#Lookback: Soapstone Steatite

    A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    Geologically soapstone, or steatite, is a stone composed of varying amounts of talc, thus it is a very soft stone and is easy to carve with bone, antler or harder rock tools. It is a common metamorphic rock and in the Wind River Range is found in many colors:  red, white, gray, blue and green. 

    When rubbed, steatite feels soapy or waxy. Many cultures across the world have turned soapstone into utilitarian objects and into works of art.   The Shoshones have used the stone to carve cooking pots, pipes, beads and amulets.  To craft a large size pot would probably require a few days of work, so they were probably highly valued.  A University of Wyoming grad student, Richard Adams, carved a soapstone pot from rock found in the Wind River mountains that held a little less than a quart of liquid.  It took him three and a half hours to complete his pot. He then heated water in his pot to a boil over burning coals in eight minutes. Cubed venison was placed in the boiling water and was cooked in 16 minutes.  When the pot was removed from the coals it continued to boil off of the coals for four more minutes.

    The Mountain Shoshone and Idaho Sheepeaters used soapstone to carve cooking pots ranging in size from two gallons down to a cup. The pots are durable but heavy, some weighing up to 49 pounds.  Some experts theorize large pots may have been cached at camp sites that were used frequently.  The Mountain Shoshone did not adopt the horse early on, but instead used dogs to transport their goods, so there was a limit to how much weight a dog could carry or drag.

    Unlike some stones, soapstone can stand up to cooking fires without cracking.  It absorbs heat and radiates the heat slowly making the stone ideal for cooking and keeping food warm.  Today, because of these same properties, soapstone is sometimes used on wood burning stoves and cooking griddles.

    The Mountain Shoshone and Idaho Sheepeaters were the only native Americans in the area to utilize soapstone pots in any significant way, so soapstone pots are considered to be a cultural marker.   Unfinished pots and pipes are found high in the Wind River Range close to soapstone quarries.  These unfinished pieces are referred to as preforms. A preform is roughly shaped into the object it is intended to become, either a pot or a pipe.  The finishing touches would be added later.  As one would expect many more pot fragments have been found than intact pots.

    Pipes of many styles were also carved out of soapstone and were probably valued ceremonial objects. Captain Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal he smoked a soapstone pipe with Cameahwait, a Lemhi Shoshone chief and Sacagawea’s brother, when he was negotiating for horses so the Corps of Discovery could continue over the Continental Divide and on to the Pacific in 1805.

    Tubular pipes are found in areas that were occupied historically by the Shoshone.  George Frison and Zola Van Norman found a cache of eight tube pipes close to a large petroglyph of a man with a bow.  One of the pipes had a bird carved on the pipe and was probably owned by a shaman and may have been used to conduct ceremonies or healings or to communicate with the divine.

    The Pioneer Museum has two whole pots on display and an intact pipe, and the Dubois Museum also has several soapstone pots on display.

    Author: Liz Farmer

    Photo: A soapstone bowl in the Pioneer Museum Collection

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    May 2, 6:30pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Wild Horse Sanctuary” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    May 7, 9am at the Pioneer Museum, “Kids Music Program” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 11, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Riverton Museum Rendezvous Experience” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    May 11, 10am at the Pioneer Museum, “Mount Hope Cemetery Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek

    May 16, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Tips for the Trail: Staying Safe as a Beginner Trekker” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    May 19, 9am at the Riverton Museum, “100th Anniversary Yellowstone Hwy Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek

    May 25, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War: A Family Story” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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