I’ve been casually researching the travels of Moncacht-Apé, a man who may have been the first recorded person to have travelled from one coast of North America to the other. Part of his story relates to arriving in the PNW and encountering ‘white men’ who sought a “yellow and bad-smelling wood which dyes a beautiful yellow”. Apparently the people who sought this wood were so annoying that the locals resorted to cutting down the stinking wood to discourage the outsiders. The identity of this stinky yellow wood seems to be a bit of a mystery though.
My first thought was that the ‘bad-smelling wood’ was cedar but as best as I can tell it makes a very poor yellow dye. It can make a very pale yellow-brown but Mahonia roots and native goldenrods make better yellows. Am I missing something? Does anyone know of a stinky tree with yellow wood that makes a beautiful yellow dye worth fighting over?
we do not have knowledge of this tree or this situation, but it brings to mind that the use of color changes over time: some colors as described in the past might not be the color we deem them today.
For example, Robin Red Breast was the bird’s common nickname in England in maybe the 1400s (and that nickname persists today in places). Was the Robin’s breast red in the old days, whereas it is considered orange today? We recall reading within the past year or two that the color orange did not exist in popular English culture until the fruit oranges became widespread in the 1500s. Don’t know if this culturally-bound notion of color could be relevant to your search.
Very good point. I have wondered about that. The concept of ‘yellow’ could be off especially given that only the person who first wrote down the story was speaking his first language. Moncacht-Apé does seem to have been a very skilled linguist though. Having said that, what other approximate to ‘yellow’ dye would cause conflict? I know that in other parts of the world people have fought over access purple dyes but we know what made those dyes.
An interesting guess, but, " Osage-orange is native to a narrow belt in eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, southwestern Arkansas, and the extreme northwest corner of Louisiana." Pretty far from the Pacific Northwest.
Another approach to this question would be to ask, who were the annoying white men seeking this plant? This all occurred before the Russians were doing much trapping or trading in the Pacific North West, and likely before the Lewis and Clark expedition, so US interests are probably out as well. That leaves pretty much the Spanish (the Mexicans were not independent yet). So it was likely the Spanish who were seeking the stinky yellow dye tree.
Here is another guess: larch. Larch wood is yellowish, its needles turn yellow in the fall, and I’ve heard they can be used to dye things yellow. Larch smells funny in the fall, and it grows in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Larch would be a new thing for Spanish explorers in the Pacific Northwest, as (I think) it does not occur in any area the Spanish colonized.
EDIT: Looking it up, larch seems to be used to dye things other colors, but not yellow.
So my next guess is juniper. The wood is yellow. It is used to dye things a color that could approximately be called yellow. It is stinky. It occurs in the Pacific Northwest but not in areas the Spaniard coming up the cost from Mexico would have a good source of it. And, juniper was used for a variety of medical purposes, which could explain why these annoying men kept coming to look for it.
The French Canadian and Metis trappers and traders, and of course priests, were all over the PNW before the Russians and most of the English/Americans… hence all the French place names: La Grande, Deschutes, Malheur, La Crosse, Grand Coulee etc…
But I really doubt they were there for a dye source… fur was gold in those days thanks to the tophat craze in Europe.
Regarding the color issue, I briefly wondered about this, too. Yellows tend to be one of the easier colors to derive from plant-based dyes, whereas the ones that have tended to be historically quite valuable are the blues and reds. And there are a couple of trees which have been traded specifically because a red/purple dye could be extracted from their wood (e.g. brazilwood (Paubrasilia echinata) and logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum).
However, from what I remember of linguistic studies of color terms, there tends to be a hierarchy of sorts, with certain color distinctions being more “basic” than others, and a red/yellow distinction is generally present even in languages that lack other distinctions like blue/black or blue/green. So even taking into account a certain amount of linguistic drift in color terminology, I don’t think I would pursue the hypothesis that the color in question might actually have been closer to red than to yellow unless there is specific evidence to suggest this.
Colorfastness and brightness/purity of hue is an issue with many yellow dyes, though – it is one reason why weld (Reseda luteola) was a preferred source for European dyers. So conceivably a really good yellow might have been considered desirable enough to result in disruptive exploitation of the source.
Three options seem possible. The Spanish were definitely making their way up the coast by sea during the late 1600s. Maps from the time period still show the PNW as blank and California as an island though so they would have had to have been sailing blind. It does seem odd that Moncacht-Apé never indicated the possible origin of the white men though since he was already familiar with Europeans.
A second possibility is that ‘white’ merely meant people who were paler than his hosts at the time. Conflict was relatively common at the time.
The third is one I don’t think anyone has looked at seriously and that is pirates/illegal loggers. @spiphany 's link to Haematoxylum campechianum does show that there was considerable conflict over that resource including the use of pirates and illegal loggers.
The identity of the ‘bad-smelling wood’ still remains a mystery though.
Thanks for this. I was hoping there would be a textile geek here somewhere. My heart did a leap when I read up on Haematoxylum campechianum and saw that with the right treatment it could make a yellow-red dye. It did another when I read up on the European conflict over this wood occurring during the right time frame. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like H campechianum could not survive that far north.
My head is now swimming with thoughts of pirates or illegal loggers looking for the next great tree or at least something they can pass off as logwood :)
Not really a textile geek, but some 30 years ago I got into dyeing after attending an evening course. I still have some books from that time and had a look at “Anne Bliss: A Handbook of Dyes from Natural Materials” because it is the only American I have. It is mostly about recipes of some artist dyers of “today” (that is 1981).
I have come across something about a lichen (Letharina vulpina): “was important to the trading economy of the Indian groups in the Pacific Northwest. The lichen grows on pine trees… and was traded to people living along the coast. This plentiful lichen, often used with urine in the dyebath provided the yellow for many Chilkat blankets.”
So with some translation errors and written by somebody who did not know the procedure… the dyebath was certainly bad-smelling… maybe you can make something of this. ;-)