Iowa Pioneers

When the tide of immigration finally set in toward Iowa, the state was peopled as if by magic. The papers of 1854 were filled with long accounts of the vast crowds which filed in from the east and south. “The roads were thronged with teams, and the groves and woodlands and prairies were alive with figures, and white with tents and canvas-topped wagons. Ferries over the Mississippi were busy day and night conveying the pioneers from Illinois to Iowa. Oskaloosa reports that at least a thousand persons pass through every week, bound westward. Three hundred buildings go up in a season at Davenport. Seven hundred immigrants a day travel over the Burlington highway. It is estimated that in thirty days 20, 000 traverse the vicinity of Burlington. The boats on the Ohio and Mississippi are packed. Six hundred persons go through St. Louis by river in a day. The trains that pull into Chicago with passengers for the Mississippi are double headers. In six days twelve thousand passengers from the East arrive in Chicago destined for Iowa and the West.”

And never was there a hardier, braver, more intelligent and enterprising class of people! The million and a half citizens which today make up our commonwealth give little thought to the privations and hardships which their forefathers endured in making the state, in every sense of the word, true to its name-“the beautiful land. ” Let us take, for one moment, a backward peep: In the first place there were no roads. The settlers drove their creaking, canvas-topped “Prairie Mayflowers” here and there, making their own highways and byways, across the prairies and through the woods, fording the creeks and streams, and occasionally miring down in some slough or spongy stretch of faintly outlined trail. When a spot which satisfied their ideas of home was reached the claim was paced off and marked by stakes and blazed tree trunks. Then the work of building the cabin was begun. If haste was necessary, sometimes a rude three-faced shelter was put up. This consisted of three walls, about seven feet high, made by laying one log upon another. It was roofed with poles, covered with boards split from logs, or with a thatch of prairie grass. The open side served for both windows and door, and here a roaring fire burned in chilly weather.

The cabin took a little longer in the making, though it, too, was put together without nails. The spaces between the logs were chinked with small sticks and daubed plentifully outside and inside with clay. A great fireplace of logs covered with clay, earth, and stones took up the most of one side. The windows were mere shutters, hung on wooden hinges. The door also had wooden hinges, and was kept closed by a wooden latch. A buckskin string was fastened to the catch and passed outside through a hole. When “the latch string was out,” the catch could easily be opened. And it was nearly always out, for the early settlers had no need to lock their doors, unless in times when an Indian scare was raised. These were very few, as most of the Indians had drifted farther West before the settlers came in. It is the one bloody stain between the settlers and the Indians.

The furnishings of the cabin were very simple. There were no rugs or carpets. Indeed there was seldom anything but a dirt floor. There was one or more “onelegged beds,” made by driving a stake in the ground about three or four feet from the wall and six or seven feet from one end of the cabin. Poles extended from the stake to the walls, thus furnishing the framework of the bed. On these were laid strips of boards, spread with boughs, leaves and sweet-smelling grasses, and covered with blankets and skins. There was rude home-made table, some boxes, and square-sawed stumps for stools. Sometimes there was a splint-bottomed rocker and a loom. Table dishes and cooking utensils were very few. The fireplace served for a stove. Corn meal was the principal food. Honey was plentiful and there was game and fish for every one. The boy of the family was expected to furnish the last-named articles, and great fun it was too.

The first crop was planted with a great deal of labor. If the land was timber, the trees had to be cut, the brush piled and burned, and the land plowed among the stumps-a job which required no end of patience from both man and beast. Prairie land was often so tough and grass-bound that it could not be plowed with the poor tools at the settler’s command. He frequently planted his corn by chopping out clefts in the ground with an axe. The roots of the growing corn undermined and loosened the soil and it could then be easily plowed with the ox teams, providing the settler knew how to manage these awkward and often unruly animals. Usually several yoke of oxen were harnessed together in a string. A”blacksnake,” sometimes thirty feet in length, was needed to guide them, and it took considerable skill to manage this great whip. If yon ever tried to crack a blacksnake you will know something about this. The green driver’s first attempt usually ended in winding the long lash about the neck of one of the surprised, rebellious oxen. Sabin says that “The boy who from the plow could cut a fly from the neck of the off leader’ was looked upon with much respect.”

When the corn was gathered, some of it had to be ground into meal. This was clone in the very early days by a “mortar and pestle.” Usually the mortar was nothing more than a carefully made hollow in the top of a stump. The pestle was a heavy, rounded, wooden sledge, or hammer, which was used to pound and crush the corn. Soon mills sprang up here and there and the settler hauled his corn to them in the slow going ox: cart. Sometimes they were so far away that the trip took two or three days and was attended with all sorts of dangers. When the writer was a little girl one of her favorite stories was grandmother’s tale of how “Neighbor Uncle Johnny Newell once went to mill. ” He had a trying time, over hill and dale and through the woods. The cart mired down at the edge of a muddy creek, later it upset on a treacherous hillside, and finally, on the homeward trip, a hungry panther followed him miles and miles! I remember even yet the thrill which the imitation of the panther’s screams caused, as they came nearer and nearer, and how relieved I felt when “Uncle Johnny” providentially thought of spilling a little pile of meal and sprinkling it with snuff. I heard with delight that panther’s enraged coughs, snorts, and sneezes, and saw Buck and Duke stagger wildly, with long panting breaths and red sides heaving, down the last hill, through the last creek, and into a neighbor’s yard where a gun was to be found.

Wolves, panthers, and catamounts preyed upon the settler’s stock; the Indians stole his horses ; and prairie fires burned his buildings and destroyed his crops.

Winters were long and cold. Wind storms and heavy rainfalls did much damage in the summer. Added to this was the fever and ague, commonly known as “the shakes,” caused by the decomposition of the freshly turned soil all about. Mails were few and far between. Sometimes the postage on a single letter was twenty-five cents. This was paid when the letter* was taken from the office. Sometimes if the settler was hard up, the good-natured storekeeper, who acted as postmaster, would hand over the letter and trust him until lie could get the money. Of course, in those days, no one wrote letters unless they were absolutely necessary. Money was too hard to get. Markets were few and far away. Settlers hauled wheat one hundred miles and then got but 37½ cents a bushel, corn and oats sold for 8 and 10 cents per bushel, and the finest horses brought only $50.

Every cloud has its silver lining, and so, among the perils and hardships of the settlers, there were threads of fun and royal good times. House-raisings, quiltings, husking-bees, apple-parings, wood-choppings, turkeyshooting, races, dancing, etc., filled many a happy hour. Besides, “What splendid hunting and fishing the Iowa pioneers had! The waters and hills and prairies were swarming with game. Buffalo did not survive the advent of the settler, but the elk, deer and bear, the wild turkey’, the prairie chicken and the quail were shot in great numbers.


White, Judy Wallis. The Story of Iowa.

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