A Picture of Pioneer Life - Somerset County

Created: Monday, 14 September 2015 Last Updated: Monday, 14 September 2015 Written by Administrator Print Email

THE pioneers, arriving at their places of destination after long and tedious journeying over Indian trails or roads rudely improved, as a rule, brought very little with them with which to begin the battle of life among new surroundings. They had brave hearts and strong arms, however, and possessed invincible determination to hew out for themselves homes which in time should become the abodes of happiness and plenty. Sometimes the men came on without their families to make a beginning, but more often all came together. The first thing to be done, after a rude, temporary shelter was provided, was to prepare a little spot of ground for the growth of some kind of crop. This was done by girdling the trees, clearing away the underbrush, and sweeping the surface with fire. The ground was then broken as thoroughly as possible with the few rude implements which the pioneers possessed. Ten, fifteen, twenty or even thirty acres of land might thus be prepared and planted the first season. In the autumn, the crop would be gathered and garnered with the least possible waste, for it was the chief food supply of the pioneer and his family, and life itself might possibly, comfort surely, depended on its safe preservation.

Cabin building occupied the attention of the pioneer while the first crop was growing. He would need a shelter from the storms and cold of approaching winter, and perhaps a protection from wild beasts. The pioneer who was completely isolated from his fellow men occupied an unenviable situation, for without assistance he could construct only a poor habitation. In such cases, the cabin was usually constructed of very light logs or poles, and was laid up roughly, only to answer as a temporary shelter until other settlers came into the owner’s neighborhood, by whose help a more substantial structure could be built. Usually, a number of families came into the country together, and located within such distance of each other than they were enabled to perform many friendly and neighborly offices. After the first year or two from the time of the primal settlements in the county elapsed, there was no difficulty in cabin building. Assistance was always readily given a pioneer by all the scattered residents of the forest within a radius of several miles.

The commonly followed plan of erecting the log cabin was through a union of labor. The site of the cabin home was usually selected with reference to a good water supply. It was invariably by a never-failing spring, and there was little trouble on this score among the hills of Bedford, Somerset and Fulton counties. When the cabin was to be built, the few men in the neighborhood gathered at the site, and first cut, with as close proximity as possible, the requisite number of trees as nearly of a size as could be found, but varying, often, from ten to fifteen inches in diameter. Logs were chopped from these and rolled to the common center, where they were to be used in building the home of the pioneer family. Often this preliminary work was performed by the prospective occupant of the family alone, or with such assistance as could be rendered by wife or children. If such was not the case, it would occupy the greater part of the day. The entire labor of erecting the cabin would usually occupy two or three days. After the ground-logs were laid, the others were raised to their places by the use of hand-spikes and "skid-poles," and men standing at the corners with axes notched them as fast as they were laid in position. The place of "corner man" was one of honor and distinction, and the persons chosen for these positions were supposed to be particularly skillful in wielding the ax.

Greater difficulty attended the work after the cabin was built a few logs high. It was necessary that the logs in the gables should he beveled and each succeeding one should be shorter than that on which it rested. These gable logs were held in place by poles which extended across the cabin, serving also as rafters upon which to lay the rived "clapboard" roof. The so-called clapboards were five or six feet in length, and were split from oak logs, and made as flat and smooth as possible. They were laid side by side, and other pieces of split stuff were laid over the crack, to keep out the rain. Upon these were laid logs to hold them in place, and they were secured by blocks placed between them at the ends.

The chimney was an important part of the structure. In some cases it was made of stone, and in some of logs and sticks, laid up in a manner similar to those which formed the walls of the house, and plastered with mud. It was built outside of the house, and at one end. At its base a huge hole was cut through the wall for a fireplace. The back and sides of the latter were formed of large flat stones.

An opening was chopped or sawed in one side of the cabin for a doorway. Pieces of hewn timber, three or four inches thick, were fastened on each side with wooden pins, or in some cases with iron nails, and these formed the frame on which the door (if there was one) was hung, either by wooden or leather hinges. The door itself was a clumsy piece of woodwork. It was made from boards rived from an oak log, and held together by heavy cross-pieces. There was a wooden latch upon the inside, raised from without by string or thong of deerskin which passed through a gimlet-hole. From this mode of construction arose the old and well-known homely figure of hospitality, "You will find the latch-string always out." When, on rare occasions, it was pulled in, the door was considered fastened. Many of the pioneer cabins had no door of this kind until they had been occupied for many years. Instead of the door on hinges a blanket or some old garment was frequently suspended before the opening to guard the occupants of the cabin from sun or rain.

The window was a small opening, usually near the door, and in most cases devoid of frame or glass. In lieu of the latter, greased paper was often used, and sometimes an article of the housewife’s limited wardrobe constituted a curtain.

The floor of the cabin was made of puncheons. These were pieces of timber split from trees about eighteen inches in diameter, and hewed smooth with a broadax. They were usually half the length of the floor. Some of the cabins earliest erected through this region had nothing but earth floors. Occasionally there was one which had a cellar, that is, a small excavation under the floor, to which access was had by moving a loose puncheon. Very commonly the cabins were provided with lofts. The loft was used for various purposes, and, among others, as the "guest chamber," which pioneer hospitality offered to the wayfarer and the stranger. It was reached by a ladder, the sides of which were split pieces of sapling.
Although the labor of building a rough log cabin was usually performed in two or three days, the occupants were often employed for months in finishing and furnishing it. The walls had to be "chinked and daubed," various conveniences furnished, and a few rude articles of furniture manufactured. A forked stick set in the floor and supporting the ends of two poles, the other extremities of which rested upon the logs at the side and end of the cabin, formed the basis for a bedstead. A common form of table was a split slab, supported by four rustic legs, set in auger-holes. Three-legged stools were formed in a similar simple manner. Pegs driven in auger-holes in the logs of the walls supported shelves, and upon others were displayed the few articles of wearing apparel not in use. A few other pegs, or perhaps a pair of deer-horns, formed a rack where hung the rifle and powder-horn, which no cabin was without. These, and a few simple articles in addition, formed the furniture and furnishings of the pioneer’s cabin. In contrast with the rude furniture fashioned by the pioneer with his poor tools, there were occasionally a few souvenirs of "the old home."

The utensils for cooking and the dishes for table use were few. The best of the latter were made of pewter, and the careful housewife of the olden time kept them shining as brightly as the pretentious plate in our latter-day fine houses. Knives and forks were few, crockery very scarce, and tinware by no means abundant. Food was simply cooked and served, but it was, as a rule, of the best and most wholesome kind. The hunter kept the larder well supplied with venison, bear meat, squirrels, wild turkeys and the many varieties of small game. Plain corn-bread, baked in a kettle in the ashes, or upon a board or a broad chip, in front of the great open fireplace, was a staple article of food. Corn was either pounded into a coarse meal or carried a long distance to mill to be ground. The wild fruits in their season were made use of and afforded a pleasant variety. In the lofts of the cabins was usually to be found a collection of articles making up the pioneer’s materia medica, the herb medicines and spices, catnip, sage, tansy, fennel, boneset, wormwood and pennyroyal, each gathered in its season; and there were also stores of nuts, strings of dried pumpkin, with bags of berries and fruit.

The habits of the pioneers were of a simplicity and purity which was in conformance with the character of their surroundings and belongings. The days were full of toil, both for man and woman. The men were engaged constantly in the rude avocations of pioneer life, cutting away the forest, logging, burning the brush and the debris, preparing the soil, planting, harvesting, and caring for the few animals they brought with them or soon procured. The little openings around the log cabins were constantly made larger, and the sunshine year after year admitted to a larger area of the virgin soil, which had been growing rich for centuries, and only awaiting cultivation to give evidence of its fertility.

While the men were engaged in the heavy work of the field or forest, their helpmeets were busied with a multiplicity of household duties, providing for the day and for the year, cooking, making or mending clothes, spinning and weaving. They were heroic in their endurance of hardship and privation and loneliness. They were, as a rule, admirably fitted by nature and experience to be the consorts of the sturdy, industrious men who came into the wilderness of Western Pennsylvania. Their cheerful industry was well directed and unceasing. Woman’s work, like man’s, in the years when this country was new, was performed under many disadvantages, which have been removed by modern skill and science, and the growth of new conditions.

The pioneer woman had not only to perform what are now known as household duties, but many which were removed in later years. She not only made clothing, but the fabric for it. Money was scarce, and the markets in which satisfactory purchases could be made were far away. It was the policy of the pioneer (urged by necessity) to buy nothing which could be produced by home industry. And so it happened that in nearly all the cabins scattered through the western woods at the beginning of the present century, and for many years later, were to be heard the drowsy sound of the softly-whirring spinning-wheel, and the rhythmic thud of the loom, and that women were there engaged in those old, old occupations of spinning and weaving, which have been associated with her name in all ages but our own. They are occupations of which the modern world knows little, except what it has heard from the lips of those who are grandmothers now. They are occupations which seem surrounded with the glamour of romance as we look back upon them through tradition and poetry, and they invariably conjure up thoughts of the virtues and graces of the generations of dames and damsels of the olden time. The woman of pioneer times was like the woman of whom Solomon sang: "She seeketh wool and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands; she layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff." Almost every article of clothing, all the cloth in use in the old log cabins, was the product of the patient woman-weaver’s toil. She spun the flax and wove the cloth, for shirts and trousers, frocks, sheets and blankets. The linen and the wool, the "linsey-woolsey" woven by the housewife, formed nearly all the articles of clothing worn by men and women, except such as in the earliest days of the settlement were made of skins.

At a very late date throughout this region, every farmer had a patch of from a quarter to half an acre of flax, which was manufactured into cloth by the family. The flax before it was ready for spinning had to be put through the process of "hackling" and scutching, and the latter of these operations frequently furnished occasions for "bees," at which the people combined industry with merriment and sociability. Clothes entirely of home manufacture were almost universally worn until a comparatively late day, and the wearing of "store" clothes was thought by many to be an evidence of vanity.
Men in the pioneer days commonly wore the hunting-shirt, a kind of loose frock reaching half way down to the thighs, open before, and so wide as to lap over a foot from the chest. This generally had a cape, which was sometimes fringed with a piece of raveled cloth of a color different from that of the garment. The hunting-shirt was always worn belted. The bosom of the garment answered as a pouch in which could be carried the various articles needed by the hunter or woodsman. The shirt, or, more properly, coat, was made of coarse linen, of linsey or deerskin, according to the fancy of the wearer. Breeches were made of heavy cloth or deerskin, and were often worn with leggings of the same material, or of some kind of leather. The deerskin breeches or trousers were very comfortable when dry, but when they became wet were cold to the limbs, and, the next time they were put on, were almost as stiff as if made of boards. Hats or caps were made of the various native furs, in crude form, each man being his own hatter until, a few years after the first settlements, men who followed hat-making as a trade came into the county and opened little shops, in which they made woolen hats.

The pioneer women were clothed in linsey petticoats, coarse shoes and stockings, and wore buckskin mittens or gloves, when any protection was needed for the hands. To a wardrobe of this kind were added a few articles obtained from the East. Nearly all of the women’s wearing apparel, however, like that of the men, was of home manufacture, and was made with a view to being comfortable and serviceable. Jewelry was very rarely seen, but occasionally ornaments were worn which had been brought from former homes. The Bible was to be found in the cabins of the pioneers almost as frequently as the rifle. In the cabins of some families a few other books were occasionally to be met with, such as "Pilgrim’s Progress," Baxter’s "Saints’ Rest," Hervey’s "Meditations," AEsop’s " Fables," and the like. The winter evenings were spent in poring over a few well-thumbed volumes by the light of the log fire, or in knitting, mending, curing furs, etc.

The pioneer had many discomforts to endure, and some dangers to encounter. The larger wild beasts were a source of dread, and the smaller ones a source of much annoyance to those who first dwelt in this region. Added to this was the liability to sickness which always exists in a new country. Then, too, in the midst of all the loveliness of their surroundings there was a sense of loneliness which could not be dispelled; and this was a far greater trial to many men and women on the frontier of civilization than is generally imagined. The deep-seated, constantly recurring feeling of isolation made many stout hearts turn fondly back to remembrance of the older settlements, the abodes of comfort, the companionship and sociability they had abandoned.

As the settlement increased, the sense of loneliness and isolation was dispelled, the asperities of life were softened, its amenities multiplied. Social gatherings became more numerous and more enjoyable. The log-rollings, harvesting and husking bees, and occasional rifle matches for the men, and the apple-butter making and quilting parties for the women, furnished frequent occasions for social intercourse.

Hospitality in the olden time was simple, unaffected and unbounded, save by the limited means of the people. During the early years of the settlement, whisky was in common use and was furnished on all festive occasions. Nearly every settler who could afford it had a barrel stowed away, and there were but few so poor they could not have at least a jugful. The liquor at first in use was brought from the East. It was the good old-fashioned whisky— "clear as amber, sweet as musk, smooth as oil"— that the octogenarians and nonagenarians used to call to memory with an unctuous gusto, and a smack of the lips which entirely outdoes the descriptive power of words. A few years after the first settlements were made stills were set up to supply the demand. During all the early years of the settlement, varied with occasional pleasures and excitements, the great work of increasing the area of the tillable ground went steadily on. The implements of agriculture were few and of the most primitive kind, but the soil which had held in reserve the accumulated richness of unnumbered centuries produced splendid harvests. Progress, however, was slow. Produce brought low prices, and it was difficult to place it in the market. They were seldom able to obtain cash, and how to secure a sufficient sum of money to pay taxes was a matter for very serious consideration. Although the development of the county and the improvement of individual condition was slow, it was nevertheless sure. The log houses became more numerous, and the forests shrank away before the woodman’s ax. The settlers brought stock into the country as they became able, and each one had his horses, cows, sheep and swine. Among the earliest evidences of the reward of patient toil were the cabins of hewed logs which took the place of the earlier hut-like structures. Then frame houses began to appear and hewed log barns, and later frame barns were built for the housing of grain and protection of stock. Simultaneously with the earliest indications of increasing thrift society began to form itself, the schoolhouse and church appeared, and advancement was noticeable in a score of ways. Still there remained a vast work to perform, for, as yet, only a beginning had been made. The brunt of the struggle, however, was passed: the pioneer had made a way for the advancing hosts of the army of civilization.

(Source: History of Bedford, Somerset &amp; Fulton Counties, PA; 1884)