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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

18th Century Native American Houses by Cynthia Howerter

On a recent drive through rural Centre County, Pennsylvania, my friend and I had a conversation about the Eastern Woodland Native Americans who had lived there during the mid-1700s. She pointed out that had we been traveling through the area at that time, we would be seeing lots of teepees.

Actually, that’s a common but inaccurate belief. The Eastern Woodland Native Americans who lived in the colonies during the 18th century did not live in teepees; they lived in bark huts known as “wigwams” and “longhouses” as well as log cabins. While most wigwams were dome-shaped, some had conical shapes similar to a teepee. However, these conical-shaped wigwams were covered with bark rather than the animal hides that the Plains Indians used on their teepees.

During a visit to Fort Ligonier in southwestern Pennsylvania, I was delighted to find a full-size wigwam. Let’s take a look.

The outside of the dome-shaped wigwam is covered with large sheets of tree bark. If you look closely, you can see that the bottom row of bark was applied first, with each piece of bark overlapping the one next to it.

A longhouse was built much the same way as a wigwam, however, its shape would be more rectangular with a rounded roof rather than dome-shaped. Due to the large size of a longhouse, it could house several families while only one family could live in the smaller wigwam.

Because it was raining during my visit, I was anxious to step inside the wigwam. To my amazement, I could stand up straight without my head touching the bark, and even though the rain had turned into a downpour, the interior was completely dry.

Inside, you can see a framework made from tender saplings. The framework was formed into a circle, and, once in place, the bark was secured to it. Mud chinking could be applied to the seams to keep the weather out. We can see by the light peeking through that this wigwam's seams have not been sealed.

Wigwams and longhouses contained fire pits. These circular pits were usually dug into the ground in the middle of the hut and surrounded by stones. The fire pits provided heat as well as a place to cook food. Directly above the pit is a small opening in the bark called a "smoke hole" that acts as a flue for the fire’s smoke. The opening could be covered completely or partially with a piece of bark when there was no fire or to prevent rain or snow from entering.

The entrance on this particular wigwam seemed a bit large compared to other bark huts I've seen. Perhaps this was done so visitors could easily enter and exit the lodge without damaging the bark. Native Americans would have hung an animal hide over the doorway to keep rain, snow, cold air, and wind from blowing inside.  

As the Native American population came into contact with the colonists and were introduced to the log cabin, they gradually gave up their bark huts and built this sturdier type of lodging. The Oconaluftee Village at the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina has a replica of the log cabins that Cherokees built and lived in (photo below).

A stranger approaching this cabin might be hard pressed to discern whether the owner was a settler or a Native American. Note the chimney, wood shingled roof, chinking between the logs, and a very nice front porch with benches. Considerably more durable than the bark lodges, it's easy to understand why Native Americans modified their type of housing. 

All Photographs ©2014 Cynthia Howerter

Contact information:
Fort Ligonier – an outstanding example of reconstruction and preservation of an 18th century fort. Fort Ligonier was in use during 1758-1766.
200 South Market Street
Ligonier, Pennsylvania
(724) 238-9701

Oconaluftee Village – an excellent recreation of Cherokee life during the 1750s.
Please note: This outdoor exhibit is only open between May-October
Cherokee Indian Reservation
218 Drama Road

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter loves using her training in education, research, writing, and speaking to teach and inspire others about a time in America that was anything but boring. A member of the Daughters of the American revolution (DAR), Cynthia believes history should be alive and personal.

You can find her on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.    


  1. Great post, Cynthia! I was just researching this exact subject yesterday. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Thanks so much, Christy! I hope you were able to find a lot of great information in your search. It would be wonderful if you could visit Fort Ligonier and the Oconaluftee Village to see the housing in person - hope you have that opportunity. :)

    2. Would love to! Believe it or not, in my research I learned that we have a Delaware Village only a few miles from my house. How do we live in a place all our lives and not know what we have around us? Can't wait till April when it opens to the public again.

    3. Oh, Christy! That is wonderful. Be sure to tell me about your visit. I would love to hear what's there.

  2. I enjoyed your post. I love learning about the Native American's.
    Blessings, Tina

    1. Your are so kind, Tina! Thanks for letting me know that you enjoyed the article. I appreciate that. :)

  3. Great post, Cynthia! The Chippewa and Odawa had similar structures.

    1. Hi, Carrie! The Chippewa and Ottawa Indian tribes were usually located in Michigan and southern Ontario during the 1700s, I believe. (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong). Glad you liked the article. :)

  4. I just reported on this same topic (Jamestown native and Pilgrim housing) for my DAR Palatinate chapter. So interesting, and so much more to research.
    Karen R.

    1. Hi, Karen! It's so nice to meet a fellow DAR sister! I'm sure you found things in your research that I didn't cover here - but would love to know. Thanks so much for your lovely comment.

  5. Hi Cynthia, the summer wigwams were covered in sheets of woven reeds. The men and women worked together building the structures, and they belonged to the women since they were in charge or raising the children and keeping the family together. The Pilgrim cabins were made of a log frame, the sides of split logs/clapboards with daub and wattle interior walls (this is at Jamestown, according to their website).

    Keep up the good work,
    Karen in France

    1. Thanks, Karen! I'm wondering if the wigwams in the north were covered with reeds during the summer?

  6. My mistake, my report was on Plimoth, not Jamestown. Here is my source: http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/building-home
    Do you know anything about the paperwork that was required for people to leave Germany in the 1700s? I have found very little on this topic.

  7. Thanks for the information, Karen. I'm sorry, but I have no knowledge about the German paperwork.

  8. Nice post, Cynthia. I've visited Oconaluftee Village several times and always come away with new research. I watched the men fashion bamboo pipes through which they blew darts to hunt smaller animals such as rabbits. The village is a fascinating place.


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