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.