The most notable type of frontier house east of the Mississippi River was the log cabin. Until the settlers crossed the Mississippi, they were surrounded by dense forests. In the 18th century, American pioneers often used the wood of the southern white cedar or pine to build their log cabins. Even in some places in the arid West, especially near the Rocky Mountains, they still built log cabins because pines, post oak, and aspen were common.
Frontier houses were built in all sizes and shapes. Logs for a cabin were hewn from whatever wood was available, with oak and pine being the favorite woods. With an earthen floor at first, and often with one side open to the breeze, it was gradually improved as the settlers were able. They might add split logs for floors; cover the roof with bark, thatch, or shingles; or build a log fireplace and chimney daubed with mud. As the mud filling the holes on the outside of the cabin dried, the settler would smooth and often whitewash it.
The log cabin could be built by one or two people with a heavy ax, a saw, an auger, and a good hunting knife. The walls followed a simple rectangular floor plan and were formed of rough logs laid horizontally, jointed at the corners, and chinked with wood slabs, mud, and sometimes moss as protection against the wind and rain. The roof was made of roughly hewn flat slabs of wood, either pitched or slanted. Usually the cabin had only one door on the south side, and was hinged with wooden pegs. Windows were often covered with greased paper, while no glass was available, with shutters being attached with wooden pegs. The floor was often made by beating down the earth on which the cabin stood, or it was made of the flat sides of halved logs, called puncheons.
Some cabins had a story-and-a-half, the half-story being used both as an attic and as a sleeping space for older children. Occasionally there were two-room cabins, built with a dog trot between them. The two rooms were built a few feet apart, with a roof over the empty space. Very rarely was three or more room cabin built. If people lived close enough, the raising of a log cabin was often a great social event. Log cabins were often built by neighbors in the community coming to help. The women would bake for days, game would be killed and salted down, and all would be gathered for a time of work-and-play that might last for several days.
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To build a log cabin of your own all you need is a few basic tools and some time on your hands. Choose, cut and haul the logs for the house to the house site. Pace off the size of the ground and then with a shovel dig a shallow little hollow along two sides of that space. Into the hollows, roll two of the biggest logs. These sills need to be sound and strong to hold up the house. Then choose two more strong big logs to roll onto the ends of the sills so that they make a hollow square. With an ax, cut a wide deep notch about 6-8” from the ends of these logs and on the ends of the sills, so that the two upper logs will fit into the notches of the sills and lay smooth on the ground. They need to be deep enough that they fit around half of the sill. When the notches are cut, roll the top logs into them, so that the notches fit down over the sill. The sills should be half buried in the ground and the logs on their ends should fit snugly to the ground. The notches should fit together so that they are no thicker than one log. To begin the walls, roll up a log from each side, notch its ends, and fit it down over the end logs. Then roll up logs from the end and notch them so they fit down over the side logs. When the house is three or four logs high, you’ll need some help. Lift one end of the log onto the wall and hold it, while a second person lifts the other end up. Stand on the wall and cut the notches, then roll and settle the log where it goes. Use hewed flat skids to get the higher logs up. Rest one end on the ground and the other on the wall. Roll the logs up the skids on to the wall. With two strong workers, a house can generally be built inside a week. When the walls are raised, set up a skeleton roof of slender poles. Cut a tall hole for a door on the south side, and widow holes on the east and west sides. Nail thin slabs of wood against the cut ends of the logs of the door and windows. A canvas tarp may be used for a temporary roof, or you can make a thatch roof. The strongest roof is made of wooden slabs. A puncheon floor and fireplace can be added later.
Since no log is ever perfectly straight and all logs are bigger at one end than the other, cracks are left between them all along the walls. The cracks are to be chinked when the house walls are finished. To chink the walls, drive thin strips of wood into the cracks and plaster them well with mud, filling every chink. The chinking keeps the wind and rain out.
With a saw, cut logs the right length for the door. Saw shorter logs for the cross pieces. With an ax, spit the logs into slabs and sand them smooth. Lay the longer pieces together on the ground and place the shorter pieces across them. With an auger, make holes through the cross pieces into the long slabs. Drive a wooden peg tightly into each hole. The door should be good strong solid oak. For hinges cut three long leather straps. One for the top, middle, and bottom. Lay a small piece of wood on the door, and drill a hole through it into the door. Double one end of the strap around the piece of wood and cut holes through the strap. Lay the piece of wood on the door again with the strap doubled around it, and all the holes making one hole. Drive a peg through the hole so that it goes through the strap, the wood, the strap again and into the door. Do the other two hinges in the same way. Set the door into the doorway. Peg strips of wood to the slabs on either side of the doorway, to keep the door from swinging outward. Fasten the hinges to the door frame.
To make a latch, hew a short thick piece of oak. On the middle of one side cut a wide deep notch. Peg this stick to the inside of the door, up and down and near the edge. Put the notched side against the door, so that it makes a slot. Then hew a longer smaller stick small enough to slip easily through the slot. Slide one end through the slot and peg the other end to the door, but not tightly. The peg should be solid and firm in the door, but the hole in the stick must be larger than the peg. The slot holds the stick on the door. The stick is the latch. It should turn easily on the peg and its loose end moves up and down in the slot. The loose end should be long enough to go through the slot and across the crack between the door and the wall. It will lie against the wall when the door is shut. Mark the spot on the wall where the end of the latch comes. Over that spot, peg to the wall a strong piece of oak, cut out at the top, so that the latch will drop between it and the wall. Make a latch string from a good long piece of leather. Tie one end to the latch, between the peg and the slot. Make a small hole through the door and thread the latch string through it. To lock the door, pull the latch string in.
For the roof, split logs into thin long slabs. Lay each slab across the ends of the sapling rafters. The edges should stick out beyond the wall. Nail or peg the slab to the rafters. The edge of each slab should lap over the edge of the slab below it. Go all the way up both sides till you have a small opening on the top of the roof. Make a trough of two slabs and nail it firmly upside down over the crack.
For the puncheon floor, split oak logs into halves. Lay them on the floor flat side up. With a spade dig a trench to fit the round side of the log into. Trim away the edge of the bark and cut the wood straight so that each log fits snuggly against the next, with hardly a crack between them. Sand smooth. Leave a space in front of the fireplace for a hearth. So the floor won’t burn.
To build a fireplace, mix clay and water to make a thick mud. Lay a row of rocks around three sides of the space for the fireplace on the outside wall. Make a square on the ground with three sides being rocks and the other side being the house wall. With a wooden paddle spread the mud over the rocks. Lay another row of rocks on top of the mud and plaster them all over the top and down on the inside with more mud. Build the rocks about 3 feet high and then lay a log close against the house walls. Plaster it all over with mud. Build up the rocks and mud on top of the log to make the chimney, making it smaller as you go. Build the chimney as high as the house wall with stones and then you can finish it with green saplings like the house was done. Plaster them well with mud. This is temporary. It will need to be finished with stones eventually as it could catch fire. Go in the house and cut a hole in the wall where the chimney is. Peg thick slabs of green oak against the cut ends of the logs. On the upper corners, peg chunks of oak to the wall and lay an oak slab for the mantle piece.
You may want to build a log cabin of your own for a hunting or vacation cabin, or possibly as an emergency shelter. You could also build this on a smaller scale for a dog house or even a bird house. I am in process of building a log chicken house. This is also a good project for home schoolers and can be linked to history or literature lessons. To build a log cabin of your own all you need is a few basic tools and some time on your hands. Choose pine, cedar, or oak logs as straight as possible. Cut the logs with a chainsaw or axe, and then haul the logs for the house to the house site on a trailer or wagon. Logs should be the appropriate length for the size house you want to build.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie, 1935. New York.