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                   Caddo Bows and Arrows                                               

                                          by Phil Cross


I grew up in western Oklahoma on our family’s tribal reservation allotted land and was taught the techniques of hand crafting the Caddo bois d'arc bow by tribal elders.  I've made and shot these bows through my adulthood and I continue to hunt with my bows, shoot for recreation, and spend much time in talking to others about the bow. I've instructed all types of groups, including the Boy Scouts, school children, anthropologists, archaeologists, rendezvous enthusiasts, hunters, and others, in the ancient craft of Indian archery.  I occasionally make customized bows for hunters or collectors and I've had the privilege of replicating bows found in archaeology sites in the Caddo region for museums and primitive archery enthusiasts. 
There are many tricks of the trade and tips that I will post from time to time. There are particular designs of the bow, called chow ih in our Caddo language, that are key to making a top notch weapon or target bow. Watch for updates. If you are interested in learning more about my work, my publications, would like to collect a particular type of bow that I make, or would like information on a workshop on creating the bow and arrow, contact me at
Phil Cross 
View a video of the Caddo bow being shot:  
Photograph of a cane river arrow and a section of a bois d'arc bow limb just completed. Note the bright yellow color.




Picture of 1800's style iron tip hafted onto a dogwood shaft; Spiro Mounds style flint tip hafted onto a dogwood foreshaft which is set into a cane river shaft; a bois d'arc hunting bow upper limb section and nock, aged around three years.




The Caddo Bow In History 


The Caddo Indian bow made of bois d’arc wood was one of the most effective and fearsome weapons in the history of Indians in America.  This weapon was deadly in use for fighting enemies and for harvesting big game, including deer, buffalo, elk, and bear.

Tough, springy, and durable, bois d’arc wood has become to be known worldwide as one of the best materials nature has produced for the primitive bow. The wood also has the special quality of transforming over time the surface color of its heartwood from bright yellow or orange to deep brown.

Bois d’arc is thought to have possibly been a major trade item for Caddoan mound builder inhabitants. Early explorers stated that other Indian tribes would travel to the Caddo’s area to trade for bois d’arc wood and for Caddo made bows because of the exceptionally good quality of these items for archery.

At the Caddo Conference in March, 2008 at Natchitoches, Louisiana I presented a paper on the Caddo bois d'arc bow in ancient times compared to modern Caddo traditional bows, the English longbow, and other traditional bows, in which I included some scientific principles in the analsys. View the paper here.  Paper Caddo Bows for 2008 Caddo conference.doc


A Few of My Caddo Bois d'arc Bows


A few of the hundreds of bows I made over the years are in the picture here. Notice the irregularities in the limbs, which comes from following the grain of the stave. The bows from top to bottom:


1. This chocolate colored bow is one I made many years ago from a fencepost that had been in the ground on our family's Caddo allotment near Colony, OK. It is 48 inches long and has a draw weight of around 40 lbs at 25 inches. It has some worm holes in it that had to be included in the finished bow because of the limitations of the size of the stave. It is flat, about 3/8ths inches thick, and around 1-1/4 inches wide at the grip. It shoots as good as when I first made it many years ago.


2. This bow is made from a pattern carved on many gorgets found in the Spiro Mounds at Spiro, OkIahoma. It is 60 inches long and has deflexed tips and a reflexed handle. This bow is very strong--over 70 lbs draw weight.


3. This bow is 62 inches long and has a draw weight of 50 lbs.


4. A very smooth shooting bow, it is 63 inches long and has a draw weight of 55 lbs.


5. The bow is 60 inches long and has a draw weight of 55 lbs. I have hunted with this bow for several years and harvested much game with it.


These bows are of the traditional Caddo style of wide and relatively thin flat limbs, rectangular cross-section, and slight taper of the thickness from the mid-section to the tip, and tapering in profile from mid-section to tip.


Photograph of my hunting bow strung (braced). This is the No. 5 bow above.



 Our Traditional Bow Shoots


Below is a picture of shooters that compete in our traditional bow shoots. These contests are of the old "grocery" style shoots where the winner of each round is awarded the groceries that were put up for the round by the sponsor or by the shooters themselves. We have categories of adult, youth, and ladies for recurve and primitive bows without sights. Several of our shooters are champions in recurve categories in statewide contests.


The Spiro Mounds Bow


In March 2008 I was commissioned by the curator and manager, Dennis Peterson, of the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Park just outside of Spiro, Oklahoma to make a bow and an arrow that would be representative of those likely used in the ancient mounds there. In particular, the bow would be representative of those that were carved on many of the gorgets found in the mounds. Mr. Peterson required that the bow to be fully functional.  Bois d'arc wood was requested to be the raw material wood since that would have been the wood used in the era of the mounds. The gorget image shown here was selected as the style of bow to be followed in the carving.





The unstrung carved bow limbs and mid-section areas are shown here. The bow is 60 inches long from tip to tip with deflexed limbs and reflexed grip area. This bow is very strong--over 70 lbs in draw weight. I did not add carved lines on the limbs as is portrayed on the gorget.





The arrow chosen for this special archery set was made up of a cane river arrow shaft with wild turkey fletching, a dogwood foreshaft, and a flint tip that was a replica of those found in the Mounds. Jim Keen, of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, a highly skilled flintknapper, made the flint tip.





Making the Caddo Bow


Here are the main steps in making a trusty, hard shooting Caddo bois d'arc bow:


Tools Needed

You'll need a hatchet, sharp drawknife, pocketknife and a few wood rasps to fashion the bow. Keep the cutting tools sharp--bois d'arc is very hard and dense and can be difficult to carve. A well made shaving bench is very useful in clamping the wood while working it. Photographs: Working at an old and a newly built shaving bench with drawknife and bow stave.

1. Harvest a limb or trunk of a bois d'arc tree that is about 6 feet long and at least 6 inches in diameter. The log should be straight and free of large knots.
2.  Immediately seal the ends of the log with a common outdoor paint or with other wood sealer. This will keep the log from drying too fast from the end and splitting and possibly ruining much of the log for bow making.3.  After several months, split the log lengthwise into staves that are around 4 inches wide on the bark side. Continue to let the log season for one year. Check the log regularly to see if wood borers are damaging the log. If signs (sawdust) of these borers appear, immediately go to the next step.
4.  Using a drawknife, carefully remove the bark and sapwood of the stave and expose the top layer of one of the first growth rings of the stave. This forms the back of the bow. Do not cut across the growth ring grain so that the large bending forces can flow smoothly down the length of the back of the bow. Don’t carve any further on the back. It is good to smooth the back with medium sandpaper at this time to enhance the flow of forces and to expose any small cracks or irregularities that could be a problem.
5.  Mark the profile of the bow on the back of the bow and then trim the stave to just outside those lines.
6.  Mark the thickness of the bow along the length of the stave and then trim the stave on the belly of the bow to just outside those lines. This forms the roughed out bow.
7.  Bend the bow by placing the belly of the bow on one knee and then pulling the ends of the bow with both hands. Observe the bend and estimate the strength of the bow. The bend should approach a circle arc.
8.  Remove wood from the belly of the bow to achieve a circle arc and the draw strength desired.
9.  Make ¼ inch deep rounded notches on the side of the bow about ¾ inch from the end of the bow for the bow string placement. Keep all corners rounded.
10. String (brace) the bow. Check the bending arc and the strength. Mark the places on the belly where the bend is not proper and then unstring the bow and remove wood from those places. Restring the bow, check the bend and test the stength, and repeat as needed.
Finishing the Bow
I finish and smooth the bois d'arc bow with sandpaper and scrapers. The hardness and density of the wood will allow you to smooth it to a brilliance that allows at some point for the surface to take on a transparency to reveal underlying grain. The
only preservative I apply to the smoothed, finished bow is boiled linseed oil. This preservative, which is highly compatible with bois d'arc wood, enhances its lustre and provides a light barrier against moisture. Beef tallow was a coating that many elders used for a final finishing application.