As it were

1800s settlers faced difficult times


An early picture of Columbus shows the original Statehouse, state office building and courthouse all clustered on Statehouse Square and close to the corner of State and High streets. From the appearance of the dapper people in the foreground, one might think Columbus was a rather cultured and sophisticated place in the early days after its founding in 1812.

It was anything but that.

People arriving in central Ohio to settle here in the early years of the 19th century usually stayed for a time in frontier Franklinton on the west bank of the Scioto River below its confluence with the Olentangy. Franklinton had been founded in 1797 and by the early 1800s the village of several hundred people had stores, inns and even a courthouse. Surely the new capital city across the river would be equally well-built.

Such was not the case. Tree stumps still stood in the dirt trail that would later become High Street. When the Ohio General Assembly arrived for its first session in 1816, the public buildings on the square were completed and a couple of rather spacious inns were located nearby. But most of the rest of what is now downtown Columbus was still old growth forest. Nestled in the woods along rough trails were the cabins of the early settlers.

A later account described the cabins in more detail. "The cabin of the Ohio pioneer was usually laid up with round logs, notched into one another at the ends and chinked between with wooden blocks and stones. The chimney was built outside of the walls of crossed wooden strips, daubed with clay. At its base it extended into a large open fireplace, with a firm lining of stones. The roof was made of clapboards, five or six feet long, riven from oak or ash logs, and held down by being weighted with stones or poles. The door was hung on wooden hinges and fastened by a latch raised from the outside by a string passed through a gimlet hole. To lock the door it was only necessary to draw the latchstring in; hence, to be hospitable, in current phrase meant to keep the latchstring out."

The same account went on to describe some of the day-to-day life of these early settlers. "Few frontier housekeepers were so fortunate as to possess any porcelain dishes. The table utensils were mainly articles of wood and pewter. Knives and forks were rarities. Baking was done by spreading the meal dough on a clean board, and placing it before the fire, under the watch of one of the juvenile members of the family."

"Eastern-made fabrics were so scarce and expensive as to be beyond the reach of most of the settlers. Deerskin, flax and the fiber of the nettle were therefore used in the fireside manufacture of materials for clothing. By the mixture of flax and wool, when wool could be obtained, a coarse cloth was made called linsey woolsey. 'Sheep's Gray' was a compound of the wool of black sheep and white. The spinning wheel, kept constantly going, furnished the yarn from which woolen and linen cloths were woven."

But for all of the hard and difficult days faced by the early settlers, they still found ways to occasionally have a good time as well. In a Centennial Address on July 3, 1876, Henry C. Noble described "some of the social customs of the period."

"A wedding engaged, then as now, the attention of the whole neighborhood, and the frolic was anticipated by old and young with eager expectation. In the morning the groom and his attendants started for his father's house to reach the bride's before noon, for the wedding, by the inexorable law of fashion, must take place before dinner. ... The horses, for all come on horseback, were caparisoned with old saddles, old bridles or halters, packsaddles with a blanket thrown over them, and a rope or a string for a girth or reins as often as leather. They formed a procession as well as they could along the narrow roads. Sometimes an ambuscade of mischievous young men was formed, who fired off their guns and frightened the horses, and caused the girls to shriek.

"The race for the bottle took place by two or more of the young men racing over this rough road to the bride's house, the victor to receive a bottle of whisky, which he bore back in triumph, and passed along the procession for each one to take a drink in turn. Then came the arrival at the bride's house, the ceremony, the dinner and the dance, all conducted with the greatest fun and frolic until morning. ...

"The log rolling, harvesting and husking bees for the men, and the quilting and apple butter making for the women, furnished frequent occasions for social intercourse, and gave ample opportunity for the different neighborhoods to know the good and bad qualities of each other."

By our standards, theirs was a hard life. By theirs, it was, by and large, a good one.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.