The Case of the Inlaid Knife

Volunteers were preparing to pour a concrete floor at the Auto Freight Building one Saturday in the mid-1980s, when Eric Martin came across a knife. Using his shovel to backfill a hole, Martin felt the shovel hit something other than sandy soil. A knife had been buried there. Martin brushed off the dirt and took the knife home to clean it up. After a good cleaning, the knife joined his personal collection of interesting objects. 

Some twenty years later, Martin happened to visit the Renton History Museum. There on exhibit was a knife that looked remarkably like the one he had picked up at the Auto Freight Building two decades earlier. This knife, however, was labeled ― Native American Trade Knife.

Martin went home and examined his knife again. There were striking similarities between the two items. He brought the knife to the Gilman Town Hall and told staff members his story. Collections Manager Andrea Mercado, together with Museum Director Erica Maniez, began locating experts on trade knives, both locally and via the internet. If the knife proved likely to be a Native American artifact, then it would become part of the museum’s collection. If it was just another knife, Martin would take it back home again.

Internet searches revealed a number of similar knives up for sale on eBay, as well as recreations of the same type offered for sale elsewhere. Knives of this type, often called trade knives or fur trade knives, were produced in Europe as early as the 1700s (and later in the USA) for the specific purpose of trading them for furs with Native American trappers. The design was relatively common for trade knives in the Plains area. Local experts at the Burke Museum and the King County Office of Archaeology both felt that the knife was quite likely used as a skinning knife, or belt knife, by a Native American. It was probably produced specifically for trade with Native Americans; the design on the knife’s walnut handle might have been inlaid by the knife’s owner, or by the manufacturer according to the Native American style. It was conservatively dated to the late 1800s. 

And so the knife, decidedly a local Native American artifact as well as an object with an interesting story to tell, joined other Native American artifacts as part of the Gilman Town Hall’s permanent exhibits, In This Valley.