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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

The Pioneer's Food

Dallas Bogan on 13 September 2004
The following is taken from Dallas Bogan's book, "The Pioneer writings of Josiah Morrow."
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The Bill of Fare of the Earliest Settlers In the Northwest Territory.

Venison and Bear Meat--Fat and Oil from the Bear--The Woodsmen's Delicatessen--Food at Columbia--Cuisine
of the Pioneer's Log Cabin--Bread Stuffs
--Indian Corn and Indian Meal.

August 26, 1909

In our last number some account of the frontier hunters in the forests of the Miami valley who preceded the first white settlers or pursued game at a distance from their earliest settlements. From the most trustworthy accounts of these early rangers of the wilderness it is certain that their life was a precarious one, and that even before the wild animals were scared away by the white settler's gun and ax they sometimes roamed the woods for days without animal food. At other times they would have a superabundance of meat from animals killed chiefly for their skins and furs.
There seems to have been from the first a good demand for the skins of some animals and the furs of others found in the woods of Ohio. Elder Matthew Gardner, the pioneer preacher of Brown county, Ohio, says in his autobiography that the first money he ever earned was twenty-five cents for a raccoon skin he secured on the north side of the Ohio about 1804. He was at the time about fourteen years old and could scarcely read, and the quarter of a dollar he first earned he spent for a copy of Webster's Spelling book. An expert hunter in the Northwest Territory could sometimes secure in one winter peltry worth several hundred dollars.
After Cincinnati became a garrison town a pioneer hunter named Jacob Fowler and his brother Matthew, made a living for one season by supplying the settlers and the soldiers with meat and selling skins to a tanner in the new town. They usually hunted on the Kentucky side, some ten of fifteen miles from Cincinnati, but occasionally on Mill creek some four or five miles from the town. These hunters obtained a better price for venison than for buffalo or bear meat.

A Neighboring People.

After the settlements spread over the country the larger wild animals were only occasionally killed. It was a custom of the pioneers whenever one of them obtained a good supply of wild meat or caught a fine lot of fish to divide with his neighbors. A.H. Dunlevy describes the occasional bear hunts he saw when a boy in the Turtlecreek valley, and says if the bear was killed it was skinned, and the flesh so divided as to give, if possible, each family in the neighborhood a portion. The skin was of course the most valuable part of the animal; the flesh, Dunlevy says, was considered by most people a delicacy, but he could never eat it.
The flesh of the common deer was not an unusual article of food for some years after the country was settled but the very large deer, called elk, seem to have entirely disappeared from the region between the Miamis with the advent on the white man. Elk however, in large droves were sometimes seen on the north side of the Ohio below Cincinnati. About 1796, Captain Joseph Hayes, a pioneer near the mouth of the Great Miami, killed a very large buck elk with towering horns, and the next day his wife attended a meeting in one of the cabins, and desiring to be neighborly, after the services said to the assembly, "If any of you are in need of meat come to our house, for my husband has killed a very large elephant."

The Hunter's Delicatessen.

Living on wild meat alone would lead to feebleness and disease in any except the Indians and the hunters accustomed for years to such a diet. Some frontiersmen regarded the flesh of some wild animals, even without salt and perhaps seasoned with the ashes of hickory wood, as a great delicacy and most nutritious. Daniel Boone was left alone in Kentucky from May 1 to July 27, 1770, and as he says in his autobiography, "without bread, salt or sugar, without the company of my fellows creatures, or even a horse of dog!" His food must have been chiefly wild meat. In this situation he describes himself as feasting one evening after a long excursion on the loin of a buck and then sleeping peacefully during the whole night. His solitary life was one of content.
Rev. James B. Finley, who was an experienced hunter of both sides of the Ohio, says that bear meat is the most delicious and nutritious of all foods, and when the animal is well fattened on beech nuts the oil obtained from its fat is the most penetrating of all oils. Bear's fat rendered into oil was carefully preserved in deer skins and served many useful purposes in the home of the pioneer, taking the place of butter and hog's lard. This oil was used in frying venison and turkey, and sometimes mixed with sugar and eaten with parched corn.
On one occasion Finley and a neighbor were in the woods on the north side of the Ohio at a distance from their homes, and in the evening they killed a deer and a bear not far apart. The two men encamped, made a fire and feasted on the deer for supper. In the morning they breakfasted on the bear's feet, Finley says, "This constitutes the richest conceivable delicacy. Some hunters think a beaver's tail is better, or the marrow from the joint of a buffalo, but I beg to differ. Those who have been living on puddings and confectioneries know nothing of these good things."

The Useful Deer.

The deer, however, Finley thought was probably the most useful of all the wild animals to the backwoodsman's family. Its flesh furnished excellent food and from its skin were made almost all kinds of wearing apparel, such as hunting shirts, waistcoats, pantaloons, leggins, moccasins and sometimes shirts, besides sieves and wallets. The dressing of the deer skin was not a long process. The hunting shirt, he says, saturated with deer's tallow or bears's oil on the outside, would turn water like a goose's back, and would last a long time. In going thru brush and briars it was better than woven goods.
In the first settlement of Warren county at Beedle's Station, five miles west of Lebanon, the children of both sexes were clothed chiefly in dressed deer skins, and no doubt venison was an important part of the food of the families there settled.
When Finley's father moved from Kentucky to the Scioto in the winter of 1796, he was accompanied by some of his Negro servants, all of whom had been freed. The weather became intensely cold and the colored people suffered much. Winter camps were built and made as comfortable as possible. "Our bread," says J.B. Finley, "was made of pounded hominy and corn meal, and we lived on this together with what we could find in the woods. Fortunately for us game was abundant, and we caught opossums by the score. The colored people lived well on this and became sleek and black as the raven."

Food at Columbia.

The settlers knew that they could not long depend on wild game for food, and they early began to raise hogs and cattle, which ran at large in the woods. The swine were long legged and coarse and became wild and fleet in summer in scouting the woods, but often were well fattened in the autumn by feeding on acorns and nuts. The greatest difficulty was in obtaining bread stuffs before the first crops of corn were matured. Women and children used to go from Columbia to Turkey Bottom to scratch up the bulbous roots of the bear grass. These they washed, boiled and dried and then pounded into a kind of flour which was used in baked preparations.
My grandfather, Jeremiah Morrow, came to the Miami country in 1795 and stopped first at Columbia. The summer of 1795 was warm and dry and in August the water in the Ohio was so low as to stop the running of boats. Flour was six dollars a barrel in August; it was soon doubled in price and before the next spring reached fifteen dollars a barrel. Of course at this price it was only bought by the well-to-do classes, and by them used chiefly for the sick.
Francis Baily, an English traveler, was at Columbia in February, 1797, and stopped at the house of Dr. Bane, who, he wrote, was a man of good education and practiced medicine somewhat in the manner of a country apothecary in England. Baily writes:
"Our provisions consisted of stewed pork and some beef, together with some root of a wild vegetable which had been gathered out in the woods, as it must be observed that in all these new settlements fresh provisions, both in meat and vegetables are at some seasons very scarce, particularly at the time we were there. The inhabitants live a great deal upon deer and turkeys which they shoot wild in the woods, and upon bacon which they keep in case of need. As to vegetables, they are seldom to be procured except in summer. The bread which is made here is chiefly of Indian meal, it is a coarse kind of fare, but after a little use becomes not at all unpalatable."
At the residence of Rev. John Smith, the leading merchant and most prominent citizen of Columbia, Baily had tea, coffee and chicken. On the whole the English traveler thought the pioneers led a half-cultivated life, and that there was great danger of the newcomer falling into slovenly habits. He believed that the first generation of pioneers must pass away before society in the new country would become an agreeable one for a man of culture.
Indian corn was the salvation of the pioneers of the Ohio valley as it had been of the New England colonists. The green ears made a delicious food in the autumn months and the ripened grain could easily be preserved thruout the remainder of the year and prepared for the table in various forms. It could be ground, or pounded, or grated into meal for bread, or made into hominy by soaking it in the lye of wood ashes. Parched corn was a common food with the Indians and the white settlers. Maize was usually the first crop raised by the pioneer and along with it could easily be grown great quantities of pumpkins. Beans, turnips and potatoes were easily grown for home consumption. After the orchards began to bear fruit, dried apples and apple butter were much used.
I have never come across a more pleasant description of the ordinary culinary work in a pioneer cabin than the following from Dr. Daniel Drake's letters addressed to his children. The parents of the writer were very poor and located in the woods near Maysville, Ky. Their cabin was built on a hill side in such a way that under one end of it sheep were sheltered and protected from the wolves. Dr. Drake wrote:
"I know of no scene in civilized life more primitive than such a cabin hearth as that of my mother. In the morning a buckeye back log, a hickory forestick resting on stone and irons, with a johnny-cake on a clean ash board set before the fire to bake, a frying pan with its long handle resting on a split-bottom turner's chair, sending out its peculiar music, and the tea kettle swung from a wooden lug pole, with myself setting the table or turning the meat, of watching the johnny-cake, while she sat nursing the baby in the corner and telling the little ones to hold still and let their sister Lizzie dress them. Then came the blowing of the couch shell for father in the field, the howling of old Lion, the gathering round the table, the blessing, the dull clatter of pewter spoons and pewter basins, the talk about the crop and stock, the inquiry whether Daniel (the boy) could be spared from the house, and the general arrangements for the day. Breakfast over, my function was to provide the sauce for the dinner; in winter to open the potato or turnip hole, and to wash what I took out; in spring to go into the field and collect the greens; in summer to explore the truck patch, our little garden. If I afterward went into the field my household duties ceased until night; if not, they continued thru the day. As often as possible mother would engage in making pumpkin pies, in which I generally bore a part, and one of these more commonly graced the supper than the dinner table. My pride was in the labors of the field. My mother did the spinning. The standing dye-stuff was the inner bark of the white walnut from which we obtained that peculiar and permanent shade of dull yellow, the butternut."

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This page created 13 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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