Published on August 14, 2014 by Amy
A travois is a mode of transportation used by Native Americans in the 18th and early 19th centuries. A travois, which has origins from the French word “travail,” meaning “to work,” is a load-bearing frame that is pulled along by a dog or horse. The travois was used to carry loads along the trails in the grasslands of North America. The travois was a contraption that was unique to Native Americans because it was suited to travel across the continent’s flat, grassy plains.
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Native Americans made a travois from wood and animal hide. A travois was made by notching two wooden poles and tying them together at one end with buffalo hide while the poles remained apart at the other end. Wooden cross-bars were tied to the poles near the ends that were separated. The finished travois looked like a frame in the shape of the letter “A.” The top of the A-shaped frame rested on a dog’s shoulders. The end was wrapped with buffalo hide so the dog would not get burns from friction. A platform or pouch to hold goods was then attached on top of the frame.
A travois was used to carry loads such as firewood and buffalo meat. A dog travois was used to carry such smaller items, while horse-drawn travois carried bigger loads. Horse travois were fashioned with bigger platforms on which to carry the larger goods, such as a dead buffalo after a successful day of hunting. The bigger travois were also used to transport ill individuals who did not have the strength to walk.
The Plains Indians in areas such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Washington and New Mexico pioneered travois use to navigate more quickly through the wide grasslands. Specifically, nations such as the Nez Perce, Walla Wallas and the Cayuse Indians used travois to transport loads, and sometimes people, over the plains. Natives in Saskatchewan, Canada, also used the travois over the plains and in snowy terrain during winter. Native women were in charge of building the travois, managing the dogs, and using toy travois to train young puppies to pull loads.
When travois were dragged over the earth, they created an imprint of deep, parallel tracks. The travois created trails that were useful for locating previously successful hunting and fishing sites. It was also used as a trail for the natives to find their way back to their villages. Such roads were called “travois trails,” and one famous one is “Travois Road” in the foothills of the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington. In 1806, members of the Nez Perce nation used the Travois Road to guide famous explorers Lewis and Clark through the area.