Life at the frontier, around 1790.

Life at the frontier was not a picnic, despite whatever else the land speculator brochures might have advertised.

"Abraham Russ lived about twenty-two miles from Pittsburgh on the banks of the Allegheny River, some two miles above the mouth of Bull Creek in western Pennsylvania. Towards evening on March 22, 1791 the extended Russ family was preparing for dinner when seven Indians walked into the settlers' cabin. The Indians left their rifles at the door in a well-known token of friendship and requested to dine with the white frontiersmen. The family welcomed their guests, perhaps more out of fear than hospitality. John Dary, a thirteen-year-old boy, suspected the worst and left the house to hide in the woods while the Indians supped.

When the Indians had finished their meal, one of them rose and stood squarely against the door to prevent members of the household from leaving. The other Indians rose as well and began methodically to butcher and scalp their hosts. They disposed of four men, one old woman, and six children in this manner.

Mrs Dary, sister of Russ, witnessed the death of her mother and her child. An Indian lifted the eighteen-month-old infant by its feet and dashed the child's brains out against the skull of old Mrs. Russ. Thus with one horrid blow both were dispatched. In the panic of witnessing such a sight Mrs. Dary literally dismembered part of the frail cabin and escaped through the wall. Three of her daughters, a sister-in-law, and three nieces followed. Agnes Clark and two of her children also escaped in this manner, as did Catherine Cutright, who had lost both husband and son in the massacre.

These women and children ran to the river, where their screams brought Levi Johnson from a mile and a half away. He shuttled the living across the river in his canoe while the Indians were plundering and setting fire to the cabin. Seventeen persons thus fled into the night. Once across the river, the survivors ran nine miles in the cold to a place of shelter. Two boys who had escaped separately hid in the woods near the cabin for three days before venturing forth.

News of the carnage traveled fast over the countryside. Families from miles around packed their belongings and moved to a defensible location at James Paul's farm on Pine Run. About seventy or eighty women and children gathered their by morning. The men erected a blockhouse where everyone lived together throughout the summer. The men also pursued the Indians but to no avail."

Taken from pages 13-16 of A Narrative of the Sufferings of Massy Harbison, (Pittsburgh, 1828), quoted also in Thomas P Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion, page 61.

All frontier residents could have easily related to visitors similar experiences of either themselves or close relatives. Both sides were fighting for the land of course. And for the Indians, their way of life and heritage. The frontier was a place of violence and conflict, where for the newer inhabitants, even eye gouging as a form of recreation, was common. (Of which more can be read in Elliott J Gorn, 'Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry.)

Thomas Slaughter (The Whisky Rebellion) goes on to describe more of frontier life, to give his readers some idea of social and economic conditions as they were back then, as part of his study of the Whisky rebellion. He writes, page 64: "And then there was the filth, not just of the mind and soul, but of the persons, homes, blankets, and clothing of frontier people. Easterners were often shocked and were usually appalled by the living conditions. After days of arduous journey through nearly impenetrable mountains and over inadequate roads, travelers longed for shelter from the elements. Some westerners were quite friendly and eager to share their food, housing, and blankets. Mary Dewees's experience was not unusual. She thought that the day of travel had been unduly harsh, but this night our difficulties [really] began: we were obliged to put up at a cabin at the foot of the hill, perhaps a dozen logs upon one another, with a few slabs for a roof, and the earth for a floor, and a wooden chimney constituted this extraordinary ordinary. The people [were] very kind but amazing[ly] dirty. There was between twenty and thirty of us; all lay on the floor, except Mr. Rees, the children and your Maria, who by our dress or address or perhaps both, were favored with a bed, and I assure you that we thought ourselves lucky to escape being fleaed alive.

Inhabitants struck one visitor as "a parcel of abandoned wretches", who lived "like so many pigs in a sty." Another described settlers as "the scum of nature." And many had examples of interpersonal violence as well as filth to report. One was appalled that a man horsewhipped, then fatally shot another who had kicked his dog while trying to break up a dog fight. Others remarked with horror on the number of one-eyed men, victims of eye-gouging, who resided on the frontier. The amount of whiskey consumed, and the uninhibited violence of those under its influence, apparently transcended anything that easterners had ever witnessed or imagined. For most frontiersmen, life was very hard during the 1780s by any standard. For most it got worse over the decade."

Despite however, such appalling conditions, the land speculation continued, indeed thrived, opening up a greater and greater division between those who had land, and those who did not.

In describing the make up of the western counties at this time, slaughter notes on page 66:
"The 1790 federal census provides some information on the size and ethnic background of the region's populace. About 37 percent were of English origin or descent, 7 percent had Welsh names, 17 percent were Scottish, 19 percent Irish, and 12 percent were German. The ethnic heritage of the remaining 8 percent cannot be determined. The various immigrant groups were not evenly distributed among the western counties. Germans, for example, were the largest single nationality to settle in Bedford County. Non-English settlers predominated in all the western counties, but most strongly in Westmoreland and Bedford. Those of English origin or ancestry comprised 47 percent of Fayette and 43 percent in Allegheny and Washington counties.

The statistics on land-ownership and population growth reveal a society in extreme social and economic turmoil. They describe a place where poverty was the standard in 1780 and where living conditions declined over the next fifteen years. The tiny mud-floored and often chimney-less cabin was the common abode of these pioneers, and outside the towns these flea- and lice-infested hovels sprouted up at an increasing rate over time. The percentage of rural landowners declined by about 59 percent over the same period. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of fewer men residing in the West, while absentee-owners from the East enhanced their holdings. A majority of residents experienced a sharp decline in all economic categories even as they pushed back the edge of the wilderness."


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