Wild west shelters

For most of us, a fishing bivvy is just that: a place to hang out while waiting for the fish to bite. But in times past, canvas has played a huge role in the daily life of millions of people.

And nowhere more so than the United States of America.

Here we stray from the river bank to take a look at some of America’s original bivvies – wild west shelters…

Wikiup

wigwam

Birchbark wikiup – nature’s canvas’
Source: The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary

Otherwise known as a wigwam, the wikiup is a dome shaped shelter made from flexible spruce boughs or other available wood. It was the preferred means of shelter for nomadic native Americans. The structure could be erected very quickly, occupied for a few days or weeks, then left behind.

The type of covering varied according to the time of year. In winter, it would be covered with thick brush to keep the inhabitants warm. During the summer months, hides or canvas offered lightweight protection from the elements.

While a wikiup might look thin and flimsy, in fact, its dome shape offers incredible wind resistance, and for backwoodsmen out hunting or fishing, they’re still used from time to time.

Tipi

Tipi

Lightweight and portable, the perfect shelter
Source: Little Feather Indian Center

Synonymous with the tribes of the plains indians, the tipi is iconic. But to the Native Americans who used them, they were simply home. Lightweight, transportable and quick to erect, tipis are warm, dry and perfectly adapted to their environment.

Native Americans followed the food. Their tent villages were part housing estate, part hunting lodge, part fishing bivvy. In summer, the canvas or hide walls could be rolled up for ventilation. In winter, they were lined and insulated.

The central hole is covered by adjustable flaps for optimum draft, allowing smoke to escape. During the harshest winters, the tent could be staked to the ground – with no flat surfaces, it’s almost impossible to knock over.

Covered wagon

Covered wagon

Transporting your home doesn’t get easier than this
Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The arrival of white settlers spelled disaster for the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The settlers believed in ‘manifest destiny’; their God given right to occupy the land, and exploit all its natural resources. From mineral deposits to game and fish, as far as they were concerned – it was all theirs for the taking.

For modern Americans, the archetypal settler’s wagon, the  ‘Prairie schooner’, represents the great trundle West in search of opportunity. To native Americans, that same canvas covered wagon serves as reminder of the ruthless extermination of a people.

Wall tent

Wall tent

Whole streets were made of wall tents
Source: Cline David, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The wild west was a lawless place populated by people on the make. But while few were the gun toting desperados of movie shoot ‘em ups, all were in search of land, and wealth.

For some that meant settling on the banks of a good salmon river, for others it meant trapping for furs in the far North. For yet others it was the gold fields of Colorado that fired the imagination, for still more, staking out a land claim and tilling the earth was the dream to follow.

With money in short supply, uncertain relations with native neighbours, and the constant temptation to up sticks and try their luck elsewhere, accommodation had to be cheap, easy to erect and portable.

That’s where wall tents came in. A simple pitched roof, with side walls to add height. And they weren’t only used as homes. Many main streets were constructed entirely of wooden facades – behind which lay nothing but a tent.

Tent city

tent city sacramento

A side effect of the 2008 property crash
Source: Matt Walton

Tented accommodation  is making a comeback in the United States. The land of the free is also the land of the desperate, and never more so than since the property crash of 2008.

Failing banks and staggering levels of foreclosures have turned some areas into ghost towns. But on waste ground and in woodland areas, it’s another story.

Newly destitute people are moving in droves to, ‘tent cities’. Former teachers, factory workers, tradesmen and women – all sections of society are well represented.

When is a fishing bivvy not a fishing bivvy? When it’s your home.