A Wooden World

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A Wooden World


Axmen. European immigrants quickly realized that their lifestyles did not always prepare them for the wilderness. They had to adapt to the new environment in order to survive. The basic rudiments of life and society had to be constructed out of the materials of the wilderness. The ax was the most important tool for the first settlers and those who, as time passed, moved with the frontier. Made of iron fitted to a hickory or ash handle, the ax cleared the forest for planting, cut rails for fencing, split logs for the fireplace, and cleared the way for roads. Road building was often nothing more than cutting a path through the forest. In time it involved the use of surveying instruments, teams of oxen to drag away fallen trees, gunpowder to split boulders, and crushed rock to lay a roadbed. In low-lying areas logs lashed together with hemp formed causeways over bogs and bridges over streams.

Native Knowledge. Road builders often followed paths used for centuries by the Indians. In fact settlers learned a great deal from their predecessors. Trappers without proper iron traps could still catch beaver, martins, and mink using the culheag, or log trap. The trapper made the culheag out of two logs joined at one end but open at the other, one propped on top in scissorlike fashion. The top log was propped up with a stick that rested on another rounded stick that lay perpendicular to it. The trapper attached bait of raw meat to the rounded

stick. The animal tugged at the bait on the rounded stick, which collapsed the raised log, thus crushing the animals head. Colonists learned from the natives that the softest leather came from soaking deerskin in a mixture of animal brains and fat. Indians taught the settlers fishing, farming, and medical techniques. Hunters rarely got lost in northern forests once they learned from Indians that moss grows on the north side of trees away from direct sunlight. Cooks learned how to make hominy, succotash, and upaquontop, a stew made from hominy and fish heads. Farmers learned to plant maize. The easiest way to travel in early America was by water. Explorers of New England and New France learned from Indians how to build light but sturdy bark canoes and pettiaugers, made by burning and scraping out logs to form buoyant shells. During winter, when rivers were frozen and the snow was deep, snowshoes were a means of quickly traversing the landscape.

Forest of Bounty. The most used resource in early America was wood. Forests of elm, oak, pine, maple, cherry, birch, walnut, and ash provided the basic materials needed for shelter, warmth, transportation, and trade. Colonists used oak to produce staves for barrels to store and ship dry and wet goods. Black oak made excellent keels for ships. Some oaks produced an ingredient used to make writing ink. Carpenters fashioned elm into chairs and wagon wheels, walnut into gunstocks, and hemlock into floors. Ship carpenters used locust for trunnels (wooden pegs) and yellow pine for ship decks. Pine was the best source of naval stores (tar and turpentine). White pines, the tallest trees in the eastern forest, were cut, dragged to rivers, and then floated to shipyards where shipwrights used them to make masts for ships. Ash was the favorite wood for kitchen utensils and fence rails. Some families made beer from the black spruce. Colonists joined the Indians in preferring birch bark to the bark of other trees in the making of durable canoes.


The first explorers of the rivers of North America discovered early that the quickest way to get around was by canoe. The natives were experts at making these small, durable vessels. Some made canoes by alternately burning and scraping logs to form a buoyant shell in which two or three people could sit. But the best canoes by far were made of bark from the white birch. The white birch grows in northern climates. Its bark is like paper, can be peeled in long sheets, and is tough but flexible; one can even write on it. The skilled canoe builder felled the tree and then cut through the bark to the wood along the length of the tree. The bark easily peeled off, especially in summer months. The builder fit the bark around a frame made of cedar, spruce, or maple. Indian women used black spruce roots as thread to sew the bark onto the frame. The frame itself was wood bent into position after being softened in hot water. Thin strips of wood formed the internal floors and sides of the canoe. Gum from spruce trees mixed with animal fat and charcoal made a paste that, when applied generously, produced a watertight seal at the seams. Birch canoes were extremely light and fast in the water. Yet some canoes were over twenty feet in length, built to hold up to two dozen passengers.

Source: George Fichter, How to Build an Indian Canoe (New York: McKay, 1977).


Jeremy Belknap, History of New-Hampshire (Boston: Belknap & Young, 1792);

Brooke Hindle, ed., Americas Wooden Age: Aspects of Its Early Technology (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1975);

Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry (Cleveland: World, 1965).