Archive for the ‘hollow tree’ Category

As part of an effort to employ this blog, not only as a source of news about current events at Pricketts Fort, but also as a resource of information about the early history of the lower Monongahela valley, and of the Virginia frontier generally, I began last winter posting, in three parts, the third chapter from  Dr John M. Boback‘s  Ph.D dissertation, Indian Warfare, Household Competency, and the Settlement of the Western Virginia Frontier, 1749 to 1794,   Shawnee Culture and the Ceremonialism of Violence“.

This winter I will be posting (in three parts), Chapter Four from John’s dissertation,   Settling the Western Virginia Backcountry.

John Boback was once a blacksmith here at Prickett’s Fort.  He went on to receive a Ph.D in History from West Virginia University, and is currently director of education at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village located near Avella, Pennsylvania.


by John Boback

When the first Euro-American settlers crossed the Allegheny Mountains into western Virginia during the mid-eighteenth century, they entered a realm that had already seen human occupation for millennia. (166)  The very landscape itself bore testimony to this occupation in the form of scattered Native American villages, burial mounds, an elaborate network of trails, hunting camps, and manmade clearings in the forest. Although Old World diseases, intertribal warfare, and forced migrations had dramatically reduced the native population of the region, the forests of western Virginia still contained a resident population of Indians including the native Shawnees, Iroquoian speaking “Mingos,” and small numbers of recently arrived Delawares. (167)  In addition to these permanent inhabitants, parties of non-resident Cherokees, Wyandots, Ottawas, Miamis, and Iroquois occasionally passed through the region while conducting trade, diplomacy, and warfare.  The presence of these diverse Indian groups not only prolonged the frontier experience of the men and women who settled in western Virginia during the second half of the eighteenth century, but they also indirectly led to greater cultural diversity within the pioneer population.

In exploring the relationship between Indian warfare and the settlement of western Virginia, we first turn our attention to the pioneers themselves and the critical question of whether the cultural background of the pioneers determined how they and the Indians related with one another. After all, if the Indians responded differently to different categories of people, then the dynamic, or driving force, in the frontier history of the region might better be explained by cultural and political factors rather than Indian-related violence and warfare. In the process of addressing this important issue, a second equally important question arises. Just how much diversity existed among the pioneers anyway?

Cultural background of the pioneers

According to the dictionary the word “pioneers” refers collectively to the group of people to first settle a given territory. (168) Unfortunately, thinking of the pioneers as a corporate whole creates a distorted image of them by connoting a sense of unity and homogeneity that simply did not exist on the western Virginia frontier. Consider briefly the archetypal Appalachian pioneer of popular imagination. In terms of ethnicity, he is usually Scots-Irish with ancestors hailing from the plantations of Ulster. He is comparatively poor in terms of both wealth and education. He exhibits an exaggerated, yet celebrated, degree of independence and self-sufficiency due to the alleged isolation of his homestead. His personal conduct is marked by a curious duality whereby he is a God-fearing Christian on the Sabbath yet equally devoted to corn whiskey, practical jokes, and an “unrefined lifestyle” the remaining six days of the week. And lastly, the stereotypical Appalachian pioneer looked upon the Indians with an overt sense of antipathy and disdain, if not outright hatred.  (169)   

Although such a view of the frontiersmen appeals to our romanticized sense of nostalgia, the idea of Appalachian pioneer homogeneity is simply inaccurate. Rather than encompassing only a narrow collection of cultural and personality traits, those men and women who settled in trans-Allegheny Virginia during the second half of the eighteenth century displayed many of the traits associated with a heterogeneous population. Hallmarks of this Appalachian diversity included racial, ethnic, and religious plurality, socioeconomic stratification, and a wide range of attitudes in how they viewed and related to the Native Americans. In order to appreciate the heterogeneity of the pioneer population, it is necessary to step away from the overly simplistic archetypal perspective and instead focus on the actual individual pioneers themselves.  Unfortunately, the limited available documentation on the earliest settlers precludes conducting any sort of statistical analysis of their cultural, racial, and socioeconomic attributes. Instead, a series of brief anecdotal sketches combined with a single more lengthy narrative will suffice to illustrate the point that ethnic and social diversity characterized the earliest pioneers to arrive on the western Virginia frontier.

Stephen Sewel & Jacob Marlin, first settlers in western Virginia

The first pioneer sketch we turn to is a man by the name of Stephen Sewel. According to most traditional accounts, he along with partner Jacob Marlin made the very first Euro-American settlement in western Virginia in 1749 when the two built a cabin near the mouth of Knapps Creek at the present site of Marlinton in Pocahontas County. Settlers of English descent from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the two men lived together for a short while until a religious dispute prompted Sewel to vacate their cabin and move into a nearby hollow tree. (170)  Some traditions specify that their disagreement involved the rite of baptism and how it should be performed. (171)  Regardless, there is near universal agreement that Sewel possessed deep religious convictions. (172)

The Reverend George Samuel Klug

At some point prior to 1752, Sewel became involved with the Reverend George Samuel Klug, a German-born Lutheran minister who had been recruited in Europe by the Reverend John Casper Stoever, Sr., to help plant new Lutheran churches in backcountry Virginia. Stoever, who remained in Europe, proved highly successful at soliciting funds and support for the Lutherans in Virginia, however, his death prevented him from seeing his labors come to fruition. Fortunately for the Lutherans, the recently ordained Klug took up Stoever’s cause and proved instrumental in establishing a formal Lutheran presence in the Shenandoah Valley during the 1740s. (173)   By the early 1750s, Klug had developed an interest in obtaining land and planting settlers in trans-Allegheny Virginia. Whether this stemmed from a desire to spread Lutheranism to “West Virginia” or make money in land speculation is unclear. Regardless, to obtain land, he along with seventeen partners, including Sewel, petitioned the government of Virginia for a land grant. In November 1752, the Executive Council of Virginia responded to their request by granting them up to thirty thousand acres of land at an unspecified location in the upper Monongahela Valley.

They had four years to locate, survey, and settle the land with pioneer families. (174)  Unfortunately for Klug and his associates, the outbreak of the French and Indian War in the summer of 1754 made it virtually impossible for them to meet the government’s time requirement. Consequently, the Lutherans lost their land grant at the end of four years.  Although there are a few instances of religious groups settling in western Virginia in hopes of creating a heavenly community, this was not typical. (175)  Rather, most settlers moved to the frontier for the more earthly purpose of obtaining farmland. While some settlers legally purchased their farms from large speculative interests such as the Greenbrier Land Company, others “squatted” on their land with neither deed nor survey nor legal right to the land they occupied.  Because of this, many of the first settlers in western Virginia are simply undocumented. Where documentation does exist, it is often anecdotal in nature. For example, George Washington remarked in 1753 that some families had settled in the upper reaches of the Kanawha Valley.  (176)  Another example would be the account of Robert Files and David Tygart who settled with their families in present Randolph County not far from the Seneca Trail. (177)

Fleeing to the frontier

For some Virginians, the frontier provided something far more valuable than farmland. It offered potential freedom to anyone seeking to distance himself from a European society that could at times be quite oppressive. Fugitive African slaves, for example, sometimes looked upon the remote Appalachian Mountains as a place of refuge from white bondage. Occasionally forming themselves into small maroon communities, groups of escaped slaves tried to sustain themselves, and their freedom, by hunting wild game and farming the land.  (178)  Other fugitive slaves survived on the frontier by becoming “Indians.” Consider the unlikely case of Selim, a highly educated Muslim from a well-to-do Algerian family. After being captured in the Mediterranean Sea by pirates and sold as a slave in New Orleans, Selim escaped inland ultimately falling in with the Shawnees by the mid-1750s.  (179)  Whether he joined them willingly or had been captured and adopted into the tribe is unclear. Regardless, he would have enjoyed the same freedoms as any other Shawnee.  (180)

Soldiers also sometimes fled to the frontier to free themselves from the brutality of British military “justice.” At a time when punishment for regular troops might entail receiving two hundred lashes with a cat and nine tails for drunkenness or eight hundred lashes for stealing a keg of beer, the remoteness of a distant frontier could be quite appealing.  (181)  Of course, any regular soldier who deserted his unit risked being “hanged without mercy” if apprehended.  (182)  Perhaps the most famous “West Virginia” refugees from the military included brothers John and Samuel Pringle who deserted the British garrison at Fort Pitt in 1761. After narrowly evading capture, the Pringles eventually withdrew deep into the forests of western Virginia where they ultimately took up residence inside a large hollow sycamore tree.  (183)

The Eckerlin brothers

This series of pioneer sketches closes with a slightly longer narrative account of the German-born Eckerlin brothers, Israel, Gabriel, and Samuel. One-time members of the monastic Ephrata cloister located near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Eckerlins at some point in the early 1740s became interested in relocating to the frontier. Following two failed attempts in 1745 and 1751, they successfully established a settlement in 1752 at a site along the Cheat River that would soon become known as “Dunkard Bottom.” There they lived in friendship with the local Delawares with whom they traded and provided medical care. In fact, it had been the Delawares that suggested that the Eckerlins live at Dunkard Bottom because its remote location would be fairly safe from hostile Indians allied with the French.  (184)  Samuel Eckerlin eventually petitioned and received a five thousand acre land grant that included Dunkard Bottom.  (185)

According to Brother Samuel, the Eckerlins had originally looked westward because it was “time again to turn to a hermit’s life.”  (186)  But if being a hermit implied living a contemplative life of solitude, prayer, voluntary poverty, and simplicity, then the Eckerlins were anything but hermits. On the contrary, the brothers soon embarked on a course aimed at creating a frontier religious community under their personal leadership. Unlike the more mainstream Lutherans or Presbyterians, the Pietist-influenced Eckerlins advocated monasticism, celibacy, pacifism, and communalism. Additionally, they observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, did not perform baptisms, refused to cut their beards, and practiced vegetarianism when circumstances permitted.  (187)  If anyone possessed the skills and knowledge needed to create a monastic religious community on the frontier, it was the Eckerlins. Brother Israel wrote prolifically, practiced medicine, had a good head for business, and as one-time prior at the Ephrata cloister, he had demonstrated great skill at organizing and leading men. Brother Samuel, also known as Doctor Eckerlin, likewise practiced medicine, but also excelled at agriculture and knew how to process animal hides and skins.  Brother Gabriel proved himself particularly adept at hunting, an invaluable skill on the western Virginia frontier.  (188)

Between 1753 and 1756, the Eckerlins worked hard at creating their religious community.  An eyewitness visitor to the Eckerlin’s Cheat River “hermitage” described a crude yet thriving settlement consisting of the brothers, an indentured servant, a hired cook, six acres of planted corn, a hundred bushels of harvested corn, twenty-eight horses, and over a hundred British pounds worth of animal skins.  (189)  Rather than live in isolate solitude, the brothers wrote long letters to associates in the east and made frequent trips back to the Shenandoah Valley and Ephrata. On some of these trips, they met with merchants in an effort to open regular trade between the Cheat River and eastern Pennsylvania. The brothers additionally made it known that Anabaptists and other pious individuals would be welcome in their community. (190)  Unfortunately for the Eckerlins, as we will see, the French and Indian War ended their chances of succeeding in their holy venture.

The above series of sketches illustrate the important point that ethnic and social diversity existed in western Virginia from the earliest days of settlement. A traveler passing through the region in 1753 might have encountered animistic Native Americans from a half dozen tribes, Englishmen who had embraced the religious views of a German Evangelical Lutheran, an Islamic scholar from North Africa, Scots-Irish Presbyterians from the plantations of Ulster, German Pietists with an inclination toward religious mysticism and monasticism, English squatters, and a diverse array of hunters, trappers, indentured servants, escaped slaves, and fugitives from justice.  In short, the so-called archetypal pioneer of popular imagination was anything but typical on the western Virginia frontier.

Massacre in the Kanawha Valley, autumn 1753

Despite their diverse cultural differences, the pioneers did share at least one common trait.  Regardless of their nationality, religious views, economic standing, social position, attitude toward the Indians, or purpose for being on the frontier, the pioneers universally risked hardship, injury, and death at the hands of Indian warriors. Let us return once more to the pioneer sketches presented above to see how those men and women ultimately fared. In the fall of 1753 almost a year prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War, a suspected Ottawa war party attacked the pioneer settlement referred to by George Washington as being in the Kanawha Valley.

According to some Iroquois who later stumbled upon the carnage, seven settlers had been killed and scalped with their bodies subsequently being “much torn and eaten by Hogs.”  (191)   About that same time, Indians also struck the family of Robert Files situated near the Seneca Indian trail.  From a distance, one of the children helplessly watched the Indians kill and scalp his parents and five siblings. He later ran the two miles to the cabin of his neighbor David Tygart to warn him of the danger. Only by abandoning their homestead and fleeing the frontier did the Tygart family and remaining Files boy survive. (192)  Even Stephen Sewel, the first documented settler in “West Virginia” died at the hands of an Indian warrior in September 1756. (193)  For the next forty years,  pioneer families repeatedly found themselves in the position of David Tygart and Stephen Sewell where a decision had to be made whether to risk remaining on the dangerous frontier or to withdraw back across the mountains. In many cases, it ultimately became a matter of life or death.

The hard lot of fugitives

Unfortunately, not every frontiersman had the option of fleeing the frontier during times of danger. For the Pringle brothers, being recognized and apprehended as deserters could be just as perilous as remaining in the backcountry. Likewise, fugitive criminals who had found respite on the frontier could not simply return to the east at will. Simon Kenton, for example, had fled across the mountains thinking he had killed a man in a fight.  (194)  Indentured servants and African slaves likewise did not enjoy complete freedom of movement. Although escaped slaves, such as Selim, sometimes joined with the Indians, (195) others fought against them alongside their masters.  Consider Dick Pointer, a slave in the Greenbrier Valley whose heroism in battle against the Indians would later in life earn him his freedom and financial support from an appreciative white populace.  (196)  Although Pointer gained a local notoriety as an Indian fighter, did he really have that many viable options?  Unlike David Tygart, Pointer did not have the freedom to decide whether to risk remaining on the frontier or to return to the east.

Even religious pacifism and overt goodwill toward the Indians could not guarantee immunity from Indian-related violence. Perhaps more than anyone, the Eckerlin brothers epitomize the universality of the hardship endured by the pioneers during the western Virginia Indian wars. At a time when most frontiersmen looked upon the Indians with deep suspicion if not outright enmity, the brothers embraced them as friends. On occasion, the Eckerlins, “who are all Doctors,” even treated sick or injured Delawares and Shawnees. (197)

The fate of the Eckerlins

Despite their goodwill and tolerance, the Eckerlins by 1756 found themselves caught literally on the front lines of the French and Indian War. Unfortunately, the pacifism and neutrality touted by the brothers became an increasingly untenable position as participants from both sides began looking upon them with suspicion. Even George Washington registered his distrust of the Eckerlins in a pair of letters to Governor Robert Dinwiddie explaining, “I firmly believe they are employed as spies, and are useful to the French.” (198)  After all, they “entertain the Indians who are wounded here.” (199)  The Virginians’ deep distrust of the Eckerlins is reflected the fact that they even went so far as to deploy a company of eighty men to the Cheat River to bring in the brothers. The soldiers failed to locate the hermitage, however, a party of Iroquois did discover them. Although the Eckerlins lost their clothing and furs in the encounter, they suffered no bodily harm. Sensing the escalating danger, the local Delawares advised the brothers to leave the frontier at once because their hermitage would no longer be secure. When the Eckerlins chose to disregard the warning, they sealed their own fate.  (200)

The following year, the Virginians arrested Brother Samuel while on one of his frequent trips to the Shenandoah Valley. By compelling him to serve as a guide, Captain Robert McKenzie marched a party of seventy men to the Cheat River in order to “bring in the other two Brothers, with their Cattle & Horses & any Thing . . . they conveniently can bring with them.”  (201)  Along the way,  McKenzie’s soldiers reportedly treated “Brother Samuel rather roughly . . . trusting that theywould be proven right in assuming him and his brothers spies.”  Upon arriving at the Eckerlins’ hermitage, they found broken tomahawks, Indian spears, and the burnt out remains of some cabins. (202)  Indians had destroyed the hermitage and taken its occupants captive. Captain McKenzie subsequently released Brother Samuel who had been vindicated of all suspicions of working as a French spy.

Unfortunately, brothers Israel and Gabriel along with an indentured servant named John Schilling did not fare as well. Shortly before the Virginians arrived at the hermitage, a war party of seven Ottawas and one Frenchman had captured the three men who offered no resistance.  During their subsequent eight day trip to Fort Duquesne at present Pittsburgh, the Indians “sorely mistreated” the brothers including scalping the beard from one of them. At Fort Duquesne, the Ottawas sold the two Eckerlins to the French, but retained Schilling for themselves. (203)  Over three years later, Schilling made his escape ultimately finding his way back to Pennsylvania.  The brothers, on the other hand, reportedly endured a frigid winter in a prison at Quebec “where they suffered for want of necessary Food and Clothing.”  (204)  Becoming ill with “a distemper,” Israel and Gabriel Eckerlin were  ultimately shipped to France where they both succumbed to their afflictions. (205)

The frontier experiences of Stephen Sewel, the Files family, Dick Pointer, the Eckerlins, and the hundreds of settlers who fled their homes to escape Indian warfare tells us that the cultural background of a particular settler had little influence in how they ultimately fared in relating to the Indians. Even the life of the most avowed pacifist could quickly be destroyed by a single encounter with a hostile warrior. Much of the difficulty in relating with the Indians is that they, like the pioneers themselves, tended to be a very heterogenous lot hailing from a multitude of linguistic groups, tribes, clans, villages, and extended families each with their own particular beliefs, attitudes, and agendas. In the face of such Native American diversity, the old adage that “you cannot please everyone” rings particularly true. A carefully cultivated relationship with one village or tribe did not necessarily translate into an amiable relationship with all Indians. So for the Eckerlins, it mattered little that the local Indians held them in great esteem because in the end, not every Indian that passed through western Virginia had local connections.



166: Many different cultural groups of Indians have lived and hunted in present West Virginia for the past 12,500 years. Otis K. Rice and Stephen W. Brown, West Virginia: A History, 2d ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 3.

167: Daniel B. Fowler, “An Old Shawnee Town in West Virginia,” West Virginia Archeologist 28 (Spring & Fall 1979): 24-29; Ronald W. Moxley, “The Orchard Site: A Proto-Historic Fort Ancient Village Site in Mason County, West Virginia,” West Virginia Archeologist 40 (Spring 1988): 32-41; Douglas H. Ubelaker, “Human Skeletal Remains from the Thorn Mounds (46MG78 and 46MG79),”  West Virginia Archeologist 38 (Fall 1986): 53-54; Berle R. Clay and Charles M. Niquette, “Middle Woodland Mortuary Rituals in the Gallipolis Locks and Dam Vicinity, Mason County, West Virginia,”  West Virginia Archeologist 44 (Spring & Fall 1992): 1-25; Edward V. McMichael, Introduction to West Virginia Archeology, 2nd ed. rev. (Morgantown: West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, 1968); Alexander Scott Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare (1895; reprint, Parsons, W. Va.: McClain, 1989), 75, 136.

168: Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s. v. “pioneer.”

169:  James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 256-57; John Anthony Caruso, The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), 207.

170:  John Stuart, “Memorandum, 1798, July 15th,” in Ruth Woods Dayton, Greenbrier Pioneers and Their Homes (Charleston, W. Va.: West Virginia Publishing, 1942), 367; G. D. McNeill, Tales of Pocahontas County (Parsons, W. Va.: McClain, 1991), 1-3. The Stuart Memorandum also mentions “a man of unsound mind” who had wandered across the mountains from Frederick County into western Virginia where he encountered the Greenbrier River.  Although he arrived about the same time as Sewel and Marlin, he did not remain as a settler.

171:  William T. Price, Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County, West Virginia (1901; reprint, Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1990), 106.

172:  The contemporaneous Great Awakening then raging in Virginia may have influenced Sewel’s religious faith.

173:  Leonard R. Riforgiato, Missionary of Moderation: Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Lutheran Church in English America (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1980), 57.

174:  Wilmer L. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, vol. 5  (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1945), 409.

175:  In 1789, a Seventh Day Baptist congregation from Shrewsbury, New Jersey sold their church and moved to the western Virginia frontier. They first settled along White Day Creek in present Monongalia County, however, in the spring of 1792 they moved on establishing two separate congregations at present Salem and Hepzibah in Harrison County. Prior to building a meetinghouse, the Salem congregation built a blockhouse to provide protection against Indian attacks. Corliss Fitz Randolph, A History of Seventh Day Baptists in West Virginia (Plainfield, N.J.: American Sabbath Tract Society, 1905), 29-31, 83, 104; Dorothy Davis, History of Harrison County West Virginia (Parsons, W. Va.: McClain, 1970), 575, 577.

176:  Diary GW, 1: 65.

177:  Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 74-75.

178:  Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 179.

 179:  Oren F. Morton, Annals of Bath County Virginia (1917; reprint, Harrisonburg, Va.: C. J. Carrier, 1978), 101-3; McNeill, Tales, 51-52.

180:  James H. Howard, Shawnee!: The Ceremonialism of a Native American Tribe and Its Cultural Background (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981), 123.

181:  Franklin Thayer Nichols, “The Organization of Braddock’s Army,” The William and Mary Quarterly 4 (April 1947): 142-43.

182:  Major General Edward Braddock’s Orderly Books, From February 26 to June 17, 1755 (Cumberland, Md.: Will H. Lowdermilk, 1878), v.

183:  Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 117-19.

184:  Lamech and Agrippa, Chronicon Ephratense; A History of the Community of Seventh Day Baptists at Ephrata, Lancaster County, Penn’a, trans. J. Max Hark (Lancaster, Pa.: S. H. Zahm, 1889), 224, 229-30.

185:  Hall, Executive Journals of the Council, 450.

186:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 184.

187:  Thomas Walker, Journal of an Exploration in the Spring of the Year 1750, ed. William C. Rives (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1888), 39-40.

188:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 224, 230; Emmert F. Bittinger, Allegheny Passage: Churches and Families, West Marva District, Church of the Brethren 1752-1990  (Camden, Maine: Penobscot Press, 1990), 21.

189:  For an English translation of Henry Sangmeister’s eyewitness description of the Eckerlin’s Cheat River hermitage, see Donald F. Durnbaugh, ed., The Brethren in Colonial America: A Source Book on the Transplantation and Development of the Church of the Brethren in the Eighteenth Century (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1967), 164.

190:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 230; Klaus Wust, The Saint-Adventurers of the Virginia Frontier: Southern Outposts of Ephrata (Edinburg, Va.: Shenandoah History, 1977), 30-31.

191: Diary GW, 1:65.

192: “Preston’s Register of Persons Killed, Wounded, or Taken Prisoner . . . ,” Draper Manuscripts, 1 QQ 83, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Withers, Chronicles of Border Warfare, 74-75; Hu Maxwell, The History of Randolph County, West Virginia (1898; reprint, Parsons, W. Va.: McClain, 1991), 180-82.

193: “Preston’s Register,” Draper Manuscripts, 1 QQ 83, HSW.

194: “Notes on Gen. Simon Kenton – 1771-‘73,” Draper Manuscripts, 1 BB 3-13, HSW; Edna Kenton, Simon Kenton; His Life and Period, 1755-1836 (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1930), 24-28.

195:  As seen in the previous chapter, even the process of adoption involved violence and the risk of injury or death.

196:  Louise Phelps Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio, 1778-1779 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1916), 69-70, 72-73.

197:  Washington to Dinwiddie, 28 September 1756, Writings GW, 1:475.

198:  Washington to Dinwiddie, 5 October 1757, Writingd GW, 2:142-43.

199: Washington to Dinwiddie, 28 September 1756, Writings GW,1:475.

200:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 231.

201:  Dinwiddie to Washington, 24 October 1757, Letters to Washington and Accompanying Papers, vol. 2, 1756-1758, ed. Stanislaus Murray Hamilton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899), 218.

202:  Wust, Saint-Adventurers, 36-37.

203:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 232.

204:  Pennsylvania Gazette, 26 January 1758.

205:  Lamech, Chronicon Ephratense, 232-33; Samuel Eckerlin to Benjamin Franklin, 5 November 1764, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 11:443-44.

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abereading When we think of pioneers on the Allegheny frontier, and how it was that they passed the long winter months, our imaginations may have been influenced by having seen too many old-fashioned paintings of frontier life, such as the famous one by Eastman Johnson showing a young Abe Lincoln reading by firelight, or too many tv-episodes showing Fess Parker & Patricia Blair as Daniel Boone & Rebecca warming themselves before a stone fireplace.

The truth was often more austere. Certainly, newly-arrived immigrants from the east, face to face with the daunting perils and hardships of the frontier for the first time, wanted above all the comfort and security of a sturdy cabin for themselves and their families, but such a cabin was not easily had. Constructing a heavy log building with hand-tools, while using only materials gathered from the forest, required a set of specialized skills not easily mastered, and which many settlers had mastered only in part. If the newcomers arrived in number — as in the case of the Pricketts, with their large family — then their skills could be pooled and a cabin erected fairly quickly. But if the family was small — say perhaps only a husband and wife without grown children — then the labor of building a substantial cabin could be accomplished only with difficulty. Other more crucial tasks would need to be tackled first: securing a ready supply of food, water and firewood, planting a crop, and raising defenses against possible incursions from Indians, wolves or bears. Since a cabin could not be built immediately, they would have to make do with a temporary shelter.

Such an abode could take many forms. If a family was especially fortunate, they might stumble across a spacious cave, or perhaps a rock overhang set into a cliff face (such a place might already be inhabited by a bear, of course, which could be either good or bad news . . .). Many families set up house-keeping in caves for weeks or months at a time, and wintering over in a cave was not the worst of prospects, especially if the cave were set deeply into a hill and its temperature moderated by the earth itself.

oldoak1 Even a hollow tree might do in a pinch. Near present-day Buckhannon two brothers, the Pringles, during the 1760s, made their home in a great old hollow sycamore for two years as they eluded both Indians and the British army, from which they had deserted. It is impossible to say how many other settlers may have resorted to such a primitive solution. The Draper manuscripts mention one Thomas Spencer who lived in a hollow sycamore near Castalian Springs in Sumner County, Tennessee during the frontier years, and for every tree-dwelling frontiersman who made it into the written record, there must been many more who did not (I lived in a hollow tree myself in the Pacific northwest during a period of hard times many years ago — but that is another story). For the Pringle brothers, such an abode had the considerable advantage of being all-but-invisible to passing Indians and British soldiers alike, and this in itself would constitute an advantage to any settler. A chief disadvantage is that such a shelter could never be overly large, but if the Pringle brothers could get along in a tree for two years, then persumably so could a married couple. Another advantage afforded by a hollow tree is that it could be rendered habitable with a minimum of preparation, while its relatively small size and natural insulation would make it easy to heat with only a very small fire. If the cavity extended up into the tree (as is often the case), it might open out through one or more knotholes, thus comprising an effective and nicely-concealed chimney. The draft could be improved by cleaning out the cavity and enlarging the knothole.

How well a family was able to prepare for the coming of winter depended more than anything on what time of year they arrived. Spring was of course ideal. March might prove too early and liable to subject the pioneers to late-winter storms or blizzards. April could still bring on its share of inclement weather, but settlers would need as much lead time as possible to prepare land for planting, build shelters and the thousand other tasks necessary to making a new life in the wilderness. If you were not prepared to plant by mid-May at the latest, your entire crop, upon which you would depend next winter, might be in jeapordy. Nonethelss, there were many who came to the frontier without the luxury of being able to choose the best season of the year for doing so. Among immigrants to the frontier there were always a certain number of fugitives from the law, from creditors, or religious persecutors. There were run-away slaves, indentured servants, or simply flat-out-of-luck losers desperate for one more chance. Such individuals rarely were able to pick and choose the best time to “light out for the territory” and might very well find themselves poorly equipped and on the wrong side of the Alleghenies with winter coming on and not a friendly face in sight.

For such unfortunate and ill-prepared individuals or, say, for the careful family whose summer had nonetheless brought more bad luck and setbacks than constructive progress, the prospect of facing a wilderness winter without the protection of a sturdy cabin might be unavoidable. If no cave or hollow tree could be found, and there was not time or erect a proper cabin, the expedient alternative was to build some manner of half-face shelter. longhunterscamp2 These were generally eight or ten-foot-square structures framed with poles — sometimes with low log walls — and often set back against a large fallen log or rockface. They were closed on three sides, with a roof that always sloped to the back, and with the high side always open. They could be roofed with a variety of materials: blankets, hides, puncheons, or sheets of hickory or ash bark, and were floored variously with packed dirt, bark or dry leaves. In front of the open side a fire would be kept always ablaze, unless the weather were so inclement that closing the open side with hides of blankets proved necessary.

Such primitive shelters were only barely adequate if the winter was a hard one, and one can imagine that no effort was spared to erect a cabin before winter arrived in force. Often this meant that a family might have finished the walls and roof of the cabin, but have been unable to complete the chimney. In such cases an opening would be left in the roof and the fire built directly on the floor. Travelers through western Virginia before the Revolution noted many such cabins and described them as miserable hovels. They dreaded having to spend a night in them crowded among a strange family, but compared to a cave or half-face shelter, even the most primitive cabin must have seemed spacious, secure and warm.

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