After months sleeping in or beside a covered wagon, settlers could hardly wait to build a new, permanent home. They usually chose a location where there was plenty of timber and built a log cabin, although in the lack of this they used sod, which involved altogether different skills.
A settler’s log cabin was definitely a ‘no frills’ home. It consisted of one room in which everyone slept, and also sat when the weather was inclement.
The first task was to fell trees for logs and then haul them to the site, which could take quite a long time. Then the plan area of the house was paced out, and on two opposite sides, a shallow hollow was dug. Into these hollows were rolled two big, strong logs called sills. Then two more logs were brought so as to complete the square, and notches were made at the ends of these, down-facing, to fit into up-facing notches that were made in the sills.
The walls of the house were built up, one layer of logs at a time, with up-facing and down-facing notches on the end of each log. It was possible for a man to do the first three layers, and then his wife or son might help him or he could use skids (timber slides for pushing the logs up rather than lifting them), but sooner or later it was a matter for two strong men.
Once the walls were done, a door and one or more windows were cut through the logs with an axe and their frames lined with thin slabs laid against the cut ends of the logs. The family would now be safe against wolves, but not against the weather.
As a temporary measure, the wagon cover could be used as a roof, fastened down over a skeleton of sapling rafters. This would keep out all but the worst of weather, but it wouldn’t keep out the cold. For a permanent roof, logs were split into boards and these boards were fastened – nailed for speed and convenience – to the rafters, working from the bottom towards the apex of the roof, each board lapping over the one below.
The door was made with split logs, held together by wooden pegs driven into holes drilled by an auger. They often had leather hinges. Windows were commonly covered with oiled paper, at least until the family was feeling extravagant and put in glass.
Now the weather was excluded and a fireplace could be built. The usual materials were rocks and mud, but part of it might be done with stick-and-daub. The important part was the mud, which made it fireproof. The chimney was built on the outside of a closed wall of the house, a fireplace then being cut through the log wall in the same way as the windows and door had been done.
The floor was made from split logs laid so that they made a flat surface and carefully smoothed with an axe so that there were no splinters. This was called a puncheon floor. Around the fireplace a space of bare earth was left so that sparks from the fire wouldn’t set light to the wood.
It was vital that the settler’s family be sheltered and safe, but their livestock – the horses that had pulled their wagon and which would now pull a plough, and a cow if they acquired one – needed housing as well. So alongside the main log cabin there was often a smaller one, equally stout, for the animals.