Survival of a People
Students will recognize and discuss some of the adversities faced by frontier settlers.
The Green family packs up and moves to Kentucky, where they build a small cabin, plant some corn, and stake their claim on Ben Green's land. But life in Kentucky is not easy and the Greens and others suffer through Indian raids, bitter cold, and other perils. They survive, however, and stay to make a home on the frontier.
Life on the Kentucky Frontier (1750-1820)
Life in pioneer Kentucky was austere, rugged, and fatiguing-not for the delicate or faint-hearted. Nevertheless, those willing and able to endure the hardships worked hard to convert the wilderness into a Garden of Eden. Land was cheap; timber was plentiful; the woods teemed with game; and life was relatively free from the confining laws and mores of eastern society. Families strove to become self sufficient, yet freely shared their goods and energies with needy neighbors. The developing frontier molded a lifestyle which easterners made fun of but which nevertheless became an important part of the nation's history and folklore.
The bulk of Kentucky's early residents were poor, land hungry settlers who came from western portions of Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, traveling in flatboats or wagons filled with essential tools, a minimum of household goods, and a few head of livestock. Possessing warrants (received for military service) that entitled them to a few hundred acres, or using squatters' sovereignty, they scattered across the wilderness and staked their claims along Kentucky's many streams and waterways.
Survival depended on the immediate acquisition of shelter for man and beast. A lean-to or a cave sufficed until a cabin could be built. Once a site was selected and cleared, a more permanent abode was erected. The backwoods home, typically a one-room log cabin, served as the hub of family life. A mud and stone fireplace dominated one wall of the cabin, providing illumination and heat to warm its inhabitants and a place to cook their food; over the fireplace hung a rifle and powder horn. Furnishings generally were sparse and crude-a few chairs or split log benches, perhaps a couple of tables made from logs, a bedstead or two (under which the axe and scythe were stored at night during Indian unrest), a cradle, maybe a cup-board or chest for storing bedding and clothing, a spinning wheel, and a loom. Kitchen utensils consisted of a few iron pots and skillets, tin or pewter plates (or perhaps wooden plates and cups made from gourds or tree knots), and wooden or tin spoons. The appearance of such luxuries as curtains, mirrors, bedspreads, rag rugs, and china dishes heralded the arrival of relative affluence.
An awesome number of tasks were necessary to sustain the family, and the women, an overworked but ingenious lot, and the children performed most of them. They made candles and soap from animal fats, ground corn into meal, dried fruits and vegetables for winter, salted down meats, churned butter, made cheese, and fashioned the family's clothing from animal hides they tanned and from yarns they spun, dyed, and wove into cloth. They also carried water from the nearby stream, gathered firewood, stoked the hearth, cooked the meals, and cared for the family stock. The man of the family generally prepared the land for planting (using a mattock and axe to rid the virgin soil of roots and a scrub brush and a plow and hoe to cultivate the earth); the women and children usually attended and weeded the garden. The major crop was corn, but most families also had a truckpatch planted in wheat, oats, beans, squash, turnips, potatoes, and melons. With a minimum of effort, Kentucky's fertile soil yielded sixty to eighty bushels of corn per acre. In addition to providing meal and liquor (which frontiersmen produced for their own consumption as well as to sell), the cornstalks provided fodder for the stock to eat during the winter.
Although game and garden produce served as diet mainstays, other foodstuffs titillated pioneer palates. In the early spring, maple trees could be tapped for their sap, which boiled down into a thick, sweet syrup or a granular sugar. Honey was also available for those daring enough to brave the bees. Wild berries were gathered in the early summer and made into pies. Nuts and autumn fruits, such as wild grapes and crab apples, added a welcome change to the diet.
During the early frontier years, a man's worth was measured not only by his skill with an axe but also by his accuracy with a rifle. The former was imperative in clearing the land and erecting buildings, but a family's safety and food supply depended on the latter. Because of its precision at a 200-300 yard range, the frontiersmen adopted the long-barreled, small-bored rifle developed in Pennsylvania and they elevated sharp shooting to an art unsurpassed by their contemporaries in the east. Each gun was designed carefully for the height of its owner, so that he could load and fire it and clear the barrel of carbon without ever taking his eyes off his target. A rifle, a gunpowder-filled buffalo horn, a pouch of lead bullets, greased doeskin patches, and a wooden ramrod were as much a part of the backwoods-man's garb as were his buckskin jacket and leather or woolen leggings.
Although essential tasks left little time for frivolity, the Kentucky pioneers found occasions to combine work with play and to relieve the monotony and isolation that characterized their lives. Hunting contests provided an opportunity to exhibit marksmanship as well as to socialize. At a community squirrel hunt, men, boys and their dogs spent the day ridding the area of the rodents that played havoc with their gardens while, at the same time acquiring meat for a community feast. The team that lost the contest did the cooking. At such events, braggarts gloried in their real and imagined sporting skills. Some boasted they only shot squirrels through the right (or left) eye, for the meat hit anywhere else caused indigestion; a few cocky nimrods claimed they preferred to "bark" squirrels (hitting the limb beneath the animal and killing it by impact without puncturing the pelt).
Log rollings, quilting parties, and harvest-time corn huskings presented opportunities to boast about one's prowess, socialize with neighbors, and consume the host's whiskey. House raisings also supplied lively camaraderie. Large trees were felled, trimmed of limbs, and hauled to the cabin site. Some logs were notched to use for walls; others were split and hewed into smooth-faced puncheons for the floor or rough shingles for the clapboard roof. Assembling the cabin and making a few sticks of furniture for it could be done in one day. Then the builders put away their tools, and they and their families gathered for a house warming. The women contributed the food and brought gifts of homemade domestic items, including blankets, brooms, and candles. The men furnished jugs of whiskey and a deer or hog to barbecue. Following the sumptuous feast, a local fiddler began a vigorous, foot-stomping reel. Dancing lasted all night or until the guests became too tired or too drunk to continue. Romantic and pugilistic endeavors increased in proportion to the liquor consumed, and the following day, numerous celebrants nursed hangovers, bloody noses, and fears about promises made during drink-induced passions.
Despite the paucity of opportunities for courting, most young men married before their twentieth birthday; few girls remained single beyond eighteen. A wedding afforded a rare excuse to frolic. The ceremony, held at the home of the bride's parents, was brief. Out-fitted in a wedding dress she made of hand woven white muslin or store bought calico, the bride and her groom stood before the preacher, held hands, and recited their vows. Then, the celebration began! A feast, with every kind of frontier delicacy and plenty of whiskey, was followed by dancing. Although the guests reveled all night, the bride's friends put her to bed in the bridal chamber (usually the loft of her parents' cabin) about mid-evening; the groom's friends then tucked him in beside his new wife. A day or two later a house-raising or housewarming might be held to help the newlyweds build or furnish a home on land they received from their parents or purchased from a neighbor.
Unfortunately, not all couples lived happily ever after. Frontier life was hard, and life expectancy was short. A host of infections, diseases, and accidents killed young and old alike. Many women died in childbirth, and less than half of all babies survived their first year. Desertions were commonplace, as disgruntled spouses (usually men, but occasionally women) disappeared, perhaps headed for a far western frontier. The prolonged absence of a husband was equal to divorce or death, and following a "delayed" funeral, eager suitors began to pay court. Few widows and widowers remained single for long.
A variety of barbaric activities also entertained residents of the Old West. They enjoyed bear baiting, dog fighting, gander pulling, and fights with each other in which kicking, eye gouging, and biting off ears and noses were customary. In addition to this rough-and-tumble mayhem, which earned for them a reputation as ruffians, roarers, clods, and worse, Kentuckians also excelled at storytelling. Combining their colorful language and ballooning imaginations, they horrified greenhorns and foreigners and amused each other with tales about Kentucky varmints and critters-sneaky catamounts, painters, and b'ars that carried off children, shifty 'coons and 'possums that outsmarted men, polecats that demanded (and generally got) respect, hoop snakes that killed trees with their horn like stinger, and corn-stealing squirrels that crossed the Ohio on shingles propelled by their tails. The center of frontier lore, however, revolved around Kentucky rivermen, who, it was claimed, were half-horse and half-alligator and could "jump higher, squat lower, dive deeper, stay down longer, and come up dryer" than anyone else.
Despite the rip roaring nature of many frontiersmen, some civilizing influences appeared in the infantile West: The first schools were taught in Harrodsburg, McAfee Station, and other early forts and population centers. Transylvania, the first college west of the mountains, opened in Lexington in 1785. Although the 1792 constitution did not provide for a public school system, the second legislature chartered private academies in Fayette, Jessamine, and Mason counties and encouraged the creation of other schools. But public education did not flourish in ante-bellum Kentucky beyond the larger cities; schooling in the hinterland remained a private affair, dispensed by parents or by a schoolmaster to whom meager tuition was paid for his services. A few wealthy landowners sent their sons to school in the East.
Church membership also grew, but slowly, on the frontier. Visitors to the West observed that many Kentuckians used Sunday as a day of rest from weekly labors but not from sporting events and other worldly matters. Despite a large number of churchmen who crossed the mountains to save the sinful frontiersmen, less than one-third of Kentucky residents belonged to any religious denomination when it became a state. Starting in 1800, however, the state experienced a "Great Revival," a religious awakening that spread from Logan County in the southwest to Bourbon County in the east. Wretched backwoodsmen flocked to camp meetings to be saved, and zealous ministers preached lengthy sermons about the evils of dancing, drinking, gambling, fighting, and other frontier pleasures. Excited to an emotional ecstasy by the preachers' exhortations and invectives, a few of the revival attendants experienced bizarre physical reactions-hysterical crying, uncontrolled jerking, joyful singing-and a few collapsed in a catatonic state. Many of the attendants were poorly educated youths whose faith was invigorated or whose latent beliefs were awakened by the evangelistic brand of religion. The revival answered the spiritual needs of the mobile population and recruited thousands into active membership in the Baptist and Methodist churches.
Although frontier conditions disappeared from some areas of the state during the first two decades of the 19th century, they continued in others through the antebellum period. Nevertheless, as new lands opened and as the pressures of civilization became stronger, many of those early settlers who helped tame the Kentucky wilderness and who gave the backwoods its unique flavor, sold their small farms and moved westward to conquer new territory and find new fortunes.
- Take your class to the pioneer area of the local cemetery. Who were the area pioneers? What was the major cause (causes of death during the antebellum years? What was the average life expectancy? Number of babies, children, teens, young adults? Find interesting or unusual epithets and symbols on the tombstones. Make tombstone rubbings.
- Have members of the class perform a variety of tasks familiar to pioneers: make a sampler, hooked rug, braided rug, quilted pillow. Grind corn or dry apple rings. Make dipped candles or soap. Churn butter, make cheese, or cottage cheese. Make a cornshuck or corncob doll. Whittle a willow whistle or other frontier toy.
- Learn dances and games that were popular in the 18th--19th centuries. How similar (or different) are they to games and dances enjoyed today? What special occasions were they associated with? Were they an important form of relaxation or release?
- Ask students to take an inventory of their homes and list which furnishings were and were not found in frontier homes. Talk about the way pioneers coped without electricity, central heat, air-conditioning, running water, refrigerators, stoves, dish-washers, vacuum sweepers, clothes washers, dryers, TV, radio, automobiles, sewing machines, etc.
- Have your students keep a record of their daily activities, including everything they see, use, eat, etc. How many of these things could have been done, seen, or used by pioneer children. Inventories of early settlers' estates are available at county courthouses and research libraries. Use these to compare with students' ideas.
- For one day, have each child pretend he is a frontiersman and, as much as is possible, only participate in those activities available to frontier children. Then have each child write an essay about his experience. What is different about their everyday chores or work tasks? What is different about what they do for recreation? Why?
- Discuss the concept of survival. Ask class what is needed in to-day's society to survive. How different are our needs or priorities from those of the pioneers?
- A Kentucky Journey
The History Center museum's $2.8 million permanent exhibit, A Kentucky Journey, uses a remarkable mixture of more than 3,000 historic artifacts, sights, and sounds to bring the state's glorious past to present generations.
- Louisville's Portland Museum
*Boles, John B.
Religion in Antebellum Kentucky
*Clark, Thomas D.
Lexington, 1979. The Rampaging Frontier
*Hartford, Ellis F.
The Little White Schoolhouse
*Keating, L. Clark.
Audobon: the Kentucky Years
John Wesley Hunt: Pioneer Merchant, Manufacturer, and Financier
A Brittle Sword: The Kentucky Militia, 1776-1912