Shirleen Davies

History of Blacksmiths & Farriers in the 19th Century Frontier

Blacksmiths practice the age-old art of forging tools from iron or steel. Most blacksmiths didn’t shoe horses, those specialists are known as farriers. Many types of horseshoes made today were also used in the 19th century. During the Civil War, the Union forces had a horseshoe-forging machine which gave them an advantage over the Southern armies.

Blacksmith and Apprentices

Having the horseshoe was one thing, but a good shoeing job was another. There was a great demand for farriers in a nation teeming with horses and the Journeymen Horseshoes National Union was founded in 1874.

However, on the frontier, many blacksmiths and farriers set up business together. These kinds of merged shops occurred for two key reasons:

  • Because there were no trade guilds in the frontier to regulate tradesmen and their apprentices.
  • To keep pace with the rapidly expanding settlements and fill the need for skilled tradesmen.

To shoe horses, blacksmiths or farriers needed an iron stand to support the horse’s foot while preparing the horses hooves for shoes. They also used a special hammer and nails to fasten the shoes to the horse.

Farrier at work.

Blacksmiths on the frontier who did shoe horses only spent about a fourth of their time on such work. Fifty to sixty percent of their business consisted of repairing farm implements. The rest of their time was devoted to producing new items such as tools and hardware.

How a Blacksmith Shop was Set Up

Blacksmiths in the 19th century used basic materials and tools for their craft. Most blacksmiths worked with iron and steel and occasionally copper, bronze, gold, and silver.  The crucial tools needed to set up a Blacksmith shop were a hearth, an anvil, a vise, a hammer, and tongs.

  • Hammer

A basic ball peen or a cross peen hammer worked well.

Ball peen hammer.
  • Vise

A large vise stood up well to repeated hammer blows.

  • Tongs

Blacksmiths use many different tongs, one or two for each thickness of metal they work with. Having tongs the right size for the materials made it much easier to keep a good grip on the metal and improved the quality of the blacksmith’s work.

  • The Hearth

This is where the blacksmiths heated pieces of iron or steel until the metal glowed red and was soft enough for shaping.

  • Anvil
19th century anvil and tools. Smithsonian Institute

The shape of the anvil evolved from a simple slab to the London Pattern, which is what we think of as the standard design. It became common in the 1800s. The length and general size of its elements can vary but the chief features of an anvil are the horn, step, face, hardie hole, and a pritchel hole. The horn is curved so the smith can hammer different curves into the piece they’re working on, depending on how and what part of the horn they hold the piece on while they hammer it. Some anvils have several horns in different shapes and sizes.

The step is the flat area next to the horn, just below the face.  Blacksmiths often uses the step’s edge to cut a piece while hammering it. But using the step regularly for cutting can damage it. It’s better to use the cutting tools attached to the anvil.

Hardie hole.

The face is the large flat slab where most of the hammering takes place.  It has slightly rounded edges that won’t cut into the metal as it’s being pounded on the face. It also contains the hardie hole and the pritchel hole. The hardie hole is a square hole for securing tools in the anvil such as chisels, swages for shaping or marking the metal, a block of metal with a recess for forcing the metal into the shape of the recess, and bickerns, which are smaller, specialized versions of the horn. The pritchel hole is a round version of the hardie hole, which was also used as an aid in punching holes through the metal or for holding tools.

Many blacksmiths will strike whatever they’re working on a few times, then lightly tap the anvil’s step or face a couple times.  This keeps the hot metal they’re working with from cooling down as quickly, so it requires less heating while shaping, which saves time.

Other Tools the blacksmiths used regularly are:

Tools made and used in blacksmith shop.
  • Shovels
  • Rakes
  • Pokers
  • Sledges
  • Swages
  • Cutters
  • Chisels
  • Shoeing Box
  • knives, rasps, and files

What They Did

The term smith originated from the word smite altered over time to mean a man who strikes. Blacksmiths were invaluable on the frontier because they could make crowbars, axles, axes, plows, and other needed tools. They also created fine metal parts like hinges, hoops for wooden barrels, nails, and pots.

The blacksmith was often a town’s rural philosopher, and his shop, open during the summer and comfortably warm in the winter, was a place for gathering and gossip.

The craft was passed on from master blacksmiths to young apprentices, who were usually just boys when they began learning.

Famous Blacksmiths

Thomas Davenport, a Vermont blacksmith, who developed the first American DC battery-powered electric motor in 1834. It operated a small model car on a short section of track, laying the foundation for electric streetcars. Davenport received an American patent on an electric machine in 1837 and used it in 1840 to print The Electro-Magnetic and Mechanics Intelligencer, which was the first newspaper printed using electricity.

Thomas Davenport

Peter Madsen Peel, a founder in 1859 of Mount Pleasant Utah, was that city’s first blacksmith. He was also the first president of the Birch Creek Irrigation Company, a community leader, and a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  A replica of his blacksmith shop including a working forge is located next to the Relic Hall in Mt. Pleasant.

Alexander Hamilton Willard was a blacksmith on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1808, Meriwether Lewis hired him as a government blacksmith for the Sauk and Fox Indians, and the following year, he served in the same position for the Delawares and the Shawnees.




For those familiar with my Redemption Mountain historical western romance series, you’re already know Noah Brandt, the town blacksmith and Union Army sharpshooter. Survivor Pass, book 5, Is Noah’s and Abigail’s story. It is available in eBook and paperback.



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1 thought on “History of Blacksmiths & Farriers in the 19th Century Frontier”

  1. I found this article to be very interesting. I am a senior missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and I am serving in Nauvoo, IL in the Blacksmith Shop. You have verified many of the points we make when we do our tours there. I get to make small horseshoes in the shop several times a week. It is so fun and visitors love the information. We do live video tours if you are interested through ZOOM. Go to My grandfather was a blacksmith yet I never asked him what he did or how he did it. I regret that now. Thank you for this information. I am now fascinated by blacksmiths on the frontier.

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