Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Development of the American Felling Axe in Northern Maine, by Chingatchgook

I'm going to skip my usual ramblings today.   This is a fantastic article on the history of the axe in Northern Maine, my home, my father's home, my grandfather's home, my great grandfather's home, my great, great grandfather's home and my great, great, great grandfather's home.  It was written by our third Guest writer, Bernard Ten Bears Chingatchgook, best known as Chingatchgook.  I have known him well for many years.  We have breathed the same wood smoke and drank the same woodsman's tea. There are no finer things you can share with a man.

The Development of the American Felling Axe in Northern Maine, by Chingatchgook

It's hard to believe that recorded history can afford so many glimpses into the past about ancient axes. The felling axe has developed over many centuries and combines both European and genuine American characteristics. The ancients even record a miracle of a floating axe head in the book of 1st Kings in the Bible. The reference is to the prophet Elisha (a profit during the time of King Ahaziah) Elisha was in office from 853 B.C. to 855 B.C. The miracle is that of a borrowed axehead being lost, and then being made to float to the surface for recovery. It's a great story, and one of the first written accounts about a felling axe anywhere.

In Northern most Maine, the sagas only exist in the form of what was left by Native Americans. Though archaeology is in it's infancy here, in the town of Ashland, stone felling/chopping axes were being used as early as 3800-4000 years ago. There are examples of ground/pecked stone axes and gouges from the George Sawyer farm, which is beside the Aroostook River where the Big Machias enters the flow. The stone implements are now housed at the Nylander Museum in Caribou, they prove that there was some heavy cutting and crafting going on in Aroostook County many centuries ago.

 The natives of the Archaic period here in Maine ( 3000-9500 years ago) traveled in dugout canoes and the technology to make them was of ground stone tools and of fire. As time progressed into the ceramic/woodland era (3000-500 years ago) ground celts and chipped stone (chert) were used. The lighter axeheads, chisels, and scrapers were made by lithic reduction of chert instead of ground stone. They were much lighter and more easily made and used. These lighter and easier-to-make tools were intregal in the development and construction of the birch bark canoe. When the use of the heavy dugouts ended and the bark canoes came into existence the native's trade routes by waterway began to stretch many thousands of miles instead of many hundreds of miles.

Check out this link -

After the contact period (250-500 years ago), the French trappers and then Acadians began to do trading with the natives on a large scale. Here we find the introduction of the European trade axe, mostly purchased in Spain by the French. There is proof of this in an artifact find near Portage Lake. In the 1950's a local dug up two iron trade axes that were marked with crosses inside of circles, they are the only publicly know examples of this and have a very interesting history. They were found on "Indian Point" while someone was pulling stumps to clear land.
This article is from -  www.bangordaily

By Julia Bayly
Special to the NEWS
PORTAGE, Maine — Every object passing through a person’s hands has a story to tell.
Sometimes those stories are centuries in the making and take years to tell themselves. Just ask Jim Dumond and Antoine Gagnon of Portage whose story of trade between two nations and two hand-forged axes dates back to the mid-1600s.
The axes initially were discovered in the 1950s on a piece of land known locally as Indian Point on the banks of Portage Lake.
“My grandfather Fred Cliff was clearing some land in between two camps, and the fellow he hired to pull stumps turned over some dirt and there were these old iron axes,” Fred Edgecombe of Kure Beach, N.C., said during a phone interview Saturday.
Now retired, Edgecombe owns one of those camps and has one of the axes.
“In the late 1970s my cousin got the larger of the two axes and I got the smaller one, and we’ve been sitting on them ever since,” Edgecombe said. “Nobody had much of an interest in them and all of sudden, it’s like, ‘Wow, people are interested.’”
In fact, Dumond and Gagnon are very interested in the axes and what they represent.
Last summer the two men got a good look at the old tools and, thanks to some intensive research on the Internet, were able to match the symbols on the blades, indicating they had been crafted from iron ore mined in Spain around 1640.
“These trade axes are just awesome,” Gagnon said. “They looked like a metal hatchet, [and] on the sides were stamped a cross within a circle.”
According to Dumond and Gagnon, the trade axes — so called because French and British trappers and colonists traded them for furs with the area’s Native American residents — probably found their way to northern Maine thanks to the Acadians who came to Maine around that time.
Both men say they have Acadian and Native roots in their family genealogies and are fascinated by what the blades represent.
“They were found near what we have always called Indian Point,” Gagnon said. “This little peninsula juts out probably 50 to 100 feet and can’t be more than 20 to 25 feet wide.”
Dumond said the point’s topography and location made it an ideal summer home for the area’s Native American population.
“There is a kind of flat plateau there and there’s always a breeze so they could have a view up and down the lake to see who was coming and that breeze would keep the mosquitoes away,” Dumond said. “Plus, the natural current runs from the headwaters of the lake down to where it feeds into the Fish River, and that was important for transportation.”
In addition to the trade axes, Dumond and Gagnon said arrowheads and a pestle-type tool have been found on Indian Point.
“That must have been a really good place to trade with the Indians,” Gagnon said.
For Edgecombe, the axes represent more than trade; they signal a technical revolution for the tribes of northern Maine.
“It’s really fantastic when you think about it,” he said. “The thing about the native people who lived there before the white man was they had to do all the work, like cutting trees, with stone tools, and when the French came in to trade and brought iron axes it was like a 10-century advance for them.”
Gagnon, who serves as council historian for the local Wesget Sipu group, said the axes represent a tangible link between his Native forefathers and the early French Acadians.
“These blades could prove the Acadians were here earlier than anyone thought,” he said, “and that they moved up the Fish River watershed from the St. John Valley.”
Dumond and Gagnon hope to use that bit of information to convince organizers of the 2014 World Acadian Congress to include Portage in the international event.
Rick Somerville of Carmel, Edgecombe’s cousin, has the larger of the two blades and is equally captivated by the story and remembers being there the day the axes were uncovered.
“I remember my grandfather wanted to put in another garden and hired a man to clear the land,” Somerville said. “They were pulling stumps and there were the blades [and] my grandfather sharpened one of them to see if could still take an edge — and it did.”
In addition to the markings on the blades, Gagnon said their condition indicates the age of the tools.
“They are pitted and worn and were clearly hand-forged,” he said. “A lot of trade axes found in the woods are frauds, but you can tell these are the real things.”
That the axes were found just below the surface of the land on Indian Point makes Dumond and Gagnon wonder what else is lurking underground.
“Proof of the trade that went on between the Acadians and Indians is right under our noses,” Dumond said. “It makes perfect sense since Portage [Lake] is part of the Fish River chain, and they would have used that for transportation.”
To pay tribute to that transportation network, last year Dumond organized a re-enactment of the traditional land portage of canoes between Little Machias Lake and Portage Lake.
He and Gagnon hope to combine events such as that with objects such as the trade axes and highlight the town’s history.
“I would like to see people get a look at these axes,” Somerville said.
His cousin agrees.
“I would like to think something special could be done with them,” Edgecombe said. “I know other people in Portage Lake have found artifacts, and it would be nice to pull them all together and put them somewhere.”


Trade axes were made of a solid piece of iron wrapped around a forge mold leaving a hole for the handle. The hole for the handle was wider at the top than the bottom. A stick could be used for a handle, as long as it was wider at the top than the part you grasp. The advantages the trade axe had over stone was obvious, as there is no historical record of the Native Americans of the area using stone axes thereafter. The trade axe had no weight behind the pole and was not balanced well for handling, but was used for centuries this way. As always, necessity is the mother of invention, and some wise blacksmith decided that if there was a little weight behind the handle hole, opposite the cutting edge (counterweight), it would not only balance the axe out, it would give more momentum to the swing for chopping/cutting into the wood.

In Northern Aroostook the lumber industry drove the technologies and markets for wood in the area. By the 18th century there was a thriving trade in lumber and mast material in New England and especially in Maine (which was part of Massachusetts until 1820). The Stamp Act of 1765 was a major contributor to the discontentment of American colonist's with England's government, to the point of dumping tea in Boston Harbor.  Now, let me tell you about one cause of the Revolutionary war that not too many people know about. It has virtually been left from the history books (especially in local classrooms, which is a travesty).

The British, by the time of the Stamp Act, had enraged the American public with taxes. Many New Englanders would never have joined the war but for one thing, The Broad Arrow Policy. At this point the King not only wanted taxes, but also wanted to own the best of the lumbering trade itself (and we think socialist agenda is a new thing in America?). Europe had been deforested and England had the largest wooden navy on the Earth. When the British needed masts and lumber, they looked to the giant white pines of the colonies. The colonists had a booming trade in lumber and masts themselves, much of it with England. King George sent surveyors into the wilderness to find every white pine that was 24 inches through and straight and within 10 miles of navigable water to be emblazoned with the broad arrow - the sign of the British Navy. At this point, you could be fined and imprisoned for cutting it. Taxing someone, well...but stealing the entire trade that supports a geographic area?!
 Needless to say, the king and his men had overstepped their bounds. There was a "pine tree riot" recorded and an American flag bearing the White Pine tree is said to have been flown at the battle of Bunker Hill. Poor George?

Don't think for a moment that the colonists stopped cutting the pines. They would cut them and burn the stumps, so that they couldn't be measured, and then buck the trees log length, float them down the streams and saw them into boards 23 inches wide. They even went as far as to use planks up to 4 feet wide in the small atticways and back woodsheds where someone would have to make a major effort to get a look. New Englander's and especially Mainers are VERY independent.

Before the early 1900's Logging was a different affair than after the turn of the century. Draft horses had not been bred up to the sizes they are and even by the 1850's only oxen were used to yard wood to the streams. There were no crosscut saws before 1900 or so. The axemen held on that long and the White Pine required a special axe called a pine axe. It was narrow with a wide face and and the iron behind the pole was tapered. It looks similar to the competition chopping axes used in national and international lumberjack competitions.  Pine axes were hung with a straight handle, usually homemade right in the woods with a vice and a drawshave.

The favorite handle material of the Maine woodsman was/is ash or ironwood (hornbeam).  Here is an example of the reduction of a split piece of hornbeam as it would be taken down in stages to make a handle.

The iron of  the pine axe was wrapped around a forge tool to make a place for the handle and a steel ingot was pounded into the face and shaped into a cutting edge. The pine axe of Maine is little known and is the precursor of the american felling axe. The style of the american felling axe has a narrower, squarer face, a wider bit of iron behind the pole, and has a larger hole for the handle.  The handle of modern American felling axes is usually curved, unlike what was used with the Pine Axe.

Choppers would cut a notch and work in tandem to fell a tree and this went on until the introduction of crosscut saws, which were in existence, just not used in the Maine woods until a later period. The double bit axe was a latecomer here in Maine, though used extensively after the turn of the century (1900).

This is as brief as I get on any subject and I am open to interpretation and correction. Please post your comments with pride as you are interested in something that virtually everyone you meet today could care less about. I do hope it was interesting and entertaining.

In my family, I am the last born in my generation.



  1. Thanks for the fascinating information and pics! Great to see a third guest poster is now on board. :)


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