IAGenWeb Project

Iowa History

       An IAGenWeb Special Project


Join the IAGenWeb Team



County Records



Chicago: Western History Co.






     In choosing his home the pioneer usually had an eye mainly to its location, and for that reason settlers were oftener than not very solitary creatures, without neighbors and remote from even the common conveniences of life.  A desirable region was sure to have plenty of inhabitants in time, but it was the advance guard that suffered the privation of isolation.  People within a score of miles of each other were neighbors, and the natural social tendencies of mankind asserted themselves even in the wilderness by efforts to keep up communication with even these remote families.

     The first business of a settler on reaching the place where he intended to fix his residence, was to select his claim and mark it off as nearly as he could without a compass. This was done by stepping and staking or blazing the lines as he went.  The absence of section lines rendered it necessary to take the sun at noon and at evening as a guide by which to run these claim lines.  So many steps each way counted three hundred and twenty acres, more or less, the then legal area of a claim.  It may be readily supposed that these lines were far from correct, but they answered all necessary claim purposes, for it was understood among the settlers that when the lands came to be surveyed and entered all inequalities should be righted.  Thus, if a surveyed line should happen to run between adjoining claims, cutting off more or less of the other, the fraction was to be added to whichever lot required equalizing, yet without robbing the one from which it was taken, for an equal amount would be added to it in another place.

     The next important business was to build a house.  Until this was done, some had to camp on the ground or live in their wagons, perhaps the only shelter they had known for weeks.  So the prospect for a house, which was also to be home, was one that gave courage to the rough toil and added a zest to the heavy labors.  The style of the home entered very little into their thoughts, it was shelter they wanted, and protection from stress of weather and wearing exposures.  The poor settler had neither the money nor the mechanical appliances for building himself a house.  He was content, in most instances, to have a mere cabin or hut.  Some of the most primitive constructions of this kind were half-faced, or, as they were sometimes called, “cat-faced” sheds or “wikeups,” the Indian term for house or tent.  It is true, a claim cabin was a little more in the shape of a human habitation, made, as it was, of round logs light enough for two or three men to lay up, about fourteen feet square, perhaps a little larger or smaller, roofed with bark or clapboards, and sometimes with the sods of the prairie; and floored with puncheons (logs split once in two, and the flat side laid up) or with earth.  For a fire-place, a wall of stone and earth, frequently the latter only, when stone was not convenient, was made in the best practicable shape for the purpose, in an opening in one end of the building, extending outward, and planked on the outside by bolts of wood, notched together to stay it.  Frequently a fire-place of this kind was made so capacious as to occupy nearly the whole width of the house.  In cold weather, when a great deal of fuel was needed to keep the atmosphere above freezing point, for this wide-mouthed fire-place was a huge ventilator, large logs were piled into this yawning space.  To protect the crumbling back wall against the effects of fire, two back logs were placed against it, one upon the other.  Sometimes these back logs were so large that they could not be got in any other way than to hitch a horse to them, drive him in at one door, unfasten the log before the fire-place, from whence it was put in proper position, and then drive him out at the other door.  For a chimney, any contrivance that would conduct the smoke up the chimney would do.  Some were made of sods, plastered upon the inside with clay; others, the more common perhaps, were of the kind we occasionally see in use now, clay and sticks, or “cat in clay,” as they were sometimes called.  Imagine of a winter’s night, when the storm was having its own wild way over this almost uninhabited land, and when the wind was roaring like a cataract of cold over the broad wilderness, and the settler had to do his best to keep warm, what a royal fire this double-back-logged and well-filled fire-place would hold!  It must have been a cozy place to smoke, provided the settler had any tobacco; or for the wife to sit knitting before, provided she had needles and yarn.  At any rate, it must have given something of cheer to the conversation, which very likely was upon the home and friends they had left behind when they started out on this bold venture of seeking fortunes in a new land.

     For doors and windows, the most simple contrivances that would serve the purposes were brought into requisition.  The door was not always immediately provided with a shutter, and a blanket often did duty in guarding the entrance.  But as soon as convenient, some boards were split and put together, hung upon wooden hinges, and held shut by a wooden pin inserted in an auger-hole. As a substitute for window-glass, greased paper, pasted over sticks crossed in the shape of a sash, was sometimes used.  This admitted the light and excluded the air, but of course lacked transparency.

     In regard to the furniture of such a cabin, of course it varied in proportion to the ingenuity of the occupants, unless it was where settlers brought with them their old household supply, which, owing to the distance most of them had come, was very seldom.  It was easy enough to improvise tables and chairs; the former could be made of split logs, and there were instances where the door would be taken from its hinges and used at meals, after which it would be re-hung, and the latter were designed after the three-legged stool pattern, or benches served their purpose.  A bedstead was a very important item in the domestic comfort of the family, and this was the fashion of improvising them: A forked stake was driven into the ground diagonally from the corner of the room, and at a proper distance, upon which poles reaching from each were laid.  The wall ends of the poles either rested in the openings between the logs or were driven into auger-holes.  Barks or boards were used as a substitute for cords.  Upon this the tidy housewife spread her straw tick, and if she had a home-made feather bed, she piled it upon into a luxurious mount and covered it with her whitest drapery.  Some sheets hung behind it for tapestry added to the coziness of the resting-place.  This was generally called a “prairie bedstead,” and by some the “prairie rascal.”  In design, it is surely quite equal to the famous Eastlake models, being about as primitive and severe, in an artistic sense, as one could wish.

     The house thus far along, it was left to the deft devices of the wife to complete its comforts, and the father of the family was free to superintend out-of-door affairs.  If it was in season, his first important duty was to prepare some ground for planting, and to plant what he could.  This was generally done in the edge of the timber, where most of the very earliest settlers located.  Here the sod was easily broken, not requiring the heavy teams and plows needed to break the prairie sod.  Moreover, the nearness of timber offered greater conveniences for fuel and building.  And still another reason for this was, that the groves afforded protection from the terrible conflagrations that occasionally swept across the prairies.  Though they passed through the patches of timber, yet it was not with the same destructive force with which they rushed over the prairies.  Yet by these fires much of the young timber was killed from time to time, and the forest kept thin and shrubless.

     The first year’s farming consisted mainly of a “truck patch,” planted in corn, potatoes, turnips, etc.  Generally, the first year’s crop fell far short of supplying even the most rigid economy of food.  Many of the settlers brought with them small stores of such things as seemed indispensable to frugal living, such as flour, bacon, coffee and tea.  But these supplies were not inexhaustible, and once used were not easily replaced.  A long winter must come and go before another crop could be raised.  If game was plentiful, it helped to eke out their limited supplies.

     But even when corn was plentiful, the preparation of it was the next difficulty in the way.  The mills for grinding it were at such long distances that every other device was resorted to for reducing it to meal.  Some grated it on an implement made by punching small holes through a piece of tin or sheet-iron, and fastening it upon a board in concave shape, with the rough side out.  Upon this the ear was rubbed to produce the meal.  But grating could not be done when the corn became so dry as to shell off when rubbed.  Some used a coffee-mill for grinding it.  And a very common substitute for bread was hominy, a palatable and wholesome diet, made by boiling corn in a weak lye till the hull or bran peeled off, after which it was well washed, to cleanse it of the lye.  It was then boiled again to soften it, when it was ready for use as occasion required, by frying and seasoning it to the taste.  Another mode of preparing hominy was by pestling.

     A mortar was made by burning a bowl-shaped cavity in the even end of an upright block of wood.  After thoroughly clearing it of the charcoal, the corn could be put in, hot water turned upon it, when it was subjected to a severe pestling by a club of sufficient length and thickness, in the large end of which was inserted an iron wedge, banded to keep it there.  The hot water would soften the corn and loosen the hull, while the pestle would crush it.

     When breadstuffs were needed, they had to be obtained from long distances.  Owing to the lack of proper means for threshing and cleaning  wheat, it was more or less mixed with foreign substances, such as smut, dirt and oats.  And as the time may come when the settlers method of threshing and clearing may be forgotten, it may be well to preserve a brief account of them here.  The plan was to clean off a space of ground of sufficient size, and if the earth was dry, to dampen it, and beat it so as to render it somewhat compact. Then the sheaves were unbound and spread in a circle, so that the heads would be uppermost, leaving room in the center for the person whose business it was to stir and turn the straw in the process of threshing.  Then, as many horses or oxen were brought as could conveniently swing round the circle, and these were kept moving until the wheat was well trodden out.  After several “floorings” or layers were threshed, the straw was carefully raked off, and the wheat shoveled into a heap to be cleaned.  This cleaning was sometimes done by waving a sheet up and down to fan out the chaff as the grain was dropped before it; but this trouble was frequently obviated when the strong winds of autumn were all that was needed to blow out the chaff from the grain.

     This mode of preparing the grain for flouring was so imperfect that it is not to be wondered at that a considerable amount of black soil got mixed with it, and unavoidably got into the bread.  This, with the addition of smut, often rendered it so dark as to have less the appearance of bread than of mud; yet upon such diet the people were compelled to subsist, for want of a better.

     Not the least among the pioneers’ tribulations, during the first few years of settlement, was the going to mill.  The slow mode of travel by ox-teams was made still slower by the almost total absence of roads and bridges, while such a thing as a ferry was hardly even dreamed of.  The distance to be traversed was often as far as sixty or ninety miles.  In dry weather, common sloughs and creeks offered little impediment to the teamsters; but during floods and breaking-up of winter, they proved exceedingly troublesome and dangerous.  To get stuck in a slough, and thus be delayed for many hours, was no uncommon occurrence, and that too, when time was an item of grave import to the comfort and sometimes even to the lives of the settler’s families.  Often a swollen stream would blockade the way, seeming to threaten destruction to whoever should attempt to ford it.

     With regard to roads, there was nothing of the kind worthy of the name.  Indian trails were common, but they were unfit to travel on with vehicles.  They are described as mere paths about two feet wide, all that was required to accommodate the single-file manner of Indian traveling.

     An interesting theory respecting the origin of the routes now pursued by many of our public highways is given in a speech by Thomas Benton many years ago.  He says the buffaloes were the first road engineers, and the paths trodden by them were, as a matter of convenience, followed by the Indians, and lastly by the whites, with such improvements and changes as were found necessary for civilized modes of travel.  It is but reasonable to suppose that the buffaloes would instinctively choose the most practical routes and fords in their migrations from one pasture to another.  Then, the Indians following, possessed of about the same instinct as the buffaloes, strove to make no improvements and were finally driven from the track by those who would.

     When the early settlers were compelled to make these long and difficult trips to mill, if the country was prairie over which they passed, they found it comparatively easy to do in summer, when grass was plentiful.  By traveling until night, and then camping out to feed the teams, they got along without much difficulty.  But in winter, such a journey was attended with no little danger.  The utmost economy of time was, of course, necessary.  When the goal was reached, after a week or more of toilsome travel, with many exposures and risks, and the poor man was impatient to immediately return with the desired staff of life, he was often shocked and disheartened with the information that his turn would come in a week.  Then he must look about for some means to pay expenses, and he was lucky who could find some employment by the day or job.  Then, when his turn came, he had to be on hand to bolt his own flour, as, in those days, the bolting machine was not an attached  part of the other mill machinery.  This done, the anxious soul was ready to endure the trials of a return trip, his heart more or less concerned about the affairs of home.

     These milling trips often occupied from three weeks to more than a month each, and were attended with an expense, in one way or another, that rendered the cost of breadstuffs extremely high.  If made in the winter, when more or less grain-feed was required for the team, the load would be found to be so considerably reduced on reaching home that the cost of what was left, adding other expenses, would make their grain reach the high cost figure of from $3 to $5 per bushel.  And these trips could not always be made at the most favorable season for traveling.  In spring and summer, so much time could hardly be spared from other essential labor; yet, for a large family, it was almost impossible to avoid making three or four trips during the year.

     This description of early milling applies rather to the pioneers west of this county (Des Moines County Iowa) than to those who settled near the Mississippi and Skunk Rivers, but it was not uncommon for people here to cross over into Illinois to get their grinding done.

     Among other things calculated to annoy and distress the pioneer, was the prevalence of wild beasts of prey, the most numerous and troublesome of which was the wolf.  While it was true, in a figurative sense, that it required the utmost care and exertion to “Keep the wolf from the door,” it was almost as true in a literal sense.

     There were two species of these animals, the large black, timber-wolf, and the smaller gray wolf, that usually inhabited the prairie.  At first it was next to impossible for a settler to keep small stock of any kind that would serve as a prey to these ravenous beasts.  Sheep were not deemed safe property until years after, when their enemies were supposed to be nearly exterminated.  Large numbers of wolves were destroyed during the early years of settlement, as many as fifty in a day in a regular wolf-hunt.  When they were hungry, which was not uncommon, particularly during the winter, they were too indiscreet for their own safety, and would often approach within easy shot of the settler’s dwellings.

At certain seasons, their wild, plaintive yelp or bark could be heard in all directions, at all hours of the night, creating intense excitement among the dogs, whose howling would add to the dismal melody.

     It has been found, by experiment, that but one of the canine species, the hound, has both the fleetness and courage to cope with his savage cousin, the wolf.  Attempts were often made to capture him with the common cur, but this animal, as a rule, proved himself wholly unreliable for such a service.  So long as the wolf would run, the cur would follow; but the wolf, being apparently acquainted with the character of his pursuer, would either turn and place himself in a combative attitude, or else act upon the principle that “discretion is the better part of valor,”  and throw himself upon his back, in token of surrender.  This strategic performance would make instant peace between these two scions of the same house; and not infrequently, dogs and wolves have been seen playing together like puppies.  But the hound was never known to recognize a flag of truce; his baying seemed to signify, “no quarter,” or at least so the terrified wolf understood it.

     Smaller animals, such as panthers, lynxes, wildcats, catamounts and polecats were also sufficiently numerous to be troublesome.  And an exceeding source of annoyance was the swarms of mosquitoes which aggravated the trials of the settler in the most exasperating degree.  Persons have been driven from the labors of the field by their unmerciful assaults.


Transcribed by Cay Merryman



back to History Index