Learn about the structure and the interior of the Pit House with pictures and images together with facts and information about the tribes who used them, including the Nez Perce, .
Pit House Definition
What does the term Pit House mean? Definition: A Pit House was a type of semi subterranean dwelling, built half below the surface of the ground in a deep hole or pit, made with a log frame with the walls and roof being covered with grass, sticks, bark, brush that was covered with earth. This type of winter shelter was used by many tribes of the Plateau cultural group and also some Californian tribes.
The Plateau Pit House
The Plateau Pit house was a winter shelter built by many tribes of the Plateau Native American cultural group including the Cayuse, Coeur d'Alene, Modoc, Yakama, Walla-Walla, Palouse and Nez Perce people. The warm summers and cold, snowy winters made a warm winter house essential. Plateau Pit houses winter shelters varied in size and built with a framework of logs and sealed for insulation with earth (sod) and grasses. Pit houses were built below ground with an entrance and ladder at the top and were used during the cold, snowy winter months. A winter village consisted of either one large community pithouse, or several smaller houses which were occasionally connected with a tunnel.
The California Pit House
Native Indian Tribes in California such as the Maidu, Miwok, Wappo, Shasta, and the Pomo also lived in winter pit houses. These shelters were simpler versions of the Plateau Pit Houses. They measured about 10-15 feet in width, although the chief's house were much bigger. The Pit houses were built in the spring when the ground was soft. A pit of up to 15 feet deep would be dug and posts set in place to create the framework with radiating poles across the ceiling. The main structure was covered by grass, bark, sticks, brush and woven tule mats. The whole structure would then be swathed with the earth that had been dug out when preparing the pit. A smoke hole was left in the roof together with an entrance hatch which also provided some fresh air and a little light into the Californian pit house. The Pit House could also be accessed via side shafts, that also provided a means of ventilation. A pit fire, surrounded by stones, was build in the centre of the shelter. The mound created by the Pithouse was barely noticeable at a distance except for the ladder that protruded from the entrance hole and for the high poles, topped by stuffed birds, that were erected as decoys to lure other passing birds.
How was a Pit House built?
The process, method and materials used to build a Plateau Pit House were as follows:
- The building of a Pit House was planned well in advance and required cooperation for collecting the timber to build the framework of poles
- The Pithouse were built in the spring when the ground was soft, making it easier to dig the pit. Flattened stone digging tools were used to dig
- The pit was dug to a depth of up to 15 feet. The size of the pit house ranged from 18 - 48 feet (6 - 16 meters)
- Cedar or Spruce trees were felled and poles were cut and stripped of branches and bark. They were then smoothed and cut to the same length
- The framework of the Pit house consisted of posts from 8 - 12 feet long that radiated towards the center
- Horizontal cross poles were tied to the main posts to complete the framework
- Additional, smaller, wooden battens were added to complete the roof
- The roof was then covered with brush, sticks and a thick layer of sod (turf) which provided excellent insulation
- A space was left for central entrance, that also served as a smoke hole, was accessed by a ladder. The entrance provided ventilation and a source of light
- Earth was formed into a low bench entirely, or partly, around the circumference of the interior, for seating and storage
Pit House Interior
The Pit House interior included a central hearth, consisting of a fire pit encircled by stones, with a large pot for cooking the meals. Beds were located on the lodge floor or bench and consisted of dried grasses that were covered with animal hides. There was usually a storage trench used to keep dried meat, vegetables, and clothing. Personal possessions were stored in baskets, storage pits or hung from the rafters. Woven mats or deerskins were occasionally used as floor coverings. The fire constantly smouldered in the hearth, which made the windowless Pit house smoky and dark.