Life In The Backwoods


Amidst all this tomahawking and scalping, this shooting and stabbing, this shedding of blood and of tears, this heartbreak of captivity, this torture, this peril by day and by night, the flower of home was springing up wherever the ax let the sun into the woods. It would be a great pity if the stories of cruelty and suffering which seem, while we read them, to form the whole history of the Ohio country, should be left without the relief of facts quite as true as these sad tales. Life was hard in those days, but it was sweet too, and it was often gay and glad. In times of constant danger, and even while the merciless savages were beleaguering the lonely clusters of cabins, there was frolicking among the young people in the forts, and the old people looked on at their joys in sympathy as well as wonder. The savages themselves had their harmless pleasures, and their wild life was so free that those who once knew it did not willingly forsake it. They were not bad-hearted so much as wrong-headed, and they were mostly what they were, because they knew no better. More than once we read how the lurking hunter heard them joking and laughing when off their guard in the wood; and in their towns, on the Miamis or the Muskingum or the Sandusky, they had their own games, and feasts, and merrymakings. Much that was beautiful and kindly and noble was possible to them, but they belonged to the past, and the white men belonged to the future; and the war between the two races had to be. Our race had outgrown the order which theirs clung to helplessly as well as willfully, and it was fated that we must found our homes upon their graves.

These homes were at first of the rude and simple sort, which a thousand narratives and legends have made familiar, and which every Ohio boy and girl has heard of. It would not be easy to say where or when the first log cabin was built, but it is safe to say that it was somewhere in the English colonies of North America, and it is certain that it became the type of the settler's house throughout the whole middle west. It may be called the American house, the Western house, the Ohio house. Hardly any other house was built for a hundred years by the men who were clearing the land for the stately mansions of our day. As long as the primeval forests stood, the log cabin remained the woodsman's home; and not fifty years ago, I saw log cabins newly built in one of the richest and most prosperous regions of Ohio. They were, to be sure, log cabins of a finer pattern than the first settler reared. They were of logs handsomely shaped with the broadax; the joints between the logs were plastered with mortar; the chimney at the end was of stone; the roof was shingled, the windows were of glass, and the door was solid and well hung. They were such cabins as the Christian Indians dwelt in at Gnadenhutten, and such as were the homes of the well-to-do settlers in all the older parts of the West. But throughout that region there were many log cabins, mostly sunk to the uses of stables and corn cribs, of the kind that the borderers built in the times of the Indian War, from 1750 to 1800. They were framed of the round logs, untouched by the ax except for the notches at the ends where they were fitted into one another; the chimney was of small sticks stuck together with mud, and was as frail as a barn swallow's nest; the walls were stuffed with moss, plastered with clay; the floor was of rough boards called puncheons, riven from the block with a heavy knife; the roof was of clapboards split from logs and laid loosely on the rafters, and held in place with logs fastened athwart them.

There is a delightful account of such a log cabin by John S. Williams, whose father settled in the woods of Belmont County in 1800. "Our cabin," he says, "had been raised, covered, part of the cracks chinked, and part of the floor laid, when we moved in on Christmas day. There had not been a stick cut except in building the cabin, which was so high from the ground that a bear, wolf, panther, or any animal less in size than a cow could enter without even a squeeze.... The green ash puncheons had shrunk so as to leave cracks in the floor and doors from one to two inches wide. At both the doors we had high, unsteady, and sometimes icy steps, made by piling the logs cut out of the walls, for the doors and the window, if it could be called a window, when perhaps it was the largest spot in the top, bottom, or sides of the cabin where the wind could not enter. It was made by sawing out a log, and placing sticks across, and then by pasting an old newspaper over the hole, and applying hog's lard, we had a kind of glazing which shed a most beautiful and mellow light across the cabin when the sun shone on it. All other light entered at the doors, cracks, and chimneys. Our cabin was twenty-four by eighteen. The west end was occupied by two beds, the center of each side by a door.... On the opposite side of the window, made of clapboards, supported on pins driven into the walls, were our shelves. On these shelves my sister displayed in simple order, a host of pewter plates, and dishes and spoons, scoured and bright.... Our chimney occupied most of the east end; with pots and kettles opposite the window, under the shelves, a gun on hooks over the north door, four split-bottomed chairs, three three-legged stools, and a small eight by ten looking glass sloped from the wall over a large towel and comb case.... We got a roof laid over head as soon as possible, but it was laid of loose clapboards split from a red-oak, and a cat might have shaken every board in our ceiling.... We made two kinds of furniture. One kind was of hickory bark, with the outside shaved off. This we would take off all around the tree, the size of which would determine the caliber of our box. Into one end we would place a flat piece of bark or puncheon, cut round to fit in the bark, which stood on end the same as when on the tree.... A much finer article was made of slippery-elm bark, shaved smooth, with the inside out, bent round and sewed together, where the end of the hoop or main bark lapped over.... This was the finest furniture in a lady's dressing room," and such a cabin and its appointments were splendor and luxury beside those of the very earliest pioneers, and many of the latest. The Williamses were Quakers, and the mother was recently from England; they were of far gentler breeding and finer tastes than most of their neighbors, who had been backwoodsmen for generations.

When the first settlers broke the silence of the woods with the stroke of their axes, and hewed out a space for their cabins and their fields, they inclosed their homes with a high stockade of logs, for defense against the Indians; or if they built their cabins outside the wooden walls of their stronghold, they always expected to flee to it at the first alarm, and to stand siege within it. The Indians had no cannon, and the logs of the stockade were proof against their rifles; if a breach was made, there was still the blockhouse left, the citadel of every little fort. This was heavily built, and pierced with loopholes for the riflemen within, whose wives ran bullets for them at its mighty hearth, and who kept the savage foe from its sides by firing down upon them through the projecting timbers of its upper story; but in many a fearful siege the Indians set the roof ablaze with arrows wrapped in burning tow, and then the fight became desperate indeed. After the Indian War ended, the stockade was no longer needed, and the settlers had only the wild beasts to contend with, and those constant enemies of the poor in all ages and conditions,--hunger and cold.

Winter after winter, the Williamses heard the wolves howling round them in the woods, and this music was familiar to the ears of all the Ohio pioneers, who trusted their rifles for both the safety and support of their families. They deadened the trees around them by girdling them with the ax, and planted the spaces between the leafless trunks with corn and beans and pumpkins. These were their necessaries, but they had an occasional luxury in the wild honey from the hollow of a bee tree when the bears had not got at it. In its season, there was an abundance of wild fruit, plums and cherries, haws and grapes, berries, and nuts of every kind, and the maples yielded all the sugar they chose to make from them. But it was long before they had, at any time, the profusion which our modern arts enable us to enjoy the whole year round, and in the hard beginnings the orchard and the garden were forgotten for the fields. Their harvests must pay for the acres bought of the government, or from some speculator who had never seen the land; and the settler must be prompt in paying, or else see his home pass from him after all his toil into the hands of strangers. He worked hard and he fared hard, and if he was safer when peace came, it is doubtful if he were otherwise more fortunate. As the game grew scarcer, it was no longer so easy to provide food for his family, the change from venison and wild turkey to the pork, which early began to prevail in his diet, was hardly a wholesome one. Besides, in cutting down the trees, he opened spaces to the sun which had been harmless enough in the shadow of the woods, but which now sent up their ague-breeding miasms. Ague was the scourge of the whole region, and it was hard to know whether the pestilence was worse on the rich levels beside the rivers, or on the stony hills where the settlers sometimes built to escape it. Fevers of several kinds prevailed, and consumption was common in the climates that ague spared. There was little knowledge of the rules of health, and little medical skill for those who lost it; most of the remedies for disease and accident were such only as home nursing and home treatment could supply.

When once the settler was housed against the weather, he had the conditions of a certain rude comfort indoors. If his cabin was not proof against the wind and rain or snow, its vast fireplace formed the means of heating, while the forest was an inexhaustible store of fuel. At first he dressed in the skins and pelts of the deer and fox and wolf, and his costume could have varied little from that of the red savage about him, for we often read how' he mistook Indians for white men at first sight, and how the Indians in their turn mistook white men for their own people. The whole family went barefoot in the summer, but in winter the pioneer wore moccasins of buckskin, and buckskin leggins or trousers; his coat was a hunting shirt belted at the waist and fringed where it fell to his knees. It was of homespun, a mixture of wool and flax called linsey-woolsey, and out of this the dresses of his wife and daughters were made; the wool was shorn from the sheep, which were so scarce that they were never killed for their flesh, except by the wolves, which were very fond of mutton, but had no use for wool. For a wedding dress a cotton check was thought superb, and it really cost a dollar a yard; silks, satins, laces, were unknown. A man never left his house without his rifle; the gun was a part of his dress, and in his belt he carried a hunting knife and a hatchet; on his head he wore a cap of squirrel skin, often with the plumelike tail dangling from it.

The furniture of the cabins was, like the clothing of the pioneers, homemade. A bedstead was contrived by stretching poles from forked sticks driven into the ground, and laying clapboards across them; the bedclothes were bearskins. Stools, benches, and tables were roughed out with auger and broadax; the puncheon floor was left bare, and if the earth formed the floor, no rug ever replaced the grass which was its first carpet. The cabin had but one room where the whole of life went on by day; the father and mother slept there at night, and the children mounted to their chamber in the loft by means of a ladder.

The food was what has been already named. The meat was venison, bear, raccoon, wild turkey, wild duck, and pheasant; the drink was water, or rye coffee, or whisky which the little stills everywhere supplied only too abundantly. Wheat bread was long unknown, and corn cakes of various makings and bakings supplied its place. The most delicious morsel of all was corn grated while still in the milk and fashioned into round cakes eaten hot from the clapboard before the fire, or from the mysterious depths of the Dutch oven, buried in coals and ashes on the hearth. There was soon a great flow of milk from the kine that multiplied in the pastures in the woods, and there was sweetening enough from the maple tree and the bee tree, but salt was very scarce and very dear, and long journeys were made through the perilous woods to and from the licks, or salt springs, which the deer had discovered before the white man or the red man knew them.

The bees which hived their honey in the hollow trees were tame bees gone wild, and with the coming of the settlers, some of the wild things increased so much that they became a pest. Such were the crows which literally blackened the fields after the settlers plowed, and which the whole family had to fight from the corn when it was planted. Such were the rabbits, and such, above all, were the squirrels which overran the farms, and devoured every green thing till the people combined in great squirrel hunts and destroyed them by tens of thousands. The larger game had meanwhile disappeared. The buffalo and the elk went first; the deer followed, and the bear, and even the useless wolf. But long after these the poisonous reptiles lingered, the rattlesnake, the moccasin, and the yet deadlier copperhead; and it was only when the whole country was cleared that they ceased to be a very common danger.

For a long time there were no mills to grind the corn, and it was pounded into meal for bread with a heavy wooden pestle in a mortar made by hollowing out some tough-grained log. The first mills were horse power; then small water-power mills were put up on the streams, and in the larger rivers boats were anchored, with mill wheels which the rapid current turned. But the stills were plentier than the mills, and as much corn was made into whisky as into bread. Men drank hard to soften their hard life, to lighten its heaviness, to drown its cares, to heighten its few pleasures. Drink was free and common not only at every shooting match, where men met alone, but at every log rolling or cabin raising, where the women met with them, to cook for them, and then to dance away the night that followed the toilsome day.

There were no rich people then, but all were poor together, and there were no classes. They were so helpless without one another that people were kindlier and friendlier as well as freer then than now, and they made the most of the corn huskings and quilting bees that brought old and young together in harmless frolics. The greatest frolic of all was a wedding; the guests gathered from twenty miles around, and the frolic did not end with the dancing at night. Next day came the _infair_ at the house of the bridegroom, and all set off together. When they were within a mile or two, they raced for the bottle which was always waiting for them at the house, and the guest whose horse was fleetest brought it back, and made all drink from it, beginning with the bride and groom.

Religion soon tempered the ruder pleasures of the backwoods, but the dancing ceased before the drinking. Camp meetings were frolics of a soberer sort, where whole neighborhoods gathered and dwelt in tents for days in the beautiful autumn weather, and spent the nights in prayer and song. Little log churches were built at the crossroads, and these served the purpose of schoolhouses on week days. But there was more religion than learning in the backwoods, and the preacher came before the teacher.

He was often a very rude, unlearned man himself, and the teacher was sometimes a rude man, harsh and severe, when he was learned. Often he was a Scotch-Irishman, whose race gave schoolmasters to the West before New England began to send her lettered legions to the frontier.

Such a teacher was Francis Glass, who was born in Dublin in 1790, and came to Ohio in 1817, to teach the children of the backwoods. One of these afterwards remembered a log-cabin schoolhouse where Glass taught, in the twilight let through the windows of oiled paper. The seats were of hewn blocks, so heavy that the boys could not upset them; in the midst was a great stove; and against the wall stood the teacher's desk, of un-planed plank. But as Glass used to say to his pupils, "The temple of the Delphian god was originally a laurel hut, and the muses deign to dwell accordingly in very rustic abodes." His labors in the school were not suffered to keep him from higher aims: he wrote a life of Washington in Latin, which was used for a time as a text-book in the Ohio schools.

In the early days all books were costly, and they were even fewer than they were costly; but those who longed for them got them somehow, and many a boy who studied them by the cabin fire became afterwards a great statesman, a great lawyer, or a great preacher. In fact, almost every distinguished Ohioan of the past generations seems to have begun life in a log cabin, and to have found his way out of the dark of ignorance by the light of its great hearth fire. Their stories are such as kindle the fancy and touch the heart; but now they are tales that are told.

Among the stories of life in the backwoods, none are more affecting than those of lost children. In the forests which hemmed in the homes and fields of the settlers, the little ones often strayed away, or in their bewilderment failed to find a path back to the cabin they had left among the stumps of the clearing, or the leafless trunks of the deadening. In 1804, two children, Lydia and Matilda Osborn, eleven and seven years old, went to fetch the cows from their pasture a mile from their home in Williamsburg, Clermont County. Lydia, the elder of the sisters, left the younger in a certain spot while she tried to head off the wandering cows. It is supposed that she failed, and came back to get Matilda. Then it is supposed that, after searching for her, Lydia gave up in despair and started homeward, but found that she no longer knew the way. In the meantime the cows had left their pasture, and the younger girl had followed the sound of their bells and got safely back to the village. Night came, but no Lydia, and now the neighborhood turned out and helped the hopeless father to search for the lost child. They carried torches, and rang bells, and blew horns, and fired guns, so that she might see and hear and come to them, and before them all, day and night, ran the father calling, "Lydia, Lydia." Five hundred men, a thousand men at last, joined in the quest, and on the fifteenth morning, they found in the heart of the woods a tiny hut, such as a child might build, of sticks and moss, with a bed of leaves inside; a path which led from it to a blackberry patch near by was beaten hard by the little feet of the wanderer. The rough backwoodsmen broke into tears when the father came up and at sight of the poor shelter called out, "Oh, Lydia, Lydia, my dear child, are you yet alive?"

They never found her. A mile or two from the hut they found her bonnet, and a few miles further on an Indian camp. They could only guess that the Indians had carried her away, and go back to their homes without her. The father never gave up, but as long as he lived he searched for her among the Indians. It was thought afterwards that the very means, the lights and the noises, used to attract the child, might have frightened her from her rescuers; for a strange craze would come upon lost people after a time, and they would hide from those who were looking for them. Others became hopelessly bewildered, and it is told of a pioneer, Samuel Davy, who was lost near Galion, that he wandered about till he reached a log cabin in a clearing. There he asked of the woman at the door if she knew where Samuel Davy lived. She laughed and bade him come in and see. Then he knew that it was his own wife speaking to him from his own threshold.

Whenever a lost child could not be found, the Indians were naturally suspected of stealing it; and this was probably the fate of a little one whom her mother lifted over the fence into the dooryard of her cabin, near Galion, and then went back to her work of making sugar in the woods. When she came home at nightfall, the child was not there, and no search afterwards availed to find her, though the whole neighborhood searched the woods for days and nights. It was known only that a party of Indians had lately camped near, and that they might have taken the child and brought it up as their own; but the mother never heard of her again.

Galion is rather famous for lost people, but at least one of them was found again. This was a little girl of the name of Bashford, who was sent to bring home the cows. In trying to return she became confused, and she wisely decided to keep with the cattle. When they lay down for the night, she sheltered herself against the warm back of a motherly old cow, and then followed them about in the morning till the neighbors found her.

She was none the worse for the night's adventure except for her fright at the howling of the wolves, and from the pain of her slightly frost-bitten feet. But the fate of a little boy who wandered from home in Williams County was of a singular pathos. He was found dead after a three-days search, when the poor little body, which was half clad, was still warm. It was supposed that he had undressed each night when he lay down to sleep, as he was used to do at home, and that the third night he had been so chilled by the October cold that he could not put on all his clothes again, and so strayed feebly about till he lay down and died just before rescue came.

Encounters with wolves and bears were not so common as these animals were, by any means; but now and then the settlers came in conflict with them. In Crawford County so lately as 1826, a young man named Enoch Baker, in coming home from rather a late call on a young lady, fought a running fight with wolves, which left him only when he reached the clearing where his father's cabin stood; then they fell back into the woods. Daniel Cloe, a boy of the same neighborhood, was attacked by a pack of eleven wolves one morning before daybreak, but was saved by his bulldog, which seized the foremost wolf by the throat, and gave the boy time to climb a tree.

A brother of this boy found his dogs one morning in ferocious clamor about some animal which they seemed afraid to grapple with. He came up and found that it was a bear. He had no gun, but he caught up a club, and when he had contrived to catch the bear by one of his hind legs, and to throw him over, he beat him about the head with his bludgeon and killed him.

This was pretty well for a boy of sixteen, but the reader must not award the palm to him without first knowing the adventure of John Gillett of Williams County, who clambered down a hollow tree to get some bear cubs. While he was securing them, the opening overhead was darkened by the body of the mother bear. There was only one thing to do, and Gillett drove his knife into the haunch of the bear, which scrambled out in surprise and terror, and pulled him and the cubs out with her. She did not stay to look after her family, and Gillett took the cubs to the next town, and got five dollars apiece for them. As he told this story himself, I suppose it must have been true.

There are some stories of wolves and bears in Ashtabula County which are by no means bad. Not the worst of these is told of Elijah Thompson, who was hunting in the woods near Geneva, when a pack of seven wolves fell upon his dog. He clubbed his rifle and beat them off; then when the last had slunk away, he gathered up his wounded dog under his arm, and walked away with the barrel, which was all that was left of his rifle, on his shoulder.

Bears were very common, and very fond of pork. One night two ladies who were alone in their cabin, were alarmed by wild appeals from the pigpen, and found it invaded by a bear. They tried to frighten the intruder away with firebrands, but failed. Then they loaded the family rifle, which they had heard the men folks say took two fingers of powder. They therefore poured in the powder to the depth of six inches, and drove home the bullet. One held a light while the other pulled the trigger. Both were knocked down by the recoil of the gun, which flew into the bushes. What became of the bear was never known; but it was probably blown to atoms.

Other pioneer women were effective with firearms, and Mrs. Sarah Thorp of Ashtabula County was one of these. The family fell short of food in their first year in the backwoods, and in June, 1799, the husband started to Pennsylvania, twenty miles away, to get supplies. Before he could return, his wife and little girls had begun to live upon roots and the few grains of wheat which she found in the straw of her bed. When these were all gone, and she was in despair, a wild turkey one day alighted near the cabin. She found that there was barely powder enough left in the house for the lightest charge; but she loaded her husband's rifle and crept on her hands and knees from bush to bush and log to log, till she was close upon the bird, wallowing in the loose plowed earth. Then she fired and killed it, and her children were saved.

Starvation was one of the horrors which often threatened the newcomers in the wilderness, as it had often beset its improvident red children. In the first year of the settlement at Conneaut, James Kingsbury was forced to leave his family and go some distance into New York state. He fell sick, and was unable to return before winter set in. Then he hurried homeward as fast as he could with a sack of flour on horseback. His horse became disabled, and then he carried the flour on his shoulders. He reached home one day at nightfall, and found his older children starving; his wife, wasted with famine, lay on the floor, and near her the little one born in his absence, already dead for want of the nourishment which the poor mother could not give it.


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