Among the best sketches of backwoods life is that written by Mr. John S. Williams, editor of the AMERICAN PIONEER, and published in October 1843. In the spring of 1800 his father's family moved from Carolina and settled with others on Glenn's run, about six miles northeast of St. Clairsville. He was then a boy, as he relates, of seventy-five pounds weight. The following accounts are from his sketch, "Our Cabin; or Life in the Woods."
"Our Cabin" Described
Emigrants poured into Ohio from different parts, cabins were put up in every direction, and women, children and goods tumbled into them. The tide of emigration flowed like water through a breach in a mill-dam. Everything was bustle and confusion, and all worked that could work. In the midst of all this the mumps -- and 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 for building the cabin. We had intended to build 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 being put in we found the mantel was too low, and removed it.
This home was a great change for my mother and sister, as well as the rest of us, but particularly for my mother. She was raised in the most delicate manner in and near London, and lived most of her time in affluence, and always in comfort. She was now in the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts, in a cabin with about half a floor, no door, no ceiling overhead, not even a tolerable start of a fireplace, 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 smaller in size than a cow, could enter without even a squeeze. Such was our situation on Thursday and Thursday night, 25 December 1800; and our situation was bettered but by very slow degrees.
We got the rest of the floor laid in a few days, and the chinking of the cracks went on slowly; but the daubing could not proceed until weather was more suitable, which happened in a few days. Door-ways were sawed out and steps made of the logs, and the back of the chimney was raised up to the mantel, but the chimney funnel of sticks and clay was delayed until spring.
Our family consisted of my mother, a sister who was twenty-two years old, my brother who was nearly twenty-one and very weakly, and myself, then in my eleventh year. Two years later, 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, we set it to face north and south. My brother used my father's pocket compass for this purpose. We had no idea of living in a house that did not stand square with the earth itself. This showed how ignorant we were of the practices and ways of pioneer life. Our house was positioned so that one end was on a hill, which made it necessary to elevate the end away from the hill -- leaving a large space for the wind to blow under the house. Furthermore, the desire to have both a north and south door added much to the airiness of our home, particularly after the green ash puncheons had 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 for our doors.
We had a window, if it could be called a window; in fact, it probably was the largest spot in the top, bottom, or sides of the cabin through which the wind could not enter. It was made by sawing out a log, placing sticks across the opening, and then, by pasting an old newspaper over the hole and applying some hog's lard, we made a kind of glazing that 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 twenty-four by eighteen feet in size. The west end was occupied by two beds, and the centre of each side by a door. But 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 neat order, a host of pewter plates, basins, dishes, and spoons, all scoured and bright. This was not the new-fangled pewter made of lead, but the best London pewter, which our father himself bought of Townsend, the manufacturer. These were the plates upon which you could hold your meat so as to cut it without having it slip and without dulling your knife. But, alas! the days of pewter plates and sharp dinner knives have passed away -- never to return.
A ladder with five rounds [rungs] occupied the corner near the window. By this, when we finally got a floor above, we could ascend to the loft. Our chimney occupied most of the east end of our cabin. Pots and kettles hung opposite the window under the shelves, while a gun hung on hooks over the north door. We had four split-bottom chairs, three three-legged stools, and a small eight by ten looking-glass that sloped from the wall over a large towel and comb-case. These, along with a clumsy shovel and a pair of tongs, made in Frederick, with one shank straight -- an excellent design for pinching skin and producing blood-blisters -- completed our furniture, except for a spinning-wheel and such things as were necessary to work with. 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 weather was bad, and we were weak-handed and weak-pocketed; in fact, help was not to be had. We got our chimney up breast-high as soon as we could, and got our cabin daubed as high as the joists outside. It never was daubed on the inside, for my sister, who generally was very nice, could not consent to "live right next to the mud."
Looking back, my impression now is that the window was not constructed until spring, for until the sticks and clay were built up to make the chimney stack, we could not possibly have had any need for a window. The flood of light that always poured into the cabin through the hole in the roof where the fireplace stack was to go, would have extinguished the dim light from our paper window, and rendered it as useless as the moon at noonday.
We got a roof laid overhead as soon as possible -- perhaps in a month. However, it was made from loose clapboards split from a red oak, the stump of which we could see beyond the cabin. It is said that red oak trees grow at night, and produce wood so full of twists that each board laid on two diagonally opposite corners. As a result, a cat might have shook every board on our roof.
Following are definitions for some of the words I have used to describe our house.
Clapboads 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 composed.
Puncheons were planks 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-axe. Of such our floor, doors, 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, which weigh down the course of clapboards on which they lie, and against which the next course above is placed.
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 in later years. 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, Barkley's APOLOGY, and a number of books, all better than much of the fashionable reading of the present day.... To our stock of books were soon after 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 light moments. 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. This lard was not the tasteless stuff now given 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. These biscuits were not the greasy gum-elastic biscuit we mostly meet with now, rolled out with a pin, or cut out with a cutter. Nor were they speckled by or puffed up with refined lye, called salaeratus. No, these were formed, 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 fire -- not half-baked and half-stewed in a cooking stove....
The Woods About Us
With winter, also came the wind. 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 were sometimes much and needlessly alarmed. 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 boughs and uniting their brows over us, as if in defiance of our disturbing their repose, and usurping their long and uncontested pre-emption rights.
The beech on the left often shook his bushy head over us as if in absolute disapproval of our settling there, threatening to crush us if we did not pack up and leave.
The walnut over the spring branch stood high and straight; no one could tell which way it leaned, but all concluded that if it had a preference it was in favor of splitting our cabin. We got assistance to cut it down. The axeman doubted his ability to control its direction because he must cut it almost off before it would fall. He thought by felling the tree near the chimney, thus taking advantage of 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 scarf and fell on the cabin, but without damage....
During the first years, the monotony of the time was broken and enlivened by the howl of wild beasts. The wolves howling around us seemed to express 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 seldom troubled us.
One bag of meal would make a whole family rejoicingly happy and thankful then, while a loaded ship from the East Indies would fail to evoke such reaction today -- and is passed off as a common business transaction without ever once thinking of the giver -- so independent have we become in the short span of forty years! Having gotten 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 -- had been put in among the beech roots, which at every step contended with the shovel-plough 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 badly needed for such things as bureaus, stands, wardrobes, or even barrels -- which, otherwise, were not to be had.
The process of making ropes of linn bark was to cut the bark in 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 pretty considerably rough and good-for-but-little kind of a rope. However, we were very thankful to have this rope, 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 dimensions of our box. Into one end we would place a flat piece of bark 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 since the strength of the bark would keep it together pretty well. Its shrinkage would make the top unsightly in a parlor now-a-days, but back then they were considered quite an addition to the furniture.
A much finer article was made 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 bark side formed the inside of the box. A bottom was made of a piece of the same bark dried flat, and a lid -- like that of a common band-box -- was made in the same way. This was the finest furniture in a lady's dressing-room, and then -- as now, with the finest furniture -- the lapped or sewed side was turned to the wall and the prettiest part faced the spectator. They were usually made oval, and while the bark was green, were easily ornamented with drawings of birds, trees, etc., agreeably to the taste and skill of the fair manufacturer. Since we belonged to the Society of Friends (Quakers), it may be safely 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 clear out the smaller stuff and burn the brush, etc., around the beeches which, in spite of the girdling and burning we could do to them, would leaf 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 principally with the hoe, that is, to chop down the nettles, the water-weed, and the touch-me-not. Grass, careless, 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 next year we had a little hay besides. The stalk and leaves of the corn were also carefully saved for our horse, cow, and the two sheep.
The turnips were sweet and good, and in the fall we took care to gather walnuts and hickory nuts, which were very 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 at scraping them.
Johnny-cake, when we had meal from which to make it, helped to make up our evening's supper. The Sunday morning biscuit had become a thing of the past, but the loss was partially replaced by the nuts and turnips. Our usual supper was mush and milk, and by the time we had shelled our corn, stemmed tobacco, and plaited straw to make hats, etc., etc., the mush and milk had seemingly evaporated from the neighborhood of our ribs. To relieve our hunger, my brother and I would bake a thin Johnny-cake, part of which we would eat and leave 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 numerous. Some would sit around the pot, and everyone would eat directly from it. Some would set a table and give each person his or her own tin-cup of milk. Then, with a pewter spoon, each person would take just as much mush from the dish or the pot -- if it was on the table -- as he thought would fill his mouth or throat, then moisten it in the milk. While eating the mush, a person might drink a little of the milk to help wash it down. This method kept the milk cool, and by frequent repetitions the pioneers 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 very difficult because of the scarcity of mills, the freezes in winter, and droughts in summer. We often had to manufacture meal (when we had corn) in any way we could get the corn crushed into pieces. We soaked and pounded it, we shaved it, we planed it, and, at the proper season, grated it. When one of our neighbors got a hand-mill it was thought quite an acquisition to the neighborhood.
In later years, when we could get grinding done by waiting for our turn no more than one day and a night at a horse-mill we thought ourselves fortunate. To save cornmeal we often made pumpkin bread. When cornmeal 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 a bushel, and we used none in our corn bread, which we soon liked as well without it. Often my sweat ran into my mouth, which tasted as fresh and flat as distilled water. What meat we had at first was fresh -- but there was little of that, for even if we had been hunters we had no time to do so.
We had no candles, and cared 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 on winter evenings, might be supposed to put, not only candles, lamps, camphene, Greenough's chemical oil, but even gas itself, to shame. In the West we had none of this, but my business was to ramble the woods every evening looking for seasoned sticks or the bark of the shelly hickory, which we would burn for light. It is 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.
This entry is adapted from Henry Howe's HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS OF OHIO (2 vols., 1907). The book has been reedited, updated, and restructured for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This entry is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. This entry may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that the Stratton House Inn iteration of this entry does NOT include the subject headings assigned the entry for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.
CO-AUTHOR: Williams, John S.
DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 1998 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved
ENTRY NUMBER: EBK31135111