These migrations into the inland valleys of the Old South mark the first great westward thrust of the American frontier. Thus the beginnings of the westward movement disclose to us a feature characteristic also of the later migrations which flung the frontier over the Appalachians, across the Mississippi, and finally to the shores of the Pacific. The pioneers, instead of moving westward by slow degrees, subduing the wilderness as they went, overleaped great spaces and planted themselves beyond, out of contact with the life they had left behind. Thus separated by hundreds of miles of intervening wilderness from the more civilized communities, the conquerors of the first American "West," prototypes of the conquerors of succeeding "Wests," inevitably struck out their own ways of life and developed their own customs. It would be difficult, indeed, to find anywhere a more p32 remarkable contrast in contemporary folkways than that presented by the two great community groups of the South — the inland or piedmont settlements, called the Back Country, and the lowland towns and plantations along the seaboard.
The older society of the seaboard towns, as events were soon to prove, was not less independent in its ideals than the frontier society of the Back Country; but it was aristocratic in tone and feeling. Its leaders were the landed gentry — men of elegance, and not far behind their European contemporaries in the culture of the day. They were rich, without effort, both from their plantations, where black slaves and indentured servants labored, and from their coastwise and overseas trade. Their battles with forest and red man were long past. They had leisure for diversions such as the chase, the breeding and racing of thoroughbred horses, the dance, high play with dice and card, cock-fighting, the gallantry of love, and the skill of the rapier. Law and politics drew their soberer minds.
Very different were the conditions which confronted the pioneers in the first American "West." There every jewel of promise was ringed round with hostility. The cheap land the pioneer had purchased at a nominal price, or the free land p33 he had taken by "tomahawk claim" — that is by cutting his name into the bark of a deadened tree, usually beside a spring — supported a forest of tall trunks and interlacing leafage. The long grass and weeds which covered the ground in a wealth of natural pasturage harbored the poisonous copperhead and the rattlesnake and, being shaded by the overhead foliage, they held the heavy dews and bred swarms of mosquitoes, gnats, and big flies which tortured both men and cattle. To protect the cattle and horses from the attacks of these pests the settlers were obliged to build large "smudges" — fires of green timber — against the wind. The animals soon learned to back up into the dense smoke and to move from one grazing spot to another as the wind changed. But useful as were the green timber fires that rolled their smoke on the wind to save the stock, they were at the same time a menace to the pioneer, for they proclaimed to roving bands of Cherokees that a further encroachment on their territory had been made by their most hated enemies — the men who felled the hunter's forest. Many an outpost pioneer who had made the long hard journey by sea and land from the old world of persecution to this new country of freedom, dropped from the p34 red man's shot ere he had hewn the threshold of his home, leaving his wife and children to the unrecorded mercy of his slayer.
Those more fortunate pioneers who settled in groups won the first heat in the battle with the wilderness through massed effort under wariness. They made their clearings in the forest, built their cabins and stockades, and planted their cornfields, while lookouts kept watch and rifles were stacked within easy reach. Every special task, such as a "raising," as cabin building was called, was undertaken by the community chiefly because the Indian danger necessitated swift building and made group action imperative. But the stanch heart is ever the glad heart. Nothing in this frontier history impresses us more than the joy of the pioneer at his labors. His determined optimism turned danger's dictation into an occasion for jollity. On the appointed day for the "raising," the neighbors would come, riding or afoot, to the newcomer's holding — the men with their rifles and axes, the women with their pots and kettles. Every child toddled along, too, helping carry the wooden dishes and spoons. These free givers of labor had something of the Oriental's notion of the sacred ratification of friendship by a feast.
p35 The usual dimensions of a cabin were •sixteen by twenty feet. The timber for the building, having been already cut, lay at hand — logs of hickory, oak, young pine, walnut, or persimmon. To make the foundations, the men seized four of the thickest logs, laid them in place, and notched and grooved and hammered them into as close a clinch as if they had grown so. The wood must grip by its own substance alone to hold up the pioneer's dwelling, for there was not an iron nail to be had in the whole of the Back Country. Logs laid upon the foundation logs and notched into each other at the four corners formed the walls; and, when these stood at •seven feet, the builders laid parallel timbers and puncheons to make both flooring and ceiling. The ridgepole of the roof was supported by two crotched trees and the roofing was made of logs and wooden slabs. The crevices of the walls were packed close with red clay and moss. Lastly, spaces for a door and windows were cut out. The door was made thick and heavy to withstand the Indian's rush. And the windowpanes? They were of paper treated with hog's fat or bear's grease.
When the sun stood overhead, the women would give the welcome call of "Dinner!" Their morning had not been less busy than the men's. They p36 had baked corn cakes on hot stones, roasted bear or pork, or broiled venison steaks; and — above all and first of all — they had concocted the great "stew pie" without which a raising could hardly take place. This was a disputatious mixture of deer, hog, and bear — animals which, in life, would surely have companioned each other as ill! It was made in sufficient quantity to last over for supper when the day's labor was done. At supper the men took their ease on the ground, but with their rifles always in reach. If the cabin just raised by their efforts stood in the Yadkin, within sight of the great mountains the pioneers were one day to cross, perhaps a sudden bird note warning from the lookout, hidden in the brush, would bring the builders with a leap to their feet. It might be only a hunting band of friendly Catawbas that passed, or a lone Cherokee who knew that this was not his hour. If the latter, we can, in imagination, see him look once at the new house on his hunting pasture, slacken rein for a moment in front of the group of families, lift his hand in sign of peace, and silently go his way hillward. As he vanishes into the shadows, the crimson sun, sinking in the unknown wilderness beyond the mountains, pours its last glow on the roof of the cabin and on the p37 group near its walls. With unfelt fingers, subtly, it puts the red touch of the West in the faces of the men — who have just declared, through the building of a cabin, that here is Journey's End and their abiding place.
There were community holidays among these pioneers as well as labor days, especially in the fruit season; and there were flower-picking excursions in the warm spring days. Early in April the service berry bush gleamed starrily along the watercourses, its hardy white blooms defying winter's lingering look. This bush — or tree, indeed, since it is not afraid to rear its slender trunk as high as cherry or crab apple — might well be considered emblematic of the frontier spirit in those regions where the white silence covers the earth for several months and shuts the lonely homesteader in upon himself. From the pioneer time of the Old Southwest to the last frontier of the Far North today, the service berry is cherished alike by white men and Indians; and the red men have woven about it some of their prettiest legends. When June had ripened the tree's blue-black berries, the Back Country folk went out in parties to gather them. Though the service berry was a p38 food staple on the frontier and its gathering a matter of household economy, the folk made their berry-picking jaunt a gala occasion. The women and children with pots and baskets — the young girls vying with each other, under eyes of the youths, as to who could strip boughs the fastest — plucked gayly while the men, rifles in hand, kept guard. For these happy summer days were also the red man's scalping days and, at any moment, the chatter of the picnickers might be interrupted by the chilling war whoop. When that sound was heard, the berry pickers reacted for the fort. The wild fruits — strawberries, service berries, cherries, plums, crab apples — were, however, too necessary a part of the pioneer's meager diet to be left unplucked out of fear of an Indian attack. Another day would see the same group out again. The children would keep closer to their mothers, no doubt; and the laughter of the young girls would be more subdued, even if their coquetry lacked nothing of its former effectiveness. Early marriages were the rule in Back Country and betrothals were frequently plighted at these berry pickings.
As we consider the descriptions of the frontiersman left for us by travelers of his own day, we are not more interested in his battles with wilderness p39 and Indian than in the visible effects of both wilderness and Indian upon him. His countenance and bearing still show the European, but the European greatly altered by savage contact. The red peril, indeed, influenced every side of frontier life. The bands of women and children at the harvestings, the log rollings, and the house raisings, were not there merely to lighten the men's work by their laughter and love-making. It was not safe for them to remain in the cabins, for, to the Indian, the cabin thus boldly thrust upon his immemorial hunting grounds was only a secondary evil; the greater evil was the white man's family, bespeaking the increase of the dreaded palefaces. The Indian peril trained the pioneers to alertness, shaped them as warriors and hunters, suggested the fashion of their dress, knit their families into clans and the clans into a tribe wherein all were of one spirit in the protection of each and all and a unit of hate against their common enemy.
Too often the fields which the pioneer planted with corn were harvested by the Indian with fire. The hardest privations suffered by the farmers and stock were due to the settlers having to flee to the forts, leaving to Indian devastation the crops on which their sustenance mainly depended. Sometimes, p40 fortunately, the warning came in time for the frontiersman to collect his goods and chattels in his wagon and to round up his live stock and drive them safely into the common fortified enclosure. At others, the tap of the "express" as the herald of Indian danger was called — at night on the windowpane and the low word whispered hastily, ere the "express" ran on to the next abode, meant that the Indians had surprised the outlying cabins of the settlement.
The forts were built as centrally as possible in the scattered settlements. They consisted of cabins, blockhouses, and stockades. A range of cabins often formed one side of a fort. The walls on the outside were •ten or twelve feet high with roofs sloping inward. The blockhouses built at the angles of the fort projected •two feet or so beyond the outer walls of the cabins and stockades, and were fitted with portholes for the watchers and the marksmen. The entrance to the fort was a large folding gate of thick slabs. It was also on the side nearest the spring. The whole structure of the fort was bullet-proof and was erected without an iron nail or spike. In the border wars these forts withstood all attacks. The savages, having proved that they could not storm them, generally p41 laid siege and waited for thirst to compel a sortie. But the crafty besieger was as often outwitted by the equally cunning defender. Some daring soul, with silent feet and perhaps with naked body painted in Indian fashion, would drop from the wall under cover of the night, pass among the foemen to the spring, and return to the fort with water.
Into the pioneer's phrase-making the Indian influence penetrated so that he named seasons for his foe. So thoroughly has the term "Indian Summer," now to us redolent of charm, become disassociated from its origins that it gives us a shock to be reminded that to these Back Country folk the balmy days following on the cold snap meant the season when the red men would come back for a last murderous raid on the settlements before winter should seal up the land. The "Powwowing Days" were the mellow days in the latter part of February, when the red men in council made their medicine and learned of their redder gods whether or no they should take the warpath when the sap pulsed the trees into leaf. Even the children at their play acknowledged the red-skinned schoolmaster, for their chief games were a training in his woodcraft and in the use of p42 his weapons. Tomahawk-throwing was a favorite sport because of its gruesome practical purposes. The boys must learn to gauge the tomahawk's revolutions by the distance of the throw so as to bury the blade in its objective. Swift running and high jumping through the brush and fallen timber were sports that taught agility in escape. The boys learned to shoot accurately the long rifles of their time, with a log or forked stick for a rest, and a moss pad under the barrel to keep it from jerking and spoiling the aim. They wrestled with each other, mastered the tricks of throwing an opponent, and learned the scalp hold instead of the toe hold. It was part of their education to imitate the noises of every bird and beast of the forest. So they learned to lure the turkey within range, or by the bleat of a fawn to bring her dam to the rifle. A well-simulated wolf's howl would call forth a response and so inform the lone hunter of the vicinity of the pack. This forest speech was not only the language of diplomacy in the hunting season; it was the borderer's secret code in war. Stray Indians put themselves in touch again with the band by turkey calls in the daytime and by owl or wolf notes at night. The frontiersmen used the same means to trick the Indian band into p43 betraying the place of its ambuscade, or to lure the strays, unwitting, within reach of the knife.
In that age, before the forests had given place to farms and cities and when the sun had but slight acquaintance with the sod, the summers were cool and the winters long and cold in the Back Country. Sometimes in September severe frosts destroyed the corn. The first light powdering called "hunting snows" fell in October, and then the men of the Back Country set out on the chase. Their object was meat — buffalo, deer, elk, bear — for the winter larder, and skins to send out in the spring by pack-horses to the coast in trade for iron, steel and salt. The rainfall in North Carolina was much heavier than in Virginia and, from autumn into early winter, the Yadkin forests were sheeted with rain; but wet weather, so far from deterring the hunter, aided him to the kill. In blowing rain, he knew he would find the deer herding in the sheltered places on the hillsides. In windless rain, he knew that his quarry ranged the open woods and the high places. The fair play of the pioneer held it a great disgrace to kill a deer in winter when the heavy frost had crusted the deep snow. On the crust men and wolves could travel with ease, but the deer's sharp hoofs pierced through and made p44 him defenseless. Wolves and dogs destroyed great quantities of deer caught in this way; and men who shot deer under these conditions were considered no huntsmen. There was, indeed, a practical side to this chivalry of the chase, for meat and pelt were both poor at this season; but the true hunter also obeyed the finer tenet of his code, for he would go to the rescue of deer caught in the crusts — and he killed many a wolf sliding over the ice to an easy meal.
The community moral code of the frontier was brief and rigorous. What it lacked of the "whereas" and "inasmuch" of legal ink it made up in sound hickory. In fact, when we review the activities of this solid yet elastic wood in the moral, social, and economic phases of Back Country life, we are moved to wonder if the pioneers would have been the same race of men had they been nurtured beneath a less strenuous and adaptable vegetation! The hickory gave the frontiersman wood for all implements and furnishings where the demand was equally for lightness, strength, and elasticity. It provided his straight logs for building, his block mortars — hollowed by fire and stone — for corn-grinding, his solid plain furniture, his axles, rifle butts, ax handles, and so forth. It supplied p45 his magic wand for the searching out of iniquity in the junior members of his household, and his most cogent argument, as a citizen, in convincing the slothful, the blasphemous, or the dishonest adult whose roads disturbed communal harmony. Its nuts fed his hogs. Before he raised stock, the unripe hickory nuts, crushed for their white liquid, supplied him with butter for his corn bread and helped out his store of bear's fat. Both the name and the knowledge of the uses of this tree came to the earliest pioneers through contact with the red man, whose hunting bow and fishing spear and the hobbles for his horses were fashioned of the "pohickory" tree. The Indian women first made pohickory butter, and the wise old men of the Cherokee towns, so we are told, first applied the pohickory rod to the vanity of youth!
A glance at the interior of a log cabin in the Back Country of Virginia or North Carolina would show, in primitive design, what is, perhaps, after all the perfect home — a place where the personal life and the work life are united and where nothing futile finds space. Every object in the cabin was practical and had been made by hand on the spot to answer a need. Besides the chairs hewn from hickory blocks, there were others made of slabs p46 set on three legs. A large slab or two with four legs served as a movable table; the permanent table was built against the wall, its outer edge held up by two sticks. The low bed was built into the wall in the same way and softened for slumber by a mattress of pine needles, chaff, or dried moss. In the best light from the greased paper windowpanes stood the spinning wheel and loom, on which the housewife made cloth for the family's garments. Over the fireplace or beside the doorway, and suspended usually on stags' antlers, hung the firearms and the yellow powderhorns, the latter often carved in Indian fashion with scenes of the hunt or war. On a shelf or on pegs were the wooden spoons, plates, bowls, and noggins. Also near the fireplace, which was made of large flat stones with a mud-plastered log chimney, stood the grinding block for making hominy. If it were an evening in early spring, the men of the household would be tanning and dressing deerskins to be sent out with the trade caravan, while the women sewed, made moccasins or mended them, in the light of pine knots or candles of bear's grease. The larger children might be weaving cradles for the babies, Indian fashion, out of hickory twigs; and there would surely be a sound of whetting steel, for scalping p47 knives and tomahawks must be kept keen-tempered now that the days have come when the red gods whisper their chant of war through the young leafage.
The Back Country folk, as they came from several countries, generally settled in national groups, each preserving its own speech and its own religion, each approaching frontier life through its own native temperament. And the frontier met each and all alike, with the same need and the same menace, and molded them after one general pattern. If the cabin stood in a typical Virginian settlement where the folk were of English stock, it may be that the dulcimer and some old love song of the homeland enlivened the work — or perhaps chairs were pushed back and young people danced the country dances of the homeland and the Virginia Reel, for these Virginian English were merry folk, and their religion did not frown upon the dance. In a cabin on the Shenandoah or the upper Yadkin the German tongue clicked away over the evening dish of kraut or sounded more sedately in a Lutheran hymn; while from some herder's hut on the lower Yadkin the wild note of the bagpipes or of the ancient four-stringed harp mingled with the Gaelic speech.
p48 Among the homes in the Shenandoah where old England's ways prevailed, none was gayer than the tavern kept by the man whom the good Moravian Brother called "Severe." There perhaps the feasting celebrated the nuptials of John Sevier, who was barely past his seventeenth birthday when he took to himself a wife. Or perhaps the dancing, in moccasined feet on the puncheon flooring, was a ceremonial to usher into Back Country life the new municipality John had just organized, for John at nineteen had taken his earliest step towards his larger career, which we shall follow later on, as the architect of the first little governments beyond the mountains.
In the Boone home on the Yadkin, we may guess that the talk was solely of the hunt, unless young Daniel had already become possessed of his first compass and was studying its ways. On such an evening, while the red afterglow lingered, he might be mending a passing trader's firearms by the fires of the primitive forge his father had set up near the trading path running from Hillsborough to the Catawba towns. It was said by the local nimrods that none could doctor a sick rifle better than young Daniel Boone, already the master huntsman of them all. And perhaps some trader's tale, told p49 when the caravan halted for the night, kindled his first desire to penetrate the mountain-guarded wilderness, for the tales of these Romanies of commerce were as the very badge of their free-masonry, and entry money at the doors of strangers.
Out on the border's edge, heedless of the shadow of the mountains looming between the newly built cabin and that western land where they and their kind were to write the fame of the Ulster Scot in a shining script that time cannot dull, there might sit a group of stern-faced men, all deep in discussion of some point of spiritual doctrine or of the temporal rights of men. Yet, in every cabin, whatever the national differences, the setting was the same. The spirit of the frontier was modeling out of old clay a new Adam to answer the needs of a new earth.
It would be far less than just to leave the Back Country folk without future reference to the devoted labors of their clergy. In the earliest days the settlers were cut off from their church systems; the pious had to maintain their piety unaided, except in the rare cases where a pastor accompanied a group of settlers of his denomination into wilds. One of the first ministers who fared into p50 the Back Country to remind the Ulster Presbyterians of their spiritual duties was the Reverend Hugh McAden of Philadelphia. He made long itineraries under the greatest hardships, in constant danger from Indians and wild beasts, carrying the counsel of godliness to the far scattered flock. Among the Highland settlements the Reverend James Campbell for thirty years traveled about, preaching each Sunday at some gathering point a sermon in both English and Gaelic. A little later, in the Yadkin Valley, after Craighead's day there arose a small school of Presbyterian ministers whose zeal and fearlessness in the cause of religion and of just government had an influence on the frontiersman that can hardly be overestimated.
But, in the beginning, the pioneer encountered the savagery of border life, grappled with it, and reacted to it without guidance from other mentor than his own instincts. His need was still the primal threefold need — family, sustenance, and safe sleep when the day's work was done. We who look back with thoughtful eyes upon the frontiersman — all links of contact with his racial past severed, at grips with destruction in the contenting of his needs — see something more, something p51 larger, than he saw in the log cabin raised by his hands, its structure held together solely by his close grooving and fitting of its own strength. Though the walls he built for himself have gone with his own dust back to the earth, the symbol he erected for us stands.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Pioneers of the Old Southwest
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 4 May 13