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article number 352
article date 06-17-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our 1850’s Indiana Life, Conversion from Pioneer to Social Neighbor
by Logan Esarey, Professor, Indiana University

From the 1924 book, A History of Indiana From 1850 to 1920.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of the [people] drawings used to decorate this article are from the 1883 book, Riley Farm-Thymes, illustrated by Will Vawter. Hope you enjoy them.


Indiana home life by 1850 had changed materially. The ideal was the manorial homestead of England and Germany about 1700, the time when their ancestors began leaving those countries.

The central system around which the others were organized was the art of reducing the wilderness to homesteads. The art became highly developed after about 1740 when the first real American pioneer settlements were formed in western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah valley and the Carolina and Georgia uplands and reached its culmination in the Ohio valley about 1860.

Two radically different types of men and women attacked the problem. In Pennsylvania and the northern part of the Shenandoah were the refugee Germans, called, until recently, the Pennsylvania Dutch, from southern and western Germany. In their German homes they had been peasants, cultivating their little fields with the greatest skill.

They produced little for the market, therefore every need of the household had to be anticipated during the year in the growing crop, in which they accordingly developed a nice balance.

There were:
- sheep tor clothing;
- cows for milk, butter and cheese
- horses only enough for the work, with a preference for oxen on account of their value for beef and hides after they were too old for profitable work;
- hogs for meat;
- geese or ducks for feather beds;
- chickens for eggs and table use;
- garden vegetables for the table;
- cabbage for sauerkraut;
- potatoes for winter use;
- apples for cider, apple butter, eating and drying ; corn for feeding and for making whisky, and wheat for bread.

They took extreme care of their farming implements, cleared their fields of rocks and stumps, and built capacious barns for housing their stock and crops. They stuck close to their work, plodding, prosaic, practical. Their old homesteads along the Susquehanna. with their red brick houses, hillside barns and productive fields, still bear ample evidence of their success as farmers.

The exact counterpart of these were the English, Irish and Scotch peasants who settled in the Carolina uplands and in the Shenandoah. In the west they acquired large bodies of land, let their stock stand out during the winter, browsing on twigs and tuft grass, built large houses, met many household needs with money from sales of cattle, and spent their leisure time roaming the woods, hunting, or arguing politics and religion at the taverns or cross roads.

They developed an intense, robust, independent individualism, rough and boisterous, artistic and imaginative. As politicians and preachers they were a tremendous success, as farmers and business men they were not so successful. The tumbledown buildings and worn-out lands of Virginia, the Carolinas and Tennessee are yet witnesses to their unthrifty farming.


The volume of technical knowledge and skill acquired by the pioneer farmer far exceeds what is ordinarily supposed. Where there was no extraordinary rush, land was not cleared immediately. The intended field was laid off and timber selected for fencing.

The fence was a square rail worm, built usually nine rails high. Each rail was ten feet long and about four inches square, the fence thus being eighty inches high; if a pasture fence, it was staked and ridered or simply locked.

The first choice of timber for the rails was walnut and poplar, though oak would be used rather than haul the rails a great distance, say a quarter of a mile. Usually the rails could be made so near the line of the fence that hauling, with oxen and sled, was not necessary.

The rails were usually made in. the winter while the sap was down because the timber split better then and the rails lasted longer. In making the rails, an axe, an iron wedge or two, a maul, and at least two gluts, or wooden wedges, were necessary. The maul was made of second-growth hickory, if possible a hickory without any red.

The sapling, five or six inches through, was cut below the first roots and a maul about one foot long left. The handle was then dressed down to the proper size, the maul rounded off and the finished article set in the chimney corner to season a half year or so.

The gluts were made of dogwood saplings four inches through, each glut being from twelve to sixteen inches long, dressed down very carefully to a point. If not properly tapered the glut would bounce, utterly ruining the rail splitter’s temper.

The iron wedge was made by the blacksmith with the same proportions and precision.

Thus armed, the pioneer railmaker went forth, as much a skilled mechanic as any cabinet maker. After the rails were laid up there was always danger of some descendant of Rip Van Winkle firing the woods.

After the fence was completed the underbrush was cut and piled and the trees and saplings deadened. This latter process required both knowledge and skill again, for some trees, as the hickory and willow needed only to be barked, the oak, poplar and beech needed only to be sapped, while such as the black gum and sycamore had to be cut down deep into the red.

Most trees when girdled, or deadened, immediately died, but if a willow were peeled in the spring there were usually some thousands of volunteer willows in its neighborhood a year later, while a gum or sassafras deadened out of season was a calamity.

Trees deadened when the sap was up became rotten in two years, at which time if the clearing were fired, many of the trees would burn down and then burn up. The remaining trees could be cut, rolled and burned easily. Most of the small stumps were likewise rotten and if the flock of sheep had been busy nearly all the sprouts were dead.

The field was thus ready for the plow. The most approved way of first breaking was with a stout jumping shovel and two yokes of heavy, steady oxen.

There was a certain amount of pleasure in watching such a plow tear through the rotten roots, but the completest torture this side of eternity was plowing with a jumping shovel in a rooty new-ground with a team of spirited horses. The plow, excepting the iron shovel and the cutter, was produced on the farm, as were also the ox yokes and the oxen.


The same expert knowledge coupled with the same practical skill was necessary in all the various lines of farming activity. There was no refrigerator, but a house was built over the spring and places prepared so that the milk crocks and the butter bowl could get the benifit of the cold water. There was no cold storage, but the potatoes, apples and cabbage were holed up in the ground beyond the frost and a cellar provided for other articles of constant use during the winter.

The Hoosier folk had long ago lost all distinctions between Dutch and Irish, but they had retained the Dutch characteristic of all-round farming and had acquired some new tastes which required an even wider range of production.

In the barnyard were horses, cattle, hogs, sheep, ducks, geese and chickens. The heavy draft horses, which formerly drew the old Conestoga, had given away to a lighter, quicker breed from Virginia and Kentucky, while at least two yokes of oxen were kept for the heavy hauling around the farm.

There must be at least a half dozen milk cows; for country butter and hot cornbread disappeared in enormous quantities at breakfast in the presence of eight or ten husky young Hoosiers and two or three work hands.

At dinner or supper a quart of sweet milk was a modest allowance for each person, with perhaps an extra pint for the six- and eight-year-olds, while a jug of cold buttermilk, fresh from the springhouse, was an ever-present comfort when the hot harvesters came up to the shade to blow after marching across a ten-acre field.

There must he two or three fat, yearling steers to tide over the period from October to Christmas when the pork season was closed. A considerable amount of beef must be on hand also at butchering time to mix with the pork to make the proper quality of sausage.

The farmer kept a weather eye on his porkers. There must be at least fifteen good two-hundred-pounders ready for the hog killing, which happened along about Christmas. There was no real rush, for in any emergency like Quarterly Meeting or a political rally, a couple of sheep or a shoat or a yearling steer could be killed.

But the porkers must bear the brunt of the burden. They were ready for fattening when two years old, until which time they followed the law of the range, ‘‘root hog or die.’’ Their master never failed, however, at weaning time, to clip off the tip of an ear, cut a notch in it, bore a hole through it or make some other mark as an indication of his ownership.

After one month’s feeding on corn, the fifteen or twenty hogs were ready for the hog-killing festival, one of the big events in pioneer life. It would take a small volume to give all the details of the hog-killing, pork-curing process—the killing, the sticking, the scalding, the hanging, rendering lard, making head cheese, sausage, salting the meat in tubs, smoking and finally preparing the hickory hams for the summer season.

So skillful were they and so tasty was the finished product that even today some of the choicest products of modern packing houses are labeled country sausage or country-cured hams.

The woman’s sphere in pioneer life was large and indispensable. Outside the house she, together with the children, looked after the sheep, caring for the lambs in the early spring, shearing the sheep, washing, picking, carding, spinning, reeling, winding, knitting and weaving the wool into cloth and making the cloth into coverlets, blankets and clothing.


In a large family, and nearly all were large, this was an endless task, lasting from early morn till late bedtime every day in the year except Sundays. Very few persons now living have the knowledge and skill to do this routine work which every pioneer girl learned as a matter of course.

The geese were under the complete jurisdiction of the women. It required a flock of two or three dozen to furnish the huge featherbeds and pillows that were such an attractive feature of the pioneer home. Besides this, every child, when it was married off, was presented with a featherbed and four pillows, and many a baked goose found its way to the Sunday dinner table.

Enough chickens, say one hundred, had to be raised to furnish eggs for the cooking. The women used eggs freely in making coffee, corn bread, cakes and especially for a breakfast fry in the early spring. It was the social law that chicken should form the “piece de resistence” at all church festivals and the preacher’s predilection for fried chicken was known of all women.

While the men looked after the cattle in general, the milk cows received the special attention of the women; milking, straining, churning and dressing the butter was more than a mere pastime.

In the dining room and kitchen the wife was sole monarch and together with her daughters was the whole working force. Providing for the table required a foresight beyond our conception at present. The grocery store was no assistance to her. She had to plan a year ahead.

The men assisted with the housework to a small degree, but the family mother furnished all information and gave the general directions. The father looked after the meat and bread, but beyond that his knowledge and skill were limited.

Canning fruit was not widely practiced, but there was no end of preserves, made of apple, peach, quince, crab apple, water melon, and citron; jams, marmalades, jellies of all varieties, maple syrup and sorghum, dried fruits, green fruits stored in cellar, spice brush, sassafras, balsam, sage, alder blossoms, buckeyes, catnip, pennyroyal, ditna and scores of other things to be gathered, prepared and laid away, some to be used in cooking, others as medicines, others as charms, or as flavors, for soups, meats, or cake. It was a whole science in itself.

As a rule the men were possesed of great physical strength and activity. Their daily life was conducive to bodily vigor. No better physical training could be prescribed today than to swing the ax or maul in the forest ten hours a day for months at a time.

In this respect southern Indiana was full of Lincolns before the Civil war. Such men could help at twenty log rollings on as many successive days. Most young men could leap an eight-rail fence, and at gatherings it was not extraordinary to find a few, each of whom could jump a bar held level with the top of his head.

An ordinary deer hunt would, in the course of the day, take them on a thirty-mile tramp through the unbroken snow. Harvesters would swing the cradle from sun to sun with only brief rests for dinner and lunch.

Yet between “busy seasons” there were considerable periods of leisure. From the middle of August to the middle of October little work was done, and again from Christmas till April work was easy. Usually a man who weighed one hundred and sixty pounds in August would weigh two hundred pounds in March.


But there is another side to this picture. In almost every household there was some old “hippo,” broken either in body or spirit, or frequently both. Ague, perhaps, had robbed him of the vitality necessary to compete in the hard struggle.

He could name a dozen diseases working on him. From his ailments he had constructed a science. His corns and his rheumatism warned him of approaching changes in the weather.

The pale, red, selling sun foretold a disastrous plague, most probably smallpox or “yaller’’ fever. The crackle of the burning backlog announced an approaching snowstorm. The thick corn shuck, the low-hung hornet’s nest, the busy woodpeckers and squirrels were sure signs of a hard winter.

In the art of forecasting he was the successor of the seers, sooth-sayers and astrologers, last and least harmful of all the parasitic train. Science has usurped his throne, though traces of his reign: still linger. By his shrewd observations, his persistent guessings and “I told you so’s” he gained a. vast influence over the unscientific community.

Hippo was also a medical man. His specialty was bitters. On fine days he would potter around the premises gathering roots, leaves and bark and concocting his nostrums. At other times he ventured as far as the store or to some neighboring crone where he compared theories, observations and experiences in the interest of his compound science of prophecy amid pharmacology.

So complete was his sway in this field that few homes could be found without its jug of bitters and so persistent has been that influence that few of us today are able to defend ourselves against the patent medicine fakers who cater to our inherited weakness.

By 1850 a considerable degree of ease and comfort had been attained by the older settlers. While there were no fixed lines of social cleavage, yet a traveler could readily distinguish the two classes of farmers.

The newcomers and the shiftless still lived in humble log cabins, but the more prosperous had built brick or frame houses. Most characteristic of these was the old-fashioned, two-story, red brick, built back one hundred feet or more from the road, with its approach shaded by tall evergreens.

Scarcely a neighborhood in Indiana but had one or more of these evidences of magnificence and large numbers may still be seen in the southern part of the state.

Rag carpets covered the floors, at least of some of the rooms. Huge bedsteads, with posts reaching almost to the high ceilings adorned the sleeping rooms. Chests, corner cupboards and wardrobes of cherry or walnut, made by some itinerant cabinet maker could be found in many houses and a very few pianos were brought into the state before the Civil War. Cook-stoves with two and four holes began to appear in the kitchen.

The springhouses, still to be seen in many parts of the state, served as our first refrigerators, though ice houses, packed with straw or sawdust, were not unknown.

Here and there a hillside barn could be seen, though these buildings, so common among the Pennsylvania farmers of the time, were rare in Indiana.

The public roads during this period were improved so that travel was possible. Many railroads were building, but the great bulk of traffic was still done by wagon. Professional teamsters were to be found in every neighborhood. Storekeepers at Point Commerce, Spencer, and Bloomington had their goods hauled overland from New Albany till the Louisville & New Albany (Monon) railroad was opened in 1853.


Farmers and merchants from Newcastle, Connersville, Brookville and the Whitewater district hauled their produce to Lawrenceburg or Cincinnati. Ripley, .Jennings and Bartholomew counties traded over the Michigan road to Madison.

The northern part of the state depended on the Wabash River and the Wabash and Erie Canal, the latter being opened through to Evansville in 1853. The region west of South Bend traded to Chicago and Michigan City. Men are yet living who hauled apples and potatoes from Vermilion Warren and Jasper counties to Chicago.


The new political constitution of Indiana made in 1850 was only an index of the deeper changes taking place in society. The glorious outburst of evangelism following the great camp-meetings was succeeded by a period reaching approximately from 1825 to 1850 in which the various church societies gave their chief attention to the study of their creeds.

The interdenominational camp-meeting gave way to conventions, associations, yearly, quarterly and protracted meetings and synods in which members of one society exercised complete control.

Even this denominational harmony soon passed. The disorganizing tendency once started seemed to find nowhere to stop. It was a great period for searching the Bible. Every preacher and thousands of laymen studied the Book with the utmost attention in order to more narrowly to examine the foundations of their faith and creeds.

Instead of the camp-meeting call to a free and universal salvation, there were doctrinal sermons, based on numerous quoted texts, arranged with more or less logic to prove a controverted point.

Laymen and ministers transferred their membership from one denomination to another with great freedom. More enthusiasm was displayed than the feeble machinery of the new churches could stand and consequently each of the Protestant organizations became more of less disorganized.

The charity of the early circuit riders and missionaries gradually gave way to denominational bigotry. Joint debates between opposing misiters took place from the pulpits and between the laymen at their various places of meeting, usually, fortunately, with candor and without personal unfriendliness.

The natural result followed this emphasis on the differences between the denominations. Contention arose in each denomination and in each individual society.

The Methodist Protestant church separated from the Methodist Episcopal between 1824 and 1830 on account of the government of the church by the bishops; the Wesleyan Methodists in 1843 divided on account of the slavery question; the Free Methodists, demanding a more rigid austerity, organized separately between 1850 and 1860.

Psalm-singing Covenanters, Reformed and Cumberland, Old-side and New-side, Reformed and Associate Reformed, Dutch, German, and Scotch Presbyterians, came to exist in the same county. They were divided on the government of the church and the government of the State, on questions of communion and original sin, until it seemed in the fifties that the achievements of the missionaries in Indiana would be lost.

The Baptists divided on missionary work and foot-washing, on Calvinism and Arminianism, free-will and predestination, on the separation of church and state and regeneration, on church government and baptism; Regular, Separate, United, General, Particular, Primitive, Freewill, Means and Anti-means, Seventh Day, and German or Dunkard Baptist churches existed in close proximity.

Even the Quakers divided on the nature of the trinity, the Unitarians becoming known as Hicksites.

A great many members of these churches, including the preachers, disgusted with endless bickering over minor and doctrinal questions, went over to the Universalist church, which gained great power in Indiana during the period. Its doctrine of universal salvation was attractive to many.

The orthodox ministers attacked the Universalists savagely. Their favorite form of conflict was the joint discussion. These stirring debates, held in the woods, the listeners bringing lunch with them for the noon hour, often lasted two days, morning and afternoon. The end of this era of church schism was approaching when the Civil war came.



Indiana prospered between 1850 and 1860.
- The property valuation jumped from $202 million to $528 million, an increase of 160 per cent.
- Over 3 million acres of land were cleared and plowed while the farms more than doubled in value.
- Over $10 million worth of farm machinery was in use in 1860.
- There was an average gain of two horses and three milk cows to each farm, the total for the state in 1860 being 409,000 horses, 18,000 mules, 491,000 milk cows, 95,000 work oxen, 582,000 stock cattle, over 2 million sheep and 2½ million hogs.

The annual crop of wheat jummped from 6 million bushels in 1850 to 15 million bushels in 1860:
- rye from 78,000 to 400,000 bushels:
- corn from 53 million to 69 million bushels;
- oats dropped from 5.6 million to 5 million bushes;
- tobacco increased from 1 million to over 7 million pounds;
- potatoes from 2 million to nearly 4 million bushels;
and orchard products from $324,000 to $1.2 million worth.

The cultivation of rice, cotton and hemp practically disappeared. Hops dropped from 92,000 to 74,000 pounds; flax from 584 to 73,000; maple sugar from 3 million to 1.5 million pounds. Beeswax and hone increased from 1 million to 1.2 million pounds.

Homemade manufactures declined from $1.6 million in 1850 to less than $1 million worth in 1860, while the value of slaughtered animals increased from $6.5 million in 1850 to $9.5 million in 1860.

These statistics show the economic changes under the social. The fields of hemp and flax gave way to the sheep pasture as the people passed from the linsey-woolsey to the homespun period. The decline in household manufactures kept pace with the increase in export products such as flour and pork. The 18 million pounds of butter took the place of the farmers’ tables of the wild meat from the forest.

Each well-established farm by 1860 had a team of driving horses for the carriage, which explains the increase of 100,000 horses during the decade. The enormous increase in the acreage and produce of hay, wheat, clover and orchards shows directly the result of the agricultural societies and the study of agriculture by the farmers.

The reign of corn and pork was being challenged. The number of sheep increased almost 100 per cent while the number of hogs increased only about 12 per cent. The total number of cattle also nearly doubled. While the total corn crop gained only 33 per cent, wheat, hay and clover gained 150 per cent, 100 per cent and 140 per cent respectively.



The greatest social problem of this period was illiteracy. Up to 1850 the state government, on account of lack of resources, had been unable to furnish schools, but the great increase of wealth during the fifties enabled it to begin the work.

The illiteracy of the period was enough to cause alarm but it would be a mistake to confuse this illiteracy with ignorance. Many a skillful farmer was unable to read, but it would be wrong to call him ignorant.

Throughout the east it had a tendency to make the name Hoosier a synonym for stupidity. The two decades preceding 1860 brought an increase of population of 700,000, most of whom were poor. One need not expect a great amount of social polish in a society that more than doubles in two decades, one generation.


The increase in wealth brought a new era in dress. As noted above, the everyday wear of the farmer became homespun, the cloth for which was made of wool raised on the farm, spun, woven and made up by the household. Religious scruples in many places limited indulgence in the most fashionable clothing, but it is not far from the fact to say that every well-to-do farmer had a suit of English broadcloth, a beaver hat, and high-top boots.

The dress of the fashionable women was past description. Nothing but an inspection of the fashion plates of “Godey’s,” “Peterson” and “Frank Leslie” will give an adequate idea. Ladies’ skirts frequently were eight feet in diameter, kept fully expanded by metal or grapevine hoops.

The waist was tightly laced so that the whole figure resembled an old-fashioned Hubbard squash. Over the shoulders mantillas took the place of the earlier shawls or woven blankets.

On the head were worn light bonnets made of tulle, silk, and velvet, decorated with lace and flowers, fastened on with broad, white strings, plaited and edged with lace, tied in a huge bow under the chin. Huge ruffles or flounces a foot wide circled the ample skirts and sleeves, while bands of lace fastened at one edge passed suspender-like over the shoulders.

A woman so dressed must have been almost helpless and it is safe to say the farmers’ wives soon shed this finery when they reached home. The children’s clothes were almost exactly like those of their elders except for size.



In spite of the growing diversity in wealth, society remained democratic. There was a great deal of visiting, the visitors usually coming on Saturday night and remaining until Sunday afternoon. The chief attraction was the Sunday dinner. It was usual for everybody either to be guests or hosts at dinner after the sermon on Sunday.

Besides the church and school, the chief social centers were the village stores and the flour mills.

There was a general readjustment of town and village sites. In the earlier period towns had been located generally on navigable waters or on canal sites. Now the building of railroads from one large city to another left many a struggling village on one side and there was nothing left for it but to move to the nearest point on the railroad or die.

At these villages the local stump speaker held forth, the wandering preacher sermonized the neighbors, the writing, singing and spelling schools met, and above all for its social influence it was where the neighborhood board met to manufacture public opinion. Through this village committee must pass every bit of news, political, religious or otherwise, before it could have any effect on the community.

It was not so much what the information was as how it affected certain members of the committee which sat almost continuously, jackknife in hand, at the store, blacksmith shop or some other convenient place in the village. When news was scarce these guardians of the people pitched horse shoes, played checkers, superintended the rifle-matches, the Christmas trees and attended to all duties not strictly provided for by the General Assembly.

It seems that the influence of this institution almost equalled that of the church or the school. It is certain no teacher or preacher could long maintain his position against a hostile public opinion created by this village club.

The village store’s only rival in the formation of public opinion was the neighborhood mill. Only rarely was the mill located at the village, the forces determining their location being entirely different. Early Indiana was rich in water power. There was not a county in the state but had several good mill streams.

An early law enabled one to condemn mill-sites and many grist mills date from very early times. However, the water mills reached their climax in the decade of the fifties. The farmers were producing enormous crops of wheat and corn and the railroads had not yet begun to carry them to the larger mills or elevators.

This surplus grain was ground at the water mills, of which there were usually a dozen in each county.

The miller frequently added a saw mill, a tannery and a carding mill to his plant, rounding out his business by putting up a large store where all the neighborhood produce was bought and shipped by this pioneer merchant prince to New Orleans by flatboat.

The flour and meal ground in Indiana in 1860 was valued at over $11 million, an increase over 1850 of 104 per cent. The lumber sawed was valued at over $3 million.

One can easily infer that the men who gathered at these industrial centers were far different from those who congregated at the village. If one was the forerunner of our literary and country clubs and other places of amusement and recreation, the other was the predecessor of the commercial clubs.

The building of railroads and the extraordinary demands of the Civil war ruined the country milling business. Of the hundred mills that prospered in the fifties, scarce a score now remain to do a small neighborhood service.



The moral condition of the people seems to have improved steadily till the outbreak of the Civil war. The total number of inmates in the state prison during 1859 was 556. Of these, 276 were serving two-year terms, nearly all for some form of larceny. Of life prisoners there were only 19.

The greater part of this crime was attributed by the warden to intemperance, 446 being listed as drunkards or moderate drinkers. These convicts were huddled together in a small prison at Jeffersonville.

The most troublesome crime was horse stealing. Bands of these criminals rendezvoused in the swampy thickets of the north part of the state in easy reach of central Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Other bands had their headquarters along the Ohio river hills and took their stolen horses across the river to dispose of them.

The courts were unable to break up these organizations and vigilance committees had to take the matter in hand. Detailed accounts of these petty wars can be found in the county histories.

About 1850 a determined attack was begun on the liquor traffic. Drinking had been universal among the pioneers, but the Protestant churches, especially the Methodist and Quaker, had made endless war on the traffic. As the villages grew into cities, the saloons (then called groceries or tippling houses) developed into harbors for the improvident and the vicious.

The Southeast Indiana conference of the Methodist Churches at its annual session of 1853 adopted resolutions condemning the making, handling or use of liquor and demanded of the next General Assembly the enactment of a Maine Law for Indiana.

The General Assembly of 1853 passed a license law with a township option provision. The contest at the local option elections in the April elections of 1853 had spread the agitation broadcast, to the disgust of the conservative element in both clerical and political organizations.

Such cities as Indianapolis, New Albany, Lafayette, Greencastle and Lawrencebug voteed dry, while Madison, Jeffersonville and Terre Haute voted to retain saloons. The old Washingtonians, the newer Sons of Temperance, and the Grand Union Daughters of Temperance organized for the conflict.



Little or no progress had been made in public sanitation. The causes of disease were not known by the physicians, although medical practice was much improved. The influence of the medical schools was beginning to be seen in the changed attitude of the people toward the herb doctors, however, it was not customary to call a physician until the patient’s life was in danger or until a case of pneumonia, typhoid fever or some usually fatal illness became well defined.

No effort was made to prevent disease. Typhoid fever would scourge a whole community until its mysterious course was arrested by the autumn rains or winter. As if to aid its deadly progress, all the well persons of the neighborhood, in relays of four or five, would “sit up” with the patient without ever suspecting that they might thereby contract the disease.

In the year 1859, by way of example, the deaths in August, September and October, the typhoid months, were 1,500, 1,633, and 1,364; while for the three preceding months there were, all fold, 3,358 deaths and for the succeeding three there were 2,991; an excess of 1,139 over the preceding spring months and 1,506 over the succeeding winter months.

The death toll of typhoid fever seems to have been about 500 persons per month, though the total number directly attributed to this malady was 1,763. Consumption, with 1,704 victims, pneumonia with 1,149, scarlatina with 1,432, croup with 778, brain fever with 642, whooping cough with 322 and dysentery with 918, were the other troublesome diseases.

It will be noted that the last five affected children almost entirely. Infantile mortalitv was high. While the statistics are not at hand, it seems that half the children in the family died before reaching maturity.

There were very few public cemeteries at this time. Each farm, as a rule, had, somewhere near the house, a small plot which was used as a family burying ground. A great many of these private cemeteries may still be seen in Indiana, but in most cases the farm has changed hands too often and the unmarked graves have been neglected.

By far the larger part of the first generation of Indianians are now in unmarked graves. All traces of their existences have disappeared as completely as those of the forest, the wild animals and the Indians, their contemporaries.

Scenes of physical suffering and death were common, so much so that it had a strange effect on the naturally buoyant Hoosier character. All who have read the stories and ballads common in Indiana at this time have been amused at the pathos.

Such ballads as “Lily Dale,” “Sweet William,” “Barbara Allen,” “Fuller and Warren” illustrate the characteristics. This has been wrongly attributed to affectation, hut it was nothing more than an expression of this native hilarity subdued by moments of sadness. These mournsome songs were usually sung on the most convivial occasions and were not intended by the singers to express sorrow.



Public meetings of the fifties were noticeable for their formality and dignity. The people were the first of three or four generations to appear in formal society, and naturally the tendency to overdress and overact the occasion was great.

One must not get the idea that the old pioneer time had been sloughed as a snake does his skin. Half of Indiana was still in the log-cabin, hunting-shirt era. The polish that appeared in the cities and in the more prosperous farm communities was mocked in most places, but it was the herald of better times. Manners were still rough and coarse as compared with the present.

Gentlemen of society, in their long bell cots, white vests and ruffled shirts, swore like slave drivers. Women, after a few short years in the whirl of fashion, settled down into comfortable clothing, did from ten to sixteen hours of hard work per day, raised a large family, in the meantime smoking their clay pipes with what composure they could.

Most of the amusements of pioneer times continued throughout this period. At the schoolhouse, the young folks gathered of evening for the spelling match, the singing school, the writing school and especially for the ‘‘literary’’ or debate. All of these were largely patronized throughout the decade. Old folks as well as young, took part in all these meetings. Each was essentially a contest in which groups or ‘‘sides’’ contested against groups.

The individual contests were going out of fashion in the older communities. One school frequently challenged another; one singing class challenged another in an adjoining neighborhood; one debating society challenged another; or even one writing class entered the lists against another.

These writing schools had no connection with the district school, but were composed of grown persons under the tuition of an itinerant teacher. The same is true of the singing school. The writing school usually met of evenings while the singing school held on Sunday.

Elaborate rules governed all these contests. They were not dress affairs, though lads and lassies usually attended in pairs and took full advantage of the opportunities offered for “sparking.”

More elaborate and formal were the Sunday meetings at the church house. Here the best and starchiest dress was required. At Quarterly meetings and Associations, baskets of fried chicken, cakes and pies were brought and at the noon intermission the table cloth was spread on the grass under the trees.

On these occasions friends and relatives from distant neighborhoods combined the pleasures of worship with those of a social visit. In many localities these meetings were the greatest events of the year.

The great American holidays were usually observed, each in its peculiar way. The Fourth of July was a dress occasion on which, in the towns, the leading citizens and ladies sat down to a formal banquet, after which lugubrious toasts to our glorious country were given.

In the rural districts the folks gathered in a grove, sometimes listened to the readings of the Declaration or a pompous oration by some member of the bar or more often danced in the sawdust to the music of the fiddle.

The other great holiday was Christmas, on the eve of which a sleigh ride to the Christmas tree was good sport for the grown boys and girls, while the little ones hung up their stockings in eager expectation of the visit of Santa Claus.


Bands of young men armed with muskets, horns and conch-shells made the rounds of the neighborhood on Christmas Eve, shooting in front of houses and demanding treats of liquor, apples, pies or cakes, according to taste or local custom.

On Christmas day, kinfolks gathered together to enjoy a sumptuous feast, greatest of the year in many homes.

The militia muster had yielded its former prestige partly to the Election Day and partly to the barbecue, the former taking over the business and the latter the pleasure. The procedure on Election Day varied so much in different parts of the state that no detailed description would be fair to more than one community.

In the great majority of townships the election was an orderly, quiet, business-like poll of the voters. In other townships it was bedlam on a spree. The barbecue, originally appropriate for any gathering, had by 1850 become appropriated almost exclusively for political meetings. Beef was the proper meat for barbecuing.

It was not a fashionable meeting. All classes attended, dressed in all styles from the fringed hunting shirt and moccasins to the bell-shaped great coat and bee-gum beaver.

Usually some political speaker harangued the multitude, and not infrequently two or three speakers were going simultaneously. One hundred farm wagons, mingled with a considerable number of ox-teams and stylish family carriages could be counted on the grounds.

The feast was not altogether lovely from our point of view. Swarms of flies and gnats covered the meat except when shooed away by the feasters. Kegs of corn whiskey and hard cider were consumed by the multitude, resulting in the usual coarse behavior.

Frequently the revelry continued far into the night or not seldom throughout the second day during which the people camped on the ground and spent the time around the camp fire in social visits.

Naturally the young folks enjoyed themselves to the limit.


There were in Indiana in 1854 twelve daily, two tri-weekly, one semi-weekly, one hundred and twenty-one weekly, one fortnightly and six monthly newspapers. Only nineteen counties were entirely without newspapers.

The reading of these papers, with their stories of the outside world, the wonders of the cities and the lure of the great west, created uncontrollable desire to see the world. The new railroads and palatial steamboats offered the means and the returns from good crops and profitable commerce furnished the necessary funds.

Cincinnati and New Orleans were the attractive western cities. It was counted the treat of a lifetime to make the trip to New Orleans on such a steamer as the “Shotwell,” “Antelope,” “Diana” or, above all, on the “Eclipse.”

More than a score of elegant side-wheelers plied between Louisville and New Albany and New Orleans. Almost equally numerous and splendid were the boats in the Louisville-St. Louis trade. The elite of southern Indiana met the barons of the
Blue Grass in the cabins of these steamers on equal terms. Nowhere in the west was greater elegance displayed.

In the evening after the ladies had tired of music and dancing, the gentlemen, so inclined, retired to the bar room to spend a large part of the night at poker. Liquor flowed freely and stakes ran high. In spite of Dickens’ crabid comment no river bore such sumptuous crafts as did the Ohio in the fifties and the competition between these river racers was furious.


The railroads had not yet provided such comfortable means of travel. The Madison road cleaned out the week-day hog cars for the Sunday excursion. On other lines the passengers rode on flat cars, using planks for seats. By 1860, however, the older railroads were provided with comfortable coaches, though of course, not equaling the sleepers, diners and chair cars of the present.

The trip was frequently interrupted by accidents or by stops to take on wood or water. The men passengers often helped to carry on wood or stood in the water line as the buckets were passed back and forth from some convenient stream or pool to fill the tender. There was no display of fashion on the trains as there was on the boats, however, the travel widened the acquaintanceship of the people with each other and the country more than did that on the boats.

Show day was the gala day “par excellence.” Everybody condemned it, but everybody came and nobody behaved. The shows themselves varied from the two or three-ring circus, under the big tent among the dog fennel, to the slight-of-hand performers, the dancing bear or speaking mule. The mummy of Napoleon, the snake charmer from Madagascar, the wild man of Borneo, the sword swallower, and their whole brigade were safely ensconced in the side shows where the curious were relieved of their extra money, just as at present.

Drunkenness and disorder usually characterized the crowd. The children, by staying close to the clowns and wild animals, had an enjoyable day, but to the older persons the circus was a disappointment.

The contrast of the circus was the fair. There was wonderful activity during the fifties among the farmers and nowhere could this be appreciated so much as at the state and county fairs. All the handiwork and products of the farm were on exhibition, from the finest livestock to the choicest glass of jelly. Tile farmers with their families came to spend a full day or perhaps more, enjoying and admiring the things of their own world.

It was a day of education as well as enjoyment. There was earnest comment on all the articles. Many things were done better by them after the fair. Their standard of living was raised by inspecting the wares of others and their vanity tickled by an exhibition of their own. An address in the forenoon and horse races in the afternoon broke the continuity of the day.


The men were kindly, but rough, outspoken and boisterous. The hard life of the forest for a century had been a potent discipline. The loudest lawyer made the greatest impression on the jury. The native preachers were plain spoken harsh and merciless. They often found it necessary to maintain order by force.

The poor pedagogue was the butt of every coarse joke in the neighborhood. He was barred out. smoked out, ducked or horsewhipped and the surest way to establish himself in the community was to break somebody‘s head with a poker or lick daily all the helpless children under his charge.

Diametrically opposed to this roughness was the generous, hearty hospitality, unequaled in the United States except among the southern planters. There was a feeling of kinship, at times approaching clannishness, though rarely offensive. They were artistic and visionary.


Their pompous language seems to us ridiculous and amusing, but nevertheless is significant. The wandering preacher, the stump speaker and the newspaper paragrapher in their efforts at expression borrowed the grand figures from the Bible, Cicero, Bacon, and Milton and more especially from John Knox and Fox’s “Book of the Martyrs.” It was the language of the “glorious Revolution.”

The better orators of the period, such as George G. Dunn. Samuel Parker, Edward Hannegan and Abraham Lincoln, combined this power with a political vein, common in southern Indiana, into readable literature.

But this poetic vision is only the background of the picture. In the foreground looms up an attitude toward God and nature as ridiculous as the former was sublime—looms up so large that only close observation reveals the former.

These same folks who stood speechless in the presence of the grandeur of nature:
- planted their cucumbers when the sign was in the arm so they would grow long;
- planted their potatoes in the dark of the moon so they would not all grow to tops;
- knew that if the new moon lay on its back, the month would be dry;
- carried buckeyes in their pockets to keep off rheumatism;
- carried the left front foot of a rabbit, killed in a graveyard in the dark of the moon, for good luck;
- butchered their hogs in the dark of the moon lest when the pork was fried it all go to grease;
- believed that if a child were born when the sign was in the stomach it would be hearty;
- if the sign was in the head it would be wise;
- if it clung to a pencil when first presented to it, it was destined to a noble professional career.

All nature was full of personal significance, full of signs and portents to their superstitious minds. Expert German and French rhabdomancers preyed on the more gullible, telling fortunes, locating buried treasures, stolen goods, or underground streams of water.

Many of these signs and sayings were based on long and careful observations. Their weather prognostications took the place of the present weather bureau reports and at times were quite as accurate. Most of the prudential sayings which Franklin printed in his almanac, and which have since passed for proverbs, were folk lore of the thrifty German peasants, the Pennsylvania Dutch. A large majority of these small superstitions had kernels of valuable wisdom concealed in their core.

From a personal standpoint their philosophy was broadly humanitarian. Individuals might differr in endowments of wealth, but each bore the impress of the Deity and thus was entitled to respect. This conception had far-reaching consequences. It made slavery impossible, prevented any deep class distinctions, made public schools possible, and laid a broad foundation for Jacksonian democracy.

In social life it made the difference between Emerson and Lincoln, between the man who fastens his eve on a distant goal and crushes on through the wreck and ruin of hopes and lives to its consummation, and the man who shapes his life to afford the greatest pleasure to himself and neighbors without much regard to the fulfillment of his own selfish destiny.

Politically, their philosophy was most curious and their conduct contradictory. Long and bitter experience had made them distrustful of government either in the church or the state. Unlike the Puritans and Cavaliers and all other civilized peoples of their time, they conceded no divinity to laws or courts.

If the law measured up to their sense of justice they enforced it; if the court meted out substantial justice they obeyed it. If the law was otherwise it remained a dead letter; if the court failed they frequently called in Judge Lynch and the halter strap. Not swift to transcend the law, but certain if the provocation continued.


Their ancestors gave their full strength to America in the Revolution, not so much because they loved America as that they hated England. They fought the military part of the War of 1812 largely in gratification of their enmity toward England and the Indians; and finally they supported the United States in the Civil war not because they hated the South, but because they loved the Union.

A strange and happy transformation in the attitude toward the government has come about since they engaged in the Whiskey Rebellion, wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, intrigued with Spain and encouraged Burr.

Each recognized within himself, great political capacity, such that he would willingly undertake to hold any office he could get, from postmaster to congressman.

This confidence was inspired by the fact that he and his neighbors had organized the government, both state and local. All the institutions around him were his own handiwork, the product of his mind and hand.

He wanted all the education he could get for himself and children, but he paid his taxes grudgingly.

Economically, he liked to picture himself self-sufficient and wholly independent. His ideal was a farm which furnished him all the necessaries of life.

He opposed the United States bank because the bank was too powerful. He could not meet it on the level. He preferred a canal to a railroad because on the canal he could launch his own boat and come and go independently of any other power. On a railroad he would have to accommodate his needs to another man’s pleasure.

He was in his glory floating down the Mississippi with a flatboat load of produce, dickering with the plantation owners on the way. Even thus abroad he maintained the natural simplicity of his life, not. avaricious, not a close bargainer, but reveling in his freedom to buy or sell as he pleased.

He made a spectacle when he ambled along the levee or in the fashionable streets of New Orleans or even Cincinnati, with his pant legs hooked over the inside ear of his boots. He was such a robust animal himself he couldn’t help but pity the whole world except his own neighbors in Indiana.

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