Women in the Homestead


By William Worthington Fowler in 1877


Wagon Train

The 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 obediently 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 women 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 plow, 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 ax, the plow, 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 ax and the auger are often the only tools used in their construction, but usually, the drawing-knife, the broad-ax, 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 ax 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 ax 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 ax, and his lines and corners marked by this instrument; roads are opened and bridges made by the ax, the first courthouses, and jails are fashioned of logs with the same tool. In labor or hunting, in traveling by land or water, the ax is ever the companion of the backwoodsman.

Pioneer home, by Currier & Ives, 1867

Pioneer home, by Currier & Ives, 1867

Most 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.

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