How Early Pioneers Lived


How Early Pioneers Lived

More than 140 years ago in 1817 the first tracts of land to be cleared of the forests were near Middle Grove in Monroe County, which was still a part of Pike, Randolph and Rails counties. The first permanent settlements were made in 1820 when Ezra Fox and Daniel and Andrew Wittenburg and others settled on farms about three miles east of Middle Grove. At that time a stage ran between Middle Grove and Hannibal about twice a week, the road being about eight miles south of Paris and three miles south of what is now Monroe City.

The historic town of Florida was settled within a few years, and other settlements were made near Same Fe, Old Clinton, and Madison. Our neighboring town, Paris, was laid out in 1831 end was named for Paris, Kentucky, the native town of Mrs. Cephas Fox of the Middle Grove vicinity.

The first settlers arrived in their covered wagons from Virginia and Kentucky with very few necessities and no luxuries of life. They usually brought enough grain with them to plant crops. Wild turkeys, geese, deer, elk and prairie chickens were plentiful so meat was provided in abundance.

Their first homes were very crude houses of one room with perhaps a shed room the first few years. Inc floors were of puncheon and a fireplace, which served the double purpose of heating the room and providing a means of cooking, was made of mud and stones. The settlers later built two story log houses with a hall in the center which contained the stairway leading upstairs to the rooms. Many of the settlers were accompanied by their slaves, who were put to work chopping down trees and clearing the land for sowing grain. The matter of water was a serious problem and usually a search was made for a spring on the land. The settlers from Kentucky almost always settled in the timber, near springs or along the rivers. The house and barn would be built near the spring and a shelter was built over the spring to keep the milk cool.

Their furniture consisted of the four poster beds, curtained off, with trundle beds underneath on which the children slept, a chest of drawers, a home made table, chairs, and in the more aristocratic families, a sofa.

Cooking was done in iron kettles which were set on tri-cornered iron holders. This was placed in the hottest place in the fire in the fireplace. Skillets, pots and tin pans were also used and every family had a huge brass kettle in which they made their soap, apple butter, maple syrup, and rendered out the lard.

Spinning wheels were a necessity in every home They were either purchased in Hannibal or else the handy householder would make one for his wife. Most of the settlers raised hemp and obtained their linen this way. They all raised sheep which furnished the wool for clothes, blankets and other clothing needs. The wool was washed and then sent to the woolen mill near Paris to be carded. After the carding process the wool was spun into long woolen threads and then woven. Goods for the women’s dresses was called linsey and the men’s clothes were called jeans.

Staple food for the settlers was the barn and salt pork smoked by hickory log fire, dried beef, wild turkey, wild geese and deer. There would also be dried corn, dried apples, peaches and other fruits would be preserved in huge stone jars. The famous johnny cake, made of flour and corn meal and sweet-dried with molasses or honey and baked in ashes, was used for bread. The cacklin’ corn bread, served with hop jowl and greens, was considered a feast.

The houses were rarely plastered. Sometimes they would be weather boarded inside. Very few homes had windows, and when they did, the windows were square places left in the logs and covered over with greased paper. Sometimes, the settlers would whitewash their house on the outside.

Fires were made by striking a piece of steel against a flint rock. Light was furnished by tallow candles which the house­wife made. There wire no sewing machines and all garments had to be made by hand.

The floors of the houses were made of the smooth side of the logs and the “front room”  or “parlor" would usually have a carpet. The kitchen would not have a carpet. The dishes were usually heavy coarse ware with a design of flowers, and sometimes the must treasured possession of the housewife was a beautiful piece of pewter brought from Kentucky or Virginia.

The homes had no screens at the door and the flies and fleas and mosquitoes were left to their own feast. Most of the homes were without porches. The yards were enclosed with a rail fence and in the front yard, was the “stile block,” a wooden platform where the modest women of the family were courteously assisted to mount their horses or helped into the big wagon. The women wore voluminous skirts and managed to acquire side saddles and ride them. They wore “half hands" or gloves that left the fingers free to pick the berries or hoe the garden.

Dress styles changed very little. The mother hubbard, a long loose, full-flowing garment hanging from the shoulders like a Roman toga, was the prevailing fashion and on Sunday, there would be the wrapper, a curious garment quite tight in front with as incredible amount of goods gathered up tight and bunched in the back over a bustle. In the 1,860’s came the amazing hoop skirts, and wash waists and poke bonnets. Later on, there were “tea jackets” and skirts and in the 1890’s, the shirt waist was ushered in and held the style for many years. Milk white complexions were considered the height of beauty and our great-great-grandmothers would be amazed at the “heat lamps,” suntan lotions and “sun­bathing” during the summertime to get that dark tan. Petticoats were numerous and starched stiffly with yards of tucks, ruffles and lace.

Farming Very Crude

The farming of the early settlers seems very crude to us today with all the mod­ern farm machinery. Oats, wheat, hay, and other crops were sown by hand, the farmer simply walking through the field and scattering the grain right and left. It was cut with a cradle, a rounded sickle like affair with an attachment of finger-like rods to a scythe for receiving the grain and laying it evenly in swaths. A good man could cut about 10 acres a day but the average was about 6 or 8 acres. Wheat and oats were then piled in the barn and horses driven or led over it until the grain was threshed. It was then put through a fanning mill and the chaff fanned out. Six bushels to the acre was considered a fair yield. The grain was stored in the house as a preventive of mold forming, also to keep the rats away.

Wolves were thick in the woods when the settlers first came. Their howls could be heard all night. Occasionally panthers and wildcats were seen by the settlers. The wolves would prey on young pigs and would run in packs, giving chase to dogs, sometimes running them up to the very door of the house. Trapping wolves became a very profitable business after the state began to pay for the scalps.

A book, “View of the Valley of the Mississippi,” by Robert Baird, written in 1831, the year Monroe County was created, gave the following description of early life, as follows:

“The forest abound with deer, wolves, panthers, wild turkeys, etc. The buffalo and elk have retired to the region lying westward beyond the state. Hunting gives employment and sustenance to a semi-barbaric population, which is constantly pressing on the heels of the retreating savages. These hunters settle on either United States or Indian lands and cultivating a little spot of ground, continue there until the game has disappeared or the proper claimant of the lands comes and warns them off. One of these hunters told me he came from “Old Kentucky” many years since and he had killed 1500 deer, 300 bears, a hundred buffalo and other game in great numbers. These squatters are most deplorably ignorant.” .

‘There were gloomy years of financial depression and sickness, but now in 1831 prosperity has beamed upon the state and health and plenty exist throughout its borders.

“A vast amount of land in Missouri is for sale in 1831 at the low price of a dollar and a quarter an acre. Partially cultivated land may be pur­chased for very reasonable terms.

“There is a decided moral change going on throughout the state. The increase of good men in counteracting the influence of the reckless characters that come to this remote country. An interest in awakening in the subject of education. Next to Virginia, Missouri is now the largest state in the union and is destined to become exceedly prosperous and powerful.”

The home remedies for disease were very primitive, camphor, turpentine and liniment could be secured, catnip tea was a tried and true remedy, goose grease and skunk oil were given to croupy children. 

Amusements Were Simple

The amusements were simple but were keenly enjoyed. There were occasional quilting bees when the women of the neighborhood would gather and help the housewife with her quilts. The corn huskings where the huskers sat in rows on the barn floor and ate apples and drank cider. Weddings were occasions of feasting and merrymaking. Distances were so long that frequently the guests would remain overnight.

Families were large, many having from 10 to 18 children. A family of eight was considered a moderate sized family. When a son married, he usually bought a 40-acre farm adjoining the old homeplace or else the father gave the land outright to him. A cow, a horse and a saddle were the usual presents given to each boy. The neighbors came in, after the boy had cut the logs, and helped to put up the house. The women folks came in and served a huge meal out under the trees. The usual house for the newly­weds would be a room 16 feet square with perhaps a shed room. The mother of the bride would provide the feather beds, pillows, dishes, quilts, chickens, and the newly married couple would be ready to settle down. The whole outlay would likely cost less than $50 and a man was economically fitted for marriage by the time he was 20. The gun was placed in a rack over the door in case of an animal prowler by night and the newlyweds started their honeymoon. Girls were married at 16 and would have families of five or six children by the time they were 25.

Schools in the area were one room log buildings with puncheon floors. Hard long benches served as desks with no backs to them. Sometimes the school was perched upon pegs or stilts two feet or more from the ground. The studies usually consisted of three R’s, Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic, and the old blue back speller. McGuffey’s readers were full of excerpts from the classics and original stories containing a very pointed moral.

Boys and girls usually continued to attend school until they were married. The teacher would give out stray bits of in­formation about physiology, astronomy, geography, history from his own scanty knowledge of the subjects. The arithme­tic ‘studied was Ray’s First, Second and Third part. When the Third part was completed, the student was considered a graduate. More than 70 to 80 pupils were enrolled and crowded into the small log school.

Classes were called to the front of the room to recite the lesson. Members of the teaching profession usually received about $25 per month. The teachers were nearly always men and boarded around from house to house.

School House Served as a Church

The school house served as a meeting house on Sunday for the religious groups. Itinerant preachers brought the word of God to the God fearing settlers. The women sat on one side of the house and the men on the other. After the services the preacher would be invited to accom­pany some member home. The entire congregation would spend the rest of the day listening to the preacher talk and getting the gossip of the neighborhood.

Scattered over the county were small stores or trading points. Mark Twain’s description of his birthplace, Florida, is so typical of those frontier posts that it is hereby inserted:

“I was born the 30th of November 1835, in the almost invisible village of Florida, Monroe County, Mo. I suppose Florida had less than three hundred inhabitants. It had two ‘streets, each a couple of hundred yards long; the rest of the avenues mere lanes, with rail fences and corn fields on either side. Both the streets and the lanes were paved with the same material — tough, ‘black mud in wet times, deep dust in dry.

“Most of the houses were of logs —  all of them, indeed, except three or four; these latter being frame ones. There was none of brick, and none of stone. There was a log church, with a puncheon floor and slab benches. A puncheon floor is made of logs whose upper surfaces have been chipped flat with the adze. The cracks between the logs were not filled; there was no carpet; conse­quently, if you dropped anything smaller than a peach it was likely to go through.

“The church was perched upon short sections of logs, which elevated it two or three feet from the ground. Hogs slept under there, and when­ever the dogs got after them during services the minister had to wait till the disturbance was over. In winter there was always a refreshing breeze up through the puncheon floor; in summer there were fleas enough for all.

“A slab bench is made of the out­side cut of a sawlog, with the bark side down; it is supported on four sticks driven into auger holes at the ends; it has no back and no cushions. The church was twi lighted with yel­low tallow candles in lined scones hung against the walls. Week days, the church was a school house.

“There were two stores in the village. My uncle, John A. Queries, was proprietor of one of them. It was a very small establishment with a few rolls of ‘bit’ calicoes on half a dozen shelves, a few barrels of salt mack­erel, coffee, and New Orleans sugar behind the counter, stacks of brooms, shovels, axes, hoes, rakes, and such things, here and there, a lot of cheap hats, bonnets and tinware strung on strings and suspended from the walls; and at the other end of the room was another counter with bags of shot on it, a cheese or two, and a keg of powder in front of it, a row of nail kegs, and a few pigs of lead; and be­hind it a barrel or two of New Orleans molasses and native corn whiskey on tap.

“If a ‘boy bought S or 10 cents worth of anything he was entitled to half a handful of sugar from the bar­rel; if a woman bought a few yards of calico she was entitled to a spool of thread in addition to the usual gratis ‘trimmin’s;’ if a man bought a trifle he was at liberty to draw and swallow as big a drink of whiskey as he wanted.

“Everything was cheap — apples, peaches, sweet potatoes, Irish pota­toes, and corn, 10 cents a bushel; chickens, 10 cents apiece; butter, 6 cents a pound; eggs, 3 cents a dozen; coffee and sugar, 5 cents a pound; whiskey 10 cents a gallon.”