Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Colonial Settlers Travel 2. The home Site.


So let us imagine that we have now moved far enough into the wilderness to start looking for a place to settle, what sort of area are we looking for? Priorities will be water, a good site to grow food, and shelter. Personally, if I were doing this now, I would be looking for water with cattail growing, & possibly water chestnut too. This would provide an immediate supply of food. I don’t think I would be too keen to start clearing areas for a garden & crops; it would stand out like a sore thumb. But I know this is what most new settlers did, & my choices would be influenced by my experiences in the last century. I would also be looking for some instant natural shelter, such as a rock overhang or a cave. My garden would probably be close to the water, or planted in the shade in the gullies.

Cattail Pond in Wychwood Forest where the author lives.

“these beginners in a new and wild country
fared very hard, may be readily believed; for
this small flock was constantly in great fear on
account of the many Indians or savages who
swarmed around them at that time ; they lacked
all sorts of tools, and were compelled to hoe
the seed into the soil because they had neither
horses nor cattle ; besides they were at that
time and long afterward without flour-mills,
and had to crush the grain between flat
stones, so that it was a very difficult task to
bake bread. And more than all this, no salt
was to be had for a long time. They had wood,
and did not lack meat because they shot all
sorts of game, though they were often in great
want of gun-powder. For a long time several
persons had to keep one horse in common until
more horses and cattle were brought from other
countries. Not to mention the multitude of large
and small wild beasts, snakes and vermin
of every kind, so that they constantly lived in
great fear and anxiety ; therefore they were
obliged to keep large fires burning around their
huts by day and by night, to keep the bears, panthers
and wolves away”.
Gottlieb Mittelberger’s Journey to Pennsylvania in the year 1750 and Return
to Germany in the year 1754.

With a group of such people it will be necessary to organise who will be doing what. There will be various occupations that need filling. There is no point in every man going hunting for instance, some must stay & protect the community, others must work on shelters. There are gardens to be organised, meat to dry, skins to be fleshed & tanned, a trap line set out. Perhaps some immediate form of dwelling for the protection of all. Foraging for edible plants, collecting firewood, setting out fixed lines for fish. There is a lot to be done.

In all this I would try to keep as lower profile as possible, no need to attract trouble. I would not collect all the firewood from one area. I would be careful not to leave too much sign when collecting water or travelling to & from the gardens. But did anyone in the 18th century think this way? Colonial settlers cleared the land & left sign wherever they went. In many cases I think they became very complacent in regard to their safety.

“On the tenth of February 1675, came the Indians with great numbers upon Lancaster: their first coming was about sunrising; hearing the noise of some guns, we looked out; several houses were burning, and the smoke ascending to heaven. There were five persons taken in one house; the father, and the mother and a sucking child, they knocked on the head; the other two they took and carried away alive. There were two others, who being out of their garrison upon some occasion were set upon; one was knocked on the head, the other escaped; another there was who running along was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life, promising them money (as they told me) but they would not hearken to him but knocked him in head, and stripped him naked, and split open his bowels. Another, seeing many of the Indians about his barn, ventured and went out, but was quickly shot down. There were three others belonging to the same garrison who were killed; the Indians getting up upon the roof of the barn, had advantage to shoot down upon them over their fortification. Thus these murderous wretches went on, burning, and destroying before them”.
A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

"The party that took us consisted of six Indians and four Frenchmen, who immediately commenced plundering, as I just observed, and took what they considered most valuable; consisting principally of bread, meal, and meat. Having taken as much provision as they could carry, they set out with their prisoners in great haste, for fear of detection, and soon entered the woods”.
The capture of Mary Jemison 1758.

The Taking Of Mary Jemison By Robert Griffing.

"I cannot omit writing about the dreadful circumstances of our Township, Albany. The Indians came yesterday morning, about 8:00 o'clock, to Frederick Reichelderfer's house. As he was feeding his horses, two Indians ran upon him, and followed him into the field 10 or 12 perches [a perch is equal to 5½ yards] behind; but he escaped and ran toward Jacob Gerhart's house, with a design to fetch arms. When he came nearer Gerhart's, he heard a lamentable cry `Lord Jesus, Lord Jesus', which made him run back towards his own house, but before he got quite home, he saw his house and stables in flames; and heard all the cattle bellowing, and thereupon he ran away again. Two of his children were shot, one of them was found dead in his field, the other was found alive (and brought to Hagenbuch's house) but died three hours after. All his grain and cattle were burnt up. At Jacob Gerhart's they had killed one man, two women, and six children. Two children slipped under the bed; one of which was burned; the other escaped and ran a mile to get to people. We desire help, or we must leave our homes."

For people who were said to be so scared of the forests & the Indians I find it surprising that these settlers ever dropped their guard. I once lived in an area where the inhabitants were often under attack. Our dogs & horses were shot, the attackers coming right into the front yard of some homes. We were far from the help of the authorities, & so had to protect ourselves. Even now all these years later, the first thing I do in the morning is look out the windows & survey the area. It becomes second nature.

“When the first settlers landed on American shores,
the difficulties in finding or
making shelter must have seemed ironical as well as
almost unbearable. The colonists
found a land magnificent with forest trees of every
size and variety, but they had no sawmills, and few
saws to cut boards ; there was plenty of clay and
ample limestone on every side, yet they could have
no brick and no mortar ; grand boulders of granite
and rock were everywhere, yet there was not a
single facility for cutting, drawing, or using stone.

These homeless men, so sorely in need of immediate
shelter, were baffled by pioneer conditions, and had
to turn to many poor expedients, and be satisfied with
rude covering. In Pennsylvania, New
York, Massachusetts, and, possibly, other states,
some reverted to an ancient form of shelter : they
became cave-dwellers ; caves were dug in the side
of a hill, and lived in till the settlers could have
time to chop down and cut up trees for log houses.

I don't have the height I would like here, so I am cutting my way in from surface to ground level, then after cutting in a larger room, I will roof it.

Cornelis Van Tienhoven, Secretary of the Province
of New Netherland, gives a description of these
cave-dwellings, and says that " the wealthy and
principal men in New England lived in this fashion
for two reasons : first, not to waste time building ;
second, not to discourage poorer labouring people. 

It is to be doubted whether wealthy men ever lived
in them in New England, but Johnson, in his Won
der-working Providence, written in 1645, tells of the
occasional use of these " smoaky homes." They
were speedily abandoned, and no records remain of
permanent cave-homes in New England. In Pennsylvania
caves were used by newcomers as homes
for a long time, certainly half a century. They
generally were formed by digging into the ground
about four feet in depth on the banks or low cliffs
near the river front. The walls were then built up
of sods or earth laid on poles or brush ; thus half
only of the chamber was really under ground. If
dug into a side hill, the earth formed at least two
walls. The roofs were layers of tree limbs covered
over with sod, or bark, or rushes and bark. The
chimneys were laid of cobblestone or sticks of
wood mortared with clay and grass. The settlers
were thankful even for these poor shelters, and
declared that they found them comfortable. By
1685 many families were still living in caves in
Pennsylvania, for the Governor s Council then
ordered the caves to be destroyed and filled in.
Sometimes the settler used the cave for a cellar for
the wooden house which he built over it.

The homes of the Indians were copied by the
English, being ready adaptations of natural and
plentiful resources. Wigwams in the South were
of plaited rush or grass mats ; of deerskins pinned
on a frame ; of tree boughs rudely piled into a cover,
and in the far South, of layers of palmetto leaves.


In the mild climate of the Middle and Southern
states a " half-faced camp," of the Indian form, with
one open side, which served for windows and door,
and where the fire was built, made a good temporary
home. In such for a time, in his youth, lived Abraham Lincoln.
Bark wigwams were the most easily
made of all ; they could be quickly pinned together
on a light frame. In 1626 there were thirty home-
buildings of Europeans on the island of Manhattan,
now New York, and all but one of them were of bark”.
ALICE-MORSE-EARLE 19th century.

My half-faced shelter in the forest.


A cave would make a very secure home.

A rock overhang in an Australian forest. Also known as rock houses.

This 19th century settler family lived inside this hollow tree in Victoria Australia.

These wattle & daub houses were very popular from the 17th century through the 19th century. This one is in Australia.

A log cabin in the woods.


Jenny said...

Oh, this is wonderful - thank you!

I imagine they were less cautious about announcing their presence simply because they intended on settling to stay - at least long enough to prove up the land - and that as much as they were planning on building that scuttling about would have soon been moot. I can definitely see not wanting your wood or water trails becoming well marked though. Also.... safety in numbers, perhaps?

I am LOVING those old prints you found. :)

Le Loup said...

Hi Jenny,thank you. Glad you like it. Yes I would say that greater numbers would detere an attack. Period accounts seem to confere that the Indians watched the place for some time before attacking. Unlike the whites they care about their own people & do not believe in risking lives where not necassary.

Karamojo said...

Fascinating stuff. This statement caught my eye: For people who were said to be so scared of the forests & the Indians I find it surprising that these settlers ever dropped their guard.

Complacency seems to be an overriding human trait, even in those who should know better. The settlers in Rhodesia were caught completely off-guard by the 1896 Matabele revolt. Many were caught unarmed, traveling in the bush. Hard to understand.

Seems that only a small percentage in any society have an on-alert, warrior's mind-set.

Jim Cornelius

Martin said...

Hi Loup,

The settlers had a different mind set when it came to making a living from the land. The forest was something to be cleared as soon as possible. Chopping down the suitable trees for lumber, burning or girdling the others, and plowing around the stumps until they rotted enough to be grubbed out. The axe, saw, maul, and wedge ranked right up there with the musket and tomahawk.

Fertilization was haphazard at best. The "three field rotation" system that was so popular in Europe took a lot of time to establish. A "cash crop" like tobacco or cotton took a lot out of the ground, particularly when the same plot was planted over and over. Generally, the second year's harvest was the best, after that the yield dropped dramatically.

That's one of the reasons the "Planters" were always on the lookout for new acreage. After a while the "Tidewater Country" plantations with their hundreds of acres could only produce the thinnest of crops because of the depletion of the soil.

Good Stuff! Keep 'em coming.


The rich bottomlands, while easier to plow, could also be prone to flooding, so most would "hedge their bets" and some fields near the river and some on the hillsides.

Le Loup said...

Jim Cornelius
I agree with you there Jim, hard to get a handle on.

Martin. Good comment Martin, & good information. Thank you.
Regards, Keith.

Back Creek Bushcraft said...

Outstanding article!!! I figured the settlers to use sod or cabins but I never knew they lived in Indian type dwellings or caves but it does make sense. The matter about letting their guard down, I think during times of relative calm they become complacent much like society today. And the story of Mary Jemison is one of my favorites, I don't live far from where she was captured and where her family was tomahawked. In fact I hope to stand where her childhood homestead was someday.


Le Loup said...

Thank you Bob. Don't put off till tomorrow what can be done today Bob. Make that trip to the old homestead. Let us know what it felt like standing there.