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PLAINS INDIAN HORNED BONNET – BUFFALO HIDE AND HORNS – PARTICULARLY NICE SPECIMEN FROM THE FAMOUS AMY VANDERBILT COLLECTION:  This 19TH Century Buffalo Horn Bonnet is a relatively rare example of one of the most iconic styles of Plains Indian head wear, and it has survived in particularly nice condition.   

Originally obtained from the famed Amy Vanderbilt collection when the contents of her Weston, Connecticut summer home were made available, this bonnet was purchased by Ed Vebell, a well known artist who lived in the area and acquired the bonnet to use as a subject model for his paintings.  At the same Vanderbilt sale, held prior to her death in 1974, Vebell also purchased what has since been classified as one of the most spectacular Oglala Sioux warshirts known to exist in private hands.  The shirt has been definitively identified as having belonged to Chief Black Bird, one of the most documented Native Americans of his generation.  Black Bird was present at the Little Big Horn, is recorded in the Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger, and from 1899 through 1902 he was a member of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show.  Black Bird’s shirt recently sold at auction, setting an all time record sale price for a Native American artifact, the hammer falling at $2.6 million. 

The Black Bird Shirt and this Horned Bonnet were acquired from the Vebell collection at the same time, when I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase the bonnet. 

While the bonnet is not identified to a particular Indian, it was certainly made contemporary to the late Indian War period before the buffalo were all but eradicated from the American Plains.   

The skull cap is formed from two semispherical-shaped pieces of brain tanned buffalo hide, one forming each side of the bonnet, and stitched together with sinew along a seam running from front to back.  The buffalo fur is quite long, indicating the hide was cut from the skull or upper spine area of the hide.  The fur is intact over the exterior of the hide with the exception of an area on the left front of the bonnet as can be seen in the photographs below.  This area of hair loss appears much more obvious in the photographs than it does when the bonnet is viewed in person, due to the lighting and contrast of the photography.  The length and density of the surrounding fur covers much of this area, and while the area is visible, is not dramatically apparent, nor does it detract from the bonnet when it is on display.  The remainder of the fur is still fixed well in the hide and is not slipping, nor is the hair brittle.  The leather has that old stiffened feel that it should, but it is neither hardened nor brittle, and is still as pliable as one can reasonably expect from old buffalo hide that has been exposed to wear and perspiration.   

Attached to the sides of the bonnet are two buffalo horns that were scraped to reduce the weight and create a profile suited to the wearer’s preference – a technique well documented and characteristic to these bonnets.  The horns are attached with a series of brain tanned thongs through the skull cap and tied on the interior.  The horns are in very nice condition with no cracks, splits or worm damage, and they have a very nice patina featuring that slightly greenish tint characteristic to old buffalo horn.   

The front edge of the bonnet is bound in red wool and decorated with brass trade bells.  Some of the bells show the expected wear and misshaping one would expect to find, but none appear to be missing.  Over each temple there is a leather disc faced with red wool and edged in glass seed beads with a piece of hide from a buffalo tail or a horse tail sewn with sinew to the back of the disc, creating a long black hair pendant that depends from each side of the bonnet.  The rear edge of the bonnet is edged in a piece of soft brain tanned hide where the bonnet would have rubbed the back of the neck when worn.   

Any specimen of Plains warrior headwear is very difficult to find in any condition, particularly one that you can own.   This bonnet is a truly spectacular piece of Plains Indian headwear which presents very well and is a dramatic display piece.  Further, it is a piece that the ownership and whereabouts are well documented for at least the last 40-50 years, and very likely dates well before that when Mrs. Vanderbilt was building her collection.  Again, this is one of the most iconic symbols of the Plains Indians’ warrior culture and would be a centerpiece in any Western Frontier Collection.  SOLD

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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