Americas Iconic Log Cabin Has a Dark and Dirty Side Too

Americans want to hear no evil and see no evil so far as log cabins are concerned, proclaimed historian C.A. Weslager in 1969.

That probably strikes some people as odd. The log cabin, that beloved American icon, is above reproach, right? Its the humble, honest abode of American greats like Abe Lincoln. Its the revered home of brave pioneers like Daniel Boone, a romantic retreat for harried urbanites, the quintessential escape for blocked writers and a rustic backdrop for fashion shoots featuring lumbersexuals and pioneer women living like yesteryearthis is all great, right? What, pray tell, could be evil about the log cabin? Well, (setting aside the moralistic undertones of the e-word), plenty.

The lionized log cabin is not as quaint as it appears. In fact, it has a very ugly, grotesque underbelly. But thats also part of its beauty, thats what makes it the ultimate American icon.

One thing to know right off: Log cabins werent always adored here in America. Originally brought over in 1638 by settlers of short-lived New Sweden, not Pilgrims or Puritans, the log cabin was spread across the American colonies primarily by German and Scots-Irish immigrants, mostly dirt-poor folk looking for new lives in the New World. Log cabins therefore spent most of their early existence here disdained and dismissed, described as miserable and wretched. And the people within said cabins werent beloved, either. Benjamin Franklin spoke for an entire generation when he told his grandson that there are two sorts of people: Those who are well dressd and live comfortably in good houses who are respected for their virtue. And then, The other sort poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious, and live in miserable cabins. In other words, log cabin living was not enviable and the people within were even less so. But that all changed around the late-1820s, when the United States started going through the national version of puberty.

It took the still-new nation a bit of time to find its post-colonial self. Though independent for decades, Americans still compared themselves to sophisticated England, and it took a minute before Americans embraced what made them special: their rustic country sides, the people therein, and their cabins, too. Once seen as miserable and bug-infested, the cabin was now portrayed as key to Americas westward expansion, thanks in large part to Romantic artists: Author James Fenimore Cooper made the cabin quite catalytic in his 1823 novel The Pioneers, and artists like Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Jasper Francis Cropsey did the same in oil paintings that depicted cheery frontier families living in optimistic cabins.

Where Franklin and others dissed the cabin, now American leaders were praising it, as in famed orator Dr. Daniel Drakes 1834 speech lauding the cabin as a launching pad to tomorrow: When an individual from the depths of a compressing population, builds his cabin in the West [he is] speedily released from the requisitions of the society he left behind. The log cabin was now portrayed as essential to Americas institution-breaking modus operandi. But more than that, the log cabin was increasingly presented as a proxy for a persons character, especially after the 1840 election that saw wealthy William Henry Harrison run as the log cabin candidate, setting the stage for Abraham Lincolns rustic White House run two decades later. In both cases, and many others, the log cabin was cited as evidence for a humble, honest background, of all-American honor and valor. Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin, blared one of Lincolns 1860 campaign biographies, ignoring the truth: prototype Harrison didnt live in a log cabin; that was a marketing gimmick. And, like all gimmicks, it obscured the truth: The cabin, bringer of freedom for white men, was also a tool of oppression.

You see, while newcomers to the New World saw the log cabin as key to freedom, it was nothing but repression for the othered others. Take, for example, American Indians. The cabin to them didnt represent freedom, as it did for Dr. Drake and other white men. Rather, it a harbinger of white incursion, a symptom of foreign invasion. The log cabin in this context is an outgrowth of Europeans gentrification of the New World. And this became especially true once white folk began supplanting traditional Indian housing with log cabins. Though log cabins were still sneered at by people like Benjamin Franklin, far too rough for any upstanding white person, they were still fine replacements for savages hovels, and even became a part of what George Washingtons administration described as durable tranquility: a policy in which native customs were supplanted with American ways. (As early as 1745, Cherokee Chief Skiagunsta remarked that his people were suddenly and involuntarily dependent on English overlords, My people cannot live independent of the English.) And so it would go for decades: the log cabin supplanting Indian traditions, right up through the Trail of Tears, at the end of which survivors were installed in log cabins and told to stay put on reservations. The log cabin here isnt a way to break through institutions, as Drake suggested; it was an institution, one of oppressionand so too was it elsewhere, on plantations.

Just as cabins were the instruments by which whites maintained control over Indians, so too did they keep millions of black people in their place. And these werent tight and tidy cabins, like the ones Cole and other Romantics painted with such flourish. These slave cabins were crumbling, crusty, and crowded crap shacks.

Booker T. Washington, the slave-turned-educator who established the Tuskegee Institute, describes his childhood cabin in his groundbreaking 1901 memoir, Up from Slavery: The cabin was without glass windows; it had only openings in the side which let in the light, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a door to the cabinthat is, something that was called a door [but] it was too small In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the 'cat-hole' a square opening, about seven by eight inches, provided for the purpose of letting the cat pass in and out of the house at will during the night. In the case of our particular cabin I could never understand the necessity for this convenience, since there were at least a half-dozen other places in the cabin that would have accommodated the cats. There was no wooden floor in our cabin, the naked earth being used as a floor.

Arranged in rows, with a central cabin for the white overseer, slave cabins were a way for white men to keep black people under their thumb. These arent the quaint cabins modern Americans flock to on weekends. These are overcrowded prisons, pure and simple.

But human suffering is only part of the log cabins titular dark side. Theres also the environmental damage wrought by the log cabin. Well, not by the log cabinan inanimate object, the log cabin couldnt do actual damagebut the facilitating structure was more often than not accompanied by ecological destruction.

Americans desperately wanted tostill want tobelieve that the log cabin has been around since our very beginning, because such a scant start made the nations improbable rise even more impressive.

Alexis de Tocqueville offered this general description of frontier cabins surroundings in 1831: Cut branches cover the paths, trunks, half charred by fire or mutilated by the axe, still stand along our way. [We] come to a wood in which all the trees seem suddenly to have perished Beyond this field, we see the owners cabin. And the same wretched scene was replayed on a larger scale when lumber, mining, and oil companies adopted log cabins as outposts for their increasingly far-flung conglomerates.

Just as the cabin was a cheap and reliable home for early immigrants and pioneers, so too was it a cheap and reliable HQ for companies mining the nations resources. (Not incidentally, and quite ironically, the wealth extracted during this era fed a new generation of ultra-rich millionaires who built massive log cabin country homes, which inspired poor people born in log cabins to strive to achieve log cabin mansions; people wanted to go from one log cabin to another: a logs-to-luxury mindset born from the nations greatand relatively rarerags-to-riches myth.)

Of course, all of these unsavory details were willfully overlooked when American historians began hyping the cabin anew in the 1860s and beyond, when industrialism and the Civil War spawned a desperate push by historians to concoct and perpetuate a unified and cohesive national narrative. Even the most respected and influential historians erroneously place log cabins in Americas earliest days, acting as if the English colonists invented it and used the cabin to create the great nation. Esteemed historian John Palfrey asserted in 1860 that Jamestowns colonists made themselves comfortable in log- houses, of construction similar to those which are still scen [sic] in new settlement; Edward Atwater insisted in 1881 that log cabins were in colonial New Haven. Yale bigwig Noah Porter made the same claim about Massachusetts in 1883. And David B. Scott, illustrator of childrens histories, placed log cabins on early Manhattan. Each and every one of them was wrong. Not that they can be blamed for perpetuating these apocrypha. They grew up saturated in log cabin-shaped propaganda. They had heard the log cabin legends for so long that they simply assumed all the stories they heard growing up were true.

But even after long-held cabin myths were debunked in books like Harold R. Shurtleffs seminal 1939 work The Log Cabin Myth and C.A. Weslagers 1969 The Log Cabin, Americans remained willfully and blissfully blind to the truth. Contemporary historians still pretend that log cabins were prevalent in colonial America: A 2006 childrens book that shall remain nameless came complete with anachronistic illustrations, guaranteeing a new generation a false history.

As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, Myths and legends die hard in America We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most mens reality. Americans desperately wanted tostill want tobelieve that the log cabin has been around since our very beginning, because such a scant start made the nations improbable rise even more impressive. The juxtaposition between dreary log cabin and shining city upon a hill was too grand to resist.

Now, none of this is meant to diminish or demean the log cabin. And Americas ascension is impressiveunprecedented evenand the log cabin without a doubt played an essential role in making that happen, but we must also acknowledge the ugly bits too many histories purposefully ignore. Our nation would never have grown to such great heights without the log cabin, but it wasnt because of Pilgrims and Puritans: It was unwanted immigrants who did the job. Nor is the log cabin the shining beacon we all imagine: the structure was a tool of cultural decimation, too.

Understanding and emphasizing these impugning aspects of American history, and the log cabins role therein, gives us a fuller understanding not only of the seemingly unimpeachable structure we so blindly love, but of the country itself. While the trials and tribulations log cabin-living on the frontier ingrained in Americans some great traitsgrit, determination, and adaptabilitythe structure also exemplifies some of the nations more negative characteristics: persistent discrimination, racial entitlement, and ecological ravaging. The log cabin was essential in making the nation grow, but it wrought plenty of devastation along the way.

The log cabin is in this way the most comprehensive of all American icons. It embodies the good and bad of our nation. In one scenario it offered endless opportunity, in another it was, simply, the end. Held one way, its symbolic of the nations tenacity and can-do spirit; held another, its a reminder of the racial and ethnic violence that cleared the way for European settlers. And all these angles, good and bad, are essential to shaping our nations future, too.As the nation navigates fresh layers of nativism and xenophobia, we must ask ourselves, do we want our nation to live up to the myths weve written, or to continue repeating hideous mistakes of the past, passing problems onto revisionists of tomorrow?

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