Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Ax
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.

But 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 crops.

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.

For 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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