's traveling partner and "sidekick" on many of these trips
and Herb would do all the driving so his friend "Theo" could gaze out
the car window at the country-side. Ted could look at the geology and
topography of an area if he had been there before or not and give a
good prediction, with great accuracy, where the lithic material would
be, he was correct nearly every time. On these trips Orcutt kept a
list of artifact orders on hand, this way he knew what lithic
material to get and what to focus on at his afternoon knapping
sessions on the road. In this manor Ted never fell behind on his
orders while on his flint hunting adventures. In 1902 Ted moved to
Red Rock Valley near Mount Hebron he was now 40 years old and his
percussion biface knapping was becoming better than ever. In the
earlier years Ted and his uncle had made I name for themselves among
the Native Americans in their area by knapping the large White Dear
Dance ceremonial blades for the White Deer Dance Rituals, Ted was now
challenged by these massive blades and he had a compulsive need to go
ever larger and more spectacular using many varieties of flint and
obsidian to make ever more elaborate pieces. By 1905, at age 43
Orcutt was knapping hundreds of obsidian blades of massive size, his
command over the percussion method of knapping was now unrepressed in
the history of the world.
In 1911 Ted was 49 years old when he got the job of postmaster of the
Tecnor post office in Red Rock. It was August of the same year that
Ted sat on the wooden bench outside his house and read about Ishi in
the local newspaper, the whole thing with Ishi took place only a few
miles from Ted's house, curiously, the Hokan language family
encompasses both Yahi (Ishi's language) and Karok (Orcutt's
language). It was a local joke to Ted people would say "hey Theo, did
you hear Mr. Ishi is the last arrow head maker!"
Ted was self-educated, read a good deal and by all accounts wrote a
good hand. The job as postmaster was taxing and left little idle time
to knap stone so in 1926, at the age of 62, he gave up the postmaster
job and began hauling mail from Mt. Hebron, at Technor, in Red Rock
Valley, first with horse and buggy and later in a Model T Ford, which
Ted bought new. During this time Orcutt was knapping more than ever
and was selling items through out the eastern United States, Europe
and Museums through out the world. He had well received exhibitions
at the California State Fair in Sacramento, a permanent display in
the Memorial Flower Shop in Woodland, California and he had shipped
his points to many hundreds of museums and collectors. He had a claim
where he mined obsidian near Wagontire, Eastern Oregon. It was in
this period also that Ted's ceremonial blades went from the 30 inch
long giants to the 48 inch long monsters that made gave him the
title "king of the flintknappers". This same time period Ted took a
half ton block of glass Mountain obsidian and carefully and precisely
knapped a 48 1/2 inch long ceremonial knife, which was 9 inches wide
and only 1-3/4 inch thick. This massive bifaced blade still hold the
world record for size, it rests in the Smithsonian Institute, a
similar one is in the Nevada Historical Museum at Reno, Nevada. In
the Natural History museum in Sacramento there is a massive
collection of large Orcutt blades, 176 in all, they are in an old box
marked "source unknown". The Southwest Museum in Los Angeles has many
Orcutt blades and also some of the White Deer Dance costumes Ted
made. As for the 48 inch blade, one witness to the giant blade
manufacture heard Ted speak really softly while working on the giant
blade, " I get awful nervous when I'm working on this, I'm afraid
I'll break it just before I finish."
It was not entirely unheard of for a collector to find a giant piece
of a broken Orcutt bi-face. In 1983, I worked with Jerry Gates of the
U.S. Forest service in Modoc County, in northern, California. My
duties included surveys near the huge obsidian deposits at Lava Beds
National Park in Lassen, County, California. I observed many chipping
site, several were not ancient. One site had both obsidian flake
scatters in context with old condensed milk cans, log cabin syrup
cans and Prince Albert Tobacco cans. I still recall that the flakes
were large percussion thinning flakes that appeared to be from biface
reduction and were of an opaque green material. I was told by a local
that he thought old sheep herders tried their hand at knapping in the
early 1900s, but I had a different theory, I stood over the site,
camp fire ring in the center can dump off to the side and reduction
type flake refuse and I knew this is where Ted sat, perhaps with his
uncle and reduced his preforms for transport back to the Somesbar
area where Ted Lived at the time. At another such site I observed my
first look at an Orcutt biface, it was just the base, and was a full
5 inches wide and an inch thick. The broken piece was 10 inches long
and it was evident that it was less than half the piece. Jerry Gates,
U.S.F.S. archaeologist in Modoc showed me yet another large fragment
that was covered with lake moss, it was about a foot wide, less than
an inch thick and about a foot and a half long- it was only a small
piece of the mid section. The giant biface fragments were broken
during flintknapping procedures. The giant bifacially flaked blades
broke, most likely, from the effect of end shock, which is a
transverse fracture caused by the obsidian exceeding its' elastic
limits, when the impact is made. Failure of the material to rebound
and recoil before desired fracture occurs, caused the preforms to
snap apart in the center sections. End shock is the reason few
knappers can make large percussion bifaces.
In May, 1946 Ted was 84 years old he moved to the L.D. Parson's
Ranch, Ted still did quite a bit of knapping at the ranch and
performed his duties including maintaining, grooming and shoeing the
horses. Theodore Orcutt passed away later that year ending the rain
of the "king of the flintknappers." Even today at the site of the old
Parson's Ranch obsidian erodes silently from the earth where Ted left
his waste flakes and stash. Unnoticed boulders of the material set as
a silent and forgotten testament to the master Deer Dance Knapper.
I have been asked several times in the last 25 years weather
flintknapping was actually ever a true lost art. Flintknapping is one
of the oldest crafts in the world and it is also one of the most
enduring and actually was never lost. Many knappers, both in the
Brandon gun flint factories and the reservations of the American
Indian, it was never lost, it was interest in it that was lost but
not the craft itself. Even the master Ted Orcutt did not leave this
world without leaving his knowledge and is rumored to have had
several devout students over his live time. One known student of
Orcutt was Fred Herzog . Fred met Ted Orcutt in the late 1920s while
both were working at Lew Parson's ranch and lumber mill in Oal
Valley. According to Fred Herzog (1959) "Teds skill was beyond all
imagination as he made points from 2/16 of an inch up to large spear
points two feet long." Some speculate that Dr. Don Crabtree, whom
knapped in the same style as Orcutt, may have met or at least
observed Orcutt at work. Crabtree was known to have lived and worked
in the northern California area during Orcutt's later years. Crabtree
came to be known as the "Dean of American Flintknapping". Crabtree
himself had hundreds of students and some of them are prominent
knappers and archaeologists today. It is possible that while watching
Crabtree's students we are seeing the Orcutt knapping style as it
once was.
After Theodore Orcutt passed away several have searched for clues to
his legacy. Carol Howe, Eugene Heflin and myself. Eugene wrote a book
called Up River Boy, but after Eugene passed away the book was never
published. I am still seeking information and if you have any -
please let me know. I published an article about Eugene's search for
Ted in Indian artifact Magazine in 2001.