Nature Bulletin No. 640 May 6, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
John J. Duffy, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
The ax was one of the earliest tools used by man. It appears to have
been invented, independently, by many races. Stone axes were found
among relics of the prehistoric lake dwellers in Switzerland and the
Maoris of New Zealand. Copper or bronze axes were used by ancient
peoples in Asia, the British Isles and Central America. Until the white
men came, American Indians used stone axes and fire to fell trees and
fashion dugout canoes.
The European axes brought by our American colonists, and imported
for trade with the Indians, were heavy clumsy tools that had remained
virtually unchanged since Roman times. This ax had a square blade but
no poll or pounding surface above the eye for the handle, which was
straight and thick.
Sometime before 1750 -- nobody seems to know when, where or by
whom -- the American chopping ax was perfected. It was light,
weighing from 3 to 6 pounds, and perfectly balanced. The single bit (or
blade) ax had a poll, for utility as well as balance, and a slender,
cleverly curved handle. The double-bitted ax had two identical blades
and a straight slender handle with a knob at the end. The former is an
all-purpose tool. The latter is preferred by expert lumbermen. They
played a vital part in the history of these United States.
The pioneer settlers in this old Northwest Territory were woodsmen as
well as farmers. They had to be. Except for occasional openings, the
prairies of Illinois, and parts of Indiana and Michigan, the land was
covered with trees. From the Appalachians to the Mississippi there were
vast forests of virgin timber.
Many pioneers and their families came across the Pennsylvania
mountains to the Ohio river in heavily laden Conestoga wagons. Others
came through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, on foot and leading a
pack horse, with little more than a skillet, a kettle, a hoe, packets of
seeds, some bedding, and the clothes they wore.
no matter how they came nor how poor, every man had two
priceless possessions upon which their lives and livelihood depended: a
long rifle and an ax. He was, or became, amazingly skillful in the use of
both. The rifle furnished him with game for food and protection against
hostile Indians. With the ax he obtained materials for his home,
furnishings, implements and fuel. It enabled him to clear land and plant
A typical pioneer traveled through the wilderness until he found a
suitable homesite where he built a temporary shelter -- frequently an
"open-face" lean-to of poles covered with brush. Then he cleared the
brush and smaller trees from a patch of ground where he planted some
corn, potatoes and garden seeds. The big trees in this and subsequent
clearings were usually killed by "girdling" -- chopping a deep notch
around each trunk. Then those, too, had to be removed. Many were
dragged into piles and burned.
Crosscut saws were a rarity on the frontier. With only his chopping ax,
a man would fell huge trees six feet or more in diameter and cut them
into logs of desired lengths. Some, including those split into clapboards
for the roofs, were used to build a cabin and sheds. Oak and walnut logs
were split into rails for fences and a corn crib. Others were laboriously
fashioned into furniture and implements.
such purposes he had or acquired other tools. Especially a draw-
knife -- a two-handled blade for shaping and shaving anything from an
ax handle for a chair to an ox yoke or a wagon tongue. Also wedges, a
frow to "rive" clapboards, and a broadax -- with a long curved blade,
like a battle-ax -- for hewing logs and dressing planks.
The pioneer and his ax were mightier than the wilderness.
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Update: June 2012