Navajo Blacksmiths

Unlike their silverwork, Navajo ironwork was so closely patterned after its Spanish prototypes that it is virtually impossible to tell one from the other. The Navajos first acquired iron and steel items through trade with the Spanish. Trained by Hispanic blacksmiths, they began forging iron tools of their own in the mid-nineteenth century. The Navajos learned the art of ironworking before Bosque Redondo, but few had become proficient. Following their return, a number of Navajo blacksmiths approached Agent Miller and asked for tools and anvils. Miller requested 6 small (35 pound) anvils, 6 small vises, 6 blacksmith hammers, 36 files, 36 three-cornered handsaw files, and 6 small bellows. The commissioner of Indian affairs approved the request. Several years later Agent Irvine reported that "all articles containing iron are eagerly sought after by the Navajos in order to make bridle bitts [sic] and other articles." By the early 1880s, a sizable number of Navajos were working as blacksmiths. "We have plenty of Indian blacksmiths," said Ganado Mucho in 1880, asking for files, hammers, and anvils. Two years later Major J. C. McKee remarked, "Among the men, skillful workers in iron are quite common. About the same time, Washington Matthews wrote, "There are many smiths, who sometimes forge iron and brass, but who work chiefly in silver," qualifying the previous statements. Even smiths who knew how to work with iron usually worked with silver: not only was it softer and easier to work, but it was also more profitable. Iron bridle bits, the major product of Navajo blacksmiths, were made from old horseshoes and scrap iron, and styled after Spanish bits obtained earlier through trade. While most ironwork was manufactured for domestic use, the Navajos traded bits to the Utes for buckskins and hides. Pgs. 54-55


A History of the Navajos, The Reservation Years; 1986, Garrick Bailey and Roberta Glenn Bailey.