Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-174
C.W. Jefferys' notes about this picture from The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Volume 2
This page is planned to show the changes in the shape of the axe from the European tool of the first settlers on this continent to the typical North American axe of the nineteenth century. Many of the early axes were of European manufacture, but apparently almost from the beginning those which were made for this continent were of a pattern somewhat different from most of those in use in the home lands. The type known as the trade axe or hatchet, probably originating in France, was introduced into Canada at an early date, and spread thence throughout North America. From it possibly has developed the special shape peculiar to this continent.
Its characteristic features are, first, the increasing projection of the poll or butt of the axe beyond the helve, to give added weight and power to its drive; second, the flattening of its upper border and the comparatively narrow flare of its blade in contrast to the European type and to the hewing or smoothing axe; and third, the substitution of a curving handle for the alrnost straight European handle.
Local blacksmiths soon began to modify the shape of the axes sent out, and to forge axes themselves, in accordance with their own ideas and the suggestions of their pioneer customers. Hence there were many variations of shape: the drawings illustrate the general tendency of the evolution of the axe in this country. These blacksmith axes were made by folding together the tapering ends of a block of iron, heated so as to be malleable. Into these ends was inserted a strip of steel for the blade, and the whole then welded together The middle portion, thick enough to provide for the projecting poll, was fitted over a handle pattern to form an oval or egg-shaped eye. The helves were generally made of hickory, or sometimes of white oak or ash.
It is impossible to fix precise dates for these changes; but we know that in the first half of the eighteenth century the St. Maurice Forges at Three Rivers were turning out axes. By the time of the founding of Halifax, 1749, the axe of this continent had acquired its peculiar characteristics. This we may infer from a letter of Governor Cornwallis, in which he states that such slow progress had been made in tree felling by his settlers with their European axes that he had employed Massachusetts men with their American axes as being more rapid and efficient.
Emigrants continued to brine with them European axes long after the North American implement had been developed. According to Canniff Old World axes were supplied by the British Government to the Loyalists and other early settlers. These were often of inferior quality, and their shape was unsuited to pioneer needs, being really short-handled ship axes, intended for quite different uses than chopping trees and clearing land. Even as late as the settlement of the Lake Simcoe region, according to an article in the Toronto Globe in 1885, "English axes with straight handles were used by the pioneers at Big Bay Point, and a Yankee pedler tried to persuade them of the superior usefulness of axes with crooked handles."
Not only was the shape of the European axe less suitable for the rapid felling of the huge trees of the North American forest: its steel was not tempered to the severe cold of the Canadian winter, when most of the chopping was done. A letter of Butler in 1781 speaking of the situation of the Niagara Loyalist settlers, says, "A Smith will be requisite for mending and making Plow Simcoe, in September, 1793, writes, Shares, Hoes and Axes. " 'Axes should be made of the best materials, and of the shape and size of the pattern sent. The axe will weigh rather more than 5 pounds. Particular attention must be given to tempering the steel, without which the axe will be of no value, as in the case of . Those made in America, though those already sent over. not so neatly fabricated, are of infinitely more value to the persons who use them. It is customary with the manufacturers in America to warrant the quality of the tools they make for 6 months, and to take back or replace those that are found insufficient. " The breaking of an axe was a tragedy to the settler isolated in the depths of the backwoods. In the letters and reports of George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1820-1821 we find several references to this subject: "Our English Hatchets are so badly tempered that they do not stand those of the severity of the Frost, are as brittle as Glass, ... those of Canadian manufacture are found to answer much better in this country." "The axes are of the worst materials and badly tempered, they should be manufactured of the best Swedish Iron and German Steel and tempered with great care... They are most required when the Thermometer is about 50 degrees below Zero.... The Indians are aware of their inferior quality and invariably reserve a few Skins to obtain a supply from the North West Coy. The small sized hatchets are too large and round in the Eye."
For sharpening the axe the grindstone was used in the settlements, or wherever its transportation was possible; but the isolated pioneer was dependent upon a small home-made whetstone when he was not within easy distance of a grindstone. In the Hudson's Bay Company's territory iron files were used for this purpose. The history of the evolution of the axe, especially in its relation to Canada, has yet to be written; but much useful information may be gathered from Ancient Carpenters' Tools, by H. C. Mercer, the Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, Pa. This contains many illustrations, and is the most complete work on the subject of American wood-working tools with which I am acquainted. Some excellent illustrations are to be found in Thoreau MacDonald's booklet, Some Tools of the Pioneers published by him in Toronto, 1936.
- Jefferys, Charles W. 1945 The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Volume 2, p.92
McLeod, Brett. American axe: celebrating the tool that shaped a continent.
North Adams, MA, Storey Publishing, 2020. 192 p. Illus.