The History of Keokuk County, Iowa
DES MOINES: UNION HISTORICAL COMPANY.
1880.

PIONEER LIFE.

   

The account of early settlements as has already been narrated extends from the time of the first settlement, in the spring of the year 1839, to the time of the admission of the State into the Union, in the autumn of 1846. The account therefore embraces a period of less than eight years from the first settlement on the "old strip," and less than four years from the time when authority was first given to settle that portion of the county west.

During these years the first settlement of Keokuk county was in the earliest stage of pioneer life. All that can be known of this period must be drawn chiefly from tradition.

In those days the people took no care to preserve history—they were too busily engaged in making it. Historically speaking, those were the most important years of the county, for it was then the foundation and cornerstones of all the county's history and prosperity were laid. Yet this period was not remarkable for daring events. It was, however, a time of self-reliance and brave, persevering toil; of privations cheerfully endured through faith in a good time coming. The experience of one settler was just about the same as that of others. They were almost invariably poor, they faced the same hardships and stood generally on an equal footing.

All the experience of the early pioneers of this county goes far to confirm the theory that, after all, happiness is pretty evenly balanced in this world. They had their privations and hardships, but they had also their own peculiar joys. If they were poor they were free from the burden of pride and vanity; free, also, from the anxiety and care that always attend the possession of wealth. Other people's eyes cost them nothing. If they had few neighbors, they were on the best of terms with those they had. Envy, jealousy and strife had not crept in. A common interest and a common sympathy bound them together with the strongest ties. They were a little world to themselves, and the good feeling that prevailed was all the stronger because they were so far removed from the great world of the East.

There was a peculiar sort of free-masonry among the pioneers. Newcomers were made welcome, and ready hands assisted them in building their homes. Neighbors did not even wait for an invitation or request to help one another. Was a settler's cabin burned or blown down? No sooner was the fact known throughout the neighborhood than the settlers assembled to assist the unfortunate one to rebuild his home. They came with as little hesitation, and with as much alacrity, as though they were all members of the same family, and bound together by ties of blood. One man's interest was every other man's interest also. Now this general state of feeling among the pioneers was by no means peculiar to this county, although it was strongly illustrated here. It prevailed generally throughout the West during the time of the early settlement. The very nature of things taught the settlers the necessity of dwelling together in this spirit. It was their only protection. They had come far away from the well-established reign of law and entered a new country where the civil authority was still feeble, and totally unable to afford protection and redress grievances. Here in Keokuk county the settlers lived for quite a time before there was a single officer of the law in the county. Each man's protection was in the good will and friendship of those about him, and the thing any man might well dread was the ill will of the community. It was more terrible than the law. It was no uncommon thing in the early times for hardened men, who had no fears of jails or penitentiaries, to stand in great fear of the indignation of a pioneer community.

Owing to the fact that one of the early settlers was an energetic millwright, he employed all his energy and what means he possessed in erecting mills at a few of the favorable mill-sites, which abound in the county, yet going to mill in those days, when there were no roads, no bridges, no ferry-boats, and scarcely any convenience for traveling, was no small task, where so many rivers and treacherous streams were to be crossed, and such a trip was often attended with great danger to the traveler when these streams were swollen beyond their banks. But even under these circumstances some of the more adventurous and ingenious ones, in cases of emergency, found the way and means by which to cross the swollen streams and succeed in making the trip. At other times, again, all attempts failed them, and they were compelled to remain at home until the waters subsided, and depend on the generosity of their fortunate neighbors.

An interesting comparison might be drawn between the conveniences which now make the life of the farmer a comparatively easy one, and the almost total lack of such conveniences in early days. A brief description of the accommodations possessed by the first tillers of this soil will be now given. Let the children of such illustrious sires draw their own comparisons, and may the results of these comparisons silence the voice of complaint which so often is heard in the land.

The only plows they had at first were what they styled "bull plows." The mould-boards were generally of wood, but in some cases they were half wood and half iron. The man who had one of the latter description was looked upon as something of an aristocrat. But these old "bull plows" did good service, and they must be awarded the honor of first stirring the soil of Keokuk county.

It was quite a time after the first settlement before there was a single store in the county. Rude fire-places were built in the cabin chimneys, and they served for warmth, cooking and ventilation.

The first buildings in the county were not just like the log cabins that immediately succeeded them. These latter required some help and a good deal of labor to build. The very first buildings constructed were a cross between "hoop cabins" and Indian bark huts. As soon as enough men could be got together for a "cabin raising" then log cabins were in style. Many a pioneer can remember the happiest time of his life as that when he lived in one of these homely but comfortable and profitable old cabins.

A window with sash and glass was a rarity, and was an evidence of wealth and aristocracy which but few could support. They were often made with greased paper put over the window, which admitted a little light, but more often there was nothing whatever over it, or the cracks between the logs, without either chinking or daubing, was the dependence for light and air.

The doors were fastened with old-fashioned wooden latches, and for a friend or neighbor or traveler the string always hung out, for the pioneers of the west were hospitable, and entertained visitors to the best of their ability.

It is noticeable with what affection the pioneers speak of their old log cabins. It may be doubted whether palaces ever sheltered happier hearts than those homely cabins. The following is a good description of these old land-marks, but few of which now remain:

"These were of round logs notched together at the corners, ribbed with poles and covered with boards split from a tree. A puncheon floor was then laid down, a hole cut out in the end and a stick chimney run up. A clapboard door is made, a window is opened by cutting out a hole in the side or end about two feet square, and it is finished without glass or transparency. The house is then 'chinked' and 'daubed' with mud made of the top soil.

"The cabin is now ready to go into. The household and kitchen furniture is adjusted, and life on the frontier is begun in earnest.

"The one-legged bedstead, now a piece of the furniture of the past, was made by cutting a stick the proper length, boring holes at one end one and a-half inches in diameter, at right angles, and the same sized holes corresponding with these in the logs of the cabin the length and breadth desired for the bed, in which are inserted poles.

"Upon these poles, clapboards are laid, or lind bark is interwoven consecutively from pole to pole. Upon this primitive structure the bed is laid. The convenience of a cook stove was not thought of then, but instead the cooking was done by the faithful housewife in pots, kettles and skillets, on and about the big fireplace, and very frequently over and around, too, the distended pedal extremities of the legal sovereigns of the household, while the latter were indulging in the luxury of a cob pipe, and discussing the probable results of a contemplated elk hunt up and about Walled Lake." These log cabins were really not so bad, after all.

The living in those days was not such as to tempt the epicure to leave his comfortable luxuries, or even necessities, in the East in order to add to the population of the country. Flour was at first unknown and meal was scarce.

They had corn bread in those days "as was corn bread," such as many a resident of the county of this day knows nothing of ; and the pone made by the grandmothers of the young people of the present day was something for pride.

Before the country became supplied with mills which were of easy access, and even in some instances afterward, hominy-blocks were used; these now exist only in the memory of the oldest settlers, but as relics of the "long ago" a description of them will not be uninteresting:

A tree of suitable size, say from eighteen inches to two feet in diameter, was selected in the forest and felled to the ground. If a cross-cut saw happened to be convenient, the tree was "butted"—that is, the kerf end was sawed off so that it would stand steady when ready for use. If there were no cross-cut saw in the neighborhood strong arms and sharp axes were ready to do the work. Then the proper length, from four to five feet, was measured off' and sawed or cut square. When this was done the block was raised on end and the work of cutting out a hollow in one of the ends was commenced. This was generally done with a common chopping ax. Sometimes a smaller one was used. When the cavity was judged to be large enough, a fire was kindled in it and carefully watched till the ragged edges were burned away. When completed the hominy-block somewhat resembled a druggist's mortar. Then a pestle or something to crush the corn was necessary. This was usually made from a suitably sized piece of timber with an iron wedge attached, the large end down. This completed the machinery and the block was ready for use. Sometimes one hominy-block accommodated an entire neighborhood and was the means of staying the hunger of many mouths.

It is sometimes remarked that there were no places for public entertainment till later years. The fact is there were many such places; in fact, every cabin was a place of entertainment and these hotels were sometimes crowded to their utmost capacity. On such an occasion, when bed-time came, the first family would take the back part of the cabin and so continue filling up by families until the limit was reached. The young men slept in the wagons outside. In the morning those nearest the door arose first and went outside to dress. Meals were served on the hind end of a wagon, and consisted of corn bread, buttermilk and fat pork, and occasionally coffee to take away the morning chill. On Sundays, for a change, they had bread made of wheat "tread out" by horses on the ground, cleaned with a sheet and pounded by hand. This was the best the most fastidious could obtain, and this only one day in seven.

Not a moment of time was lost. It was necessary that they should raise enough sod corn to take them through the coming winter, and also get as much breaking done as possible. They brought with them enough corn to give the horses an occasional feed in order to keep them able for hard work, but 'in the main they had to live on prairie grass. The cattle got nothing else than grass.

In giving the bill of fare above we should have added meat, for of this they had plenty. Deer would be seen daily trooping over the prairie in droves of from twelve to twenty, and sometimes as many as fifty would be seen grazing together. Elk were also found, and wild turkeys and prairie chickens without number. Bears were not unknown. Music of the natural order was not wanting, and every night the pioneers were lulled to rest by the screeching of panthers and the howling of wolves. When the dogs ventured too far out from the cabins at night they would be driven back by the wolves, chasing them up to the very cabin doors. Trapping wolves became quite a profitable business after the State began to pay a bounty for wolf scalps.

One of the peculiar circumstances that surrounded the early life of the pioneers was a strange lonliness (sic). The solitude seemed almost to oppress them. Months would pass during which they would see scarcely a human face outside their own families. The isolation of these early days worked upon some of the settlers an effect that has never passed away. Some of them say that they lived in such a lonely way when they first came here that afterward, when the county began to fill up, they always found themselves bashful and constrained in the presence of strangers. But when the people were once started in this way the long pent-up feelings of joviality and sociability fairly boiled over, and their meetings frequently became enthusiastic and jovial in the highest degree. It seems singular to note bashfulness as one of the characteristics of the strong, stalwart settlers, but we are assured by the old settlers themselves that this was a prominent characteristic of the pioneers. And some of them declare that this feeling became so strong during the early years of isolation and lonliness (sic) that they have never since been able to shake it off.

But there were certainly some occasions when the settlers were not in the least degree affected by anything in the nature of bashfulness. When their rights were threatened or invaded they had "muscles of iron and hearts of flint." It was only when brought together for merely social purposes that they seemed ill at ease. If any emergency arose, or any business was to be attended to, they were always equal to the occasion.

On occasions of special interest, such as elections, holiday celebrations or camp-meetings, it was nothing unusual for a few settlers who lived in the immediate neighborhood of the meeting to entertain scores of those who had come from a distance. There was a grove on Mr. Scearcy's claim, and this was a favorite place for holding camp-meetings. It was no unusual thing for Mr. Scearcy and his estimable lady to feed hundreds for days in succession during the progress of these meetings, free of charge. This circumstance is given to illustrate the boundless generosity which prevailed in those days. Scores of other instances could be adduced, showing that at least in this particular we live in degenerate days.

Rough and rude though the surroundings may have been, the pioneers were none the less honest, sincere, hospitable and kind in their relations. It is true as a rule, and of universal application, that there is a greater degree of real humanity among the pioneers of any country than there is when the country becomes older and richer. If there is an absence of refinement that absence is more than compensated in the presence of generous hearts and truthful lives. They are bold, courageous, industrious, enterprising and energetic. Generally speaking, they are earnest thinkers and possessed of a diversified fund of useful, practical information. As a rule they do not arrive at a conclusion by means of a course of rational reasoning, but nevertheless have a queer way of getting at the facts. They hate cowards and shams of every kind, and above all things falsehood and deception, and cultivate an integrity which seldom permits them to prostitute themselves to a narrow policy of imposture.

Such were the characteristics of the men and women who pioneered the way to the country of the Sac and Fox Indians. Those who visited them in their homes in a social capacity were made as welcome as if they were the members of the same household. To tender them pay in return for their hospitality was only to insult the better feelings of their nature. If a neighbor fell sick and needed care or attention the whole neighborhood was interested. If a house was to be raised every man "turned out," and often the women too, and while the men piled up the logs that fashioned the primitive dwelling-place the women prepared the dinner. Sometimes it was cooked by big log fires near the site where the cabin was building. In other cases it was prepared at the nearest cabin and at the proper hour was carried to where the men were at work. If one man in the neighborhood killed a beef, a pig, or a deer, every other family in the neighborhood was sure to receive a piece. One of the few remaining pioneers has remarked:

"In those days we were neighbors in a true sense. We were all on an equality. Aristocratic feelings were unknown and would not have been tolerated. What one had we all had, and that was the happiest period of my life. But to-day, if you lean against a neighbor's shade tree he will charge you for it. If you are poor and fall sick you may lie and suffer almost unnoticed and unattended, and probably go to the poor-house; and just as like as not the man who would report you to the authorities as a subject of county care would charge the county for making the report."

Of the old settlers some are still living in the county, in the enjoyment of the fortunes they founded in the early times, "having reaped a hundredfold." Others have passed away, and many of them will not long survive. Several of them have gone to the far West, and are still playing the part of pioneers. But wherever they may be, and whatever fate may betide them, it is but truth to say that they were excellent men as a class and have left a deep and enduring impression upon Keokuk county and the State. "They builded better than they knew." They were, of course, men of activity and energy or they would never have decided to face the trials of pioneer life. They were almost invariably poor, but the lessons taught them in the early days were of such a character that few of them have remained so. They made their mistakes in business pursuits like other men. Scarcely one of them but allowed golden opportunities, for pecuniary profit at least, to pass by unheeded. What are now some of the choicest farms in Keokuk county were not taken up by the pioneers, who preferred land of very much less value. They have seen many of their prophecies fulfilled and others come to naught. Whether they have attained the success they desired their own hearts can tell.

To one looking back over the situation at that time from the present standpoint of progress and comfort, it certainly does not seem very cheering; and yet, from the testimony of some of these same old settlers themselves, it was the most independent and happy period of their lives.

At that time it certainly would have been much more difficult for those old settlers to understand how it could be possible that thirty-two years hence the citizens at the present stage of the county's progress would be complaining of hard times and destitution, and that they themselves, perhaps, would be among that number, than it is now for us to appreciate how they could feel so cheerful and contented with their meager means and humble lot of hardship and deprivation during those early pioneer days.

The secret, doubtless, was that they lived within their means, however limited, not coveting more of luxury and comfort than their income would afford, and the natural result was prosperity and contentment, with always room for one more stranger at the fireside, and a cordial welcome to a place at their table for even the most hungry guest.

During the first three years, and perhaps not until some time afterward, there was not a public highway established and worked on which they could travel; and as the settlers were generally far apart, and mills and trading points were at great distances, going from place to place was not only very tedious but attended sometimes with great danger. Not a railroad had yet entered Chicago, and there was scarcely a thought in the minds of the people here of such a thing ever reaching the wild West; and if thought of, people had no conception of what a revolution a railroad and telegraph through here would cause in the progress of the country. Then there were less than 5,000 miles of railroad in the United States, and not a mile of track laid this side of Ohio, while now there are over 100,000 miles of railroads extending their trunks and branches in every direction over our land.

Supplies in those days came to this Western country entirely by river and wagon transportation. Mail was carried to and fro in the same way, and telegraph dispatches were transmitted by the memory and lips of emigrants coming in or strangers passing through.

In the autumn of 1846, when Iowa ceased to be a territory and became a State, Keokuk county likewise was entering upon a new career. Roads were being laid out and worked and temporary bridges constructed in different localities for the convenience of travel. Schools and school-houses were rapidly increasing, and conveniences of public worship multiplied. Manufactories of various kinds began to be talked of by the more enterprising men of some capital, and the general work of improvement and civilization progressed most encouragingly.

The emigration to the unsettled regions further west made a good market for all kinds of farm produce at the very doors of the settlers. Mills as well as markets had come to the very doors of the pioneers of Keokuk county, and the county may be said to have entered upon its career of permanent prosperity. But the distinctively pioneer times had gone. With all their hardships and all their joys, they were a thing of the past.

Transcribed by Pat Wahl. Thank you, Pat!

 

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