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Cool Things - Chief's Blanket

First Phase chief's blanket

A freighter probably acquired this first phase Ute-style chief's blanket on an overland trail.

Overland trails of the 19th century were networks for freight traffic, much like the interstate highways of today. Two major routes through Kansas were the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail.

People traveling these dusty roads often traded with local settlers and American Indians as they moved from place to place. This Navajo blanket was probably acquired in such a trade by James Carter of Westport, Missouri. Carter was born in Missouri and his family moved to Westport while he was still quite young. He ran away from home at the age of 15 and joined a freight train bound for Fort Laramie in Wyoming. He liked this trip so much that he later made 13 trips across the plains as a freighter and as a U.S. postal carrier.

Close-up of chief's blanket

Navajo weavers used the finest wool available to make tightly woven textiles like this one.  These blankets were intended to be worn, and the Navajo often traded them to members of neighboring tribes. The Ute tribe, living north of the Navajo, particularly favored the design of this blanket. Ute-style blankets were produced from about 1800 to 1850 and are known as first-phase blankets. Only about 50 of this particular style of blanket are known to exist today.

Trade and travel on the Santa Fe Trail continued to increase following the end the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s. Navajo blankets became popular with traders and settlers as well as soldiers sent to the area to protect travelers. These new customers were interested in blankets with crimson elements and more complex designs. By 1850 Navajo weavers had incorporated such elements into their blankets to meet this demand.

The term "chief's blanket" is a little deceptive, as these textiles were not made only for tribal leaders. Generally these blankets were made by expert weavers using the finest materials available. As a result, each blanket commanded a high price. The name developed because only wealthy and successful individuals could afford to own one.

This blanket is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Cool Things - Chief's Blanket

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2006

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.