MEIGS COUNTY — Pioneer life in Southeastern Ohio was harsh and dangerous, and lonely. Self-sufficiency and learning to adapt to a new environment were essential if they were to survive.
The majority of the first settlers came from the east, a long distance away at the time, and were not well equipped for travel or frontier life.
There were no roads, only thick forests and streams in the interior of the county, and most were unable to bring more than a few items with them. Necessities were a rifle and an ax. A wooden box containing one or two pots, a teakettle, pewter plates, a few utensils and some quilts were the typical accompaniment; the box could later be used as a table.
Upon arriving, settlers needed to quickly build a lean-to for shelter until they could complete a cabin.
It is important to remember that the construction of the cabin was accomplished using only an ax. Huge trees were cut down, and the logs stripped and notched to form cabin walls and roof supports. Thatching made from bark was used on the roof and logs were split into flat-faced planks called “puncheons” to make the cabin floor.
Usually there were only two openings, a window and a door. These were carved out after the cabin was put together, a time-consuming process that took patience to complete.
A quilt was typically used as covering until a board door could be made and hung with leather hinges. The common material for window covering was greased paper, and just as the name suggests, it was any paper that was on hand covered with grease, typically bear fat.
Bricks were made from creek bank clay mixed with dried grass. After drying in the sun, these hardened bricks were placed against the cabin wall to form a chimney with a broad opening, sometimes referred to as a “cat and clay”. This allowed for a fire to be built inside the cabin, providing heat for cooking, light, and warmth for its occupants.
To survive in the wilderness, both men and women needed a wide variety of skills and innovative thinking.
Women raised and cared for the children, cooked, and did much of the heavy farm work. They carried water from the spring or stream to the cabin for cooking and kept the fire burning in the hearth. Creative pioneer women learned to supply their own household goods using what was available. Once there was enough land cleared for their gardens, gourds were grown and dried to use as pails and dippers. Wood ash was sifted and used to make soap and animal fat could be molded into candles. Animal skins were tanned into leather and made into clothing. Brooms were made by cutting and peeling a hickory pole and cutting knife splits on the end to make the broom.
Pioneer men needed to know how to farm, hunt, trap, use a rifle, and be a skilled carpenter. Sometimes they would be out all-day hunting game and tending their traps. Wood needed to be split and carried into the house and fields plowed using crude instruments.
Their diet was simple, consisting primarily of what was available. Venison, turkey, geese, squirrel and rabbit were plentiful. Greens were harvested in the spring, berries later in the summer. Corn was the preferred crop because it could be easily dried.
As the number of settlers increased, more resources became available. Roads were carved out, making travel less difficult. Mills were built to grind flour and plain logs for building. Livestock such as sheep, pigs, and cattle were brought to the area, and enough land had been cleared to produce grains in abundance.
By the mid-1800s the area was no longer referred to as a wilderness; the frontier had moved further west and Ohio had become a state. It is easy to forget just how wild and untamed the land in Southeast Ohio was at the end of the 18th century, and difficult for us today to image life on the frontier.
Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for The Daily Sentinel.