Everyday Life: American Settlers
Everyday Life: American Settlers
Fur Trappers. In the early nineteenth century, beaver hats were at the height of fashion for men. To obtain beaver pelts, trappers traveled into the mountains in small parties during the spring and fall. A typical trapper carried about half a dozen traps, seldom more, for the traps were heavy. The traps, which were forged by hand, cost the fur companies $2.00 to $2.50 each but were sold to trappers at $12.00 apiece. To catch a beaver, the trapper set traps in a stream and baited them with castor, an oily substance derived from beaver glands. Great care was taken to ensure that the beaver would not be able to detect human scent. If the trap was set properly, the beaver would drown, although escaped beavers and lost traps were not uncommon. Once dead, the beaver could be skinned on the spot or taken to camp. The trapper cut off the head, feet, and tail of the animal and then skinned it. The skin was stretched into a circle to dry by one of two methods. The first method was to lace the skin within a circular hoop, although learning how to make such a hoop took practice. Alternatively, the skin might be stretched on pegs driven into the ground. After two to five days of drying, the skins were ready to be marked and packed for sale.
The Prairie. In the early nineteenth century Sugar Creek, Illinois, was a typical Western community. Most of the area residents had moved from Southern states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas. They came hoping to acquire land and establish self-sufficient farms. These settlers valued individualism, but they also relied on a network of kin and neighbors and shared a sense of community obligation. Individuals who owned scarce tools or materials were expected to allow others to use them. Farmers hunted in woodlands owned by other settlers, and hogs roamed freely. The settlers recognized the rights of squatters to land they had cleared and planted and prevented challenges to such customarily accepted rights. If, for example, a land speculator tried to bid for a squatter’s land, he was liable to be physically knocked down by local settlers. Settlers also gathered together, combining work and play in bees and frolics. An English visitor to Illinois in
1819–1820 recorded that the Americans he met did much of their work together. The men, he wrote, “have husking, reaping [and] rolling frolics” while the women met “to pick cotton from the seeds, make clothes, or quilt quilts.” Regardless of the kind of frolic, whiskey and dancing were always popular at the end of the day. One early settler, Elizabeth McDowell Hill, recalled a “spinning frolic” in which two young ladies competed for the affections of a young man. “They began at six in the morning and spun until six in the evening,” she recalled. “At six o’clock Nancy was thirty rounds ahead. Forever afterward the fair Sarah had to look elsewhere for her swain.”
Marriage and Women’s Work. Folk songs and poems of the early nineteenth century sometimes reflected a view of marriage as less a romantic tie than an economic partnership. The happy marriage, according to folk wisdom, had to be founded on the practical and reciprocal skills of husband and wife. A part of a doggerel from Illinois suggests that romantic love was not always expected to last long in a marriage:
First month, honey month,
Next month like pie;
Third month, you dirty bitch,
Get out and work like I.
Women had few conveniences in Western settlements, but their labor was indispensable for maintaining a successful farm. Women were responsible for child care, meals, and cleaning. They carded, spun, wove cloth, and made nearly all of the family clothing. In addition they kept gardens; made towels, soap, candles and other necessities; and cared for cattle. The women of Sugar Creek also had large families: those born before 1810 who lived past age forty-five raised on average more than eight children. Of these children, one or two would probably die before reaching adulthood.
Daniel D. Muldoon, “Daily Life of the Mountain Trapper,” Journal of the West, 26 (October 1987): 14-20;
John Woods, “Two Years’ Residence in the Settlement on the English Prairie, in the Illinois Country, United States,” in Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, volume 10, edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark, 1904), p. 300.