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Supplemental Material
Frontier Life in Colonial Times

Because so many of our ancestral families - the Van Meters, the Haycrafts, the Strodes, the Magills, the Fowlers, the Shannons, the Morrisons, the Richardsons, the Gillilands, and several others, all settled in the same general region of the country - namely western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, both before and after the Revolution, it's probably safe to say that in many ways, their life experiences were similar. The following article, from Henry Howe's Historical Collections of the Great West (Cincinnati:1851) has much to tell us about American frontier life of the late 1700s. Apart from some brief introductory remarks, the article was re-printed by Howe from "Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, from the years 1763 until the year 1783, inclusive; together with a View of the State of Society and manners of the first Settlers of the Western County," by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Doddridge, Wellsburgh, Va., 1824. I have taken the liberty of omitting some of Doddridge's personal anecdotes whenever they seemed to add little or nothing to the topic being addressed. Otherwise, the article is the same as it was originally written:

The lives of the pioneers of Kentucky, Tennessee and western Pennsylvania and western Virginia were more poetical and romantic [than the lives of New Englanders]. The spirit of adventure allured them into the wilderness. The beauty of the country gratified the eye; its abundance of wild animals, the passion for hunting. They were surrounded by an enemy subtile [sic] and wary. "The sound of the war whoop oft woke the sleep of the cradle." But those wild borderers flinched not from the contest: even their women and children often performed deeds of heroism from which the iron nerves of manhood might well have shrunk in fear.

In such circumstances, no opportunity could be afforded for the cultivation of the arts and elegancies of refined life. In their seclusion, amid danger and peril, there arose a peculiar condition of society, elsewhere unknown,. It has been well-portrayed by one of their number, who, giving the results of his experience, pleases by the artless simplicity of his pictures. These the compiler presents below, as nothing equal to them, for this object, ever has been or probably ever will be producing, commencing with:

Settlement of the country. The settlements on this side of the mountains commenced along the Monongahela, and between that river and the Laurel Ridge, in the year 1772. In the succeeding year they reached the Ohio River. The greater number of the first settlers came from the upper parts of the then colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Braddock's trail, as it was called, was the route by which the greater number of them crossed the mountains. A less number of them came by the way of Bedford and East Ligonier, the military road from Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh. They effected their removals on horses, furnished with pack-saddles. This was the more easily done, as but few of these early adventurers in the wilderness were encumbered with much baggage.

Land was the object which invited the greater number of these people to cross the mountain, for, as the saying was, "It was to be had here for taking it up;" that is, building a cabin, and raising a crop of grain, however small, of any kind, entitled the occupant to four hundred acres of land, and a pre-emption right to one thousand acres more, adjoining, to be secured by a land-office warrant. This right was to take effect if there happened to be so much vacant land in any part thereof, adjoining the tract secured by the settlement right.

At an early period, the government of Virginia, appointed three commissioners to give certificates of settlement rights. These certificates, together with the surveyor's plot, were sent to the land-office of the State, where they laid six months, to await any caveat which might be offered. If none was offered, the patent was then issued.

There was, at an early period of our settlements, an inferior kind of land title, denominated a "tomahawk right," which was made by deadening a few trees near the head of a spring, and marking the bark of some one or more of them with the initials of the name of the person who made the improvement. I remember to have seen a number of these "tomahawk rights" when a boy. For long time many of them bore the names of those who made them. I have no knowledge of the efficacy of the tomahawk improvement, or whether it conferred any right whatever, unless followed by an actual settlement. These rights, however, were often bought and sold.

Some of the early settlers took the precaution to come over the mountains in the spring, leaving their families behind, to raise a crop of corn, and then return and bring them out in the fall. This, I should think, was the better way. Others, whose families were small, brought them with them in the spring. My father took the latter course. His family was but small, and he brought them all with him. The Indian meal which he brought over the mountain was expended six weeks too soon, so that, for that length of time, we had to live without bread. The lean venison and the breast of wild turkies, we were taught to call bread. The flesh of the bear was designated meat. This artifice did not succeed very well; after living in this way for some time we became sickly, the stomach seemed to be always empty, and tormented with a sense of hunger. I remember how narrowly the children watched the growth of potatoe [sic] tops, pumpkin and squash vines, hoping from day to day to get something to answer in the place of bread. How delicious was the taste of young potatoes when we got them! What a jubilee when we were permitted to pull the young corn for roasting ears. Still more so when it had acquired a sufficient hardness to be made into johnny cakes, by the aid of tin grater. We then became healthy, vigorous, and contented with our situation, poor as it was.

The division lines between those whose lands adjoined, were generally made in an amicable manner, before any survey of them was made by the parties concerned. In doing this, they were guided mainly by the tops of ridges and water courses, but particularly the former. Hence the greater number of farms in the western parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia bear a striking resemblance to an amphitheater. The buildings occupy a low situation, and the tops of the surrounding hills are the boundaries of the tract to which the family mansion belongs. Our forefathers were fond of farms this description, because, as they said, they were attended with this convenience, "that everything comes to the house down hill." In the hilly parts of the State of Ohio, the land having been laid off in an arbitrary manner, by straight parallel lines, without regard to hill or dale, the farms present a different aspect from those on the east side of the river opposite. There the buildings as frequently occupy the tops of hills as any other situation.

Most of the early settlers considered their land as of little value, from an apprehension that after a few years cultivation it would lose its fertility, at least for a long time. I have often heard them say that such a field would bear so many crops and another so many, more or less than that. The ground of this belief concerning the short-lived fertility of the land in this country, was the poverty of a great proportion of the land in the lower parts of Maryland and Virginia, which, after producing a few crops, became unfit for use, and was thrown out into commons.

In their unfavorable opinion of the nature of the soil of our country, our forefathers were utterly mistaken. The native weeds were scarcely destroyed, before the white clover, and different kinds of grass made their appearance. - These soon covered the ground, so as to afford pasture for the cattle, by the time the wood range was eaten out, as well as to protect the soil from being washed away by drenching rains, so often injurious to hilly countries.

Judging from Virgil's test of fruitful and barren soils, the greater part of this country must possess every requisite for fertility. The test is this: dig a hole of any reasonable dimensions and depth. If the earth which was taken out, when thrown lightly back into to it, does not fill up the hold, the soil is fruitful; but if it more than fill up, the soil is barren. Whoever choose to make this experiment, will find the result indicative of the richness of our soil. Even our graves, notwithstanding the size of the vault, are seldom finished with the earth thrown out of them, and they soon sink below the surface of the earth.

Furniture and Diet. - The settlement of a new country, in the immediate neighborhood of an old one, is not attended with much difficulty, because supplies can be readily obtained from the latter; but the settlement of a country very remote from any cultivated region, is a very different thing, because, at the outset, food, raiment, and the implements of husbandry, are obtained only in small supplies, and with very great difficulty. The task of making new establishments in a remote wilderness in a time of profound peace, is sufficiently difficult; but when, in addition to all the hardships attendant on this business, those resulting from an extensive and furious warfare with savages are superadded, toil, privations and suffering are then carried to the full extent of the capacity of man to endure them.

Such was the wretched condition of our forefathers in making their settlements here. To all their difficulties and privations, the Indian wars were a weighty addition. This destructive warfare they were compelled to sustain almost single-handed, because the revolutionary contest with England at the outset, gave full employment to all the strength and resources on the east side of the mountains.

The furniture for the table, for several years after the settlement of this country, consisted of a few pewter dishes, plates, and spoons; but mostly of wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins. If these last were scarce, gourds and hard-shelled squashes made up the deficiency. The iron pots, knives and forks, were brought from the east side of the mountains, along with the salt and iron, on pack horses. These articles of furniture corresponded very well with the articles of diet on which they were employed. "Hog and hominy" were proverbial for the dishes of which they were the component parts. Johnny cake and pone were, at the outset of the settlements of the country, the only forms of bread in use for breakfast and dinner. At supper, milk and mush were the standard dish. When milk was not plenty, which was often the case, owing to the scarcity of cattle or the want of proper pasture for them, the substantial dish of hominy had to supply their place. Mush was frequently eaten with sweetened water, molasses, bear's oil, or the gravy of fried meats.

Every family, beside a garden for the few vegetables which they cultivated, had another small enclosure, from one-half to an acre, which they called the "truck patch," in which they raised corn for roasting ears, pumpkins, beans, squashes, and potatoes. These, in the latter part of the summer and fall, were cooked with their pork, venison, and bear meat for dinner, and made very wholesome and well-tasted dishes. The standing dish for every log-rolling, house raising, or harvest-day, was a pot-pie, or what is in other countries called "sea-pie." This, besides answering for dinner, served for a part of the supper also. The remainder of it from dinner, being eaten with milk in the evening, after the conclusion of the labors of the day.

The introduction of delft-ware was considered, by many of the backwoods people as a culpable innovation. It was too easily broken, and the plates of that ware dulled their scalping and clasp-knives. Tea-ware was too small for men; they might do for women and children. Tea and coffee were only slops, which, in the adage of the day, "did not stick by the ribs." The idea was, that they were only designed for people of quality, who do not labor, or the sick. A genuine backwoodsman would have thought himself degraded by showing a fondness for these slops.

Dress. - On the frontiers, and particularly among those who were much in the habit of hunting, and going on scouts and campaigns, the dress of the men was partly Indian, and partly that of civilized nations.

The hunting-shirt was universally worn. This was a kind of loose frock, reaching half-way down to the thighs, with large sleeves, open before, and so wide as to lap over a foot or more when belted. The cape was large, and sometimes handsomely fringed with a raveled piece of cloth of a different color from that of the hunting-shirt itself. The bosom of this shirt served as a wallet to hold a chunk of bread, cakes, jerk, tow for wiping the barrels of his rifle, or any other necessary for the hunter or warrior. The belt, which was always tied behind, answered several purposes, beside that of holding the dress together. In cold weather, the mittens, and sometimes the bullet-bag, occupied the front part of it. To the right side was suspended the tomahawk, and to the left the scalping knife in its leathern sheath. The hunting-shirt was generally made of linsey, sometimes of coarse linen, and a few of dressed deer-skins. These last were very cold and uncomfortable in cold weather. The shirt and jacket were of the common fashion. A pair of drawers or breeches and leggins were the dress of the thighs and legs; a pair of moccasins answered for the feet much better than shoes. These were made of dressed deer-skin. They were mostly made of a single piece, with a gathering seam along the top of the foot, and another from the bottom of the heel without gathers, as high as the ankle joint, or a little higher. Flaps were left on each side to reach some distance up the legs. These were nicely adapted to the ankles and lower part of the legs by thongs of deer skin, so that no dust, gravel, or snow, could get within the moccasins.

The moccasins in ordinary use caused but a few hours labor to make them. This was done by an instrument denominated a moccasin awl, which was made of the back spring of an old clasp-knife. This awl, with its buckhorn handle, was an appendage too, of every shot-pouch strap, together with a roll of buckskin for mending the moccasins. This was the labor of almost every evening. They were sewed together, and patched with deer skin thongs, or whangs as they were commonly called. In cold weather the moccasins were well stuffed with deers' hair, or dry leaves, so as to keep the foot comfortably warm; but in wet weather it was usually said that wearing them was "a decent way of going barefooted;" and such was the fact, owing to the spongy texture of the leather of which they were made.

Owing to this defective covering of the feet, more than to any other circumstance, the great number of our hunters and warriors were afflicted with the rheumatism in their limbs. Of this disease they were all apprehensive in cold or wet weather, and therefore always slept with their feet to the fire, to prevent or cure it as well as they could. This practice, unquestionably, had a very salutary effect, and prevented many of them from becoming confirmed cripples in early life.

In the latter days of the Indian war, our young men became more enamored of the Indian dress throughout, with the exception of the matchcoat. The drawers were laid aside and the leggins made longer, so as to reach the upper part of the thigh. The Indian breech-clout was adopted. This was a piece of linen or cloth, nearly a yard long, and eight or nine inches broad. This passed under the belt, before and behind, leaving the ends for flaps, hanging before and behind over the belt. - These flaps were sometimes ornamented with some coarse kind of embroidery work. To the same belts which secured the breech-clout, strings which supported the long leggins were attached. When this belt, as was often the case, passed over the hunting shirt, the upper part of the thighs and part of the hips were naked. The young warrior, instead of being abashed by this nudity, was proud of his Indian like dress. In some few instances I have seen them go into places of public worship in this dress. Their appearance, however, did not add much to the devotion of the young ladies.

The linsey petticoat and bed gown which were the universal dress of our women in early times, would make a strange figure in our days. A small home-made handkerchief, in point of elegance, would illy supply the place of the profusion of ruffles with which the necks of our ladies are now (1824) ornamented.

They went barefooted in warm weather, and in cold, their feet were covered with moccasins, coarse shoes, or shoe-packs, which would make but a sorry figure beside the elegant morocco slippers, often embossed with bullion, which at present ornament the feet of their daughters and grand-daughters. The coats and bed-gowns of the women as well as the hunting-shirts of the men, were hung in full display, on wooden pegs, round the walls of their cabins, so that they answered in some degree the place of paper hangings or tapestry, they announced to the stranger as well as neighbor the wealth or poverty of the family in the articles of clothing. This practice has not yet been wholly laid aside among the backwoods families.

The historian would say to the ladies of the present-time: - our ancestors of your sex knew nothing of the ruffles, leghorns, curls, combs, rings, and jewels with which their fair daughters now (1824) decorate themselves. Such things were not then to be had. Many of the younger part of them were pretty well grown up before they ever saw the inside of a store, or even knew there was such a thing in the world, unless by heresay, and indeed scarcely that. Instead of the toilet, they had to handle the distaff and shuttle, the sickle or weeding hoe, contented if they could obtain their linsey clothing, and cover their heads with a sun bonnet made of six or seven hundred linen.

The Fort. - My reader will understand by this term, not only a place of defense, but the residence of a small number of families belonging to the same neighborhood.

The stockades, bastions, cabins, and block-house walls were furnished with port-holes at proper heights and distances. The whole of the outside was made completely bullet-proof. It may be truly said that necessity is the mother of invention; for the whole of the work was made without the aid of a single nail or spike or iron, and for this reason, such things were not to be had. In some places, less exposed, a single block-house, with a cabin or two, constituted the whole fort.

The families belonging to these forts were so attached to their own cabins on their farms, that they seldom moved into their fort in the spring until compelled by some alarm, as they called it; that is, when it was announced by some murder, that Indians were in the settlement. The fort to which my father belonged, was, during the first years of the war, three-quarters of a mile from his farm; but when this fort went to decay, and became unfit for defense, a new one was built at his own house. I well remember that, when a little boy, the family were sometimes waked up in the dead of night by an express, with a report that the Indians were at hand. The express came softly to the door, or back window, and by a gentle tapping raised the family. This was easily done, as an habitual fear made us ever watchful, and sensitive to the slightest alarm. The whole family were instantly in motion. My father seized his gun and other implements of war. My step-mother waked up and dressed the children as well as she could, and being myself the oldest of the children, I h ad to take my share of the burdens to be carried to the fort. There was no possibility of getting a horse, in the night, to aid us in removing to the fort. Beside the little children, we caught up what articles of clothing and provision we could get hold of in the dark, fro we durst not light a candle, or even stir the fire. All this was done with the utmost dispatch and the silence of death. The greatest care was taken not to awaken the youngest child.

To the rest it was enough to say Indians, and not a whisper was heard afterward. Thus, it often happened that the whole number of families belonging to a fort, who were in the evening at their homes, were all in their little fortress before the dawn of the next morning. In the course of the succeeding day, their household furniture was brought in by parties of the men under arms. Some families belonging to each fort were much less under the influence of fear than others, and who, after an alarm had subsided, in spite of every remonstrance, would remove home, while their more prudent neighbors remained in the fort. Such families were denominated "fool-hardy," and gave no small amount of trouble, by creating frequent necessities of runners to warn them of their danger, and sometimes parties of our men to protect them during their removal.

Caravans. - The acquisition of the indispensable articles of salt, iron, steel and castings, presented great difficulties to the first settlers of the western country. They had no stores of any kind, no salt, iron, nor iron works; nor had they money to make purchases where those articles could be obtained. Peltry and furs were their only resources, before they had time to raise horses and cattle for sale in the Atlantic states.

Every family collected what peltry and fur they could obtain throughout they ear, for the purpose of sending them over the mountains for barter. In the fall of the year, after seeding time, every family formed an association with some of their neighbors, for starting the little caravan. A master driver was selected from among them, who was to be assisted by one or more young men, and sometimes by a boy or two. The horses were fitted out with pack-saddles, to the hinder part of which was fastened a pair of hobbles, made of hickory withes, a bell and collar ornamented his neck. The bags provided for the conveyance of the salt were filled with feed for the horses; on the journey, a part of this feed was left at convenient stages on the way down, to support the return of the caravan; large wallets, well filled with bread, jerk, boiled ham, and cheese, furnished provision for the drivers. At night, after feeding, the horses, whether put in pasture or turned out into the woods, were hobbled, and the bells were opened.

The barter for salt and iron was made first at Baltimore. Frederick, Hagerstown, Oldtown and Fort Cumberland in succession became the place of exchange. Each horse carried two bushels of alum salt, weighing eighty-four pounds the bushel. This, to be sure, was not a heavy load for the horses, but it was enough, considering the scanty subsistence allowed them on the journey. The common price of a bushel of alum salt, at an early period, was a good cow and calf; and until weights were introduced, the salt was measured into the half bushel, by hand, as lightly as possible. No one was permitted to walk heavily over the floor while the operation of measuring was going on.

The Wedding. - For a long time after the first settlement of the country, the inhabitants in general married young. There was no distinction or rank, and very little of fortune. On these accounts the first impression of love resulted in marriage; and a family establishment cost but little labor, and nothing else. A description of a wedding, from the beginning to the end, will serve to show the manners of our forefathers, and mark the grade of civilization which has succeeded to their rude state of society in the course of a few years. At an early period, the practice of celebrating the marriage at the house of the bride began, and it should seem, with great propriety. She also had the choice of the priest to perform the ceremony.

A wedding engaged the attention of a whole neighborhood; and the frolic was anticipated by old and young with eager expectation. This is not to be wondered at, when it is told that a wedding was almost the only gathering which was not accompanied with the labor of reaping, log-rolling, building a cabin, or planning some scout or campaign.

In the morning of the wedding-day, the groom and his attendants assembled at the house of his father, for the purpose of reaching the mansion of his bride by noon, which was the usual time for celebrating the nuptials, which for certain must take place before dinner.

Let the reader imagine an assemblage of people, without a store, tailor, or mantuamaker, within a hundred miles; and an assemblage of horses, without a blacksmith or saddler within an equal distance. The gentlemen dressed in shoe-packs, moccasins, leather breeches, leggins, linsey hunting-shirts, and all home-made. The ladies dressed in linsey petticoats, and linsey or linen bed-gowns, coarse shoes, stockings, handkerchiefs, and buckskin gloves, if any. If there were any buckles, rings, buttons, or ruffles, they were the relics of old times; family pieces, from parents or grand-parents. The horses were caparisoned with old saddles, old bridles or halters, and pack saddles with a bag or blanket thrown over them; a rope or string as often constituted the girth, as a piece of leather.

The march, in double file, was often interrupted by the narrowness and obstructions of our horse-paths, as they were called, for we had no roads; and these difficulties were often increased, sometimes by the good, and sometimes by the ill-will of neighbors, by falling trees, and tying grape-vines across the way. Sometimes an ambuscade was formed by the wayside, and an unexpected discharge of several guns took place, so as to cover the wedding-party with smoke. Let the reader imagine the scene which followed this discharge; the sudden spring of the horses, the shrieks of the girls, and the chivalric bustle of their partners to save them from falling. Sometimes, in spite of all that could be done to prevent it, some were thrown to the ground. If a wrist, elbow, or ankle happened to be sprained, it was tied with a handkerchief, and little more was thought or said about it.

Another ceremony commonly took place before the party reached the house of the bride, after the practice of making whisky began, which was at an early period; when the party were about a mile from the place of their destination, two young men would single out to run for the bottle; the worse the path, the more logs, brush, and deep hollows, the better, as these obstacles afforded an opportunity for the greater display of intrepidity and horsemanship. The English fox-chase, in point of danger to the riders and their horses, is nothing to this race for the bottle. The start was announced by an Indian yell; logs, brush, muddy hollows, hill and glen, were speedily passed by the rival ponies. The bottle was always filled for the occasion, so that there was no use for judges; for the first who reached the door was presented with the prize, with which he returned in triumph to the company. On approaching them, he announced his victory over his rival by a shrill whoop. At the head of the troop, he gave the bottle first to the groom and his attendants, and then to each pair in succession to the rear of the line, giving each a dram; and then putting the bottle in the bosom of his hunting shirt, took his station in the company.

The ceremony of the marriage preceded the dinner, which was a substantial backwoods feast, of beef, pork, fowls, and sometimes venison and bear-meat, roasted and boiled, with plenty of potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. During the dinner, the greatest hilarity always prevailed, although the table might be a large slab of timber, hewed out with a broadax, supported by four sticks set in auger-holes; and the furniture, some old pewter dishes and plates; the rest, wooden bowls and trenchers; a few pewter spoons, much battered about the edges, were to be seen at some tables. The rest were made of horns. If knives were scarce, the deficiency was made up by the scalping knives, which were carried in sheaths suspended to the belt of the hunting shirt.


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