Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Axes of the Canadian Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The grooved axe takes a prominent place among the stone implements used by the northern tribes. The normal form is that of a thick wedge, with rounded angles and an encircling groove near the top for securing the handle; but there is great variation from the average. Usually the implement is made of some hard, tough stone, as trap, granite, syenite, greenstone, or hematite, where such can be procured; but when these are not available softer material is utilized, as sandstone or elate. Copper axes are of rare occurrence. Among the stone specimens there is a very wide range in size, the largest weighing upward of 30 pounds and the smallest scarcely an ounce. As these extreme sizes could serve no economic purpose, they were probably for ceremonial use; the smaller may have been amulets or talismans. The majority range from 1 pound to 6 pounds, which mark close to the limits of utility. As a rule the groove is at a right angle to the longer axis, though sometimes it is oblique, and it may extend entirely or only partially around the axe. In the latter case it is always one of the narrow sides that is left without a groove, and this is frequently flattened or hollowed to accommodate the handle better. Ordinarily the complete or entire groove is pecked in a ridge encircling the axe, leaving a protuberance above and below, while the partial groove is sunken in the body of the implement. Axes with two or more grooves are rare excepting in the Pueblo country, where multiple grooves are common. The haft was placed parallel with the blade and was usually a withe doubled around the groove and fastened securely with cords or rawhide, but heavier T-shape sticks were sometimes used, the top of the T being set against the flattened or hollow side of the implement and firmly lashed. Axes with holes drilled for the insertion of a handle are common in Europe , but this method of hafting was of very rare occurrence among the American aborigines. When not made from boulders closely approximating in shape the desired implement, the axe was roughed out by chipping and was reduced to the desired shape by pecking with a hard stone and by grinding. Axes of rude shape, made by flaking a flattish boulder along one end and breaking notches in the sides for hafting, are found in some sections. Axes are well distributed over the country wherever good material is readily available. excepting in the Pacific states, British Columbia and Alaska , where specimens are exceedingly rare. Few are found in Florida , and although plentiful in the mound region are seldom found in mounds. The shapes vary with the different regions, examples from the Atlantic slope, for example, being quite unlike those of the Pueblo country.


It is probable that the axe served various purposes in the arts, and especially in war and in the chase. Numerous badly fractured specimens are found in the soapstone quarries of E. United States , where they were used for cutting out masses of this rock. The grooved axe is said to have been used in felling trees and in cutting them up, but it is manifestly not well suited for such work; it would serve, however, to assist in cutting wood in conjunction with charring. The hafted stone axe passed immediately out of use on the introduction by Europeans of the iron axe, which was the first and most obviously useful tool that the Indians saw in the hands of the white man.

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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 53-54.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College