The American log cabin: a symbol of a lost Eden when life was tough but the people tougher. A poignant reminder of the strength of the human will to colonize new lands and how through hard work a man could elevate himself. However, if you believe this, then you are not alone in believing the ‘myth of the log cabin.’ Indeed, in 1939, according to a book by Harold Shurtleff  “Nine out of ten Americans firmly believe that all Colonial pioneers lived in log cabins.” But the simple fact is, this was not true. Shurtleff was one of the first people to research the subject, and he concluded that outside of New Sweden, Delaware, at the time of the first pioneers log cabins were rarer than hens’ teeth. In fact, the myth of the log cabin as a symbol of the American pioneering spirit is an example of 19th-century spin…but more of this later.
The truth is Swedish settlers to the New World, brought their traditional log homes with them. It was in Swedish settlements that log cabins appeared, as we know from contemporary 1662 court records which describe “loged hows”. Then, in 1679, a Dutch visitor to what’s now New Jersey, observed during his stay “[houses built] according to the Swedish style…entire trees split down the middle…placed in a square upon each other.” Those first log cabins were associated with Swedish settlements, and with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants, they saw the style and considered them native to America. It’s also interesting to note that those early log cabins were never meant to endure. It was expected that once the first harvest was in, the log cabin would be demolished and replaced with a stone-built house. So a log cabin was not aspirational, in the same way as a stone house. Indeed, James Fenimore Cooper wrote that a settlement was only considered permanent once the cabins were replaced by stone houses. So where did the myth of the log cabin come from? The answer is down to some 19th-century spin.
In the 1840s, William Henry Harrison ran for president. His political opponents hit upon his humble roots as a means to discredit him and mocked him for having lived in a log cabin. Their intention was to make Harrison appear coarse and uneducated, but they underestimated their opponent. Harrison, rather than deny his roots decided to embrace them. He used the log cabin (amongst other things, such as plows) to symbolize the honesty of hard work and firmly positioned himself as a man of the people who understood their concerns. As one of Harrison’s supporters wrote: “I was not myself born in a log cabin….at the close of the Revolutionary War…my father erected …this humble cabin amid the snow-drifts of New England…strove by honest labor to acquire the means for giving to his children a better education and elevating them to a higher condition than his own.” It was a master stroke of spin that was taken to heart. Less than two years later, log cabins began to appear in American literature to represent the pioneering spirit, and so a myth was born.
But who knows, if you believe something hard enough it becomes self-fulfilling. A classic case is that of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. He was indeed born in a one-room log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm, Kentucky. When the president was assassinated in 1865, the log cabin again became symbolic as a sign of lost innocence. So much so, that a structure said to be “Lincoln’s birthplace” was a great attraction as it toured around the country from fair to fair. However, at best this cabin was three times removed from the original, because of the transitory nature of these buildings. What’s far more likely is the original log cabin was demolished, not long after Lincoln’s birth, and perhaps pieces of it were used to construct neighboring cabins. But again, these were never intended as permanent buildings and were likely reused again and again until the original materials were hopelessly dispersed.
And finally, for the pedants amongst you, did you know the difference between a log cabin and a log house?
A log cabin is a one or two-roomed building, perhaps with an unfinished loft. The walls are made from unhewn logs, with no windows, and no chimney. In contrast, a log house is larger, with multiple rooms, a loft, windows, a chimney, and a shingle roof. It’s an interesting thought, perhaps the myth of the log cabin should actually be the myth of the log house!
The Log Cabin Myth. Harold Shurtleff. Harvard University Press
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace. National Park Service
The Making of Home. Judith Flanders. Atlantic Books, London.