Iowa History Project



Chapter XX


The settlers who lived in Iowa during the early days mingled work with play, and although they had many hard experiences they also had many good times.  Everything was very rude and primitive, and a great deal of what we to-day regard as necessities the pioneers considered as luxuries.

As there were no railroads here then, the settlers depended entirely upon horses and oxen to haul the household topped wagons, on which were piled the possessions of the family.  Often these possessions were scanty enough, if we accept the children and the feeble adults who rode on the load, and who were the most precious part of the property.  The men who were able trudged alongside, or were on horseback.

As soon as possible after a territory was opened up the government established military and territorial roads, but before this was done the settlers had made their own highways and byways.  The first roads followed the old Indian trails.  As there were no fences the settlers drove over the prairie in all directions, seeking a place where a claim would be desirable.  In the selection the good wife had a voice, because a cabin with water convenient, and with other matters arranged satisfactorily, meant much to her.

When an attractive spot was reached the claim was paced off and staked out, or marked by blazing the trunks of trees.  The next thing to do was to erect a shelter.  Until a rough cabin was put up the settlers slept near the wagon.  The women and children and the weak or aged of the men had the privilege of using the wagon box for protection.  A little rain did not bother the strong and hearty.

Sometimes a "three faced" camp was put up as temporary shelter.  This consisted of merely three walls about seven feet high, forming three sides of a rectangle.  They were made of logs laid one on another.  Poles were stretched across, about three feet apart, for the frame-work of the roof, and on them boards, split from logs, were laid.  On top of all were distributed other poles, to hold the roof down.

There was no floor, save dirt, no door, no chimney, no window.  The open side answered all purposes of ventilation.  Right across this side, where the fourth wall should be, was built a roaring log fire.

Now the cabin was being completed.  The sides were of logs, the spaces between "chinked" with small sticks, and the inside and outside daubed with clay.  The roof, like the roof of the "three-faced" camp, was of clapboards and poles.

A great fireplace, six feet or more long, was cut in one side, or wall.  The back and sides of it were logs covered with clay and earth and stones.  The flue was of split sticks like a "corncob" pile, and plastered with clay.  This was a "cat and clay" chimney.  The burning of a chimney was of frequent occurrence.

The early settlers did not use nails.  Little metal of any kind was to be seen in the construction of the cabins.  The door was hung on wooden hinges.  A wooden catch held the door shut, and through a hole a buckskin string passed, hanging outside.  By this the catch was lifted by the person wishing to enter.  No one locked his cabin, except when an Indian scare made a bar necessary.

The furniture of the cabin was simple enough.  The first beds were "one legged" beds.  A stake was driven into the earth, or through the wooden floor, if there was a floor, three or four feet from one wall and six or seven from one end of the cabin.  This was to be a corner of the bed.  A strip extended from the stake to the wall, and another strip from the stake to the end logs.  On this framework were laid other strips, and with a blanket added the bed was ready for occupancy.

Over the door were suspended rifle and powder horn.  Maybe in a corner was a loom.  A rude table and a stool or so, a skillet or "Dutch oven", iron pot and coffee pot completed the list of furnishings.  The stove was the fireplace.  Corn meal or "Indian meal", as it was called, was an important article of food.  Mixed with water it was cooked in a variety of ways, to make "pone", "corn dodger" and "hoe cake".  The grains of corn when bleached by lye formed "lye hominy".  Pumpkin added to the corn meal dough gave it rich yellow color and improved the flavor.  Honey was abundant, and game furnished a welcome change from "hog meat."

Oiled paper was used instead of glass.  If the earth did not serve as a floor, a "puncheon" floor was laid, consisting of slabs hewn from logs.

Before a crop was put in the prairie must be broken.  As the soil had not been disturbed for centuries the grass roots constituted a tough mass not easily separated.  When possible a great "prairie plow" was used.  This was operated by men who made such work their business, charging so much an acre.  The machine was ten feet long, and cut a shallow furrow about twenty-four inches wide.  Five or six yoke of oxen drew the plow.

The earliest settlers did not have the services of a prairie plow.  Often they planted corn by driving an axe blade into the earth, and dropping the seeds into the cleft thus made.  The first crop of corn was valuable chiefly because it prepared the ground for succeeding crops.

Plowing in the days of the pioneer presented an animated sight.  Several yoke of oxen harnessed in a string were required.  The ox whip was thirty feet long, and hard to handle.  The unskillful driver would awkwardly wind the lash around the neck of one of his astonished animals.  The boy who from the plow could cut a fly from the neck of the "off leader" was looked upon with much respect.

After the grain was harvested it must be ground.  Before mills were set up the settler did his own grinding.  The corn was pured into a hollow made by fire in the top of a stump, and was crushed by a stick with a rounded end, as a druggist mixes his drugs.  This was "pestling" corn.  Sometimes the ears were grated on a roughened iron surface.

After the grain was harvested it must be ground.  Before mills were set up the settler did his own grinding.  The corn was pured into a hollow made by fire in the top of a stump, and was crushed by a stick with a rounded end, as a druggist mixes his drugs.  This was "pestling" corn.  Sometimes the ears were grated on a roughened iron surface.

For a long time mills were far apart, and the journey to them quite an undertaking for the settlers.  Over the soft prairie, through muddy creeks and up and down hills the settler took his corn to mill, the stout oxen plodding along so slowly that the wife and family were left alone for many days and nights.

When the mill was reached the settler was obliged to wait his turn.  It is related that one party of settlers, grown tired of waiting, volunteered to run the mill at night while the miller slept.  They ground all night, but by morning were enabled to start for home, with their corn reduced to meal.

Even this meal, obtained with so much trouble, was apt to be dirty, full of unpalatable substances.

Wolves threatened the stock.  Indians stole horses, and prairie fires attacked the cabins.  The winters were long and cold. Rainfalls were terrific.  The exposure of the ploughed-up soil to the atmosphere caused weakening fever and ague, termed the "shakes".  The decomposition of the earth under the sun gave off fumes which permeated the air, and in the fall of the first year of a community everybody was afflicted.  Not until the atmosphere cleared was relief experienced.  The settlers had little to make them comfortable.  Young married couples started life in their cabin when they had hardly a chair or a table.

One settler who called on a newly married pair found them sitting on the earthen floor of their little shack, eating mush out of an iron pot between them, with only one spoon for the two.  The pot and the spoon were their sole household property.

Mails were few and far between.  For some time postage was twenty-five cents a letter.  If a settler was too poor to pay this, the good natured man who acted as postmaster would trust him until the sum was available.  The post office was at some store, and mail was received at irregular intervals, according as the condition of the roads and of navigation assisted or hindered.  Settlers rode many miles to get their letters.

Soon after Governor Lucas entered upon his duties as chief executive of Iowa Territory, a letter was addressed to him, at Burlington, Iowa, by the officials at Washington.  Evidently the people out East knew little of events on the Upper Mississippi, for the letter went to Burlington, New Jersey, was returned to Washington, was sent out, this time to Burlington, Vermont, and again came back to Washington.

The postmaster was disgusted.  He wrote on the letter:

"For heaven's sake let this letter go to some other Burlington, wherever it may be!"

There were no envelopes in those days, and the great wafer sealing the letter, with the writing of the postmaster under the address, caused considerable comment.  If the governor of Iowa had such hard work to get a letter, the settlers stood poor show.

Mail came weekly to Burlington.  It was brought from the East to Indianapolis by stage coach; thence by two-horse hack to Iowa.  From Burlington mail was taken by hack to Davenport, and by horseback riders to Dubuque.

Before Iowa was a Territory letters were addressed:

"Iowa Postoffice,

Black Hawk Purchase,

Wisconsin Territory."

The early settlers claimed land before the ground was actually on sale.  The first land sale did not occur until 1838.  In the meantime, to protect their claims, the settlers in a community banded together, drew up regulations, and maintained what was termed "club law," or "claim law."

When the government opened land offices these claim laws were recognized as valid.

The price of government land was $1.25 an acre.  Each township sent to the sale a representative, who had a list of the claims settled upon in the area advertised.  He bid in for each settler.

If a speculator or "land grabber" in the crowd attempted to oppose the rightful claimant matters went hard with him, and forced him to retire from the vicinity.  A "land-grabber" was hated, being looked upon as one who would rob the settlers of their hard earned claims.

Money lenders, also, mingled with the settlers.  Capitalists saw a chance to do a fine business by lending to the settlers cash with which land could be purchased.  Fifty per cent interest was not unusual; sometimes the rate was even higher that that.  If the settler could not pay the debt, and the interest, he lost his property.  This interest was outrageous, but the settlers were so hard-up that they were obliged to accept the terms, or nothing.

When the first land sale occurred at Burlington in 1838 silver coin was transferred across the river in row boats, loading them to the gunwales, and was loaned to the settlers.

The money panic of 1837 told severely on the settlers for several years following.  It was difficult to dispose of produce even after a good crop.  Wheat was hauled one hundred miles and sold for only 37 1/2 cents a bushel, corn and oats for only 6 cents, and the best horses for $50.


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