Your question involves one of the most fascinating periods on our
countrys history. Thank you for such an interesting avenue to pursue!
The largest wave of pioneers headed west beyond the Mississippi
River between 1840 and 1890. So much of the land had been settled by
the 1890s that the government declared that the West was no longer a
"frontier". It would now be called, "The Great West".
Excerpted from The Western Frontier at
Home and Family Life
The journey west was long and arduous, and living accommodations
depended on the resources available once the family settled. Dwellings
consisted primarily of crude log cabins in areas with sufficient wood.
A log house was a more luxurious commodity! In prairie grasslands,
homes consisted of layered sod or dugouts in small hillsides. Homes
were often built according to compass direction, especially on the
prairie where there were few landmarks. The door was set toward the
south to let in light and provide a means of telling time by watching
the shadows move about the dwelling floor.
Generally, the entire family lived in one room. Families were often
large, with many children. It was not uncommon for relatives,
including grandparents, brothers, sisters, spouses and their children
to share the same dwelling, as well as a traveling preacher!
Very rarely did furniture make it successfully through the long trip
west. Most of the furniture was discarded to lighten the wagons as the
trip became more exhausting. The few furnishings and mementos that did
brighten the new frontier dwelling were extremely precious, for they
provided memories of home. Books were highly valued, and usually
consisted of a Bible, an almanac and possibly a medical book and some
other treasured readings.
Wood or dung generated heat for the dwelling. In either case, the
gathering of heating materials might require miles of walking. Water
was a necessity. Depending on the water source, many hours could be
required to bring home enough for a day or two. If a spring was
nearby, it was often downhill, with the walk home, uphill! Some
families actually drilled shallow wells, but they were often
Roofs leaked, clothing was insufficient for the winter chill, and
death was common both from illness and complications of childbirth.
Often, mother and baby would die together. It was not unusual for a
father to marry several times, replacing one mother with another.
Those children who survived from the first marriage often grew up
knowing several "mothers."
Work was endless. Men were kept busy supplying food, making and
mending tools and furniture, cleaning guns or pouring lead bullets.
Tilling the land into small farms was backbreaking, and was either
done by hand, or for those who were more fortunate, with the help of a
horse or ox. Long trips into a nearby settlement for supplies could
take weeks or months. Women had endless chores, coupled with constant
watchcare over the children. Preparing and cooking food, washing
clothing by hand, tending the fires, teaching the children, making
clothes out of crude materials, and tending to animals (if the family
was so lucky) more than filled each day.
Children were used to working along with their parents, but there was
also time for play. Crude toys made of wood, dolls made of corn husks
or remnants of cloth, and the great outdoors were all a child needed
to fuel the imagination. When enough settlers congregated in the area,
children could take advantage of a school that might be within several
miles walking distance. A horse might even be available for
transportation. There was always the constant fear of harm to the
children, however, as they traveled long distances to school by
Hospitality was a common trait among the settlers as company was a
welcome diversion from the daily chores. As much as visitors were
welcome, however, Indians, horse thieves, and wolves were a common
The early settlers were often terribly fearful of the Indians, who
often made a habit of entering dwellings unexpectedly and without
warning. It was not unusual for the Indians to take whatever they
desired, or to rape and capture the women or kill the entire family.
However, there were also many areas where the settlers and Indians
tolerated one another. The women, in particular, often had a
It is important to realize that the Native Americans were the only
non-immigrants to the American west. As settlers migrated west, the
Indians resented the intrusion into the lands they had always known as
home. Each tribe had their own territories, with a certain degree of
overlap. Not only did the white settlers seize Indian lands, but they
destroyed their civilization. Endless treaties, threats and wars were
the result of the clash of the two cultures, which culminated in many
battles including the Last Stand at Little Bighorn, led by General
Custer in 1876.
By the end of the nineteenth century disease and warfare had almost
wiped out the Indian population. Those that remained tried to resist
the U.S. government's efforts to confine them to reservations. The
Plains Indians final defeat in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee
symbolized the end of Indians traditional way of life. From the
Indians perspective, the story of European immigration is a story of
struggle and displacement.
From Society at http://ortsamara.saminfo.ru/School_42/EnglishSite/usasociety.htm
*For a map of Indian tribes in the early American West, refer to
(Allow time for the page to download)
Some examples are the Blackfoot, Shoshone, Arapahoe, Crow, Flathead,
Nez Perce, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Navajo, Utes, etc.
The types of food available to the early settlers depended on where
they settled. Native vegetation and animals common to the area were
often abundant. An excerpt from Life in a log home follows:
Game was abundant; fruits and vegetables were seasonal; crop
produce could be stored in root cellars, dried, or preserved. Turnips
and carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, apples, berries, nuts and pork gave
some variety but meal was the mainstay. Cornmeal was made from white
corn, sometimes yellow or even red. Cornbread or mush were staples on
the menu. Mush was put on to cook by mid-afternoon. Buckwheat was a
quick-growing crop which could be planted late and still have time to
mature. The meal was used for pancakes. Apples were peeled and dried,
later to be soaked and cooked with a little honey or sorghum. Fried,
dried-apple pies were a welcome addition to the menu. The cooked and
sweetened fruit was placed on a small round of pie dough and the edges
sealed like a turnover. The pies were then fried slowly in a heavy
iron skillet, first on one side and then. on the other.
Pork was almost too plentiful and early settlers suffered from a
steady diet of it. It might be salted down and smoked, or "fried
down." Or it was used fresh, often by sharing and exchanging with
neighbors. The boss of a crew of men working on construction jobs
might buy a whole hog and have it "fried down" for the use of the camp
cook. The sliced or ground meat was fried, packed into jars and
covered with melted lard or "fryings." In this way, the meat "kept"
during warm weather.
Beef was less common. Not only was the meat enjoyed, but also the
tallow was valued for candle-making. A portion was dried behind the
stove or near the fire, after first being cured and smoked. It became
so dry and hard that it could only. be chipped off, giving the
familiar name to our "chipped beef" gravy.
Life in a Log Home. Pioneer Resources and Webliography.
Certain staples could not be gathered from the land. Sugar and salt
were always in demand. White flour was also a precious commodity.
Spices, candy, fruit, coffee, tea and tobacco were special treats.
Families that had cows and chickens had the luxury of butter, milk,
cheese, cream and eggs. These items were kept in a springhouse,
which was built over a mountain spring to keep the foods cool.
Root cellars were dug into the ground to keep vegetables and meats
from spoiling through both the winter and the summer.
Land and Climate
The early settlers of the American West encountered tremendous
extremes in landform and climate. After crossing the Mississippi, the
Midwest produced a mix of rolling hills and prairie flatlands. Heat
could be scorching in the summer, and the land windswept and
desperately cold in the winter. Tornadoes, torrential rains,
thunderstorms, snow and hail all intermixed with periods of extreme
heat and drought. The lack of trees throughout the plains states was
advantageous in terms of farming, but was a missed resource in terms
of building dwellings for protection. Several major rivers were
barriers to travel, and settlers and horses were forced to cross them,
often at the expense of their lives.
As the rolling plains gave way to the foothills leading to the Rocky
Mountains, new and dangerous situations faced the settlers. Winters
were treacherous. Snow and ice forced many settlers to sit out the
winter, often dying due to starvation, cold and illness. Crossing the
mountain passes was impossible until late spring. Scouts were sent
ahead to seek out known trails, but were often lost or misguided.
Entire wagon trains perished. Mountains often had to be scaled by
dismantling the wagons and hauling up the pieces individually. Horses
lost their footholds and fell to their deaths. Wagons, finally
reassembled, often fell over precipices and were destroyed. Even the
seemingly mild and easily-traversed mountain passes could result in
Each area of the west had their advantages in terms of settling,
however. Abundant wildlife was available most everywhere. The plains
were fertile for farming, as were the foothills where water was
abundant. The nature of the land and the climate dictated the way of
life each group of settlers pursued in particular areas of the west.
The Protestant religion emerged strongly in the early nineteenth
century, with Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists the most
predominant denominations. Evangelicalism, which entailed the
conversion of others to Christianity, was considered an essential
means of saving souls as well as saving the New Republic (a strong
movement from the early 1800s until the Civil War)
The scarcity of churches did not prevent the early settlers from
worshiping. Bible study and worship often centered around the family
Bible until a settlement was large enough for a church to be built.
Early settlers often walked or rode many miles to a church service
held in anothers home or a community building. Traveling ministers
were quite common, and it was not unusual for them to be temporarily
housed in the cabin or dwelling along with the family.
Life in a Log Home. Pioneer Resources and Webliography.
The Domestic Frontier. (1996) at
Food. The Life of Early Pioneers.
Society at http://ortsamara.saminfo.ru/School_42/EnglishSite/usasociety.htm
Map of early western Indian tribes at
Religion, Tradition and Fun. American Pioneers.
Religion in Eighteenth-Century America. Religion and the Founding
of the American Republic at
Pioneer Life in Ohio at
The above information should provide you with a good background of the
early settlers and their life in the West. I hope you are able to use
the resources to your advantage!
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