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Frontier Women in 1816 Indiana


Part I – The Frontier Home

Life on the frontier of Indiana at the dawn of statehood was not easy for anyone. But the hardships were perhaps especially acute for the women. They were often removed far from family and friends they would never see again. Forced to leave comparative comforts behind they faced an unknown future in a land that could prove as inhospitable as it was fruitful.

When the settlers first arrived in Wayne County, the first priority was shelter. Very often, this took form in a sort of crude lean-to that served only to protect a family from the rain while land was cleared for crops. Upon arrival, the wagon or barge upon which the family had arrived, would be dismantled and used for this temporary shelter, known as a half-face camp. In 1816 there were approximately twelve thousand homes in Indiana. Often the man would come out alone, or with a teenage son, in the spring, clear the land and start a crop — most often corn — and begin work on a house. The following winter or spring he would move the rest of his family up. If this was the case, when a woman arrived, she would be greeted by a one-room log cabin with a dirt floor. The cracks in between the logs would be chinked with wedges of wood and daubed with mud. The fireplace would have taken up an entire end of the small structure. Sometimes it was no more than a sugar kettle – a large, multipurpose pot for boiling down sugar cane juice, maple sap or scalding hogs at butchering time – with coals banked inside. The first cabin was not elaborate and the fireplace was likely also made of logs and daubed with mud so as to prevent chimney fires. This was often ineffective and many a cabin went up in the flames of a fire set to cook a meal. If she had been expecting glass windows, she would have been sadly mistaken. Any openings cut to let in light would have been covered with paper greased with bear oil or even greased deerskin.

If our pioneer foremother had very many furnishings at all in her new home, they were rough and crude. She was usually able to bring only very little with her from her old home. If there was a bed, it was built into one corner. Very often the first bed would be pine boughs, covered with furs. Later a frame bed would be woven with deer skin thongs or hemp rope to support a feather mattress. The boys were given the loft to sleep in. Seating consisted of three legged stools hewn out of fallen timber. Tables were often made the same way as the bed – in the corner of the room.

Most light came in from the door opened to the sunshine outside or from the light of the fireplace. Candles were made of tallow, but at first, the settlers were more likely to have made use of a small clay lamp filled with bear’s oil and fitted with a cotton wick.

While the men and boys were at work clearing the land and moving the brush aside to serve as a makeshift fence, it was the job of the woman and her daughters and younger sons to set about putting in a kitchen garden. Numbingly long days were spent in preparation of their new home. Their survival in the coming winter depended upon it and the female members of the family were equally important in making this happen.

— Gretchen Brown


The Indiana Home by Logan Esarey

Home Life in Early Indiana by William Frederick Vogel

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