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Home > Social Studies > US American History Articles, Info, Printables, Quotes and Facts > James Robertson > How the Back Woodsmen Lived

How the Back Woodsmen Lived

Let us in imagination join this group of travellers as it starts out to cross the mountains. Each family has its packhorse - perhaps a few families have two - carrying household goods. These are not so bulky as ours to-day, for pioneer life is simple, and the people have at most only what they need. There are, of course, some rolls of bedding and clothing, a few cooking utensils, a few packages of salt and seed corn, and a flask or two of medicine. The pack-horse carries also the mother and perhaps a very small child or two. The boys who are old enough to shoulder rifles march in front with their father, ready to shoot game for food or to stand guard against Indians. Some of the older children drive the cows which the settlers are taking along with them.

After reaching the place selected for their settlement, the younger children are set to clearing away the brush and piling it up in heaps ready for burning. The father and the elder sons, who are big enough to wield an axe, lose no time in cutting down trees and making a clearing for the log cabin. All work with a will, and soon the cabin is ready.

Living-Room of the Early SettlerThe furniture, like the cabin itself, is rude and simple. A bedstead is set up in a corner, a washstand is placed near by, and a few three-legged stools are put here and there; and of course there is a table to eat at. Places are quickly found for the water bucket, used to bring water from the stream, the gourd dipper with which to fill it, and other small utensils; while pegs driven into the wall in convenient places hold clothes, rifles, skins, and the like.

Grinding Indian CornIf our pioneers are well-to-do, there may be tucked away in some pack a wool blanket, but usually the chief covering on the bed is the dried skin of some animal: deer, bear, or perhaps buffalo.

There is plenty of food, though of course it is plain and simple, consisting mostly of game. Instead of the pork and beef which are largely eaten in the east, we shall find these settlers making their meal of bear’s meat or venison.

For flour corn-meal is used. Each family has a mill for grinding the kernels into meal, while for beating it into hominy they use a crude mortar, made perhaps by burning a hole in the top of a block of wood.

Breadmaking is a simpler matter with them than with us, for a dough of cornmeal is mixed on a wooden trencher and then either baked in the ashes and called ashcake or before the fire on a board and called johnnycake. Cornmeal is also made into mush, or hasty pudding; and when the settler has cows, mush-and-milk is a common dish, especially for supper.

For butter the settlers use the fat of bear’s meat or the gravy of the goose. Instead of coffee, they make a drink of parched rye and beans, and for tea they boil sassafras root.

Every backwoodsman must be able to use the rifle to good effect, for he has to provide his own meat and protect himself and his family from attack. He must be skilful also in hiding, in moving noiselessly through the forests, and in imitating the notes and calls of different beasts and birds. Sharp eyes and ears must tell him where to look for his game, and his aim must be swift and sure.

But most important of all, he must be able to endure hardship and exposure. Sometimes he lives for months in the woods with no food but meat and no shelter but a lean-to of brush or even the trunk of a hollow tree into which he may crawl.

Deer and bear are the most plentiful game; but now and then there is an exciting combat with wolves, panthers, or cougars, while prowling Indians keep him ever on his guard. The pioneer must be strong, alert, and brave.

Each family depends upon itself for most of the necessaries of life. Each member has his own work. The father is the protector and provider; the mother is the housekeeper, the cook, the weaver, and the tailor. Father and sons work out-of-doors with axe, hoe, and sickle; while indoors the hum of the spinning-wheel or the clatter of the loom shows that mother and daughters are busily doing their part.

There are some articles, however, like salt and iron, which the settlers cannot always get in the backwoods. These they must obtain by barter. So each family collects all the furs it can, and once a year, after the harvest is gathered, loads them on pack-horses, which are driven across the mountains to some large trading town on the seacoast. There the skins are traded for the needed iron or salt.

Often many neighbors plan to go together on such a journey. Sometimes they drive before them their steers and hogs to find a market in the east.

A bushel of salt costs in these early days a good cow and calf. Now, that is a great deal to pay; and furthermore, as each small and poorly fed pack-animal can carry but two bushels, salt is a highly prized article. Since it is so expensive and hard to get, it has to be used sparingly by the mountaineers. Therefore the housewife, instead of salting or pickling her meat, preserves or “jerks” it by drying it in the sun or smoking it over the fire.

The Tennessee settler, like Boone’s followers in Kentucky, dresses very much like the Indians, for that is the easiest and most fitting way in which to clothe himself for the forest life he leads. And very fine do many stalwart figures appear in the fur cap and moccasins, the loose trousers, or simply leggings of buckskin, and the fringed hunting-shirt reaching nearly to the knees. It is held in by a broad belt having a tomahawk in one side and a knife in the other.

A Kentucky Pioneer’s CabinWhile this free outdoor life develops strong and vigorous bodies, there is not much schooling in these backwoods settlements. Most boys and girls learn very little except reading and writing and very simple ciphering, or arithmetic. If there are any schoolhouses at all, they are log huts, dimly lighted and furnished very scantily and rudely.

The schoolmaster, as a rule, does not know much of books, and is quite untrained as a teacher. His discipline, though severe, is very poor. And he is paid in a way that may seem strange to you. He receives very little in cash, and for the rest of his wages he “boards around” with the families of the children he teaches, making his stay longer or shorter according to the number of children in school.

In many ways, as you see, the life of the pioneer child, while it was active and full of interest, was very different from yours. He learned, like his elders, to imitate bird calls, to set traps, to shoot a rifle, and at twelve the little lad became a foot soldier. He knew from just which loophole he was to shoot if the Indians attacked the fort, and he took pride in becoming a good marksman. He was carefully trained, too, to follow an Indian trail and to conceal his own when on the war-path - for such knowledge would be very useful to him as a hunter and fighter in the forests.


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