Building a Wigwam Frame By Woodland Indian Ed. Programs Demonstrated by Mark Eaton & Jessica Diemer-Eaton
Poles selected for wigwam frames were obtained from cedar, hickory, chestnut, elm and other hardwood saplings (young trees). Wigwam/longhouse frame construction had to be done during the spring to summer seasons, when the saplings were much more flexible and able to bend into the desired domed shape. Saplings selected for the job of vertical posts in the framework had to be of a substantial size, around 2.5 inches in diameter at the base.
The saplings were stripped of their bark; stripping the poles added to the lifespan of the frame as bark would only hasten wood rot.
Such thin bark was probably saved for cordage in securing the framework. The inner fibers of the bark could be seperated and made into fine twisted cordage, or the thin rough bark in whole could be used to fasten the wigwam frame together.
Many times, the ends of the poles that were placed in the ground were fire hardened, which can help ward of ground level rotting.
The domed wigwam frames were permanent, the footing ends plunged into the ground. While this could be accomplished by digging holes or trenches, archaeological evidence shows no or minimal ground disturbance around post hole stains suggesting that possibly a stake was forced into the ground to mold the holes, then the vertical frame poles were thrust into the cavities 12 to 18 inches deep. Each pole was usually placed 9 to 12 inches apart, with exception to the home's entrance.
Many woodland wigwam posts were set in the ground on a slight angle to the outside. This was done to create a higher ceiling when bending the saplings into their barrel roof shape, by bending opposite of the outward angle. If the poles are anchored straight in the ground, the pull of the bending might start the curve in the ceiling to low on the wall.
Saplings had to be used and bent within a day or two of being cut and stripped, any longer and the dead trees would start to loose their flexibility and become more likely to break under the tension of bending the barrel roof. The vertical poles were bent inward to form the dome roof of the home. Most likely this was accomplished with cords tied to the tops of the straight poles, and after the poles were secured in the ground, they were bent by pulling on the cords. Another possible method would had been to bend the poles before placing them upright , staking them in the desired shape on the ground and letting them cure with that curve. Most of these poles being placed in the ground upright can be thought of as ribs; each sapling meets and ties to a twin anchored on the opposite wall.
Once all vertical posts were in place, horizontal poles were added. This added strength to the frame by creating a lattice. These frames had to be strong enough to carry a few hundred pounds of bark, as well as a snow load. Cordage was used to secure the horizontal poles in place; finer cord being made from the inner layer of mature barks, and rougher strips from the entire bark of young trees (such as what was stripped off the framework poles - see above).
Included in wigwam framework construction were the sleeping platforms and upper shelves, made from saplings too. Many homes also exhibited a second or outer framework, made in the same manner as the main framework with the objective to capture and compress the large bark sheets that covered the home (not pictured here).
With a strong framework, the wigwam could withstand the weight of bark and a snow load, and protect the occupants from most forms of harsh weather.
WIEP offers a wigwam constructing workshop for museums and nature centers. Click here to view our interpretive workshops page for more details.