” Americans want to hear no evil and watch no evil so far as log cabins are concerned ,” proclaimed historian C.A. Weslager in 1969.
That likely strikes some people as odd. The log cabin, that beloved American icon, is above reproach, right? It’s the humble, honest abode of American greats like Abe Lincoln. It’s the revered home of brave innovators like Daniel Boone, a romantic retreat for harried urbanites, the quintessential escape for blocked the authors and a rustic backdrop for fashion shoots featuring lumbersexuals and innovator women living like yesteryear–this is all great, right? What, pray tell, could be “evil” about the log cabin? Well,( setting aside the moralistic undercurrents 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 that’s also part of its beauty, that’s what builds it the ultimate American icon.
One thing to know right off: Log cabins weren’t 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 principally 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 rejected, be characterized as “miserable” and “wretched.” And the people within said cabins weren’t beloved, either. Benjamin Franklin spoke for an entire generation when he told his grandson that there are” two kinds of people “:” Those who are well dress’d and live comfortably in good homes … who are respected for their virtue .” And then,” The other kind … 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-1 820 s, 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 ego. Though independent for decades, Americans still compared themselves to sophisticated England, and it took a minute before Americans espoused what attained 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 America’s westward expansion, thanks in large proportion to Romantic artists: Author James Fenimore Cooper stimulated the cabin quite catalytic in his 1823 novel The Pioneer , and artists like Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Jasper Francis Cropsey did the same in oil paintings that illustrated cheery frontier households living in optimistic cabins.
Where Franklin and others dissed the cabin , now American leaders were praising it, as in famed orator Dr. Daniel Drake’s 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] rapidly released from the requisitions of the society he left behind .” The log cabin was now portrayed as essential to America’s institution-breaking modus operandi. But more than that, the log cabin was increasingly presented as a proxy for a person’s character, especially after the 1840 election that saw wealthy William Henry Harrison operate as the” log cabin candidate ,” situate the stage for Abraham Lincoln’s 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 expended about one third part of their own lives in a log cabin ,” blared one of Lincoln’s 1860 campaign biographies, dismissing the truth: prototype Harrison didn’t live in a log cabin; that was a marketing gimmick. And, like all gimmicks, it overshadowed the truth: The cabin, bringer of freedom for white men, was also a tool of oppression.
You ensure, while newcomers to the New World watched the log cabin as key to freedom, it was nothing but repression for the “othered” others. Take, for example, American indian. The cabin to them didn’t represent liberty, as it did for Dr. Drake and other white men. Instead, it a harbinger of white incursion, a symptom of foreign intrusion. 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'” huts, and even became a part of what George Washington’s administration described as” durable tranquility :” a policy in which native customs were supplanted with American styles.( As early as 1745, Cherokee Chief Skiagunsta remarked that his people were abruptly 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 isn’t a route to break through institutions, as Drake suggested; it was an institution, one of oppression–and so too was it elsewhere, on plantations.
Just as cabins were international instruments by which whites maintained control over Indians, so too did they maintain millions of black people” in their place .” And these weren’t tight and tidy cabins, like the ones Cole and other Romantics painted with such flourish. These slave cabins were crumbling, crusty, and mobbed 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 illumination, and also the cold, chilly air of winter. There was a doorway to the cabin–that is, something that was called a doorway[ but] it was too small … In addition to these openings there was, in the lower right-hand corner of the room, the &# x27; cat-hole &# x27 ;… 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 style for white men to keep black people under their thumb. These aren’t 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 cabin’s titular dark side. There’s also the environmental damage operated by the log cabin. Well , not by the log cabin–an inanimate object, the log cabin couldn’t do actual damage–but the facilitating structure was more often than not accompanied by ecological destruction.
Alexis de Tocqueville offered this general description of frontier cabins’ surroundings in 1831:” Cut branches encompass the tracks, trunks, half charred by fire or mutilated by the axe, still stand along our way.[ We] come to a timber in which all the trees seem suddenly to have succumbed … Beyond this field, we ensure … the owner’s cabin .” And the same “wretched” scene was replayed on a greater scale when lumber, mining, and oil companies adopted log cabin 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 inexpensive and dependable HQ for companies mining the nation’s resources.( Not incidentally, and quite ironically, the wealth extracted during this era fed a new generation of ultra-rich millionaires who construct massive “log cabin” country homes, which inspired poor person born in log cabin to strive to achieve log cabin manors; people wanted to go from one log cabin to another: a logs-to-luxury mindset born from the nation’s great–and relatively rare –” rags-to-riches” myth .)
Of course, all of these unsavory details were willfully overlooked when American historians began hyping the cabin anew in the 1860 s and beyond, when industrialism and the Civil War spawned a desperate pushing by historians to concoct and perpetuate a unified and cohesive national narration. Even the most respected and influential historians erroneously place log cabins in America’s earliest days, acting as if the English settlers devised it and used the cabin to create the great nation. Esteemed historian John Palfrey asserted in 1860 that Jamestown’s colonists” stimulated 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 assert about Massachusetts in 1883. And David B. Scott, illustrator of children’s histories, placed log cabin 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 tales they heard growing up were true.
But even after long-held cabin myths were debunked in books like Harold R. Shurtleff’s seminal 1939 work The Log Cabin Myth and C.A. Weslager’s 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 children’s 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 prospect to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality .” Americans desperately wanted to–still want to–believe that the log cabin has been around since our very beginning, because such a scant start constructed the nation’s improbable rise even more impressive. The juxtaposition between dreary log cabin and shining city upon a mound was too grand to resist.
Now , none of this is meant to diminish or humiliate the log cabin. And America’s ascension is impressive–unprecedented even–and 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 dismiss. Our nation would never have grown to such great heights without the log cabin, but it wasn’t 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 cabin’s role therein, dedicates us a fuller understanding not only of the apparently 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 traits–grit, determination, and adaptability–the structure also exemplifies some of the nation’s more negative characteristics: persistent discrimination, racial entitlement, and ecological ravage. The log cabin was essential in building the nation grow, but it worked plenty of devastation along the way.
The log cabin is in this style the most comprehensive of all American icons. It personifies the good and bad of our nation. In one scenario it offered endless possibility, in another it was, simply, the end. Held one style, it’s symbolic of the nation’s perseverance and can-do spirit; held another, it’s a reminder of the racial and ethnic violence that cleared the route for European settlers. And all these slants, good and bad, required to shaping our nation’s 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 we’ve written, or to continue recurring hideous mistakes of the past, passing problems onto revisionists of tomorrow?
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