8: Homestead-Life in the Backwoods and on the Prairie
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The first stage in pioneer-life is nomadic: a half-score of men, women, and
children faring on day after day, living in the open air, encamping at
night beside a spring or brook, under the canopy of the forest, it is only
when they reach their place of destination, that the germ of a community
fixes itself to the soil, and rises obedient to those laws of social and
civil order which distinguish the European colonist from the Asiatic nomad.
The experiences of camp life form the initial steps to the thorough
backwoods education which a woman must at length acquire, to fit her for
the duties and trials incident to all remote settlements. Riding, driving,
or tramping on, now through stately groves, now over prairies which lose
themselves in the horizon, now fording shallow streams, or poling
themselves on rafts across rivers, skirting morasses or wallowing through
them, and climbing mountains, as they breathe the fresh woodland air and
catch glimpses of a thousand novel scenes and encounter the dangers or
endure the hardships of this first stage in their pilgrimage, they learn
those first hard lessons which stand them in such good stead when they have
settled in their permanent abodes in the heart of the wilderness which it
is the work of the pioneer to subdue.
To the casual observer there is an air of romance and wild enjoyment in
this journey through that magnificent land. Many things there doubtless are
to give zest and enjoyment to the long march of the pioneer and his family.
The country through which they pass deserves the title of "the garden of
God." The trees of the forest are like stately columns in some verdurous
temple; the sun shines down from an Italian sky upon lakes set like jewels
flashing in the beams of light, the sward is filled with exaggerated
velvet, through whose green the purple and scarlet gleams of fruit and
flowers appear, and everything speaks to the eye of the splendor, richness,
and joy of wild nature. Traits of man in this scene are favorite themes for
the painter's art. The fire burning under the spreading oak or chestnut,
the horses, or oxen, or mules picketed in the vistas, Indian wigwams and
squaws with children watching curiously the pioneer household sitting by
their fire and eating their evening meal; this is the picture framed by the
imagination of a poet or artist, but this is but a superficial sketch,—a
mere glimpse of one of the many thousand phases of the long and weary
journey. The reality is quite another thing.
The arrival of the household at their chosen seat marks the second stage in
backwoods-life, a stage which calls for all the powers of mind and body,
tasks the hands, exercises the ingenuity, summons vigilance, and awakens
every latent energy. Woman steps at once into a new sphere of action, and
hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, with her stronger but not more resolute
companion, enters on that career which looks to the formation of
communities and states. It is the household which constitutes the primal
atom, the aggregation whereof makes the village, town, or city; the state
itself rests upon the household finally, and the household is what the
faithful mother makes it.
The toilsome march at length ended, we see the great wagon, with its load
of household utensils and farming implements, bedsteads walling up the
sides, a wash-tub turned up to serve as a seat for the driver, a broom and
hoe-handle sticking out behind with the handles of a plough, pots and
kettles dangling below, bundles of beds and bedding enthroning children of
all the smaller sizes, stopping at last "for good," and the whole cortege
of men, women, and boys, cattle, horses, and hogs, resting after their
Shelter and food are the first wants of the settler; the log-cabin rises to
supply the one; the axe, the plough, the spade, the hoe, prepare the other.
The women not seldom joined in the work of felling trees and trimming logs
to be used in erecting the cabins.
Those who have never witnessed the erection of log-cabins, would be
surprised to behold the simplicity of their mechanism, and the rapidity
with which they are put together. The axe and the auger are often the only
tools used in their construction, but usually the drawing-knife, the
broad-axe, and the crosscut-saw are added.
The architecture of the body of the house is sufficiently obvious, but it
is curious to notice the ingenuity with which the wooden fireplace and
chimney are protected from the action of the fire by a lining of clay, to
see a smooth floor formed from the plain surface of hewed logs, and a door
made of boards split from the log, hastily smoothed with the drawing-knife,
united firmly together with wooden pins, hung upon wooden hinges, and
fastened with a wooden latch. Not a nail nor any particle of metal enters
into the composition of the building—all is wood from top to bottom, all
is done by the woodsman without the aid of any mechanic. These primitive
dwellings are by no means so wretched as their name and rude workmanship
would seem to imply. They still frequently constitute the dwelling of the
farmers in new settlements; they are often roomy, tight, and comfortable.
If one cabin is not sufficient, another and another is added, until the
whole family is accommodated, and thus the homestead of a respectable
farmer often resembles a little village. The dexterity of the backwoodsman
in the use of the axe is also remarkable, yet it ceases to be so regarded
when we reflect on the variety of uses to which this implement is applied,
and that in fact it enters into almost all the occupations of the pioneer,
in clearing land, building houses, making fences, providing fuel; the axe
is used in tilling his fields; the farmer is continually obliged to cut
away the trees that have fallen in his enclosure, and the roots that impede
his plough; the path of the surveyor is cleared by the axe, and his lines
and corners marked by this instrument; roads are opened and bridges made by
the axe, the first court houses and jails are fashioned of logs with the
same tool. In labor or hunting, in traveling by land or water, the axe is
ever the companion of the backwoodsman.
Most of these cabins were fortresses in themselves, and were capable of
being defended by a family for several days. The thickness of the walls and
numerous loop-poles were sometimes supplemented by a clay covering upon the
roof, so as to resist the fiery arrows of the savages. Sometimes places of
concealment were provided for the women and children beneath the floor,
with a closely fitting trap door leading to it. Such a place of refuge was
provided by Mrs. Graves, a widow who lost her husband in Braddock's
retreat. In a large pit beneath the floor of the cabin every night she laid
her children to sleep upon a bed of straw, and there, replacing one of the
floor logs, she passed the weary hours in darkness, seated by the window
which commanded a view of the clearing through which the Indians would have
to approach. When her youngest child required nursing she would lift the
floor-log and sit on the edge of the opening until it was lulled to sleep,
and then deposit the nursling once more in its secret bed.
Once, while sitting without a light, knitting, before the window, she saw
three Indians approaching stealthily. Retreating to the hiding place
beneath the floor, she heard them enter the cabin, and, having struck a
light, proceed to help themselves to such eatables as they found in the
pantry. After remaining for an hour in the house, and appropriating such
articles as Indians most value, viz., knives, axes, etc., they took their
More elaborate fortresses were often necessary, and, for purposes of mutual
defence in a country which swarmed with Indians, the settlers banded
together and erected stations, forts, and block-houses.(1)
A station may be described as a series of cabins
built on the sides of a parallelogram and united with palisades, so as to
present on the outside a continuous wall with only one or two doors, the
cabin doors opening on the inside into a common square.
A fort was a stockade enclosure embracing cabins, etc., for the
accommodation of several families. One side was formed by a range of cabins
separated by divisions, or partitions of logs; the walls on the outside
were ten or twelve feet high, with roofs sloping inward. Some of these
cabins were provided with puncheon-floors, i.e., floors made of logs split
in half and smoothed, but most of the floors were earthen. At the angles of
these forts were built the block-houses, which projected about two feet
beyond the outer walls of the cabins and stockade; these upper stories were
about eighteen feet, or two inches every way larger than the under one,
leaving an opening at the commencement of the second story, to prevent the
enemy from making a lodgment under the walls.
These block-houses were devised in the early days of the first settlements
made in our country, and furnished rallying points for the settlers when
attacked by the Indians. On the Western frontier they were enlarged and
improved to meet the military exigencies arising in a country which swarmed
In some forts, instead of block-houses, the
angles were furnished with bastions; a large folding gate, made of thick
slabs nearest the spring, closed the forts; the stockade, bastion, cabin,
and block-house walls were furnished with port-holes at proper heights and
distances. The whole of the outside was made completely bullet-proof; the
families belonging to these forts were so attached to their own cabins on
their farms that they seldom moved into the forts in the spring until
compelled by some alarm, i.e., when it was announced by some murder that
Indians were in the settlement.
We have described thus in detail the fortified posts established along the
frontier for the purpose of showing that the life of the pioneer woman,
from the earliest times, was, and now is, to a large extent, a military
one. She was forced to learn a soldier's habits and a soldier's virtues.
Eternal vigilance was the price of safety, and during the absence of the
male members of the household, which were frequent and sometimes
protracted, the women were on guard-duty, and acted as the sentinels of
their home fortresses. Watchful against stratagem as against violent
attack, they passed many a night all alone in their isolated cabins,
averting danger with all a woman's fertility of resource, and meeting it
with all the courage of a man.
On one occasion a party of Indians approached a solitary log-house with the
intention of murdering the inmates. With their usual caution, one of their
number was sent forward to reconnoiter, who, discovering the only persons
within to be a woman, two or three children, and a negro man, rushed in by
himself and seized the negro. The woman caught up the axe and with a single
blow laid the savage warrior dead at her feet, while the children closed
the door, and, with ready sagacity, employed themselves fastening it. The
rest of the Indians came up and attempted to force an entrance, but the
negro and the children kept the door closed, and the intrepid mother,
having no effective weapon, picked up a gun-barrel which had neither stock
nor lock and pointed it at the savages through the apertures between the
logs. The Indians, deceived by the appearance of a gun, and daunted by the
death of their companion, retired.
The station, the fort, and the block-house were the only refuge of the
isolated settlers when the Indians became bolder in their attacks.
When the report of the four-pounder, or the ringing of the fort bell, or a
volley of musketry sounded the alarm, the women and children hurried to the
fortification. Sometimes, while threading the mazes of the forest, the
hapless mother and her children would fall into an ambush. Springing from
their cover, the prowling savages would ply their tomahawks and scalping
knives amid the shrieks of their helpless victims, or bear them away into a
captivity more cruel than death.
One summer's afternoon, while Mrs. Folsom, with her babe in her arms, was
hasting to Fort Stanwig in the Black River Country, New York, after hearing
the alarm, she caught sight of a huge Indian lying behind a log, with his
rifle leveled apparently directly at her. She quickly sprang to one side
and ran through the woods in a course at right angles with the point of
danger, expecting every moment to be pierced with a rifle ball. Casting a
horror-stricken glance over her shoulder as she ran, she saw her husband
hastening on after her, but directly under the Indian's rifle. Shrieking
loudly, she pointed to the savage just in time to warn her husband, who
stepped behind a tree as the report of the rifle rang through the forest.
In an instant he drew a bead upon the lurking foe, who fell with a bullet
through his brain.
Before the family could reach the fort a legion of savages, roused by the
report of the rifles, were on their trail. The mother and child fled
swiftly towards their place of refuge, which they succeeded in reaching
without harm; but the brave father, while trying to keep the savages at
bay, was shot and scalped almost under the walls of the fort.
Ann Bush, another of these border heroines, was still more unfortunate than
Mrs. Folsom. While she and her husband were fleeing for safety to one of
the stations on the Virginia borders, they were overtaken and captured by
the Indians, who shot and scalped her husband; and although she soon
escaped from captivity, yet in less than twelve months after, while again
attempting to find refuge in the same station, she was captured a second
time, with an infant in her arms. After traveling a few hours the savages
bent down a young hickory, sharpened it, seized the child, scalped it and
spitted it upon the tree; they then scalped and tomahawked the mother and
left her for dead. She lay insensible for many hours; but it was the will
of Providence that she should survive the shock. When she recovered her
senses she bandaged her head with her apron, and wonderful to tell, in two
days staggered back to the settlement with the dead body of her infant.
The transitions of frontier life were often startling and sad. From a
wedding to a funeral, from a merrymaking to a massacre, were frequent
vicissitudes. One of these shiftings of the scene is described by an actor
and eye-witness as follows:
"Father had gone away the day before and mother and the children were
alone. About nine o'clock at night we saw two Indians approaching. Mother
immediately threw a bucket of water on the fire to prevent them from seeing
us, made us lie on the floor, bolted and barred the door, and posted
herself there with an axe and rifle: We never knew why they desisted from
an attack or how father escaped. In two or three days all of us set out for
Clinch Mountain to the wedding of Happy Kincaid, a clever young fellow from
Holston, and Sally McClure, a fine girl of seventeen, modest and pretty,
yet fearless. We knew the Shawnees were about; that our fort and household
effects must be left unguarded and might be destroyed; that we incurred the
risk of a fight or an ambuscade, a capture, and even death, on the route;
but in those days, and in that wild country, folks did not calculate
consequences closely, and the temptation to a frolic, a wedding, a feast,
and a dance till daylight and often for several days together, was not to
be resisted. Off we went. Instead of the bridal party, the well spread
table, the ringing laughter, and the sounding feet of buxom dancers, we
found a pile of ashes and six or seven ghastly corpses tomahawked and
scalped." Mrs. McClure, her infant, and three other children, including
Sally, the intended bride, had been carried off by the savages. They soon
tore the poor infant from the mother's arms and killed and scalped it, that
she might travel faster. While they were scalping this child, Peggy
McClure, a girl twelve years old, perceived a sink-hole immediately at her
feet and dropped silently into it. It communicated with a ravine, down
which she ran and brought the news to the settlement. The same night Sally,
who had been tied and forced to lie down between two warriors, contrived to
loosen her thongs and make her escape. She struck for the canebrake, then
for the river, and to conceal her trail resolved to descend it. It was deep
wading, and the current was so rapid she had to fill her petticoat with
gravel to steady herself. She soon, however, recovered confidence, returned
to shore, and finally reached the still smoking homestead about dark next
evening. A few neighbors well armed had just buried the dead; the last
prayer had been said, when the orphan girl stood before them.
Yielding to the entreaties of her lover, who was present, and to the advice
and persuasion of her friends, the weeping girl gave her consent to an
immediate marriage; and beside the grave of the household and near the
ruins of the cabin they were accordingly made one.
These perilous adventures were episodes, we should remember, in a life of
extraordinary labor and hardship. The luxuries and comforts of older
communities were unknown to the settlers on the border-line, either in New
England two centuries ago or in the West within the present generation.
Plain in every way was the life of the borderer—plain in dress, in
manners, in equipage, in houses. The cabins were furnished in the most
primitive style. Blocks or stumps of trees served for chairs and tables.
Bedsteads were made by laying rows of saplings across two logs, forming a
spring bed for the women and children, while the men lay on the floor with
their feet to the fire and a log under their heads for a pillow.
The furniture of the cabin in the West, for several years after the
settlement of the country, consisted of a few pewter dishes, plates, and
spoons, but mostly of wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins; if these last
were scarce, gourds and hard-shell squashes made up the deficiency; the
iron pots, knives, and forks were brought from the East, with the salt and
iron on pack-horses. The articles of furniture corresponded very well with
the articles of diet. "Hog and hominy" was a dish of proverbial celebrity;
Johnny cake or pone was at the outset of the settlement the only form of
bread in use for breakfast or dinner; at supper, milk and mush was the
standard dish; when milk was scarce the hominy supplied its place, and mush
was frequently eaten with sweetened water, molasses, bear's oil, or the
gravy of fried meat.
In the display of furniture, delft, china, or silver were unknown; the
introduction of delft-ware was considered by many of the backwoods people
as a wasteful innovation; it was too easily broken, and the plates dulled
their scalping and clasp knives.
The costume of the women of the frontier was suited to the plainness of the
habitations where they lived and the furniture they used. Homespun,
linsey-woolsey and buckskin were the primitive materials out of which their
everyday dresses were made, and only on occasions of social festivity were
they seen in braver robes. Rings, broaches, buckles, and ruffles were
heir-looms from parents or grand-parents.
But this plainness of living and attire was a preparation for, and almost
necessary antecedent of hardihood, endurance, courage, patience, qualities
which made themselves manifest in the heroic acting of these women of the
border. With such a state of society we can readily associate assiduous
labor, a battling with danger in its myriad shapes, a subjugation of the
hostile forces of nature, and a developing of a strange and peculiar
Here we see woman in her true glory, not a doll to carry silks and jewels,
not a puppet to be dandled by fops, an idol of profane adoration reverenced
to-day, discarded to-morrow, admired but not respected, desired but not
esteemed, ruling by passion not affection, imparting her weakness not her
constancy, to the sex she should exalt—the source and marrow of vanity. We
see her as a wife partaking of the cares and guiding the labors of her
husband and by domestic diligence spreading cheerfulness all around for his
sake; sharing the decent refinements of civilization without being injured
by them; placing all her joy, all her happiness in the merited approbation
of the man she loves; as a mother, we find her affectionate, the ardent
instructress of the children she has reared from infancy and trained up to
thought and to the practice of virtue, to meditation and benevolence and to
become strong and useful men and women.
"Could there be happiness or comfort in such dwellings and such a state of
society. To those who are accustomed to modern refinement the truth appears
like fable. The lowly occupants of log cabins were often among the most
happy of mankind. Exercise and excitement gave them health, they were
practically equal; common danger made them mutually dependent; brilliant
hopes of future wealth and distinction led them on, and as there was ample
room for all, and as each new comer increased individual and general
security, there was little room for that envy, jealousy, and hatred which
constitutes a large portion of human misery in older societies. Never were
the story, the joke, the song, and the laugh better enjoyed than upon the
hewed blocks or puncheon-stools around the roaring log-fire of the early
western settler. The lyre of Apollo was not hailed with more delight in
primitive Greece than the advent of the first fiddler among the dwellers of
the wilderness, and the polished daughters of the East never enjoyed
themselves half so well moving to the music of a full band upon the elastic
floor of their ornamented ball-room, as did the daughters of the western
emigrants keeping time to the self-taught fiddler on the bare earth or
puncheon floor of the primitive log cabin—the smile of the polished beauty
is the wave of the lake where the breeze plays gently over it, and her
movement the gentle stream which drains it; but the laugh of the log cabin
is the gush of nature's fountain and its movement the leaping water."
Amid the multifarious toils of pioneer-life, woman has often proved that
she is the last to forget the stranger that is within the gates. She
welcomes the coming as she speeds the parting guest.
Let us suppose travelers caught in a rain storm, who reach at last one of
these western homes. There is a roof, a stick chimney, drenched cattle
crowding in beneath a strawy barrack, and some forlorn fowls huddling under
a cart. The log-house is a small one, though its neat corn-crib and
chicken-coop of slender poles bespeaks a careful farmer. No gate is seen,
but great bars which are let down or climbed over, and the cabin has only
a back door.
Within, everything ministers to the useful; nothing to the beautiful.
Flitches of bacon, dried beef, and ham depend from the ceiling; pots and
kettles are ranged in a row in the recess on one side the fireplace; and
above these necessary utensils are plates and heavy earthen nappies. The
axe and gun stand together in one corner.
The good woman of the house is thin as a shadow, and pinched and wrinkled
with hard labor. Little boys and girls are playing on the floor like
A free and hospitable welcome is given to the travelers, their wet garments
are ranged for drying on those slender poles usually seen above the ample
fireplace of a log-cabin in the West, placed there for the purpose of
drying sometimes the week's wash when the weather is rainy, sometimes whole
rows of slender circlets of pumpkins for next spring's pies, or festoons of
The good woman, after busying herself in those little offices which evince
a desire to make guests welcome, puts an old cloak on her head and flies
out to place tubs, pails, pans, and jars under the pouring eaves,
intimating that as soap was scarce, she "must try and catch rain water
The "old man" has the shakes, so the woman has all to do; throws more wood
on the fire and fans it with her apron; cuts rashers of bacon, runs out to
the hen-coop and brings in new-laid eggs; mixes a johnny-cake and sets it
in a pan upon the embers.
While the supper is cooking the rain subsides to a sprinkle, and the
travelers look at the surroundings of this pioneer household.
The cabin stands in a prairie, skirted by a forest. A stream gurgles by.
The prairie is broken with patches of corn and potatoes, which are just
emerging from the rich black mould. Pig-pens, a barn, and corn-houses, a
half-dozen sheep in an enclosure, cows and calves and oxen in a barn-yard,
a garden patch, and hen-coops, and stumps of what were once mighty trees,
tell the story of the farmer's labors; and the cabin, with all its
appurtenances and surroundings, show how much the good woman has
contributed to make it the abode of rustic plenty, all provided by the
unaided toil of this pioneer couple.
They had come from the East ten years before, and their cabin was the
initial point from which grew up a numerous settlement. Other cabins sent
up their smoke in the prairie around them. A school-house and church had
been built, and a saw-mill was at work on the stream near by, and surveyors
for a railroad had just laid out a route for the iron horse.
Two little boys come in now, skipping from school, and at the same time the
good woman, who is all patience and civility, announces supper. Sage-tea,
johnny-cake, fried eggs, and bacon, seasoned with sundry invitations of the
hostess to partake freely, and then the travelers are in a mood for rest.
The sleeping arrangements are of a somewhat perplexing character. These are
one large bed and a trundle bed, the former is given up to the travelers,
the trundle bed suffices for the little ones; the hostess prepares a cotton
sheet partition for the benefit of those who choose to undress, and then
begins to prepare herself for the rest which she stands sorely in need of.
She and her good man repose upon the floor, with buffalo robes for pillows,
and with their feet to the fire.
The hospitality of the frontier woman is bounded only by their means of
affording it. Come when you may, they welcome you; give you of their best
while you remain, and regret your departure with simple and unfeigned
sincerity. If you are sick, all that sympathy and care can devise is done
for you, and all this is from the heart.
Homestead-life, and woman's influence therein, is modified to some extent
by the different races that contributed their quotas to the pioneer army.
The early French settlements in our western States furnish a picture
somewhat different from those of the emigrants of English blood: a
patriarchal state of society, self-satisfied and kindly, with bright
superficial features, but lacking the earnest purpose and restless
aggressive energy of the Anglo-American, whose very amusements and
festivals partook of a useful character.
Those French pioneer-women made thrifty and industrious housewives, and
entered, with all the gaiety and enthusiasm of their race, into all the
merry-makings and social enjoyments peculiar to those neighborhoods. On
festive occasions, the blooming damsels wound round their foreheads
fancy-colored handkerchiefs, streaming with gay ribbons, or plumed with
flowers. The matrons wore the short jacket or petticoat. The foot was left
uncovered and free, but on holidays it was adorned with the light moccasin,
brilliant with porcupine quills, shells, beads, and lace.
A faithful picture of life in these French settlements possesses an
indescribable charm, such as that conveyed by the perusal of Longfellow's
Acadian Romance of "Evangeline," when we see in a border settlement the
French maiden, wife, and widow.
Different types, too, of homestead-life are of course to be looked for in
different sections. On the ocean's beach, on the shores of the inland seas,
on the banks of great rivers, in the heart of the forest, on the rugged
hills of New England, on southern Savannas, on western prairies, or among
the mountains beyond, the region, the scenery, the climate, the social laws
may be diverse, yet homestead-life on the frontier, widely varying as it
does in its form and outward surroundings, is in its spirit everywhere
essentially the same. The sky that bends over all, and the sun that sheds
its light for all, are symbols of the oneness of the animating principle in
the home where woman is the bright and potent genius.
We have spoken of the western form of homestead-life because the
frontier-line of to-day lies in the occident. But in each stage of the
movement that carried our people onward in their destined course from ocean
to ocean, the wife and the mother were centers from which emanated a force
to impel forward, and to fix firmly in the chosen abode those organisms of
society which forms the molecular atoms out of which, by the laws of our
being, is built the compact structure of civilization.
In approximating towards some estimate of woman's peculiar influence in
those lonely and far-off western homes, we must not fail to take into
account the humanizing and refining power which she exerts to soften the
rugged features of frontier-life. Different classes of women all worked in
their way towards this end.
"The young married people, who form a considerable part of the pioneer
element in our country, are simple in their habits, moderate in their
aspirations, and hoard a little old-fashioned romance—unconsciously
enough—in the secret nooks of their rustic hearts. They find no fault with
their bare loggeries, with a shelter and a handful of furniture, they have
enough." If there is the wherewithal to spread a warm supper for the "old
man" when he comes in from work, the young wife forgets the long, solitary,
wordless day and asks no greater happiness than preparing it by the help of
such materials and utensils as would be looked at with utter contempt in
the comfortable kitchens of the East.
They have youth, hope, health, occupation, and amusement, and when you have
added "meat, clothes, and fire," what more has England's queen?
We should, however, remember that there is another large class of women
who, for various reasons, have left comfortable homes in older communities,
and risked their happiness and all that they have in enterprises of pioneer
life in the far West. What wonder that they should sadly miss the thousand
old familiar means and appliances! Some utensil or implement necessary to
their husbandry is wanting or has been lost or broken, and cannot be
replaced. Some comfort or luxury to which she has been used from childhood
is lacking, and cannot be furnished. The multifarious materials upon which
household art can employ itself are reduced to the few absolute essentials.
These difficulties are felt more by the woman than the man. To quote the
words of a writer who was herself a pioneer housewife in the West:
"The husband goes to his work with the same axe or hoe which fitted his
hand in his old woods and fields; he tills the same soil or perhaps a far
richer and more hopeful one; he gazes on the same book of nature which he
has read from his infancy and sees only a fresher and more glowing page,
and he returns home with the sun, strong in heart and full of
self-congratulation on the favorable change in his lot. Perhaps he finds
the home bird drooping and disconsolate. She has found a thousand
difficulties which her rougher mate can scarcely be taught to feel as
evils. She has been looking in vain for any of the cherished features of
her old fireside. What cares he if the time-honored cupboard is meagerly
represented by a few oak boards lying on pegs called shelves. His tea
equipage shines as it was wont, the biscuits can hardly stay on the
brightly glistening plates. His bread never was better baked. What does he
want with the great old-fashioned rocking chair? When he is tired he goes
to bed, for he is never tired till bed-time. The sacrifices in moving West
have been made most largely by women."
It is this very dearth of so many things that once made her life easy and
comfortable which throws her back upon her own resources. Here again is
woman's strength. Fertile in expedients, apt in device, an artisan to
construct and an artist to embellish, she proceeds to supply what is
lacking in her new home. She has a miraculous faculty for creating much out
of little, and for transforming the coarse into the beautiful. Barrels are
converted into easy chairs and wash-stands, spring beds are manufactured
with rows of slender, elastic saplings; a box covered with muslin stuffed
with hay serves for a lounge. By the aid of considerable personal exertion,
while she adds to the list of useful and necessary articles, she also
enlarges the circle of luxuries. An hour or two of extra work now and then
enables her to hoard enough to buy a new looking-glass, and to make from
time to time small additions to the showy part of the household.
After she has transformed the rude cabin into a cozy habitation, she turns
her attention to the outside surroundings. Woodbine and wild cucumber are
trailed over the doors and windows; little beds of sweet-williams and
marigolds line the path to the clearing's edge or across the prairie-sward
to the well; and an apple or pear tree is put in here and there. In all
these works, either of use or embellishment, if not done by her own hand
she is at least the moving spirit. Thus over the rugged and homely features
of her lot she throws something of the magic of that ideal of which the
"Nymph of our soul and brightener of our being
She makes the common waters musical—
Binds the rude night-winds in a silver thrall,
Bids Hybla's thyme and Tempe's violet dwell
Round the green marge of her moon-haunted cell."
It is the thousand nameless household offices performed by woman that makes
the home: it is the home which moulds the character of the children and
makes the husband what he is. Who can deny the vast debt of gratitude due
from the present generation of Americans to these offices of woman in
refining and ameliorating the rude tone of frontier life? It may well be
said that the pioneer women of America have made the wilderness bud and
blossom like the rose. Under their hands even nature itself, no longer a
wild, wayward mother, turns a more benign face upon her children. A land
bright with flowers and bursting with fruitage testifies to the labors and
influence of those who embellish the homestead and make it attractive to
their husbands and children.
A traveler on the vast prairies of Kansas and Nebraska will often see
cabins remote from the great thoroughfares embowered in vines and shrubbery
and bright with beds of flowers. Entering he will discern the rugged
features of frontier life softened in a hundred ways by the hand of woman.
The steel is just as hard and more serviceable after it is polished, and
the oak-wood as strong and durable when it is trimmed and smoothed. The
children of the frontier are as hardy and as manly though the gentle voice
of woman schools their rugged ways and her kind hand leads them through the
paths of refinement and moulds them in the school of humanity.
(2) Doddridge's Notes
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