Notes From The Frontier
A Pioneer Diary
Updated: May 4
These journal entries by Welsh immigrant James Bryant give us glimpses of pioneer day-to-day life on the trail west in 1862.
My name is James Bryant. I was a pioneer of 1862, born 31 May, 1857 at the Bleyne, Carmarthan, Wales. My father, James Bryant, my mother, Hannah Reese, both of Wales, with one sister Margaret and myself, left Liverpool, England on the emigrant ship John Bright in 1858. After several weeks in crossing, we landed in New York, then continued our journey by train, but our funds were very low, and to enable my parents to obtain a livelihood, father, being a coal miner by trade, had to work in Pennsylvania and Ohio coal mines for four years. After this we moved to Florence, Nebraska, joining Capt. John Murdock's company traveling west.
Storm/Buffalo Upon reaching the eastern part of Wyoming, we experienced another bad storm; father and mother each had to support our tent covering until the storm ceased, as the wind had blown it over. We passed thousands of head of buffalo during our journey. Captain Murdock would order the company to halt until they rushed past, as he said it was a bad policy to split the herd.
Buffalo Chips Mother kept a sack always in one corner of the wagon box; it was my duty to keep this filled with buffalo chips for fuel, unless we chanced to find wood or timber; later it was sage brush that we used. Whenever we came to a stream of water, there was always one of the men ready to ride his saddle horse into the river, if his horse had to swim he would return as soon as possible, but if man and horse could wade all of the way across, the company was allowed to march on through. If he had to swim we then made camp, sometimes for ten days, making rafts or floats to enable everything to be taken over to the opposite side.
Wagons I neglected to state that our teams coming across the plains were mostly good, old, faithful oxen. Father had a black one and a spotted one wearing a heavy yoke, attached to a lynch pin wagon with a canvas top. By lynch pin, I mean the axle passed thru the hub of the wheel, a groove or gimlet hole was bored in the axle and this had to be kept filled with wagon grease which job fell to my lot, and the pin then pushed down. This kept the wheel on the axle.
Setting Tires In setting our tires, we had to cut strips of 6" gunny sacking about 6" wide, soak them in cold water and wrap them around the rim of the wheel. The tire was heated by placing it on three rocks over a sagebrush fire, then two men lifted it with tongs, placed it over the rim of the wheel very quickly and then poured cold water over all, or if near running water, they lifted the wheel right into it, until the rim was cold and set. As gunny sacks were used as a sort of padding, they had to move quickly so the sacking would not get on fire.
Cooking My mother had one utensil she called her baking kettle. This was all we used all the way across the plains. Our bread and other baking was done in this kettle, which was of cast iron, large and round with a heavy cast iron cover. Mother would prepare the bread dough in the wagon, when on the plains, and after the camp was made and the fire built, the rocks were heated and the pan of salt-rising bread would be baked. (This kettle also had three legs 2" long and was about 7" or 8" deep.) By placing the kettle on the heated rocks, and heaping hot coals on the lid, we would soon have a fine loaf of bread. We made twists of the dough by placing a strip of dough on clean sticks and holding them over the hot coals.
Home Construction I have lived in all kinds of houses from mud on. Our new home was just one large room. Father made the foundation of rock and mud, about 18" thick. This was left to dry thoroughly, then another layer would be added and dried, then another layer, and so on, working each day, until it was raised to about an 8' square. Then all of our belongings were moved in before the roof was placed. The roof consisted of two poles placed across the center and at first the wagon cover was stretched over corner-wise until the branches of a few trees and reeds and leaves and such as could be procured could be placed thereon. This foliage was made into bundles and fastened together in rows over the logs, and the children had to tromp this down. Then a covering of mud was placed over all. When a heavy rain came, of course the mud would leak and allow the water to come thru and every one had to manage a brass kettle or other utensil.
Later on, when lumber could be obtained from the mountains, the logs were split and placed on the dirt floor, forming a nice roomy cabin, with a wooden roof. An opening square was made for the fireplace, rocks being used on the floor portion. An iron rod, running through the center of this opening was then placed to which chains were fastened. A heavy kettle, fastened to the chains, swung over the blaze. As nails were not to be had, wooden pegs were made and placed thru the logs in holes that had to be made with a gimlet. These pegs, of oak, have been known to last many, many years, in a state of good preservation.
Creating Light to see at Night Our first light was a saucer of grease or tallow which had been melted, a narrow piece of cloth twisted to form the wick, then placed in the grease until it was well moistened, then lit with a flame from the fireplace. This was called a "bitch light." We preferred the light from the fireplace, only this was not always bright enough to locate anything on the other side of the room, so then we would have to throw on an armful of sage brush to brighten the flame. Soon candle molds were to be had and everyone made their own candles from these molds. This was usually taken care of by the ladies of the household.
In making our candles, a stick was chosen that was nice and smooth, about 18" long. This was bored with six holes. Thru these holes string or the wick would be placed. Each wick had to be perfectly straight thru the center of the individual mold. The mold was round, about the size of a man's finger, and possibly three or six to each set. The lower end tapered like the point of a sharpened pencil, with a small hole therein, large enough to let the wick be pulled through tightly. After the wicks had been placed, the molds were then dipped in cold water to chill; then boiling hot melted tallow was poured into the chilled molds, and they were allowed to stand overnight to form. We made many, many candles like that for a number of years; and thru the years our molds have disappeared. I have not seen a set for a long time.
Soap Making I dug greasewood, then burned it, gathering the ashes and saving them until we had a large amount. This was used in making soap. We sold it for $2.00 a bushel. We would use an 18" x 6' log, hollow it and fill it with ashes, clamp it tightly and then pour three buckets of cold water on it. This made the lye for our pioneer homemade soap. To make this soap, all the grease and tallow had to be saved. About 5 pounds of beef or mutton tallow, with the greasewood lye, about 2 cups, was put in the big brass or copper kettle, then water would be added. A fire was built beneath the large rocks out of doors and this was boiled for many hours. The fire had to be kept alive with either buffalo chips or sage-brush, to conserve the wood supply for winter and for cooking purposes. So we children had to see that there was a large pile near at hand before soap-making day. Usually the young girls had to take turns watching so the soap did not boil over, standing there in their sun-bonnets, sometime in the hot sun, watching it closely for a good half day; if it started to boil over, a cup of cold water was added. When it began to thicken to the right consistency, it was tested just about like our grandmothers tested jelly. A spoonful or two would be taken out into a saucer and if it was of the right thickness for congealing, it was ready. Or another way, if the spoonful when poured back into the kettle looked stringy, it was nearly ready to be cooled. Had to be very sure, also, that the tallow was free from salt, or it would not "turn."
Wool Clothing Everyone saved all the wool, gleaning it from the sagebrush bushes, fences, or any place we could find it. It was washed in several waters, until it was fluffy and white, then mother would card it, spin it and weave it into yarn, from which was knitted most of our wearing apparel.
Fighting Grasshoppers You folks complain of the little mosquito as a pest, but you should have seen our fleas. They were the meanest pests I have ever encountered. When the grasshoppers came, every green thing in sight was attacked by them. During this time we had to save all our bacon rinds and mother would make bacon soup from those rinds and that was all we had to eat for days. In fighting the grasshoppers, we would all get out before sunrise and each person would go along each row of crops and try to knock them off into a trench the men folks had dug along the rows.
We took heavy string or light rope and two of us passed along the row, pulling the rope tightly along the side of the foliage, then pulling it quickly. This jolt would unseat the pests and they would fall into the trench and be quickly covered up with dirt. The ladies' hoop skirts came in handy in assisting to shoo the grasshoppers into the trenches. Another good use for the hoop skirts, other than for style, they were used by the ladies to shovel the dirt into the trenches after the surprised pests had been knocked into them. After the sun came up it would be quite a task, in fact real hard, to remove them, as they would be so busy eating. Fight as we would, we could not get rid of them.
See these related posts at NotesfromtheFrontier.com
-What Pioneers Packed
-What Pioneers Ate
-The First Wagon Train
-Parting of the Ways
-In Praise of Oxen
-Death on the Trail
-Tornadoes & Storm Horses
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