“Sufferers’ Land” Post #11 – A Woman’s Life on the Frontier

Life on the frontier was not easy, but Sally and the rest of the Benedicts, like most settler families, adapted well. Later many of them would look back on those early days as an adventure. However, as good as those times may have seemed in memory, at the time, most settlers found life to be sheer drudgery. Backbreaking labor and long hours of loneliness were the norm. Platt, his hired hand and the older boys worked outside the home, cutting trees and brush, planting, and working together with men of other families to raise houses, barns and other structures.

Travel was also difficult. What passed for roads were actually trails that meandered through the great woods, detouring around enormous stumps and fallen trees. They were rutted and dusty in dry weather and seas of mud in wet. A man on horseback was not unlikely to meet a foot traveler stalled, and was compelled to dismount and pry him out, one leg at a time. [1]

Travelers often became lost in the woods and had to spend the night on the ground — or in a tree while wolves and bears growled and howled beneath. Many settlers kept a horn handy to signal to family members who failed to return home from short treks into the forest. Becoming lost could be fatal. Several early settlers who wandered off into the forests were discovered dead months later or never found at all.

Wolves, bears, and panthers caused terror, and were a constant danger to livestock. Wolves and panthers went after sheep, bears after hogs. In 1823, a bear was shot in Wakeman Township, just east of Norwalk, while eating a hog alive. [2]

Fatal attacks on humans by these predators were rare. Falling trees were another story. Many men were crushed to death while clearing the land, or just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others died after being thrown or kicked by horses.

Another cause of premature death was illness. The early settlers were plagued with various illnesses, especially ague, now known as malaria. The settlers were native to New England and were not accustomed to this disease. Soon after arrival in the Firelands, many acquired a pallor and sickliness.

Women generally stayed at home, venturing out occasionally to visit other families or attend religious meetings on the Sabbath. Loneliness was a constant problem, especially on farms in the townships. That first winter, Sally had Clarissa, already a young woman of twenty, to keep her company. However, we can only imagine what she and her daughter thought of being so far from friends and family in Connecticut.

Many frontier women were extremely homesick. In the stark wilderness of Northern Ohio, the comforts of Connecticut and close relationships with relatives and friends seemed far away. Letters and journals passed between the two places as new settlers arrived and others returned to visit their former homes, but they were rare.

The isolation of women in the townships could sometimes bring disaster. In one often-told story, a hunter passing a cabin became concerned when he saw no signs of life. He knocked on the door and a weak voice asked him to come in.

Opening the door, he was startled by the appearance of a woman sitting by the fireplace, pale, emaciated, and holding in her arms a puny, sickly babe.

When he asked her what had happened, she told him that her husband had died, leaving her alone. She had become so feeble from hunger and sickness that she could barely sit in the chair. [3]

These frontier women endured a life of constant work, with no respite from dawn to dusk — and usually continuing after dark. Making, mending, washing and ironing clothes occupied an enormous amount of time. In this day of discount stores and washers and driers, it is hard to comprehend the sheer drudgery involved in keeping a family in clean and serviceable clothes.

Laura Clark, a young woman living in 1818 in Wakeman Township, just east of Norwalk, described a typical day in her journal. First did my housework, baked some bread by the fire, washed up all my dishes & scoured off my shelf, cleaned out my chamber, stewed some pumpkin, mended Doctor’s (her husband’s) striped linen trousers washed them & washed out the Crampton frock, got on pot for supper & boiled shell beans (first we had) made pyecrust, strained pumpkin, in the evening made bread. [4]

Food was scarce the first winter, but after that, the cleared land produced melons, pumpkins, corn and other grains and vegetables. The surrounding forests were a source of berries, nuts, honey and occasionally meat, mostly deer purchased from Native Americans. Sally’s husband, like most settlers in the Firelands, did not hunt.

Often, men would come from the surrounding farms to help with larger projects, such as raising buildings and husking corn. On those occasions, Sally and Clarissa would cook and deliver meals to the work site. Communal projects like these were also social occasions, and the pioneers sometimes took advantage of them to have a little fun.

Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

GO TO NEXT POST – Social Life on the Frontier

Index of Posts

[1] This quote is from “Oration of Hon. Eleutherous Cooke” in The Firelands Pioneer, June 1858, p. 6.
[2] “Memoirs of Townships – Wakeman”, by Justin Sherman and Chester Manvil, The Firelands Pioneer, November 1859, pp. 39-40.
[3] This story is from “Oration of Hon. Eleutherous Cooke” in The Firelands Pioneer, June 1858, pp. 4-5.
[4] Description of the life of women settlers in the Firelands “The Original Diary of Mrs. Laura (Downs) Clark, of Wakeman, Ohio,” The Firelands Pioneer, January 1920, pp. 2308-2326.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

3 Responses

  1. Wow, Dave, what a great post. I almost felt I was there and had not realized how hard life must ahve been until you described it. I know you’ll have a book by the time you publish all this. Keep up the posts! Jo


  2. Dave, I am thoroughly enjoying your stories. I`ve always loved history and these postings are great. Thank you for sharing them. Marg


  3. Reblogged this on après-pensées.

    Liked by 1 person

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