Fall on the frontier was, above all, a season of preparation against the coming Winter. The foundation of the cabin would be banked against the cold wind with a thick matting of cornstalks and pumpkin vines, or straw if they had it, or even banked with earth. And naturally a substantial stockpile of dried and split firewood, kept under cover and close to the cabin.
The other main necessity which had to be stockpiled was more problematic: namely food. If the Winter was severe, replenishing the food supply by hunting might be all-but-impossible for days or weeks at a time. Even during milder spells it might be difficult, if game were scarce for one reason or another. Therefore the prudent pioneer would lay up food in autumn in as great a quantity as possible.
Meat, whether fish, fowl or beast, and whether domestic or wild, had to be preserved in some manner. In the deep of Winter, freezing was an obvious solution. But if the meat were killed before Winter had set in — and much of it would have to be — then other methods than freezing were required. These ranged from jerking to smoking to salting (though salt was generally too scarce to use for preservation), and occasionally even to pickling.
Traditionally, on the American farm, the first cold snap signalled hog-butchering time, which meant plenty of fresh juicy pork, cracklen bread, new lard, sausage, souse meat and a fresh supply of soap. On the old frontier, however, fat pen-fed hogs — which yield the tenderest pork — were all but unknown. The frontier pig — accustomed to fending for itself in the forest and subsisting on ‘mast’ — yielded meat which was far leaner, drier and less tender — its taste and consistency being much more in the nature of wild meat.
The frontier equivalent to the pen-fattened hog was probably the bear, the meat of which was widely favored by pioneer and Indian alike. The meat was rich and succulent and, as with a hog, every part of the animal had a useful purpose, not the least of which was the ample hide which, when properly tanned, resulted in a thickly-furred robe capable of turning the severest cold.
When it came to preserving fruit and vegetables, freezing was the problem, not the solution. Fruit or vegetables exposed to freezing would rot.
Potatoes and turnips could be kept from freezing by any of several methods: one of the simplest was to place them in pits in the earth, an effective method especially if they were also covered in sand or ashes, which helped to keep them from moisture. Nonetheless, many such buried root-crops would succumb to rot before Spring. Some settlers prolonged the life of potatoes by baking them lightly before burying them, a practice brought over from Ireland.
Pumpkins and squash would keep well into winter if kept dry and protected from freezing. Some settlers would store them in a shed or smokehouse, buried amid straw or cornshocks. Because pumpkins tended to rot sooner than squash, they were sometimes peeled, sliced and dried, instead of being stored whole. One method of cutting them for drying was shown to me by Native interpreter Ed Robey. After being cored, the whole pumpkin is sliced through, resulting in slices like flattened doughnuts, which are then strung on a pole and suspended high over a fire for slow drying.
Ed Robey also gave us some native pumpkin seeds from some of his Seneca friends, which they have been growing for many generations. The pumpkins which their seeds produced appear to be Long Island Cheese Squash, which, incidentally, are now being offered as an old heirloom by Monticello. In any case, these pumpkins easily last the winter and are still good for eating a year later. In several cases they have lasted for us for two winters. By that time their centers have dried out, but they still contain much good edible flesh.
Beans and corn, if not eaten during the season, were left to dry in the field until after frost, after which the corn was hung indoors from the rafters, and the dry beans shelled and stored in crocks or other containers.
Generally speaking, folks on the frontier looked forward to the Fall for one very good reason: Fall meant that the season of Indian attacks would soon be ending. Winters were harder then than now. The snows came earlier in the year and, once they had fallen, tended to last until Spring thaw. The climate was colder and, especially in deep forest, the snow accumulated and didn’t melt. With the forests impassable, the Indians stayed home until late Spring or early Summer when the trails were again open and dry. On the frontier, Fall meant a reprieve in the fighting was at hand, and folks could begin to breathe easy. Winter might be hard, and it certainly carried its own serious hazards, but it was also a time of peace.
Occasionally, there would be an “Indian Summer”. Today this is a term which carries only pleasant and nostalgic associations. On the frontier, however, Indian Summer was a thing to be dreaded. It referred to a period of unseasonable warming following the first tracking snow. It didn’t happen in every year but, when it did, it meant that, after everyone had let down their guard and assumed the season of fighting was over for another year, there might be a recurrence of attacks and blood-letting, followed by Winter in earnest. It was one more hardship added to a long list of trials and tribulations which made life on the frontier harder, lonlier and more desperate than we moderns can begin to imagine.