VII. Of the Roots used by the Indians in the Neighbourhood of Hudson's Bay to dye Porcupine Quills. By Mr. John Reinhold Forster, F.R.S. p.54 (1772)

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, For their commencement, in 1665, to the year 1800: Abridged, with notes and biographic illustrations by Charles Hutton, LL.D. F.R.S. George Shaw, M.D. F.R.S. F.L.S. Richard Pearson, M.D. F.S.A. VOL XIII From 1770 to 1776. London: Printed by and for C. And R. Baldwin, New Bridge-Street, Blackfriars. 1809Among the curiosities presented by the Hudson's Bay Company to the b. s., is a small parcel of porcupine quills, dyed by the wild natives, some red and some yellow, with the roots of some plants they use for that purpose. Mr. F. examined them carefully, and found that they are probably of the same kind with those mentioned by Prof. Kalm, vol. 3, p. 14, and 160 of the English translation. The one root, dying yellow, is called by the French in Canada, Tisavoyanne jaune; the other, dying red, has the name of Tisavoyanne rouge. Prof. Kalm declares the latter to be a new plant, belonging to the genus of galium, and received by Dr. Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum, p. 153, by the specific name of tinctorium, on account of its dying quality. It grows in woody, moist places, in a fine soil. Kalm observes, 'that the roots of this plant are employed by the Indians in dying the quills of the American porcupine red, which they put into several places of their work: air, sun, and water, seldom change this colour. The French women in Canada sometimes dye their cloth; red with these roots, which are but small, like those of the galium luteum or yellow bedstraw.' Dr. Linnaeus describes this plant, as having 6 narrow linear leaves at each knot of the stem, and 4 at the branches; commonly 2 flowers are on each stalk, and its seeds are smooth. The roots, when dry, are of the thickness of a crow quill, brown on the outside, and of a bright purple red, when broken, on the inside.

The 2d plant, or the Tisavoyanne jaune, is, according to Prof. Kalm, vol. 3, p. 160, 'the three-leaved hellebore (helleborus trifolius Linn.); grows plentifully in woods, in mossy, not too wet, places. Its leaves and stalks are employed by the Indians to dye yellow several kinds of their work, made of prepared skins. The French learned from them to dye wool and other things yellow with this plant. Among the roots sent as a specimen from Hudson's Bay, Mr. F. found! several leaves, which he separated, and found the plant undoubtedly to be the three-leaved hellebore. In the 4th vol. of Dr. Linnaeus's Amoenitates Academicae, is a figure of this plant, which on comparison Mr. F. found by no mean* to be accurate: for the leaves in our specimens, and in those collected by a gentleman who favoured him with the sight of the plant, are far more pointed, than in the engraved figure. The stalks have constantly but one flower.

The dyed porcupine quills sent along with the roots from Hudson's Bay, are of the brightest red and yellow: and this circumstance suggested the thought of trying whether these roots might not be usefully employed in dying. For this purpose, he boiled a piece of flannel in a solution of half salt of tartar and half alum: the wet flannel was put into the decoction of the three-leaved hellebore roots, and boiled in it for the space of about 12 or 15 minutes; the flannel, when taken out, was dyed with a bright and lasting yellow dye. A white porcupine quill, boiled in the same decoction, became nearly of as bright a yellow, as those sent over from Hudson's Bay. This experiment made him believe that he had hit upon the right method of dying with the three-leaved hellebore; and will, he hopes, prompt the directors of the Hudson's Bay company to order larger quantities of this root from their settlements, as it will no doubt become a useful article of commerce.

The flannel, boiled in salt of tartar and alum as above mentioned, was likewise immersed and boiled for nearly the same space of time as in the former experiment, in a decoction of the root of the galium tinctorium, but it would dye only a dull and faint red. A porcupine quill boiled with it became yellow, but by no means red. This operation convinced him, that the Indians must certainly have some method to extract the bright and lasting colour, which he could not do. They use perhaps the root quite fresh, which circumstance probably makes them succeed in their dying process. If it could be brought about, to extract and afterwards to fix on wool the dye of this root, it would, no doubt, on account of its bright colour, be a valuable acquisition for our manufactures, and he does not in the least doubt of the probability of succeeding in the attempt, as the woollen stuffs are animal substances as well as the porcupine quills, and therefore easily susceptible of any dye.

The Spaniards of Mexico have but lately learned of the inhabitants of California, the art of dying the deepest and most lasting black that ever was yet known. They call the plant they employ for that purpose cascalote; it is arboreous, with small leaves and yellow flowers; its growth is still slower than that of an oak; it is the least corrosive of all the known substances employed in dying, and strikes the deepest black: so that, for instance, it penetrates a hat to such a degree, that the very rags of it are thoroughly black. The leaves of the cascalote are similar to those of the husiaoke, another plant likewise used for dying black with, but of an inferior quality. The latitude of California gives us hope that the country near the Mississippi, or one of the Floridas, contains this cascalote, the acquisition of which would be of infinite use in our manufactures.

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