Navigation Menu+

buck / buckskin

Buck. The male of the fallow deer, of the goat, the sheep, the rabbit, and hare. — Webster, 1882

Buckskin. The skin of a male of the fallow deer; a kind of cloth. The skin of a male of the fallow deer; a kind of cloth.

Today Mr. H. shot a fine buck antelope, and the men are glad of it, for now they can eat. – Private letter from Kingsbury County, Dakota Territory, 1879

In the first two (Ingalls family) Little House books, Charles Ingalls’ bullet pouch was said to be a little bag which Ma had made beautifully out of buckskin, from a buck Pa had shot (see Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 2, “The Long Rifle”). For Ma to have ended up with buckskin to work with, somebody had to have tanned that hide, and buckskin was traditionally tanned using animal brains. Laura Ingalls Wilder seldom shows us the “messy” jobs of being a pioneer, but surely brain-tanning hides was one of them.

Buck. A buck is the male of the fallow deer, the goat, the sheep, the rabbit, and the hare. In the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder refers only to the male deer as a buck. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is found in Wisconsin.

Buckskin can refer to the skin of deer, goat, sheep or rabbits made into cloth, but it most often refers to deer hide. While buckskin clothing was more common in the 18th century than the 19th, it was still obviously used in Laura’s day. If you’ve ever heard someone say that an item cost them “a couple of bucks,” then you’re hearing a saying that goes back to the time when buckskin was a common commodity used in exchange for other goods. “Buck” became slang for the dollar bill because of its similar purchasing power.

Buckskin is deer hide tanned into soft fabric using only the animal’s own brains and woodsmoke. Unlike leather tanned using chemicals, buckskin is not waterproof, and it has always been made by hand. While the process sounds fairly simple (if not extremely yucky), it takes both time and muscle, and perhaps a strong constitution.

First, the hide is removed from the animal, then it is scraped on both sides to remove all the hair, fat, meat, and membrane until the very pores of the animal’s skin are visible. This is called fleshing. After fleshing, the skin is washed thoroughly.

The brains of the deer are removed and mixed with a little water. This mash is cooked and stirred until it forms an oily liquid. The brains are applied to the hide and rubbed in by hand; if you are tanning something you want to leave furry on one side, be careful you don’t get the brains on the fur-side. This may need to be repeated a second time, allowing the pelt to rest between applications (rolled in a hot towel). It is said that an animal contains just enough brains to tan its own hide. If you want to insult someone, accuse them of not having enough brains to tan their own hide!

The hide is then stretched and stretched and stretched until it is soft and pliable and dry. Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions Pa stretching hides on boards to dry them in the Little House books, but it is most likely that this was all Pa did to them prior to selling them, and only the furs he kept for family use were stretched as part of the tanning process.

Then the skin is then smoked; the smokier, the darker. The smoke doesn’t make the skin waterproof; rather, it helps protect it from bugs and decay.

And there you have it: the the bare basics. Of course it’s a lot more work than it sounds like (and a lot messier); there are books and articles galore to help you, but the process is safe enough for children to do it, unlike tanning using harsh chemicals. Click HERE to see the process from start to finish. Once you have your own piece of buckskin, use it to sew (most items were sewn, not laced) a little bag like Ma made for Pa.



Buckskin horse. In The Long Winter, the horse owned by Cap Garland was always referred to as a “buckskin.” At the time of the Little House books, this referred to the color of the horse’s coat – meaning that it resembles the tan color of true buckskin, with darker mane, tail, and lower legs. The image shows a drawing from Frederic Remington’s “Buckskin” series.

Genetic studies have suggested that while the buckskin horse is technically a color breed, these horses may have descended from ancient breeds originating in Spain and/or Norway. Genetically, a buckskin horse is the result of the cream dilution gene acts on a bay horse. A bay has a reddish-brown coat with black mane, tail, ear tips, and lower legs. The cream gene lightens these colors, and acts on different coats in different ways.



Buck. In The Long Winter (Chapter 11, “Pa Goes to Volga”), Mr. Edwards tells a story in which he gives the names of a pair of oxen as “Buck and Bright.” As Mr. Edwards is fictional, especially as a character in the Ingallses’ De Smet, the name is generic, either as a common name or color of cattle, although it may also suggest behavior. The story is also told in Wilder’s Hard Winter manuscript.


buck (BW 3, 10; PG)
     buckskin (BW 3, 10; PG)
buckskin horse (TLW 27, 29)buckskin horse (TLW 27, 29)
Buck – name of Mr. Edwards’ ox (TLW 11)