Fayette County History & Genealogy

History of Fayette County


From R. S. Dills' History of Fayette County

LIFE IN THE WOODS

The following is from John S. Williams, in the American Pioneer:

"Immigrants poured in from different parts, cabins were put up in every direction, and women, children, and goods, tumbled into them. The tide of immigration flowed like water through a breach in a mill-dam. Everything was bustle and confusion, and all at work that could work. In the midst of all this the mumps, and perhaps one or two other diseases, prevailed, and gave us a seasoning. Our cabin had been raised, covered, part of the cracks chinked, and part of the floor laid, when we moved in on Christmas day. There had not been a stick cut, except in building the cabin. We had intended an inside chimney, for we thought the chimney ought to be in the house. We had a log put across the whole width of the cabin for a mantel; but when the floor was in we found it so low as not to answer, and removed it. Here was a great change for my mother and sister, as well as the rest, but particularly my mother. She was raised in the most delicate manner, in and near, London, and lived most of her time in affluence, and always comfortable. She was now in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts, in a cabin with half a floor, no door, no ceiling overhead, not even a tolerable sign for a fire-place, the light of day and the chilling winds of night passing between every two logs in the building; the cabin so high from the ground that a bear, wolf, panther, or any other animal less in size than a cow, could enter without even a squeeze. Such was our situation on Thursday and Thursday night, December 25, 1800, and which was bettered but by very slow degrees. We got the rest of the floor laid in a very few days; the chinking of the cracks went on slowly, but the daubing could not proceed till weather more suitable, which happened in a few days; doorways were sawed out, and steps made of the logs, and the back of the chimney was raised up to the mantel, but the funnel of sticks and clay was delayed until spring. Our family consisted of my mother, a sister of twenty-two, my brother, near twenty-one and very weakly, and myself, in my eleventh year. Two years afterward black Jenny followed us, in company with my half-brother Richard and his family. She lived two years with us in Ohio, and died in the winter of 1803-4.

"In building our cabin, it was set to front the north and south, my brother using my father's pocket compass on the occasion. We had no idea of living in a house that did not stand square with the earth itself. This argued our ignorance of the comforts and conveniences of a pioneer life. The position of the house, end to the hill, necessarily elevated the lower end, and the determination of having a north and south door added much to the airiness of the domicil, particularly after the green ash puncheons shrunk so as to have cracks in the floor and doors from one to two inches wide. At both the doors we had high, unsteady, and sometimes icy steps, made by piling up the logs cut out of the wall. We had, as the reader will see, a window (if it could be called a window, when, perhaps, it was the largest spot in the top, bottom, or side of the cabin at which the wind could not enter). It was made by sawing, out a log, placing sticks across, and then, by pasting an old newspaper over the hole, and applying some hog's lard, we had a kind of glazing which shed a most beautiful and mellow light across the cabin when the sun shone on it. All other light entered at the doors, cracks, and chimney. Our cabin was 24x18. The west end was occupied by two beds, the center of each side by a door, and here our symmetry had to stop; for on the opposite side of the window, made of clapboards, supported on pins driven into the logs, were our shelves. Upon these shelves my sister displayed, in ample order, a host of pewter plates, basins, dishes, and spoons, scoured and bright. It was none of your new-fangled pewter, made of lead, but the best London pewter, on which you could hold your meat so as to cut it without slipping, and without dulling your knife. But, alas! the days of pewter plates and sharp dinner knives have passed, never to return.

" To return to our internal arrangements. A ladder of live rounds occupied the corner near the window. By this, when we got a floor above, we could ascend. Our chimney occupied most of the east end; pots and kettles opposite the window, under the shelves; a gun on hooks over the north door; five split-bottom chairs, threelegged stools, and a small 8x10 looking-glass sloped from the wall over a large towel, and a pair of tongs, made in Frederick, with one shank straight, as the best manufacture of pinchers and bloodblisters, completed our furniture, except a spinning-wheel, and such things as were necessary to work. It was absolutely necessary to have three-legged stools, as four legs of anything could not all touch the floor at the same time.

"The completion of our cabin went on slowly. The season was inclement; we were weak-handed and weak-pocketed; in fact, laborers were not to be had. We got our chimney up breast high. Our house never was daubed on the inside, for my sister, who was very nice, would not consent to "live right next to the mud." My impression now is, that the window was not constructed till spring, for until the sticks and clay were put on the chimney, we could possibly have no need of a window, for the flood of light which always poured into the cabin from the fire-place would have extinguished our paper window, and rendered it as useless as the moon at noonday. We got a floor laid overhead as soon as possible, perhaps in a month; but when it was laid the reader will readily conceive of its imperviousness to wind or weather, when we mention that it was laid of loose clapboards, split from a red oak, the stump of which may be seen beyond the cabin. That tree groc grew in the night, and so twisting, that should each board be laid on two diagonally opposite corners, a cat might have shook every board on our ceiling.

"It may be well to inform the unlearned reader that clapboards are such lumber as pioneers split with a frow, and resemble barrel staves before they are shaved, but are split longer, wider, and thinner; of such our roof and ceiling were made. Puncheons were plank made by splitting logs to about two and a half or three inches in thickness, and hewing them on one or both sides with the broad-ax; of such our floors, tables and stools were manufactured. The eave-bearers are those end logs which project over to receive the butting-poles, against which the lower tier of clapboards rest in forming the roof. The trapping is the roof timbers, composing the gable end and the ribs, being those logs upon which the clapboards lie. The trap-logs are those of unequal length above the eave bearers, which form the gable ends, and upon which the ribs rest. The weight-poles are those small logs laid on the roof. The knees are pieces of heart timber, placed above the butting-poles successively, to prevent the weight-poles from rolling off.

"The evenings of the first winter did not pass off as pleasantly as evenings afterward. We had raised no tobacco to stem and twist, no corn to shell, no turnips to scrape; we had no tow to spin into rope yarn, nor straw to plait for hats, and we had come so late we could get but few walnuts to crack. We had, however, the Bible, George Fox's Journal, Berkeley's Apology, and a number of books, all better than much of the fashionable reading of to-day, from which, after perusing, the reader finds he has gained nothing, while his understanding has been made the dupe of the writer's fancy—that while reading he had given himself up to be led in mazes of fictitious imaginations, and losing his taste for solid reading, as frothy luxuries destroy the appetite for wholesome food. To our stock of books were soon afterward added a borrowed copy of the Pilgrim's Progress, which we read twice through without stopping. The first winter our living was truly scanty and hard; but even this winter had its felicities. We had part of a barrel of flour which we had brought from Fredericktown. Besides this, we had part of a jar of hog's lard brought from old Carolina; not the tasteless stuff which now goes by that name, but pure leaf lard, taken from hogs raised on pine roots and fattened on sweet potatoes, and into which, while rendering, were immersed the boughs of the fragrant bay tree, which imparted to the lard a rich flavor. Of that flour, shortened with this lard, my sister, every Sunday morning, and at no other time, made short biscuit for breakfast; not those greasy, gumelastic biscuit we mostly meet with now, rolled out with a pin, or cut out with a cutter, or those that are, perhaps, speckled with or puffed up with refined lye called salaratus, but made out, one by one, in her fair hands, placed in neat juxtaposition in a skillet or spider, pricked with a fork to prevent blistering and baked before an open fireónot half baked and half stewed in a cooking stove.

"In the ordering of a good Providence the winter was open, but windy. While the wind was of great use in driving the smoke and ashes out of our cabin, it shook terribly the timber standing almost over us. We had never seen a dangerous looking tree near a dwelling, but here we were surrounded by the tall giants of the forest, waving their bongbs and uniting their brows over us, as if in defiance of our disturbing their repose and usurping their long and uncontended pre-emption rights. The beech on the left often shook his bushy head over us as if in absolute disapprobation of our settling there, threatening to crush us if we did not pack up and start. The walnut over the spring branch stood high and straight; no one could tell which way it inclined, but all concluded that if it had a preference, it was in favor of quartering on our cabin. We got assistance to cut it down. The axeman doubted his ability to control its direction, by reason that he must necessarily cut it almost off before it would fall. He thought by felling the tree in the direction of the reader, along near the chimney, and thus favor the little lean it seemed to have, would be the means of saving the cabin. He was successful. Part of the stump still stands. These, and all other dangerous trees, were got down without other damage than many frights and frequent desertions of the premises by the family while the trees were being cut. The ash beyond the house crossed the scorf and fell upon the cabin, but without damage.

"The monotony of the time for several of the first years was broken and enlivened by the howl of wild beasts. The wolves howling around us seemed to mourn their inability to drive us from their long and undisputed domain. The bears, panthers and deer seemingly got miffed at our approach, or the partiality of the hunters, and but seldom troubled us. One bag of meal would make a whole family rejoicingly happy and thankful then, when a loaded East Indiaman will fail to do it now, and is passed off as a common business transaction without ever once thinking of the Giver, so independent have we become in the short space of forty years! Having got out of the wilderness in less time than the children of Israel, we seem to be even more forgetful and unthankful than they. When spring was fully come, and our little patch of corn, three acres, put in among the beech roots, which at every step contended with the shovel-plow for the right of soil, and held it, too, we enlarged our stock of conveniences. As soon as bark would run (peel off) we could make ropes and bark boxes. These we stood in great need of, as such things as bureaus, stands, wardrobes or even barrels, were not to be had. The manner of making rope of linn bark, was to cut the bark into strips of convenient length, and water-rot it in the same manner as rotting flax or hemp. When this was done the inside bark would peel off and split up so fine as to make a considerably rough and good-for-but-little kind of a rope. Of this, however, we were very glad, and let no ship owner with his grass ropes laugh at us. We made two kinds of boxes for furniture. One kind was of hickory bark with the outside shaved off. This we would take off all around the tree, the size of which would determine the calibre of our box. Into one end we would place a flat piece or puncheon, cut round to fit in the bark, which stood on end the same as when on the tree. There was little need of hooping, as the strength of the bark would keep that all right enough. Its shrinkage would make the top unsightly in a parlor now-a-days, but then they were cousidered quite an addition to the furniture. A much finer article was of slippery elm bark, shaved smooth, and with the inside out, bent round and sewed together where the ends of the hoop or main bark lapped over. The length of the bark was around the box, and inside out. A bottom was made of a piece of the same bark, dried flat, and a lid like that of a common band-box, made in the same way. This was the finest furniture in the ladies' dressiug-room, and then, as now, with the finest furniture, the lapped or served side was turned to the wall, and the prettiest part to the spectator. They were usually made oval, and while the bark was green were easily ornamented with drawings of birds, trees, etc., agreeable to the taste aud skill of the fair manufacturer. As we belonged to the Society of Friends, it may be fairly presumed that our band-boxes were not thus ornamented.

"We settled on beech land, which took much labor to clear. We could do no better than to clear out the smaller stuff, and burn the brush, etc., around the beeches, which, in spite of the girdling and burning which we could do to them, would loaf out the first year, and often a little the second. The land, however, was very rich, and would bring better corn than might be expected. We had to tend it with the hoe; that is, to chop down the nettles, the waterweed, and the touch-me-not. Grass, coreless, lambs-quarter, and Spanish needles, were reserved to pester the better prepared farmer.

"We cleared a small turnip-patch, which we got in about the 10th of August. We sowed in timothy seed, which took well, and the next year we had a little hay besides. The tops and blades were also carefully saved for our horse, cow, aud two sheep. The turnips were sweet and good; and in the fall we took care to gather walnuts and hickory-nuts, which were abundant. These, with the turnips, which we scraped, supplied the place of fruit. I have always been partial to scraped turnips, and could now beat any three dandies scraping them. Johnny-cake, also, when we had meal to make it of, helped to make up our eyening's repast. The Sunday morning biscuit had all evaporated, but the loss was partially supplied by the nuts and turnips. Our regular supper was mush and milk, and by the time we had shelled our corn, stemmed tobacco, and plaited straw to make hats, etc., the mush and milk had seemingly decamped from the neighborhood of our ribs. To relieve this difficulty, my brother and I would bake a thin Johnnycake, part of which we would eat, and leaye the rest till morning. At daylight we would eat the balance as we walked from the house to work.

"The methods of eating mush and milk were various. Some would sit around the pot, and every one take therefrom for himself. Some would set a table, and each haye his tin cup of milk, and with a pewter spoon take just as much mush from the dish or pot, if it were on the table, as he thought would fill his mouth or throat, then lowering it into the milk would take some to wash it down. This method kept the milk cool, and by frequent repetitions the pioneer would contract a faculty of correctly estimating the proper amount of each. Others would mix mush and milk together.

"To get grinding done was often a great difficulty, by reason of the scarcity of mills, the freezes in winter, and drouths in summer. We had often to manufacture meal [when we had corn) in any way we could get the corn to pieces. We soaked and pounded it: we shaved it; we planed it; and, at the proper season, we grated it. When one of our neighbors got a hand-mill, it was thought quite an acquisition to the neighborhood. In after years, when in time of freezing or drouth we could get grinding by waiting for our turn no more than one day and a night at a horse-mill, we thought ourselves happy. To save meal, we often made pumpkin bread, in which, when meal was scarce, the pumpkin would so predominate as to render it next to impossible to tell our bread from that article, either by taste, looks, or the amount of nutriment it contained. Salt was five dollars per bushel, and we used none in our corn bread, which we soon liked as well without it. Often has the sweat run into my mouth, which tasted as fresh and flat as distilled water. What meat we had at first was fresh, and but little of that, for had we been hunters we had no time to practice it.

"We had no candles, and cared but little about them, except for summer use. In Carolina we had the real fat light wood—not merely pine knots, but the fat, straight pine. This, from the brilliancy of our parlor, of winter evenings, might be supposed to put, not only candles, lamps, camphene, Greenough's chemical oil, but even gas itself, to blush. In the West we had not this, but my business was to ramble in the woods every morning for seasoned sticks, or the bark of the shelly hickory, for light. 'Tis true that our light was not as good as even candles, but we got along without fretting, for we depended more upon the goodness of our eyes than we did upon the brilliancy of the light."