The pioneers who left the protections of the Eastern settlements to move west were as diverse as people are today. Some were adventurous, some irresponsible and lazy, some were entrepreneurial and planned to make something of themselves beyond the limits of what was known then as civilization. Most knew of the high risk and hardship they would endure but all were willing to take the chance for the opportunity that lie beyond the Appalachians. New England farmers wanted more fertile lands. Hunters and trappers wanted more hunting grounds. Explorers and Adventurers wanted more exciting discovery. From Virginia and the Carolinas the English, Scotch, Welsh, and Germans settled mainly in the Ohio Valley. Scandinavian colonists preferred to settle in the Mississippi Valley and the Great Plains.
This "Great Migration" began after the War of 1812. Crop failures and overpopulation spurred the movement further. Many left nearly empty-handed. An ax and a rifle was essential to their survival, but some also carried seed corn, farm tools, and a few had livestock. Those who failed returned to the East, the rest found a way to live in the wilderness.
Rivers were the first "roads" for pioneers. The great rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi were like superhighways. Canoes, flatboats, and home-made rafts made of logs and straps of leather carried passengers and goods. Tributary streams provided passageways further inland. From there, the pioneers had to literally "cut" a path called a trace to a site suitable for a homestead. Some of the more famous traces are Boone's trace in Kentucky, the Natchez trace in Mississippi to Tennessee, and Zane's trace in Ohio. Later canals were built and made travel easier.
The transportation needs of the nation became critical after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which doubled the land mass of the United States at that time. Because of the War of 1812, there also was a need for better communication and for greater protection of the western settlements. so beginning in 1811, a "national" road was planned. This road was smooth, wide, straight, and opened up travel by horse, wagon, and coach which was instrumental in the rapid growth of the Midwest. The road was called The Cumberland Road and ran from Cumberland, Maryland through Columbus, Ohio, through Indianapolis, Indiana, to Vandalia, Illinois.
The pioneers came to inland America by every means possible. By foot, by horse, by wagon, by canoe. Flatboats were also a popular mode of travel until in the 1830's when a quicker more economical vessel called "the steamboat" took over as the premier form of transportation. The steamboat could carry large groups of passengers and can be considered the first large commercial carrier in America. Yet, by the mid 1800's, the steamboat would find a viable rival in the development of the railroad. By this time, the number of rail miles doubled the total number of canal miles.
Travel was harsh in the early 1800's in Indiana. The canals, pikes, and rails had not yet reached the state. With no infrastructure, pioneers had to "blaze the trail" themselves. The use of the rivers is evidenced by the subsequent villages and towns along their course, most of which remain today and South Bend along the St. Joseph River is no exception. In Indiana Flatboats were mainly used for commercial applications such as transporting passengers and goods to and from markets. Personal vessels were mainly canoes. But the steamboat had made it's debut in Indiana by the 1830's and steamboats on the major rivers were used to carry goods and people to and from various destinations.
In Indiana, what poor roads there were was used by pioneers on foot, horse, and wagon. These roads were short distance roads with cleared trees but often had tree stumps projecting up as much as 12 inches throughout. The Michigan Road that stills runs through South Bend today was as a result of a treaty with the Potawatomi Indians in 1826. This was the first major road built in Indiana and was to run from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River through towns of Michigan City, South Bend, Logansport, and Indianapolis. Surveying began on the road in 1830 and was finished around 1837. The pioneers of Indiana used the Michigan Road for travel and to drive hogs.
In the late 1820's a political battle waged regarding the usefulness of building canals verses building railroads. Some felt canals would be most efficient , others said rail lines were the wave of the future. Both canals and railroads became instrumental in the settlement and commerce of Indiana. Canal supporters won the argument first. The first canal completed by July 4th 1835 was the "Wabash and Erie Canal" which had 32 miles of canal between Fort Wayne and Huntington. However, a rail line was built in Shelbyville in 1834 but it was maneuvered only by horse-drawn carriages on rails. The first "true" rail line ran from Madison to Indianapolis and started operation in 1847.
Whatever the mode of transportation, the pioneers came to Indiana and their first task once they arrived at a suitable site was to make shelter. The essential tool was an ax. The ax would clear the forest for a home site and then clear it again for a crop site. Most first shelters was a "lean-to" made from small saplings. A pole was placed across two forked trees and a large log would form the back once it was secured with clay packed around it. Poles were then laid upward toward the cross-pole. Then the sloping roof would be covered with bark, small branches, and leaves. The open side would face south away from wind and rain. A fire pit would be constructed in front of the open side for warmth and security from wild animals. This temporary home would serve for months and, in some cases, years until a more permanent log cabin could be built.
Clearing the field for a first crop was the second most important task. So the ax once again fell trees to let the sunlight in. Brush was burned to prepare the soil for seeds. Then, in the first year, it was common for pioneers to simply hack the ground with the ax and plant seeds in the gaping hole. Each year after that, the field would be widened a little more.
Pioneers knew that they could only count on themselves and the land to survive. One can only imagine the risks that they took. Would anyone in the twenty-first century take such a risk? I think not and that is why the pioneers were so special.
After the first winter, in spring plans were usually made to construct a more substantial home. The log cabin was built with notched logs. Roofs were made of bark. Floors were made of split logs called "puncheons" and were flat on one side. Doors and windows were sawed out by hand. Usually an old quilt served as a doorway. The windows were covered with greased paper (Usually bear or hog grease) in order to keep out rain and wind. A fireplace chimney was made of rudimentary bricks from creek bank clay and grass that was shaped and sun-dried. Most log cabins were one room with a loft for sleeping.
The pioneers ate what they could trap or hunt. Clothing was either made from flax and wool or was a product of chance when they could kill wild animals for fur and skins. Fruits, nuts, and berries were gathered and stored for winter. Salt and maple syrup came from salt springs and trees that had been tapped. Tea was made from sassafras roots. Food in the pioneer days was consistent and monotonous. There wasn't much flavor or variety when it came to wilderness survival.
Furniture was hand-made and whittled from trees or weaved from stalks or branches. Fences for hogs and other livestock were nothing more than crisscrossed split logs. Women used gourds for pails and bowls. Soap was made of sifted wood ash. Tallow ( the fat from cattle and sheep) provided candles.
The health of the pioneers depended on the weather. Late summer often brought "the shakes" or malaria that had been spread by mosquitos. Medicine was home-made using herbs for healing. Many medicines were taught to the pioneers by the Indians who had been using herbs for centuries. A chest cold , for example, was treated with goose grease and a wild mustard plaster that was rubbed on the chest.
On the frontier, neighbors were extremely important. Gatherings of neighbors for house raising, for hunts and for entertainment was done often.
Formal education was secondary to parental teachings on the frontier. A father taught a son to hunt, trap, build, and farm. A mother taught a daughter to cook, sew, do household chores, preserve foods, and raise babies. As time went by and as towns formed from camps, children were sent to one-room schoolhouses to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. In those early days, teachers would come usually from the east and would board with each set of parents for a week at a time. It is true then that the children and most often the teacher as well had as much as a five-mile walk to school through the forest or across the plain.
Before churches were built, preachers would come on horseback to a community and would visit each pioneer family individually inside their cabin. He carried with him a Bible and a Hymnal. In more established towns, the preacher would preach to an audience standing on a stump or a wagon bed. Later, churches were built and the churches became the center of community gatherings.
There wasn't much law in the west lands in the early pioneer days. Each territory had leaders who enforced their own laws and the Federal Government had little jurisdiction. The President of the United States would appoint an overseer but once the population of a territory reached 60,000, the territory could become a State and that is when white men would elect their own State Representative to Congress. Prior to Statehood, there was often conflicts over what was just and fair and what was not. The most punishable offenses in those days was stealing a man's horse and shooting an unarmed man, especially in the back.
The early 1800's was a very special time in America. It was a time of vast land expansion and a chance for personal land ownership. That is the very reason pioneers were willing to undergo such certain hardship. The first Federal land law offered a minimum tract of 640 acres at $2 an acre. The pioneers would find a pre-marked tract, go to a land office in the area and sign an intent to purchase. The pioneer would have to pay down at least half the money owed within thirty days and the remainder within a year. If there was no land office, the pioneer family would squat on the land until a land office was available. Most pioneers remained squatters for years until they or someone else paid the fees for the land as $2 an acre was outside the reach of many people. The Government saw this and later offered smaller 320 acre tracts at $2 an acre with four years to pay. Still, that was too much for many pioneers who had virtually nothing. So, in 1820, 80 acres at $1.25 an acre was offered and allowed the pioneer to buy a small farm for just $100. A huge decision by President Lincoln in 1862 resulted in the "Homestead Act" which offered free land for anyone who would improve it. That opened the floodgates to anyone wanting to move west and multitudes of settlers did just that. The 1889 "Oklahoma Rush" on free land ended the great migration as many saw that as the last of the uninhabited tillable land in America. Yet, there was, of course, many pockets of exploration and expansion to be claimed. Places in the mountains and in the deserts and on the islands. And the last Frontier called "Alaska".
Pioneers, America's greatest people, lived and died to acquire the American Dream. The dream is still alive today. But, once the log cabins gave way to framed houses with roadways going past, the pioneer life ended and a new "industrial era" began.