Scott Co, Iowa USGenWeb Project
(Although this was written for Scott County, it applies to Hardin County in many ways)



PIONEER LIFE

from History of Scott County, Iowa 1882 Chicago:  Interstate Publishing Co.

One of the most interesting phases of national or local history is that of a settelment of a new country.  What was the original state in which the pioneer found the country, and how was it made to blossom as the rose?

Pioneer life in Scott County finds its parallel in almost every county in the state, and throughout the entire West.  The beautiful prairies were to be robbed of their natural ornaments and the hand of art was to assist in their decoration.  Who was to undertake this work?  Were they qualified for the task?  What will be the effect of their labors upon future generations?

Early Manners and Customs

The young men and women of today have little conception of the mode of life among the early settlers of the country.  One can hardly conceive how great a change has taken place in so short a time.  In no respect are the habits and manners of the people similar to those of 60 years ago.  The clothing, the dewellings, the diet, the social customs, have undergone a total revolution, as though a new race had taken possession of the land.

In a new country, far removed from the conveniences of civilization, where all are compelled to build their own houses, make their own clothing and procure for themselves the means of subsistence, it is to be expected that their dwellings and garments will be rude.  These were matters controlled by surrounding circumstances and the means at their disposal.  The earliest settlers constructed what were termed "three-faced camps," or, in other words, three walls, leaving one side open.  They are described as follows:  The walls were built about seven feet high, when poles were laid across at a distance of about three feet apart, and on these a roof of clapboards was laid, which were kept in place by weight poles placed on them.  The clapboards were about four feet in length and from eight inches to 12 inches in width, split out of white oak timber.  No floor was laid in the "camp."  The structure required neither door, window, nor chimney.  The one side left out of the cabin answered for all these purposes.  In front of the open side was built a large log heap, which served for warmth in cold weather and for cooking purposes in all seasons.  Of course there was an abundance of light, and, on either side of the fire, space to enter in and out.  These "three-faced camps" were probably more easily constructed than the ordinary cabin, and was not the ususal style of a dwelling-house.

The cabin was considered a material advance for comfort and home life.  This was, in almost every case, built of logs, the space between the logs being filled in with split sticks of wood, called "chinks," and then daubed over, both inside and outside, with mortar made of clay.  The floor, sometimes, was nothing more than earth tramped hard and smooth, but commonly made of "puncheons," or split logs, with the split side turned upward.  The roof was made by gradually drawing in the top to the ridge-pole, and, on cross pieces, laying the "clapboards," which, being several feet in length, instead of being nailed, were held in place by poles laid on them called "weight poles," reaching the length of the cabin.  For a fireplace, a space was cut out of the logs on one side of the room, usually about six feet in length, and three sides were built up of logs, making an offset in the wall.  This was lined with stone, if convenient; if not, then earth.  The flue, or upper part of the chimney, was built of small split sticks, two and a half or three feet in length, carried a little space above the roof, and plastered over with clay, and when finished was called a "cat-and-clay" chimney.  The door space was also made by cutting an aperture in one side of the room of the required size, the door itself being made of clapboards secured by wooden pins to two cross-pieces.  The hinges were also of wood, while the fastening consisted of a wooden latch catching on a hook of the same material.  To open the door from the outside, a strip of buckskin was tied to the latch and drawn through a hole a few inches above the latch-bar, so that on pulling the string the latch was lifted from the catch or hook, and the door was opened without further trouble.  To lock the door, it was only necessary to pull the string through the hole to the inside.  Here the family lived, and here the guest and wayfayer were made welcome.  The living room was of good size, but to a large extent it was all - kitchen, bedroom, parlor and arsenal, with flitches of bacon and rings of dried pumpkin suspended from the rafters.  In one corner were the loom and other implements used in the manufacture of clothing, and around the ample fireplace was collected the kitchen furniture.  The clothing lined one side of the sleeping apartment, suspended from pegs driven in the logs.  Hemp and flax were generally raised, and a few sheep kept.  Out of these the clothing for the family and the sheets and coverlets were made by the females of the house.  Over the door was placed the trusty rifle, and just back of it hung the powder horn and hunting pouch.  In the well-to-do families, or when crowded on the ground floor, a loft was sometimes made to the cabin for a sleeping place and the storage of "traps" and articles not in common use.  The loft was reached by a ladder secured to the wall.  Generally the bedrooms were separated from the living room by sheets and coverlets suspended from the rafters, but until the means of making these partition walls were ample, they lived and slept in the same room.

Familiarity with this mode of living did away with much of  the discomfort, but as soon as the improvement could be made, there was added to the cabin an additional room, or a "double log cabin," being substantially a "three-faced camp," with a log room on each end and containing a loft.  The furniture in the cabin corresponded with the house itself.  The articles used in the kitchen were as few and simple as can be imagined.  A "Dutch oven," or skillet, a longhandled frying pan, an iron pot or kettle, and sometimes a coffeepot, constituted the utensils of the best furnished kitchen.  A little later, when a stone wall formed the base of the chimney, a long iron "crane" swung in the chimney-place, which on its "pot-hook" carried the boiling kettle or heavey iron pot.  The cooking was all done on the fire-place and at the fire, and the style of cooking was as simple as the utensils.  Indian, or corn meal was the common flour, which was made into "pone" or "corn-dodger," or "hoecake," as the occasion or variety demanded.  The "pone" and the "dodger" was baked in the Dutch oven, which was first set on a bed of glowing coals.  When the oven was filled with the dough, the lid, already heated on the fire, was placed on the oven and covered with hot embers and ashes.  When the bread was done it was taken from the oven and placed near the fire to keep warm while some other food was being prepared in the same oven for the forthcoming meal.  The "hoe-cake" was prepared in the same way as the dodger - that is, a stiff dough was made of the meal and water, and, taking as much as could conveniently be held in both hands, it was molded into the desired shape by being tossed from hand to hand, then laid on a board or flat stone placed at an angle before the fire and patted down to the required thickness.  In the fall and early winter, cooked pumpkin was added to the meal dough, giving a flavor and richness to the bread not attained by the modern methods.  In the oven from which the bread was taken, the venison or ham was then fried, and, in the winter, lye hominy, made from the unbroken grains of corn, added to the frugal meal.  The woods abounded in honey, and of this the early settlers had an abundance the year round.  For some years after settlements were made, the cornmeal formed the staple commodity for bread.

The simple cabins were inhabited by a kind domestic industry and happiness rarely elsewhere to be found.

It is well for "Young America" to look back on those early days.  It involved a life of toil, hardship, and the lack of many comforts, but it was the life that made men of character.  Scott County today has no better men than the immediate descendants of those who built their cabins in the forest, and by patient endurance wrought out of the wilderness the landmarks for a prosperous commonwealth.  One of these writes that "the boys were required to do their share of the hard labor of clearing up the farm, for much of the country now under the plow was at one time heavily timbered, or was covered with a dense thicket of hazel and young timber.  Our visits were made with ox teams, and we walked, or rode on horseback, or in wagons to 'meeting.'  The boys 'pulled,' 'broke' and 'hackled' flax, wore tow shirts, and indulged aristocraic fellings in fringed 'hunting-shirts,' 'coon-skin caps,' 'picked' and 'carded' wool by hand, and 'spooled' and 'quilled' yarn for the weaving till the back ached."

Industry such as this, supported by an economy and frugality from which there was then no escape, necessarily brought its own reward.  The hard toil made men old before their time, but beneath their sturdy blows they saw not only the forest pass away, but the fields white with the grain.  Change and alterations were to be expected, but the reality has distanced the wildest conjecture; and, stranger still, multitudes are still living who witnessed not only the face of nature undergoing a change about them, but the manners, customs and industries of a whole people almost wholly changed.  Many an old pioneer sits by his fireside in his easy chair, with closed eyes, and dreams of the scenes of the long ago.

Weddings

The wedding was an attractive feature of pioneer life.  There was no distinction of life and very little of fortune.  On these accounts the first impressions of love generally resulted in marriage.  The family establishment cost but little labor - nothing more.  The marriage was always celebrated at the house of the bride, and she was generally left to choose the officiating clergyman.  A wedding, however, engaged the attention of the whole neighborhood.  It was anticipated by both old and young with eager expectation.  In the morning of the wedding day the groom and his intimate friends assembled at the house of his father, and after due preparation, departed, en masse, for the "mansion" of his bride.  The journey was sometimes made on horseback, sometimes on foot, and some times in farm wagons and carts.  It was always a merry journey; and to insure merriment the bottle was always taken along.  On reaching the house of the bride the marriage ceremony took place, and then dinner or supper was served.  After the meal the dancing commenced, and generally lasted until the following morning.  The figures of the dances were three and four handed reels, or square sets and jigs.  The commencement was always a square four, which was followed by what pioneers called "jigging;" that is, two of the four would single out for a jig, and were followed by the remaining couple.  The jigs were often accompanied by what was called 'cutting out," that is, when either of the parties became tired of the dance, on intimation, the place was supplied by some one of the company, without  interruption of the dance.  In this way the reel was often continued until the musician was exhausted.  About nine or ten o'clock in the evening a deputation of young ladies stole off the bride and put her to bed  In doing this they had to ascend a ladder from the kitchen, which was composed of loose boards.  Here, in the pioneer bridal chamber, the young, simple-hearted girl was put to bed by her enthusiastic friends.  This done, a deputation of young men escorted the groom to the same department, and placed him snugly by the side of his bride.  The dance still continued, and if the seats were scarce, which was generally the case, says a local witness, every young man, when not engaged in the dance, was obliged to offer his lap as a seat for one of the girls, and this offer was sure to be accepted.  During the night's festivities spirits were freely used, but seldom to excess.  The infare was on the following evening, where the same order of exercises was observed.

Shakes

Another feature of pioneer life which every old settler will vividly recall was the "chills and fever," "fever and ague," or "shakes," as it was variously called.  It was a terror to newcomers, for in the fall of the year almost everybody was afflicted with it.  It was no respecter of persons; everybody looked pale and sallow as though frost-bitten.  It was not contagious, but derived from impure water and air, which was always developed in the opening up of a new country of rank soil like that of Scott County.  The impurities continued to absorb from day to day, and from week to week, until the whole corporate body becomes saturated with it as with electricity; and then the shock came; and the shock was a regular shake, with a fixed beginning and ending, coming on in some cases each day, but generally on alternate days, with a regularity that was surprising.  After the shakes came the fever, and this "last estate was worse than the first;" it was a burning hot fever and lasted for hours.  When you had the chill you couldn't get warm, and when you had the fever you couldn't get cool.  It was exceedingly awakward in this respect, indeed it was.  Nor would it stop for any contingency; not even a wedding in the family would stop it.  It was impertivie and tyrannical.  When the appointed time came around, everything else had  to be stopped to attend to its demands.  It didn't even have any Sundays or holidays.   After the fever went down you still didn't feel much better; you felt as though you had gone through some sort of a collision, threshing machine, or jarring machine, and came out, not killed, but next thing to it.  You felt weak, as though you had run too far after something, and then didn't catch it.  You felt languid, stupid and sore, and was down in the mouth and heel, and partially raveled out.  Your back was out of fix, your head ached and your appetite was crazy.  Your eyes had too much white in them; your ears, especially after taking quinine, had too much roar in them, and your whole body and soul were entirely woe-begone, disconsolate, sad, poor and good for nothing.  You didn't think much of yourself and didn't believe that other people did either; and you didn't care.  You didn't quite make up your mind to commit suicide, but sometimes wished some accident would happen to knock either the malady or yourself out of existence.  You imagined that even the dogs looked at you with a sort of commiseration.   You thought the sun had a sort of sickly shine about it.  About this time you came to the conclusion that you would not take the whole State as as gift; and if you had the strenght and means you would pick up Hannah and the baby, and your traps, and go back "yander" to "Old Virginny," the "Jerseys," Maryland or "Pennsylvany."

And to-day, the swallows flitting
Round my cabin, see me sitting
Moodily within the sunshine,
  Just inside my silent door,
Waiting for the 'ager,' seeming
Like a man forever dreaming;
And the sunlight on me streaming
Throws no shadow on the floor;
For I am too thin and sallow &
To make shadows on the floor-
Nary shadow any


The foregoing is not a mere picture of the imagination.  It is simply recounting in quaint phrase what actually occurred in hundreds of cases.  Whole families would sometimes be sick at one time, and not one member at all able to wait upon another.  Labor or exercise always aggravated the malady, and it took General Laziness a  long time to thrash the enemy out.  These were the days for swallowing all sorts of roots and "yarbs" and whiskey straight, with some faint hope of relief.  Finally when the case wore out, the last remedy got the credit of the cure. 

Wolf Hunting

In early days more mischief was done by wovles than by any other wild animal, and no small part of the mischief consisted in their almost constant barking at night, which always seemed menacing and frightful to the settlers.  Like mosquitoes, the noise they made appeared to be about as dreadful as the real depredations they committed.  The most effectual, as well as the most exciting, method of ridding the country of these hateful pests, was that known as the "circular wolf hunt," by which all the men and boys would turn out on an appointed day, in a kind of a circle, comprising many square miles of territory, with horses and dogs, and then close up toward the center field of operation, gathering, not  only wolves, but also deer and many smaller "varmint."  Five, ten, or more wolves, by this means, would be killed in a single day.  The men would be organized with as much system as a samll army, everyone being posted in the meaning of every signal and the application of every rule.  Guns were scarcely ever allowed to be brought on such occasions, as their use would be unavoidably dangerous.  The dogs were depended upon for the final slaughter.  The dogs, by the way, had all to be held in check by a cord in the hand of their keepers until the final signal was given to let them loose, when away they would go to the center of battle and a more exciting scene would follow than can easily be described.

Religion

The religious element in the life of the pioneer was such as to attract the attention of those living in more favored places.  The pioneer was no hypocrite.  If he believed in horse racing, whiskey drinking, card playing, or anything of like character, he practiced them openly and above board.  If he was of a religious turn of mind he was not ashamed to own it.

He could truthfully sing,
I'm not ashamed to own my Lord,
Or blush to speak his name.

But the pioneer clung to the faith of his fathers, for a time, at least.  If he was a Presbyterian he was not ashamed of it, but rather prided himself on being on the elect.  If a Methodist, he was one to the fullest extent.  He prayed long and loud if the spirit moved him, and cared nothing for the empty forms of religion:

A traveling Presbyterian minister, visiting this region of country at a very early day, thus speaks of the sectarian feeling which than existed.      

In these new religious, too, of the most absolute independence, you see all the wanderings of human thought, every shade of faith, every degree of the most perserving attachment to preconceived opinions.  You see, too, all degrees of pretension in religion, followed by unhappy manifestations of the hollowness of such pretensions.  You meet, it is ture, with more cheering circumstances, and we sometimes are able to see that which we strongly wish to see.  At one point you meet with a respectable Methodist and begin to feel and an attachment to the profession.  He next meets you with harmony and co-operation on his lips, and the next thing which you hear is you are being charged of being a fierce Calvinist, and that you have preached that "hell is paved with infants' skulls."  While, perhaps, the society with which you are connnected hear from an opposite quarter, and from a pretended friend, that in such a sermon you departed from the dicta of the great Master and are leading the people to the gulf of Armenianism.  The Baptists are as exclusive as in the older regions.  Even among our own brothren, it is well known that there is some feeling of a questionable nature, some rivalry between the pupils, the doctors and schools of Andover and Princeton.  The Cumberland Presbyterians, with all the freshness of a new sect, are not found lacking in this  order of things.  Lastly, there are the Catholics, abundantly more united in faith, in spirit, and in purpose than we are, who claim a kind of prospective right to the gorund, on the pretext of prior posssesion.  Add to these the followers of Elias Smith, and the multitudes of men who would be founders of new sects, and you will have some idea of the sectarian feelings that you will have to encounter."

But these sectarian feelings were not to last.  Separated from the religious influences of the land of their birth, and seldom hearing the gospel message, they were literally starving for the "bread of life," and the worthly minister, of whatever denomination, that chanced to call received a cordial welcome.  The best the early pioneers had to give was at his service.  All they requries was that he be a true and faithful follower of Christ, and preach to them of a common salvation.

Used with permission. (http://www.celticcousins.net/scott/pioneerlife.htm)