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The Harsh Reality: 10 Reasons Life on the American Frontier Was No Picnic

It is hard to think of many periods in American history more romanticized than the American frontier of the 1800s. The thought conjures up images of intrepid explorers blazing paths out West and happy families cozy in log cabins. Many of us have moments where we wish we could be pioneers, too. After all, their lives were simple, fulfilling, and free of the stressors of careers and the complex dynamics of our technological era.

However, this idealized version of life on the prairie could not be further from reality. Homesteading was difficult, lonely, dangerous, and unglamorous. There were few luxuries and a lot of downsides. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s idyllic Little House series and the nostalgic Oregon Trail game do not tell the full story of life on the frontier. Unsavory details are left out and glossed over to offer a prettier picture.

So it’s time to shake up the misconceptions. This list offers ten reasons why life on the American frontier actually sucked.

10 Housing Was Inadequate

When a homesteader claimed a piece of land, they had five years to “prove up” and build a house on it. However, most settlers had little capital, and half wound up losing their claims before five years had passed, so affordability was the top concern when building first homes. Additionally, in many areas, trees were nonexistent, and houses were built of sod rather than wood. “Soddies” were dark, constantly infested with bugs and vermin, and prone to leaks and cave-ins when it rained.

In areas with trees, log cabins were the home of choice. However, they were a far cry from cozy. Building cabins was physically exhausting. Men would have to chop down trees with nothing but an ax and gather several tons of stone for the foundation and fireplace. The logs could weigh upward of 500 pounds (227 kilograms), and many men had no help to lift them. Completed cabins were one room, 10 by 20 feet (3 by 6 meters) with a sleeping loft, and stood 6 to 10 feet tall (2 to 3 meters), depending on whether men had help during construction to lift logs higher. They had dirt floors, and it could take years to get glass in the windows.

The small space meant that all the kids had to share a single bed in the loft while their parents shared another directly below them. Most beds were nothing more than planks or straw with a quilt thrown over it. The furniture was rudimentary and uncomfortable. Pioneer families could consist of upward of ten kids, and every aspect of indoor life happened in that one room, meaning that privacy and personal space were nothing but a fantasy.[1]

9 Winters Were Brutal

Another myth about frontier cabins is that they were warm and cozy during the winter. In reality, cabin walls provided no insulation, barely forming a windbreak, and it was as cold inside as outside. Fires did little to heat the room because the warm air would escape. Soddies provided slightly more insulation with the caveat that their roofs would leak when it rained or snowed.

Keeping the fire going was crucial, as it was the only source of warmth, inadequate as it was. To supply a fire all winter, a family would require a stockpile of wood as large as the cabin itself. On the prairies, where wood was scarce and valuable, homesteaders resorted to using dried buffalo poop, nicknamed buffalo chips, as fuel. Still, the fire was little more than a minor comfort against the bitter cold, and winters were arduous and miserable.[2]

8 Horrible Deaths and Disease Were Common

Being crushed by a wagon wheel. Missing your swing with an ax. Getting attacked by a wild animal while hunting before you could complete the extensive process of reloading your gun. These kinds of accidents were commonplace due to the dangerous nature of homestead life.

Additionally, the close quarters that frontier families lived in meant that when one person contracted an illness, the rest of the family was all but certain to catch it. It was not unheard of for multiple children to be wiped out in one family from one bout of illness. In wagon trains, hundreds would share one water source, leading to a high rate of contamination-caused diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

Dysentery is no punchline; it causes diarrhea so severe that it can lead to death by dehydration in just a few hours. Tragically, when disease struck a wagon train, the dead would be buried in shallow graves. Wolves would dig up the bodies, and families could never have the comfort of visiting.[3]

7 You Would Likely Never See Family Again

When a pioneer family made the decision to leave home, it was with the knowledge that they would likely never see their family and friends again. A steadfast feature of first-hand accounts of pioneers, particularly women, is a lament on the difficulty of leaving and being away from family. Tending the land required daily work, and travel by wagon took so long that there was no possibility of vacations back home to visit. While homesteaders were able to send mail home, travel was so slow that it could take six months to receive a reply.[4]

6 Loneliness and Depression Were Incredibly Common

Pioneers were rarely able to socialize with others outside their families. Maintaining the home required constant work with little free time for visiting neighbors. Additionally, homes were physically isolated from each other. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted married couples 320 acres, meaning that homes were situated a half-mile from each other. There were occasional community events, such as quilting bees, but those few opportunities vanished in the winter when it was too cold to venture away from the fire.

Women were particularly prone to isolation, as their work centered around the home and sucked up the entire day. While mental health was not understood in the 1800s, based on many first-person accounts, it is extremely likely that many homesteaders would be diagnosed with depression today.[5]

5 Your Whole Day Was Chores

It’s no wonder pioneers developed depression, considering that their entire life consisted of chores. Ensuring their family had food to eat took up most of the day. Land in the Midwest was notoriously hard to grow in and required constant work to ensure crop survival. Men would spend most of their day hunting and tending the farm, and women would gather plants, prepare and preserve food, and complete other household chores. Surviving winter required preserving adequate food. Fruits would be canned, a process that took hours. Meat would be either salted and brined, meaning it would have to be painstakingly cleaned before consumption, or smoked, requiring stoking a fire for weeks. Tending fires took much of pioneer women’s days, as keeping it going hot enough required constant adjustment.

Other chores women were expected to do included sewing, cleaning, and caring for animals. No pioneers had sewing machines, so clothing needed to be constructed and mended by hand. Laundry had to be done with a tub and washboard, and there were no conveniences such as vacuums or running water to make cleaning easier. Milking the cows, mucking the barn, and feeding animals could take hours and tended to be unpleasant work. There were no breaks or vacations and little time for luxuries. Days were spent slogging through chores, knowing that tomorrow would only bring new chores to be completed.[6]

4 Starvation Was Frequent

Pioneers would trade crops to earn money to spend at the general store, allowing them to buy staples such as flour as well as occasional luxuries such as coffee and white sugar. It was not uncommon for general stores to cut inventory with filler like plaster or sawdust to save money. However, many pioneers lived so far from town that trading trips were a twice-annual event, and a crop shortage could mean there was little left over to trade. Luxuries were rare, and it was a struggle to afford cloth, farming tools, flour, and other necessities.

These crop shortages were usually caused by factors beyond the pioneers’ control. Droughts and swarms of locusts could devastate crop output. In 1874, a swarm of 12 trillion locusts, so dense it blacked out the sky, swept across the prairies. They devoured entire fields of crops in a matter of hours, leaving homesteaders without any food to eat or sell. No amount of hard work could compensate for these factors. The effects would simply have to be suffered.[7]

3 Water Was Gross and Hard to Come By

Unless you were early enough to snag a plot by a river, ensuring a supply of water could be difficult. Most settlers initially chose to dig wells by their homes. However, if the well hit water at all, seepings from the outhouse and barn would make their way into the groundwater and render the water filthy. This meant that water would have to be boiled before use, a tedious process considering the difficulty of tending fires. This water would be supplemented with rainwater. The containers would attract mosquitoes and dirt that needed to be skimmed off before use.

Most families had to resort to daily trips to water sources to collect fresh water, adding hours to daily chores. Despite all of this, few homes had enough water, and hygiene was put on the back burner to conserve it. Whole families would bathe in the same water once a week, and it would be reused for laundry. Plates were licked clean rather than washed. It is easy to take clean, available water for granted, but that was a luxury homesteaders did not have.[8]

2 Dealing with Waste Was Disgusting

During a time when eastern American cities were developing sewers, and rich families had indoor plumbing, homesteading families had nothing better than outhouses in the backyard. Some did not bother to build structures and used bushes or uncovered holes. In addition, homesteading required owning a variety of animals, and little could be done with the manure beyond piling it up. Many families also kept piles of buffalo chips by the home to prepare for the winter.

In the summer, this waste gave off a horrific smell. It would also attract flies and mosquitoes, and since few pioneers could afford screens for their windows, these pests in the home were a fact of life. Often, the flies would be so pervasive that a child would be enlisted to swat away the insects from the table during meals. In the winter, feces would freeze to outhouse seats and needed to be knocked off with shovels.[9]

1 The Land Wasn’t Exactly “Unclaimed”

A dangerous aspect of the frontier myth is its characterization of Native Americans as homogenous, violent, and a problem to be dealt with. Alternately, the West is painted as a vast, uninhabited wilderness ripe for the taking. While it was extremely difficult to be a pioneer, it was even more difficult to be a Native American in the West. They were forced off their land to make room for eager settlers, often violently. (In contrast, despite what Westerns may depict, violence by Natives against the settlers was rare.)

Treaties and promises made were frequently broken, forcing tribes onto smaller and smaller reservations and withholding compensation. The government even encouraged the decimation of the buffalo population in the hopes it would cut off the food supply and kill off Native tribes. One cannot speak about the difficulties of the frontier without acknowledging this reality.[10]

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