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Pioneer Life In Red River Valley


Wesley Wallenberg

The pioneers and settlers in The Red River Valley camefrom a variety of places. Most of them in our immediate area came from PrinceEdward Island in Canada. However, the Prince Edward Islanders are not theonly settlers in our area. We also have Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Ukrainian,and German immigrants.

Despite their different languages and customs, they allhad things in common. Braving the hardships, scratching a living out ofthe wilderness, and fighting off unfriendly Indians. Because of the hardshipsthat often befell the pioneer families, the pioneers banded together formutual protection. They realized the importance of lending a helpful hand.They were the people that civilized the Dakota Territory.

The first pioneers really had to work to make a livingout of the land. These men, women and children often encountered Indiansthat were going to fight for their old hunting grounds.

More and more pioneers came in and as they did they wentdeeper into the continent and maybe even brought distant relatives intothe Red River Valley where they chose to live and farm.

These pioneers had many things to do on the new lands.The pioneers usually arrived in spring which is the planting season. A crophad to be planted before winter came so that they could survive the wintercold. The pioneers wanted a cozy home also before the winter's icy gripcame upon the land.

This is how the pioneers homesteaded their land. First,they picked a spot where the soil was good for farming, then they proceededto clear the land so they could till the soil and plant their crops.

Since the farmers had to worry about getting the cropsin, there was usually very little time to worry about building a home. So,the pioneer family erected a sod hut, which is constructed of horizontalpieces of turf or sod. Otherwise, they built a half-camp. A half-camp consistedof a bunch of twisted branches and twigs fastened together to form the roofand three sides of the house. The fourth wall was open and had a fire infront of the open space that was left burning all night long. The fire servedtwo purposes: First, the fire was used for cooking the pioneer's food inthe daytime. Second, the fire protected the families from wild animals whichwere afraid of flame in the darkness of the night.

Some of our forefather's houses were made of logs, or sod.These logs were felled by the pioneers with the trusty old ax, the logswere about twelve to fifteen feet long. The men then cut notches at bothends, the notched ends were fitted together to form what we call a lap jointand this made the walls of the cabin. Four heavier logs made up the baseor foundation. The walls were generally seven to eight feet in height. Sincethe cabin walls consisted of such large logs, no man could lift the logsby himself, the neighbors would gather in a group to help each newcomer,this was called a house raising. Even the women and children helped. Theirjob was to fill the spaces between the logs with clay, moss, or mud - theprocess was called chinking.

After the walls were completed, the roof was started. Firstof all, the men fitted logs together on top of the sides to form the frame.The clapboards were fastened to the frame. The clapboards were overlappedso the rain would run off. Metal nails were something that were scarce inpioneer times. The pioneers used wooden ones instead of metal ones. Theboys who couldn't help with the roof would have the job of whittling thewooden nails. The house wasn't complete yet. The house did have four walls,a roof, and a ground floor which was temporary until the pioneers had timeto build a wooden floor. The floor was started by splitting logs into slabscalled puncheons. Having them split side up he would put them into the groundlengthwise, wedging them together. The surface of the floor was made ofmuch smoother slabs.

A fireplace stood at one end of the cabin. It consistedof a log chimney, chinked and lined with clay. The hearth, which was madeof stones, was the favorite gathering place of the family. The mother whokept the fire going most of the day, used it for cooking, light and warmth.The frontier cabins had windows, but they were very small and usually coveredwith animal skins or greased paper. The greased paper was the best becauseit let some light in during the day. Glass wasn't readily available. However,most pioneers replaced their greased paper as soon as possible.

The cabin door consisted of thick pieces of wood fastenedtogether to cross pieces. The hinges on which the door swung were made ofleather. When the latch string was pulled from the outside, the latch onthe inside would pull up and then you could enter. At night the latch stringwas pulled inside and a strong timber was put across the door.

Now that the exterior of the cabin was completed, the pioneerfamily was ready to move in. Since the pioneer family brought very littlefurniture or cooking utensils, they often made their own. After the familywas fully settled, they might buy some things from the general store, atrading post, or a peddler. Most every settlement had a blacksmith, a cabinetmaker, and other craftsmen. The family table consisted of several splitlog slabs with four sturdy legs. The smaller slabs were used for benchesand stools.

The boys of the families made many of the household utensils.Most of the boys were skillful whittlers. They carved wooden spoons, ladles,bowls, and platters. They also whittled long pegs that were driven intothe walls to hold family clothing. Deer horns hung over the door made goodracks for the pioneer's rifle, bullet pouch and powder horn.

If a person looks at the primitive tools that the pioneershad to use to clear the land, you'd wonder how they could have survivedthe wilderness. The basic tool of the pioneers was the double-bladed ax.This was a very versatile tool, and its uses include chopping wood, felling,cutting logs for a cabin, and sometimes it was used as a shovel. Most ofthe soil that the pioneers had contained a lot of rocks and stumps. Oftenneighbors would lend a hand to newcomers and come over to pick rocks andhelp clear out stumps.

The pioneers also had other tools used for farming. Theywere the plow, the hoe, the scythe, and a few other tools that he broughtwith him to the frontier. His cabin became a workshop as well as a home.The farmers made the most of their farm tools, including the flails, harrows,and rakes. Sometimes, the pioneer made a pitch fork out of a long stickattached to deer antlers.

The pioneers made many household items too. They whittledwooden spoons, bowls, and platters, and used gourds and animal horns forcups and containers.

The pioneer made several kinds of mills to grind corn intomeal. Some made a hand mill of two large stones, one on top of the other.The corn was placed between the stones. The top stone had a handle. Whenthe handle was turned, the corn was ground into meal.

The pioneers usually molded their own rifle bullets fromlumps of lead sold by the storekeeper, he also sold gunpowder.

A newcomer could get these vital supplies by promisingto pay later with farm products. If the settlement had no store, a few settlerswould travel together to the nearest store.

The early settlement had no doctors, but every woman couldcount on her neighbor for help when she needed it.

The pioneers made medicines from such plants as ginsingand jack-in-the-pulpit, they used the medicines to treat colds, pneumonia,and ague, and illnesses similar to malaria. Many pioneers believed someobjects had magic powers that cured or prevented many illnesses. A rattlesnakeheart was supposed to cure epilepsy, a dead spider hung around the neckwas supposed to cure ague, a bag of asafetida was worn around the neck tokeep a person healthy.

Corn and wheat and meat were the basic foods of the family.The family ate corn in some form at every meal. Corn and wheat were thepioneer's main crops because they kept well in any season. They also couldbe used in many ways. After it was husked, the corn kernels could be groundinto corn meal and after the wheat was threshed, the wheat seeds could beground into flour. Corn meal was used to make mush, or various kinds ofcorn bread, ash cake, hoe cake, Johnny cake, or corn pone. Wheat flour wasmade into whole wheat bread and an occasional apple pie. For a special treat,the ears of corn were roasted.

The pioneers raised cattle, hogs, chickens, oxen and horses.They hunted wild fowl and other game for their meat supply. Many meals consistedof wild duck, pigeon, turkey, bear, buffalo, deer, possum, rabbit or evensquirrel. In many areas, wild pigs were also hunted.

The pioneers had no refrigeration, but they did know howto keep meat from spoiling. They cut some into strips and dried them inthe sun, other were smoked. Some were salted in brine which is nothing morethan salty water, the most common meat for salting was pork.

Salt was in great demand on the frontier for the preservationand seasoning of food. It brought high prices when it came from the East.Instead of paying the high prices, settlers gathered together once a yearto travel to the salt licks. A travel to the salt licks, no matter whatthe distance, was worthwhile for the settlers. The men took home enoughsalt to last his family and the community for a whole year.

Planting vegetables and herbs was the main job for thewomen and girls. Most of the vegetables planted by the pioneers could becooked into hearty meals. Some of the vegetables that the pioneers plantedare beans, cabbage, potatoes, squash, and turnips. The herbs consisted ofdill and sage.

Milk from the family cow was the chief mealtime drink.Coffee and tea were too expensive for the frontier. Whiskey made from cornwas a popular drink of the men folk. The pioneer sometimes mixed corn whiskeywith milk, and some sweetener and served it to the entire family. Commonsweeteners included honey, molasses, and maple sugar or syrup.

These pioneers of the Red River Valley were a sturdy breedof people and I am proud to be a relative of some of the original settlersin this area.


The World Book Encyclopedia, Field Enterprises EducationalCorporation, Copyright 1972, Volume 15, pp. 432-438

Comptons Pictured Encyclopedia, F.E. Compton Company, Copyright1967, Volume II, pp. 332-333

Pearl Wallenberg, Interview, December 1973, Subject: "LogCabins"

ured Encyclopedia, F.E. Compton Company, Copyright1967, Volume II, pp. 332-333

Pearl Wallenberg, Interview, December 1973, Subject: "LogCabins"