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A kind of war hatchet used by the American Indians. It was originally made of stone, but afterwards of iron. — Webster, 1882

osage indian photographed with tomahawkAlthough originally more of a club than an instrument with a distinct knob on the end, the tomahawk came to be identified as a type of Indian hatchet used in war. Depending on the tribe, a tomahawk might be decorated in different ways, painted different colors at different times, or carved with picture stories depicting battles.

stone ax headThe earliest tomahawks, axes, hatchets, chisels, and gouges were hard stone brought to an edge by friction upon another stone. The helve (or handle) of the ax and hatchet were attached by a cord around a groove in the stone. It was also possible to insert a stone ax-head or animal horn into a slit in a living branch – still attached to the tree – and allow it to “grow in place” to be removed years later.

After the advent of European traders into North America, iron was used for the tomahawk heads. The blunt side was sometimes formed into a pipe-bowl, and a tubular hollow in the handle allowed the tomahawk to also serve as a pipe for tobacco.

The custom of some tribes was to bury a tomahawk when they made peace, and to dig it up again when going to war. This is the origin of our saying, “to bury the hatchet.”

The tomahawk, which is sometimes considered a weapon peculiar to the American Indians, was originally a club carved into some convenient shape. It was most commonly a stout stick about three feet in length, terminating in a large knob, wherein a projecting bone or flint was often inserted. The hatchets of the Indians that are now called tomahawks are of European device, and the stone hatchets so often found in our fields and called by the same name were not military weapons, but mechanical tools. — J.H. McCulloh, Jr., Researches, Philosophical and Antiquarian, Concerning the Aboriginal History of America, 1829.

tomahawk (LHP 5), see also hatchet