Migration and Life in the Territory

Excerpts From
A Chronicle of the Ohio Valley and Beyond
by Frederic Austin Ogg

©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy

The Migration

The great human streams that poured into the Northwest flowed from two main sources--the nearer South and New England. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were first peopled by men and women of Southern stock. Some migrated directly from Virginia, the Carolinas, and even Georgia. But most came from Kentucky and Tennessee and represented the second generation of white people in those States, now impelled to move on to a new frontier by the desire for larger and cheaper farms. Included in this Southern element were many representatives of the well-to-do classes, who were drawn to the new territories by the opportunity for speculation in land and for political preferment, and by the opening which the fast-growing communities afforded for lawyers, doctors, and members of other professions. The number of these would have been larger had there been less rigid restrictions upon slaveholding. It was rather, however, the poorer whites--the more democratic, non-slaveholding Southern element--that formed the bulk of the earlier settlers north of the Ohio.

There was much westward migration from New England before the War of 1812, but only a small share of it reached the Ohio country, and practically none went beyond the Western Reserve. The common goal was western New York. Here again there was some emigration of the well-to-do and influential. But, as in the South, the people who moved were mainly those who were having difficulty in making ends meet and who could see no way of bettering their condition in their old homes. The back country of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western Massachusetts was filled with people of this sort--poor, discontented, restless, without political influence, and needing only the incentive of cheap lands in the West to sever the slender ties which bound them to the stony hillsides of New England.

After 1815 New England emigration rose to astonishing proportions, and an increasing number of the homeseekers passed-- directly or after a sojourn in the Lower Lake country of New York--into the Northwest. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made the westward journey easier and cheaper. The routes of travel led to Lakes Ontario and Erie, thence to the Reserve in northern Ohio, thence by natural stages into other portions of northern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and eventually into southern Michigan and Wisconsin. Not until after 1830 did the stalwart homeseekers penetrate north of Detroit; the great stretches of prairie between Lakes Erie and Michigan, and to the south--left quite untouched by Southern pioneers--satisfied every desire of these restless farmers from New England.

Life as they lived it

Arriving on the lower Ohio, or one of its tributaries, the pioneer looked out upon a land of remarkable riches. It was not a Mexico or a Peru, with emblazoned palaces and glittering temples, nor yet a California, with gold-flecked sands. It was merely an unending stretch of wooded hills and grassy plains, bedecked with majestic forests and fructifying rivers and lakes. It had no treasures save for the man of courage, industry, and patience; but for such it held home, broad acres, liberty, and the coveted opportunity for social equality and advancement.

The new country has been commonly thought of, and referred to by writers on the history of the West, as a "wilderness"; and offhand, one might suppose that the settlers were obliged literally to hew their way through densely grown vegetation to the spots which they selected for their homes. In point of fact, there were great areas of upland--not alone in the prairie country of northern Indiana and Illinois, but in the hilly regions within a hundred miles of the Ohio--that were almost treeless. On these unobstructed stretches grasses grew in profusion; and here roamed great herds of herbivorous animal-kind--deer and elk, and also buffalo, "filing in grave procession to drink at the rivers, plunging and snorting among the rapids and quicksands, rolling their huge bulk on the grass, rushing upon each other in hot encounter, like champions under shield." Along the watercourses ducks, wild geese, cranes, herons, and other fowl sounded their harsh cries; gray squirrels, prairie chickens, and partridges the hunter found at every turn.

Furthermore, the forests, as a rule, were not difficult to penetrate. The trees stood thick, but deer paths, buffalo roads, and Indian trails ramified in all directions, and sometimes were wide enough to allow two or three wagons to advance abreast. Mighty poplars, beeches, sycamores, and "sugars" pushed to great heights in quest of air and sunshine, and often their intertwining branches were locked solidly together by a heavy growth of grape or other vines, producing a canopy which during the summer months permitted scarcely a ray of sunlight to reach the ground. There was, therefore, a notable absence of undergrowth. When a tree died and decayed, it fell apart piecemeal; it was with difficulty that woodsmen could wrest a giant oak or poplar from its moorings and bring it to the ground, even by severing the trunk completely at the base. Here and there a clean swath was cut through a forest, for perhaps dozens of miles, by a hurricane. This gave opportunity for the growth of a thicket of bushes and small trees, and such spots were equally likely to be the habitations of wild beasts and the hiding-places of warlike bands of redskins.

There were always adventurous pioneers who scorned the settlements and went off with their families to fix their abodes in isolated places. But the average newcomer preferred to find a location in, or reasonably near, a settlement. The choice of a site, whether by a company of immigrants wishing to establish a settlement or by an individual settler, was a matter of much importance. Some thought must be given to facilities for fortification against hostile natives. There must be an adequate supply of drinking-water; and the location of innumerable pioneer dwellings was selected with reference to free-flowing springs. Pasture land for immediate use was desirable; and of course the soil must be fertile. As a rule, the settler had the alternative of establishing himself on the lowlands along a stream and obtaining ground of the greatest productiveness, with the almost certain prospect of annual attacks of malaria, or of seeking the poorer but more healthful uplands. The attractions of the "bottoms" were frequently irresistible, and the "ague" became a feature of frontier life almost as inevitable as the proverbial "death and taxes."

The site selected, the next task was to clear a few acres of ground where the cabin was to stand. It was highly desirable to have a belt of open land as a protection against Indians and wild beasts; besides, there must be fields cleared for tillage. If the settler had neighbors, he was likely to have their aid in cutting away the densest growth of trees, and in raising into position the heavy timbers which formed the framework and walls of his cabin. Splendid oaks, poplars, and sycamores were cut into convenient lengths, and such as could not be used were rolled into great heaps and burned. Before sawmills were introduced lumber could not be manufactured; afterwards, it became so plentiful as to have small market value.

Almost without exception the frontier cabins had log walls; and they were rarely of larger size than single lengths would permit. On an average, they were twelve or fourteen feet wide and fifteen or eighteen feet long. Sometimes they were divided into two rooms, with an attic above; frequently there was but one room "downstairs." The logs were notched together at the corners, and the spaces between them were filled with moss or clay or covered with bark. Rafters were affixed to the uppermost logs, and to one another, with wooden pins driven through auger holes. In earliest times the roof was of bark; later on, shingles were used, although nails were long unknown, and the shingles, after being laid in rows, were weighted down with straight logs.

Sometimes there was only an earth floor. But as a rule "puncheons," i.e., thick, rough boards split from logs, were laid crosswise on round logs and were fastened with wooden pins. There was commonly but a single door, which was made also of puncheons and hung on wooden hinges. A favorite device was to construct the door in upper and lower sections, so as to make it possible, when there came a knock or a call from the outside, to respond without offering easy entrance to an unwelcome visitor. In the days when there was considerable danger of Indian attacks no windows were constructed, for the householder could defend only one aperture. Later, square holes which could be securely barred at night and during cold weather were made to serve as windows. Flat pieces of sandstone, if they could be found, were used in building the great fireplace; otherwise, thick timbers heavily covered with clay were made to serve. In scarcely a cabin was there a trace of iron or glass; the whole could be constructed with only two implements--an ax and an auger.

Occasionally a family carried to its new home some treasured bits of furniture; but the difficulty of transportation was likely to be prohibitive, and as a rule the cabins contained only such pieces of furniture as could be fashioned on the spot. A table was made by mounting a smoothed slab on four posts, set in auger holes. For seats short benches and three-legged stools, constructed after the manner of the tables, were in common use. Cooking utensils, food-supplies, seeds, herbs for medicinal purposes, and all sorts of household appliances were stowed away on shelves, made by laying clapboards across wooden pins driven into the wall and mounting to the ceiling; although after sawed lumber came into use it was a matter of no great difficulty to construct chests and cupboards. Not infrequently the settler's family slept on bear skins or blankets stretched on the floor. But crude bedsteads were made by erecting a pole with a fork in such a manner that other poles could be supported horizontally in this fork and by crevices in the walls. Split boards served as "slats" on which the bedding was spread. For a long time "straw-ticks"--large cloth bags filled with straw or sometimes dry grass or leaves--were articles of luxury. Iron pots and knives were necessities which the wise householder carried with him from his eastern or southern home. In the West they were hard to obtain. The chief source of supply was the iron-manufacturing districts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, whence the wares were carried to the entrepots of river trade by packhorses. The kitchen outfit of the average newcomer was completed with a few pewter dishes, plates, and spoons. But winter evenings were utilized in whittling out wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins or cups, while gourds and hard-shelled squashes were turned to numerous uses. The commonest drinking utensil was a long-handled gourd.

The dress of the pioneer long remained a curious cross between that of the Indians and that of the white people of the older sections. In earlier times the hunting-shirt--made of linsey, coarse nettle-bark linen, buffalo-hair, or even dressed deerskins--was universally worn by the men, together with breeches, leggings, and moccasins. The women and children were dressed in simple garments of linsey. In warm weather they went barefooted; in cold, they wore moccasins or coarse shoes.

Rarely was there lack of food for these pioneer families. The soil was prodigal, and the forests abounded in game. The piece de resistance of the backwoods menu was "hog an' hominy"; that is to say, pork served with Indian corn which, after being boiled in lye to remove the hulls, had been soaked in clear water and cooked soft. "Johnny cake" and "pone"--two varieties of cornbread--were regularly eaten at breakfast and dinner. The standard dish for supper was cornmeal mush and milk. As cattle were not numerous, the housewife often lacked milk, in which case she fell back on her one never-failing resource--hominy; or she served the mush with sweetened water, molasses, the gravy of fried meat, or even bear's oil. Tea and coffee were long unknown, and when introduced they were likely to be scorned by the men as "slops" good enough perhaps for women and children. Vegetables the settlers grew in the garden plot which ordinarily adjoined the house, and thrifty families had also a "truck patch" in which they raised pumpkins, squashes, potatoes, beans, melons, and corn for "roasting ears." The forests yielded game, as well as fruits and wild grapes, and honey for sweetening.

The first quality for which the life of the frontier called was untiring industry. It was possible, of course, to eke out an existence by hunting, fishing, petty trading, and garnering the fruits which Nature supplied without man's assistance. And many pioneers in whom the roving instinct was strong went on from year to year in this hand-to-mouth fashion. But the settler who expected to be a real home-builder, to gain some measure of wealth, to give his children a larger opportunity in life, must be prepared to work, to plan, to economize, and to sacrifice. The forests had to be felled; the great logs had to be rolled together and burned; crops of maize, tobacco, oats, and cane needed to be planted, cultivated, and harvested; live-stock to be housed and fed; fences and barns to be built; pork, beef, grain, whiskey, and other products to be prepared for market, and perhaps carried scores of miles to a place of shipment.

All these things had to be done under conditions of exceptional difficulty. The settler never knew what night his place would be raided by marauding redskins, who would be lenient indeed if they merely carried off part of his cattle or burned his barn. Any morning he might peer out of the "port hole" above the cabin door to see skulking figures awaiting their chance. Sickness, too, was a menace and a terror. Picture the horrors of isolation in times of emergency--wife or child suddenly taken desperately ill, and no physician within a hundred miles; husband or son hovering between life and death as the result of injury by a falling tree, a wild beast, a venomous snake, an accidental gun-shot, or the tomahawk of a prowling Indian. Who shall describe the anxiety, the agony, which in some measure must have been the lot of every frontier family? The prosaic illnesses of the flesh were troublesome enough. On account of defective protection for the feet in wet weather, almost everybody had rheumatism; most settlers in the bottom-lands fell victims to fever and ague at one time or another; even in the hill country few persons wholly escaped malarial disorders. "When this home-building and land- clearing is accomplished," wrote one whose recollections of the frontier were vivid, "a faithful picture would reveal not only the changes that have been wrought, but a host of prematurely brokedown men and women, besides an undue proportion resting peacefully in country graveyards."

The frontiersman's best friend was his trusty rifle. With it he defended his cabin and his crops from marauders, waged warfare on hostile redskins, and obtained the game which formed an indispensable part of his food supply. At first the gun chiefly used on the border was the smooth-bored musket. But toward the close of the eighteenth century a gunsmith named Deckhard, living at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, began making flintlock rifles of small bore, and in a short time the "Deckhard rifle" was to be found in the hands of almost every backwoodsman. The barrel was heavy and from three feet to three feet and a half in length, so that the piece, when set on the ground, reached at least to the huntsman's shoulder. The bore was cut with twisting grooves, and was so small that seventy bullets were required to weigh a pound. In loading, a greased linen "patch" was wrapped around the bullet; and only a small charge of powder was needed. The grin was heavy to carry and difficult to hold steadily upon a target; but it was economical of ammunition, and in the hands of the strong-muscled, keen-eyed, iron-nerved frontiersman it was an exceedingly accurate weapon, at all events within the ordinary limits of forest ranges. He was a poor marksman who could not shoot running deer or elk at a distance of one hundred and fifty yards, and kill ducks and geese on the wing; and "boys of twelve hung their heads in shame if detected in hitting a squirrel in any other part of the body than its head."

Life on the frontier was filled with hard work, danger, and anxiety. Yet it had its lighter side, and, indeed, it may be doubted whether people anywhere relished sport more keenly or found more pleasure in their everyday pursuits. The occasional family without neighbors was likely to suffer from loneliness. But few of the settlers were thus cut off, and as a rule community life was not only physically possible but highly developed. Many were the opportunities that served to bring together the frontiersmen, with their families, throughout a settlement or county. Foremost among such occasions were the log-rollings.

After a settler had felled the thick-growing trees on a plot which he desired to prepare for cultivation, he cut them, either by sawing or by burning, into logs twelve or fifteen feet in length. Frequently these were three, four, or even five feet in diameter, so that they could not be moved by one man, even with a team of horses. In such a situation, the settler would send word to his neighbors for miles around that on a given day there would be a log-rolling at his place; and when the day arrived six, or a dozen, or perhaps a score, of sturdy men, with teams of horses and yokes of oxen, and very likely accompanied by members of their families, would arrive on the scene with merry shouts of anticipation. By means of handspikes and chains drawn by horses or oxen, the great timbers were pushed, rolled, and dragged into heaps, and by nightfall the field lay open and ready for the plough--requiring, at the most, only the burning of the huge piles that had been gathered.

Without loss of time the fires were started; and as darkness came on, the countryside glowed as with the light of a hundred huge torches. The skies were reddened, and as a mighty oak or poplar log toppled and fell to the ground, showers of sparks lent the scene volcanic splendor. Bats and owls and other dim-eyed creatures of the night flew about in bewilderment, sometimes bumping hard against fences or other objects, sometimes plunging madly into the flames and contributing to the general holocaust. For days the great fires were kept going, until the last remnants of this section of the once imposing forest were consumed; while smoke hung far out over the country, producing an atmospheric effect like that of Indian summer.

Heavy exertion called for generous refreshment, and on these occasions the host could be depended on to provide an abundance of food and drink. The little cabin could hardly be made to accommodate so many guests, even in relays. Accordingly, a long table was constructed with planks and trestles in a shady spot, and at noon--and perhaps again in the evening--the women folk served a meal which at least made up in "staying qualities" what it lacked in variety or delicacy. The principal dish was almost certain to be "pot-pie," consisting of boiled turkeys, geese, chickens, grouse, veal, or venison, with an abundance of dumplings. This, with cornbread and milk, met the demands of the occasion; but if the host was able to furnish a cask of rum, his generosity was thoroughly appreciated.

In the autumn, corn-huskings were a favorite form of diversion, especially for the young people; and in the early spring neighbors sometimes came together to make maple sugar. A wedding was an important event and furnished diversion of a different kind. From distances of twenty and thirty miles people came to attend the ceremony, and often the festivities extended over two or three days. Even now there was work to be done; for as a rule the neighbors organized a house-building "bee," and before separating for their homes they constructed a cabin for the newly wedded pair, or at all events brought it sufficiently near completion to be finished by the young husband himself.

Even after a day of heavy toil at log-rolling, the young men and boys bantered one another into foot races, wrestling matches, shooting contests, and other feats of strength or skill. And if a fiddler could be found, the day was sure to end with a "hoe-down"--a dance that "made even the log-walled house tremble." No corn-husking or wedding was complete without dancing, although members of certain of the more straitlaced religious sects already frowned upon the diversion.

Rough conditions of living made rough men, and we need not be surprised by the testimony of English and American travelers, that the frontier had more than its share of boisterous fun, rowdyism, lawlessness, and crime. The taste for whiskey was universal, and large quantities were manufactured in rude stills, not only for shipment down the Mississippi, but for local consumption. Frequenters of the river-town taverns called for their favorite brands--"Race Horse," "Moral Suasion," "Vox Populi," "Pig and Whistle," or "Split Ticket," as the case might be. But the average frontiersman cared little for the niceties of color or flavor so long as his liquor was cheap and produced the desired effect. Hard work and a monotonous diet made him continually thirsty; and while ordinarily he drank only water and milk at home, at the taverns and at social gatherings he often succumbed to potations which left him in happy drunken forgetfulness of daily hardships. House-raisings and weddings often became orgies marked by quarreling and fighting and terminating in brutal and bloody brawls. Foreign visitors to the back country were led to comment frequently on the number of men who had lost an eye or an ear, or had been otherwise maimed in these rough-and-tumble contests.

The great majority of the frontiersmen, however, were sober, industrious, and law-abiding folk; and they were by no means beyond the pale of religion. On account of the numbers of Scotch- Irish, Presbyterianism was in earlier days the principal creed. although there were many Catholics and adherents of the Reformed Dutch and German churches, and even a few Episcopalians. About the beginning of the nineteenth century sectarian ascendancy passed to the Methodists and Baptists, whose ranks were rapidly recruited by means of one of the most curious and characteristic of backwoods institutions, the camp-meeting "revival." The years 1799 and 1800 brought the first of the several great waves of religious excitement by which the West--especially Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee was periodically swept until within the memory of men still living.

Camp-meetings were usually planned and managed by Methodist circuit-riders or Baptist itinerant preachers, who hesitated not to carry their work into the remotest and most dangerous parts of the back country. When the news went abroad that such a meeting was to take place, people flocked to the scene from far and near, in wagons, on horseback, and on foot. Pious men and women came for the sake of religious fellowship and inspiration; others not so pious came from motives of curiosity, or even to share in the rough sport for which the scoffers always found opportunity. The meeting lasted days, and even weeks; and preaching, praying, singing, "testifying," and "exhorting" went on almost without intermission. "The preachers became frantic in their exhortations; men, women, and children, falling as if in catalepsy, were laid out in rows. Shouts, incoherent singing, sometimes barking as of an unreasoning beast, rent the air. Convulsive leaps and dancing were common; so, too, 'jerking,' stakes being driven into the ground to jerk by, the subjects of the fit grasping them as they writhed and grimaced in their contortions. The world, indeed, seemed demented." Whole communities sometimes professed conversion; and it was considered a particularly good day's work when notorious disbelievers or wrong-doers--"hard bats," in the phraseology of the frontier--or gangs of young rowdies whose only object in coming was to commit acts of deviltry, succumbed to the peculiarly compelling influences of the occasion.

In this sort of religion there was, of course, much wild emotionalism and sheer hysteria; and there were always people to whom it was repellent. Backsliders were numerous, and the person who "fell from grace" was more than likely to revert to his earlier wickedness in its grossest forms. None the less, in a rough, unlearned, and materialistic society such spiritual shakings-up were bound to yield much permanent good. Most western people, at one time or another, came under the influence of the Methodist and Baptist revivals; and from the men and women who were drawn by them to a new and larger view of life were recruited the hundreds of little congregations whose meeting-houses in the course of time dotted the hills and plains from the Alleghanies to the Mississippi. As for the hard-working, honest-minded frontier preachers who braved every sort of danger in the performance of their great task, the West owes them an eternal debt of gratitude. In the words of Roosevelt, "their prejudices and narrow dislikes, their raw vanity and sullen distrust of all who were better schooled than they, count for little when weighed against their intense earnestness and heroic self-sacrifice."

Nor was education neglected. Many of the settlers, especially those who came from the South, were illiterate. But all who made any pretense of respectability were desirous of giving their children an opportunity to learn to read and write. Accordingly, wherever half a dozen families lived reasonably close together, a log schoolhouse was sure to be found. In the days before public funds existed for the support of education the teachers were paid directly, and usually in produce, by the patrons. Sometimes a wandering pedagogue would find his way into a community and, being engaged to give instruction for two or three months during the winter, would "board around" among the residents and take such additional pay as he could get. More often, some one of the settlers who was fortunate enough to possess the rudiments of an education undertook the role of schoolmaster in the interval between the autumn corn-gathering and the spring ploughing and planting.

Instruction rarely extended beyond the three R's; but occasionally a newcomer who had somewhere picked up a smattering of algebra, Latin, or astronomy stirred the wonder, if not also the suspicion, of the neighborhood. Schoolbooks were few and costly; crude slates were made from pieces of shale; pencils were fashioned from varicolored soapstone found in the beds of small streams. No frontier picture is more familiar or more pleasing than that of the farmer's boy sitting or lying on the floor during the long winter evening industriously tracing by firelight or by candlelight the proverb or quotation assigned him as an exercise in penmanship, or wrestling with the intricacies of least common denominators and highest common divisors. It is in such a setting that we get our first glimpse of the greatest of western Americans, Abraham Lincoln.

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