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Life in Pioneer Times

Many of the County History books published in the 1880's or 1890's feature a section concerning pioneer life.  The following excerpt is from The History of Audrain County, Missouri published in 1884 by National Historical Company, St. Louis, Missouri.  Many of the other County History books from this time period have the same or a very similar account of pioneer life.  The time being written about would be the 1820's to about 1840.  Here is the account as originally published in 1884:

    No doubt we shall be led to regret the absence among us of some of the virtues of those who lived in the early days. Gone is that free-hearted hospitality which made of every settler's cabin an inn , where the belated and weary traveler found entertainment without money and without price. Gone is that community of sentiment which made neighbors indeed neighbors; that era of kindly feeling which was marked by the almost entire absence of litigation. Gone, too, some say, is that simple, strong, upright, honest integrity, which was so marked a characteristic of the pioneer. So rapid has been the improvement in machinery, and the progress in the arts and their application to the needs of man, that a study of the manner in which people lived and worked only fifty years ago, seems like the study of a remote age.

    It is important to remember that, while a majority of the settlers were poor, poverty carried with it no crushing sense of degradation, like that felt by the very poor of our age. They lived in a cabin, 'tis true, but it was their own, and had been reared by their own hands. Their home, too, while inconvenient and far from water-proof, was built in the prevailing style of architecture, and compared favorably with the homes of their neighbors. They were destitute of many of the conveniences of life, and of some things that are now considered necessaries; but they patiently endured their lot and hopefully looked forward to brighter days. They had plenty to wear as a protection against the weather, and an abundance of wholesome food. They sat down to a rude table to eat from tin or pewter dishes; but the meat thereon - the flesh of the deer or bear, of the wild duck or turkey, of the quail or squirrel - was superior to that we eat, and had been won by the skill of the settler or that of his vigorous sons. The bread they ate was made from corn or wheat of their own raising. They walked the green carpet of grand prairie or forest that surrounded them, not with the air of a beggar, but with the elastic step of a self-respected freeman.

    The settler brought with him the keen ax, which was indispensable, and the equally necessary rifle - the first his weapon of offense against the forests that skirted the water courses, and near which he made his home - the second that of defense from the attacks of his foe, the cunning child of the forest and the prairie. His first labor was to fell trees and erect his unpretentious cabin, which was rudely made of logs, and in the raising of which he had the cheerful aid of his neighbors. It was usually from fourteen to sixteen feet square, and never larger than twenty feet, and very frequently built entirely without glass, nails, hinges or locks. The manner of building was as follows : First, large logs were laid in position as sills; on these were placed strong sleepers, and on the sleepers were laid the rough-hewed puncheons, which were to serve as floors. The logs were then built up till the proper height for the eaves was reached, then on the ends of the building were placed poles, longer than the other end logs, which projected some eighteen or more inches over the sides, and were called "butting-pole sleepers;" on the projecting ends of these was placed the " butting pole," which served to give the line to the first row of clap-boards. These were, as a matter of course, split, and as the gables of the cabin were built up, were so laid on as to lap a third of their length. They were often kept in place by the weight of a heavy pole, which was laid across the roof parallel to the ridge pole. The house was then chinked and daubed. A large fire-place was then built in at one end of the house, in which fire was kindled for cooking purposes (for the settlers were without stoves), and which furnished the needed warmth in winter. The ceiling above was somewhat covered with the pelts of the raccoon, opossum and of the wolf, and to add to the warmth of the dwelling. Sometimes the soft inner bark of bass wood was used for the same purpose. The cabin was lighted by means of greased paper windows. A log would be left out along one side, and sheets of strong paper well greased with "coon" grease or bear oil would be carefully tacked in.

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