Cowan's Corner

American Indian Tomahawks
A Functional & Beautiful Piece of History

By Wes Cowan and Danica Farnand

The danger of a tomahawk clean, elegant form with its terrible razor-sharp edge allures collectors to these weapons. The word tomahawk is derived from tamahak, an Algonquin word referring to any cutting utensil. When Jamestown, the first European colony, was founded in 1607, Captain John Smith referenced the tomahawk to mean native hatchets or war club the term we all understand today. Although tomahawks are known as weapons, they were also used as tools and carried for prestige.

Originally, American Indians used wooden clubs with stone heads for warfare. After European arrival, iron heads with steel blades became available and were sought after by the American Indian. Although Europeans attempted to create poor quality heads to trick their Native buyers, if the production processes were understood, it could be insured that you would receive a good piece. The axe or hatchet portion was formed of strap iron, heated, hammered, and bent to shape. The blade was made of steel, inserted between the iron, and hammered closed seamlessly.

Tomahawks, pipe tomahawks and war clubs of this style can be found from the Northeastern woodlands to the Great Plains. A few examples include: the Missouri war axe, an axe with heart or geometric cutouts in the head; the spontoon tomahawk, formed with curling projections on the sides of a pointed blade; the spiked tomahawk with a formidable spike opposite the steel blade; the gunstock club formed with a handle in the shape of a rifle; and the pipe tomahawk, doubling as a weapon and taking the shape of many of the previously mentioned forms.

Tomahawks are often replicated. However, an antique tomahawk is a true investment, a beautiful piece of history, and when it comes time to sell, can bring great returns. When examining a tomahawk, feel the weight and balance of the piece. The instrument was made to chop and so the head should naturally fall forward. Often in replicas, the head is too heavy and the balance is unnatural. Also, look and see how the head is constructed. Can you see the insert of a steel blade? How is the head assembled onto the handle? Axe heads slide from the bottom up, so when swung the head does not fly off. If that happened, it would be a bad day for everyone.

With pipe tomahawks, examine the edge of the handle. Wood grains in cross-section should be concentric circles. In order to create the pipe stem, a hot metal rod was inserted through the pith of a sapling, usually ash. A non-concentric grain suggests a machine was used to drill the hole and it is unlikely you are holding an antique. Finally, look at the overall color of the wood and head to ensure it has a nice patina.
Tomahawks are beautiful pieces of history, illustrating the uneasy relationships between the Europeans and American Indians.

Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio and Danica Farnand heads Cowan's American Indian division. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series "History Detectives" and is a featured appraiser on "Antiques Roadshow". He can be reached at

A mid-18th century "spontoon" blade pipe tomahawk from the Eastern Woodlands fetched $1,900.

A so-called late 19th century "Missouri River War Axe" from the Plains brought $1,800.

This fine example of an Eastern pipe tomahawk from the 1750s recently sold for $4,750.



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