How Pioneers Survived on the 18th-Century Virginia Frontier


Families migrating across the Alleghenies in search of land in the years prior to the American Revolution faced a host of dangers and difficulties. Native tribes, particularly the warlike Shawnee and Mingo, constituted the primary hazard, and hundreds of families—vulnerable on their isolated homesteads– fell victim to Indian raids and were either killed outright or taken away into captivity. Hundreds of other families, hearing the grisly details of such depredations, or encountering them at first hand, packed up and returned east, never to return. The families who remained often formed themselves into civilian militias and constructed civilian forts for protection in times of peril.

Settlers came from great distances on foot

Less dramatic difficulties involved distance and transportation. In the Monongahela valley in western Virginia, for instance, the only way in was on foot, over Indian or animal trails, from jumping-off points at Fort Pitt, Uniontown, Pennsylvania, or Winchester, Virginia—each at a distance of roughly 100 miles. Immigrants had to cross over the mountains carrying all their possessions on pack animals or on their backs. Many of the immigrants were too poor to have more than one horse or cow, and often had no pack animals at all. The trails were too narrow and steep to accommodate a cart, or even a wheelbarrow, let alone a wagon.

Travelling south on the Monongahela from Fort Pitt by boat was prevented by the extreme shallowness of the river south of Redland—the water was just a few inches deep and would scarcely float a canoe, and not at all if it were loaded with supplies.

Pioneer families arrived with only the bare necessities

This meant that families arrived in the wilderness with only a bare minimum of necessities. Foremost among these would be weapons and tools: muskets, knives, traps, axe, hatchets, grubbing hoe, sickle, cooking pot, needles, perhaps a spinning wheel (usually just the wheel; the rest could be built later). Some tools, such as mauls, rakes and pitchforks, did not have to be packed in as they could be built entirely of wood from the forest. There was no source for purchasing iron on the frontier—it all had to be packed in. Often just the iron heads of hoes, hammers, axes, etc, would be packed, and the wooden handles made later.

It was some years before the first blacksmiths appeared. Prior to that time, basic smithing repairs to guns or tools had to be made by the settlers themselves, often working on their cabin’s hearth. Many settlers packed a few basic blacksmithing tools: hammer and tongs, but certainly no anvil. Aside from basic repairs, the only smithing done regularly by settlers was making nails.

What the pioneers ate

After staking out a claim in a carefully chosen spot— ideally on level, elevated ground, with a stream or, better yet, a deep cold spring, and in a defensible situation—the immediate needs, after water, were food and shelter. Aside from maybe a sack of meal, jerked meat or parched corn, the settlers would have carried little food with them. So, from the start, much time would have to be spent hunting and fishing. Snares and fish traps could be set as well—but these, like hunting, did not always yield reliable results.

European settlers had little knowledge of—and little taste for– native plants as a food source, so, apart from what they could hunt or fish, settlers had to grow or raise their own food, and this took several months. Settlers on the Virginia frontier did not clear land and plow according to European methods, but followed more expedient slash-and-burn techniques learned from the Indians.

Coming from such a distance over difficult terrain, new settlers arrived with little livestock. The preferred animals were a cow or goats for milk, butter and cheese, a few chickens for eggs, and pigs which could be allowed to run free and feed themselves in the woods. Sheep were too difficult to keep alive with so many bears, wolves and cougars in the surrounding forest, and were rarely seen on the frontier until after the Revolution. Chickens were even more vulnerable, but due to their small size were easier to protect. Many pigs were lost to predators (bears were especially fond of them), but as fast, smart and tough as they were, pigs tended to thrive on the frontier, especially if protected to any degree by armed settlers and their dogs.

What the pioneers lived in

The other immediate necessity was shelter. A substantial log cabin was what every family aspired to, but not every family possessed the requisite labor-force and expertise to raise a cabin quickly. Families with access to a sufficiently large cave or rock shelter could set up housekeeping almost immediately. Individuals or couples might even take advantage of a hollow tree, if a sufficiently large one were available.

Otherwise, the most expedient form of housing would be a large lean-to structure, also known as a half-face shelter. These were usually about 8 or 10 feet square, closed on three sides, with a backward sloping roof. Such shelters would be situated to take advantage of natural features, set into a grove of trees, or against a large fallen log or cliff face. The open side would be directed away from prevailing winds and would have a fire burning more or less constantly. In severe weather, the open side could be closed with blankets or hides. The shelter itself was roofed and sided with pine boughs, hides, large sheets of hickory or ash bark, puncheons, blankets, or whatever else was at hand. The great advantage to such shelters was that even a solitary man could raise one in a few hours, and it could be built sturdily enough to last a year or longer, if necessary. There were many families who passed their first year on the frontier in such a shelter.