IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
CLAIM AND CABIN
For many days the ox-drawn prairie schooner moved slowly westward toward Iowa. Rivers were forded, or if too deep to ford, were crossed in ferry boats. At last the weary oxen ceased to strain at the yoke, and the great canvas-covered wagons came to a halt. The pioneer had reached the site of his new home.
Hard work, though, lay ahead of him. Staking out a claim, building a cabin, and breaking the prairie sod for a crop, all had to be done. When the earliest settlers came to Iowa no surveys had been made. Each newcomer picked out an attractive spot for his home, usually near a spring or a stream so as to be sure of a supply of water. The early pioneers also picked a location where there was plenty of timber to furnish wood for fuel, rails for fences, and logs for a cabin.
Then the pioneer marked out his claim. He stepped off certain distances in each direction and marked the boundaries by driving stakes in the prairie or by blazing trees. Sometimes a large rock or boulder was used to mark the corner of a claim. About fifteen hundred paces each way, it is said, marked off a farm of three hundred and twenty acres, more or less. Of course, many of the boundary lines were crooked, and often they overlapped. But the settlers understood that these matters would be fixed as soon as the surveys had been made.
Government surveys in Iowa began in 1836, and two years later, in June, 1838, two land offices were opened, one at Dubuque and one at Burlington. Settlers flocked to these offices to buy their homes at the government price of $1.25 an acre. For two hundred dollars the pioneer could buy one hundred and sixty acres, and for four hundred dollars he could own three hundred and twenty acres, or a half section as it was called.
The first homes in a new settlement were very simple. Until a cabin was put up, the newcomers used the wagon for shelter. Women and children and the old people slept in the wagon box, while the strong built a bed under the trees. Sometimes a threefaced camp was thrown up for shelter until the cabin could be finished. This consisted of three walls of logs about seven feet high, with poles across the top as a framework for the roof. Clapboards, that is, boards about four feet long split from a log with a frow (a blade at right angle to its handle that was driven by a mallet lengthwise of the grain), were used for a roof. These were held in place by poles laid ontop. There was no floor, no door, no window, nor chimney. One side of this shelter was open, and in front of it a roaring log fire was built, both to heat the inside of the shelter and to be used for cooking.
Building a log cabin was no simple task. First logs of equal length and size had to be made and rolled or dragged to the spot selected for the cabin. Sometimes the pioneer hewed the logs square, sometimes they were left round. Then the corners had to be notched or saddled so that the logs would fit close together. When the logs were ready neighbors came for a "house raising."
A strong man stood at each corner to fit the logs together as they were rolled or lifted into place. When the walls were eight or ten logs high, the gables were formed by placing the side logs in three feet and by using shorter end logs until the peak was reached. The roof was made of clapboards held in place by poles laid across at regular intervals and fastened with wooden pins. The narrow spaces between the logs were filled with clay.
Openings for a door and a window were sawed out after the walls were up. The hole for the window was closed with oiled paper, or glass if it could be secured. Sometimes greased deer hide was used for the window cover. The door was made of long clapboards spiked to a frame with wooden pins. It was hung with thongs of deer hide or wooden hinges. The door was held shut by a wooden latch on the inside. It could be opened from the outside by a leather string which ran through a hole in the door above the latch. At night the latch string was drawn in for protection, but during the day it was always hanging out as a sign of welcome to friends and neighbors. Perhaps you have heard the expression, "the latch string always hangs out," which means that visitors are welcome.
The pioneer used no nails in making the first log cabins. An ax, a saw, a frow, and an auger were all the tools he needed. A large open fireplace usually occupied one end of the cabin. This fireplace and chimney were built of smaller logs placed together in the same way that the walls were laid up. The fireplace might be lined inside with stones while the chimney was plastered inside and out with clay.
Sometimes the cabin had no other floor than dirt packed down, but as soon as possible the dirt was covered with puncheons. These were logs hewn flat and smooth on one side and joined together for a floor. With a puncheon table pinned to the logs near the fireplace and a large one-legged bed built in a corner the cabin was ready to be occupied.
In northwestern Iowa, where timber was scarce and sod was plentiful, the earliest homes were mere sod huts. The sod was obtained by taking a breaking plow and plowing a furrow sixteen to eighteen inches wide. This sod was cut into sections about two feet long, and laid up like tile or brick. The roof was made of poles covered with prairie hay or grass, and this in turn was covered with long strips of sod.
As soon as possible the pioneer built some kind of a shelter for his live stock. Often this was a three sided barn or shed, built by driving two rows of posts into the ground, stuffing hay between them, and covering the roof with hay.
At first cattle, oxen, horses, and hogs ran at large, and so the pioneer had to fence his fields of wheat and corn to keep the stock out. Perhaps you have seen some of these old rail fences. They were made of rails ten or twelve feet long, laid in a zig-zag manner with the ends overlapping. Where the ends overlapped two stakes were driven slantwise into the ground, the upper ends crossing near the top of the fence. In the forks formed by these stakes, the top rails or "riders" were laid. These "stake-and-rider" fences, as they were called, were said to be "hog tight, horse high, and bull strong."
In the yard surrounding the pioneer home you might see a few tools - perhaps a wagon, a scythe and grain cradle, an ox yoke, an ax, and a plow, which the pioneer had brought with him to Iowa.
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