Frontier lands to the west beckoned American pioneers. Send your strongest people! Deliver your bravest souls! Come, test yourself—can you survive on the rugged, wild frontier?
From the early 1700s to the late 1800s, thousands of American pioneers answered the challenge and moved west. With ax and plow, they settled a vast wilderness. Their hard work and courage pushed the American frontier all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Frontier life was difficult. Pioneers needed many skills just to survive. Life on the frontier meant living far from neighbors. It meant giving up markets, shops, schools, churches, and even news. Pioneers did without or made what they needed using simple tools.
In the 1700s, early pioneers crossed the rugged Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. Thick woods and steep valleys made the trip difficult. At first, they traveled on narrow trails. With the help of explorers such as Daniel Boone, roads big enough for wagons were cut through the mountains.
By the mid-1800s, the Great Plains to the west called out to a new wave of pioneers. The plains stretched out beyond the Mississippi River like a treeless ocean of grass. The great Rocky Mountains towered beyond the plains. Beyond the mountains lay the rich lands of the far west.
Adventurous pioneers spread out quickly over western lands. Some were lured by the promise of land for farming, grazing, and timber. Others went in search of valuable minerals such as gold, silver, and copper.
CONFLICT ON THE FRONTIER
The pioneers and Native Americans fought many wars on the frontier. The pioneers built homes and farms on Indian hunting lands. Native Americans then attacked the settlers or raided their settlements.
Some Indians signed treaties giving up their lands. But settlers or Indians often broke the treaties, leading to war. Many died in the fighting. Eventually, Native Americans were driven from most of their lands.
FILLING EMPTY STOMACHS
To survive on the frontier, a pioneer family first had to clear a patch of land for planting crops. They swung sharp axes to cut down trees and clear brush. Heavy wooden plows broke the ground. Farmers scattered seeds by hand. They used handheld sickles to cut ripe grain.
Few trees grew on the Great Plains. But under the soil lay a tangle of deep, thick grass roots that snapped wooden plows. Farmers needed sharp, steel plows to cut through the soil.
Pioneers had to produce enough food in the spring, summer, and fall for winter meals. Families preserved meat and fish with salt and smoke. They dried fruit, beans, and peas. They ground corn into meal for cakes and bread. They made cheese from milk and brewed cider from apples.
This hard work meant survival during the winter months. With no markets to fetch new supplies, pioneers without enough food faced starvation.
As more people moved to the frontier, stores followed. A few times a year, pioneers piled into their farm wagons and made the long trip into town. There they purchased supplies such as sugar and salt.
OH, GIVE ME A HOME
Early pioneers lived surrounded by trees. Many built their homes with logs. Most homes were small, with only one or two rooms. Sometimes, they added an overhead loft reached by a ladder. Many cabins had dirt floors. Packed mud filled the gaps between logs.
Later, when a family had time, they might add a wooden floor. They constructed pens and a barn for their animals. They often built a smokehouse to preserve meat.
On the treeless plains, pioneers cut bricks of grass and soil from the ground. They stacked the bricks into a house. Sometimes, women tacked up cloth to catch dirt that sprinkled down from walls and ceilings. Snakes, mice, and bugs felt right at home in a house made of dirt!
In the dry Southwest, pioneers copied the Native American homes, called pueblos. The pioneers built homes out of adobe, a sun-dried clay.
Pioneers supplied their homes with handmade goods. Men built simple furniture. Boys whittled spoons from wood and carved bowls and platters. Women stuffed mattresses with feathers or cornhusks. Women also made items such as soap for bathing and candles for light.
Frontier families relied on guns for hunting and protection. Often alone, families needed to protect themselves from danger. Many pioneers lived in constant fear of an attack by Indians.
Until the mid-1800s, most pioneers owned long rifles that fired once, then needed reloading. In 1831, Samuel Colt invented a revolver that shot several bullets before you had to reload. These guns became popular on the frontier.
WHAT TO WEAR?
Frontier clothes took a lot of time to make. They had to last a long time. A woman sewed her family’s clothes. Sometimes, she even made the cloth herself. During the winter months, she spun sheep wool into thread, wove it into fabric on a loom, and dipped it in dye. Then she sewed clothes and knit socks and caps.
Sometimes she could buy, or trade, for a piece of cloth from a store. She sewed scraps of cloth into rugs and bed quilts.
Pioneers adopted Native American clothing, too. They wore deerskin pants, jackets, and moccasins.
Isolated pioneer families relied on themselves for medical care. Women made medicines from herbs, roots, alcohol, and animal grease. Parents set broken bones with stick splints and bandages. Mothers stitched wounds with sewing needles and thread. People drank whiskey to ease pain.
People often didn’t know what caused a disease or how it spread. Many pioneers died of sickness or infected wounds.
TIME FOR SOME FUN!
Pioneers enjoyed gathering with neighbors. They exchanged news, advice, and gossip. Sometimes they’d hold a dance outdoors under the stars. A few fiddles, clapping, and songs like “Skip to My Lou” provided music.
Neighbors gathered to help one another with big jobs, like building a barn. Women baked pies and cooked for days. Then everyone had a big feast. Afterward, they told stories or danced and sang.
Children played with pets, listened to stories, and made their own toys. They played games such as hide-and-seek and blind-man’s-bluff.
Such simple pleasures helped ease the pioneers’ hard work in taming the great American West