Building of long houses took place in the spring when saplings were flexible with the new sap running through them. Tips of poles which went into the ground were burned to bring some of those saps to the surface, harden and act as a protection of the wood against moisture and bugs from the ground. Many of these structures (long houses, wigwams, etc.) were only meant to last about three-four years, but often lasted longer with constant repairs.
Unlike the Iroquois, the Wabanaki People did not live in their long houses year round. These long houses were smaller and used as meeting houses or lodging for chiefs who had larger extended families due to taking in those who needed shelter and care. Sometimes visitors stayed in the long house along with the chief's family.
As you can see in this first photo, joints were tied with strips of bark or spruce root. No metal was available pre-contact except by trade and even then, it did not provide any building tools or materials. The saplings were most likely cut with stone axes. Some had handles, others were strictly hand axes.
Saplings were set into the ground in two parallel rows then bent over to meet one another. They were then tied together to secure them. Each joint was tied with strips of bark or spruce root. Cross pieces were added for strength and for use in hanging dried corn, baskets of food or other belongings. One or two fire pits served to heat the lodge on cold days. While most cooking was done out of doors in a large community pot, some cooking was done indoors when the weather would not permit use of an outdoor pit. Fires also served as light as people gathered around an elder to listen to stories.
The photo below shows the cross joints which help to strengthen the sides of the lodge. Connected to these cross poles would be benches for sitting or sleeping. These rose only about 12"-18" off the ground, but provided storage beneath them for tools, utensils , hides, etc.
The photo below shows elm bark and tulip bark side by side. The rougher elm bark which was originally used until a blight killed many elm trees in the New England area. Tulip tree bark then became a useful replacement.
This is a closeup (below) which shows how there was an inner skeleton, a sheathing of bark and then an outer skeleton which kept the bark in place. Since there were no nails to hold these large sheets of bark in place, it was necessary to sandwich them tightly between the two sapling frames.
People often ask about the sheets of bark because they appear to be so large. If you put your hands together to form your arms in a circle and then open your arms out straight, you will see that what appears to have come from a large tree actually comes from a tree as small as 18" in diameter which gives you a sheet 36" wide.
In order to flatten the bark, the wood was soaked in water, then piled with rocks on top to flatten them. Again, the bark is taken in the spring when there is a layer of sap between the inner core of the tree and the bark. This makes it easier to remove in single sheets then when the sap is not running.
Notice that the sheets of bark are laid from the bottom up. Each succeeding layer overlapped the first (like roofing shingles) so that when rain came, the water ran off and over each layer. One or two smoke holes will be left at the top to allow smoke to escape. Flaps that open and close cover the holes were constructed to prevent rain or snow from entering. The flaps could be opened just enough to allow smoke to curl upward and still keep out the moisture.
In the winter, branches and leaves would be leaned up against the sides of the lodge for insulation. As the snow gathered, it would fill in the branches packing the lodge more effectively.
Skins or bark were used to cover the doors (2) and when the weather was severe, people left their wigwams to gather in these long houses to share heat, resources, food and comfort and safety.
Because many of these villages were small and mainly consisted of extended families they were quite vulnerable to attack by larger, more organized tribes such as the Iroquois who used palisades to protect their villages.
In contrast to the Iroquois, the Wabanaki set up temporary camps near their gardens, fishing or hunting sites and then returned to their main camps for the winter months. The Iroquois, lived in their "cities" of hundreds of people who went out to the sites, but did not stay there. Instead, they hunted, fished, tended their gardens returning to their villages every night. This provided a fortress like environment in contrast to the rather casual way the Wabanaki lived. Their long houses were very large. Some were recorded as much as 400 feet long. Thus they were named the "Long House People." While other tribes used long houses, they are not referred to as long house people. Just people who used long houses.
This is a photo of the inside of a completed longhouse.
This long house is approximately 35 feet in length. Considered small compared to others. Benches provided beds or seats. Areas under the benches allowed for storage. There were generally at least two fire pits.
Once completed, either large pieces of bark or animal skins would be used over the doors.
Photos taken during the construction of the new long house at the pre-contact village at the Institute for Native American Studies, Washington, CT.