Biscayne Trade Axes: the earliest known metal axes in North America

As early as 1608, John Smith, of the English Jamestown settlement, discovered that some natives around coastal Virginia were already armed with French metal axes. The Tockwoghes, the tribe in possession of the axes, testified that they had obtained the implements from the Isquesahanocks. Smith visited this tribe also and was informed that their iron tools and weapons came from the quanahucke and the Massawomekes, of the Iroquois, who were direct touch with the French traders on “the river of Cannida.”

Belt axe excavated at Jamestown

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“The French Biscayne trade axes are the oldest style of metal axe we know of trade in North America . . . . Records show Biscay hatchets being traded to American Indians by the Spanish as early as 1520’s – 1540’s; the French from about 1560-1750’s; and the British from 1674-1690’s?” See https://www.furtradetomahawks.com/biscayne-trade-axes—9.html

One defining characteristic of these early trade axes is the oval, or ovalish, shape of the eye – which is where the wood haft is attached. Here, the eye is oval, but it’s been pounded flat on this end.

With the Spanish military came explorers and tradesmen. They learned quickly that knives, axes, and tools, basically anything metallic, had great value to the Native Americans. A stone age population was enthralled with the ease in which metal tools could make their life easier – from construction of wigwams, scraping hides for clothing and footwear, carving and cutting, making bowels and cooking utensils, hunting game, and in war. With a stash of ‘cheap’ and inexpensive implements and weapons on hand, Spanish tradesmen quickly discovered that they could garnish a wealth in furs and other goods highly profitable in Europe. Among these early explorers and traders’ supplies were large quantities of Biscayne iron axes. We know how important these early Biscayne axes were to the Native Americans because archeological digs often find them at burial sites.

A Biscayne axe was based on the European hatches similar in design to the early Franziska and Fokos of short handles which were worn at the belt. These Biscayne axes were mass produced entirely for trade in the New World. They weighed from one to two pounds with a round or egg-shaped eye (top of the blade into which the handle was fitted), short bit (opposite blade), no poll (opposite the blade edge) as the metal was wrapped around the handle, and, like the European models, a short handle. The iron used to make them was mined in the Bay of Biscay region of northern Spain and southwest France, hence the name.  The handles were usually a simple rounded sapling or branch that fitted through the eye. They first appeared throughout southern and southwest America, but by the mid 1500’s, had made their way all along the American coast and into the interior by way of Basque and French fishing fleets visiting Newfoundland. By the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, the Biscayne axes would morph into what was known as the Hudson Bay axe or French trade axe.

http://www.revolutionarywarjournal.com/tomahawks-and-hatches-part-2-of-3-trade-axes-of-america/

This perspective gives a better view of the eye shape. I guess you could say it’s “ovoid.” Oval, but slightly more narrow at one end.

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. 

https://www.bnctools.com/blogs/news/development-of-the-american-axe-part-1

This particular axe head was dug at Lake George, New York. It has a double cross type maker’s mark on it, known as the Cross of Lorraine. Supposedly these Double Cross marked axes were traded to the Indians in the early 1600’s, and are similar to the axes brought by Champlain to trade with the Hurons, prior to the Iroquois Massacre, 1615-1638. Another one I found online, sold by Cowan’s Auctions, measured 7″ x 1.5 x 3.25″.

I saw another one identical to this one, online here: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/jesuit-biscay-trade-axe-1575-1670-20711279 And here’s yet another, which was auctioned by Cowans:

https://www.cowanauctions.com/lot/french-trade-ax-ca-1600-double-cross-156586

Below is a chart from an old French book, provided by Canadian Heritage officials, to show marks on early French axes found in the Quebec area. They couldn’t confirm the identity or exact date of any of them, but noted that they could have been made in France, or in New France. The double cross mark is included at no. 2. No. 3 is, I believe, the mark from the next axe shown below, dug in upper New York State.

Here is an old Biscayne trade axe with a sticker noting that it came from (obviously dug) “upper NY.” It does have the remnants of a maker’s mark, which I believe is the most common one I’ve seen – no. 3 on the chart above.

This axe, dug somewhere in “upper New York,” is about an identical shape. It’s pitted so badly however, that it’s difficult to make out the maker’s mark. But you can tell there’s one on it, and it does appear to be the no. 3 mark.

A couple other old axes while we’re at it…. This is another interesting forged axe we found, with a flared blade. No marks, but there’s been others found of similar shape.

This interesting axe has marks on both sides. This is a similar pattern to the Biscayne axes, but it has a round eye, and an elongated blade. This is more of a “Missouri War Axe” pattern, but also has the same old general design – minus the oval eye. I’d love to know if anyone can ID the marks. I assume one is the maker, and one is the owner.

“MTC” on one side, upside down.

“IJL”? on the other side….

NOTE: I really appreciate the comments. Please feel free to comment, even if it is to debunk some misinformation I’ve provided. It wouldn’t be the first – nor the last time I’ve done that. I have it set for comments to be approved because there is an insane amount of spam comments, and it would fill up in a couple hours with links to all sorts of nonsense….. I believe that once you post once, you’re already preapproved for others?….

Edited to add on 10/11/19:

Here’s a great three part article I found on axes found in New France:

ETA: 4/7/20:

A few more. . . . A classic Biscayne with a nice known mark:

For sale in the shop: https://scavengeology.com/product/17th-century-biscayne-trade-axe-relic/

A new one we have up for sale in the shop from Lake Champlain area of Vermont:

An interesting primitive looking forged relic:

The following are not “trade axes,” but early style tomahawks from the same general time period, or the transition period, which show flared blades:

Original all-metal halberd style tomahawk with a flared blade, not far off from the period illustrations:

Battle ax discovered by Chris Calkins near traditional site of Fort Henry, Petersburg, Va., owned by Tourism Department, City of Petersburg, photo by Willie J. Graham, 1992. From: Blades in VA and NC – From Stones to Steel
By Jim Melchor and Tom Newbern. Archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume of Colonial Williamsburg examined this object, and he identified it as being of Spanish origin. Further, Noel Hume opined that it was brought to the location where it was found by remnants of the Lost Colony.  Considering this poleax was found near the site of Fort Henry, a frontier post of the Jamestown colony, this postulated scenario of Noel Hume is not likely. A poleax is a traditional battleaxe, similar in shape to a ceremonial halberd; however, it was an actual combat weapon. The poleax was obsolete well before the beginning of the seventeenth century; nevertheless, apparently some were supplied to the Jamestown colonists along with obsolete bills. This particular poleax is owned by the Tourism Department of the City of Petersburg.
From: Blades in VA and NC – From Stones to Steel
By Jim Melchor and Tom Newbern: The typical axes seen in Figure 34 were used extensively in Virginia and North Carolina throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth (Fig. 34, Felling axes). They were made primarily in Europe and, to a limited extent, in our study area. These four, eighteenth-century examples, as well as many others, were recovered all over Virginia. Most are less expensive iron axes without steel bits. (We will discuss steel bits later in this article.) It is difficult to say where these axes were actually made, but since they are lower-end examples and very formulaic, they probably were made in Europe and shipped here for trade with the Indians and for sale to budget-minded colonists. The one possible exception is the broad axe with the flared blade. Of the four shown, this one probably was made here rather than being imported. Note two of the axes have bogus touch marks to hype their quality to the unsuspecting. The felling axe in Figure 35, found in the Valley of Virginia, does have a steel bit and is of higher quality; however, it still has a bogus touch mark. This axe, too, was probably an import from Europe (Fig. 35, Imported felling axe with steel bit).

More examples of trade axes found with maker’s marks:

It looks like a Missouri War Axe, per se, but it has the mark of Samuel Wilson, circa 1784 – at least according to the old tag. Old haft and tacks, though I’m not sure how old.

An old trade axe collection belonging to Civil War vet, Ira Mansfield (1842-1919), with some touch marks and early find locations:

According to the article: Fig. 4: “An authentic French tomahawk of the 17th century found at the site of a stockaded town in New York that was occupied about 1640 by the Onondaga – from the Cook Collection; has touch mark initials “MAF” along with the one in Fig. 5. Fig. 6 was “plowed up at Fort Hill in 1880 at Victor, NY.” Fig. 7 is unmarked and “Found in a grave presumably of an Indian in Lakeside, near Fort Wayne, Indiana.” Fig. 8: “Found on the Fox River, two miles north of Appleton, Wisconsin . . . specimens almost identical have been found in the Lake Champlain region, probably French origin.” Fig. 9: axe from Agate, Nebraska, plowed up by H. Cook on his Agate Ranch about 1890. Fig. 10: Axe with the notation 1780-1830, touch mark PJS, supposedly English. Other than a close up of the touch mark, no pic of the axe itself.
Excerpt from Squaw and Belt Axes, by Phillip R. Shriver, Miami University, Trade axe shown in Ohio Archaeologist, Winter 1986

This article notes that this particular axe head was found on Laramie Creek, near the Pickawillany village site in Ohio. It has a touch mark of “B” who may refer to a blacksmith named Thomas Burney, “who lived a number of years among the Miami Indians and who by 1752 had ‘probably moved his forge to Pickawillany on the Great Miami River.'” It’s said that his touch mark has been found on a number of trade axes found near Piqua, Ohio.

Other “B” marked trade axes recovered in Ohio:

Axes found at the Battle of Peckuwe site, 4 miles west of Springfield, Ohio:

Unusual trade axe found near Huron River in NY,, possibly Hudson’s Bay Co., circa 1740-1794. See Ohio Archaeologist, Fall 1982, An Historic Contact Iron Trade Axe fro the Huron Valley, by Phillip R. Shriver, Miami Univ.

ETA 4/17/20:

Check out the post I did on a new find which is surprisingly similar to our early Jamestown axe: the Mullet-poll Murder Hatchet. This post kind of takes off where this one left off, exploring the styles and possibilities of early iron hatchets / belt axes:

Another thing I realized yesterday in researching Spain’s foray into Tidewater Virginia in the 16th century, is that they were trading Spanish “hatchets” to the Natives, and the head Jesuit priest there, Father Segura, was murdered with his own hatchet by Don Luis, an English speaking former captive of the Spanish. This could explain the unique style of these early little blades. Read more about the Spanish ordeal in Virginia, and artifacts found near there, towards the end of this new post:

ETA: 4/20/20:

We got a new Biscayne Axe find from Addison, Vermont. Check it out:

18 thoughts on “Biscayne Trade Axes: the earliest known metal axes in North America

  1. Nice, John. Have you seen the 3 trade axe articles in the old “Journal of Early Americas”, by Gladysz and Hamilton? they also did 3 articles on trade knives.

  2. Nice article!

    There is a surprising confusion between Anglosaxons about the term Biscayne. Yes, Biscay gulf takes a lot of lands, just the same as the Cantabric sea takes.

    Here in the land you are talking about there isn’t and hasn’t been any confussion about who are and have been the Biscaynes or the Cantabrian. Biscayne is a term which has been used and is still used offshore and specially in America to refer to Basques.

    This is clear for French, Hispanic world and the Basques themselves. I don’t know were does the confussion come from nor how did it began, does anyone have any idea?

  3. Talking about Basques, they were the first ones reaching several coasts of North America. Those who in that days were known as Biscaynes traded all types of steel and iron goods, Basque lands were one of the larger iron and steel production sites of Europe. Some scholars say up to 25% of European iron could be produced in the area at the time (Spain, Europe and the Spanish miracle” 1700-1900. Cambrigde University Page 221)

    The axes those Biscayne traded took the name of the traders, other people (French and English) saw business oportunity and took the chance

    The interaction between locals and Basques was so big this was noted,

    “When French colonists arrived in Acadia in 1604 and founded Quebec four years later, the language of the coastal tribes, noted one observer, with only small exaggeration, was “half Basque” and had been for a long time”

    Source,

    https://books.google.es/books?id=_ExTmGeg2s0C&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq=apaizak+hobeto+american+natives&source=bl&ots=DLilWjUYOS&sig=ACfU3U38r5YIUxw3ATVdtD5cyQ9IyENxgQ&hl=eu&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjQwcjU8pblAhWPEBQKHYV0Dh4Q6AEwEnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=apaizak%20hobeto%20american%20natives&f=false

  4. Hello forum. I love this site. I have a tomahawk trade axe with a five point star and a dot in the middle. A square stamp I cannot read inside. I would like to identify it. Can you help me? Thank you Bill

  5. Hello. I do not believe that the flared axe and the one marked “MTC” are North American fur trade axes. They appear to have been made in Portugal. Some of the Portuguese axes look very similar to fur trade axes (the Portuguese never traded with Native N0rth Americans), especially the one marked “MTC”, but there are key differences. For example, Portuguese axes are typically marked with large letters (sometimes each letter is separated by a colon) or a marker’s mark, whereas, most trade axes (with the exception of Biscayne axes) are not marked in any way. Also, Portuguese axes typically have a triangular choil in front of a round eye, whereas, trade axes have a squared off choil or one that follows the contour of the eye or no choil at all (as with English axes). Lastly, I’ve never seen a trade axe with the blade flared upward. They are almost always straight (or nearly so) across the top of the blade (some late 19th c. Hudson Bay axes have a very slight upward flare).

    • Could be. But there are may flared blade trade axes, especially early on. There are many period illustrations of such examples. Heck I have one with a flared blade excavated at Jamestown. Doesn’t get much earlier than that.

  6. There were no trade axes that look like your flared blade axe. The earliest trade axes were the Biscayne style. Some Missouri war axes have a somewhat flared blade but they are Triangular (not curved) and thin. They were designed to be light weight so they could be carried long distances. By the way, I wouldn’t trust the early illustrations. They took a lot of artistic license back then. Lastly, your flared blade axe from Jamestown is likely an English broad axe which was not made for the fur trade. It was made to shape logs into beams for building homes. Not something a Native American would have a use for. Have a nice day.

    • Thank you Roger, I’m aware what Biscayne axes are, as you’re commenting on an article I wrote about them. The flared blade axes are generally belt size axes or tomahawks, not “trade axes” as you’re referring to them, such as the Biscayne style. The jamestown axe is a very small belt axe, not a broad axe. Read about Jamestown and you will learn that there was a large demand for metal axes. Yet Biscayne axes are rare to be found in that area. What have been found are small forged axes, some with flared blades you think didn’t exist. Whether you consider “trade” with natives to be “fur trade” is up to you I suppose. Obviously the flared blade you’re arguing about has nothing to do with Jamestown, and it may be Portuguese. Until I find the same mark, I’ll keep an open mind on that one.

  7. Hello John. I received an old axe from my father-by-law. The axe was found by his grand-father around 1910’s in a location ( near N 48.3125, W 64.7040) used by Basques before 1730’s, by the Bellefeuille, a French family from 1730’s to 1758 and part time up to 1875’s when a sawmills was built. The land was clear by grand-father around 1900’s. I use a (short and low amp) electrolysis to be able to read the mark but I ambivalent on ILF, IGF, ICF. The body of the axe is thin and the handle is surround by a rounded triangle shape. I try to get a average circa and find the maker and/or his localisation. Some one said to me that the axe is made with bloomery iron. I have many pictures. It is possible to send some pictures to you to show you the axe and maybe you can help for identification. Thanks. JFB

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