The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 3

March, 1940

Publications and Reports


The Log Cabin Myth: A Study of the Early Dwellings of the English Colonists in North America, by Harold R. Shurtleff (posthumously). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1939. $2.50.

Reviewed by Orin M. Bullock, Jr.

Dwellings erected by the first English colonists in America were described in a history of Dedham, Massachusetts, written in 1827, as "log houses"; and with that brief and fallacious description the log cabin myth appears to have been born. There followed the romantic popularization of the myth until 1857, when John Tyler, in his address at the 250th anniversary celebration at Jamestown, introduced it into Virginia. The imaginary conception was next fostered in the north and, in Mr. Shurtleff's words, "The ball was now kicked to the Puritans, who keep it briskly in play until well after the Civil War, when the Cavaliers recover it on a fumble and carry it down the field for a touchdown." Finally, the true character of the dwellings of the first settlers seemed lost entirely to historians and laymen alike.

This book, devoted to 17th century buildings alone, is available none too soon. The misconception of the type of habitation built by our forefathers gained widespread currency, particularly during the "log cabin campaign" of 1840 which resulted in the election of President Harrison, and was intensified by the romantic appeal of the log cabin beginnings of Abraham Lincoln. There was a growing tendency to project the log cabin form back into the period of the first settlers. So great has been the effect of careless research and romantic illustration that the myth still is current despite several historians' having published since 1927 some accurate descriptions of early dwellings.

The form and fashion of these dwellings have been taken at last from the realm of romanticism and hypothetical invention into the field of realism. The romantic appeal of their rude shelters, and our admiration for the genius and fortitude of our ancestors, gain rather than lose through our better understanding. Our broadened conception of history transforms into vital importance the question of the sort of houses in which pioneer Americans lived, for the cultural and social history of the nation may be traced in the construction of its dwelling houses.

The Log Cabin Myth, thoroughly documented for the student,is filled with detailed descriptions and illustrations for the restoration architect, and affords a starting point for further study of sociology as it relates to buildings. It is written in a style to delight lay readers and through it are many quotations from original sources which illustrate the immutability of human nature.

As a by-product or the principal theme, some light is thrown on other popular misconceptions. The wigwam of eastern Indians was not the conical structure many imagine it to have been, but was contrived in a form not unlike a covered wagon top. The tepee, shelter of the Plains Indian only, was conical. The steep roofs of early houses were not so built to shed snow (they were steep wherever the Englishman settled), but because their prototypes were roofed with thatch which must be laid at an acute angle to shed water properly.

Mr. Shurtleff was an architect, artist, philosopher and historian whose hobby, since Harvard student days, had been social history and the relation of manners, customs and folkways to political philosophy and the manifestations of art. His book is the fruitful outgrowth of his three interests: architecture, history and the history of ideas. As Director of the Research Department of the Williamsburg Restoration, he was confronted by the almost universal bias in favor of the log cabin type as the dwelling of the first English settlers, although able historians already had found convincing proof that there were no log cabins in the English settlements in America until the end of the 17th century. His history is confined to an examination of the type erected during that century, and makes no attempt to establish its design or to trace the spread of the log form from its source --- the Swedish settlements of the Delaware --- throughout the colonies in the 18th century. It is unfortunate that such a scholarly book should be forced into the role of a "debunker," for it is in fact a careful account of the beginnings of American architecture.

The Public Estate

No other country on earth possesses a park system comparable to our own in extent and variety, directed by the National Park Service. Lack of space, much higher density of population and, therefore, total absence of public lands made that impossible in the older countries. We were much more fortunately situated in all respects, but most fortunately so because our government set aside large and conspicuous tracts in time to save them from private exploitation and spoilation. Even now private and corporate cupidity greedily tries to reach into these illustrious reservations for loot and lucre, as may be witnessed in nearly every session of Congress. Owing to the lack of a federal control agency these evil forces have succeeded only too often. Theirs is an offense not merely against material values, but moreover against spiritual ones, against one of the finest cultural expressions by the American people, their Public Estate. --- Richard Lieber. From a lecture delivered at Wabash College.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002