Kentucky's Story - Survival of a People

Life in pioneer Kentucky was austere, rugged, and fatiguing-not for the delicate or faint-hearted. Nevertheless, those willing and able to endure the hardships worked hard to convert the wilderness into a Garden of Eden. Land was cheap; timber was plentiful; the woods teemed with game; and life was relatively free from the confining laws and mores of eastern society. Families strove to become self-sufficient, yet freely shared their goods and energies with needy neighbors. The developing frontier molded a lifestyle
which easterners made fun of but which nevertheless became an important part of the nation's history and folklore. The bulk of Kentucky's early residents were poor, land hungry settlers who came from western portions of Virginia, North Carolina; Pennsylvania, and Maryland, traveling in flatboats or wagons filled with essential tools, a minimum of household goods, and a few head of livestock. Possessing warrants (received for military service) that entitled them to a few hundred acres, or using squatter; sovereignty, they scattered across the wilderness and staked their claims along Kentucky's many streams and waterways. Survival depended on the immediate' acquisition of shelter for man and beast. A lean-to or a cave sufficed until a cabin could be built. Once a site was selected and cleared, a more permanent abode was erected. The backwoods home, typically a one room cabin, served as the hub of family life. A mud and stone fireplace dominated one wall of the cabin, providing illumination and heat warm its inhabitants and a place to cook their food; over the fireplace hung a rifle and powder horn. Furnishings generally were
sparse and crude-a few chairs or split log benches, perhaps a couple of tables made from logs, a bedstead or two (under which the axe and scythe were stored at night during Indian unrest), a cradle, maybe a cup board or chest for storing bedding and clothing, spinning wheel, and a loom. Kitchen utensils consisted of a few iron pots and skillets, tin or pewter plates (or perhaps wooden plates and cups made from gourds or tree knots), and wooden or tin spoons. The appearance of such luxuries as curtains, mirrors, bedspreads, rag rugs, and china dishes heralded the arrival of relative affluence.
An awesome number of tasks were necessary to sustain the family, and the women-an overworked but ingenious lot-and the children performed most of them. They made candles and soap from animal fats, ground corn into meal, dried fruits and vegetables for winter, salted down meats, churned butter, made cheese, and fashioned the family's clothing from animal hides they tanned a from yarns they spun, dyed, and wove into cloth. They also carried water from the nearby stream, gathered firewood, stoked the hearth, cooked the meals, and cared for the family stock. The man of the family generally prepared the land for planting (using a mattock and axe to rid the virgin soil of roots and a scrub brush and a plow and hoe to cultivate the earth); the women and children usually attended and weeded the garden. The major crop was corn, but most families also had a truck patch planted in wheat, oats
beans, squash, turnips, potatoes, and melons. With a minimum of effort, Kentucky's fertile soil yielded sixty to eighty bushels of corn per acre. In addition to providing meal and liquor (which frontiersmen produced for their own consumption as well as to sell), the cornstalks provided fodder for the stock to eat during the winter. Although game and garden produce served as diet mainstays, other foodstuffs titillated pioneer palates. In the early spring, maple trees could be tapped for their sap, which boiled down into a thick, sweet syrup or a granular sugar. Honey was also available for those daring enough to brave the bees. Wild berries were gathered in the early summer and made into pies.
Nuts and autumn fruit such as wild grapes and crab apples, added a welcome change to the diet. During the early frontier years, a man's worth was measured not only by his skill with an axe but also by his accuracy with a rifle. The former was imperative in clearing the land and erecting buildings, but a family's safety and food supply depended on the latter. Because of its precision at a 200-300 yard range, the frontiersmen adopted the long-barreled, small-bored rifle developed in Pennsylvania and they elevated sharp shooting to an art unsurpassed by their contemporaries in the east. Each gun was designed carefully for the height of its owner, so that he could load and fire it and clear the barrel of carbon without ever taking his eyes off his target. A rifle, a gunpowder-filled buffalo horn, a pouch of lead bullets, greased doeskin patches, and a wooden ramrod were as much a part of the backwoods-man's garb as were his buckskin jacket and leather or woolen leggings. Although essential tasks left little time for frivolity, the Kentucky pioneers found occasions to combine work with play and to relieve the monotony and isolation that characterized their lives. Hunting contests provided an opportunity to exhibit marksmanship as was to socialize. At a community squirrel hunt, men, boys and their dogs spent the day ridding the area of the rodents that played havoc with their gardens while, at the same time acquiring meat for a community feast. The team that lost the contest did the cooking. At such events, braggarts gloried in their real and imagined sporting skills. Some boasted they only shot squirrels through the right (or left) eye, for the meat hit anywhere else caused indigestion; a few cocky nimrods claimed they preferred to "bark"


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