Friday, March 22, 2019

The Possibles Bag by Zina Abbott

In my current work in progress, Virginia’s Vocation, which is scheduled to be released April 12th of this year, my story starts with my heroine visiting a outfitter’s store in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Catering mostly to those pioneers traveling west along the Oregon and California trails, it holds many items useful for people on the move. Having had its origins as a trading post catering to the local tribes, notably the Kaw, or Kansa, and mountain men heading west to hunt and trap, it still has some ties with the Kaw who have been forced from the region onto a reservation several miles away.

Many western romances are about the brave women who join their families on the frontier to battle the elements, wild animals, hostile Indians, thieves, murders and all manner of American and Mexican desperados. Virginia wants no part of that. Although going with her brothers to help while they build homes for their families to move to the following spring, she knows that is not the life she wishes for herself. The merchandise in the store does not appeal to her until the owner—a man who, even though it is 1858, dresses like a throwback to the mountain man days of 1820s through 1840s—draws her attention to a possibles bag.
Mountain Man with possibles bag hanging just below his waist.
What is a possibles bag? In the 18th and 19th centuries, mountain men, minutemen, frontiersmen, and black powder hunters of all kinds would usually be found with two bags slung across their shoulders: their powder horn and their “possibles bag.” In my day, I’ve heard containers that served the same purpose being called a “Boonie Box” or emergency pack. However, the term back in the day was “possibles bag.”

After a muzzleloader or rifle and a hunting knife, a possibles bag was considered a mountain man’s most important piece of equipment. It was so-named either because it contained everything you might possibly need for the day, or because you could possibly find most anything packed in the bag.

Davey Crockett with a possibles bag
In it men carried their possibles, which was anything might possibly need while out hunting, fighting or traveling. Contents included shooting tools, fire starting material, bullets, tobacco, pipe, emergency food, a tin cup and maybe small tools. Oftentimes an interior pocket was sewn to the inside to allow for more organization. The bags were made to either sling over a shoulder or hang from a belt. They generally were positioned next to the person’s right or dominant hand to hang just below the elbow for easy access.

Contents of a possibles bag - taken at Merced River Rendezvous
It appears some were decorated, particularly when acquired from the native tribes in the region through which a mountain man or frontiersman traveled. The idea of an outfitter’s store offering possibles bags made and decorated by local native tribes came about from seeing some of the possibles bags in older prints as well as knowing the Iroquois bands offered beaded purses equivalent to possibles bags as trade items in their region. They were quite popular among white Americans, and often portraits showed women holding and showing off their beaded purse.

To see more examples of possibles bags used by modern hunters or Rendevous reinactors, please CLICK HERE.

Here is an excerpt from Virginia’s Vocation

           “You’re interested in the lady’s possibles bag, are you? It’s made by one of the local Kaw craftswomen.”
          Virginia turned to face the middle-aged store owner with the startling gray eyes. Wearing his dark hair tied back in a queue and dressed in buckskin breeches with a white linen shirt covered by a leather vest, to Virginia, he dressed like a throwback to an earlier era. “Local Kaw? Aren’t they an Indian tribe? I thought they were sent to live on a reservation some distance away.” She watched the man as his eye twitched, and wondered what she had said that prompted his reaction.
          “That they have. When I was a lad, this whole land was theirs. Several years ago, they sold much of their land and went to the reservation by Council Grove, west of Topeka. I still keep in contact with them, and sell many of the goods their women make.”
          “Oh. I wondered. My brothers were here a couple of years ago when they first started looking for new farm land in Kansas Territory. They said they talked to someone who was from one of the tribes that used to live here. The Indian man warned them it was dangerous if we went too far west, because different tribes who live there have not agreed to live on reservations. Kansas Territory seems so unsettled. I guess…” Virginia felt her stomach threaten to tighten in knots, just as it often did at the thought of moving to the untamed frontier the men in her family had selected for their new home. She swallowed. “I guess my brothers have looked into Salina and decided enough people have moved there it would be a fairly safe place to live..."
          “It is true Salina is on the western edge of the territory America has opened up for settling. It used to be part of the traditional bison hunting grounds of the Kaw. Unfortunately, the Cheyenne also claim that same land for their hunting grounds which is far to the west from where the Smokey Hills, Saline and Solomon Rivers join and continue to where we are now. The open prairie available to the buffalo is smaller than it used to be. The Cheyenne have been giving the Kaw people trouble in recent years when they meet up to hunt among the same herds. The Kiowa and Arapaho have been known to go through that land, too. However, as long as Salina continues to grow, and if the local farmers band together and put up a united front to any danger, you and your family should be all right moving there.”
          Virginia turned to look at the far wall of the building. “My brothers say the same. I wish I could feel more convinced.” Virginia’s gaze next followed his finger as he pointed at the bag.
          “I hear many of the tribes like the Iroquois up north make beaded bags that are very popular with the society ladies back east. Most of my customers are headed west and prefer more practical things. However, it does not hurt to mix beauty with what is practical. I know the woman who made this. She does good work. This is not only attractive, but will serve you well for years.”
          Virginia once again fingered the locket at her neck as she studied the bag more closely. Its simple lines and well-crafted design did appeal to her. “I’m not sure what I would use it for. The things I need to keep handy stay in a pocket.”
          Virginia watched the man shrug as he ran his fingers over the stitching holding the shoulder-length strap to the twelve inches square pouch with its rounded edges on the bottom and the decorated flap that covered nearly the entire front.
          “It may be that you have no need for such an item. The mountain men who a generation ago used to come through here on their way west considered them a necessity. They used them to hold anything they might need for the day, whether it be powder and shot, a knife too small to wear on a belt, fire-starter supplies, maybe some coffee, dried jerky or hardtack and a tin cup. If they got caught out in the open away from their camp where they kept most of their supplies, they usually had enough in their possibles bag to allow them to survive overnight. ..."
          Wide-eyed, Virginia stared at each of her brothers in turn as her stomach churned with a renewed apprehension. Crossing a broad, choppy river on a rickety ferry loaded with animals that might misstep and a wagon that might slide did not appeal to her in the least. Yet, as usual, she had no say in the matter. She must endure and hope she did not fall overboard and drown.
          Virginia reached for the possibles bag the storekeeper had shown her and turned to hand it to Jefferson. “Brother, I wish you to add this to your order. It will be for me. I have my big scissors, but I also want a small knife to carry inside the bag.” She ignored the confused and resistant expression on her oldest brother’s face as her determined gaze stayed focused on him.
          “Whatever for, Virginia? This is not a time to purchase fripperies.”
          Her anger rising, Virginia responded with a snap to her voice. “This may be beautifully decorated, Jefferson, but it is practical. I will be in camp, often by myself, and it will be helpful to be able to keep a few small items handy. I’ll put my mending kit in there, along with matches and…and a few other things that tend to get lost or dumped in the dirt when the three of you men start tossing things around looking for a tool or whatever it is you need.”

You will read more about Virginia's possibles bag later in the story.

Virginia’sVocation is part of the Lockets and Lace series. It is on preorder and will be available April 12th. To read the book description and access the purchase link, please CLICK HERE.



Kimberly Grist said...

Can't wait to read it! Love the background on the very first "man bag"

Bernice Kennedy said...

Very interesting about the possibles bag! I am loving that you share history with us. Thanks.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Interesting post, Zina. Thanks for the information. I'll look forward to reading your book.