Indiana Pioneer Life
|When the American pioneer began to enter the unbroken forests
of Indiana, the Indian beheld his approach with feelings of mingled fear
and dread as the sound of the axe fell ominously upon the Indian ear signaling
a rapidly approaching ruin. In the face of all the dangers from Indian
retaliations, and sometimes in sight of horrible deaths, or thrice horrible
tortures, the pioneer of Indiana pressed forward, with his faithful gun as
a protector, and his axe as an implement of industry, he went forth to do
battle with the forest.
Let us glance at the pioneers of Indiana in the different phases of their experience, and in the beauty and simplicity of their character. The journey from civilization to the forest-home for the pioneer, with his wife and family, was not among the least of their difficulties. The route lay, for the most part, through a rough country. Swamps and marshes were crossed with great exertion and fatigue; rivers were forded with difficulty and danger; forests were penetrated with risk of captivity by hostile Indiana; nights were passed in open prairies, with the sod for a couch and the heavens for a shelter; long, weary days and weeks of tiresome travel were endured. Perchance the mother and child were seated in a rough farm-wagon, while the father walked by the side of his faithful team, urging them over the uneven ground. But they were not always blessed with this means of transportation. And, in the best cases, the journey westward was a tedious, tiresome, dangerous one. Often the children sickened by the way, and anxious parents worried over them in a rude camp, until relieved either by returning health or by death. If the latter, a father would be compelled to dig the grave for the body of his own child in a lonely forest. Who shall describe the burial scene when parents are the only mourners? This is a subject only for contemplation. After a few sad days, the bereaved ones take up the journey, leaving only a little fresh mound to mark the sacred spot. But these incidents were not frequent. Generally the pioneers were blessed with good health, and enabled to overcome the privations of the forest travel. At night they slept in their wagon, or upon the grass; while the mules, hobbled to prevent escape, grazed the prairie around them.
But the toils and dangers of the pioneer were not ended with the termination of his journey. Perchance the cabin is yet existing only in the surrounding trees. But he never falters. The forest bows beneath his axe; and, as log after log is placed one upon the other, his situation becomes more cheerful. Already the anxious mother has pointed out the corner for the rude chimney, and designated her choice in the location of the door and window. The cabin grows day by day; and at length it is finished, and the family enters their home. It is not a model home; but it is the beginning of a great prosperity, and as such is worthy of preservation in history, on account of its obscurity and its severe economy. But it was a home, notwithstanding; and I venture the observation, that with all its lack of comforts, with all its pinching poverty, with all its isolation and danger, it was often a happy home; and perhaps its growth, in this respect, is not among the greatest of its accomplishments; yet after all, it has become happier, as well as wealthier.
Next to building the cabin-home came the work of preparing the soil for agricultural purposes. This was a work of no ordinary magnitude. For miles in every direction, the eye of the pioneer met only a dense forest, broken here and there by rivers and creeks and small lakes. Dams must be constructed, and mills erected on these streams; and the forest must be cleared away to make room for the cornfield. For the accomplishment of these ends, the pioneer prepares his axe, and day after day he toils on. Tree after tree bows its lofty top. Log after log is rolled into the stream. Through many a long, dreary winter's day, with only a log to serve the double purpose of a chair and table; but, endowed with a spirit of enterprise that knows no faltering, he toiled steadily on.
Spring comes, and he goes forth to prepare the patches of ground for the planter. The team is ready. The father takes his post at the plow; and the daughter takes possession of the reins. This is a grand scene, -- one full of grace and beauty. This pioneer girl thinks but little of fine dress; knows less of the fashions; has possibly heard of the opera, but does not understand its meaning; has been told of the piano, but has never seen one; wears a dress "buttoned up behind;" has on leather boots, and "drives plow" for her father. But her situation has changed. Today she sits in the parlor of her grandson, whose wife keeps house through the proxy of one or two servants, and whose daughters are flinging their nimble, delicate fingers over the white keys of a charming Chickering piano, filling the home with a melody that has but few charms for the plain old grandmother. Her mind runs back to the cornfield, to the cabin-home, to the washtub by the running brook, to the spinning wheel, to toil and danger; and well may she exclaim, "Oh, wondrous progress! My lite is but a dream." Truly our pioneer mothers were hard working, honest-thinking women. Out highest praise is but a poor tribute to their worth.
The character of the pioneers of Indiana is properly within our range. They lived in a region of exuberant fertility, where nature had scattered her blessings with a liberal hand. Their liberties, the vastness of their inheritance, -- its giant forests, its broad prairies, its numerous rivers, - the many improvements constantly going forward, and the bright prospect for a glorious future in everything that renders life pleasant, combined to deeply impress their character, to give them a spirit of enterprise, an independence of feeling, and a joyousness of hope. They were a thorough combination and mixture of all nations, characters, languages, conditions, and opinions. There was scarcely a nation in Europe, or a State in the Union, that was not represented among the early settlers. The much greater proportion of the emigrants from Europe were of humbler classes, who came here from hunger, poverty and oppression. They found themselves here the "joy of ship-wrecked mariners, cast on the untenanted woods, and instantly became cheered with the hope of being able to built up a family and a fortune from new elements."
The Puritan and the Planter, the German, the Briton, the Frenchman, the Irishman, the Swede, the Dane and the Hollander, -- each with his peculiar prejudices and local attachments, and all the complicated and interwoven tissue of sentiments, feelings, and thoughts that country, kindred, and home have, -- settled down beside and with each other. All now form one society. "Men must cleave to their kind, and must be dependent upon each other. Pride and jealousy give way to the natural yearnings of the human heart for society. They begin to rub off mutual prejudices; one takes a step, and then the other; they meet half-way, and embrace: and the society thus newly organized and constituted is more liberal, enlarged, unprejudiced, and, of course, more affectionate, than a society of people of like birth and character, who bring all their early prejudice as a common stock, to be transmitted as an inheritance to posterity. The rough, sturdy, and simple habits of the early pioneer of Indiana, living in that plenty which depends only upon God and nature, have laid broad the foundation of independent thought and feeling.
The wedding was an attractive feature of pioneer life. For a long time after the first settlement of the Territory, the people married young. There was no distinction of rank, and very little of fortune. On these accounts, the first impression of love generally resulted in marriage. The family establishment cost but little labor - nothing more. A description of a wedding in the olden time will serve to show the progress made in society, as well as preserve an important phase of history. 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, enmasse, for the "mansion" of his bride. The journey was sometimes made on horseback, sometimes on foot, and sometimes in farm wagons or carts. It was always a merry journey; and, to insure merriment, the bottle was 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 till the following morning. The figures of the dances were three and four hundred reels, or square sets and jigs. The commencement was always a square four, which was followed by what the pioneers called "jigging;" that is, two of the four would single our for a jig, and were followed by the remaining couple. The jigs were often accompanied with what was called "cutting out;" that is, when either of the parties became tiered of the dance, on intimation, the place was supplied by someone of the company, without any 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 to the upper floor, which was composed of loose boards. Here, in this 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 apartment, and placed him snugly by the side of his bride. The dance still continued; and if seats were scarce, which was generally the case, "every young man, when not engaged in the dance was obliged to offer his lap as a seat for one of the girls; and the offer was sure to be accepted." During the night's festivities, spirits were freely used, but seldom to great excess. The affair was held on the following evening, when the same order of exercise was observed.
The "bee" was another distinguishing and interesting feature of pioneer life. The first settlers were alone, and had to build their cabins as best they could; but, when the people were sufficiently numerous, the cabin was nearly always raised by a "bee," or "frolic." The latter is a very old but significant term. We will now suppose that a young couple has been married. They are about to settle down on their own account. A spot is selected on a piece of land for their habitation. A day is appointed for the commencement of the building of the cabin. The fatigue party, consisting of the choppers, fells the trees, and cuts them in proper lengths. This done, a man with a team hauls them to the place, and arranges them properly assorted. Another party selects the proper materials for the roof; and still another prepares the puncheons for the floor. The materials all on the ground, the raising takes place. The first thing to be done is the election of four corner men, whose business it is to notch and place the logs. The rest of the company does the lifting. The cabin being finished, it was generally "warmed" by a good "breakdown," or dance. With the use of liquor, these "warmings" were always full of spirit and hilarity.
Going to the mill was quite an undertaking with the pioneer. It was, perhaps, two or three days' journey to the mill, more or less, in proportion to the situation and growth of the neighborhood. Sometimes a pair of oxen, attached to a two-wheeled cart, carried the farmer and his grain on this journey; but frequently he went on horseback, with the bag of grain across the horse's back, before him. This was a tedious way of transporting grain to the mill; but his return was anxiously waited for by the mother and children, all suffering, it maybe, from the scarcity of flour. There are some recollections of "going to mill" that bring with them vivid pictures of weary, watchful nights, when the father did not return as promised and expected, being delayed either by the number of "grists" before him, or the impassable conditions of the roads, or "traces." Those were the dismal, desolate phases of pioneer life, when the darkness closed in upon the anxious mother and crying children; when the winds beat upon the rude cabin, bringing to their ears unwelcomed sounds, laden with the dying howls of starving wolves; when hunger pressed heavily upon helpless women and children.
The years passed on, and the pioneers continued their toils, submitted patiently to their hardships, until the light of civilization and prosperity dawned upon them in open cornfields, waving in harvest luxury, or in neat, comfortable dwellings, that were raise by the site of the cabin homes. But his dawn is rapidly approaching the high noon of prosperity. In place of the ever-winding "trace," the iron rail may now be seen, and for the old-fashioned two-wheeled cart we have the powerful locomotive. The scene has been completely changed. The forests have disappeared, or are rapidly disappearing, and being supplanted by cultivated fields. On every hand we may behold evidences of this great transformation. Let us thank God and praise the pioneers of Indiana for what has been accomplished, and, having the promises already fulfilled in our eyes, continue in the industry and perseverance for which we have had so glorious an example.