We tend to think of log cabins as symbols of early American life, and indeed they embodied the inventive and hardy spirits of those who blazed new trails and settled on the frontier. The first log cabin in the Unites States was most likely built along the Delaware River in New Sweden by Scandinavian immigrants. The Swedes, Germans, Russians had been making cabins for years. Swedish settlers built log cabins when they came to Delaware in 1638. Other colonists followed their example.
When great numbers of settlers began to move westward after the Revolution, they found thick forests in Tennessee, Kentucky, and the Northwest Territory, and the log cabin became the typical home of the backwoodsman. The log cabin made the transition to the New World beautifully. With lush forests and raw materials at hand, log cabins were the perfect homes for settlers. Many times trees had to be cut to create living space or to clear fields for farming anyway.
Building with logs didn’t require much skill or special tools. A sharp axe, an adz and a strong back did the job, and the new lodging went up quickly. Most could last a couple hundred years if built well, and the inhabitants were warm in winter and cool in summer.
Once the trees were cut, the farmer stripped away branches and bark so insects weren’t left behind to crawl into the house or weaken the structure. The builder then cut notches for fitting the logs atop each other. Once stacked and fitted, he then chinked or calked with mud or clay, grass and moss mixtures.
Roofs were made of available material, though cedar was prized because the wood split straight and resisted rot. The owner nailed the shingles to a beam and board framework. More logs could also be used as roofing, provided they were split lengthwise and fitted close on the frame. The gaps could be filled the same as the walls. A thatched roof needed a lot of upkeep, had to be replaced every year and often harbored insects, small animals and snakes. Many used sod placed flat over planks, and after a few years the earth compacted and became waterproof. Later in the 1800s, builders used corrugated tin. Can you imagine the sound of a rainstorm or hail?
Log cabins were not all one room dwellings with lofts, as we tend to imagine or like we see on Little House on the Prairie reruns. Many had several rooms and even second stories. Fireplaces and chimneys were made of stones and chinked with mud or clay. Sometimes the chimney was made of sticks or wood.
The floor was hard-packed clay or dirt. Since living in a cabin made its occupants vulnerable to attack, there were usually no windows. Besides glass was expensive and difficult to transport. Most people hung wooden shutters over oiled paper. In summer, the inventive settlers covered the openings with cheesecloth to allow air in and keep bugs out.
Probably the world’s most famous log cabin is the one in which Abraham Lincoln was born. When we think of log cabins we think of hard work, ingenuity and independence, all virtues of our pioneer ancestors.