Following is a transcript of the narration from KET’s electronic field trip to two Kentucky frontier forts.
In the late 1700s, early settlers to Kentucky had to fight for their survival. They wanted land of their own on the frontier. They came from the east to claim the land and build up settlements out of the wilderness. Life was hard and dangerous. For many, their best hope for survival was in a fort.
Kentucky’s first settlement fort was Fort Harrod. It was built like other forts, designed to protect and defend the people inside in times of danger. Thick log doors and walls formed a rectangle with an inner courtyard. Inside was a miniature city with cabins, a blacksmith shop, and the basics for surviving on the frontier. From the second story of the corner blockhouses, guns poked through to fight off attacks from the British and Native Americans.
The British had promised the Native Americans in 1763 that the land was reserved for them and said no one could settle west of the Allegheny Mountains. Many groups of native people were familiar with the land we now know as Kentucky. They had a claim to the land, and they didn’t want other people taking it.
But still people were pushing west. Fur traders and explorers said Kentucky was a land with everything necessary for pioneer life: thick trees, rich soil, and abundant wildlife. James Harrod and Daniel Boone were among several men who were eager to establish settlements in Kentucky.
Harrod and his men came mostly by water—down the Ohio and Kentucky rivers. Explorer Daniel Boone came by land, following a trail made by buffalo and Native Americans—through the Cumberland Gap up the Wilderness Trail. As the Wilderness Trail widened, more and more people followed Daniel Boone’s route into Kentucky. Fort Boonesborough was established close to the Kentucky River. These forts, and smaller structures called stations, were the beginnings of today’s Kentucky towns.
Using tools and resources effectively was important to survival. Even fat from meat, called tallow, was used for making soap and candles. At first, settlers slept on straw beds on dirt floors with very few extras. They had only what they could bring on horseback or make themselves. Over time, cabins had wood floors, cooking pots, simple furniture, tools, and pole beds. It was impossible to bring everything on horseback, so settlers made a lot of things from scratch.
Early settlers had to be on guard in case of an attack. Traveling in groups and working together helped the early settlers claim the land.
Frontier life was dangerous. The first settlers were breaking a British treaty to leave the land as Indian reserve. In an attack, the second story of the corner blockhouses provided good locations for keeping watch and shooting.
Fort Harrod was built around a spring and close to another which provided water when the fort was under attack. Having enough water to outlast an attack was important. Fort Boonesborough was close to the Kentucky River, but getting to the river was sometimes impossible while under siege. They had to rely on stored water in an attack.
Guns weren’t the only weapons of choice. Gunpowder was too expensive to use all the time. Axes were used as weapons as well as tools. Pioneers adopted the small axe called the tomahawk from the Indians. It could be used both to cut down small trees and as a weapon. Early settlers practiced their skills in case of attack.
If an axe blade or other iron tool broke, the blacksmith could make the necessary repairs. The bellows is used to pump air into the fire to make it even hotter. Creating a finished piece requires heating, molding, bending, and hammering. The blacksmith was essential to an early settlement for repairing and making necessary items of iron.
Flint strikers were used in starting fires. Being able to start a fire was important for everyday life. Fire was necessary for cooking and tasks like making candles. Inside the forts, places for fire were shared. Sharing resources and working together helped the early settlers survive.
Most settlers didn’t often use money. They bartered. Bartering or trading one item for another was one way early settlers got what they needed. In trading an animal skin for a tomahawk, both people get something they needed or could at least trade or barter for something else. The Transylvania Store at Fort Boonesborough had many essentials for the settlers. Some settlers specialized in jobs and traded items they made such as pottery.
The ways of Native Americans influenced the settlers at the fort in their garden. Native Americans planted corn, beans, and squash and called them the “three sisters” for the way they grew well together. As more and more people came, hunting became even more difficult. People depended on their gardens for food, especially the corn.
Early settlers also grew flax to make linen. Linen and wool were spun into thread on the spinning wheel.
Children were expected to help on the frontier and did chores such as drawing water from the spring at Fort Harrod. The fortunate ones had school. Fort Harrod had the first school west of the Allegheny Mountains; Ms. Jane Coomes was the first teacher. The school was called a “blab school” because the children sang or blabbed to learn their alphabet or math facts. Wooden paddles called horn books were used. The children sat on crude wooden benches set on a dirt floor. The teacher said the holes between the logs in the schoolhouse gave the children “fresh air” even in cold weather.
Frontier life was not easy, but there were many changes in a short time. Little time passed from 1774 to 1792, when Kentucky became a state.
The early settlers at the forts cooperated in their fight for survival. Everyone worked together in the fight to survive attacks, and the early fort residents also had to fight to meet their basic needs for water, food, clothing, and shelter. Over time, most improved their living conditions by mastering specific skills and using the resources of the land.
At first, settlers claimed their land by using an axe to clear the trees and build a cabin. At night and in dangerous times, they would return to the safety of the fort.
Eventually, the settlers lived in their own cabins with conveniences and tools of the time. In less than 20 years from the settlement of these early forts, Kentucky became a state. The early settlers led others to Kentucky by their example. Soon their pathways and traditions were followed by more people who wanted to call Kentucky home.