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Chumaky — Ukrainian salt traders in the times of old


Chumaks were traders who delivered salt, dried fish and other goods from the Crimea and other places to other parts of Ukraine. Their trade began in the fifteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth. WU probes into the life, customs and habits of the legendary Ukrainian traders.


Chumaks are known to have been engaged in the trade of transporting salt from the centers of its production in the Crimea and other places to other parts of Ukraine. Their trade began in the fifteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth.

It is not clear what the origins of the word ”chumak” are. Some historians and linguists say it could have been the word “chum” — “scoop, dipper, or ladle” that could have been the root of the word chumak. Chumaks did use chums when cooking their food. Others link chumak with the Tartar word which means “the one who rides a cart.” Still others think it could be derived from the “chuma”— “plague”; chumaks traveled from place to place and thus could be carriers of the disease. Also, “chumak” is the name of a whip that chumaks surely used.

It was not only salt that chumaks traded in — they transported and sold all kinds of household items, wood, tobacco, horilka (vodka), tar and other things.

Their means of transportation were “mazhas’ — big wagons drawn by oxen, from two to four per wagon. A wagon load could be as heavy as almost a ton. Usually, chumaks traveled in big groups of up to a hundred wagons. There was an elected head of the chumak train called otaman. Chumak trains were often attacked by Tartars and robbers and chumaks were well-armed to repel these attacks. For the night, they camped with their wagons positioned into a protective circle or square.

Chumaks were mostly of peasant or Cossack descent, and their style of life was similar to that of free Cossacks. In fact, Zaporizhsky Cossacks often convoyed chumak trains on their trips across Ukraine. There were quite a few routes that chumaks usually traveled along. These routes connected virtually all parts of Ukraine. Chumaks also traveled to Bessarabia (Moldavia). All the routes were given names — Chorny (Black Route); Kharkivsky (Route to Kharkiv); Tsarhorodsky (Tsar-City Route), and so on.

Chumaks usually started on their journeys in the spring and their trading continued until late fall. The oxen for drawing the wagons were mostly of the so-called “besarabsky” breed, with long, wide-spreading horns. Starting from the mid-nineteenth century, chumak trading waned as the railroads were built and shipping along the rivers developed. By the 1880s, chumaks had discontinued their trade, ousted by the new, much more modern, means of transportation.

Chumaks, their trade, life, customs and habits were reflected in chumak and Ukrainian folk songs, in fiction and in art.

Taras Shevchenko, in one of his poems (U nedilyu ne hulyala — Not Free on Sunday Either), mentions chumaks:

“She did some needle work,

Looking out the window from time to time

Can big-horned oxen be seen coming,


Can the chumak be seen coming her way?

The chumak is returning from the distant land,


Bringing goods that do not belong to him.

The oxen that pull the wagon are not his either.

But he is singing…”

Mykola Kostomarov (1817–1885; historian, ethnographer, writer and public figure) also mentions chumaks in his writings: “In Malorosiya (Little Russia — 19th-century reference to Ukraine) the chumak is an epitome of the chivalrous spirit that has long been gone elsewhere. The Kozak was brought to life by the needs of the people, the chumak was born out of the circumstances of social needs and of the people’s spirit.

Chumaks are peasants by their social status and kozaks by their spirit. Chumaks find certain glory in their travels. One of the Ukrainian chumak folk songs says, “Our dear sons have gone to earn money — and to win glory.”

Is money the primary motivation of chumaks? No, it is not. Chumaks have a subconscious lust for travel, adventures, camaraderie and freedom from family life. Similar desires were part of the kozak spirit. Chumaks, traveling on their wagons across the land are a sort of a reenactment of belligerent marches and raids of their kozak ancestors.”

Chumaks, who regarded themselves as a rather close-knit fraternity with established norms of behavior and mutual aid, must have played a positive role in the economic development of the Ukrainian countryside. Chumaks brought changes into the established patriarchal system of the rural communities, they invigorated trade, they kept bringing goods to and from distant lands.

The hardships of their journeys tempered chumaks both morally and physically. Speaking about them, people said, “Chumaks have seen a lot, have experienced a lot, and they have learnt a lot.” Most of their adult lives, chumaks spent on the road, delivering goods to various destinations. Many of them died without seeing their native places ever again.

Chumaks would take roosters with them, instead of alarm clocks on their travels — after a night rest, they had to start on their way at dawn.

Chumaks developed their own folklore, traditions and rituals. When two chumaks’ trains would meet somewhere in the steppe, they would stop, get off their wagons, sit down in a circle and tell stories, smoking their pipes. It was considered to be a bad luck for chumaks to pass by a woman, and those women who knew it, tried to make themselves scarce as fast as they could. Passing through villages, chumaks would give little presents to the children who gathered to stare at them. Many chumaks were literate; they were known as good story tellers and singers. They even knew how to play chess at the time when very few others in Ukraine could.

Snow on the Mountains

(a very old Chumak song)


Snow on the mountains,

Water in the valley,


Poppies on the slopes,

Chumaks on the roads.


The fog covers the field,

Mother cries,


Come back home, son,

I’ll wash and comb your hair!


Wash your own hair, Mother,

Do not sorrow over me,


Rains will wash me,

And thorns will comb my hair.


Gusty winds and the sun

Will dry me!


The Bright Sun Rises


The sun brings light when it rises,

And darkness comes when it sets.

The chumak otaman is worried,

Paces to and fro in the camp.

Then the otaman calls out,

Hey, good boys, fine fellows,

Get up, get the wagons ready!

The chumaks get up, get the wagons ready,

Harness the grey oxen.

They travel, the wheels creak,

The oxen bellow.

The otaman rides in front,

Rides his black horse.

The horse prances,

The otaman says,

Hey, my good boys,

Where shall we spend the night?

At the edge of that grove younder.

The chumaks pitch camp.

And in the forest deep,

Robbers hide.

When they see the chumaks

Go to sleep,

They, the devil’s sons,

spring out of the forest.

Where is your leader,

They holler.

Here I am, says the otaman.

Hey, my good boys, he shouts,

Get your clubs and stakes,

Hey, my brave boys,

Attack the robbers,

Bind them, throw them onto the wagons!

We’ll take them to Poltava,

And win the glory!

There were four and forty robbers,

And only a dozen chumaks,

But the chumaks won the glory,

By beating and binding the robbers!


Chumak Travels to the Crimea


The chumak went

To the Crimea,

But his oxen became lame on the way,

And the chumak became ill.


He’s so ill,

He’s so ill,

But nobody comes to help him,

Nobody asks what’s wrong with him.


His head aches,

His heart aches,

He is ill

Because he is in a foreign land.


Foreign land,

Foreign people,

Who will bury him,

If he dies?


But a friend of his comes,

Takes him by the hand,

And says soothing words,

And pities him.


Friend of mine,

Do not pity me,

Sell the oxen grey,

And bury me.


And then go back

To my wife,

May she remember me

Who died in a foreign land.

Chumaks Among the Burial Mounds by Taras

Shevchenko. Pencil, water color on paper. 1846.


The constellation Ursa Major-Great Bear or Big

Dipper; also known as Plow, or Charles’s Wain;

in Ukraine, this constellation is called Great Bear,

or Chumak’s — rather than Charles’s — Wagon;

the Milky Way is referred to as Chumatsky

shlyakh — Chumaks’ Way.


Ukrainian Landscape in the Full Moon with Chumaks

by Ivan Aivazovsky. Oil on canvas. 1869.


Chumaks at Rest by Ivan Aivazovsky. Oil on canvas.



Chumaks in Malorosiya (Ukraine) by Ivan Aivazovsky.

Oil on canvas. 1870s–1880s.


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