U.S. Native American Pipes (Pre-1600)

The earliest evidence of Native Americans growing tobacco for the purpose of smoking it dates back to the 1400s. Antique pipes have been found throughout the North and South American regions. Many of these antique pipes have elaborately carved bowls, sculptural designs, or ceremonial decorations.

What did indigenous tribes use to make pipes?

Antique pipes made before the 1600s were typically made from the following materials.

  • Clay: Fired clay was a common ingredient for the pipes used during social smoking. It results in black or reddish pipes with a uniform surface.
  • Pipestone: Stone that contains a mixture of quartzite, slate, argillite, and kalinite were frequent choices. Traditional pipestone variants were red, black, blue, or green.
  • Alabaster: This material is a light, translucent stone with fine bands of pale color.
  • Sandstone: Sandstone is a light yellowish or brownish material. It may have streaks of gray or reddish brown.
  • Bluestone: This is a greenish-blue stone found in the southern Appalachian regions.
  • Wood and Grass: Many Indian tribes used wood or reed canes as pipe stems. The stem was attached to a cylinder or sphere made of stone or clay that held the tobacco. The reed portions tended to degrade over the centuries, so only the clay bowl portion is left in many cases.
What shapes do pipes come in?

Ancient pipes made by indigenous people in the Americas were made in a few basic shapes.

  • Cylindrical: This is the simplest design. It features a single, hollow cylinder.
  • Elbow: Most items fall into this category. They are cylinders bent into a sharp right angle, and the portion bending upward functions as a bowl. They may be carved with decorative features.
  • Calumet: Used by the Plains people, this style had a long, cylindrical stem with a shorter cylindrical portion jutting upward from the middle.
  • Acorn: This shape has a sloped, spherical shape, just like an acorn.
  • Animal: Objects shaped like animals were effigies used for religious or symbolic purposes. The bowls may be placed on the animal's back, tail, or mouth.
How can you tell which tribe made the pipe?

Most pipes made in the same region shared identifying characteristics, so you can discover the general culture that created the antique pipe by following these steps.

  • Look at the shape: Almost all regions created elbow-shaped pipes, but some cultures had their own unique shapes. Long calumets were mostly associated with Plains tribes, and pipes with a round, acorn shape were used in Mississippi.
  • Consider the material: Clay was most frequently used by southeastern tribes like the Cherokee, while sandstone and alabaster were mostly used by western tribes. Northeastern and eastern tribes tended to use carved stone.
  • Examine the color: The pipestone used in many antiques varied depending on where it was from. Red was most common in Minnesota regions, blue was mostly found in South Dakota, green was found in Wyoming, and black was found in Colorado.