Digging Deeper Into Shovels and
Other Earthy Matters.

by Bill Potter

The article "Calling a Spade a Spade," (June, 1996, Courier) on 18th century shovels, prompts me to add a few notes to the subject. Mention is made that spades were used for cutting turf, and the article assumes this meant they were used for making firepits and trenching around tents. Undoubtedly they were, but those would have been secondary usages. The primary use of the spade was for cutting sod to line various earthworks, as was the custom of the day.1

For any fortification meant to last more than a short time, turf was an important reinforcing agent. An example of this is seen in a letter by Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster of the King's Regiment in 1780. Writing about the effects the harsh winter on the on-going construction of Fort Lernoult at Detroit, DePeyster says:

men digging"The new Fort will be constant employment for this Garrison for some time to come. The Ditches filling faster than we can Sod, owing to severe weather, and Springs breaking out in all parts which brings down the earth in great clods."2

The practice of sodding earthworks was not confined to the British, either. An undated report from Fort Schuyler/Stanwix in New York by Capt. De Lamarquise (a French officer serving as the American engineer at the fort in 1777) states:

"...since his arrival at that post [De Lamarquise] has made halves to the axes, pickaxes & spades & other implements... The Garrison has not yet permitted him to undertake the putting the fort in proper order and were there men sufficient, the grass will not be of sufficient strength for 15 days, to cut turf ....as soon as Colo Gansevoort arrives he will set about the fort and trim it up with turf &c from the bottom of the ditch &c."3

It is of note that De Lamarquise had to supply handles for the garrison's digging implements, the indication being they were delivered without them, or perhaps the old ones were unserviceable.

In looking at the sidebar "Engineering Tools" list (actually a "wish list" of desired supplies, not what was actually on hand), note that the person requesting the items asks for far more spades than shovels, an indication the lowly spade was intended for duties beyond the firepit. Also note the spades are divided into two categories, "common" and "ditching." If you ever use a flat-bladed spade for heavy digging, you may soon find the design is inadequate -- the flat blade will bend relatively easily. An arched blade (like on a regular shovel) adds significant strength. However, the flat-blade is great for skimming dirt or shaving clay. Yet some 500 of the spades on the list are classified as for "ditching," which sounds like pretty strenuous work to me. Perhaps these were some sort of reinforced "super spade" intended for heavier work.

The "shovels" category on the list is also interesting, for it is divided into two types: "shod" and "iron." The "shod" category undoubtedly refers to shovels that had not only wooden handles, but wooden blades too, with a steel or iron reinforced cutting edge. Although it may have been considered an antiquated design by the late 18th century, the two-piece blade was still in general use at the time, as indicated by the 1,500 on order on the list. In point of fact, of the shovels and spades excavated at Fort Stanwix, about half of them had metal-tipped wood blades.4

Oops. This is all far more about old shovels than any healthy person should care to discuss.


1. John Muller, Treatise of Fortification (London: J. Nourse, 1746; reprint, Ottawa, Ontario: Museum Restoration Service, 1968), 49 (reprint edition).

2. Major Arent S[chuyler] DePeyster to Lt. Col. Mason Bolton, Detroit, May 16, 1780, in Michigan State Pioneer and Historical Society, Collections of the Michigan State Pioneer and Historical Society, 40 vols. (Lansing: State Printer, 1877-1929), 19:520.

3. Report, Capt.. De Lamarquise to [?], [Fort Schuyler, NY], [1777], in John Luzander, Louis Torres, and Orville W. Carroll, Fort Stanwix: Construction, History, and Historic Structures Report (Washington: National Park Service, 1976), 24.

4. Lee Hanson and Dick Ping Hsu, Casemates and Cannonballs: Archeological Investigations at Fort Stanwix, Rome, New York (Washington: National Park Service, 1975), 98-100.

More on Wooden Shovels.

By Mark Tully

The troops also used wooden shovels in the winter time: "December 18, 1777, The Barrack Master [is] to issue to each Regiment, 3 boards of 16 feet long, and 12 or 13 Inches wide, of which they are immediately to make 12 Snow Shovels."

A little math reveals that each shovel was about four feet long. The blades could have been pieced together with what was cut away from the handles (or hafts) to be about 20" wide.

SOURCE: W.O. 36/2, General Orders, Rhode Island, November 28, 1776 thru January 6, 1778, as Transcribed by Gilbert V. Riddle.