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An extremely rare bentwood box intricately carved with geometric design and figural alligators on the lid

Bentwood Box

Haudenosaunne or Kanienkehaka
Eastern Woodlands

late 18th/early 19th century

wood, paint, brass tacks

height: 5"
width: 13 ½"
depth: 5"

Inventory # CW4314-173


acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON

George Hamel Collections Manager at the New York State Library in Albany writes that there is a watercolor of this box done by Rufus Grider in Oct 1887 [ next page ] in the collections department. Rufus Grider was a Mohawk Valley Artist whose focus was to ”paint a watercolour collection of old and new curious objects possessed by the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley”. ... Grider wrote on his water colour ...”made of birch bark by the Mohawk Indians before the revolution … it belonged to the grandfather of Miss Creamer now of Canajoharie Oct 1887.”


Reportedly given to Francois de Salle Bastien, a notary in Quebec in the 19th century, then by descent through the family
Donald Ellis Gallery, Dundas, ON
Private collection, Toronto, ON


Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 2008-2013


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2006, pgs. 20-21


Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, Mashantucket, CT, Nos. 931 Bwo 18 and 413 Bwo 55 – See: Gifts of the Forest: Native Traditions in Wood & Bark. Mashantucket: Mashantucket Pequot Museum, 2000, pgs. 21 and 29

Bentwood boxes of the Eastern Woodlands are constructed by steaming thin pieces of wood, which are then bent and sewn together at the overlapping ends. Most display painted or engraved designs, and occasionally relief carving on the lid. Almost all documented examples have been found in New England, the Maritime Provinces and the eastern boundaries of the Great Lakes.

This box exhibits several features that place it outside the realm of all known examples. Deeply carved design elements are seen on the front of the box, and on the circumference of the deep rim of the lid. On the reverse are remarkable engraved representations of a thunderbird and an underwater panther, which the artist has rendered in a strikingly unique and lyrical fashion. In addition, the underside of the lid contains what appears to be an engraved war record of an individual’s exploits in battle (Scott Meechum, pers. comm. 11/05). 

The most intriguing aspect of this box is the appearance of two fully carved quadrupeds on the lid. An initial identification of these figures as underwater panthers may be made, as this mythical creature can take many forms.  However, their strong resemblance to alligators is readily apparent. How did images of this creature, whose geographic range is located far to the south of the presumed place of manufacture, find its way into the artist’s imagination? Wood analysis identifies the woods used as birch (Betula) and ash (Fraxinus).  Both of these species are commonly found in cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere, however several subspecies do occur in the Southeast. Oral tradition states that the box was given to Francois de Salle Bastien, a notary in Montreal in the mid 19th century. However, we also know that a maternal ancestor of the recent owner travelled from Quebec to Louisiana in the late 18th century.

As with many undocumented objects, answers are not always immediately forthcoming. Further research may ultimately provide more information as to the specific origins of this box. This enigmatic object represents an important addition to the corpus of Eastern Woodlands art. 

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