Log Cabins

Log cabins represent a significant part of vernacular architectural history and settlement heritage in Mississippi. Some rural portions of Mississippi retained traditional log construction as the principal building method into the early twentieth century. The modern term log cabin is synonymous with the historic term log house. Historically, however, log cabins were small, crude, more temporary buildings or in some cases slave quarters, while log houses were usually the first permanent shelter built by settlers and were more neatly constructed and finished.

The log house has its origins in the Middle Atlantic region, particularly southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. The region’s first settlers, Swedes and Finns, began log construction in America. The Germans, Scots-Irish, and English who came to that area a little later added their own building traditions, and American log construction was born. As people migrated south and west, they took their log building tradition with them. In the Upland South, including northern Mississippi, it became a defining characteristic of the nineteenth-century architectural landscape.

While exact construction methods varied from community to community, some basics of assembly were common for most nineteenth-century log cabins. Starting with the foundation, the simplest example began simply with log sills left flat on the ground or a single course of flat stones. This type of foundation meant that the cabin had a dirt floor. Better log cabins were raised on sills, either with wooden blocks or stone piers, and had wood flooring laid on joists. The best foundations were of continuous masonry. Cabins with wood flooring usually had puncheon floors—long, thick slabs of wood hewn roughly to an even surface. Later in the nineteenth century, as sawmills became more prevalent, floors were sawn or planed.

The walls of log cabins were constructed by horizontally stacking hewn logs and joining them at the corners using one of several notching techniques. In general, preferred notching methods were half-dovetail, V-notch, or saddle notch, but in some cases full dovetailing, diamond notching, or square notching was employed. Any spaces between the logs were chinked with short boards, rocks, straw, or rags. The fill was then covered with river clay or lime mortar plaster and smoothed. Later, siding could be added to cover the exposed logs and give the house a more finished look.

Interior walls of the log cabin could be finished in several ways. Some interior walls left the hewn logs exposed; others were whitewashed or painted. More prosperous owners had interior walls plastered over or covered with vertical boards, paneling, or wallpaper. These improved surfaces would have been reserved for the more formal rooms.

Log houses had several different forms. Settlers frequently started by building a single-pen or one-room house and then added on to it over time as their means improved. The single-pen is a square or rectangular building with a side gable roof and an exterior gable-end chimney; historically, they were one story or one and a half story. The latter had an enclosed interior staircase leading to a sleeping loft. Rectangular single-pens that followed the hall-parlor plan had a partition wall that divided the structure into two rooms of unequal size. The hall was the larger of the two rooms and the center of familial activities. The head of the household often slept in the hall, and the parlor was reserved as a more private area.

As families expanded, they added on to single-pen houses, typically, though not always, one room at a time. Multiroom houses could take several forms, including the double-pen, saddlebag, dogtrot, central passage, and I-house. The saddlebag form had a room added to the chimney side of the original pen, resulting in a central chimney flanked by two rooms. If the second room was added to a wall without a chimney, the result was a double-pen. Both forms frequently had dual entries because of the difficulty of cutting into existing log walls. The pens could be of different sizes and could be one or two stories high.

Log cabins lost their dominance in rural Mississippi by the turn of the twentieth century. Many extant examples are hidden on the modern landscape by siding, plaster, new roofs, and other exterior features. They can be recognized by their thick window and door openings, large stone chimneys, and small upstairs windows.

Further Reading

  • Terry G. Jordan, Texas Log Buildings: A Folk Architecture (1982)
  • Fred B. Kniffen, in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, ed. Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (1986)
  • William J. Macintire, The Pioneer Log House in Kentucky (1998)
  • John Morgan, The Log House in East Tennessee (1990)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Log Cabins
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 25, 2018