Scrimshaw Walrus Tusk, 19th Century

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Scrimshaw whales’ teeth and walrus tusks commonly have simple vertical or horizontal compositions carved on their outer surfaces, sometimes stacked with simple framing between adjacent elements. This unusual walrus tusk has a rare freehand spiral composition, beginning at the bottom of the tusk and winding up to the top.
At the bottom is a large windowed building with a crumbling tower at either end. To the left is a high wall that goes around the tooth to the other side of the building, ending in a large, tall open gate. Behind is a steep hill with more steep hills in the background and a couple astride horses mount the hill. At the back is a woman riding sidesaddle, brandishing a riding crop. In front of her is a man on horseback, driving two pack horses in front of him. In front of them is another pair of men astride horses; the rear one has a pick over his shoulder and the man in front has a pack on his back and a shovel over his shoulder. The group is led by another rider looking up the hill and smiling.
A large rock separates the climbing group from the next tableau: a small herd of three grazing cows on the far side of a stream or long tree stump. Above this feature in a grassy meadow is a four-sided fort-like structure with a crumbling tower at each corner and tall slits for windows. More grassy hills follow, with another square building with two crumbling towers in the extreme distance. Next, a pair of men wearing baseball-like caps and brandishing riding crops whip their horses up a steep rocky incline towards another high-walled building with crumbling towers. Beyond is another horseback rider, with a cape and long feather streaming off his hat. A pair of dogs lead him up a steep, long grassy hill to another walled-in town with two buildings having crumbling towers at the very top of the tooth.
Clearly, the tusk is telling some sort of story, but whether the group on horseback is exploring, prospecting, on a hunting trip or some completely unrelated activity is not clear. The repeating fort-like buildings with crumbling towers appear to be Spanish colonial adobe, perhaps placing the tableau in California, Mexico or Central America. However, the woman at the start of the expedition is riding sidesaddle and all the saddles are English rather than Western, further obscuring the location and meaning of the spiral tale.
Currently not on view
date made
19th century
Physical Description
wood (base material)
walrus tusk (overall material)
overall, without base: 16 in; 40.64 cm
overall, with base: 16 1/4 in; 41.275 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. Frederic A. Delano.
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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