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Development of the American Axe - Part 2 - The Hudson's Bay Axe

Development of the American Axe - Part 2 - The Hudson's Bay Axe

When we went on canoe trips in Minnesota's Boundary Waters one of the things our outfitter (Sawbill Canoe Outfitters) put into our packs was a Hudson's Bay axe. This axe was a familiar tool for all the voyageurs, trappers, hunters, and later recreational canoeists heading into the North woods. This axe could also be considered the "missing link" between the poll axe used to fell trees in our hardwood forests and the poll-less trade axe  in use in the Americas since the 1600s.

Hudson Bay axes are known by their roughly 2-pound weight, tear drop shaped eye, flat poll and swept back design.  These axes were usually hung on a 20"- 28" handle.  Earlier trade axes had no poll as the metal was wrapped around the handle.

They get their name from the Hudson's Bay Company which dominated the fur trade in the Americas almost from the time it received its royal charter in 1670 until the trade subsided in the late 1800s.

Crest of the Hudson's Bay Co - Pro Pelle Cutem = "Skin For Leather"

These axes were used not only by the voyageurs themselves when plying their trade in the North Woods, but also as traded with the Native Americans for beaver furs to make hats for the well-heeled in Europe.

The popularity of the Hudson Bay pattern continued even as the fur trade died out. Companies such as Norlund, Snow & Nealley (the axe in the pictures above), and Collins all made a version of the Hudson's Bay axe.

 

Next we'll explore the evolution of the American felling axe  . . .

Peter McLaren - America's Champion Chopper

Peter McLaren - America's Champion Chopper

A good case can be made that Australian Peter McLaren (1882-1953) is the father of axe competitions in the United States.  He was also a celebrity spokesman for Plumb axes – especially the “Champion Axe” - and author of the much referred to Axe Manual of Peter McLaren.  Heck, he even had a children’s book written about him in 1988, The Sky Between The Trees.  What made McLaren the LeBron James of the chopping world?

McLaren began competing at 16 and won his first championships in Dyalesford, Victoria in April 1906 (cutting a 20” log in 2:12) and another in November that same year in Perth, West Australia.

 

His love affair with America started a few years later.  The first notice we can find of his travels to the U.S. is in the February 6, 1912 edition of the West Gippsland Gazette (Warrugal, Victoria).  The speed at which McLaren and his countryman Harry Jackson chopped through logs at a Denver exhibition in November 1911 gave rise to claims that the logs were “prepared.”  Of course, the Aussies would not take this affront to their honor lying down.

“Assistant City Forester Lederer took up the matter and designated a tall cottonwood in front of the residence of Hans Nelson, at 259 Race Street. It grew in the park between the sidewalk and the street.  News of the chopping exhibition spread, and a large crowd was on hand at 9 o'clock this morning when Jackson and McLaren went to the place. The men took one glance at the tree, threw off their coats and collars, and took up their axes. They told the crowd where the trunk would fall and then went to work. Before the spectators were able to get a look at the axemen, the tree cracked, toppled and then fell into the street at a point six inches from the spot the choppers designated. Then the men went to work upon the trunk and cut it into sections. They averaged 1min 40 sec for every cut they made through the thickest part of the trunk. The crowd was still gasping in wonder when they put on their coats, climbed into a taxi cab and hurried away."

The 1920’s saw McLaren continue to travel to the United States, put on chopping exhibitions, and start his relationship with Plumb.  The Fayette R. Plumb company of Philadelphia had been making axes and other tools since the 1880’s.  According to McLaren, Plumb axes were predominantly used in Australian chopping competitions.  It makes sense that he became their spokesman in the U.S.

A February 1929 ad for Plumb axes in Boys’ Life details McLaren’s chopping feats at events in North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Missouri.  It also touts his prowess at axe throwing:  he split a wood chip using a small scout axe (Plumb brand of course!) from 42’ away.

It was also about this time that McLaren wrote what is still used today as a resource for axe aficionados:  The Axe Manual of Peter McLaren – America’s Champion Chopper.  This short book published in 1929 by Plumb (parts of which are available online).

It covers such subjects as how to sharpen and care for your axe, how to fell a tree, and put on chopping contests.

McLaren’s barnstorming of America continued into the 1930’s.  Examples of these events can be found in newspaper articles from Skanateles, NY in November 1936 and North Creek, NY in August 1938 in which McLaren offered a prize of $50 if he could not chop through a log in 2/3 of his competitor’s best time.  His only stipulation was that they not have an “unfair advantage” by using a Plumb axe.  What a good company man!

His association with Plumb naturally led to him having his own axe.  Plumb’s “Champion Axe” with what most believe is McLaren’s relief on the blade was introduced in the 1920’s and produced into the early 1940’s.

Plumb’s Champion Axe was advertised for “expert choppers” although it was not made specifically for competitions.  It does though bear quite a resemblance to today’s racing axes sold by makers such as New Zealand’s Tuatahi.

Peter McLaren died in Australia at the age of 71 in November 1953 but his legacy lives on in today’s collegiate and professional woodsmen’s competitions and in the knowledge passed down through his Manual which is still used as a reference.

 

 

Development of the American Axe - Part 1

Development of the American Axe - Part 1

The Biscayne Axe

When John Smith landed at Jamestown in 1607 he found Indians with axes – iron axes.  Say what?  Since the Native Americans did not make iron tools these had to come from somewhere.  And that somewhere was first Spain then France.


European axes were first traded to the Native Americans by the Spanish.   In 1540 when Hernando DeSoto led his expedition through the American Southeast he came upon a settlement where he found “Biscayan iron axes.” These were thought to have been brought by an earlier Spanish expedition to South Carolina in 1526.


A “Biscayne axe” is more hatchet than axe.  It weighed about 1 lb. or less having a round or egg-shaped eye, no poll, and a short handle.  The handles were usually a simple rounded sapling or branch that would fit through the eye.

They were referred to as “Biscayne” axes as they were made from iron mined in the Bay of Biscay region of Spain and France.

The Spanish traders brought these axes first into the American Southeast.  They made their way to the Northeast via Basque and French fishing fleets visiting Newfoundland beginning in the mid-1500’s. 

These “axes” were made entirely for trade.  There was no use for these small hatchets in Europe.  They were too small for felling or splitting.  So what did the Native American use the trade axe for?

The Biscayne axes could have been used to cut and trim saplings to make wigwams and other bark covered structures.  Of course, they could also be used as a weapon.  We know how important the Biscayne axes were to the Native Americans because these axes were often found at burial sites. 

The Biscayne trade axe would soon morph into the Hudson’s Bay style axe - a style still produced today, but that is our next story.

For more on the Biscayne axe (and much more) see Mark Miller’s excellent website Fur Trade Tomahawks.

A peek into how these tools were made can be glimpsed by watching Montreal blacksmith Mathieu Collette make a Biscayne axe.

Forging of a Biscayne Trade Axe from Dan Nyborg on Vimeo.