The Inventors of the Log Cabin

The log cabin. What more quintessential example of “Americana” can there be?

I was surprised to recently learn the origin of this particular building-style. I present two short discussions of the subject below from two experts on architectural history:

From “Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and of the Early Republic” by Fiske Kimball, 1922. Pages seven and eight.

A derivation of the log house from the Indians has been tempting to those who have wished to emphasize the mastering of the colonists’ inherited traditions by the wilderness: “It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois, and runs an Indian palisade around him.” Unfortunately for this belief, none of the tribes with whom the early settlers came in contact lived in log houses.

The Indian huts described in contemporary narratives, including the long-house of the Iroquois, are all of radically different construction. Even in the case of the Creek, who sometimes did employ the log house in the later eighteenth century, all evidence agrees that it was unknown to them until after the founding of Georgia. It was the one thing among many others adopted by this exceptionally gifted tribe from the colonists.

A more reasonable supposition is that the log house was brought to America by the people in whose native land at that time it was the customary form of dwelling–the Swedes and Finns who settled on the Delaware in 1638 and the years following. Peter Kalm, writing in 1749 and quoting a settler ninety-one years old, describes the first houses as of round logs chinked with clay, and contemporary accounts describe the fort built at New Gothenburg in 1643 as “made of hemlock beams, laid one upon the other.” From the very beginnings of New Sweden, there was trade with both Virginia and New England, and the interchange of ideas which resulted, with time, in the building of an “English house” at Fort Elfsborg, seems ultimately to have taught the English colonists a method of construction so obviously suited to pioneer conditions in the new, heavily forested continent.

[note: New Gothenburg was near present-day Philadelphia]

Source #2:
From “American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home” by Lester Walker (1995)

The log cabin was introduced in America by the Swedes who settled along the Delaware River in 1638. New Sweden, a fur trading colony that covered parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, did not endure buts its housing form, the log cabin has survived and is still built today.

[By] the beginning of the eighteenth century… non Swedes built log cabins; the Scotch-Irish and the German settlers were the first. … By the Revolution, the log cabin had become the standard frontier dwelling, inhabited by all nationalities, as well as by the American Indian.

…The log cabin had many features desirable to the early settlers and, later, the pioneers. It was quickly built from indigenous materials — trees and rocks cleared from land to be used for farming. With natural insulation of thick wooden walls, a well-built log cabin was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The log cabin was easy to build because it did not require an extra framework to hold up the walls. …

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6 Responses to The Inventors of the Log Cabin

  1. hbd chick says:

    not just cabins. whole, two-storey houses! and barns and other farm buildings. when you’ve got so many trees you don’t know what to do with them, you may as well build with them! lincoln logs everywhere! (^_^)

    • Hail says:

      Nice buildings, but all three are Norwegian!

      (I especially like this one, but I cannot exactly see the advantage of such a building beyond looking nice, hehe…).

      I’m sure Norwegians would claim their designs are superior to the Swedes’, though the Swedes might counter that all those structures were built in “territories of the king of Sweden”. Or the Danes might claim the same. It’s hard to remember who ruled Norway when, exactly. Norway has not been independent very often in its history. “Norwegian” remains a strong ancestral identity in the Upper-Midwest USA (the birthplace of two of my own great-grandparents), yet it’s odd to think that it was not quite independent when most Norwegians emigrated to the USA. In 1905 it finally got independence.

    • Hail says:

      A more serious point, more an addendum to the OP: The purpose of this post is not to just some quaint academic point (well, sort of it is): “Those lovable Scandihoovians, they make cool houses!” may be true, but what I find particularly interesting is that Swedish building design (the log cabin) came to take over American frontier building design.

      So many people forget that Swedes formed a part of what is called American Colonial Stock. (5-10% of the Mid-Atlantic colonies’ ancestral-stock in 1776).

      In time, the log cabin came to take-over American culture, in a certain way. Consider that part of the mythology — the “mystique” one might say — of Lincoln is that he was born in a log cabin. A European may interpret such a fact to be an insult to Lincoln, casting him as a country-bumpkin. Of course, anyone who does think such a thing has swung and missed badly. (Apologies for another Americanist reference, to baseball). Yes, it is the precise opposite: We consider association with a log cabin as in Lincoln’s case to be a sign of true-blue Americanism, something “folk-heroic” even, like the Norwegian sailor or the French wine-grower, or the attitudes the Romantic intellectuals had to their peasantries, the idolization the Grimms’ had of the rather simple stories told by farmers.

      Note on Lincoln discussion: I believe Andrew Jackson capitalized on the same power 30 years earlier, as the “first president born in a log cabin”.

  2. john mccay says:

    the spainish preist who came across the mississippi (from the west ) wrote that the native americans lived in houses built of logs ,this was in the early 1500s ,log cabins ( houses ) were not built in europe until late 1500s the preist also wrote they had roads with bridges ,this is not an argument it’s just interesting .

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