Early settlers’ decisions could mean life or death

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breaking plow
This is a breaking plow, the first type of plow ever to scratch the surface of the Ohio Country. It has a single handle and a small iron blade. Note that the upright piece is made from a natural growth of tree. (Locher collection)

Having arrived at the land they purchased from the government and established a temporary campsite, the family of settlers had to deal with a trio of priorities immediately. The failure, adequately, to address any of the three would likely result in a level of disastrous consequences that could force them to abandon their well-laid plans and head back east.

The first of these was clearing away enough of the gigantic trees which solidly shaded their property to allow light to come in so that their plantings could grow.

Next was the planting of crops. The settlers had planned to arrive at their destination in the early spring so that the seeds they brought with them could be planted in time to take maximum advantage of the area’s limited growing season. If those seeds failed to take hold and grow into harvestable crops by autumn, the family could face starvation.

And the third priority was shelter, not only for them but for their animals as well. Even though it was now April, the start of winter could be as little as six months away. The poor temporary campsite they were currently using would offer virtually no protection from snow or extreme cold. Without some kind of permanent structure, the chances of surviving a harsh winter were bleak at best.

The clock was ticking. It was time to make tough choices — decisions, decisions, decisions.

Clearing land

Because there simply was no time to cut down the vast number of trees whose solid canopy blocked out most of the sunlight that would be needed for crops, most settlers started out by girdling a limited number of trees. This involved taking the felling axe and cutting off a tall strip of bark completely around the trunk of the tree. This deprived the tree of necessary nutrients, causing it to die shortly thereafter.

In his memoirs published in 1917, Civil War Major General David Sloane Stanley, a U.S. Medal of Honor recipient, described the clearing of the land by Wayne County, Ohio settlers. Stanley, whose family had been among the very first settlers in the Ohio Country, provided what is considered to be one of the most descriptive and accurate accounts of many aspects of pioneer life in this part of the nation, and his writings will occasionally be referred to in this series.

Stanley wrote: “The clearing of the land in those days embraced the deadening of the forest by girdling the big timber, grubbing out all the bushes less than six inches in diameter, and cutting down and burning or removing all saplings up to 10 inches. After the first clearing, the heavy deadened timber remained,” Stanley wrote, adding, “The huge trees dotted over the field, their bare bodies and naked limbs had a most dismal effect, and in the dusk of the twilight or in the dim light of the moon had most dismal and ghostlike appearance. The removal of this huge crop of dead trees was a giant task.”

Planting

So, with the leaves having fallen from the huge dead trees, the small scrub and saplings removed and some semblance of sunlight coming in, it was time to plant crops. That, however, was no small feat because the soil was solid with the roots of the trees that had been cleared. In order to get any seeds at all into the ground, the planter had to employ a device called a dibble.

dibbles
Shown is a group of dibbles, used to make a hole in the ground to insert seeds in newly cultivated land. Dibbles, usually made of wood or iron, had hundreds of forms ranging from the simple to more elaborate. The largest example shown here is wrought iron, made by a blacksmith. The example at left is wood with an iron tip while the other two are wood. (Locher collection)

A dibble was basically a sharpened piece of wood or iron that was used to penetrate the surface of the ground to open a hole for seeds to be planted. They could be just a sharpened straight piece of wood or something more ergonomically correct such as an L-shaped piece of wood with an iron tip on it. Some dibbles were made by blacksmiths and incorporated handles. Hundreds of dibble shapes and lengths are known.

As for running a plow, well, the tangle of roots made that next to impossible. The type of plow used – the first plows ever to turn the soil of the region – were known as “breaking plows.” These were plows in their simplest form, typically made with a single tiller-type handle, at the end of which was a small, shovel-shaped iron blade. Some breaking plows were even more primitive than that, however, being little more than a heavy wooden post with a sharpened wooden wedge at the bottom and two holes bored for the reins of the animal pulling it.

Even a breaking plow, however, could do little more than scratch a shallow furrow into the topsoil of the woods because of all the roots just beneath the surface.

Stanley recorded his thoughts on such plowing, noting, “The first cultivation was done amid stumps, roots and huge deadened trees. The land was [considered] very thoroughly grubbed where the plow could run ten feet without meeting a stump or root.”

“The plowman,” he wrote, “was jerked about by the handles of the plow until his motion resembled a rope dancer [a type of marionette]. And one could not decide which most needed pity: the soreness of the cowboy or the necks of the wretched horses or oxen.”

Stanley noted that oxen were the best choice for plowing ”new lands as their slow gait suited better the handling of the plow amongst the roots.”

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Paul Locher, of Wooster, Ohio, is a lifelong journalist who spent 45 years as a writer for a daily newspaper. In addition, he spent decades covering significant antique auctions and shows for major antiques publications. He is an ardent collector of early American antiques, a lecturer, an author of numerous books, a co-superintendent of the antiques department for the Wayne County Fair and is a director and the curator of the Buckeye Agricultural Museum and Education Center in Wooster.

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