The log cabin is a familiar symbol of Tennessee's pioneer period. Although its use as shelter is well known, its quaint image has tended to obscure its importance as a bridge between civilization and the wilderness. The western settlement movement of the first half of the nineteenth century owes its greatest debt to the humble log cabin and the adaptive techniques of log construction.
Log construction came to Tennessee in the eighteenth century with the first Europeans to enter the area. The earliest uses of this technology occurred at opposite ends of the state. Deep within the Great Smoky Mountains, traders from South Carolina built log cabins in the Overhill towns of the Cherokees as secure storehouses for deerskins and the British goods used as barter with the Native Americans. In the west, on the Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, French military engineers erected log palisades and blockhouses for protection from Indians.
The most important and enduring use of log construction occurred in the dwellings, barns, and related outbuildings of the thousands of independent farmsteads that were established throughout the state. Building with logs proved to be an efficient use of the trees that needed to be cleared for agricultural production in the fertile areas of the Upland South, and the thick wood walls afforded ample protection from all types of predators. Houses are the most studied example, but logs were used for the construction of smokehouses, tobacco barns, stock barns, corn cribs, blacksmith shops, and for other related agricultural products and practices. Of the outbuilding types, only cantilever barns, found exclusively in East Tennessee, have been studied in detail.
No matter the function of the building, the most important and distinctive feature of log construction is the corner notch. Coupled with the combined weight of the logs above, this device locks the lower logs firmly in place and ensures structural stability. Seven different notch types have been identified on log buildings in Tennessee: the saddle, V, half dovetail, full dovetail, square, half, and diamond notches. Of these, the half dovetail is by far the most common, due to its relative ease of construction (compared to the full dovetail) and its superior stability when compared to the saddle and V notches.
The basic unit of domestic log construction consists of four walls notched at the corners. This is known as a pen (or crib, when referring to farm buildings). The typical log cabin found throughout Tennessee was a small (approximately twenty feet by eighteen feet) single pen house that had a rock pier foundation, side gables, off-centered doors on the front and rear eave walls, and a chimney on one of the gable ends. It could be either square or rectangular, reflecting cultural traditions, and one, one-and-a-half, or two stories tall.
More complex houses could be formed either by attaching additional units to the original one or from the subdivision of a larger pen into two or three units. A log pen joined to one side of another formed a double pen, or Cumberland house; a pen built a short distance from the first with a roof over both pens and the passage became known as a dogtrot house; and two pens separated by the shared chimney was referred to as a saddlebag house.
Notched log construction is a building technique, not a type or style. The vernacular houses built during the period when log construction flourished were also built of frame, brick, or stone. Although all of the important elements of log construction in the Upper South have their roots in the Old World (Scandinavia and German-speaking states), the form that the Tennessee log house finally assumed had evolved along the back country roads emanating from the cultural hearths of southern Pennsylvania and the Carolina Piedmont. Hewn log construction reached its zenith in Tennessee in the mid-nineteenth century, but it continues to be practiced in isolated areas at the present time.