Squirrels in swarms eat up all the cornfields

Posted by | June 28, 2013

Settlers moving into Ohio’s Miami Valley and the Virginia Military Tract were generally poorer and unable to buy land directly from the government, but they were able to buy lots and small farms from speculators. These women settlers were forced by economic circumstances to live in lean-tos for a longer time and learned to live off the land rather quickly.

Virginia Military Tract in frontier Ohio

The Virginia Military Tract in frontier Ohio.

One woman reported having slept in the treetops for several nights until a lean-to could be built, and then she had to wait until a clearing could be made in the forest before a one-room log cabin could be built. A log cabin such as hers “had a pitched roof covered with wooden shakes, a door, one or two windows commonly covered with greased parchment, a dirt floor or one covered with logs lengthwise with the smooth side up, a stone hearth and a chimney commonly made of sticks and covered with clay.”

These women had to learn quickly to be self-sufficient. Trading centers were far away, as were neighbors. Money was virtually nonexistent, so women had to be ingenious in acquiring products that they could trade for necessities such as coffee, tea, salt, sugar, and implements. They found themselves making whiskey, trapping game, making potash, and collecting honey and ginseng to barter.

They became very well acquainted with their new environment—it was important to know its benefits as well as its dangers. Settlers were at the mercy of nature, facing unpredictable floods, droughts, high winds, hail, and early frosts. Other environmental hazards and pests, such as squirrels wolves, bears, wildcats, deer, and raccoons, were easier to deal with but no less dangerous to their well-being.

Women learned to use firearms or whatever was handy to scare off dangerous animals. Mrs. Samuel French (nee Amelia Belden) scared off a wolf by brandishing her umbrella.

But for most, the need to become handy with a firearm proved lifesaving.

Women who needed to travel alone had to be able to protect themselves, and those left alone on isolated farms for long periods of time had to use a weapon either for protection or to provide food for their families. The isolation of the frontier and its physical environment caused a myriad of other problems to which women had to respond.

Johanna Maria Heckewelder

Johanna Maria Heckewelder, the first white female child born in what would later become the state of Ohio, was born in Gnaddenhutten in Tuscarawas County in 1781. Her parents were Moravian missionaries sent to Ohio to convert the Delaware Indians to Christianity. Photo circa 1862.

In her recollections, Liwwat Bocke wrote: “Life is a long struggle. We must fell the trees, but also cope with droughts, deep snow, sudden flooding, cloudbursts, forest fire, swarms of deerflies and mosquitoes and midges, snakes, wolves, and twice the wolves were mad. . . . There are many wild hens. Pigeons sometimes filt [sic] the woods here like clouds so that the sun is hidden! And they break the branches down. Squirrels in swarms eat up all the cornfields. In time some people here go completely mad, change, commit suicide. Countless people do not talk with their spouses; many women have miscarriages, then pregnancy lost.”

Children and adults were constantly becoming lost in the forest. “In the spring the children play in the warm forest, scurrying around and looking about, and carelessly they get turned around, don’t recognize the surroundings, are lost! . . . After them the parents, unthinking and so badly upset, also become lost in their urgent haste.”

Accounts of frontier life reported that depression was a common occurrence in response to this isolation and constant work and fatigue. As one woman reported, “The women are not often praised, so they feel themselves abandoned in the world, facing their inner troubles. Also, the loneliness brings on drinking and suicide here.”

Domestic abuse was an all too common occurrence, and murder of a spouse was not unknown. Thomas Fishburn of Easton murdered his wife, Florence, and then cut his own throat.

As more people moved into Ohio and technology developed, the settlers would indeed conquer their environment. But for the initial female settlers, the environment they encountered proved a life-changing experience—one that constantly provided them with new challenges.

With these new challenges came new expectations based on necessity, and the roles of women changed somewhat to fulfill the needs of the new society. But as this frontier society moved away from survival mode, the previous expectations returned to limit the role of women. The frontier experiences, however, laid the foundation for some women to continue to fight the societal expectations imposed on them.

excerpt from Buckeye Women, The History of Ohio’s Daughters, by Stephane Elise Booth, Swallow Press/Ohio University, 2001

Map from “Ohio lands and their subdivision,” p. 107, by William Edwards Peters, Messenger Printery Co., Athens OH, 1918

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