Pioneer Life

Pioneer life has a special meaning in America. In less than 300 years, civilization spread across a vast continental wilderness. From the first landings in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 1600's, American settlers kept pushing westward behind an ever moving frontier. Into wild country went hunters, trappers, fur traders, miners, frontier soldiers, surveyors, and pioneer farmers. The farmers tamed the land and made it productive. Every part of America had its pioneers.

Kinds of Pioneers

The pioneers were as varied as human nature. Some were adventurous and independent. Some were irresponsible and lazy, like the Indiana squatter who moved eight times without ever clearing timber or fencing a field. "To move," he said, "all I have to do is put out the fire and call the dog." But most of the pioneers were determined and industrious people. Silas Garber, for example, settled in a sod-roofed dugout on a prairie creek bank in 1871. Four years later he had succeeded in becoming the governor of Nebraska.

Most pioneers were willing to face toil and hardship for the sake of opportunity. They meant to carve homes out of the wilderness. Yankee farmers went west from the stony fields of New England, and Southern families went west from the crowded lands of Virginia and the Carolinas. Still other pioneers were immigrants newly arrived from Europe. English, Scotch, Welsh, and German pioneers went into the Ohio Valley. Scandinavian colonists settled mainly in the upper Mississippi Valley and on the Great Plains beyond the Missouri River.

Reasons for the Westward Movement

All of the pioneers hoped to find something better over the western horizon. New England families, tired of farming rocky valleys, were attracted to broad and fertile lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Southern farmers, suffering from bad luck or bad management, sought a new life in the West. To European immigrants the American frontier offered political freedom and economic opportunity. In the West, you could own your own land and work for your own future. For many people the West meant new opportunities.

In the Great Migration, which began after the War of 1812, multitudes of people went to the American interior. The population was growing in the eastern states. Families were large, and only one child could inherit the family home. The rest went to the growing cities or to the frontier. During hard seasons, when crops failed or when farm prices fell, many headed for a new beginning in the West.

Many went almost empty-handed to the frontier. They traveled light and arrived with only an ax and a rifle. Others carried heirlooms and farming tools. Some took seed corn and orchard shoots, cattle, hogs, and poultry. But how does one prepare for sickness and danger, for accident and misfortune? Some settlers failed and returned to the East. Those who stayed and survived turned a wilderness into a civilization.

Building a Cabin in the Clearing

On every new frontier the pioneers made homes for themselves, using what the wild land provided. In the great forests of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys the land provided timber. Here the pioneers' essential tool was the ax. The ax would clear the forest for the plow. But its first task was to shape a pioneer shelter.

When a family of settlers arrived at the spot where they planned to make their home, they began chopping saplings and trimming poles to build a lean-to. Between two forked trees they laid a crosspole. With the help of oxen or horses they rolled up a log, which was banked with dirt to form a low back wall. Then they laid poles, slanted upward, from the back log to the crosspole. The sloping roof was covered with bark and branches. The ends of the lean-to were walled with shorter poles and pickets. This was the pioneers' "half-faced camp." It always faced south, away from wind and rain. In front of the open side they dug a fire pit. Logs smoldered there day and night, giving warmth and protection.

This served as a temporary home while the pioneer family prepared ground for their first crop. A real clearing took months of work, but a "deadening" could be done quickly. A few ax cuts were made in the tree trunks so that sap could not flow up to the branches. Soon the leaves withered, allowing sunlight to reach the damp soil. Seed corn was dropped into ax cuts in the ground. The crop from that crude planting provided food for the first winter.

Before winter came, the pioneer family hoped to have a small clearing and a snug cabin. The forest was the settlers' enemy—it had to be destroyed to create their fields. At the same time, it was their friend—it gave them logs for their cabin, fuel for their fire, rails for their fences, wheels for their wagon, and a frame for their plow.

Notched logs formed the cabin walls. A ridgepole at the peak supported lighter roof poles, and a bark thatching made the roof complete. Logs, split into flat-faced planks called puncheons, were used to make the cabin floor. Two openings, a window and a door, were sawed out with patient labor. Typically the first doorway covering was an old quilt weighted with a log; later a board door would be hung on leather hinges. The first window covering was greased paper, which turned away wind and water and admitted a dim light. Pioneers used any paper they had. One settler greased his wedding certificate with bear fat and put it in his window frame.

Opposite the cabin doorway was the yawning chimney mouth. Clay from the creek bank, mixed with dried grass, was formed into clumsy bricks, which hardened in the sun. Laid against the cabin wall, the bricks formed a "cat and clay" chimney with a broad opening. The fire that smoldered there gave heat for cooking, light, and warmth. Outside, the ax thudded and the smoke of brushfires hazed the air. Slowly the field was widened; a few new acres were cultivated every year. The cabin in the clearing was the pioneer homestead. When it gave way to a frame house, with a traveled road going past, the pioneer life had ended.

Traveling on the Overland Trails

In the 1840's and 1850's hundreds of thousands of pioneers made the long trek west to new frontiers in Oregon and California. For months they lived in covered wagons. These adventurers traveled in caravans, with 30 or more wagons rocking westward on the overland trails. On fine days a wagon train could cover 20 miles (32 kilometers); when the rains brought mud, they would be satisfied to cover half that distance.

When a caravan was large, it was divided into two groups. Behind the line of wagons came the "cow column"—milk cows and spare oxen driven by men and boys on horseback. At night the wagons drew into a circle and the oxen were turned loose to graze. Men took turns at guard duty under the western stars.

At first daylight the guards went around the circle shouting "Arise! Arise!" Cows were milked while breakfast sizzled on the fire. The oxen were yoked and the wagons pulled into line. As the long bullwhips cracked, another day's travel began.

At noon the captain called a halt on a prairie ridge or beside a creek bank. While lunch was laid out, children ran over the prairie, gathering buffalo "chips" for the evening fire. (Buffalo dung was the travelers' main source of fuel.) After an hour's rest the march started again. The sun beat down, and heat waves shimmered on the horizon. When the shadows lengthened behind them, the captain began looking for a camping place. Supper was a restful meal. Children ran from one campfire to another. Men talked about the next day's travel, and women talked about the homes they would have at the end of the journey. After a fiddler played a few tunes, the people went to bed, some in the wagons, others on the ground. When the fires died down, the night wind brought the haunting call of coyotes.

Sunday was commonly a day of rest. However, even on Sundays the women washed clothes and baked bread, and the men repaired harnesses and greased the wagon wheels. While dinner was cooking, the whole company gathered in the shade of the circled wagons as the captain read a chapter from the Bible. Most often they turned to the Book of Exodus, which told of people wandering in the wilderness, seeking a promised land.

Settling on the Great Plains

On the Great Plains, which were settled soon after the Civil War (1861–65), the pioneers built their first dwellings with the deeply rooted grass. Here farmers plowed up building material while breaking their first fields. With a spade they cut the furrows into 3-foot (1-meter) lengths. These they piled up like bricks, leaving openings for a door and window. Roof poles came from willow thickets along the infrequent prairie creeks. When a layer of sod covered the crisscrossed poles, the house was completed. It was cool in summer, warm in winter, windproof, and fireproof. But it did not keep out water. Spring rains seeped through the sod roof long after the sky had cleared. Sometimes a pioneer would have to hold an umbrella over the fire to cook a meal.

Outside the sod shanty a settler chopped into the broken ground and dropped seed corn into each cut. A year of wind and weather would soften the field for cultivation. But the first crop was sod corn, growing in the matted grass roots. On the prairie lay buffalo bones left by hide hunters. Pioneer settlers hauled wagon loads of bones to the nearest railroad town, trading them for a wooden door, a glass-paned window, or some joints of stovepipe. The bones were ground up for fertilizer.

Near the first sod hut other pioneers marked their claims with a "straddlebug"—three boards nailed in a flimsy pyramid. New "soddies" appeared on the prairie, with new breakings beside them. These small fields, almost lost in the blowing grasslands, were the beginning of a changed country. In a few years roads were graded along the section lines, settlements sprang up at the township corners, and wheat and corn grew where the buffalo grass had been.

Way Of Life

Whatever their surroundings, the pioneers had to depend on themselves and on the land. Self-reliance was a frontier requirement. Game provided food and leather clothing. New settlers gathered wild fruits, nuts, and berries. For salt they boiled the water of saline springs. Maple sugar was made by tapping maple trees in early spring and boiling the sap until it thickened into a tasty sweetening. Substitutes for tea and coffee were provided by boiling sassafras root and brewing parched corn and barley. With an ax and adze for cutting tools, the pioneers made beds, tables, benches, and stools. They split logs into rails to make the zigzag fence that enclosed their clearings.

Pioneer women learned to supply their own household goods. Gourds served as pails and dippers. Wood ash was sifted to make soap. Tallow (sheep and cattle fat) was molded into candles. Every cabin had two spinning wheels—a big wheel for wool and a smaller wheel for flax. With their own home-woven "linsey-woolsey," a coarse cloth of mixed linen and wool, pioneer women made their family's clothing. Clothes were also made from animal skins, which the pioneers tanned into leather.

Winter was a hard season on the frontier. In bitter weather the family huddled around the fire. When there was no leather, some people went barefoot and suffered frostbite. Food was scanty and monotonous. For months there were no fresh fruits or vegetables. In early spring, women looked eagerly for the first wild mustard and dandelion plants, which they could boil into a dish of "greens."

As long as they had their health and strength, people could stand hardship. But every family had frequent bouts of illness. The most common frontier ailment was chills and fever. Young and old suffered from "the shakes," shuddering with cold and then breaking into a drenching sweat. This disease came at the end of summer and lasted until frost. Since it was most common in marshy districts, the settlers thought it came from breathing damp air. Actually it was malaria, carried by mosquitoes. When swamps were drained, there were fewer mosquitoes and the number of malaria cases declined.

For medicines the pioneers had to provide for themselves. Women soon learned the use of herbs for healing. They used boneset for fever, pennyroyal to purify the blood, horehound for coughs, and ginseng for tonic. Syrups and salves were made from cherry root, horseradish, and witch hazel. Wild mustard, poplar root, and red sumac root went into teas, poultices, and powders. The standard cure for a chest cold was to rub the chest with goose grease and apply a mustard plaster.

Some frontier remedies were based more on superstition than science. Among these were potions of walnut bark "peeled upward," boiled nettles, and "nanny tea," made from sheep dung.

Pioneer families tended to be large. Most cabins had a cradle, hollowed from a poplar or cottonwood log, and the cradle was rarely empty. Children were helpful in new lands. Girls soon learned important household tasks—gardening, cooking, spinning, weaving, mending, sewing, making soap and candles. Boys worked in the woods and fields with their fathers. They learned to fell timber, to clear out brush, to split rails and build fences. A rail fence would keep hogs and sheep out of the corn, but deer could leap that barrier. It was the children's job to chase deer out of the fields and to keep squirrels from devouring the growing crop. Children pounded dried corn to make cornmeal. When gristmills came into the neighborhood, it was typically a boy's chore to ride to the millstream with a bag of grain behind his saddle and return with a dusty bag of meal.

Although pioneer families were extremely resourceful and nearly self-sufficient, neighbors were highly valued on the frontier. When fires went out, one could borrow a pan of glowing coals from the nearest cabin. Neighbors from miles around helped newcomers with logrolling, house-raising, and barn-raising. Entire communities joined in hunts for wolves, foxes, squirrels, and rabbits.

These common tasks, shared by pioneer neighbors, also provided amusement on the frontier. A house-raising was also a picnic, with women spreading a dinner on the grass while children swung from grapevines and the men laid up the roof poles on a new cabin. Neighbors gathered for "husking bees," competing to see who was the fastest at stripping the husks from ears of corn. The cornstalks were kept for fodder, while the husked corn was stored in a crib. Pioneer women held "quilting bees," exchanging family news while they sewed patchwork together. One amusement that did not involve household tasks was the barn dance. With a local fiddler playing such tunes as "Skip-to-my-Lou" and "Way Down in the Pawpaw Patch," men, women, and children joined in square and circle dances by lantern light on a rough barn floor.

Schools and Churches

To pioneer people, "book l'arnin'" was less important than learning to use an ax and a plow, a loom and a spinning wheel. But as settlements grew, parents wanted their children to know the three R's—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. In crude log schoolhouses, shelves fastened to the wall served for desks and the students sat on three-legged stools. They used charcoal to write on hand-smoothed writing boards. Later came slates and slate pencils. A slate, wiped clean after each lesson, could be used for years.

A teacher (known as a schoolmaster or schoolmistress) sat in the front of the schoolroom at a rough plank table. In the corner the teacher kept a bundle of hickory switches to whip unruly boys. Teachers "boarded round," a week at a time, in the homes of pioneer families. Often they slept in cabin lofts. They were paid according to the number of children they taught. All grades sat in the same room. About twenty students made a typical school, and a teacher's common salary was between $1 and $2 a term for each student. In wooded regions children walked as far as 5 miles (8 kilometers) on forest trails to the schoolhouse. On the prairie frontier they often went to school on horseback. They ate their lunch in the schoolyard in good weather and around the stove on winter days.

In frontier schools all over America, the most common textbooks were the McGuffey Readers. Their pages were full of references to rural and pioneer America. In McGuffey's primer the first lesson was "A is for ax." After ax came box, cat, dog—all familiar things. The readings described children at work and play in barnyards, fields, and forests. These schoolbooks brought learning close to pioneer life.

Before the first churches were built, religion was carried to the frontier by the circuit rider, a preacher on horseback. The circuit rider visited pioneer families in their own cabins. He carried a Bible and a hymnbook in his saddlebag. He preached at crossroad settlements, standing on a stump or a wagon bed. He read from the Bible, prayed, and "lined out" hymns, reading one line at a time, which the people sang after him. In remote cabins he performed baptisms and marriages. He prayed over the graves of the dead.

As settlements grew, communities organized congregations and built churches at the crossroads. The church became a social as well as a religious center. It was a place of community socials and suppers, of Christmas entertainments, of Sunday school parties and neighborhood gatherings. The frontier church provided the first strong social bond in new communities.

Government and Law

The first political organization on the frontier was the territorial government, with officials appointed by the president of the United States. Statehood could be sought when a region had a large enough population; 60,000 was the original requirement. With statehood the pioneers elected their own legislators and sent representatives to the U.S. Congress.

But pioneers went into new lands ahead of the law. Therefore, in its first years every frontier had its own unwritten laws, which were enforced by common consent. Some of the unwritten rules were remembered from older regions. Others evolved on the frontier to meet frontier needs. It was generally agreed that a stray horse became the property of the first man who could catch it. Horse thieves, the worst of criminals, deserved to die. Anyone involved in a quarrel had a right to defend himself. Killing another man in self-defense was not regarded as a crime. However, it was considered criminal to shoot an unarmed man or to strike anyone in the back.

In western communities bands of self-appointed vigilantes enforced their own ideas of justice. At its worst this action became mob violence. At its best it was a temporary assertion of community judgment. Though it was a necessity on the frontier, this lawless judgment had to give way to a legal system. In the process some vigilantes became officers of the law. Still, the pioneer districts had no trained officials. In west Texas, one weathered justice of the peace was called Old Necessity because he knew no law. On his bench he kept a mail-order catalog, which he always consulted before making a judgment. Once, considering a man charged with a misdemeanor, he put on his spectacles, flipped open the catalog, looked at it a moment, and announced, "I fine you $4.88." When the man jumped up to protest, a friend yanked him back. "Sit down," he said. "You're lucky he opened it at ‘pants’ instead of at ‘pianos.’"


In the interior of America, the first roads were rivers. The great rivers, notably the Ohio and the Mississippi, became frontier highways, carrying the population and the produce of the new West. The tributary streams were only slightly less important. Settlers paddled and poled up the side rivers, finding their way into a trackless land. On flatboats they took corn, wheat, pork, lard, and apples to market. Settlers and town builders alike chose sites on running waterways.

Through the forest the pioneers cut primitive roads called traces. Boone's Trace was a pioneer path in Kentucky. The historic Natchez Trace led north from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. Zane's Trace ran through the Ohio woods; it began and ended at landings on the Ohio River.

The first improved highway—straight, wide, and smooth—was the National Road, begun at Cumberland, Maryland, in 1815. It eventually ran through the frontier capitals of Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis (Indiana), and Vandalia (Illinois). Multitudes of pioneer settlers traveled the National Road, as later emigrants to the far West traveled the overland trails to Oregon and California. Canals between the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers hastened the settlement of the Midwest.

Land Laws

After the Revolutionary War (1775–83), the United States acquired a spacious domain extending beyond the original 13 colonies to the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 extended it farther, to the Rocky Mountains. And the annexation of Oregon and California carried it to the Pacific Coast by 1850. The western regions were sparsely occupied by Indians. A piece at a time, by treaty and purchase, the tribes ceded vast lands to the United States. So the public domain was offered to settlers, at first by purchase and finally as free homesteads.

Before land could be sold and legally settled, it had to be surveyed. Government surveyors mapped it into 1-square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) sections and 6-square-mile (15.5-square-kilometer) townships. By this system any tract of land could be precisely located and its boundaries determined. With chain and compass the surveyors went into wild country. They left a numbered post at each mile and a marked cone of dirt at the township corners.

After it was surveyed, the land was open to sale and settlement. The first federal land law offered a minimum tract of 640 acres (256 hectares) at $2 an acre, half the price to be paid to the government within 30 days and the remainder within a year. Many settlers did not have that much money. They became known as squatters—people who lived on the public land without legal ownership.

In a series of reforms the land laws were made more democratic. The Harrison Land Act of 1800 allowed sales of 320 acres (128 hectares) at $2 an acre and allowed four years to pay. In 1820 the revised law offered 80-acre (32-hectare) tracts at $1.25 an acre. This enabled a pioneer with $100 to buy a small farm. At last, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which offered land free to any adult who would live on it and improve it. People then sang a popular song: "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." The Homestead Act helped to fill up the Great Plains frontier. (For more information, see the article on Public Lands.)

On a stump-studded street in a raw new town stood the government land office, with survey maps on the wall and a big open ledger on a table. Steubenville, Marietta, Chillicothe, and Cincinnati had the first land offices in the Northwest Territory. As new districts were surveyed, land offices were opened at Zanesville, Vincennes, Shawneetown, and Kaskaskia. By 1820 they were extended to Detroit and St. Louis. In all these places a familiar scene was repeated. While a woman and her children waited outside in a wagon, a pioneer settler studied the survey maps in the land office. At last he counted out his advance payment and signed his name or made his mark in the ledger. He got a certificate that he could exchange for a deed of ownership when payment was completed. Then the wagon creaked on to the township and section numbered on his claim. So another pioneer family found their land.

The Closing of the Frontier

In 1889 central Oklahoma was opened to homesteaders. Thousands of people, on horseback, in wagons, and on foot, raced into the area to mark out homesteads. In this dramatic land rush, settlement came to the last large tract of public domain. In 1890 the U.S. Census Director declared, "There can hardly be said to be a frontier line." After more than 200 years the moving frontier had come to an end. Vast stretches of wilderness remained in the western mountains and deserts. Much of it would become national forestland. But an era of American history had closed, an era shaped by the hope, the hardship, and the toil and accomplishment of pioneer people.

Today the United States still has some remote and primitive areas, where resourceful, self-reliant people can go beyond the reach of civilization. Alaska is sometimes called the Last Frontier. With large areas of uninhabited land it attracts pioneer people as the American interior did in the 1800's.

Pioneering and the American Character

From Virginia to Alaska, life on the frontier produced many common traits in pioneers. Among them were independence, resourcefulness, individualism, and belief in the future. Men especially were free and equal on the frontier, and democracy was strengthened by the pioneer experience. New lands stimulated initiative, energy, and determination.

But today, with no land left to discover and little left to explore, modern pioneers must look to other frontiers to break new ground. They must look to the oceans or the solar system—or even to the realms of social justice, education, public health and medicine, religion, or the arts. From finding water on the moon to discovering cures for cancer, the opportunities for the modern pioneer are endless.

Walter Havighurst
First Book of Pioneers

SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge

Back to Top