Selected Papers From The 1989 And 1990 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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The Myth of the Footloose Backwoodsman
Lucy Jayne Botscharow-Kamau
Northeastern Illinois University

Early settlers in southern Indiana and southern Illinois have been depicted quite commonly as footloose wanderers. Backwoodsmen, it frequently has been asserted, disliked settled society, routine labor and the imposition of formal law. They preferred isolation and inherently were nomadic. These tendencies led them to a life of constant movement from one small holding to the next.

This characterization was created by early 19th century writers who traveled to the frontier and observed backwoodsmen. The perceptions of these writers influenced the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who in turn has influenced certain later scholars. However, it is likely that the image of the peripatetic backwoodsman has been founded on a misconception of midwestern frontier life.

Early 19th century settlers in southern Indiana and southern Illinois were predominantly small farmers, or "plain folk," from the upland areas of Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. [1] After the War of 1812, they migrated to the Old Northwest, frequently moving in large family groups. [2] There they proceeded to clear forests and begin cultivation and stock raising. In the process, they created a new society with a distinctive frontier culture.

The culture created by these settlers was in some respects contradictory. Vociferously proclaiming their independence and individualism, frontiersmen nevertheless relied on extensive networks of kin and neighbors for many kinds of assistance. Such a network provided a system of mutual aid that facilitated physical survival, created close social ties and enmeshed participants in a tightly woven and intricate web of reciprocity. Neighbors helped each other at cabin-raisings, log rollings, harvests and other tasks too large and difficult to be performed by one family. Such large-scale assistance was supplemented by many smaller acts of aid. To the outsider who listened to the backwoodsman's extravagant claims of independence, and who saw what seemed to be families living in isolated cabins, social ties seemed weak and fragmentary. In fact, each family was bound tightly into the neighborhood web. [3]

There are few accounts of this life that were written by backwoodsmen. [4] Most descriptions of settlers were written by travelers who wished to provide information for potential immigrants or who simply wrote about what seemed an exotic and remote land. [5] In general, writers rarely penetrated beneath the surface of backwoods culture. As is typical of travel writers, they emphasized the exotic. In their descriptions of backwoodsmen, they stressed what seemed to be a love of solitude which, combined with a psychological predisposition to nomadism, led to a footloose tendency.

The literature of the period contains many allusions to such fecklessness. William Oliver, an Englishman who spent eight months in Illinois, said:

This wandering life possesses such charms for many, that they never remain very many years in one place; but, after having partially improved a farm, and put up some fixings, sell off, hitch the horses to the wagon and, driving their stock along with them, again move to the outskirts of civilization. [6]

He told of a squatter in Illinois who moved because a newcomer had built a cabin three miles away from the squatter's cabin. This was much too close. [7]

Sir James Alexander was told (by a Tennessean) that farmers in Kentucky wished to keep their roads impassable in order to keep out would-be settlers. Alexander pitied women who were married to:

. . . incorrigible removers, to men who, after they have "fixed" themselves in a fertile spot. . .hear from some passersby of fertile tracts in the far-off wilderness in Arkansas or Missouri and, like the Tartars in search of fresh pastures, move off and are no more seen.

These people, he said, "had left a comfortable home for no better reason than that they wanted a wider range, or all for the mere love of moving." [8]

Alexander's analogy with Tartars is telling. Metaphors of savagery and barbarism are common in this literature. The French traveler Michel Chevalier compared migrants to "the hosts of Ghengis Khan and Attila," [9] Quite explicit in this respect is William Faux, who wrote of the backwoodsman, "all his vices and imperfections seem natural; those of the semi-barbarian." Faux believed that "retrograding and barbarizing is an easy process" on the frontier. [10]

Some writers compared backwoodsmen to Native Americans, and not always favorably. Fortescue Cuming wrote:

It may not be improper to mention, that the backwoodsman, as the first emigrants from the eastward of the Allegheny Mountains are called, are very similar in their habits and manners to the aborigines, only perhaps more prodigal and more careless of life...Their cabins are not better than Indian wigwams. [11]

Morris Birkbeck, a founder of English Prairie in southern Illinois, said of "the condition of a roving backwoodsman," that "...they are in a low state of civilization, about half-Indian in their mode of life." Birkbeck found similarities between backwoodsmen and wild animals, writing that backwoodsmen:

. . . find regulations intolerable and retire, with the wolves, from the regular colonists. They live in great poverty and privation, a degree only short of the savage state of Indians. [12]

Early writers were the first to describe differences among migrants to the frontier as being correlated with their time of arrival. Henry Bradshaw Fearon, writing in 1818, divided settlers into three groups. First to come was the squatter, who lived by hunting and a little farming and who moved on when he was dissatisfied with his land. Squatters were followed by small farmers, who purchased land and who introduced a modicum of civilization. These in turn were replaced by the wealthy farmer, who completed the civilizing process. [13] This categorization of settlers generally became accepted and passed from author to author, with some variation. Inevitably, waves of migration were depicted as progressing from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

This classification system bears a remarkable resemblance to late 19th century schemes of human cultural evolution devised by such anthropologists as Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Tylor. It is possible that Frederick Jackson Turner was influenced by or found reinforcement in the ideas of these evolutionary anthropologists when he wrote of "the social evolution" of the frontier. [14] Turner's description of waves of migration is very similar to Fearon's, although Turner's inspiration was Peck's New Guide to the West, published in 1837. In his seminal paper on the importance of the frontier to the course of American history, Turner wrote of "the restless, rushing wave of settlement."

Although he recognized that migration could occur as much from economic push as it could from romantic pull, Turner also believed that there was an innate individualistic, antisocial quality in frontiersmen which impelled them ever onward. The frontier, he said, was characterized by a "restless, nervous energy which was expressed in part by ceaseless migration and rootlessness." Turner also used metaphors of savagery:

The wilderness masters the colonist...It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. [15]

Ray Allen Billington, a modern Turnerian, has continued this tradition. Although Billington depicted early writers as "imagemakers" who often misunderstood what they saw, he nevertheless accepted the image-makers' characterization of the "restless temper" of the backwoods settler:

The wandering instinct was most noticed among backwoodsmen and squatters on the outer edge of the frontier. Among them periodic moving seemed almost a psychological necessity; let a neighbor settle within a few miles, let the sound of an axe disturb the morning stillness, and they were ready to sell their "improvements," and push more deeply into the wilderness. [16]

According to Billington, these "perennial movers," impelled by a restless "compulsion," lacked any attachment to home. When they came of age, children left home with "no more emotion than birds." [17] Billington's depiction is not dissimilar from earlier comparisons of frontiersmen with wild animals, savage Indians and barbaric Tartars. Like earlier writers, Billington has reduced cultural complexity to psychology.

The single rational motive granted to backwoodsmen by Billington and earlier writers was the "quest for gain." [18] That backwoodsmen may have been impelled by rational motives other than the hope of turning a fast profit is not seriously considered.

While it is no doubt true that many backwoodsmen were pulled toward the frontier by the profit motive, it is also true that many could have been pushed, particularly those who were concerned about the futures of their children. A concern for the future of one's offspring could have caused frequent movement as or more often than irrational restlessness, antisocial tendencies or a senseless optimism that vast wealth lay just over the horizon.

An examination of early 19th century wills, Bible records and other documents indicates that such cultural factors as inheritance patterns, such legal factors as widows' rights, such economic factors as wealth and such demographic factors as birth rates and mortality rates, all could contribute to population mobility.

Wills normally are written by persons with high or high-middle incomes, and the writers are not representative of their communities in terms of wealth. [19] On the other hand, it is likely that most, if not all, will-makers share community values regarding the way bequests should be distributed, and they certainly are bound by the same inheritance laws.

The earliest will filed in Posey County, Indiana, was written in 1816, two years after the county was created. Between 1816 and 1850, 91 wills were filed. [20] By Indiana law, a widow was entitled to receive at least one-third of the estate of her deceased husband. This widow's third was considered to be the equivalent of a wife's dowry, plus her contribution to the estate during the lifetime of the marriage. It was intended to sustain her during her lifetime.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these Posey County wills is the custom of dividing property equally among children. Whether the inheritance was in the form of real property, movable property or cash, the significant fact is that not only was there no system of primogeniture, but that daughters received as much as sons. For example, Thomas Casselbery stipulated in 1826 that his estate be divided equally among his children as they came of age, but that no division be made before all his minor children, including girls, were raised and were educated. In 1844, Joseph Johnson stipulated that all his children were to receive an equal share in his estate, adding, "Make as little use of the law as you can." [21] J. E. Alexander was close to asking the right question when he wrote, "Has not this continued desire for change of place and scene something to do with the non-existence of the law of primogeniture?" [22] The egalitarian ethic, as applied to inheritance and coupled with the widow's one-third, served to fragment both real and personal property.

It was common to give sons their shares in the form of real estate and farm-related goods, while daughters were likely to receive their shares in the form of cash and household goods. Some wills stipulated that enough land should be sold so that bequests to daughters would be equal to the value of the land inherited by sons.

The fact that daughters inherited equally with sons meant that an estate could have many heirs. The first will to be recorded in Posey County was that of Shubel York. York had 10 heirs, not including his widow. Not all early farmers had as many as 10 children, but where heirs are listed by name, six, seven, eight or more are not uncommon.

Since most early residents of Posey County did not leave wills and since many of those who did omitted a list of heirs, it is useful to have some idea of the number of surviving children that an early settler was likely to have. There are two such sources of information: federal censuses and Bible records.

The 1820 census was the first census to list the number of members in each household. While it is possible that some individual households contained non-relatives, the number of laborers and domestic servants was sparse on the midwestern frontier. [23] The majority of men either owned land or were squatters, although some may have supplemented their incomes through occasional wage labor. Most households enumerated in the 1820 and 1830 censuses probably contained only family members.

In 1820, the average household size in Posey County was seven persons. [24] In 1830 and 1850, the average household size was eight as shown in one Posey County township, Harmony Township. [25] The 1830 census, the first census that gave the age distribution of household members, indicates an extremely young population for Harmony Township, and a similar distribution can be assumed for the remainder of the county. In many families, some potential heirs had not been born yet. In those few households in Harmony Township headed by persons over 45, it is likely that older children already had married and had moved, thus on the one hand decreasing the size of their parents' household and on the other hand starting households with relatively few members. [26] It is, therefore, possible that potential heirs of the head of a household numbered more than those indicated by census data. In general, census data indicate that settlers had large families and that the size of these families increased with time. In 1820, the average number of heirs was five, but by 1830, the average had increased to six, where it remained in 1850.

Bible records, although in no way constituting a sample, are a useful source of information regarding family size before 1820, particularly since some records give death dates, thus providing information regarding the number of children who might have survived to adulthood. These records also indicate that large families were common. There are 19 published Bible records from Posey County settlers born before 1805 and who, therefore, were adults during much or all of the frontier period. [27] These records are rather remarkable, for they consistently show a pattern of children born nearly every two years during most years of a marriage. For example, Jonathan and Casiah Cox had seven children, bornin 1812, 1814, 1816, 1818, 1820, 1822 and 1823. Robert and Patience Montgomery had 11 children, born in 1814, 1815, 1818, 1820, 1822, 1824, 1827, 1829, 1831, 1834 and 1838. The average number of children in these records is nine. These Bible records may or may not be typical of Posey County families, but they do indicate that a large number of children was not uncommon. The number of children in a family seems to have been limited only by the period of nursing practiced by women and by lowered fertility as those mothers who survived grew older.

Deaths are noted in five of these records. Childhood deaths are surprisingly few. [28] For example, only one Cox child died in infancy. All nine children in the Presley Carr family survived to adulthood. Five of Squire MacDonald's children died, but 12 survived. Since few Bible records include dates of death, the survival rate indicated by these figures cannot be taken as representative of the community. They are most likely too high, but these Bible records do indicate that many children did survive to adulthood and that settlers had large families.

How much total wealth did heads of households have to pass on to their numerous progeny? Again, all that is available is a rough estimate, but all sources of information indicate that the early settlers had little real or personal wealth.

In this agrarian economy land was the primary source of wealth and records of federal land purchases are an important source of information regarding this wealth. Land entries to be discussed here are those holdings that were entered at the federal land office. They do not include land purchased from individual owners after the initial entry and are, therefore, only an estimate of landholdings. However, early settlers were less likely to buy land from other settlers than they were to purchase unimproved federal land, which was considerably cheaper than cleared land. Federal land sold for $1.50 or $2 per acre, while improved land could fetch as much as $30 or more an acre. [29] Furthermore, federal land could be purchased on credit during a five-year period. [30] For plain-folk farmers with little cash, federal land clearly was the most likely purchase.

There are 1,237 land entries from Posey County. [31] Nine hundred and twenty-two individuals purchased 129,726 acres, making an average of 140 acres per purchaser. [32] The smallest holding owned by an individual was 22 acres, while the largest single landholder owned 1,149 acres. Total entries by one person of holdings more than 400 acres were rare; only 12 persons entered a total of 400 or more acres.

While an average of 140 acres per household is only an estimate, most landholdings probably were small, if only because farm labor was scarce as was the cash with which to pay laborers' wages. In general, a man could not farm land that he and his family were unable to tend on a daily basis. This fact would have kept landholding low. One hundred and forty acres would have been an adequate holding for a family farm, but if it were divided among several sons, and if some land had to be sold to provide cash for daughters, the divided portions could have become too small to support the sons' families. In this kind of system, new land is necessary if sons are to prosper. [33]

Finally, probate documents are a source of information regarding personal wealth, including money raised from the sale of movable property, from cash on hand and from notes owed to the deceased. The 58 probate cases filed in Posey County before 1850 represent a fairly wide range of wealth, from insolvency to an estate worth $1,680.62. [34] Ten estates were insolvent. Of the remainder, the average cash value of an estate was $511.23, making the average widow's share $168.70 and leaving an average of $342.52 to be divided among children. Unfortunately, many Posey County probate files do not list the number of heirs, the debts of the deceased or the expenses incurred by the administrators of the estate. It is seldom possible to know the exact amount that was divided among heirs, so that $342.52 is almost certainly too high a figure. Even so, dividing $342.52 by the average number of children in a household, based on the 1820 census, yields individual portions of $68.50. In one of the few instances in which the amount received by heirs excluding widows is known, each of the eight children of Hezekiah Dukes, who died in 1815, received $34. It seems likely that most heads of households had less personal wealth to bequeath to their offspring than they had land.

Little or moderate personal wealth and/or landholding, combined with a high birthrate, a low death rate, the equal apportionment of shares to children and the widow's one-third, leaves little for the individual child. One hundred and forty acres, divided among five or more children, leaves pitifully small and uneconomic landholdings. When a good horse cost $35 and a cow cost $10 in the early 19th century, $68.50 was not a great deal of money. [35] That at least some men were concerned for the futures of their children is evident by the fact that they wrote wills in which they took pains to ensure equal portions for all children and that many specified that these children be educated. A man who was concerned about his posterity could better provide for his children's futures by selling his improved land at a profit and moving west where land was still cheap. There he could expand his holdings and begin again. The alternative was that his children, whether they had an emotional attachment to Posey County or whether they left with "no more emotion than birds," might have to sell what land they had inherited and move west or else be forced to supplement farm income by wage labor, a poor source of income in the early 1800s. When added to this constant the fact that economic hard times waxed and waned with frequency on the frontier, is it any wonder that the "restless rushing wave" kept moving?


1. Gregory Rose, "Upland Southerners: The County Origin of Southern Migrants to Indiana by 1850," Indiana Magazine of History 82: pp. 242-263; Frank Owsley, Plain Folk in the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949).

2. John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986); Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies and Institutions, 1775-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

3. Lucy Jayne Botscharow-Kamau, "Neighbors: Harmony and Conflict on the Indiana Frontier," Journal of the Early Republic (forthcoming, December 1991). Paper read to the Southwestern Social Science Association, Fort Worth, Texas, 1990. For accounts of such neighborliness among descendants of backwoodsmen, see Patricia Duane Beaver, Rural Community in the Appalachian South (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986) and James West, Plainville U.S.A. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945).

4. Exceptions include Davy Crockett's autobiography, The Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee (Philadelphia: T. K. and P. G. Collins, 1833) and Sanford Cox, Recollections of the Early Settlement (Lafayette, Indiana: Courier Stream Book and Job Printing House, 1860). Perhaps the best ethnographer of the period was James Hall who, although a native Philadelphian, wrote a number of perceptive accounts of midwestern backwoods life during the 1820s and 1830s,

5. There also are written accounts by English immigrants, but most of these were written on short acquaintance with the frontier. George Flower's The Errors of Emigrants (London: Cleave, 1841) and his History of the English Settlement in Edwards County, Illinois (Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1860) are exceptions, as is Rebecca Burland's memoir of life in Illinois, A True Picture of Emigration. Milo Milton Quaife, ed. (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1936 [1848]).

6. Eight Months in Illinois, With Information to Emigrants (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1924 [1843]), p. 189.

7. Eight Months, p. 155.

8. Transatlantic Sketches, Comprising Visits to the Most Interesting Scenes in North and South America and the West Indies, With Notes on Negro Slavery and Canadian Emigration (Philadelphia: Key and Biddle, 1833), pp. 264, 267-8.

9. Society, Manners and Politics in the United States: Being a Series of Letters on North America (Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., 1839) p. 223.

10. Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour of the United States and Canada reprinted in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed, Early Western Travels, 1748-1846 Vol. II (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1909) pp. 198, 230.

11. Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country, Through the States of Ohio and Kentucky: A Voyage Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and a Trip Through the Mississippi Territory, and Part of Western Florida. Conceived at Philadelphia in the Winter of 1807 and Concluded in 1809, reprinted in Reuben Gold Thwaites. ed., Early Western Travels 1748-1846 Vol. 4 (Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1904 [1810]), p. 137.

12. Notes on a Journey in America, from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois. With Proposals for the Establishment of a Colony of English (London: James Ridgeway, 1818), pp. 92, 119, 121.

13. A Narrative of a Journey of 5,000 Miles Through the Eastern and Western States of America: Contained in Eight Reports Addressed to the 39 English Families by whom the Author was Deputed, in June, 1817, to Ascertain Whether Any and What Part of the United States Would be Suitable for Their Residence. With Remarks on Mr. Birkbeck's "Notes" and "Letters." (London: Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1818), pp. 221-223.

14. "Significance of the Frontier in American History," Annual Report of the American Historical Association (1893), pp. 197-229, For discussions of positive and negative aspects of Turner's thesis, see George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, revised edition (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1956); Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 118-164; and Richard White, "Frederick Jackson Turner," in John R. Wunder, ed., Historians of the American Frontier: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 660-688.

15. "Significance of the Frontier," p. 201.

16. Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), p. 203.

17. Land of Savagery, pp. 205-6.

18, Land of Savagery, p. 206.

19. Stephen Coppel, "Wills and the Community: A Case Study of Tudor Grantham," in Philip Riden, ed., Probate Records and the Local Community, (Gloucester: Allan Sutton, 1985), pp. 71-90.

20. Posey County Will Record, Book A, Posey County Courthouse, Mount Vernon, Indiana. By the 1840s, Posey County was no longer a frontier area, but inasmuch as wills of early settlers continued to be filed between 1840 and 1850, the final date for this study is 1850, after which no wills of early settlers appear.

21. Heads of households were usually men. Only five wills were written by women.

22. Transatlantic Sketches, p. 276.

23. See, for example, Richard Flower, Letters from Lexington and the Illinois. Containing a Brief Account of the English Settlement in the Latter Territory, and a Refutation of the Misrepresentations of Mr. Cobbett, Reprinted in Edwin Erle Sparks, ed., The English Settlement in the Illinois: Reprints of Three Rare Tracts on the Illinois Country (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1907 [1819]), pp. 23-28. In 1850, the first year that the census listed the occupations of all adult males, Harmony Township had 88 laborers and 202 farmers. It is likely that there were fewer laborers in the earlier years of the century.

24. Federal Manuscript Census, 1820.

25. Federal Manuscript Census, 1830, 1850.

26. In 1830 in Harmony Township, 63% of the population was under 20, 80% was under 30 and 90% was under 40. In the rural area outside the village of New Harmony, 99% of the population was under 40.

27. Carroll O. and Gloria M. Cox, Posey County, Indiana: A Documented History, 1815-1900: Vol. II, (Poseyville, Indiana: C. and G. Enterprises, 1982), pp. 182-204.

28. Unfortunately, early Posey County death records have been lost. The earliest known death certificates were rescued from a trash bin by Carroll and Gloria Cox. These certificates begin with the 1870s.

29. See James Flint, Letters From America. Containing Observations on the Climate and Agriculture of the Western States, the Manners of the People, the Prospects of Emigrants, reprinted in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels. Vol. 9, (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1904 [1822]), pp. 176-178; Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1947), p. 296.

30. Birkbeck, Notes, p. 60.

31. Cox and Cox, Posey County, Indiana, Vol. II, pp. 218-230.

32. George Rapp's Harmony Society bought an additional 10,970 acres, or 13% of all federal land purchased in Posey County. The Harmony Society was a communal organization with a great deal of wealth. Because inclusion of land purchases by the Harmony Society does not give an accurate picture of average landholdings, they have been omitted here.

33. For a discussion of the problems of land fragmentation through inheritance in a modern community with a similar economy, similar amounts of landholdings and similar values, see Beaver, Rural Community, pp. 64-72. Residents of the North Carolina community described by Beaver are descendants of the same population who sent settlers to Indiana and Illinois.

34. Probate Order Book A, 1815-1827; 1827-1840; 1841-1853. Posey County Courthouse, Mount Vernon, Indiana.

35. Values of livestock are taken from Posey County probate records.

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