Women in the Homestead

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 ax 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.

Prairie Woman

Prairie Girl

These perilous adventures were episodes, we should remember, in a life of extraordinary labor and hardship. The luxuries and comforts of older communities were unknown to the settlers on the border-line, either in New England two centuries ago or in the West many years later. Plain in every way was the life of the borderer — plain in dress, in manners, in equipage, in houses. The cabins were furnished in the most primitive style. Blocks or stumps of trees served for chairs and tables. Bedsteads were made by laying rows of saplings across two logs, forming a spring bed for the women and children, while the men lay on the floor with their feet to the fire and a log under their heads for a pillow.

The furniture of the cabin in the West, for several years after the settlement of the country, consisted of a few pewter dishes, plates, and spoons, but mostly of wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins; if these last were scarce, gourds and hard-shell squashes made up the deficiency; the iron pots, knives, and forks were brought from the East, with the salt and iron on packhorses. The articles of furniture corresponded very well with the articles of diet. “Hog and hominy” was a dish of proverbial celebrity; Johnnycake or pone was at the outset of the settlement the only form of bread in use for breakfast or dinner; at supper, milk and mush was the standard dish; when milk was scarce the hominy supplied its place, and mush was frequently eaten with sweetened water, molasses, bear’s oil, or the gravy of fried meat.

In the display of furniture, delft, china, or silver were unknown; the introduction of delft-ware was considered by many of the backwoods people as a wasteful innovation; it was too easily broken, and the plates dulled their scalping and clasp knives.

The costume of the women of the frontier was suited to the plainness of the habitations where they lived and the furniture they used. Homespun, linsey-woolsey, and buckskin were the primitive materials out of which their everyday dresses were made, and only on occasions of social festivity were they seen in braver robes. Rings, broaches, buckles, and ruffles were heir-looms from parents or grandparents.

But this plainness of living and attire was preparation for, and almost necessary antecedent of hardihood, endurance, courage, patience, qualities which made themselves manifest in the heroic acting of these women of the border. With such a state of society, we can readily associate assiduous labor, a battling with danger in its myriad shapes, a subjugation of the hostile forces of nature, and a developing of a strange and peculiar civilization.

Here we see woman in her true glory. We see her as a wife partaking of the cares and guiding the labors of her husband and by domestic diligence spreading cheerfulness all around for his sake; sharing the decent refinements of civilization without being injured by them; placing all her joy, all her happiness in the merited approbation of the man she loves; as a mother, we find her affectionate, the ardent instructress of the children she has reared from infancy and trained up to thought and to the practice of virtue, to meditation and benevolence and to become strong and useful men and women.

Could there be happiness or comfort in such dwellings and such a state of society. To those who are accustomed to modern refinement the truth appears like a fable. The lowly occupants of log cabins were often among the most happy of mankind. Exercise and excitement gave them health, they were practically equal; common danger made them mutually dependent; brilliant hopes of future wealth and distinction led them on, and as there was ample room for all, and as each newcomer increased individual and general security, there was little room for that envy, jealousy, and hatred which constitutes a large portion of human misery in older societies. Never were the story, the joke, the song, and the laugh better enjoyed than upon the hewed blocks or puncheon-stools around the roaring log-fire of the early western settler. The lyre of Apollo was not hailed with more delight in primitive Greece than the advent of the first fiddler among the dwellers of the wilderness, and the polished daughters of the East never enjoyed themselves half so well moving to the music of a full band upon the elastic floor of their ornamented ball-room, as did the daughters of the western emigrants keeping time to the self-taught fiddler on the bare earth or puncheon floor of the primitive log cabin: the smile of the polished beauty is the wave of the lake where the breeze plays gently over it, and her movement the gentle stream which drains it; but the laugh of the log cabin is the gush of nature’s fountain and its movement the leaping water.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *