Tuesday, September 24, 2013

French Trade Axe from Bloom Iron (1)

One of the few artifact pieces I have in my collection is an early French trade axe, a 'Biscayne' type:
Artifact measurements - in mm
I bought this piece at an auction near Angus Ontario, quite a few years back. The original owner had told me he had dug it up on his property there. He had spray painted the thing gold, and had a loop of wire (thankfully no hole!) to hang it on the wall.
I had recognized an early, blacksmith made axe - and not much more. Back at my shop, I had thoughts of re-conditioning it. I ran it up to forge heat to burn off the paint, then gave it a heavy hand wire brushing to lift off the surface corrosion. After cooling, I started to clean up the edge on the bench grinder. (Sorry!) As I reduced the edge,  I found a massive flaw in the edge weld, a piece roughly the size of a quarter with visible fire scale inside the crack. At that point I realized I had a great commentary piece on historic blacksmithing work. 'See - not everything was made by masters - and they screwed up too.'

On a fast internet search this morning in preparation to this article, I was a bit surprised to find the following :

Fur Trade Axes  by Mark Miller - Biscayne Trade Axes

" The Biscayne trade axes are the oldest style of metal axe we know of traded in North America.  The eye pattern has a distinctive ovate egg shape..."

" Records show Biscay hatchets being traded to American Indians by the Spanish as early as 1520's - 1540's;  the French from about 1560-1750's; and the British from 1674 -1690's? which were copies of the French ones but were recorded as imports by the blacksmith Samuel Banner from England.  "

" The Hudson's Bay Company began literally copying the French biscay trade axes in 1674 ...  How long the English copied the French made axes is not known but there is no mention of it past the 17th C....
The French made Biscay style trade axes from at least the 1530's-and tapering off until the last known reference to them was 1758. "

The artifact I have is heavily pock marked with corrosion. There is no obvious makers mark I can distinguish on either face. 

Given that and the find location, it may be hard to date the axe accurately. Angus is within the north to south line of the Nottawasaga Valley, putting it directly south of Collingwood / Georgian Bay. This is potentially one of the routes possible to the French mission at Saint Marie Among the Hurons to the north (1639 - 49). Most certainly with the later expansion of the English into what became Upper Canada, there was a continuing European presence in this area to modern Canada.

Some images of the original artifact - along with the piece I have been working on the last couple of days based on it  (both images expand to roughly life size, the artifact is on the top) :

Side 'face' view

Bottom surface view

Along with the massive welding flaw on the actual cutting edge I mentioned, you can see that there is a serious flaw in the weld  along the bottom side. This would drastically impact on the axe's ability to be correctly fitted to - and remain attached on - a working handle. 

Together I get the impression of 'junk for the natives' - low quality work, produced as quickly and cheaply as possible!

Note : The replica version I am working on is only at the 'rough forged' stage at the point of those images!


David Robertson said...

The artifact looks like the flawed weld near the eye may have opened up with use, although hard to tell with out handling it.

Reproduction looks solid.

I assume you are making this for the gallery at Quadstate in Troy Ohio this weekend.

Unknown said...

Actually the Indians often chiseled these open & used the rare iron for making other things like hide scrapers. It looks like they were in the process of doing it.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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