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Looking for the inventor of head-carry devices and techniques is like asking who invented shoes. No single origin story exists for a piece of leather, fabric, or rope that is knotted, looped, or buckled around a load and worn across the top of the head. The tumpline precedes even the backpack. It has been used across every populated continent. Congolese women use tumplines to carry charcoal and firewood. Sherpas, perhaps the most famous tumpline users today, have been known to eschew modern packs even when they are offered, preferring the simple strap when carrying gear in the Himalayas. They call tumplines namlo and carry up to their own body weight in baskets called doko.
The English word “tumpline” is thought to be a shortening of the Algonquian words mattump or metump, and it entered the Western lexicon alongside trade. Fur-trapping voyageurs and coureurs de bois learned the method from their Native allies in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was the only feasible way to carry large bundles of furs and gear through the dense forests between navigable bodies of water in what is now Canada and the northernmost United States.
In 1882, the French Canadian shoemaker Camille Poirier brought the tumpline to the North American masses when he created the Duluth pack. This pack kept the familiar shape of the backpack, with shoulder straps and a fixed-volume storage compartment, but added a tumpline attachment that allowed for the pack to be weighted on the shoulders, the neck, or both. The Duluth pack quickly became a classic; it is still manufactured in Duluth, Minnesota, and imitated by outdoor outfitters around the world.
By the early 20th century, the tumpline’s influence had spread from outfitters to the military. During World War I, in the trenches of the Somme, Staff Captain F.R. Phelan formed the 11th Canadian Brigade Tumpline Company after showing how much manpower and time could be saved if resupplies of the muddy trenches were conducted by tumpline. Phelan had learned the technique while hunting and fishing in the wilderness of Quebec, mirroring the journeys and challenges of the voyageurs.
Phelan’s men were issued an oiled leather tumpline with two long tails. The tails could be tied around larger loads than would fit in a backpack or in the hands. It also could be worn without interfering with their helmets. The men were trained in knots and proper posture, and they slowly increased the weight of their loads until they were carrying twice what had previously been possible, and with equal or greater efficiency. The tumpline made the dangerous process of resupplying the trenches faster and safer.
By 1944, tumpline companies had become standard across the Canadian ground forces. A Popular Mechanics article from that year shows Canadian soldiers using tumplines to carry medical supplies, machine guns, and even to pull sled-style stretchers designed for moving casualties while under fire during World War II.