Log Architecture on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Brown's Ferry Tavern, Hamilton County, TN

Brown’s Ferry Tavern, Hamilton County, TN

In my last blog post, 175 Years Later: Documenting the Historic Buildings of the Trail of Tears, I introduced an exciting new project that the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) is working on in partnership with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service to survey buildings associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Arguably, some of the most iconic examples of early vernacular architecture located along the Trail are the hewn-log buildings that stand as testaments to the skill of the early craftsman who built them. Some are former Cherokee homes and mark the beginning of the Trail of Tears, while others were built by European-Americans and bore witness to the removal.

The Trail’s historic log structures are the result of a variety of log building techniques born from a “melting pot” of European influences but rooted in Scandinavian and German traditions. At a time when pioneers had little but natural resources at their disposal, building with logs was an ideal and efficient construction method. Trees that needed to be cleared from the land to make way for agricultural production could be turned into sturdy homes with minimal labor and tools.

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Born in Tennessee, Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, built this single-pen, hand-hewn log house in 1829 in present-day Sequoyah County, Oklahoma.

Although some of the first log homes in the present-day United States appeared in the Delaware River Valley in the 1630s, the tradition of log building quickly spread into the Southeast with the migration of pioneers into the frontier. According to Patricia Irvin Cooper, author of “Cabins and Deerskins: Log Building and the Charles Town Indian Trade,” deerskin traders in South Carolina introduced the Cherokee and other native peoples to log buildings. Soon, many Cherokee abandoned their traditional wattle-and-daub dwellings and replaced them with log homes. In 1838, some of the Cherokee carried their knowledge of log building techniques with them on the Trail of Tears and built their new homes in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) using hewn-logs.

Today, a number of log buildings survive along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. These buildings have endured on the landscape for over 175 years and represent a variety of different log house types. The most basic type consists of four log walls notched in the corners and is known as a single-pen (or single-crib when referring to agricultural buildings). These small houses typically measure 20 by 18 feet, rest on a stone pier foundation, and have a chimney on one of the gable ends. More complex log dwellings, such as the dogtrot or saddlebag, evolved from the single-pen house with the attachment of additional pens.

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An important feature of a log house is its corner notch, which locked the logs in place, thus ensuring the structure’s stability. The most commonly seen notch types on log buildings along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail are square (left), V (center), and half-dovetail (right).

Time has not always been kind to the log house. Many suffered from neglect, fire, and environmental threats over the years, leading to their destruction and collapse. The log buildings that remain along the Trail of Tears today represent only a fraction of how many were standing in 1838. These log buildings are not just tangible reminders of the Cherokee removal landscape, but are also important examples of the vernacular architecture of the American frontier and visual representations of the turning point in the traditional architectural practices of the Cherokee.

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The Wolf House in present-day Norfork, Arkansas, was built in 1829 and is an excellent example of a two-story dogtrot. It was the first permanent courthouse for Izard County in Arkansas Territory. Those traveling with Benge’s detachment would have seen this building on their way to Indian Territory.

To help owners become better stewards of this architectural heritage, the Center for Historic Preservation is partnering with the National Trails Intermountain Region of the National Park Service to develop a restoration guide for log buildings on the Trail of Tears. Scheduled to be available in early 2015, the guide will offer advice and solutions regarding the restoration and preservation of historic log structures by addressing common problems faced by homeowners and preservation professionals.

 (Originally posted on July 14, 2014 in the Southern Rambles blog)