Home Northern Ireland The Voyage to America Starting a Town


Everyday Life In Colonial Times

The environments that surrounded the early Scotch/Irish settlers in this country have been of great interest to us. We want to do something, in our own limited, unprofessional way, to describe for you how it must have been for our Doak families in the 1600's in Ireland and what it was like to spend up to three months at sea on a crowded wooden sailing ship in 1718 and how it must have been to arrive on these shores to unsympathetic authorities at Ports like Boston and from there to even more unsympathetic Indians and wild animals in the un-cleared woods of New Hampshire and the untamed hills and streams of  Pennsylvania. It is on this page and all the sub-pages you see here that we will attempt to paint the picture for you.



 In Ireland, the houses in the late 1600's and early 1700's were not luxurious and the furnishing were very basic.  The homes were stone walled with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Families slept in the same room and often, animals were kept in the house. Heat came from a fireplace in the main room and affluent families would have maybe another fireplace in a 2nd room.  Doors were kept low so that smoke did not pass as easily from room to room.  Wooden homes were not built due to a shortage of trees. The fuel for fireplaces was peat or the unusable part of the flax harvest.  It was an austere life indeed.

After arriving on American soil, the immigrants had to strike out for whatever piece of land had been arranged for them by friends or relatives already in America, or by Land Agents that made a living out of securing land for the newcomers.  They had with them, only the barest necessities, because space on the ship was severely limited, and weight was a problem. Most had converted their possessions into the most valuable assets they could find. Gold was very popular.

So after arrival, they had to make arrangements to buy the basics - a horse, a cow, a pig, a wagon, a rifle, shovels, dishes, cooking utinsils and food for themselves and their animals. Then they set off for the wild country side with only Indian trails as roads.  Upon arrival at their new land site, they had to negotiate amongst themselves on how to divide up the land and who would get what plots (usually 60 acres).  Remember, they had only the clothes on their backs and a few animals and maybe a horse or an oxen.  There were not stores near by, no doctors, no preachers, no Grain mills, no saw mills.  Just lots of trees, wild animals and Indians.  The only thing they could do was to cut some trees and make lean-to's.  Then when enough trees were felled, they built rough one room cabins with dirt floors and outdoor fireplaces.  They pooled their labor to first clear a large area called the "Common Ground", which all members of the community farmed to get the food they needed to live on.  Then each started clearing his own land and gradually clearing and planting his own gardens and pens for the animals.  And so as each month went by, the quality of each farm grew, depending on the work output of its owner.  When the Mills came in, Grain could then be processed and sold for income. The same for lumber mills.  When they came in, the pioneers could then saw their trees into planks and could build frame houses and move finished lumber to markets for income.  The men tended to arrive first and do the work needed to get a cabin built. Then the women came and set up house and started having babies.  Large families were an absolute necessity.  Children were never children as we know them today. They were considered young adults and were required to work almost as soon as they could walk and play was a rare activity indeed.

One of the best short descriptions of pioneer life that I have read comes from Capt Harry E. Mitchells book "The Mitchell-Doak Group".  Page 17.  It reads as follows:

The area in North Carolina to which they migrated was heavily covered with Oak, Chestnut, Hickory and Poplar trees with dense underbrush. It was a veritable wilderness with no roads, just trails. Most of the settlers had some money, but money was of little use there.  The families had to start from nothing. Rude one-room huts with dirt floors with fireplaces of mud and sticks afforded protection  from the elements and wild animals.  In time, larger homes were build, many of them two story and constructed of huge logs sealed inside and out.  Most of the Indians had moved westward.  If present they were not warlike.  They (the indians) had crude utensils of pottery.  Some were purchased for use by settlers.

There as much game, deer, buffalo, bears and smaller animals like squirrels and opossums that provided meat and pelts.  Turkeys, geese, ducks and wild pigeons and also plentiful supplies of fish in the streams added to the food supply.  But there was a great scarcity of salt.  It had to be carried from Petersburg, Virginaia over rough trails.  Even after some years, it took a bushel of wheat to get a bushel of salt.  Vegetables were soon available in season and, as the years passed, were dried or otherwise processed, for all-year use.  Life became gradually more bearable.

Hats and garments were at first limited to pelts of game animals as was bedding.  Before  long, geese, both wild and tame, provided feathers for beds. for food, wheat soon became available to a limited extent but for a long time, it was served just once a week. on Sunday mornings.  Corn was more plentiful and thus more generally used.  At first, use of the pestle and mortar was the means of grinding the grain.  Soon small mills were erected on the smaller creeks and later, larger mills were constructed to use the water power of larger streams.

Eventually, cows provided milk and meat and oxen were used for draft purposes.  Hogs became a most important item in food supply.  In winter, hog killing time was an important event.  A great fire was build and stones were heated in it.  When hot, the stones were put into a large hogs-head partly tilted in a hole in the ground.  the stones were re-heated and put into the barrel until the water was scalding hot.  The hogs having been killed, were scalded and cleaned.

It was the work of many days to get the meat salted, the lard rendered, the sausage meat chopped and stuffed, the heads and feet made into "souce" or headcheese and the bacon and hams hung in the smokehouse.  The "cracklings" were used to mix with corn meal (after being chopped fine) and made into bread.  "Crackling bread" as it was called, was enjoyed by all, especially when made into "Johnny Cakes".  A sparerib was a delicacy if cooked by suspending it by a string from the mantel in front of the hot fire.  It required constant turning in order to brown it on all side.

Fiber crops, after being harvested, required long, tedious processes with flax, cotton and wool involving, as they could be fabricated, into cloth requiring spindles, and various size looms. Then came the dying of the cloth.

Children often had a nightly chore of removing the seeds from enough cotton bolls to fill a shoe.  The wool had to be painstakingly cleaned of cockleburrs.  threads were made of many sizes for various cloths and shoes.  Leather from tanned hides replaced pelts.  The whole process was an evolution from practically nothing to a fairly pleasant way of life, but women spent many weary hours in household chores.  But there were compensating moments such as husking bees and social gatherings at the church.

There were no large owners of slaves but many including the Mitchells and Rev. Caldwell had from one to five per household.  some, naturally, were men and some women. The slave women often aided at the looms.  Before he died, Adam Mitchell (1712) freed his slaves as did others.

Travel was at first limited to walking or , as horses became more plentiful, using them.  In inclement weather, members of families took turns in attending church services.  "Upping blocks" in the churchyard and one at each home made mounting the horses possible for the ladies.  The Blocks were sawed from large trees and made of rocks. Steps provided easy mounting. As trails became roads and facilities for wheel making became possible, "riding chairs" (seats build on axles) were replaced by two wheeled "Gigs".  then came wagons and carriages.

Shoes were all made at a shop which stood on the edge of a field across the woods, and it was an event of great importance when we were sent there to have our feet measured for new shoes.  A little room up a creaking stairs was used as a shop.  There were spools of leather and of various kinds, the work bench with its variety of awls, knives and lasts of all sizes.  There were hanks for shoe thread and overhead, hanging from the rafters, were bunches of red peppers, sage and various other kinds of herbs for use as medicines.

Laundry was performed at the spring, if one was available where there was a source for water and a means of disposing of the waste-water into the stream supported by the spring.

Illumination was provided by rags in a container of grease and later, by use of candles cast into molds usually a dozen or more at a time.  Out of doors, burning pine knots provided light.  Sometimes they were used indoors.

Fire was provided by a great abundance of wood.  A large green log was dragged to the hearth by hand-spikes and seasoned wood  burned against.  If a fire went out, it was necessary, instead of making sparks by friction, to go to a neighbors with an iron skillet or pan where ashes were placed in it:  then real live coals and then a cover of more ashes.

Medical treatment was primitive.  Burns were treated by the application of poultices made of corn meal, roasted turnips, potatoes, or the bark of the slippery elm.  Large doses of onion or garlic juice were prescribed for croup.  Snake bite was treated by cutting up the snake and placing a piece on the wound in order to drive out the poison.  Other treatment consisted of cutting and sucking the wound, or making a deep incision which was filled with salt and gunpowder.

End Of Article