Prior to October 12, 1492:
For whatever reasons, the civilizations in the New World lagged far behind the rest of the globe when it came to metallurgy. It certainly wasn’t for lack of raw materials, however.
Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World with an array of tools, wares, and weapons and he must have been surprised that the metal technologies known for centuries to civilizations in Europe, Asia, and Africa were largely non-existent here. With the exceptions of copper, gold, and silver, the Americas had not developed much of a metals industry.
Considering that the rest of the world had gone through the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Europeans must have been surprised to find such a primitive state of affairs.
Wherever a metals industry did exist in the hemisphere, there were permanent cities with exquisite architecture. This was most notable throughout Central America and in the Andes Mountains in South America. But in what is now the United States, we don’t see that kind of development. The reason is simple. Where metallurgy existed, tools were produced. With tools, man can make the land and its resources conform to his wishes. Without tools, man conforms to the land. Tools, engineering, and geometry went hand-in-hand because of metallurgy. In 1492, North American Indians were still searching streambeds for flint shards to sharpen into arrowheads. Although iron ore is plentiful and well distributed in North America, there is no evidence of iron making.
Who were the first true blacksmiths in the Western Hemisphere? Perhaps, the Norsemen. In 1001, Leif Ericsson built a settlement, L’Anse aux Meadows, on Cape Bauld, Newfoundland and excavations have uncovered an ironworks and forge. The Norsemen found iron nodules in the bogs and streambeds near their settlement. Though primitive and small in scope, the Norse ironworks were most likely the first in the New World.
There are two primary reasons for the European colonization of the New World–precious metals and religious persecution. (Leif Ericsson’s crew may have found iron, but they were also searching for gold.) Not long after Columbus’ voyages, Martin Luther’s objections to the Church in Rome were being mass-printed on his fellow German’s (Gutenberg) printing press. And if you will recall the original purpose of Columbus’ mission, he was to pioneer a trade route to the spice-rich shores of China and the Indies. By the 1530’s, the Protestant Reformation was in full swing and Magellan’s ship had circumnavigated the globe. The events of this brief period changed everything there is about the world and its people and there has never been another era to compare with it.
It takes money to build navies, and when the Spanish found gold in Mexico, the conquest of the New World was on. In the ensuing century, the Spanish and Portuguese would claim and divide South and Central America as well as most of the western part of our nation. It took the Dutch, French, and English a while to catch up, but colonization of the eastern coast and the Great Lakes basin followed by 1600. The Spanish and Portuguese held true to the Church in Rome, but other Europeans openly practiced religions that conflicted with the ‘state-approved’ religion. These rifts began the European exodus to the New World.
Depending on where you look at the map, iron production developed at different times. As soon as the colonists located an iron ore deposit, they built a small iron smelter. Prior to this development, every piece of metal had to be shipped to North America. Wherever iron ore was found, a small industry began. And with these small steps, blacksmiths could start making tools, farm implements, muskets, cooking utensils, knives, and nearly all of the necessities (even sewing needles and fish hooks) that a sustainable pioneer village would need.
This is complicated time period to explain a blacksmith’s work scope because, without a well-developed iron industry, the blacksmith was dependent on material shipped from Europe. Still, the blacksmith was of critical importance and he would have been called on to repair anything broken or worn in this time of shortages. For example, he would repair a plow or an axe, two of the most important tools that a settler owned. Horses are not native to the New World–they came here on ships. Chances are that the horses that made it here did not get shod because horseshoes were bulky and expensive to ship from Europe. Without developed roads, there wasn’t a great demand for wagons–wagon parts, springs, and hardware were built by blacksmith shops back then. So most colonists had ox carts or pony carts to haul their meager possessions and crops. And keep in mind that, without an iron industry, the blacksmith’s tools and anvil also had to be imported. With the sailing ships that existed then, a few anvils added up to a considerably heavy cargo.
By 1700, some areas were prospering and had many of the amenities that you would expect to find in any well-developed town or city. The Boston area is such an example. Though if you left Boston for the interior, you’d soon find yourself at the edge of western civilization. In 1700, the then-president of Harvard College was probably commissioning a blacksmith to make door hinges and chandeliers for a new academic building. Fifty miles away, however, another blacksmith was scouring the land for enough iron to make a farmer’s plow.
In parts of California and the west, we can still find the influence of the Spanish blacksmith. He left his mark on the churches. (The Spanish influence is also apparent in Florida.) As with the east, the church building was one of the first and most important public building in any settlement. The churches were adorned with architectural ironwork whose quality and design amaze us even today.
An important date in this century is 1793–Eli Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin machine. Whitney was somewhat of a genius when it came to mass-producing identical metal parts. His true forte’ was in making triggers and hammers for muskets and rifles. Prior to then, all rifles were individually crafted by a blacksmith. No two rifles were identical. Thus, the date of 1793 might well represent the dawn of the age of the Industrial Revolution, an age where metal tools and parts would be mass-produced. The reasons were economic. In the case of cotton, it took about as much manual labor to separate the cotton boll as it did to harvest the crop. The cotton gin, a relatively simple machine, allowed one man to not only do the work of many at a consistent production pace but also allowed for another important industrial benefit–consistent quality control. This one machine greatly reduced the cost of cotton which, in turn, made cotton fabric and clothing more affordable. Cotton became an export product as a result. More cotton was planted–more plows were forged–more wagons were needed to haul the cotton to market–better roads had to be built–and blacksmiths provided these tools. But mass-production techniques being pioneered in the late 1700’s would eventually replace much of the blacksmith’s work.
During this century, more horses meant more wagons which spurred more roads which spurred more communities. Commerce picked up significantly. Blacksmiths were critical to this development. Not only did they shoe the horses and build the wagons but they also made wagon wheel rims and made repairs. As commerce picked up and more settlers arrived, there was an increasing demand for plows and, of course, rifles. It has often been said that the long rifle secured America’s quest for freedom. Not only did it have superior range and accuracy over any other weapon of its time but every colonist owned one and knew how to use it. Thus, many blacksmiths became gunsmiths.
The first Act passed by our Congress was a procedural one that allowed it to conduct business. The second Act that it passed imposed a tariff on rum imported from the Caribbean islands. Whiskey making was a growth industry in America by the 1770’s and the Congress felt that our whiskey industry shouldn’t be undercut by imported liquor. (This all had to do with taxes on corn and whiskey, not drinking.) I point this out only because whiskey was aged in oak barrels and a blacksmith made the barrel hoops.
Most blacksmiths started work when they were young boys, maybe at age 6 or 7. At the ae of 12 or 13, they would apprentice to a blacksmith for a decade or more. And then they would set out to start their own shop. America became a great opportunity for young blacksmiths. In Europe and other parts of the world, there were few new or expanding markets for blacksmiths. If a boy did apprentice to a master, he might spend most of his life in that shop before he ever got the opportunity to be a journeyman.
The 18th century created an unprecedented need for blacksmiths. Sailing ships needed hundreds of metal parts, pulleys, cleats, brackets, etc. as well as anchor chains. Blacksmiths made all of these parts. Shipbuilders also needed hammers, chisels, saws, nails, and bolts and blacksmiths made them. The Revolutionary War effort alone provided a great demand for blacksmiths and gunsmiths. The loggers needed saws and axes as well as chains and hooks. Homesteaders needed hardware and house wares, most of which the blacksmith made. As the country grew, jails were built and blacksmiths made the locks and grilles and shackles. Unlike Europe where a city grew over time around a Medieval castle, everything in America had to be built from scratch.
Many immigrant communities still wanted a part of their homeland, however. After all, they traveled here with only the barest of goods. Just as we pass down “the family silverware” from generation to generation, the same custom held true then. However, immigrant families left most of their heirlooms behind in the old country. This did provide an opportunity for journeymen blacksmiths from Europe. A blacksmith trained in, say, Cologne, Germany would seek out his countrymen in the colonies and set up shop in their village or district. He would prosper since he could replicate all of the old patterns that his fellow immigrants knew so well. Though they couldn’t bring their wares on the boat, these immigrants were not denied their heritage.
A key date in this period is 1838. John Deere (yes, the green tractor John Deere) invented a superior plow made from steel. His design turned the soil better than existing plows. But what made this event significant was the use of steel.
Deere’s plows also had replaceable cutting edges and wear strips. Unlike the hand-forged iron plow which was one piece and wore quickly along its edges, this steel plow lasted longer and the wearing parts could be cheaply replaced. By 1853, Deere & Co. was selling thousands of new steel plows, a significant milestone of technological change–steel vs. iron and manufactured vs. hand-forged. The American steel industry was underdeveloped in 1840 and produced a poor quality product. Deere relied on imported steel from England to make his plow successful.
In 1839, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the famous poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” We can assume, then, given the poem’s success, that the blacksmith was a revered craftsman. This period may have been the zenith in American blacksmithing. Even today, our thoughts about a blacksmith revolve around this poet’s description. But this poem was a fading dream. Even the chestnut tree that Longfellow wrote of later died and the people of the town had a chair made from the wood as a gift to the poet before his death in 1882.
During this era, steam power would change the nation. The first steamboats and packets vastly improved shipping, both on rivers and on the sea. Steam power would begin to replace water power in grist mills and textile plants. No longer would the miller rely on seasonal rains to grind corn meal or flour. And of course, the steam-powered locomotive changed transportation in ways never imagined. By 1860, the South had its Merrimac and the North had its Monitor. And both had railroad networks.
The blacksmith shop was starting to change as well. The bellows was replaced with a rotary fan blower and the drill press became available for small blacksmith shops. In larger shops and some of the fledgling factories, one might find a steam-powered trip hammer.
Americans were also moving westward. Being west of the Alleghenies in 1790 meant you were still on the frontier. But as John Deere invented his plow in Illinois, that alone shows how quickly the westward movement was taking place.
For a perspective of this period, consider Salem, WV. Originally settled in 1792 by Seventh Day Baptist families who migrated south from Rhode Island, Salem was itself an island in the wilderness. The first buildings were a blockhouse and fort to protect the settlers from Indian raids. From that beginning, log houses were built and the settlers developed farms. The town grew and it did prosper as a farming community. Six decades after its founding, Salem would find itself not on the frontier but in mid-America–a rail stop on the Baltimore & Ohio’s mainline. And on the town’s 100th anniversary, Salem was home to Salem College and sat surrounded by oil and gas wells.
To understand this era, consider the lowly nail. In 1800, a blacksmith made nails, one at a time, at a rate of perhaps one per minute. Nails were expensive. Lumber, on the other hand, was becoming cheap. And as lumber got cheaper, people wanted to live in houses instead of log cabins. A way to make cheap nails had to be found and it was–the nail factory. “Cut” nails were turned out in all sizes from spikes to brads because the typical Victorian house and its trim needed about 400# of nails to hold it together. Nails were so scarce and expensive prior to 1800 that some states had previously enacted arson laws, not to criminalize arson per se, but to prevent people from burning down sheds, barns, and houses just to sift the nails from the ashes! Factories such as Wheeling’s LaBelle Nail Co. (1852, and still operating in 2010) met the demand for nails. And they forever removed one of the blacksmith’s product lines.
Horses, wagons, and horse-drawn implements would dominate the blacksmith’s work through this period. Factories would begin producing many of the tools traditionally made in the village smithy. And steel, not iron became the metal of choice. By 1910, Henry Ford had made a farm tractor that most farmers could afford. Along with his Model T automobile, Henry Ford would make the horse and wagon almost obsolete. And with this change, the blacksmith that Longfellow wrote of disappeared from the land.
In a typical American town in 1900, one would expect to find livery stables, feed stores, wagon shops, blacksmith shops, horse corrals, horse traders, and horse trainers in about the same ratio that we now find auto dealers, repair shops, parts stores, driving instructors, and fueling stations. This shows how much the blacksmith was a part of the local economy. The change was quick and significant.
Introduced in the 1890’s, it would not take long for America to begin its love affair with the automobile. The technology of the cotton gin came of age in the automobile assembly plant. More than anything else, motorized vehicles and farm equipment doomed the trade of blacksmith.
There was a golden age for blacksmiths who made architectural ironwork during the early part of this period. But the Great Depression (1930) would end this Renaissance. Still, many of America’s most-treasured iron works in iron were made during this time.
Farming with workhorses did not evaporate overnight. And even the US Army maintained some horse cavalry and horse-drawn artillery units into the 1930’s. But by 1950, nearly all agricultural crops were tended by machines and the Army was obviously mechanized. The farrier’s main work shifted from shoeing work horses to pleasure horses. While many factories employed blacksmiths in their maintenance departments in 1910, they were eventually phased out as their need decreased.
In summary, the art of blacksmithing almost became extinct during the latter half of this period. People would remember their grandfather’s farm and the shed where his anvil was set up. But they had no idea of what Grandpa did in his shop. Essentially, if a job absolutely had to be done by hand, then a blacksmith would have work. And there were some repairs and tools that called for the blacksmith’s skills. But modern logic dictated mass-production and replacement rather than repair. It became cheaper to throw away a broken chain rather than have a blacksmith make the repair links! And what about those wrought-iron railings that homeowners bought in the ’50’s? They aren’t hand-forged by a blacksmith; they are cold-bent in presses and welded together, and the finials are cast iron, made a hundred at a time.
Enough grandchildren must have been curious about Grandpa’s anvil because a resurgence in blacksmithing began about 1970. Today, about 5,000 men and women belong to ABANA, the Artists Blacksmith Assn. of North America. There are an estimated 5,000 non-members. Add to that all of the farriers, bladesmiths, gunsmiths, and armourers and perhaps 20-30,000 Americans practice the metal arts of our earlier days. Maybe even more. But that’s still not many in a nation of 300,000,000 people. And when you whittle this down to the full-timers who derive their living from actual metalsmithing, the percentage drops even lower. Don’t sell your car and tractor, just yet.
The quality of work, especially in the arts, is more impressive now than it’s ever been. There is more of a market for metal sculpture now than at any other time.
The quality of work of today’s bladesmiths and gunsmiths rivals any time in history. But rather than arm a village, today’s workmanship is primarily sold to collectors.
While the styles and nature of architectural ironwork changes from decade to decade, we are seeing some truly fantastic work today. But you will never see banks commission window and door grilles as they once did. Nor will your university install iron gates at its entrance.
And finally, farriers know more about their trade today than at any time in history. But unless you are in Amish country or visit the Budweiser Clydesdale stables, then you aren’t going to find farriers shoeing work horses.
We, as blacksmiths in the 21st Century, are merely keeping the forge warm. No one pretends to be Longfellow’s man. Nor would anyone claim to be a master blacksmith like Samuel Yellin.
If they do, they know nothing of history.
Speaking of history, consider this: Leif Ericsson wrote a detailed description of his Newfoundland expedition. He observed that winters there were so mild that they did not even have a frost during the winter. He also observed that cattle and sheep could graze year ’round because of the mild climate. The same site today supports only cold-tolerant vegetation such as partridgeberry, not forage grasses. Global warming, anyone?
By David G. Allen
Continue on to: Part 3, History
Endnotes for Part 2:
 “The European Discovery of America; The Northern Voyages,” by Samuel Eliot Morison. Voyages to North America.
 “A World Lit Only By Fire,” by William Manchester. Excellent perspective of the end of the Dark Ages and beginning of the Renaissance.
 L’Anse aux Meadows is a Canada Park: http://www.parkscanada.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/meadows/index_E.asp
 George Washington commissioned two armories to make rifles. One was built at Harpers Ferry, WV in 1799. It was later the site of John Brown’s raid (1859). Iron ore was first mined here in 1760 and continued until 1910. “The Bloomery”, a high-quality ironworks, influenced Washington’s decision to locate the armory at Harpers’ Ferry. http://wvweb.com/cities/harpers_ferry/ and http://www.nps.gov/hafe
 James Rumsey (blacksmith/cabinet maker) is credited with developing the first steamboat at Shepherdstown, WV.
 For more on Indian Wars and raids, see: Chief Cornstalk, Lord Dunmore’s War. Some brief information is at: http://www.wvculture.org/history/notewv/corn.html
 For examples of early iron making in North America, see:
Founded in 1646–Saugus, MA Iron Works http://www.nps.gov/sair/
Founded in 1771–Hopewell, PA Furnace http://www.nps.gov/hofu/