The Pioneer History of
 Orleans County, NY

Chapter VIII
Early Life

Online Edition by Holice & Deb




Want of Breadstuffs -- Scarcity of Mills -- Difficulty of Getting Grain Ground -- Mill on a Stump -- Fever and Ague -- Quinine and Blue Pill -- No Post Office -- Keeping Cattle -- Difficulty Keeping Fire -- Instance of Fire Out -- Want of Good Water -- No Highways -- Discouragement from Sickness -- Social Amusements -- Hospitality -- Early Merchants --Their Stores and Goods -- Domestic Manufactures -- Post Offices and Mails.

Scarcity of bread and breadstuffs before the war, and even down to 1818, is to be numbered among the hardships and privations which beset the settlers; and even when they could get a bushel of wheat, or corn, the difficulty in reducing the grain to flour, or meal, was truly formidable.--The nearest mill was 15 to 30 miles away; there was no road leading to it; and probably no horse to draw, or carry the grist, if a road had been opened. But meal must be had, the undaunted emigrant would hitch his oxen to his sled, or wagon, pile on a bag for himself, and take as many bags for his neighbors, as the occasion required, and start for some mill. We will leave imagination to describe his journey. After three or four days absence, it is announced in the settlement that Mr. A, has got back from the mill, and marvelously soon would each family be eating pudding, or have a cake. But, what if the family had no neighbors; or no horse or oxen, to carry their grist.--Still the grist must go at once. Its owner shoulders a half a bushel, or a bushel, according to his strength, and carries it to the mill, be the distance what it may, threading his way by marked trees, through the woods. Such journeys were not lightly to be thought of, and they were honestly performed.

A sort of domestic mill, in which corn could be reduced to meal, was made, and used, by some of the settlers, by making a hollow in the top of a hardwood stump for a mortar; rigging a heavy pestle on a spring pole over the mortar; and thus pounding the corn fine enough to be cooked.

But, if the new comers had bread enough and to spare, they all had to pay a penalty to Nature, in the acclimating process, which all went through almost without exception. Fever and ague attacked the pioneer, or his wife, or children, or all of them together, whenever an opening was made in the forest; or the earth was turned up for the first time to the hot rays of the summer sun.

Oh, the amount of quinine and blue pill, consumed in those days, by those who could get a doctor to prescribe in their case; because there was none to be had, wore their ague out, and let it work itself off the natural way; generally coming out about as well as those who doctored, and tried to "break" it, excepting that they took more time to do it.

The first professional doctors who came in were most intensely allopathic in their practice; all their practice; and dealt out quinine and blue pill in most heroic doses to their patients; infinitessimal prescriptions, and homeopathic practice, had not then been thought of.

Another privation, if not a hardship, consisted in a lack of post offices, and mail facilities. Coming as most of the pioneers did from New England, which they, and their fathers regarded as a civilized country; and where they had always had post office accommodations all they wanted, it was rather hard to be shut out completely from the outer world.

The first settlers in Orleans County got their letters from Batavia, or Clarkson. They did not take newspapers by mail.

The first white winter was a hard time for the pioneer to keep his cattle, on account of the scarcity of fodder. It took several years to clear the trees, and get a crops of hay grown in their places; and a year or two was required before cornstalks, or straw could be produced. If nobody in the neighborhood had fodder to sell, the new settler must cut down trees for his cattle to browse, or feed upon the boughs, a work of immense labor, especially in severe cold weather, and deep snows; and a sad time the poor cattle had, compelled to lie out exposed to all storms, and feeding on such diet.

Especial care had to taken to keep fire from going out in their dwelling, it was so difficult to recover it again. An instance is given of such a loss in the house of widow Gilbert, in Gaines, who returning from the funeral of her husband, found the fire was out, and no means at hand to kindle it. Fire had to be procured from the nearest neighbor, then several miles off. The tinder box and powder horn, were the usual resort in such cases, but these might be out as well as the fire. Friction matches had not then been invented. And it was an inconvenience at least, to be deprived of soft water, the bark roof of a log cabin being a poor contrivance for collecting it, when there was no snow to melt. The hard water from the ground was prepared for washing clothes by "cleansing," as they called it, by putting in wood ashes enough to form a weak lye.

The Holland Company commonly sold their land for s mall payment down; and gave a contract, extending payments for the balance, from five to ten years; with interest annually after about two years.

This seemed to be a good bargain to the settler at first; for, although he was poor, he felt hopeful and strong, and went into the woods to begin his clearing, sanguine in the belief that he could meet his payments as they fell due, from the produce of his land; beside spaying the necessary expenses of his living, and his improvements. But, after a year or two, a part must be paid; stock, team, tools, furniture, d provisions must be bought. He may have cleared a few acres, built a log cabin, and raised some crops, more than was needed for home consumption; but the surplus he could not sell. The road to a market was impassable for teams; and, if the road had been opened, it was hard work at best to pay for land by raising a bushel. Is it surprising that under circumstances like these, some of the earlier settlers of this county, after toiling several years, and finding themselves constantly running behind land, got discouraged, and wanted to sellout, and go away. And many would have sold their claims, and left the country, or gone any way, whether they sold or not, if the Land company had enforced their legal rights on their Articles as they fell due. But the Company were lenient.--they gave off interest due them, and sometimes principal, in cases of great hardship to the settler. Many times, when he went to the Land Office to say he could not make his payments, and must give it up; the agents of the Company finding him industrious and frugal, trying to do the best he could, would meet him with such words of kindness, generous encouragement and cheer, that he would go back to his home with fresh courage, to renew his battle with the musketos, the ague, and the bears; and wait a little longer for the good time coming. But few were able to take deeds of their lands, and pay for them, until after the Erie Canal was navigable. They kept on clearing land, and enlarging their fields; and between the years 1830 and 1836, good crops of wheat were raised, and sold at the canal, for about a dollar a bushel.--Then the clouds of gloom began to lift from the face of the country. Prosperity had verily come; no more "hardships, privations and sufferings" after that; and more deeds of land were taken from the Holland Company, in this county, in those years, than were given in all others together.

Notwithstanding so many and so great discouragements, surrounded the pioneers, they never yielded to the gloom of the present, or suffered their great hope in the future to die. They had their joys as well as griefs, running along their pathway together. Social amusements, conviviality, fun and good feeling, were intermingled with their sadder experiences.

They visited together, labored for, and with each other. The exchanged work in chopping, logging, and in heavy toil on their lands where several together could work at better advantage then alone.

They were "given to hospitality." They aided, assisted, and helped one another; with a liberality and kindness, that seems remarkable in contrast with the selfishness of older society.

If a family came in, who had not in advance built themselves a cabin for their residence, they had no difficulty in finding a stopping place with almost any settler, who had got a house, until a log house could be built. And the best of it was, all the men in the neighborhood assembled at a "bee," and built a log house gratis, for their new friends, if it was necessary.

If a man fell sick in seed time, or harvest, and could not do his work, his neighbors would turn in and sow his seed, or gather his crop for him. If a family was out of provisions, everybody, who had a stock, shared with the needy ones.

A happy feature of this primitive society was the entire absence of caste, dividing the people into classes, and making social distinctions. Everybody eas considered just as good, and no better, then every body else. All met and mingled on terms of social equality.

At the dancing parties, quilting frolics, weddings, and other gatherings of the people for social enjoyment, everybody in the neighborhood was invited, whether they wore "store clothes," or common homespun; and they commonly all attended.

People generally were acquainted with everybody near them. Old people are living, who say for several years they knew every family in town; and used to visit them, going often on foot miles through the woods, by marked trees, to meet together.

As clearing away the forest, and doing the heavy work of beginning settlements in the woods, constituted the main business of the pioneers; they thus learned to value ability to excel in whatever was useful in their calling.

Hence, at their loggings, raisings, and other assemblings for work, or play, friendly trials of strength or skill, found favor. Contest in chopping, lifting, cutting wheat and other tests of muscle, were common; and seldom did a number of young men meet on a festive occasion without forming a ring for wrestling.

The pioneers, at their first coming here, were generally young. They were resolute, intelligent, determined and persistent; for no others would quit the comparative ease, safety, and comfort of older society, to encounter the certain hardships, perils and discouragements of frontier settlement in the woods, in such a country as this was. The true grit of the emigrant was proved by the fact that he came here; and such men were not to be drive back by hardships, want, sickness, or misfortune.

While the hope and resolution of the settler could not protect him from sickness and calamity, they filled him with fortitude to endure them, gave him a keen relish to enjoy whatever in his way might afford a pleasure.

Looking at these pioneers from the standpoint of the present day, an observer might well conclude they were as happy then, as their descendants are now, on the same ground. Many who began here in poverty and want and worked their way through every difficulty to wealth and abundance, have often said in their old age, their happiest days in life were spent in their old log houses, away back among the stumps.


Soon after the settlement of this county, asheries were built; the large quantities of wood ashes, produced in burning the log heaps in clearing land, were a source from which money could be made easier then from crops of grain raised.

These ashes were leached in rude leaches; the lye obtained was boiled down to a semi-solid state, called black salts; and then sold to Mr. James Mather, or some owner of an ashery, who put the salts through the processes of making potash, or pearlash, a refined kind of potash, the use of which is now superceded by saleratus.

These products of ashes brought some money and were taken by the merchants in exchange for their goods.

Before the canal was made, merchants' goods were brought in by water, by way of lake Ontario, or on wagons, from Albany.

Robert Hunter and brothers, of Eagle harbor, were teamsters, who traveled to and from Albany with large teams of horses to wagons and brought inmost of the good used here for several years, before they came by the canal.

A wagon load would go a great way in stocking a store then. The important and heavy articles of whiskey was made sufficient for home consumption here.

Merchants did not then as now confine their trade to a single line of goods, as hardware, drugs, groceries, &c., but their stock, in the common language of their advertisements, comprised "all the articles usually called for at the country store;" and that meant everything the people wanted to buy at a store. The wants of the settler were few and simple in the line of such goods. They confined their purchases to articles of prime necessity, which they would not well do without, such as tools to work with, building materials, &c., which did not grow upon their land; an occasional calico dress, and a few kinds of utensils, such as they could not make at home.

These goods were generally bought on credit, the pay being promised to meet the wants of the merchant when he went to New York, a journey he undertook about twice a year. These debts were not all paid when due, and many of them were lost to their owners. The credit system was a bad one for both parties in many cases. People found it very difficult to pay their store debts before the canal was made; for though they had a large and good farm, plenty of the finest wheat, and possibly a stock of cattle, hogs and horses; they had no money, and could not sell their stuff for money, as they could not get it to a market. Timber was plenty, and sawmills had been built about the time the canal became navigable; and sawed lumber then paid store debts; and wheat, pork, flour and produce of all kinds, that could go to market on the canal, found a ready sale, at fair prices; and thus means to pay debt would be obtained.


Most of the early settlers were New England Yankees, of that class, who, if they wanted a thing they had not got, they made it. With very few tools, and those of the simplest kinds, they made almost everything required, that could be produced from the material on hand.

They brought in a few clothes when they came; when these were worn out, they supplied their wants with cloth made at home. The women made up the common articles of clothing fro their families. If the man had a new coat, or other garment his wife did not feel competent to make, the cloth was taken to some one properly skilled, to be cut out, and a tailoress would come to his house, and make it up. These itinerant seamstresses, did most of the needlework required by the family, and which they could not do themselves; the modern classification of needle women into milliners, mantau makers, &c., did not then prevail.

The people got their leather made by neighboring tanners, and from such stock, a traveling shoemaker visited the houses of his customers, and made and mended their shoes and boots. The boys and girls, and some of the older folks, commonly went barefoot in the summer, and often in the winter likewise.


Mr. Merwin S. Hawley of Buffalo, son of Judge Elijah Hawley, who resided in Ridgeway in his boyhood, and speaks from his recollection says:

"In 1815, the only mail to and through Ridgeway, was carried on horseback twice a week, between Canandaigua and Lewiston. Oct. 22, 1816, a post office was established at Ridgeway Corners, named "Oak Orchard," Elijah Hawley, postmaster.

The mail was now carried in two horse carriages, three times a week each way; stopping over night at Huff's Tavern in East Gaines.

Aug. 24, 1817, a post office was established at Oak orchard Creek, on the Ridge, which place was then growing to be a smart village, and James Brown was appointed postmaster there.

To make the names of the office conform to the same of the places was called "Oak Orchard," and the name of the other was changed to "Ridgeway," Mr. Hawley holding the office of postmaster there until his death. During this year, (1817) a daily line of mail stages, each way, between Rochester and Lewiston, on the Ridge road, was commenced.

A post office was established at Gaines, July 1, 1816, Wm. J. Babbitt, postmaster.

The next post office in Orleans County was located at Shelby Center, and got its mail from Ridgeway.

Post offices were located in other parts of the county from time to time, as the wants of increasing population required.

The Pioneer History of Orleans County, NY, By Arad Thomas


Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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