Thursday, December 06, 2007

Daily Life on a 18th Century Homestead

Daily life on an 18th Century homestead
Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun
Published: Thursday, December 29, 2005
MAPLETOWN, New York -- Life on the frontier into which Simon Fraser was born in 1776 seems hard by the comfortable standards of the 21st Century.

Yet it was not the nasty, brutish and short experience that our technocentric culture often assumes as a validation of its claim to inherent superiority over the backward past from which it arose.

We have a good idea of what things were like in the world that greeted young Simon thanks to researchers from the New York State Museum and the University of the State of New York who scoured the historical literature for visual descriptions by eyewitnesses.

Their 1989 study of land use and settlement patterns for the small region of up-state New York across the border from Bennington, Vermont, and right next to what was once Mapletown indicates that were we able to drop into Simon's landscape by time machine we would find large but self-sufficient families like his living in close harmony with each other and the great rhythms of the natural world.

The personal labour of these families met most of their needs -- and everyone in the family would participate. They built their own shelter, produced their own food, made their own clothes, cleared their fields, tilled them and harvested the crops by hand, dealt with their medical emergencies at home and entertained themselves.

Men like his father, Simon Sr., and his older brothers William, in his mid-20s, and Angus, in his late teens, did the heavy labour of clearing and tilling land, building structures, cutting firewood, splitting fence rails, making furniture and farm implements and supplementing the larder by hunting and fishing.

"At the age of 22 I could cut an acre in seven days but as a general average men would be from seven to 10 days, particularly if several worked together," wrote Levi Beardsley in Reminiscences, a frontier memoir of the late 1700s that was published in 1852.

Women like Fraser's mother Isabella and his older sisters Margaret, about 20, and Isabella, 14, kept kitchen gardens and orchards, prepared and preserved food, churned their own butter, made soap and candles, spun thread from flax and yarn from wool and then wove, knitted and sewed the family's clothes. Young Simon's other brothers and sisters would help in minding him and toddler Nancy, tend the livestock and chop firewood. At harvest, everyone would pitch in.

German surgeon J.F. Walmus, who marched through the country with the British army in 1777, took particular note of the settlers he encountered there after the battle:

"They were all in bare shirts, had nothing on their bodies but a shirt, vest, long linen trousers which extended to the shoe, no stockings -- powder horn, bullet bag, rum flask and musket. They were all beautifully built men, of very healthy appearance and handsome figure. . ."

So, while life on an 18th Century homestead could be hard and certainly had its occasional perils, it apparently also provided its bountiful rewards, too.

Still, the landscape in which Fraser's early personality took shape would seem barely inhabited to the citizens of today's North America, almost all of us jacked directly into the globalized neural networks of urban life through road grids, public transportation, electrical utilities and the ubiquitous, near-instantaneous communications systems of radio, satellite-based television, cellular telephones, digital data flows and the Internet.

Just visiting a neighbour could be a major expedition in Fraser's time. These days even the most rural inhabitants are seldom more than a few hours drive from town services and no more than a day's travel from some metropolis or other.

For people living in the township where Fraser spent the first eight years of his turbulent young life, most roads were slightly widened trails that to us would seem barely discernible grassy openings in the trees. In heavy rains they quickly became impassable. Swollen creeks flooded and boggy areas became muddy quagmires. The only paving was corduroy -- logs cut into uniform lengths and laid out to form a causeway over soft ground -- and it was temporary.

Occasionally these faint tracks through the hardwood forests that still covered most of eastern North America from the Atlantic to the grasslands of the Great Plains would be defined by a snake fence and then the traveller would soon emerge into the ever-expanding clearing around a farmhouse and its outbuildings.

To clear land, a settler would first strip out the underbrush and lop the lower limbs off trees, saving himself the work of trimming them later. The first trees would be cut and used to build a dwelling, then ground would be cleared for vegetable gardens, finally the forest would be clearcut by hand to create fields for crops and pasture for livestock. In each field, a few veteran trees would be left standing here and there to provide shade for animals in the hot summers.

Virtually all the contemporary travellers' accounts cited in The New York State Museum's land use survey from 1777 indicate houses built of logs and chinked with clay although there were clearly a few frame structures since military accounts record that when Lieutenant-Colonel Friedrich Baum, commander of the German mercenaries at the Battle of Bennington, was mortally wounded and taken from the field, he lay dying in just such a house.

But most homesteads would begin as crude log shanties with a packed earth floor, thrown up hastily to beat the arrival of winter, the logs often unpeeled, the roofs made from flattened sheets of bark from birch or elm trees laid over pole rafters. Later the logs might be squared with an adze. The floor replaced with half-rounds laid flat side up, the roof replaced with hand-split shakes or shingles.

Windows were small. Conserving heat in winter was an issue and since most people rose at dawn, spent most of the day outdoors and went to bed at dusk, interior light was less important than today. Glass was a rare commodity, difficult to transport and hence expensive, so windows were often covered with oiled paper or animal skins scraped parchment-thin.

Tables, chairs and beds would frequently be made at home from the materials at hand. Cooking would be done in the family kettle -- a big cast iron cauldron hung in an open fireplace - or on a griddle over the open flame. Under the floor would be a root cellar for storing potatoes and preserves. Outside, a large barrel would capture rainwater running off the roof.

Around the house would be rough outbuildings for livestock, most of which would forage for themselves in the surrounding bush.

The livestock listed at the Fraser homestead seems typical -- ox teams for pulling wagons, sleds and farm implements, horses for long distance travel, cattle for beef and dairy products, sheep for wool and mutton. Chickens and their eggs would be too commonplace for mention.

Kitchen gardens tended by Simon's mother and siblings would provide vegetables and fruit.

"Contiguous to each house was a small garden in which squashes, watermelons and kidney beans were reared and a smaller orchard set with apple trees. Surrounding the houses were large fields planted with corn," noted Peter Kal, travelling up the Hudson River past Albany by canoe before settlement began in the uplands where the Frasers and the other Scots settled.

In a claim for compensation after the war, Isabella Fraser listed stores of corn and hay among the items looted by her rebel neighbours. Later accounts by both British and rebel soldiers talked of passing through fields of wheat and flax on their way to the battleground.

Many farmers sowed their fields with flax because it could be planted early in the spring and harvested by July or August. Flax provided fibre for making linen, linseed oil and animal feed. Hemp was used for making rope and fabric, as it had been since the medieval period.

And potatoes were a common crop. We know that because hungry German mercenaries scavenged for spuds in the field where many were to be slain the next day, even, said witnesses, tying off the ankles of trousers and filling them with the tubers when their forage bags were full.

The bodies of many of these same men would later be tossed helter-skelter into two large pits where the potatoes were stored during the winter months, their bones later becoming evidence in a 20th Century study of land use patterns from a sparsely documented past.

© Vancouver Sun 2005

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