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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Indiana Frontier

For most pioneers, including the Lincolns, the trip west was only the beginning of their new adventure. Once they had reached their destination they had to set about establishing a new home in the middle of an unsettled frontier. The most immediate need was shelter. Often times a temporary structure was put up to protect the family from the elements until a bigger cabin could be built. This was true for the Lincolns during their first winter in Indiana when they lived in a small, hastily constructed log cabin. But at the first opportunity, they began constructing a permanent home. Given the extensive forests that covered much of the land, the log cabin was a natural choice for their dwellings. Logs, often of tulip poplar and about a foot in diameter, were cut to proper size and notched at the ends so corners would be level and secure. Doors and windows were cut in the walls and a fireplace and chimney were built at one end. Clay and mud were used as chinking (filler) between the logs and a roof of wooden shingles topped the structure. Most cabins began with dirt floors; wooden floors were an addition that could wait until later.

The interior of the cabin generally had few furnishings. Most furniture had to be fashioned from natural materials nearby. Beds, stools, tables, chairs, and cupboards were made by the pioneer out of the same trees that he cut to clear his land. Most utensils were also made of wood or of gourds, but there were usually a few items of iron cookware, such as the three-legged spider skillet and a kettle for cooking over the open fire.

Obtaining food to cook over the fire occupied a large amount of the pioneers' time. Hunting was the primary means of obtaining meat for the earliest settlers. Indiana in the early 19th century was rich in natural resources and game was abundant. Deer and bear were initially plentiful and pigeons were reported in flocks so large that they darkened the sky when they flew over. But as the state became more heavily settled hunting became more of a challenge, and the pioneer relied more on agriculture to feed his family. In order for agriculture to be successful, though, the forests had to be cleared. The woodsman's axe was a tool every bit as important as the rifle on the frontier. Trees were either felled or girdled by removing the bark all the way around, causing them to die. Girdled trees could be burned later or left to fall. In the meantime, with the leaves dead, sunshine could reach the crops planted amongst the trees. The timber that was cleared was used for fences, buildings, fuel and other purposes.

Corn was the main crop for the pioneer because it grew easily in the Indiana soil and climate. Thomas Lincoln had, by 1824, 10 acres of corn as well as about 5 acres of wheat and 2 acres of oats. Corn was the basic ingredient in the pioneer's diet, although he did try to supplement it with some garden vegetables such as cabbage, beans, peas, potatoes, onions, pumpkins, and lettuce. Livestock for the typical frontier farm usually consisted of a dairy cow, a couple of horses, some sheep, chickens, and hogs.

Just as they had to provide their own food and shelter, the pioneers also had to make their own clothing. The most common material in the early years was deerskin, which they fashioned into moccasins, shirts and breeches. Later, they used wool and flax, a plant with a long fiber that could be spun into thread and loomed into linen. Wool yarn and linen thread could be woven together to produce linsey-woolsey, a hardwearing, coarse cloth from which most clothes were made. Combing, carding, and spinning wool was a continuous chore for the women and girls.

Life on the frontier was hard and sometimes dangerous. Disease took its toll on many a family. There were fevers of various kinds and occasional outbreaks of such things as cholera and milk sickness, which killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. There were also any number of accidents that could result in injuries like broken bones, deep cuts, and burns. Sometimes these injuries proved fatal. To combat many of these diseases and to try to survive, the pioneers looked to the resources they had on hand and discovered that many of the plants that grew around them could be used as medicines. In this, as in most other areas of their lives, they were forced to do for themselves.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What was one of the most immediate needs of a pioneer family when they settled in a new area?

2. How did the pioneer home and its furnishings compare with your home today?

3. What were the principal sources of food for the pioneers? How did their efforts to acquire food differ from ours today?

4. How and where did the pioneers get their clothes? Where do you get yours? Who makes them?

5. What were some of the dangers faced by the pioneers? What do you see as some threats we face today? Do you think the lives of pioneers were more or less dangerous than ours today?

6. How do you think growing up on the frontier may have affected Abraham Lincoln?

Reading 3 was adapted from The Lincoln Notebook, prepared by the staff of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

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