Log-cabin Pioneers

Establishing a home on the frontier required little in the way of equipment. The move from the East to frontier areas could be made with one or two horses or oxen for transportation; a gun for providing food and for protection; a knife, ax, and other tools for constructing a cabin and making all manner of useful articles; flint and steel for starting fires; an iron cooking pot; and a hoe. With just these basic necessities, a pioneer could set up a homestead on a tract of wilderness land.


The first settlers to penetrate a region often had to make their own trails, although sometimes there would be Indian trails or animal paths they could use. Supplies were carried by animals tethered together into a train. With use, the trails became wider, and later were improved so that wagons could use them. Early roads such as the Wilderness Road to Kentucky, the Mohawk Trail through New York, and the Cumberland, or National, Road across the Northwest Territory-served to open frontier country to settlers.

Water transportation was favored by many people. Boats could float with the current down the Ohio River to Kentucky and southern Indiana. A family or group of families that built its own boat could migrate to new territory at very little expense.

At first the river travelers were subject to Indian attack, so the settlers' boats were built to be floating forts. Such a boat, called an ark, had a low house that covered the rectangular hull entirely, leaving no deck. There was only one door, heavily barred. Windows, if any, were small and had sliding shutters. The walls were pierced with loopholes through which guns could be fired. The arks were steered with long oars called sweeps. Later, when the Indians had been subdued, flatboats were used. With a log cabin surrounded by farm animals, wagons, a haystack, and washlines on the deck, the settler's flatboat looked like a floating home-stead.


On the frontier, a homesite was chosen near a spring and, if the area was partly settled, near other pioneers or a fort (often called a station). The first shelter—unless the family was living temporarily on the boat that brought them downriver, or at the fort—was a rough shed of stacked logs, open across the front. This was called a half-faced camp. The pioneer family began at once to cut down trees for a log cabin. When enough had been cut, neighbors came to the log , or cabin, raising to help build the cabin.

Generally three days were required to complete a cabin and its essential pieces of furniture—a platform bed built into a corner, a table, and a few benches and stools. Logs and half-logs, called puncheons, were used wherever possible because they were easier to make than hand-split planks. The cabin floor might be of puncheons, but more often it was packed dirt. The fireplace, built of logs and lined with stones and mud, was at one end of the room. It served for both heating and cooking. The cabin had a loft, reached by a ladder, where the children slept.

In rural areas, the pioneer couple often continued to live in their log cabin even after a sawmill, where they could have purchased lumber, was built nearby. As more space was needed, lean-tos were added. Often a second cabin was built close by the first one, and the two were connected by a roof, forming a partially enclosed breezeway called a dogtrot. Later, more elaborate homes, sometimes two stories high, were built out of squared logs. They often had stone chimneys, glass windows, and inner walls of board.

Household Articles

Many household articles could be made of wood by the pioneers themselves. Sections of log were hollowed out—by burning, chipping, and scraping—into storage barrels, pails, bowls, and trenchers (wooden plates). Spoons, ax handles, pitchforks, shovels, and other useful items could be whittled or carved with simple hand tools.

Cooking utensils were commonly of iron. They included skillets, gridirons, Dutch ovens, long-handled forks, ladles, and strainers. One of the first commercial enterprises begun at a fort or settlement was the blacksmith's forge, where wrought-iron items could be produced. Other traders traveled from cabin to cabin—the peddler, cooper (maker of barrels and kegs), and tinker (mender of pots and utensils). Stoneware crocks and jugs and pewter dishes and spoons gradually replaced woodenware in the pioneer home.

To convert dried corn into meal, a pioneer family had to use a hominy block (a large mortar-and-pestle device) or a hand mill. Not every household, however, had this equipment; on the frontier, neighbors often had to share with each other. A loom for weaving cloth was another item owned by a few but needed by all. Almost every home had at least one spinning wheel.


Corn was the staple ingredient in the pioneers' diet. It was eaten as hominy and as cornmeal. The cornmeal was cooked into mush, or baked into bread known as corn pone (from an Indian word meaning baked) or johnnycake (from “journey cake,” because it was dry and could be carried when traveling). It was also made into dumplings and put in meat stew, which was called potpie.

Hunting was an important source of meat, most commonly deer, bear, and fowl. Hogs were among the first domestic meat animals on the frontier. Most meat was smoked, salted, or made into sausage to preserve it. “Hog and hominy” was a common hot dish. Lard was the most common cooking fat. Surplus animal fat was saved to make soap and tallow candles, or to burn in Betty lamps.

Cows were kept for milk and beef. Milk and butter could be kept from spoiling in the springhouse, where perishable foods were stored in crocks lowered into the cold spring water. Maple syrup, maple sugar, and honey were used as sweeteners; after the Mississippi River trade began in the 1790's, it became possible to buy molasses and cane sugar from Louisiana. Whiskey and brandy were produced from grain and fruit for home use and for barter.


Home-tanned deerskin was the standard material for men's trousers. Cloth was preferred for men's shirts and for women's and children's clothing. Flax was grown and sheep were raised as sources of fiber for the pioneer family to make cloth. Preparing flax for spinning into linen thread was hard manual labor in which both men and women joined. The flax and the wool were spun into thread and woven into cloth. Cloth could be dyed brown, blue, or black with home-prepared tree-bark dyes.

The cloth most often used for clothing was linsey-woolsey, a combination of linen and wool. For summer, linen alone was used—a coarse grade for work clothes and a fine, smooth cloth for dress. Commercially woven cotton was a luxury to the early pioneers. In the 19th century, it became more readily available.

Stockings were hand-knitted of woolen yarn. Footwear, if made at home, generally consisted of shoepacs, shoes similar to moccasins, but with hard soles and a high ankle. Later, boots made by a shoemaker became common, but shoe repair was still generally done at home; many households had a cobbler's bench.

The Frontier Economy

When a pioneer settled on a tract of wooded land, the first task was to clear it of trees so that crops could be planted. The smaller trees were cut down immediately, but the larger ones were first killed by girdling (removing a strip of bark completely around the trees). After they had died and dried out, they were cut down and burned. Wood ashes were a source of lye, used for making soap and for soaking the hulls off dried corn to make hominy. Lye also could be boiled down into potash, also known as black salt, a product for which there was a demand in the East.

Although the settlers were remarkably self-sufficient, some necessities had to be purchased. Chief among these were gun-powder, lead for bullets, and salt. Cast-iron pots, gunlocks, pewter ware, printed calico, and cane sugar were other items that might be bought from a peddler or on a trip to town.

There was very little money in circulation in frontier areas, so most trade was by barter. The settlers might offer such goods as potash, furs, deerskins, medicinal herbs, liquor, or livestock in trade. Millers took a portion of the flour ground for each customer as a fee. Professional weavers and tanners who set up business in pioneer areas also took payment in kind.

As more land was cleared and cultivated, frontier areas began to produce agricultural surpluses. In time, small herds of cattle were built up and driven to markets in the East. Grain, however, was a bulky commodity, difficult to transport economically. The solution that many settlers adopted was to distill their grain into liquor, which was easier to transport and would fetch a high price in eastern markets. The distillation of whiskey was so important to the frontier economy that in 1794 federal taxes on liquor led to the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Pennsylvania.

Social Activities

Any task more easily done by a group than alone provided an occasion for a social gathering. People assisted their neighbors with the knowledge that when they needed aid they could count on help in return. At quilting bees, women gathered to sew quilts. At husking bees, the tedious chore of cleaning corn was made easier by turning it into a contest to see who could husk the most ears. At a cloth fulling, newly woven wool was dampened and stamped on with bare feet to shrink and thicken it. On such occasions a meal was served and a festive atmosphere prevailed.

A funeral drew people from a great distance, and it was a time of much visiting, not all of it solemn. The most prolonged and unrestrained celebration, often lasting three days, was the one that followed a wedding. The first day's festivities were at the house of the bride's family, the next at the house of the groom's family, and the third at the cabin of the newlyweds. The housewarming began with a shivaree, a serenade with banging kettles, clanging bells, gunfire, and shouting.