Iowa History Project
THE MAKING OF IOWA
LIFE AMONG THE SETTLERS
Although the pioneer settlers of Iowa were exposed to many perils and much suffering, as a rule men, women and children were a light hearted set. Their frolics began with the building of the cabin, and were continued whenever an occasion was presented.
When the new-comer was ready to put up his cabin, he invited all his neighbors to assist. Neighbors meant anybody he or his friends knew. "House raisin'" was regarded as great fun. Before the day appointed the host had his logs cut and notched, ready to be laid in place. The early cabins were built from round logs with the bark on. Soon it was considered a mark of elegance to chip a place along two sides of each log. The next step was to hew what would be the inside and outside of the cabin walls, so as to present a flat surface.
The crowd who assisted at a "house raisin'" was entertained with plenty of food and drink, and joking and general merry-making prevailed.
Weddings also were the signal for much fun. The intimate friends of the groom called at his father's house, and on foot, on horseback and in wagons escorted the young man to the home of the bride. Usually there were not enough seats, and the girls sat on the laps of the men, or of other girls, Kissing games were favorites.
Young men went long distances to call upon the girls. When a girl was engaged to a man it was sometimes said she was "bespoke", or "promised". When the swain arrived at the cabin of the girl with whom he was in love, if the father asked him to stay all night and to put his horse in the barn, it was a sign the caller was not favored wooer. If he was not invited to put up his horse, he was glad, and frequently extended his call until four o'clock in the morning.
One young man in Iowa went courting just over the border into Missouri. He had provisions in his saddle bags for the trip, and started from his home at night so as to escape observation. He was so bashful that when the girl and her parents sat at the table for dinner, he refused to join them. He said:
"Oh, I've got a bite here."
Then he went into a dark corner, and gnawed on a piece of bacon he took from his saddle-bags. It is not remarkable that he did not get the girl.
Another bashful young man was engaged to an equally bashful girl. It was given out that they were to be married on a certain evening. The neighborhood gathered at the cabin. The minister was there. The spectators were ranged along the sides of the room. Everybody waited, and silence reigned except when a snicker was heard. All of a sudden the groom desperately leaped into the clear spot in the middle of the room, nodded at the girl, and shouted:
"Come on, if you want to!"
The girl blushingly came forward, and the minister pronounced the usual words.
Some couples who desired to be married were obliged to seek a justice of the peace. Ministers were not easily communicated with in the early days. The couple on horseback rode to the justice, the girl behind the man, clasping him around the waist if the way was rough. The justice fee was whatever the couple had brought.
Quiltings, wood choppings, turkey shootings, horse racing and foot racing were popular amusements. Physical strength was apt to be a standard of a man. Vicious fights resulted from the boasts of some strapping settler that he was the "best man" around. When he was "licked" he ceased to be a champion.
As many of the first settlers were from the South, southern customs prevailed in some sections of Iowa, particularly in the southern districts of the eastern half.
Dancing was a diversion that wound up most of the festivities. "Guilmah", "Stump Tail Dog", etc., were well known tunes. Reels, square dances and jigs were the favorite figures. In jigs "cutting out" was thought excellent fun. The musician struck up a lively time, some individual or some couple took the floor, and danced until exhausted, when a fresh person or couple stepped in. Rivals would enter into a contest to see who could dance the longest and with the greatest variety of steps.
In cards a favorite game was "bragg".
The early settlers in Iowa, as well as in other Territories, drank a great deal of liquor. On the way to weddings, house raisings, and other gatherings, the bottle was passed liberally, and was used frequently during the ensuing program. With the advance of civilization the custom became less prevalent.
What splendid hunting and fishing the Iowa pioneers had! The waters and the hills and prairies were swarming with game. Buffalo did not survive the advent of the settler, but the elk, deer and bear, the wild turkey, the prairie chicken and the quail were shot in great numbers. When a deer was killed it might be taken to the cabin, or to town, tied to the horse's tail and dragged behind. Venison formed a common article of diet.
A Davenport citizen of 1844 agreed to buy a catfish from a fisherman. When he was asked by the seller to come to the levee and get the fish he remonstrated a little, until he found the purchase was too large to be taken into the boat, and weighed 105 pounds!
Early settlers kept a sharp lookout for snakes and wolves. Wolf hunts were of frequent occurrence. A Keokuk settler killed 225 rattlers in one day. persons entering a swamp found it convenient to have in one hand a knife for the wolves, and in the other a club for the reptiles.
Bees were a blessing to the settler, because of the honey they furnished. Southeastern Iowa was especially rich in honey timber. Settlers collected honey in barrels, and used it liberally. It took the place of sugar. The woods bordering the Skunk were celebrated for their bee trees. In 1835 John Huff and a companion penetrated above where Rome, Henry County, is located. Near here was a trading post kept by William McPherson. The two adventurous men collected 120 gallons of honey, which filled three barrels made by them. They set out on their road to Illinois, to dispose of the honey, but when descending the Skunk - the first white men to attempt the trip - their rude dug-outs were capsized by a sunken log. Then Huff walked to Flint Hills (Burlington), procured shoes and returned to dive for the honey.
When the barrels were brought to the surface, the two men continued on their voyage, and finally sold their stock for fifty cents a gallon.
The Indians and the settlers mingled in a friendly way. The quarrels that occurred might have been expected in any community. The Indians even intertained favored whites, and when a settler received a painted stick he knew it was an invitation to a feast - probably of stewed dog.
The Indians were about as shrewd, individually, as were the settlers. In 1836 the American Fur Co. had a trading post on the Wapsipinicon River, in Clinton County. Judge Ingals, of St. Louis, tried to cross the stream, but became exhausted. Some white men on the bank besought an Indian, who could swim, to rescue the Judge. But the Indian simply ran up and down as though confused, until the Judge had sunk for the last time. Then he plunged in and brought the unconscious man to shore.
"When white man live he drown Indian; when dead, Indian bring him out easy," explained the Fox.
However, the Judge was revived.
Once a white man named Adams visited the trading post at Iowaville. His was a hard name for the Indians to pronounce. When he removed his hat to wipe the perspiration from his brow Keokuk observed he was bald.
"Mus-ke-tack - Prairie head!" grunted Keokuk. Thereafter Mr. Adams was called by all Mus-ke-tack.
The settlers' cabins were always open to the traveler Guests slept on the floor, before the fireplace, and when the cabin had a loft room was offered there, also. If a price was charged for entertainment, a meal of corn bread, milk, butter, honey, wheat coffee, crab apple butter, turkey and venison cost the guest twelve cents.
Rough taverns appeared at cross roads, and in settlements. Accommodations were simple, indeed. The floor was considered a good bed. A traveler from the East asked an Iowa landlord for a place in which to wash.
"Have you a handkerchief?" inquired the landlord.
"Well, friend, there's the river. Wash, and wipe on your handkerchief."
Iowa, a beautiful State to-day, was more beautiful when the settlers first saw it. The prairies were rounded and swelling, fringed by heavy timber. In the spring the grass was a tender green, and covered with flowers. The groves were rich in blossoming rosewood, dogwood, crab apple, wild cherry and wild plum. The wild rose was abundant. In the summer the prairies were like a sea, the tall coarse grass, dried to a golden hue, waving in the wind. The early flowers were low like the violet and strawberry, but as the year advanced they became gaudy, on long stems which bore them to a level with the thick grass.
Iowa was celebrated for its natural attractions, and the pioneers sincerely love their new home.
Settlers dressed just as they could. Until general stores were at hand, clothing was home made. The garments brought from the old home to the new by the immigrants were made to last a long time. The family that possessed a loom was deemed fortunate, and ability to weave jeans was ranked far ahead of piano playing.
Wolf skin, raccoon skin, and other fur were popular for caps for the men. Wool hats also were favored. The women wore calico sunbonnets or quilted hoods. Jeans cloth was dyed in the dark of the back walnut, or might not be dyed at all. Pantaloons were held up by knit "galluses", drawn tight. The coat might be a blouse, with straps sewed to the back so that they could be buttoned in the middle, as a half belt.
Sometimes the pantaloons had a double front the outer layer of which buttoned at the side, and would fall over like a flap.
In summer, clothing was more simple than in winter. Children wore only a long skirt of tow linen.
Of course clothing depended on the condition of the family, and as the majority of the settlers were very poor many make-shifts were resorted to. When mills were established within reach, the settlers exchanged the raw wool for finished cloth.
In Iowa's early days of settlement money was extremely scarce. Buying and selling were carried on with furs, produce, and other articles as the circulating medium.
For many years after coin became fairly plentiful, the cent was not tolerated as currency, and even the three cent piece was rarely seen.
The title "Hawkeye" came into use soon after Iowa Territory was organized. The Territorial officers and some prominent citizens of Burlington were accustomed to meet in the parlor of the Burlington House, to chat and talk over various questions of the hour. Naturally a nickname for the people of the new district came up as a topic for debate. James G. Edwards, editor of the Patriot, suggested "Hawkeye". The name was endorsed at once, Eastern papers published the action taken by the informal meeting, and the appellation stuck.
The Patriot is now the Burlington Hawkeye. Edwards became known as "Old Hawk."
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