Ellsworth Jaeger and the Atlatl Quest


Ellsworth Jaeger and the Atlatl Quest

by Russell Richard

April 2013

While recently browsing the book section of a local thrift store a slim little tome caught my attention. In my hands it fell open to pages 18 and 19 and there I discovered a previously unknown (to me) early description of the atlatl and the method of using the same. I was both astounded and delighted and immediately purchased it for the paltry sum of two dollars. The book is the 1958 edition (fifth printing) of Nature Crafts by Ellsworth Jaeger, which was originally published in 1949. Let me repeat that date: 1949. During that era there weren’t many people outside of the archaeological/anthropological disciplines who knew of the atlatl, or so I thought. Thus began my Quest to discover how it was that Ellsworth Jaeger should know of the atlatl and what influence his book may have had on the early practitioners of the sport we know and love today.


To begin the Quest I first had to know something of the man and his life. Ellsworth Jaeger was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1897 and died in the same city on August 7, 1962.1 He apparently developed an early love of the outdoors and by the age of nine had corresponded with the Boy Scouts of America co-founder Ernest Thompson Seton, who later became a major influence in Jaeger’s life.2 He graduated from the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy and initially pursued a career as a commercial artist in an advertising agency where he probably developed his skill as an illustrator.1 In 1929 he joined the faculty of the Buffalo Museum of Science and became the education curator there in 1941.1 During his time with the museum Jaeger traveled widely in the wilderness areas of North America researching various Native American tribes as well as studying the ways of animals and the whims of nature. In 1948 he surveyed adult-education facilities in American museums for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization,1 known today as UNESCO. He was regarded as an authority on American Indian lore and camping,3 as well as being a “celebrated artist, naturalist and explorer”.4 Mr. Jaeger also oversaw a varied and rigorous yearly schedule of classes, presentations, and activities during his time as Curator of Education at the Buffalo Museum of Science.5


From the book jacket to Wildwood Wisdom, 1966 edition (14th printing).

 Mr. Jaeger believed greatly in public outreach and demonstrated this by not only being a prolific author and a noted lecturer, he also was part of the early educational television programming aimed at children. His bibliography includes The Thinking Hand, A Book of Simple Crafts (1944), Wildwood Wisdom (1945), Easy Crafts (1947), Tracks and Trailcraft (1948), Council Fires (1949), Nature Crafts (1949), Land and Water Trails (1953), Woodsmoke (1953), and Animal Signs (unpublished,1962). Several of his books were reprinted multiple times and Wildwood Wisdom in particular has continued to receive much popular acclaim. In addition to the books, he wrote several magazine articles for publications including Better Homes and Gardens, Nature Magazine, and St. Nicholas4and served as illustrator for Eleanor M. Johnson’s book Red Deer: The Indian Boy (1937). He also lectured extensively and gave presentations at the University of Buffalo, University of Pennsylvania, Chautauqua Institute, and the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology among others.4His repertoire of lecture topics included one given in 1937 at the American Museum of Natural History to a blind audience, where mounted specimens were handled and animal calls were performed,6 to one given in 1939 at the Y.W.C.A. in Tonawandas, New York on the topic of the “Wonder Trails of the Southwest”, “illustrated with slides made from photographs”.4 This lecture was probably related to the “Wonder Trails” newspaper column about different species of wildlife which he wrote for several years.1,7 These columns were collected and published as a book by the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences in 1967.8Beginning in 1950 Mr. Jaeger also participated in science programs for children broadcast from WBEN-TV in Buffalo on Saturday mornings that included “Fun to Learn” and “Your Museum of Science”, which was still being broadcast in 1961.5,9



Ellsworth Jaeger (L) and Victor Bloom (R) appearing on “Your Museum of Science”.

 This brief overview of Ellsworth Jaeger’s career and accomplishments fails to illuminate any obvious connection to the atlatl, so I am left to wonder, how did Ellswoth Jaeger become acquainted with the atlatl? First I must consider the era in which he lived and wrote Nature Crafts. One possible source of popular introduction may have been The American Boy’s Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It, (written by D. C. Beard and published in 1890) which gives a rudimentary explanation of an Australian “ingenious throw-stick” (pg. 195). Given Mr. Jaeger’s love of the outdoors and woodcraft this book was undoubtedly in his library. An intelligent and crafty fellow such as he appears to have been may have read of the atlatl in popular science magazine articles of the day, such as “Dart-Throwing with an Atlatl” (Popular Mechanics V.56 No.4, October 1931),“Natives of Australia Still Throw Spears With Woomera” (Popular Science V.125 No.5 May 1934), “Arrows Thrown With Stick Instead of Bow” (Popular Mechanics V.63 No.1 Jan. 1935),“Target Practice With Mayan Throwing Sticks” (Popular Science V.127 No. 2, August 1935), or “Good Sport with a Throwing Stick” (Popular Science V.140 No.6 June 1942). Even earlier mentions of the atlatl could have been found in “A Day’s Hunting Among the Eskimo” (Appletons’ Popular Science Monthly Feb. 1895), “Throwing Stick.” (Appletons’ Popular Science Monthly June 1896), “Rebuilding America’s Sacred City” (Popular Mechanics V. 47 No.4 April 1927), and “Did Prehistoric Man Kill Sloths in Nevada Cave?” (Popular Science V.119 No.4 October 1931). In addition to the science magazines the weapon was explained (albeit poorly) in at least one western story publication: “Indian Weapons: The Atlatl” (Street and Smith’s Western Story Magazine 111(3) March 12, 1932). Surprising isn’t it, how often the atlatl found its way onto the mainstream magazine racks?

Less surprising and perhaps far more likely to have been the source of Jaeger’s introduction to the atlatl was the relatively abundant academic/anthropological literature available to him. His role as education curator at the Buffalo Museum of Science would have provided him with ample opportunities for becoming acquainted with spear-throwers through museum publications and journal articles dealing in whole or in part with the subject (see lists of Selected Museum and Anthropological Publications below).

One other facet of Mr. Jaeger’s life deserves mention. Stemming from his long association with Ernest Thompson Seton10, Jaeger was heavily involved in the Woodcraft11 movement and served as the field director of the Woodcraft League of America for the northeastern states1. He conducted woodcraft camps and organized several of the ‘tribes’12 that stressed the conservation of nature and character-building by means of outdoor activities. Although no clear link is apparent it is within the realm of possibility that some early use of the atlatl may have occurred at these Woodcraft camps.

In conclusion, I am left with no definitive answer as to how Ellsworth Jaeger became aware of the atlatl or that his inclusion of the atlatl in Nature Crafts led to any widespread, early sporting use of the same. Atlatlists in the state of New York may have better references and avenues to discover a Jaeger influence on the awareness and use of the atlatl in the region. Kudos are due Ellsworth Jaeger for including the atlatl in his book and I would like to believe that somewhere there still breathes someone who remembers whittling his or her own after reading about it in Nature Crafts.


  1. Ellsworth Jaeger obituary, New York Times, August 9, 1962.

  2. http://www.metrowny.com/news-entertainment/archives/120-480-Buffalo_native_Ellsworth_Jaegers_work_can_be_seen_at_Hulbert_Library.html

  3. http://www.outdoorhub.com/opinions/nature-writers-worthy-of-our-thanks/

  4. http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2011/North%20Tonawanda%20NY%20Evening%20News/North%20Tonawanda%20NY%20Evening%20News%201939%20Jul-Dec-%20Grayscale/North%20Tonawanda%20NY%20Evening%20News%201939%20Jul-Dec-%20Grayscale%20-%201139.pdf

  5. http://www.sciencebuff.org/content/files/Science%20on%20the%20March/vol%2041/Science%20on%20the%20March%2041(2)%201960.pdf

  6. http://books.google.com/books?id=RMlRAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA39&lpg=PA39&dq=1937+American+Museum+of+Natural+History+blind+audience&source=bl&ots=ShupSppPFq&sig=TURqI3-ozdUbIDiN4RQH8RJBwqs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tZtlUbbKBIHnyAH2wYA4&sqi=2&ved=0CEYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=1937%20American%20Museum%20of%20Natural%20History%20blind%20audience&f=false

  7. http://www.archeion.ca/edmund-william-waltho-fonds;rad

  8. http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2011/Hamberg%20NY%20Front%20Page/Hamberg%20NY%20Front%20Page%201966-1968/Hamberg%20NY%20Front%20Page%201966-1968%20-%200573.pdf

  9. http://www.buffalobroadcasters.com/hist_wivb.asp

  10. http://fultonhistory.com/newspaper%202/Buffalo%20Ny%20Morning%20Express/Buffalo%20NY%20Morning%20Express%201926.pdf/Buffalo%20NY%20Morning%20Express%201926%20-%203076.PDF

  11. http://etsetoninstitute.org/history-of-the-woodcraft-movement/

  12. http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2011/Hamburg%20NY%20Erie%20County%20Independent/Hamburg%20NY%20Erie%20County%20Independent%201926-1928%20Grayscale/Hamburg%20NY%20Erie%20County%20Independent%201926-1928%20Grayscale%20-%200453.pdf


Special acknowledgment is due

Lorenz Bruchert

2000 Old and New World Dart-Throwers and Related Topics: An Annotated Bibliography. World Atlatl Association, Aurora, Colorado.


John Whittaker

 2012 Annotated Atlatl Bibliography


for the following references.

 Selected Museum Publications prior to 1949

 Coffin, Edwin F.

 1932 Archaeological Exploration of a Rock Shelter in Brewster County, Texas. Indian Notes and Monographs No. 48. Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian, New York.

Cosgrove, C.B.

1947 Caves of the Upper Gila and Hueco Areas in New Mexico and Texas. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University 24(2). Cambridge.

Cressman, Luther S.

 1944 New Information on South-Central Oregon Atlatls. The Masterkey 13(6): 169-179.

 Gardner, Fletcher and George C. Martin

 1933 A New Type of Atlatl from a Cave Shelter on the Rio Grande near Shumla, Valverde County, Texas. Big Bend Basket Maker Papers 2. Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

 Foster, George, and Gabriel Ospina

 1948 Empire’s Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan. Smithsonian Institution Institute of Social Anthropology Publication No. 6.

 Hambly, Wilfrid D.

 1936 Primitive Hunters of Australia. Anthropology Leaflet 32, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.

 Heizer, Robert F.

 1945 Introduced Spearthrowers (Atlatls) in California. The Masterkey 19:109-112.

 Kidder, Alfred Vincent and Samuel J. Guernsey

 1919 Archeological Explorations in Northeastern Arizona. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 65.

 Krause, F.

 1905 Sling Contrivances for Projectile Weapons. Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution, 1904: 619-638.

 Martin, George C.

 1933 Archaeological Exploration of the Shumla Caves. Southwest Texas Archaeological Society Bulletin 3 (Big Bend Basket Maker Papers No. 3). Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

 Mason, J. Alden

 1928 Some Unusual Spear Throwers of Ancient America. The Museum Journal 19:290-324. University of Pennsylvania University Museum.

Mason, Otis T.

 1885 Throwing Sticks in the National Museum. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1884, part 2. pp. 279-290, plates 1-16. Washington: Government Printing Office.

 Mason, Otis T.

 1893 Throwing-Sticks from Mexico and California. Proceedings of the National Museum 16(932):219-221.

 Nuttall, Zelia

 1891 The Atlatl or Spear-Thrower of the Ancient Mexicans. Archaeological and Ethnographic Papers of the Peabody Museum 1(3):171-198. Cambridge.

 Peabody, Charles

 1904 Explorations of Mounds, Coahoma County, Mississippi. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Anthropology Papers 3(2):?

 Quimby, George I.

 1944 Aleutian Islanders: Eskimos of the North Pacific. Anthropology Leaflet 35, Chicago Natural History Museum.

 Saville, Marshall H.

 1925 The Wood-Carver’s Art in Ancient Mexico. Contributions of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Vol. 9. New York.

 Setzler, Frank M.

 1933 Prehistoric Cave Dwellers of Texas. Explorations and Fieldwork of the Smithsonian Institution in 1932: 53-56.

 Walker, Edwin F.

 1943 A Real Mexican Atlatl. The Masterkey 17(3):91-94.

 West, Robert C.

 1948 Cultural Geography of the Modern Tarascan Area. Smithsonian Institution Institute of Social Anthropology Publication No. 7. United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

 Selected Anthropological Publications prior to 1949

 Baker, W. E. and A. V. Kidder

 1937 A Spear Thrower from Oklahoma. American Antiquity 3(1): 51-52.

 Beyer, Hermann

 1934 The New Atlatl, Found in Italy, a Falsification. American Anthropologist 36 (4): 632-633.

 Boas, Franz

 1938 General Anthropology. DC Heath and Company, Boston.

 Browne, Jim

 1940 Projectile Points. American Antiquity 5 (3): 209-213.

 Bushnell, D.I.

 1904 Two Ancient Mexican Atlatls. American Anthropologist 7:218-221.

 Bushnell, David I.

 1906 North American Ethnographical Material in Italian Collections. American Anthropologist 8:243-255.

 Cressman, Luther S. and Alex D. Krieger

 1940 Atlatls and Associated Artifacts from South-central Oregon. In Early Man in Oregon: Archaeological Studies in the Northern Great Basin. L.S. Cressman, H. Williams, A.D. Krieger eds, pp 16-52. University of Oregon Studies in Anthropology No 3.

 Crimmins, M. L.

 1926 Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and the Diffusion of Primitive Culture. Art and Archaeology 21(6):297-298.

 Cushing, Frank H.

 1895 The Arrow. The American Anthropologist 8(4):307-349.

 Cushing, Frank Hamilton 

 1897 Explorations of Ancient Key Dwellers’ Remains on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 35(153):329-448.

Davenport, J. Walker

 1943 Some Experiments in the Use of the Atlatl. Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological and Paleontological Society 15:30-37.

 Davidson, D. S.

 1936 The Spearthrower in Australia. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 76(4):445-483.

 Edge-Partington, J.

 1903 Notes on the Weapons of the Dalleburra Tribe, Queensland, lately presented to the British Museum by Mr. Robert Christison. Man 3(19):37-38. 105

 Fenenga, Franklin, and Robert F. Heizer

 1941 The Origin and Authenticity of an Atlatl and an Atlatl Dart from Lassen County, California. American Antiquity 7(2):134-141.

 Fenenga, Franklin, and Robert F. Heizer

 1941 Further Notes on the Susanville Atlatl. American Antiquity 8(1):120-122.

 Fenenga, Franklin, and Joe Ben Wheat

 1940 An Atlatl From the Baylor Rock Shelter, Culberson County, Texas. 111 American Antiquity 5(3):221-223.

 Follett, Prescott H. F.

 1932 War and Weapons of the Maya. Middle American Research Series Publication No. 4. Tulane University, New Orleans.

 Glover, J. P.

 1875 Curious Australian Implement. Nature 13:27.

 Hackett, Cecil J.

 1937 Man and Nature in Central Australia. The Geographical Magazine 4(4):287-304.

 Haddon, Alfred C.

 1912 Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, volume IV, Arts and Crafts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Pages 196-198.

 Hill, Malcolm

 1948 The Atlatl, or Throwing Stick, A Recent Study of Atlatls in Use with Darts of Various Sizes. Tennessee Archaeologist 4:37-44.

Hambly, Wilfrid D.

 1931 The Preservation of Local Types of Weapons and Other Objects in Western Australia. American Anthropologist 33 (1): 1-15.

 Heizer, Robert F.

 1938 A Complete Atlatl Dart from Pershing County, Nevada. New Mexico Anthropologist 2(4/5): 68-71.

 Linné, Sigvald

 1937 Hunting and Fishing in the Valley of Mexico in the Middle of the 16th Century. Ethnos 2(1):56-64.

 Loud, Llewellyn, and Mark R. Harrington

 1929 Lovelock Cave. University of California, Berkeley. (republished 1991, Falcon Hill Press, Sparks, NV). Pp. 99-100

 Markley, Max C.

 1942 Bow, Spear, and Atlatl: A Discussion of Progressive Relationships in these Weapons. The Minnesota Archaeologist 8 (1): 23-26.

Mason, O. T.

1892 The Throwing-Stick in California. The American Anthropologist 5(1):66.

Mason, Otis T.

1893 Throwing Sticks [letter Sept 15] Science 22(554):152-153.

 Mason, Otis T.

1895 The Origins of Invention: A Study of Industry Among Primitive Peoples. Walter Scott Ltd, London. Reprint 1966 M.I.T. Press, Cambridge. 226

Murdoch, John

1892 Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition. Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, for 1887-88, pp. 19-451. Government Printing Office, Washington D. C.

Nelson, Edward William

1899 The Eskimo About Bering Strait. 18th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, for 1897-98, pp. 19-526. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Osgood, Cornelius

1940 Ingalik Material Culture. Yale University Publications in Anthropology 255

Number 21. Reprinted 1970, Human Relations Area Files Press, New Haven.

Pepper, George H.

1902 The Ancient Basket Makers of Southeastern Utah. Guide Leaflet 6, American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Pepper, George H.

1905 The Throwing-stick of a Prehistoric People of the Southwest. Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists, 13th Session, 1905. pp. 107-130.

Ransome, Jay Ellis

1946 Children’s Games Among the Aleut. Journal of American Folklore 59 (232): 196-198.

Spencer, Baldwin and F. J. Gillen

1938 The Native Tribes of Central Australia. MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London.

Starr, Frederick

1901 Notes Upon the Ethnography of Southern Mexico. Proceedings of the Davenport Academy of Sciences 8: 102-198.

Swanton, John R.

1938 Historic Use of the Spear-Thrower in Southeastern North America. American Antiquity 3(4): 356-358.

Uhle, Max

1909 Peruvian Throwing Sticks. American Anthropologist, n.s. 11:624-627. (Reprinted in The Cast Spring 2001:14-16.

Webb, W. S., and W. G. Haag

1939The Chiggerville Site: Site 1, Ohio County, Kentucky. University of Kentucky Reports in Anthropology Vol 4, No. 1. University of Kentucky, Lexington.

Webb, William S.

1946 Indian Knoll, Site Oh 2, Ohio County, Kentucky. University of Kentucky Reports in Anthropology and Archaeology Vol. IV, No. 3, part 1:115-365.

Woodward, Arthur

1937 Atlatl Dart Foreshafts from the La Brea Pits. Bulletin of the California Academy of Sciences 36(2):41-60.



  • Thank you for reading.
    My apologies for any odd format glitches in this article, the edit function is very limited.
    I would be most interested to hear from anyone with additional information regarding Ellsworth Jaeger and his atlatl.

    • Ken Wee:

      Russell, I used to have Ellsworth Jaeger’s Wildwood Wisdom book. I also have an Encyclopedia of Hobbies which includes not only bow making but an article on target practice with ancient Mayan throwing sticks. They used archery arrows instead of darts. Will have to show it to you or copy and mail you it. I think a lot of Tom Brown Jr.’s “knowledge” came from reading those woodcraft books of our time and that the Apache mentor “Stalking Wolf” never really existed. Making a lot of experimental darts and atlatls. Hope to get up to Wyoming some day soon. Keep up the good work and research. Enjoyed the facebook on George Frison and the atlatl Hell’s Half Acre hunt. Never knew that Storm Troopers was shot there.

  • Thanks for the comments Ken! (To anyone who may not know, Ken is a living legend of primitive skills). You are welcome at our fire anytime.

  • Great article, thanks for taking the time to research and post this. I’m also very interested in the early revival/understanding of the atlatl. These drawings are great-it appears they understood how the atlatl worked fairly well. The person in the drawing exhibits good throwing form, making it pretty evident the illustrator knew something about throwing, and real experimentation was obviously done. This is in marked contrast to some awful drawings I’ve seen from the same time period.

  • Raymond Vaughan:

    Maybe your spell-checker’s been changing “Buffalo” to “Boston”…but to the best of my knowledge Buffalo is where Jaeger was born and died, and where WBEN-TV is located. Interesting article, though!