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Western Pioneer & Frontier Life


In the early 1840’s the wagon trains of settlers began rolling along the Oregon Trail to the Far West. Independence, Missouri, was the “jumping-off” point at that time. Members of a wagon train usually organized themselves in a military manner, often with elected officers and a professional guide.

Each evening the guide selected a campsite and directed the wagons into a circle for defense against hostile Indians. Most wagons carried tents, which were set up inside the circle as sleeping quarters. On the western plains, where bison were plentiful, the usual food was buffalo meat, brought in during the day by the party’s hunters. Fires were often made of buffalo chips (dry dung), and were lighted with flint and steel. The men and boys went on foot, leading the animals that pulled the wagons. Many of the women also walked most of the way; walking was not as tiring as riding in the jolting, springless wagons. It normally took five months to get to Oregon.

Mining Camps

The Gold Rush to California that began in 1849 was part of a different pattern in pioneer life. People traveling to the gold fields were seeking not land, but quick wealth. They had no time to spare for growing their own food or making their own tools, but had to purchase all their needs. The supplies, coming mainly from the East Coast, could not meet the demand, and prices for even the simplest necessities became exorbitant. Many a prospector found gold in a quantity that would have seemed to him, back home, a fortune—but spent it all just to support himself at the diggings.

The communities that grew up overnight in mining districts were known as mining camps. They soon attracted merchants who catered to the needs and desires of prospectors. Because of the relative prosperity of the mining camps, the citizens were able to afford luxuries unavailable in other frontier communities. Log buildings were given false fronts of lumber. Huge mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and carved furniture were hauled over the mountains to give a touch of elegance to the saloons and dance halls. When the mines played out, many of the mining camps were abandoned and became ghost towns.

Ranches and Cow Towns

The log-cabin frontier extended, in the South, into east Texas, where the main crop was cotton. Cattle raising began in western Texas before the Civil War. Because cattle required large amounts of grazing land, settlements in cattle country were widely spread out. Settlers adopted from the Mexicans the mud-brick adobe house; its thick walls kept the interior cool in the hot summers.

In the late 1860’s the railway from the East reached Kansas, and the great cattle drives to the town at the “end of track” began. Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City flourished in turn as “cow towns.” To them, as to the mining camps, came the gamblers, saloonkeepers, and dance-hall girls. Many of the pioneer citizens of the towns came directly from Eastern cities. The presence of these lively and worldly communities on the forward edge of settlement gave a unique tone to pioneer days on the Great Plains.

Prairie Homesteaders

At first, the pioneers hesitated to settle on the Great Plains, a land that was considered impractical to farm because of its tough sod and arid conditions. However, new farm machinery was developed, especially John Deere’s self-scouring steel plow, that made cultivation of the prairie lands practical. In 1862 the Homestead Act enabled settlers to acquire, for the cost of the recording fee, parcels of 80 or 160 acres (32 or 64 hectares) of land, providing they lived on it and cultivated it.

The homesteaders took up their claims in a land where there was almost no timber. The common building material was sod—blocks of turf that could be stacked up to form a wall. If the home could be situated against a small hill, the major portion of it would be dug into the hill, like a cave. This type of dwelling was called a dugout; the sod house, a soddy. If stones were available, the settler used these as building material. Where there were no stones and no turf, rough lumber had to be purchased at the nearest railway town.

Water was hauled at first from the nearest stream, while the homesteader drilled a well. There was often no wood for fuel, so buffalo chips and cow chips were burned, as were cornstalks and corncobs. When no other fuel was available, dry prairie grass was twisted into bundles and burned.

Another change from woodland-frontier life was the diet. Wheat grew well on the plains, and wheat flour replaced cornmeal as the main breadstuff. Cattle were more plentiful, and beef became a common meat.

The sod-house frontier was of short duration. More railways were built, more towns sprang up along them, and more markets were opened up to the plains farmer. Within a decade or two, most homesteaders had a frame house and barn, and were part of a well-settled rural community.

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