Revisited Myth # 36: The first American settlers built log cabins.

log-cabin-in-grayson-highlands-state-park-virginia-va214

Perhaps Bill Bryson says it best (and most succinctly) in his book, At Home. “They didn’t. They didn’t know how.”

The original European colonists who settled in what became the thirteen American colonies were English. They settled in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early decades of the seventeenth century and later in other colonies. They built the sort of houses they knew from home: wooden frame houses or brick. Wood was plentiful in the colonies. Brick was not difficult to make.

(Even earlier than the English were the Spanish, who settled Florida in the 1500s. They did not build log cabins either.)

The first log cabins came with Scandinavian immigrants to the colony of New Sweden (around Delaware & New Jersey) in 1638. They built traditional Scandinavian-style homes like this one:

800px-Nothnagle_Log_House

Gradually the log cabin caught on with other ethnic groups and became the first house European settlers would build on the woodland frontier. (In the Great Plains region where there were few large trees, sod became the material used for the first house.)

7 Responses to Revisited Myth # 36: The first American settlers built log cabins.

  1. Ella Aderman says:

    Wow, so the settlers in PA & NJ don’t count, or aren’t considered part of the original 13 colonies? The 2 statements – “The original European colonists who settled in what became the thirteen American colonies were English.” and “The first log cabins came with Scandinavian immigrants to the colony of New Sweden (around Delaware & New Jersey) in 1638.” seem to contradict each other. Bill Bryson needs to visit PA, and learn about the variety of European settlers who came here initially (not “spreading” from MA or VA). There are plenty of early log houses here, and they were not just built by Scandinavian immigrants.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I didn’t intend the two statements to contradict. The original colonists [VA 1607 and MA 1620] were English and did not build log cabins. The first ones to build log cabins were Scandinavian who began coming later. Sorry for the confusion.

      • Ella Aderman says:

        Still confusing with your statements – “The first American settlers built log cabins.” and the log cabin…”became the first house European settlers would build on the woodland frontier.” You are saying these statements are both true when it makes a different when & where “first” is.

        I think many people believe in the idea of a lot of “early” Americans [anyone pre-1900 in some parts of the country] living in log cabins because they were a structure that could be built without a lot of tools, as long as there were a lot of trees available, and they were built for a long period of time in a lot of geographic areas. The real “myth” is that they stayed in houses with exposed logs without updating them when they could by covering the logs with clapboards and stucco/plaster, or adding more updated stone or brick additions, taking the focus away from the original log structures.

  2. Victoria L says:

    I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, VA. Arthur Allen was born in England and came to Virginia and first shows up in Jamestown ca 1630-40s. We tell our guests that initially he built a wooden frame house on his property, and then in 1660-65 had built what was then known as Arthur Allen’s Brick House. Unusual for the time and remote location, it boasted 5,300 of square footage when it was complete. The wood was sourced on the property, and it was estimated 7 brick kilns were on the property making the brick, which is 2 feet thick in the basement kitchen walls!

  3. Connie Buckner says:

    I enjoy your posts so much and look forward to them. I look forward to them.

    . Please continue your interesting debunked myths. Thank You.

  4. Gerald Ritter says:

    I have never seen a map or study of who arrived where by decade. The article is a bit lacking because it is so brief, but the point is worthwhile, even if the remark about spreading from Va and MA is dubious, at best.

    • Mary Miley says:

      You’re right, it’s a little unclear. I’ll modify that part about “spreading”. I meant settlement spread, not that the Virginians and Massachusetts folks moved.

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