Clearing the Forest

When the Europeans first came to the New World they encountered forests larger than any they had ever known. As the settlers pushed west it seemed that the forests would never end. When the Lincolns moved into southern Indiana in the early 19th century they found it "covered with heavy timber…three to four feet in diameter with trunks fifty to sixty feet high…" It was a land of boundless opportunities but also of endless challenges.

Among the first challenges that faced the pioneer was the clearing of the forested land for his new home. For this, the indispensable tool was the axe. The felling axe used by the American pioneer was a prime example of a tool that had been in existence for centuries, but was modified for the unique conditions of the frontier.

Unlike its European predecessor, the American axe had a heavy poll on the head opposite the blade that added weight, which made it more effective when swung to chop down a tree. Abraham Lincoln became especially skilled in the use of the felling axe. One of his companions stated, "If you heard him felling trees in a clearing, you would say there were three men at work."

The task of clearing the land of trees was difficult and many pioneers worked at it for years. According to one early settler, the "first clearing was done in a ‘hurry-up-and-get-in-a-crop’ style." Underbrush and trees under 18 or 20 inches were cut and piled around larger trees for burning. Sometimes larger trees were girdled, which consisted of cutting a ring through the bark of the tree. This cut the lifeline of the tree and led to its death. Walnut, hickory, elm, and beech never put out leaves again after being girdled while in full leaf, but hackberry and ash had to be piled around with brush and burned deeply. Some farmers set fire to the dead trees the following winter, otherwise the trees were simply left standing until they fell on their own. Dead beech and sugar maples would begin to fall about the third year, but oak, poplar, and walnut would stand for several years.

One aspect of the timber clearing process developed into an important social event for the pioneers as well. Once the trees had been chopped down, neighbors gathered together for the "log rolling" that was necessary to put the dead trees into piles for burning. Often they took advantage of the occasion to visit, eat and enjoy one another’s company. The children played and the women cooked and prepared the food. The men organized into teams and, armed with handspikes, which were tough, seasoned saplings about 6 feet long and 3 inches wide, proceeded to carry and drag the logs to the piles. Often contests would take place among the teams to determine which was faster or stronger. Sometimes the rivalry could be intense, although it was nearly always good-natured. Usually the "rolling" was concluded with a big dinner.

When the log piles were ready, they were set on fire. In some instances, these fires could be quite large and would burn for days. Often the pungent, eye-stinging smoke of the burning woodpiles permeated the settlements and would make any other work in the area impossible for a while. One Indiana pioneer later related his memories of log rolling in the 1820s: "It was a purty sight to see all them big piles of logs a burnin’, especially at night. Such a poppin’ and a crackin’ and a shootin’ of flames and sparks high in the air! The big fires would throw out so much light it would turn darkness into daylight. The heat and smoke would be so bad you couldn’t go near for a day or so. When the fires did die down enough, we went in with our handspikes and righted the heaps by pryin’ and pushin’ the logs together so they would keep burnin’. Log heaps would burn and smolder for several days. In fact, there was nearly always a burnin’ or smoldern’ log heap around a settler’s cabin when he was clearin’ land. It was a good place to get live coals if the fire went out in the fireplace."

Of course, clearing the land of the trees was not all that had to be done in order for pioneer agriculture to be successful. Often the early plowing was done around the stumps, which remained firmly in place despite the trees having been cut down. ventually, once they were old and dry, these stumps could be burned out. Also, once a section was cleared; it was necessary to start all over again on another. It was an ongoing task for the pioneer who wanted to carve a place for himself within the "Great American Forest." But, with characteristic determination, he accepted the challenge and was, ultimately, successful.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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