History of American Homesteading Part 2


From the earliest days in the new united states, living involved networking.  As we’ve already seen in Part One, if you build a lean-to out of reeds and leaves, you’re camping.  If you build a log cabin by clearing the trees around you, and the cabin has a chimney and a floor, you’ve probably come to stay.  Then you are homesteading.  After that it’s just a question of how much of your daily existence will depend on outside sources.  On the network.

In the 1800s, cities were burgeoning on the East Coast, with the emphasis on coast.  Where shipping was, whether by sea, river or canal, cities were.  City life was all network.  But individual homesteading, off the grid of commerce, grew like a hardy weed out on the frontier, which now stretched well into the Midwest.  Courageous families, unafraid of risk, relying on the natural world and each other, were expanding the country a few hundred acres at a time.

Perhaps no one person better defines the American ethos of the 1800s than Abraham Lincoln.  I share his birthday and my parents were from Kentucky, so I have been obsessed by Lincoln all my life.  The thing most of us remember about Honest Abe was that he was raised in a log cabin.  This is true, even though when Abe was born, his father, Thomas was a relatively prosperous landowner.

In Kentucky, at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park there is a replica of the cabin where Abe was born. There is also a replica cabin in Knob Creek Farm in Hodgenville where the family moved when Abe was two.  The family moved again more than once, but each time inhabited a small cabin.  So it is reasonably certain that until he was a young man, Abe Lincoln, his mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln, his father Thomas and sister Sarah lived in a log structure about 300 feet square with a large fireplace at one end.

Lincoln cabin replica

When Abe was young, his father lost everything in a lawsuit, and his mother died of a disease prevalent at the time called “milk fever” caused by ingesting milk that from cows that had eaten white snakeroot.  A contemporary reported that at age seven “Abraham, though very young was large of his age, and had an ax put into his hands at once: and from that till within his twenty-third year he was almost constantly handling that most useful instrument.”  Lincoln soon towered over his peers and famously won local wrestling matches and tests of strength.  Thus grew the true legend of a remarkable boy raised in poverty and emotional deprivation who rose to every challenge and eventually to the highest office in the land, an exemplar of the American Dream.

Since our forebears, certainly including the Lincolns, were civilized people, they generally strove for bigger and better houses, and living in proximity to a trading center was advisable.  The subsequent Lincoln dwelling reflects this; once Abe was married, he had a two-story house in Springfield, Illinois, full of gewgaws.  However, it was the only house he ever owned, which begs comparison with today’s politicians and their lavish lifestyles.  ‘Nuff said.

Homesteading in the early 1800s was a means to an end.  The first dwelling, the humblest, would be expanded or replaced as soon as feasible, and if the family did not move to town, they would certainly want to make their farmstead as handsome as any house in town.  Eventually, they were no longer homesteading, that is, no longer existing mainly by self-sufficiency, but instead mainly by networking.  Self-sufficiency was just the beginning for these nation-building busy worker bees, rarely a goal in itself.  Like Abraham Lincoln, these second-generation Americans defined the dream by modeling that for which others most envy us: upward mobility.  Expansion, change, the new thing around the next corner.

Interestingly, in moving away from the countryside, Americans were increasing their chances of contracting infectious diseases prevalent in overcrowded conditions — whooping cough, cholera and small pox — and were weakening their health from a concentration of smoke pollution.  And arguably, they were making a poor choice in terms of diet.  The farther away one is from the food one eats, the less healthful the food is likely to be.

Modern homesteaders operate with a different template.  They want to leave the “blessings of prosperity” and return to something that looks more like the scaled down self-reliance of the early frontiersmen.  They want to taste fresh fruit and breathe clean air.  So they look backward for their models.

The interior of the Lincoln cabin is the sort of folk memory picture that every homesteader is in some way striving to create.  The simplicity, the family cohesion, the reliance on oneself and nature.  For many modern homesteaders, the image of cooking on an open fire and deriving one’s heat from the same source hath its charms.  In the winter.  But flash forward to summer, with its tropic air and insects, the lack of screens, and mother bending over a boiling pot of laundry on that same fire.


Rushlight c.1800-1850

Here networking comes into play once more, as it inevitably must.  Stuff, marvelous stuff for its time, was being invented by people who, freed from the restrictions on the mind imposed by life in the old world, were madly trying new ideas.  Other stuff was being imported or lovingly reproduced to make life in the strange new land more bearable.


Lighting for example, could not rely on a fireplace once the large fireplace for cooking and drying meat was relegated to its own room.  Rush lights and candles, the starter illumination, were as soon as possible replaced by lamps that burned grease, whale oil or the very dangerous camphene.  These latter were pretty as well as useful, bringing décor to the frontier house.  You can imagine a frontier woman thinking, “I must get one of those glass-based whale oil lamps for the front room.  Then we can invite the preacher over!”  Similarly, scratchy pallets of corn shucks or feathers on the floor were soon replaced by well crafted bedsteads and finely sewn or woven quilts, and sheets made on industrial looms.

History of American Homesteading Part 2

Benjamin Franklin invented a stove that required far less fuel than an open fire, consisting of a large metal sheath set inside the hearth with flues behind.  It gradually stepped out into the room, at first still resembling a small fireplace, and then became both more decorative and more functional as an enclosed box with an L-shaped flue.  One suspects that were Franklin alive today he’d be spearheading green technologies.

Whale-oil lamp
Whale-oil lamp

Our local radio station recently had a call-in on the question: which modern convenience could you not live without?  I was amazed that people would cite their car or computer instead of the obvious (to me) answer: indoor plumbing.  Just goes to show how we take it for granted that we can hygienically perform unsanitary bodily functions in proximity to our sleeping and eating space.  But the complex device known as the toilet was a few hundred years in reaching its current height of technological achievement.  Thomas Jefferson, advanced for his time, had a pulley system for his chamber pots (guess who emptied them?).

Sadly, you must amend your mental picture of the Lincoln or other cabin in the wilderness to include a garbage heap and “toilet” facilities in what now would be used as yard, lawn even.  Trash heaving and personal relieving happened as close to the front door as inclement weather and/or the call of nature demanded.  Pigs were our first sanitation engineers.  And despite the fact that I, and probably most of you, would not wish to do without a toilet of some sort and a supply of fresh water in the house, there were 1.7 million Americans doing without these “necessities” in the year 2000 according to the census, a fair number of them in the eastern part of my home state of North Carolina.  (See “Still Living Without the Basics in the 21st Century: Analyzing the Availability of Water and Sanitation Services in the United States.)

In the 1800s, even city houses lacked toilets, so people coped with the old chamber-pot-out-the-window system or at best, a stinking disease-producing privy in the back yard.  The frontier homesteader was on a par with the city dweller in the matter of hygiene since both had roving swine for eliminating the family’s eliminations.  However, the rural folk may have had an edge in the matter of clean and abundant water supply.  Until homesteading went south and west of the Mississippi, wilderness house sites were based around water sources (Lincoln’s birthplace was located on Sinking Spring Farm).

The White House did not get indoor toilets until 1902.

Bathing at home was a bit more feasible, as is often depicted in cowboy movies.  Though often notable for its absence, the bathtub, or large tin trough, did exist.  Yet certain restrictions applied.  Water had to be heated and carried to the tub by bucketsful.  It was expedient for the entire family to bathe, serially, on the same occasion.  It was believed that a woman could get pregnant by bathing after a man (making a good story, it would seem to me, if a girl should find herself unmarried and in the family way).  Soap was required for a proper bath and making soap is so tedious, hot and bothersome that it was generally done only once a year, at slaughtering time.  Pigs come in handy here as well, providing the lard that goes into the substance that makes you clean, along with lye, a deadly poison.  Doubtless you feel cleaner just thinking about bathing with poison and pig fat.  The art of lye soap-making was still practiced up to our grandparents’ generation.  I am erasing the family bath in the big tin tub from my vision of the ideal 1800s homestead and substituting a lot of dunking in the fresh flowing creek.

Food preservation: we know that Daniel Boone was a salt seeker, and that meat that was “kilt” had to be dried and salted in order to sustain folks throughout the year.  Just procuring salt is hard enough, and curing meat is not a one-time operation.  Cured meat requires tending.  There are issues.  Moisture, mold, maggots.  And don’t even get me started on nitrites and nitrates.  A smokehouse was usually required (note: smokehouse, required; bathroom, not required).  Corn and other grains could be milled and beans could be dried; not surprising these two formed a major part of the homestead diet.

Most homesteads in the 1800s were created by people who were no longer just passing through.  They had purchased land or stolen it from the hostile Natives, and had made a commitment to a nearby community.  They wanted well-constructed furniture, good tools, cast iron cook-stoves, and oil lamps.  They wanted children, as many as possible, especially considering that so many died (Abe and Mary lost two children before Abe was killed, and this among other factors undoubtedly figured in his lifelong struggle with depression).

Slave Market in Atlanta, Georgia - 1864
Slave Market in Atlanta, Georgia – 1864

The nineteenth-century American homesteaders, were, in short, people who had aspirations beyond the homestead.  The break from the old world was accomplished.  Nevermore need they be hounded by lords and landlords, blocked at every turn by kings, lawyers and soldiers, or dictated to by pope or bishops.  They were less concerned with the day-to-day fight for survival than with an inner mandate to build an inheritance for the next generation.  Inheritance of land, livelihood, and education when possible: the one-room schoolhouse with a Franklin stove and a whale oil lamp was evidence of their belief in values beyond food, shelter, and clothing.

Only one thorn rankled among the rosy prospects they faced: slavery.  It was the mountain in the way of progress that could not be got around nor easily crossed over.  The heart of the nation would be torn in two, and the blood of city and country folk alike would soak many acres of good American soil before that mountain was made smooth.  Yet the conflict would generate the largest homesteading initiative yet undertaken in America.

The thoroughly American man who was raised in a tiny log house, who lost his mother at a tender age and his sister and his first sweetheart in his early twenties, who took up an ax at age seven and gave over all his earnings from wielding it to his father until he was twenty-one, who was considered to be physically ugly, and who suffered from a mental disability all of his adult life, would write these inspiring words, a beacon of hope to the oppressed in their thousands both here and abroad, in 1862, three years before he was killed by an assassin’s bullet:

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.  We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.  Other means may succeed; this could not fail.  The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

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