PIONEER LIFE AND CUSTOMS
For most of the matter contained in this chapter we are indebted to Dr. J. B. McFerrin, himself a pioneer, and able from his personal recollections to describe graphically the scenes of that period.
As salt was very difficult to obtain, the first settlers saved their meats by drying them in the sun and open air. This was commonly called "jerking." The meat was cut into thin slices and strung upon sticks, which were placed upon scaffolds in the sun, or over a slow fire, and kept until perfectly dry; in this condition it remained sound and sweet for a long time.
The immigrants in coming into Middle Tennessee usually followed Indian trails and buffalo paths, or, guided by their pocket compass, followed their course till they reached their destined point. They usually located near a spring of clear water, where they encamped till they could determine on some permanent settlement. They generally came in companies. Each man had his rifle, his shot-pouch, powder-horn and ammunition. Each company had a number of pack-horses on which they brought their camp-kettles, provisions and blankets, and, when families came through, a small amount of bedding, with wearing-apparel, was brought along to supply the women and children, and with which to make a little start in housekeeping.
Many of them built "half-faced camps," in which they lived till they could clear a patch, plant some corn, and erect a cabin. These camps were constructed of forked stakes driven into the ground, across which poles were laid, and covered with split clapboards. The rear portion of the structure reached the ground, the ends were inclosed, while the whole front was left open. The bed was made upon boughs under the slanting roof, while the fire at the open front served them for warmth and for cooking such provisions as they could obtain. A skillet with a lid, a small pot, and an oven were considered a large supply of cooking-utensils. Those who were not so well provided broiled their meat upon the coals, or in a spit made of a hickory stick, while the bread was baked in the ashes or on a journey, vulgarly called a "johnny," cake-board. These journey-cakes were delicious. The board was made of a piece of timber or plank dressed smooth, about six inches wide and twenty long, and the dough, well kneaded, was placed upon the board, set before a fire of hot coals, baked, turned, and cooked brown. It was choice bread on the tables of the most aristocratic pioneers. Made rich by lard, cracklings, or bear’s oil, it was delicious.
These camps were followed by log cabins made of trees cut from the forests. They were usually small and constructed of round logs, roughly notched together at the corners. One doorway, and a window made by cutting one log in two, were the common modes of admitting the inhabitants, light and air. The chimney was made of sticks and clay, and the cracks were sometimes daubed with mud. The floor was often nothing but the earth beat solid, or made of rough puncheons split from soft trees, generally lin, which grew in abundance. A hewed log house with a shingled roof, stone chimney, plank floor, and glass windows was considered a great improvement on the primitive cabin, and a mark of wealth and distinction. For a considerable time in the early settlement there were the best houses which the country afforded, and many of them are still standing.
The fare in those days might be considered rough; venison, bear meat, elk, and wild turkeys were considered luxuries. As civilization advanced, and the game became scarce, "hog and hominy" became the standing dishes. After a while the farmers began to grow wheat, and as soon as mills existed for converting it into flour the youngsters were allowed wheat, or English bread, as it was called, on Sunday morning. Coffee was a rare article, and only indulged in on great occasions. The most wealthy could not think of its use more than once a week. Sugar and syrup were principally procured from the maple-trees, which were "notched" in the latter part of winter or early spring, the sap caught in troughs, and boiled down in kettles or pots till it became thick enough to be "stirred off" into sugar, as the process was called. These sugar-camps were great institutions in their day, and a "stirring off" was a grand occasion, when many a gallant youth made love to his blue-eyed sweetheart, or to the smiling lass whose raven locks floated carelessly on the winds of the wildwood. These "stirs off" were far more romantic and enchanting than the artificial "candy-pullings" of more modern times. The first marriage celebrated in Davidson County or west of the Cumberland Mountains, was that of Capt. Leiper. This was in 1780, before there was a clergyman in the settlement. Col. James Robertson, as head of the government of the "notables," performed the ceremony. An early historian says, "There was pretty much of a feast at this wedding, and a most cheerful company. They had no wine or ardent spirits; they had no wheat or corn-bread, no cakes, no confectionaries; but they had any quantity of fresh and dried meat - buffalo, tongue, bear meat, venison saddle and venison ham - broiled, stewed, fried and jerked, and, as a great delicacy for the ladies, some roasting ears, or ears of green corn roasted, or boiled, or made into succotash." *
The people of those days were plain and full of hospitality. There was no extravagance, but all seemed determined to make their adopted country a delightful land. The women spun and wove and made bed-quilts, nursed their own children, and thought a house full of rosy boys and girls a great treasure. The men lived on wholesome, strong food and wore homespun. Public men in those days were expected to be men of integrity, and when a man was found competent and faithful in office he was kept at his post. One of the acts passed by the first court was in these words:
"Whereas, In all well-regulated governments effectual care is always taken that the day set apart for public worship be observed and kept holy, all persons are enjoined carefully to apply themselves to the duties of religion and piety, to abstain from labor in ordinary callings. All violations to be punished by fine of ten shillings proclamation money. Profane swearing, intemperance, lewdness, and other like vices and improprieties were also to be punished. Another act provided:
"Whereas, Wicked men, too lazy to get their living by honest labor, make it their business to ride in the woods and steal cattle and hogs, and alter and deface marks and brands, when convicted shall be
"Fined can confined.
And scorched with a brand
In the left hand,
As you may see,
With a big letter T."
And scorched with a brand
In the left hand,
As you may see,
With a big letter T."
Dr. McFerrin thus describes the first schools and schoolhouses:
"At the appointed day the whole community met together, with axes, frow, wagons, and teams. A site was selected, trees felled, the logs hauled, the house raised, the roof put on, the benches made, the writing-desk fixed at one side, a log being cut out to admit the light, and proclamation was made that John Smith would open a three months’ school next Monday morning. Mr. Smith was represented as a fit model to take care of his institution. He could read, write a fair hand, set a good copy, and cipher to the double rule of three. And besides, his terms were reasonable. He could teach five days in a week, and twelve hours each day, or at least the children must leave home by sunrise each morning; and would be let out just enough to return before dark. Those who lived a great distance off might be let out a little sooner, so as not to be out in the night. And then he would charge at the rate of eight dollars a year; he would make up all the time he missed, and deduct from the price of tuition every day the child was absent by will of the parent. He would ‘board round’ among the scholars, and take his pay one-half in money and the remainder in trade, corn and pork especially, they being the staple commodities of the country.
"Monday morning bright and early you might see the boys and girls, from twenty-one years old down to five, pouring in from every quarter. Mr. Smith was there in time. He had secured a chair with a raw-hide seat, which was very comfortable. He had no other fixtures, save a large flat ruler, with a half-dozen long switches hung upon a peg in the wall immediately on his right hand. These were the signs of his authority, and naturally made the backs of the boys cringe and the hands of the girls feel blue. Each pupil was examined not as to his progress in knowledge, but in reference to the books he brought. All went to work, and then, each vying with the other as to the noise he could produce, the whole school went into an uproar, and could be heard for half a mile, like so many frogs in a pond, some sounding a low, heavy bass, while others, keyed to the highest pitch, would carry the treble, tenor, or counter. The music of these noisy schools can only be appreciated by those who have heard them in their highest state of excitement."
The Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists were the principal sects represented in the earliest religious meetings. The Presbyterian ministers were men of most learning, and usually taught schools of a higher grade, as they could be introduced and supported in the more populous centres, such as Nashville. The Baptists were generally very plain men, who made no pretensions to learning, but were full of zeal. In the early times they were nearly all "old-side Baptists," and held to the doctrine of particular election. Many of their preachers were men of natural gifts, but they nearly all had a sing-song mode of preaching which was very solemn and affecting. The Methodist preachers were generally termed "circuit-riders." They were usually single men, and devoted all their time to traveling and preaching on circuits which were hundreds of miles around, and in school-houses, private dwellings, in the woods, under brush arbors, or in the shade of the forest-trees. The Methodist "circuit-rider" might generally be known from his dress and equipage. He usually rode a good horse, kept in fine condition. His saddle was covered with a dressed bear-skin or buffalo-robe. His saddle-bags were large and well filled. He carried his clothing and books along. The idea of a boarding-house was not conceived of in those days. He kept house in his saddle-bags. He wore a broad-brimmed white house made of beaver; his coat was round-breasted, and usually made of jeans; his vest was full and long, and forked at the corners, and had broad pocket-flaps. They had loud voices and sang well. They were a terror to sinners,-persecuted and yet beloved. A grander race of men never blessed any country.
As the county grew older the people began to build meeting houses. Some of the earliest of these were rude in the extreme, being built of hewed or round logs, and seated with plain benches. "A heavy piece of plank or puncheon had holes bored through it with a large auger, and four pegs or legs inserted, and these were placed in front of the pulpit and occupied by men and women, who all sat apart. No backs, no cushions, no kneeling-stools, no carpets, -the naked floor and hard seats! and here the congregation would often remain patiently while two long sermons were delivered. Long journeys were taken in those days to attend religious services, and the people always attended dressed in their best Sunday-clothes. Mothers would carry their children for miles to enjoy a good gospel feast. Many of the poorer classes of young ladies went on foot and carried their shoes and stockings in their hands, rolled up in cotton handkerchiefs, till they came near the meeting-house, when they would turn aside, array their feet, and appear in the congregation as neat as a new pin."
The pioneer preachers never saw an organ or heard a church choir. The Presbyterians generally had a leader whom they called a clerk, whose business it was to line the hymn and lead the music. He was always a layman and a person of great consequence. The Baptists usually lined the hymn, reading only one line at a time, and this was done in a very solemn sing-song manner. The Methodists were noted for their fine singing. The preachers always read their own hymns, two lines at a time, and the congregation joined in singing. "Singing-masters," or teachers of vocal music, were early in the country.
A very common costume in Tennessee among the hunters and pioneers and the later volunteer soldiery was the hunting-shirt and its appendages, which now have gone entirely out of use. It was a picturesque and convenient costume, admirably adapted to the comeliness and comfort of the farmer, hunter, and pedestrian. The mountain-men in the Revolution, the volunteer soldiery in all the campaigns of the West and in the war of 1812, uniformly wore it. Many of them did so in the war with Mexico and in Texas, but the volunteer’s hunting-shirt is evidently gone out of use. Speaking of this costume, Mr. Custis says, --
"The hunting-shirt, the emblem of the Revolution, is now banished from the national military, but still lingers among the hunters and pioneers of the far West. This national costume was adopted in the outset of the Revolution, and was recommended by Washington to the army in the most eventful period of the war of independence. It was a favorite garb with many of the officers of the line. The British beheld these sons of the mountain and forest, thus attired, with wonder and admiration. Their hardy looks, their tall, athletic forms, their marching in Indian file with the light and noiseless step peculiar to their pursuit of woodland game, but above all, to European eyes, their singular and picturesque costume, - the hunting-shirt, with its fringes, wampum-belts, leggins and moccasins, the tomahawk and knife, -these, with the well known death-dealing aim of these matchless marksmen, created in the European military a degree of awe and respect for the hunting-shirt which lasted with the war of the Revolution. And should not Americans feel proud of the garb, and hail it as a national, in which their fathers endured such toil and privation in the mighty struggle for independence, -the march across the wilderness, the triumphs of Saratoga and King’s Mountain? But a little while, and of truth, the hunting-shirt, the venerable emblem of the Revolution, will have disappeared from among the Americans, and will be found only in museums, like ancient armor, exposed to the gaze of the curious."
* [transcriber note - Succotash, equal amounts of dried shell beans (lima beans may be substituted) and dried corn soaked separately in water for several hours, cook beans in simmering water until tender then add corn and cook till liquid is gone; add butter and cream; add salt and pepper to taste.]
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