Examining 17th Century Native American Kettle Points & Their History

When you go out metal detecting you don't usually expect to find Native American projectile points with your detector. A projectile point generally refers to all weapon types independent of their projecting mode. The term is used to describe the pointed tip that can be found on a broad category of weapons or tools, such as a javelin, dart, or arrow. Most people when they hear the term Native American projectile points conjure up an image of a stone artifact which has been deliberately reshaped to be pointy on one end. It makes sense too I suppose that a stone point is what comes to mind. However, Native Americans made projectile points from other materials such as bone, antler, wood, and metal too. So, if you were to go detecting at a site where there was post European contact Native American activity you might actually find a metal Native American projectile point with your metal detector. Many people here in the Northeast have been fortunate to find metal projectile points. This blog takes a closer look specifically at kettle points. The kettle point in the picture above was dug by CT Todd. He had the point mounted on a period correct arrow for display purposes by a Native American gentleman.

If you are wondering what exactly a kettle point is? A kettle point is a metal projectile point or arrowhead. These brass and copper points vary slightly in size. Many of the kettle points that have been discovered are about an inch or so in length. Some are certainly larger in size. They vary somewhat in design as well. In the beginning of the 17th century there was some experimentation with shapes and little uniformity. Native Americans in the Northeast made stemmed, barbed, and even pentagonal metal kettle points along with triangular points. By the second quarter of the 17th century kettle points were made almost exclusively in isosceles triangular form and it remained that way for the rest of the 17th century with the exception of rolled conical points, another style that was somewhat popular throughout the 17th century as well. Many of the triangular kettle points were pierced with a central hole so that the point could be easily attached to the shaft of the arrow.

Kettle points get their name due to the fact that a great many of these points were made from brass or copper kettles. The copper and or brass metal that the Native Americans acquired from the Europeans was mostly in the form of kettles or cups. Kettles were by far the most available form of copper or brass. Native Americans would also sometimes produce these metal points from salvaged, scavenged, or recycled brass or copper metal that had been discarded by others. Kettles were acquired in trade from the Europeans and by the beginning of the 17th century Native Americans in the Northeast especially were making and primarily utilizing these metal projectile points. Kettle points were being used by Native Americans in the Northeast to fill their critical need related to hunting game.

Did these metal arrowheads replace stone projectile points? Perhaps in a sense kettle points became a replacement to stone projectile points. Evidence suggests that during the 17th century brass or copper when available in the form of kettles was the preferred material to stone. Native Americans in the Northeast didn't completely stop making stone projectile points all together though. Historians believe that when kettles were unavailable to the Native Americans they reverted back to manufacturing and using stone points to meet their needs. Metal points were more durable in the long run than stone points. These metal points were also much easier to repair than stone points. Copper or brass bends upon impact rather than breaking and is easy to reshape. Metal kettle points are also much easier to re-sharpen. Most historians tend to agree that the change or shift in use to primarily using metal projectile points was one of material preference more so than of form or function.

There has been discussion over the effectiveness of metal arrowheads. Some researchers believe that kettle points were superior for killing game while others believe that they are less effective than stone points. I don't have the answer as to which types of points are superior. I imagine that like with anything there are advantages and disadvantages to each side. One thing is for sure, that with the proper tools just about anyone could fashion a copper or brass triangular projectile point. That isn't exactly the case with stone projectile points. The making of stone points requires both socially transmitted knowledge and significant time practicing the skill. The process of making metal points was not only easier but also less time consuming.

Native Americans in the Northeast were well acquainted with the process of working with copper long before the Europeans arrived. Copper was an important resource. It held value and significance to the Native Americans. The Europeans realized this and the trade markets saw an influx of copper and brass items predominantly in the form of kettles. Regular access devalued copper as a commodity. It basically overtime diminished the value of copper as an item of prestige and distinction. As copper became more readily available there was a shift in how the natives used the material. It shifted from being a material used predominantly for ornamental purposes to a material that was used for utilitarian purposes as well. The construction of metal projectile points was the most common widespread utilitarian use of copper or brass by the Northeast Native Americans during the 17th century.

Research suggests that Native Americans in the Northeast were slow to begin using kettles for the purposes Europeans intended for the kettles to be used. At least for the first several decades of the 17th century kettles were valued as a source of usable metal and not as a functional replacement to ceramic vessels. Archaeologists have concluded this presumption from a great deal factual evidence that they have discovered. Very, very few copper or brass kettle fragments show signs of burning or charring during this time period. In fact a high percentage of them actually show evidence of deliberate dismemberment through scoring, cutting, or other means. In addition there is no lack of remains of ceramic vessels found on sites from this time period which strongly indicates that ceramic vessels were still in use. Evidence does suggest that by the 1650's brass and copper kettles were widely used by Native Americans in the Northeast for food preparation. During the second half of the 17th century, Native Americans were still making kettle points regularly. However, the points were primarily made from worn out metal kettles or other trade items. Most Native Americans tended to live their lives by a wonderful waste not, want not philosophy.

James W. Bradley describes excellently how Native Americans recycled and utilized copper kettles in his book the Evolution of the Onondaga Iroquois. The diagram above is taken from his book and clearly illustrates the ways that the Natives used and repurposed each part of a copper kettle. The iron handle was removed and frequently ground into an awl. The heavier gauged metal was usually scored and cut into projectile points. The sheet metal from the body of the kettle often was converted into knife blades, tubular beads, conical bangles, pipe bowl liners, and or ornamental pendants.

Copper kettles were an essential item of barter within the formalized trade networks established between the Natives Americans in the Northeast and the Europeans. Kettles were frequently traded or given to the Native Americans during the 17th century. They served as a means to build and maintain social relations. Colonialism also became a part of the Native Americans way of life and kettle points are the perfect example of this. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog article and viewing the photos. Thanks and happy hunting!

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