Monday, April 5, 2010

A Sketch of Pioneer Life

John Williams was born in Carteret County, North Carolina in 1790, just weeks before his father's death. In 1800, financial difficulties forced his mother to give up the family homestead and the family moved from Beaufort, North Carolina to Glenn's Run, between Wheeling and St. Clairsville in Ohio. On the journey west, the party remained at Alexandria, Virginia for several days. In planning for the trek across the mountains, everything was weighed and John wrote, "My weight was just 75 pounds."

In later life, John S. Williams [John Williams added his mother's maiden name 'Shoebridge' to his name to distinguish himself from others named John Williams] edited the American Pioneer, published in 1843 in Cincinnati. In it he wrote about his early life, including a sketch of pioneer life, published as "Our Cabin; or Life in the Woods.


Our Cabin Described.—. … Our cabin had been raised, covered, part of the cracks chinked, and part of the floor laid when we moved in on Christmas day [1800]! … 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 … [who] was raised in the most delicate manner in and near London… . 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 sign for 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 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; 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 funnel of sticks and clay was delayed until spring.

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. The position of the house, end to the hill, necessarily elevated the lower end, and the determination of having both a north and south door added much to the airiness of the domicile, 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. We had a window, if it could be called a window, when, perhaps, it was the largest spot in the top, bottom, or sides 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 twenty-four by eighteen. The west end was occupied by two beds, the centre 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, and dishes, and spoons, scoured and bright. It was none of your 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 slipping and without dulling your knife. …

A ladder of five 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, four split-bottom chairs, three three-legged stools, and a small eight by ten looking-glass sloped from the wall over a large towel and comb-case. These, with a clumsy shovel and a pair of tongs, made in Frederick, with one shank straight, as the best manufacture of pinches and blood-blisters, completed our furniture, except 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 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 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 was very nice, could 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 was 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 fireplace 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. That tree grew in the night, and so twisting that each board laid on two diagonally opposite corners, and 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 [a cleaving tool with the handle set into the blade at right angles to the cutting edge], 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 und 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 evenings of the first winter did not pass off as pleasantly as evenings afterwards. 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, Berkley'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 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, that 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 these greasy gum elastic biscuits we mostly meet with now, rolled out with a pin, or cut out with a cutter; or those that are, perhaps, speckled by or puffed up with refined lye called salaeratus [baking soda], 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 fire—not half-baked and half-stewed in a cooking-stove.

The Woods about us.— 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 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 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 axe man doubted his ability to control its direction, by reason that he must necessarily cut it almost off before it would fall. … He was successful. Part of the stump still stands there, 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.

Sketch of cabin made by John Williams

Howling Wolves.—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 moan 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. … 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-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 stood in great need of, as such things as bureaus, stands, wardrobes, or even barrels, were not to be had. The manner 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. 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 caliber 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, as the strength of the bark would keep that all right enough. Its shrinkage would make the top unsightly in a parlor nowadays, but 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 when 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 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 port to 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. As we belonged to the Society of Friends, it may be fairly presumed that our band-boxes were not thus ornamented.

Pioneer Food.— 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, earless 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 tops and blades 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.… Johnny-cake, also, when we had meal to make it of, helped to make up our evening'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., 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 Johnny-cake, part of which we would eat, and leave the rest till the 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 there from for himself. Some would set a table and each have his tin cup of milk, and with a pewter spoon 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 lowering it into the milk would take some to 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 a great difficulty, by reason of the scarcity of mills, the freezes in winter and droughts in summer. We bad 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, 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 drought, 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 a bushel, and we used none in our corn bread, which we soon liked as well without it. Often has 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, on winter evenings, might be supposed to put, not only candles, lamps, camphine, Greenough's chemical oil, but even gas itself, to the blush. In the West we had not this, but my business was to ramble the woods every evening 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.

John S. Williams wrote a great deal more about his early life for the American Pioneer. Duncan Rea Williams III has included much of it on his web site, Williams Cyber Niche, along with Williams genealogy and other interesting topics. you can find him at

Source: Historical collections of Ohio...: an encyclopedia of the state ..., Volume 1 by Henry Howe 1902, Originally published in 1847. This is a Google book.

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