French Trade Axes

A few months back, I wrote about “Biscayne” trade axes, which were the first known metal axes traded to Natives in North America, named “Biscayne” due to originating from the Basque region of France. Here’s the post, below:

Diving into the world of French trade axes, most of which all look fairly similar to each other, reveals that not all Biscayne Axes are really “Biscayne” axes, per se. I’ve acquired a bunch of information on these axes, most of which people have sent to me, compiled from various well-informed sources. Most of what follows is from those materials. A little bit is from me, and of course from other things I’ve found using my google-fu and research skills.

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An old painting of Fort Frontenac, a French trading post and military fort built in 1673 at the mouth of the Cataraqui River where the St. Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario, in a location traditionally known as Cataraqui. It is the present-day location of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. The original fort, a crude, wooden palisade structure, was called Fort Cataraqui but was later named for Louis de Buade de Frontenac, Governor of New France (Count Frontenac), who was responsible for building the fort. The fort, however, was still often referred to as Fort Cataraqui. The British destroyed the fort in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War and its ruins remained abandoned until the British took possession and reconstructed it in 1783. The fort was turned over to the Canadian military in 1870–71 and it is still being used by the military.

There are generally two types of early French trade axes to be found in museums or in private collections in and around North America: Type A axes and Type B axes.

Type “A” Axes

Russel Bouchard wrote in his book that the first type of trade axe, Type “A”, was made in France and then brought over on ships to the colonies to be trade with the Indians, or even to be used as a tool (well, an axe) by the French. Looking at its profile, the top line is straight; the bottom line is usually straight, and the eye is generally oval in shape.

Type A – made in France 1608-1760; Russel Bouchard, 1976, Les armes de traite. Sillery (Quebec), Boreal Express, 118p.

Type “B” Axes

The second type of axe, Type “B”, was most likely made by local blacksmiths in the French influenced colonies (Acadia, Montreal, Quebec, Trois-Rivieres, Detroit, Michilimakinac etc., etc.) Looking at it from the side, its top line most times curves downwards. Its bottom lines are usually straight or sometimes having a slightly convex curve. The eye on the Type B is also oval in shape.

Type B – made in the colonies 1675-1760; Russel Bouchard, 1976, Les armes de traite. Sillery (Quebec), Boreal Express, 118p.

“Hache de Traite”

The term French trade axe or “hache de traite” applied to many types of axes traded during the French regime in New-France. What does it mean? That’s not always a question easily answered when it comes to “Old French,” the meaning of which can vary according to any particular French colony or region in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Hache,” at least today, means “chop,” or “chopping,” I believe. Traite, means “treaty.” Or at least it does now. I probably ought to run this by my French professor brother first, but I didn’t. So I think the term “hache de traite” was a term for trade axes, or axes best used for the chopping endeavors of North American Indians. The important thing is, that “hache de traite” was a period term used by the French traders as an axe classification, and it was used separate and apart from the “Biscayan” axes also mentioned specifically in the same period documentation.

So Hache de Traite could refer to colonially made trade axes manufactured by blacksmiths in the St. Lawrence Valley; or it could refer to the Fur Trade posts in the interior; or it could refer as well to certain axes manufactured in France that were specifically destined for use or trade in the North American colony.

Old painting entitled “View of Fort William.” This early fur trade site was originally Fort Kaministiquia, a French fort built in 1717 and located on the north shore of Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario, at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River.

Visually, however, it’s difficult to distinguish a “hache de traite“axe from the “hache biscayenneaxe. Perhaps the only way of determining which is which is to examine its characteristics, such as the crudeness of it’s construction as well as any obvious cost saving tactics utilized in the manufacturing process (i.e., attempts at using less metal). The “trade axes,” rather than the actual “Biscayan” axes, tend to be manufactured more cheaply, utilizing cost-saving measures, such as less metal and thinner construction.

There was a “Rainy Lake Post” invoice from the Rainy Lake fur trade post, circa 1741, which illustrates that there were distinguishable features between the Biscayan and Trade axe types, and which leads us down a familiar rabbit hole of questions. Here are the translated invoice entries:

67 “Trade axes” 100 @ 40 s 200″ 0″ 0″

13 “Biscayans” together with the above @ 40 s” ” “

Note “Rainy Lake” on this early fur trade site map.
  • So, as for the questions, were these so called “Trade axes” made specifically for the trade by colonial blacksmiths?
  • Were these so called “Trade axes” made specifically for the trade by both colonial blacksmiths and European manufacturers depending on supply/demand?
  • Were there two different manufacturing centers for trade axes in Europe producing two distinctively different axes?
  • Was the distinguishable feature between the Biscayan and “Trade axe” the durable strip of steel on the cutting edge that may of been added or omitted in the manufacturing process?
  • Was the trade axe a cruder and cheaper copy of the Biscayan axe, as many Native American trade items tended to be, such as firearms?
  • Were these “Trade axes” also referred to as “hache du pays” as seen on other period invoices?
  • Is it possible that the terms used for axe types specific to the individual outfitter, trader, merchant or supplier’s terminology, and not necessarily in wide use?
  • Or, is it possible that we still can’t decipher Old French?
Two New York found axe heads. Found at Lake George.

To steel edge, or not to steel edge?

On many French axes, the side profile and the marking system for both types are quite similar. The differences are only noticeable from a top or bottom view of the axe head: the contour of the sides; the thickness of the blade near the poll; the height of the poll, as well as the workmanship involved in the axe’s construction.

The following documentation shows that some “Trade axes” were considerably less expensive than those axes with steel edges. As such, certain “Trade axes,” meant for bulk trade, contained no steel bits. In 1702, the Quebec outfitter Martel notes that in a consignment of goods provided to a Labrador trader in 1702 included:

“2 large axes with a steel edge, two small axes with a steel edge, and 24 trade axes, priced at 5,3 and 1.2 lives a piece’ 1 (A.N.Q.-Q.,Inventaire d’une Col lection… Dossier 397, original ms., 19 mai, 1702.)

The next account however notes that some locally made axes (Trade axe type?) were manufactured with steel edges or steel bits. In 1732, Moonier noted:

12 locally made-made axes (hache du pays) with a steel edge” destined for the Nipigon Post at 2.25 livres a piece. (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4,p. 168; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-848)

Examining these records, it is clear that the existence, or lack of existence, of a steel edge is not the primary distinguishing feature between “trade axes” and “Biscayne Axes.”

Europe or the colonies?

Let’s now explore the possibility that these so called “Trade axes” were manufactured in the colonies as opposed to them being solemnly manufactured in Europe:

In 1721, a blacksmith called Brunet manufactured 24 axes. (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4,p. 219; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-847)

Also in 1721, a smith named Lavallee made small axes and tomahawks for the merchant Moniere (a local Montreal merchant operating in the first half of the 18th century). (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4,p. 216; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-847)

In 1722, Brunet made another 20 axes for Moniere. (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4,p. 429; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-847) In 1732, Moniere “shipped “locally-made” axes (hache du pays) to the Nipigon post.”1 (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4,p. 168; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-848)

In 1733, the blacksmith named “Fleur d’Epee” made 12 axes with a steel edge for Moniere. (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-848)

In 1736, the blacksmith Boutin made large axes for two of Moniere’s clients; “one of them was for Monsieur Giasson at the Sioux post, while two others were for Monsieur Phillipeau, who was departing for the Illinois country.” (MMR, Moniere, Vol. 4. p. 789; N.A.C., MG 23/GIII 25: Microfilm M-848)

In 1750, a particular local Montreal blacksmith was asked by Moniere to manufacture “two tots of axes; one group containing forty units weight 84 1/2 pounds, averaging 2.11 pounds apiece, whilethe other set of forty weighed 80 pounds, averaging an even 2 pounds apiece.” (Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec, MMR, Moniere, Blotter 1739-1751, p.975)

In 1760, Moniere once again paid a blacksmith to produce 36 axes, each axe weighing 2 1/2 poundeach. (Bibliotheque Nationale du Quebec, MMR, Moniere, Brouillard mss., p. 118)

One of the most important entries from the MMRPs is an order placed by Moniere in 1735 to a blacksmith named Delorme that manufactured 135 trade axes and 12 duty-axes (hache de service) destined for the Illinois country. (MMR, Monieere, Journal No. A, 1752-1753; N.A.C., Microfilm M-850, Vol. 13, p.42).

A finely made belt axe of the same general early French trade axe style, with no markings whatsoever.

Examining the various large service axes found on archeological sites, especially Crown Point, there is a clear similarity in the contruction methods between the “Trade axe” type and the “Duty-axe” axe (oval/tear drop shaped eye, thin blade, concave lateral sides etc).

Found in Addison, Vermont, just across Lake Champlain from Crown Point.

These records indicate that the blacksmith named Delorme most likely manufactured both his Trade axes and Duty-axes in a similar fashion or style. Therefore, at least as far as his production is concerned, the so called “Trade axe” form is simply a cheap colonial copy of the Biscayne axe. The purpose for doing so is profit and conservation. For less investment, he’s producing a product which looks like the classic Biscayne Axe – popular among natives in New-France – but much less expensive, and utilizing less precious resources.

Ironically, this new type of French axe design would serve as the base model for the next generation of trade axes which were later manufactured by British Trade companies following the fall of New France. It therefore seems most likely that this Hache de traits axe type, or “trade axe,” which looks like the classic Biscayne Axe, but which is slightly different, is a direct result of various factors:

  • the short supply of iron ore, resulting in the use of less iron per axe, thus explaining the manufacture of thinner blades and shorter polls on trade axes;
  • the lack of highly skilled blacksmiths in New France, where plentiful labor and equipment/tools would lead to the production of cruder and cheaper made axes over time; whereas the manufacturing centers in Europe such as the town of Bayonne, which had a corporation of arts and trades producing high quality weapons and tools such as the Biscay axe.

“Quality decreased quite rapidly, serving a number of European ends. Less iron was required for each axe, more lighter axes could be transported, and inferior axes would lead to more frequent replacement. “ – William Fitzgerald.

Michilimackinac on Lake Huron. Fort Michilimackinac, was an 18th-century French, and later British, fort and trading post at the Straits of Mackinac; it was built on the northern tip of the lower peninsula of the present-day state of Michigan in the United States. Built around 1715, and abandoned in 1783, it was located along the Straits, which connected Lake Huron and Lake Michigan of the Great Lakes of North America. Present-day Mackinaw City developed around the site of the fort, which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. It is preserved as an open-air historical museum, with several reconstructed wooden buildings and palisade. The French had first established a presence in the Straits of Mackinac in 1671 when Father Marquette established the Jesuit St. Ignace Mission at present-day St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 1683, they augmented the mission with Fort de Buade. In 1701, Sieur de Cadillac moved the French garrison to Fort Detroit and closed the mission. By 1713, however, the French decided to re-establish a presence along the Straits of Mackinac, and built the wooden Fort Michilimackinac on the northern tip of the lower peninsula. They sent Constant le Marchand de Lignery with a contingent of soldiers and workmen in 1715 to accomplish the job. Over the decades, they made several modifications and expansions to the palisade walls. Chevalier Jacques Testard de Montigny, who was a Lt. and a Knight of the Order of St. Louis, was appointed in 1730 and served for three years as commandant of the fort. He was previously commandant of Fort La Baye (Green Bay, Wisconsin). Many of his relatives settled in Michigan.

Characteristics of the French Trade Axe (Hache de traite)

  • oval or tear drop shaped eye
  • blade is much thinner near the poll of the axe than that of the biscayan axe
  • slightly elongated poll exhibiting somewhat of a “V” shaped notch between lower section of the poll and blade
  • top of the blade will generally curve slightly downwards
  • small to medium size (lenght)
  • lateral sides of the axe are somewhat concave
  • the ring around the base of the poll does not display an outward notch and seems rather crudely manufactured
  • may or may not contain a steel insert at the tip of the blade
  • single metal strap that is folded on itself and welded together
  • trade axes seem to of been manufactured much later than the Biscayan type, possible as late as the end of the 17th century
  • all trade axes uses same marking system as the Biscayan type with many similar marker’s marks (i.e. cross in a circle etc)
Trade axe type, top, bottom and side view. Collection J.-Henri Fortin, Quebec, Canada.

There are many many mentions of the French trade axe (hache de traite) which makes it difficult to cross reference “trade axes” with actual dug specimens. The wreck of the La Salle’s ship “La Belle” in 1687 contained a shipment of axes, most likely for the Native trade. These types of axes seem to be poorly constructed with a thin blade and a tear drop or shaped or round eye unlike the early types of trade axes found in and around the Great Lakes, which possess flat oval eyes with very thick blades – especially near the poll.

La Salle shipwreck cask full of trade axes.

Wiliam R. Fitzgerald invented a dating method for trade goods from the 16th and 17th century in eastern North America, including for axes. He uses the glass bead period timeframe developed by Charles Wray and Ian Kenyon. Fitzgerald used 105 complete and fragment axes from Neutral, Huron and Micmac sites, in an attempt to isolate traits that might indicate axe grades and chronological trends. Fitzgerald concluded that trade axes were likely manufactured either in Utrecht, Holland or in Biscay, in Northern Spain.

Here’s the complex method of measurement in accordance with the dating method:

A. overall length. B. blade length, C, bit width, D superior eye length, E, inferior eye length ,F. total poll length, G. poll height. H. poll width. L eye width. J, width of poll-at drop transition. K top blade drop, L length of top blade drop. M. height of blade transition. < angle of blade drop

The French and English favoured the latter source (Peterson 1965 :20). While the general lack of standardization between sixteenth and seventeenth century systems of measure would presumably hinder the ready definition of grades (Table 14), there are two systems that would have been utilized by manufacturers supplying goods at this time. The French Systeme de Poids de Marc de Troyes was a dry weight system used between 1350 and 1840 for weighing all commodities. Its basic unit, the livre, has a metric equivalent of 489.41 grams. For linear measurement, the French Ancien systeme de longeur du pied du roi —used between the eighth century and 1668 —has its pouce equivalent to 27.22mm (Ross 1983:76). Twelve lignes (one ligne equals 2.27mm) constituted one pouce. While the old French systems and current metric equivalents are used for graphic presentations, the former will be emphasized because categories evident within the old French system might be clouded when metric measurements are used.

The French systems are being used because of the assumption that the goods were at least supplied to the French, if not manufactured by them for the fur trade. If some of the goods were imported to France, other systems of measurement may have been employed. If different foundries used different systems of weight and measure, a degree of metric deviation around a standard grade might be expected. For example, a three pound/livre axe, if manufactured around 1580 in France and England would range between 1359.24 and 1492.99 modem grams. While in each system the axe would be a three pound/livre axe, the variation in each system might result in a modem analyst’s perception that those two axes would represent two different weight grades.

For that reason, instead of expecting distinct clusters with minimal variability using twentieth century metric systems, clusters should be expected to display significant deviation. A number of other factors might blur weight and metric categories. Even if apparently unaltered specimens are used (i.e., axes that are completely intact and have not undergone post-manufacture alteration), the original size and weight might be reduced by aboriginal wear of the bit, several centuries of corrosion, and conservation procedures. Conceivably, the initial manufacturing process could also result in deviations from prescribed standards.

These axes were hand wrought, produced by folding an iron strap around a mandrel, welding the two ends, forging the blade, and finally grinding, carburizing and tempering the bit. Undoubtedly, some degree of variation would result from such a manufacturing technique. Within the variability, however, discrete clusters should be discernible. While a number of measurements were taken (Figure 42), five attributes were focused upon to identify grades of axes that might correlate with armourers’ marks: weight, overall length (a), blade length (b), bit width (c), and the height of the axe at the transition between the blade and the poll (m).

But what about the marks? Shouldn’t we have a lot more information on axes which are clearly marked? Unfortunately, no. There’s a lot of guess-work involved.

“Armourers’ Marks”

Most trade axes found on French influenced archaeological sites were manufactured in France. The sites where trade axes were found coincides with the areas where French influence was felt: the Saint-Lawrence valley, the Richelieu and the Lac Champlain regions, the Great-Lakes region, south of the Mississippi, etc., etc. In isolated cases, a few French style axes have been found on the east coast of the United States. Some east coast areas must have had provisional, or secondary, trade routes for the French trade goods.

I’ve seen a few Biscayan style axe heads found on early mount-style burial sites from the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S., but generally in the Virginia and Carolina area, the early metal axe heads are overwhelmingly more English, or even Spanish, influenced rather than French.

Check out my post on the Mullet Murder Poll Hatchets. Yes, it steps way outside the boundaries of the analytical study of French pattern axes, which are almost all identical in general shape.

Back to the topic at hand, studying “Touch marks” or “stamps” on trade axes shows variances in the details. This indicates that European blacksmiths each had their own stamp(s) and it is possible that each stamp would undergo a control process by the corporation ordering the trade axes. In New France, the corporation guidelines – or rules controlling “les arts et metiers” – weren’t generally applied, except in regards to surgeons.

As Kenneth Kidd reported in the excavation of Ste. Marie (Archeological French site dating from 1639-1649):

The marks themselves appeared to have been made with a punch die; consequently the impressions vary a good deal in depth and in clarity, depending upon the condition of the die and the force of the blow struck. A study of the marks reveals that they varied in detail; the inference being that each maker had his own mark. It may be, however, that the individual maker used a mark con- trolled by the guild to which he belonged. At any rate the axes from Ste Marie bore eight, or possibly nine, distinct marks (See Fig. 1)

These Marks were stamped on trade axe found on the Ste. Marie site dating from 1639 to 1649

For isolating these, there are but two criteria, design and diameter. The designs may, of course, vary considerably or may approximate each other so closely as to be almost indistinguishable. In such a case, they may sometimes be isolated on the basis of diameter of punch marks, since it would almost be beyond the bounds of probability that two punches used by the same smith would be identical.

These axes were indubitably of French manufacture, and the marks they bore were those of French artisans or guilds, as the case may be, of the seventeenth century. They conformed in shape to one genera! pattern, from which variations were insignificant and few. Size was more variable than shape, for the smallest in the collection was 6 3/4 inches long by 3 inches wide and the largest 8 5/8 inches long by 3 5/8 inches wide. Length-width ratios were not constant however; one specimen, only 7 5/8 inches long, had a maximum width of 4 1/4 inches.

Sault Ste Marie, a Hudson’s Bay fur trade post, painted circa 1863. Sault Ste. Marie, is a cross-border region in Canada and the United States. Formerly a single settlement from 1668 to 1817, it was subsequently divided by the establishment of the Canada–US border in the area. On July 20, 1814 an American force destroyed the North West Company depot on the north shore of the St. Marys River. Since the Americans were unable to capture Fort Michilimackinac, the British forces retained control of the Sault. The lock was destroyed in 1814 in an attack by U.S. forces during the War of 1812.

When we look at the colonial production of trade axes, the “touch marks” or stamp identifies the blacksmith, the trading post, the Fort or the company. As we all know, French Canadians were very catholic and devoted people to the church and so their daily life was surrounded with with religious symbols such as the cross.

This might explain in part the large number of trade axes that have a cross like symbol as a “touch mark” or stamp. Another theory would be that stamping religious symbols on Indian trade items would help in the effort of the French in converting Indians to Christianity. The blacksmith at this site in 1645 was Brother Louis Gaubert, although it would be highly presumptuous to assume that all these marks belong to this particular blacksmith. Then the question arises whether they were marked in France by guilds or companies, etc.”

The Armourers’ marks studied by Fitzgerald were all classified according to the shape of the mark, the division of the mark, and the number and orientation of the mark. He goes on to say that “…the vast majority of the marks are circular in shape”.

Much can be learned from the Plater-Martin Site Axes, circa 1637-1650 which have been very well documented.

All thirteen iron trade axes from this site bear visible forge marks added during manufacture.

The intent, meaning and purpose of the marks is not known. They have been described above, and are reproduced as Fig 6:

Forge marks, also variously called armourer’s, axe, guild, impressed, maker’s, punch, stamp, and trade marks (Baker 1984:52; Fitzgerald 1988:13, 15-16, 1990: 438-440,447; Kenyon 1987:6; Kenyon & Kenyon 1987:13; Kidd 1949: 112-114) on axes elsewhere, have been studied and illustrated by a number of scholars. In recent years some general correlation of marks and numbers with time/GBP has been achieved (Fitzgerald 1990:439-440;Kenyon and Kenyon 1987:13,18). At Plater-Martin a number of marks are unique.

Arthur Woodward statesthat there are four marks which occur the most frequently on 17th and 18th century iron axes (Woodward 1946:29) The first of these is the simple two-bar cross. In Ontario the two-bar cross mark is reported in a variety of sizes, orientations and numbers by Fitzgerald (1988:15,3,4), Kenyon (n.d.), Kenyon and Kenyon (1987:13 Fig.3A) and at Ste. Marie (Kidd 1949:114,A,B,C,D). In the Petun Archaeological Zone the simple two-bar cross has been found both singly and in clusters of three within circles of 6,8,9,10 11,12,13 and 14 mm. diameter The highest occurrence is a cluster of three 9mm crosses, which appears on 20% of the known Petun area axes. This combination occurs on the Plater-Martin BdHb-1 Site on two axes (#1a,196), a frequency of only 15%. Single unmodified two-bar crosses also occur on only two Plater-Martin axes (#197, 200).

The second mark claimed by Woodward to be among the most popular is the three-bar cross, reported by Fitzgerald (1988:15,8), Kenyon and Kenyon (1987:13,F), Kidd(1949:114,E) and Woodward (1946:29). Only one example occurs at Plater-Martin (#194) and only two other examples are known in the Petunarea (McKay 12b, Collingwood Museum X976.634.1).

The third and fourth of Woodward’s popular marks are the six-bar ‘wagon-wheel‘, reported by Fitzgerald (1988:15, 1a, 1c), Kenyon (n.d.), Kenyon and Kenyon (1987:13, C) and at Ste. Marie (Kidd 1949:114 G), and the two-bar cross modified by dots added to three of the four quarter segments. These marks have not been found at Plater- Martin.

Iron Trade Axes from the Plater-Martin Site, by Charles Garrad.

Marks on the 13 Iron Trade Axes, as they appear on the pieces from the Plater-Martin Site:

Here is a great illustration by Thomas Kenyon of all the recorded armourer’s marks on 17th century French trade axes found in Ontario.

Examples of Specific Marks:

Check out the ongoing Encyclopedia of French Fur Trade Axe marks I’m compiling, in the Encyclopedia of marks on French Fur Trade Axes, posted in the Scav Society Library:

Here’s a few of them:

Marks associated with the French Jesuits in Canada. One found at a historic Indian site in Newtown, Arkansas. Another found at the Allen Site at Canandaigua Lake, circa 1650 A.D.

Weight of the axes:

Many researchers have often tried to establish some sort of system that would confirm once and for all that there exists a correlation between weight, armourer’s mark, and number of marks. Fitzgerald opines that there is, with the exception of few isolated cases.

“There appears to be a correlation between weight, armourer’s mark, and number of marks. Eight-segment circular marks are found on the heaviest axes (with one exception), and for the four-segment circular marks those axes that have three impressions are the heaviest (again with one exception). Generally, the heaviest axes are stamped with three eight-segment circular marks; axes with four-segment circular marks are heavier if there are three stamps. Despite the relatively small sample size, clusters are evident among axes with four-segment circular stamps. Notable is the concentration of three impressions between 2.25 and 3.00 livres. The lightest axes have but one mark.”

Axe Measurements:

Fitzgerald likewise concludes that there’s information to be had from the size of these axes. He opines that GBP1 (1580-1600) site axes tend to be much longer than the other two following periods.

“…this clearly indicates that weight, more than measurements, differentiates the axes, since long axes can be both heavy and light. There is very little, if any, correlation between armourers’ marks and metric attributes, especially among the four segment circular examples.

Long axes just as frequently had one mark as they had three, and, while the shortest axes never had three stamps, this was likely because of their extreme lightness rather than their shortness.

While there was a notable correlation between weight, variety of mark, and number of marks, at least as it concerned four- and eight-segment marks, differences for metric attributes were not similarly distinctive”.

Axe Trends Over Time

Fitzgerald’s primary conclusion is that early axes were much stronger, heavier with straight-sides for durability. The later ones seem to lack many of these qualities.

This is the dating scheme referenced with “GP1” through “GP3,” discussed below in Fitzgerald’s analysis:

GP1 – (1580-1600)

GP2- (1600-1620)

GP3- (1635-1650)

“While Cartier and others exchanged a limited number of “hatchets” during the 1530s and 1540s in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the first axes to be recovered from archaeological sites (notably burials) were massive implements derived from commercial activities after 1580. Commercial acumen probably accounts for subsequent trends. Axes did not become appreciably shorter; rather, they became lighter.

If a classificatory system is possible for axes it is, as this study indicates, on the basis of weight, not length. It seems that a particular weight of iron was prescribed for certain grades of axe and the size would be determined by that criterion. Long axes were still produced but, in an effort to conserve raw material, excess iron had to be shaved from some part of the axe.

After GBP1, axes tended to be laterally compressed at the transition area from hafting element to blade (Figure 42). Whereas many axes from GBP1 sites, when examined from the superior position, reveal an essentially straight-sided configuration, those from later sites exhibit a noticeable concavity, resulting in a much thinner, presumably weaker blade. Additional iron was also saved if the height of the posterior section of the blade was reduced. The size of the bit could be preserved, but the strength of the axe at the poll-blade transition would be compromised. Also compromising the quality of later axes was the omission of an inserted steel cutting edge (Peterson 1965: 18).

The GBP1 axes were massive and extremely durable items. Quality decreased quite rapidly, serving a number of European ends. Less iron was required for each axe, more lighter axes could be transported, and inferior axes would lead to more frequent replacement. By GBP3 there was a greater selection of weight classes that might reflect a variety of axe functions, including felling of trees, timber preparation and dressing, light chopping, and possibly offensive weaponry.

Then presumably, GP2 axes fall somewhere in between with transitional features, and axes of both types as well. Other work has been done in the area of dating early French trade axes which all look close to identical to the casual observer.

Dating early 17th century axes

Here is an excerpt of Tim and Ian Kenyon article “The Iron Trade Axe in Ontario, ca. A.D. 1580-1650 : Exploratory Data Analysis” providing a one of the most precise dating systems for French Trade Axes from 1580 to 1650.

It is relatively well known among archaeologists, even if not well published, that the size of trade axes varies according to time and to mark number. In general, axes are thought to decrease in size through time, culminating in the light “belt” axe of the 18th century. As well, the number of marks on the side of the axe (usually I or 3, much more rarely 2 or 4) is roughly correlated to the size of an axe: the more marks, the heavier the axe.

Despite this variation, apparent in the 77 axe sample examined here, trade axes found on ca. 1580-1650 sites in Ontario are, in essence, the same type. This becomes evident when viewed in contrast with the numerous axe varieties known in the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g. Peterson 1965). Yet as handmade products, there is significant variation : no two of the 77 axes are precisely identical in size and shape.

Is it possible to discern subtypes or varieties within the 77 axe collection? While certain broad trends are apparent, “eyeballing” the axe drawings on the data sheets (e.g. page 9) produces only innumerable “possible” subtypes. With 77 axes and 8 variables there are 616 separate measurements to “play withPlotting variables by time period, or against one other, yields “interesting” but inconclusive results. To hew through this welter of axe measurements, it seemed necessary to use more complex techniques for viewing the data, such as duster analysis and multivariate statistics. These techniques, however, are complex only in a computational sense, since they may permit simpler —and more interpretable patterns —to emerge from the mass of numbers.

Kenyon Iron Trade Axe Measuring System. Modal axe shapes and sizes for the five clusters (above) and percentage seriation by glass bead period; The Iron Trade Axe in Ontario, ca. A.D. 1580-1650 : Exploratory Data Analysis” providing a one of the most precise dating systems for French Trade Axes from 1580 to 1650.

Group A. The Group A axes are notable for their relatively large size, particularly in the A, B, 0, P and Q dimensions (Figure 1). AH Period I axes are identified as Group A, and no Group A axes are found on later sites. Chronologically, this is the most discrete axe group.

Unfortunately, the diagram got cut-off. Hopefully I can find a better copy.

Group B. Group B axes are strongly associated with Period 2 sites, particularly Warminster where 9 of 10 axes were assigned to this group. Group B axes tend to be rather narrow (low IJL and N measurements). Typically these axes have only a single stamp.

Group C, Group C axes are slightly larger than Group B axes in almost all dimensions. These axes are most closely associated with Period 3a sites (7 out of 9 specimens at both Sealey and Walker). Unlike the Group B axes, these usually have three marks.

Group D. Group D axes are similar in size to Group C axes, but measure slightly less in overall length (dimension B) and bit width (Q). Like Group C, these axes typically have three stamps. Group D axes tend to be found on Period 3b sites.

Group E. Compared to the previous four groups, these are very small axes, found both in periods 3a and 3b. In contrast to Group C and D, these tend to have only a single mark. Thus they would appear to be the small size-grade of axe traded during Period 3 times.

Some smaller blacksmith made belt axes in our collection of the same general style as the larger, earlier trade axes in the middle. Each of the smaller ones has a maker’s which I haven’t identified. The larger ones have the usual French tool punch stamps.

This study has identified certain changes in axe dimensions through time, by use of cluster and principal component analysis. The Period 1 axes (Group A) are conspicuously large, representing a fairly discrete cluster. In Period 2 a smaller and rather slender axe (Group B) with one stamp becomes the dominant type. During Period 3 there are large three-stamp axes (Groups C & D) in use along with smaller one-stamp axes (Group E). The three-stamp axes change during Period 3, with length and bit measurements being reduced through time.

We should reiterate that the axe groups identified by this cluster analysis should not be considered formal archaeological types, but rather as useful, although somewhat arbitrary, segmentation of a nearly continuous range of variation.

Lastly, the use of the control sample for the assignment of specimens of unknown chronological context has the potential of identifying changing Native exploitation patterns outside of village heartlands.

The Iron Trade Axe in Ontario, ca. A.D. 1580-1650 : Exploratory Data Analysis” providing a one of the most precise dating systems for French Trade Axes from 1580 to 1650.
The Iron Trade Axe in Ontario, ca. A.D. 1580-1650 : Exploratory Data Analysis” providing a one of the most precise dating systems for French Trade Axes from 1580 to 1650.
The Iron Trade Axe in Ontario, ca. A.D. 1580-1650 : Exploratory Data Analysis” providing a one of the most precise dating systems for French Trade Axes from 1580 to 1650.
This is an illustration from Historia Canadensis reproduced by the Jesuit Father Du Creux (Paris, 1664). Take note of the shape of the axes.

Found examples:

Check out the entire ongoing post of found examples in the Encyclopedia of marks on French Fur Trade Axes, posted in the Scav Society Library:

Everything I’ve compiled so far, which is still in progress, was already much too large to put all in the post. I had to remove most of them in order to get the page to load. But here’s a few of them, and please check out the rest in the library:
Not sure where this one was dug unfortunately. But it has a very clear single punch mark on it.
Here above are French iron axes that were found in the underwater search conducted at Double Rapids on the French River out of Lake Nipissing in 1961 and are dated late 1600’s to mid 1700’s. The finds now in the Royal Ontario Museum. (Underwater finds in the French River, Doris K.Megill, Ontario Department of lands and
j forests, Ottawa, August, 1964)
Iron axe of Basque manufacture (Biscayne Axe) found in a Huron ossuary at the Kleinburg site in southern Ontario. Archaeology Laboratory, Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

They weren’t all Biscayan axes. Here’s an early Missouri war axe, and some unusual and awesome pipe tomahawk heads from the 18th century:

A similar Missouri war axe, bearing the mark of Samuel Wilson of Tennessee, circa 1780s.

Evidence of plain wood hafts:

Trade axe found at Ft. St. Marie. A two by six metre trench was excavated to the east of the Fort, revealing a shallow depression with organic remains and an iron trade axe with a partially preserved wooden handle. Kidd, Kenneth E., The Excavations of Ste. Marie I. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949. Plate V
A trade axe relic recovered in 1911 from the bottom of Georgian Bay, believed to have been used in a 1650 attack by the Ojibway against the Iroquois.
Woodworking tools and small belt axes recovered from the 1690 wreck of the “Elizabeth and Mary” shipwreck.
More than 500 iron trade axe heads packed into barrels on the shipwreck of the La Belle, in the Gulf of Mexico, headed for French settlements and trade sites up the Mississippi River.
More than 500 iron trade axe heads packed into barrels on the shipwreck of the La Belle, in the Gulf of Mexico, headed for French settlements and trade sites up the Mississippi River.

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1 thought on “French Trade Axes

  1. One reason why the trade axes may have been made lighter than the original Biscayne axes is because the original Biscayne axes were purely designed as a tool, whereas the Indians also used axes as weapons. The weight requirements of fighting axes differ markedly from those used as tools – purpose-built war axes are always MUCH lighter than woodworking axes, as speed and maneuverability, not power, are the critical factors in a fight. There is also the transportation issue.

    I think it possible that development of lighter axes might have been an effort to find a design that was useful both for chopping wood and for warfare. Bear also in mind that the Indians used shields and wooden armor when the Europeans first made contact, and the gradual disappearance of such things may also have driven changes in axe design.

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