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Old West Legends IconAMERICAN HISTORY

Women in the Homestead

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By William Worthington Fowler in 1877

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Wagon TrainThe first stage in pioneer-life is nomadic: a half score of men, women, and children faring day after day, living in the open air, encamping at night beside a spring or brook, under the canopy of the forest, it is only when they reach their place of destination, that the germ of a community fixes itself to the soil, and rises obedient to those laws of social and civil order.


The experiences of camp life form the initial steps to the backwoods education which a woman must at length acquire, to fit her for the duties and trials of all remote settlements. Riding, driving, or tramping on, now through stately groves, now over prairies which lose themselves in the horizon, now fording shallow streams, or poling themselves on rafts across rivers, skirting morasses or wallowing through them, and climbing mountains, as they breathe the fresh woodland air and catch glimpses of a thousand novel scenes and encounter the dangers or endure the hardships of this first stage in their pilgrimage, they learn those first hard lessons which stand them in such good stead when they have settled in their permanent abodes in the heart of the wilderness which it is the work of the pioneer to subdue.


To the casual observer there is an air of romance and wild enjoyment in this journey through that magnificent land. Many things there doubtless are to give zest and enjoyment to the long march of the pioneer and his family. The country through which they pass deserves the title of "the Garden of God." The trees of the forest are like stately columns in some verdurous temple; the sun shines down from an Italian sky upon lakes set like jewels flashing in the beams of light, the sward is filled with exaggerated velvet, through whose green the purple and scarlet gleams of fruit and flowers appear, and everything speaks to the eye of the splendor, richness, and joy of wild nature. Traits of man in this scene are favorite themes for the painter's art. The fire burning under the spreading oak or chestnut, the horses, or oxen, or mules picketed in the vistas, Indian wigwams and squaws with children watching curiously the pioneer household sitting by their fire and eating their evening meal; this is the picture framed by the imagination of a poet or artist; but this is but a superficial sketch, a mere glimpse of one of them any thousand phases of the long and weary journey. The reality is quite another thing.


The arrival of the household at their chosen seat marks the second stage in backwoods-life, a stage which calls for all the powers of mind and body, tasks the hands, exercises the ingenuity, summons vigilance, and awakens every latent energy. Woman steps at once into a new sphere of action, and hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, with her stronger but not more resolute companion, enters on that career which looks to the formation of communities and states. It is the household which constitutes the primal atom, the aggregation whereof makes the village, town, or city; the state itself rests upon the household finally, and the household is what the faithful mother makes it.


The toilsome march at length ended, we see the great wagon, with its load of household utensils and farming implements, bedsteads walling up the sides, a wash-tub turned up to serve as a seat for the driver, a broom and hoe-handle sticking out behind with the handles of a plough, pots and kettles dangling below, bundles of beds and bedding enthroning children of all the smaller sizes, stopping at last " for good," and the whole cortege of men, women, and boys, cattle, horses, and hogs, resting after their mighty tramp.


Shelter and food are the first wants of the settler; the log-cabin rises to supply the one; the axe, the plough, the spade, the hoe, prepare the other. The women often joined in the work of felling trees and trimming logs to be used in erecting the cabins. Those who have never witnessed the erection of log-cabins, would be surprised to behold the simplicity of their mechanism, and the rapidity with which they are put together. The axe and the auger are often the only tools used in their construction, but usually the drawing-knife, the broad-axe, and the crosscut-saw are added.


The architecture of the body of the house is sufficiently obvious, but it is curious to notice the ingenuity with which the wooden fireplace and chimney are protected from the action of the fire by a lining of clay, to see a smooth floor formed from the plain surface of hewed logs, and a door made of boards split from the log, hastily smoothed with the drawing-knife, united firmly together with wooden pins, hung upon wooden hinges, and fastened with a wooden latch. Not a nail nor any particle of metal enters into the composition of the building all is wood from top to bottom, all is done by the woodsman without the aid of any mechanic. These primitive dwellings are by no means so wretched as their name and rude workmanship would seem to imply. They still frequently constitute the dwelling of the farmers in new settlements; they are often roomy, tight, and comfortable. If one cabin is not sufficient, another and another is added, until the whole family is accommodated, and thus the homestead of a respectable farmer often resembles a little village.

 

 

 

The dexterity of the backwoodsman in the use of the axe is also remarkable, yet it ceases to be so regarded when we reflect on the variety of uses to which this implement is applied, and that in fact it enters into almost all the occupations of the pioneer, in clearing land, building houses, making fences, providing fuel; the axe is used in tilling his fields; the farmer is continually obliged to cut away the trees that have fallen in his enclosure, and the roots that impede his plough; the path of the surveyor is cleared by the axe, and his lines and corners marked by this instrument; roads are opened and bridges made by the axe, the first court houses and jails are fashioned of logs with the same tool. In labor or hunting, in traveling by land or water, the axe is ever the companion of the backwoodsman.

 

Pioneer HomeMost of these cabins were fortresses in themselves, and were capable of being defended by a family for several days. The thickness of the walls and numerous loop-poles were sometimes supplemented by a clay covering upon the roof, so as to resist the fiery arrows of the Indians. Sometimes places of concealment were provided for the women and children beneath the floor, with a closely fitting trap door leading to it. Such a place of refuge was provided by Mrs. Graves, a widow who lost her husband in Braddock's retreat. In a large pit beneath the floor of the cabin every night she laid her children to sleep upon a bed of straw, and there, replacing one of the floor logs, she passed the weary hours in darkness, seated by the window which commanded a view of the clearing through which the Indians would have to approach. When her youngest child required nursing she would lift the floor-log and sit on the edge of the opening until it was lulled to sleep, and then deposit the nursling once more in its secret bed.


Once, while sitting without a light, knitting, before the window, she saw three Indians approaching stealthily. Retreating to the hiding place beneath the floor, she heard them enter the cabin, and, having struck a light, proceed to help themselves to such eatables as they found in the pantry. After remaining for an hour in the house, and appropriating such articles as Indians most value, such as knives, axes, etc., they took their departure.


More elaborate fortresses were often necessary, and, for purposes of mutual defense in a country which swarmed with Indians, the settlers banded together and erected stations, forts, and block-houses. A station may be described as a series of cabins built on the sides of a parallelogram and united with palisades, so as to present on the outside a continuous wall with only one or two doors, the cabin doors opening on the inside into a common square.


A fort was a stockade enclosure embracing cabins, etc., for the accommodation of several families. One side was formed by a range of cabins separated by divisions or partitions of logs; the walls on the outside were ten or twelve feet high, with roofs sloping inward. Some of these cabins were provided with puncheon-floors, i.e., floors made of logs split in half and smoothed, but most of the floors were earthen. At the angles of these forts were built the blockhouses, which projected about two feet beyond the outer walls of the cabins and stockade; these upper stories were about 18 feet, or two inches everyway larger than the under one, leaving an opening at the commencement of the second story, to prevent the enemy from making a lodgment under the walls.


These block-houses were devised in the early days of the first settlements made in our country, and furnished rallying points for the settlers when attacked by the Indians. On the Western frontier they were enlarged and improved to meet the military exigencies arising in a country which swarmed with Indians. In some forts, instead of block-houses, the angles were furnished with bastions; a large folding gate, made of thick slabs nearest the spring, closed the forts; the stockade, bastion, cabin, and block-house walls were furnished with port-holes at proper heights and distances. The whole of the outside was made completely bullet-proof; the families belonging to these forts were so attached to their own cabins on their farms that they seldom moved into the forts in the spring until compelled by some alarm, i.e., when it was announced by some murder that Indians were in the settlement.


We have described thus in detail the fortified posts established along the frontier for the purpose of showing that the life of the pioneer woman, from the earliest times, was, and now is, to a large extent, a military one. She was forced to learn a soldier's habits and a soldier's virtues. Eternal vigilance was the price of safety, and during the absence of the male members of the household, which were frequent and sometimes protracted, the women were on guard-duty, and acted as the sentinels of their home fortresses. Watchful against stratagem as against violent attack, they passed many a night all alone in their isolated cabins, averting danger with all a woman's fertility of resource, and meeting it with all the courage of a man.


On one occasion a party of Indians approached a solitary log-house with the intention of murdering the inmates. With their usual caution, one of their number was sent forward to reconnoiter, who, discovering the only persons within to be a woman, two or three children, and a black man, rushed in by himself and seized the man. The woman caught up the axe and with a single blow laid the savage warrior dead at her feet, while the children closed the door, and, with ready sagacity, employed themselves fastening it. The rest of the Indians came up and attempted to force an entrance, but the black and the children kept the door closed, and the intrepid mother, having no effective weapon, picked up a gun-barrel which had neither stock nor lock and pointed it at the savage? through the apertures between the logs. The Indians deceived by the appearance of a gun, and daunted by the death of their companion, retired.


The station, the fort, and the block-house were the only refuge of the isolated settlers when the Indians became bolder in their attacks.


When the report of the four-pounder, or the ringing of the fort bell, or a volley of musketry sounded the alarm, the women and children hurried to the fortification. Sometimes, while threading the mazes of the forest, the hapless mother and her children would fall into an ambush. Springing from their cover, the prowling Indians would ply their tomahawks and scalping knives amid the shrieks of their helpless victims, or bear them away into a captivity more cruel than death.


Fort Stanwig, New York courtesy fortwikiOne summer's afternoon, while Mrs. Folsom, with her babe in her arms, was hasting to Fort Stanwig in the Black River Country of New York, after hearing the alarm, she caught sight of a huge Indian lying behind a log, with his rifle leveled apparently directly at her. She quickly sprang to one side and ran through the woods in a course at right angles with the point of danger, expecting every moment to be pierced with a rifle ball. Casting a horror-stricken glance over her shoulder as she ran, she saw her husband hastening on after her, but directly under the Indian's rifle. Shrieking loudly, she pointed to the savage just in time to warn her husband, who stepped behind a tree as the report of the rifle rang through the forest. In an instant he drew a bead upon the lurking foe, who fell with a bullet through his brain.


Before the family could reach the fort a legion of Indians, roused by the report of the rifles, were on their trail. The mother and child fled swiftly towards their place of refuge, which they succeeded in reaching without harm; but the brave father, while trying to keep the Indians at bay, was shot and scalped almost under the walls of the fort.


Ann Bush, another of these border heroines, was still more unfortunate than Mrs. Folsom. While she and her husband were fleeing for safety to one of the stations on the Virginia borders, they were overtaken and captured by the Indians, who shot and scalped her husband; and although she soon escaped from captivity, yet in less than twelve months after, while again attempting to find refuge in the same station, she was captured a second time, with an infant in her arms. After traveling a few hours the Indians bent down a young hickory, sharpened it, seized the child, scalped it and spitted it upon the tree; they then scalped and tomahawked the mother and left her for dead. She lay insensible for many hours; but it was the will of Providence that she should survive the shock. When she recovered her senses she bandaged her head with her apron, and, wonderful to tell, in two days staggered back to the settlement with the dead body of her infant.


The transitions of frontier life were often startling and sad. From a wedding to a funeral, from a merrymaking to a massacre, were frequent vicissitudes. One of these shiftings of the scene is described by an actor and eye-witness as follows:


"Father had gone away the day before and mother and the children were alone. About nine o'clock at night we saw two Indians approaching. Mother immediately threw a bucket of water on the fire to prevent them from seeing us, made us lie on the floor, bolted and barred the door, and posted herself there with an axe and rifle. We never knew why they desisted from an attack or how father escaped. In two or three days all of us set out for Clinch Mountain to the wedding of Happy Kincaid, a clever young fellow from Holston, and Sally McClure, a fine girl of seventeen, modest and pretty, yet fearless. We knew the Shawnees were about; that our fort and household effects must be left unguarded and might be destroyed; that we incurred the risk of a fight or an ambuscade, a capture, and even death, on the route; but in those days, and in that wild country, folks did not calculate consequences closely, and the temptation to a frolic, a wedding, a feast, and a dance till daylight and often for several days together, was not to be resisted. Off we went. Instead of the bridal party, the well spread table, the ringing laughter, and the sounding feet of buxom dancers, we found a pile of ashes and six or seven ghastly corpses tomahawked and scalped." Mrs. McClure, her infant, and three other children, including Sally, the intended bride, had been carried off by the Indians. They soon tore the poor infant from the mother's arms and killed and scalped it, that she might travel faster. While they were scalping this child, Peggy McClure, a girl twelve years old, perceived a sink-hole immediately at her feet and dropped silently into it. It communicated with a ravine, down which she ran and brought the news to the settlement. The same night Sally, who had been tied and forced to lie down between two warriors, contrived to loosen her thongs and make her escape. She struck for the canebrake, then for the river, and to conceal her trail resolved to descend it. It was deep wading, and the current was so rapid she had to fill her petticoat with gravel to steady herself. She soon, however, recovered confidence, returned to shore, and finally reached the still smoking homestead about dark next evening. A few neighbors well armed had just buried the dead; the last prayer had been said, when the orphan girl stood before them."


Yielding to the entreaties of her lover, who was present, and to the advice and persuasion of her friends, the weeping girl gave her consent to an immediate marriage; and beside the grave of the household and near the ruins of the cabin they were accordingly made one.

 

 

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