The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820
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Western Life and Culture
-- Western Households
-- Farms and Plantations
-- Teaching and Learning
-- Church and Faith
-- Medicine and Health
-- Entertaining Pursuits
Western Life and Culture icon

Patterns of western life reflected the cultural diversity of the trans-Appalachian region. Values and beliefs west of the mountains were as varied as the area's peoples, traditions, cultural assumptions, religious practices, and levels of education.

Some westerners saw the region as a land of unlimited personal opportunity, while others were slaves bound for life with no hope of freedom. Some westerners scraped out a primitive existence in the rough backcountry, while others enjoyed the benefits of larger houses, better furnishings, and higher quality trade goods. Some worked as day laborers or craftsmen, moving slowly into the lower reaches of the middle class, while others became prosperous community leaders in agriculture, law, medicine, banking, or manufacturing.

Women played key roles in the development of the trans-Appalachian West. Women shared the dangers of migration and the hard labor of clearing fields and raising crops. Wives and daughters bore responsibility for managing households and caring for children and the elderly. But women had far fewer options than men, and their lives were sharply constrained by law, custom, and social traditions.

Western Households
sampler sewn by Sophia PorterBack to Top

Travelers found the log cabin to be the most characteristic settler dwelling of the trans-Appalachian West. Cabins were invariably crude buildings, sixteen to twenty feet in length and not more than twelve or sixteen feet wide. The interior typically held a single room centering on a fireplace along one wall with an unfinished loft above. Furniture was simple, a table, a few stools or chairs, and mattresses stuffed with corn shucks. Windows were few and frequently without glass, covered by wooden shutters and animal skins during the winter months.

  • Letter by Mary Ann Corlis to John and Susan Corlis

  • Day book and ledger page containing a record of slave births and livestock accounts
  • Those who were more economically successful lived in frame, brick, or stone houses that grew larger with expanding wealth. Many of these houses were two stories tall with two or four rooms on each floor, often with a kitchen wing or separate kitchen house to the rear.

    Furnishings varied greatly with the financial circumstances of the family, but they typically included a few pieces brought west in the migration, a table and chairs, a chest, or a bedstead. Owners holding extensive tracts of productive farmland or prospering in business were able to import higher quality finished goods and luxury products from the eastern seaboard and Europe.

    Families could be both large and extended. Particularly in the early years of settlement, houses were often shared by grandparents, in-laws, and cousins. Deaths from violence or disease left widows, widowers, or orphans who needed to be temporarily sheltered with family or friends.

    Also present, for owners of sufficient wealth, were one or more slaves, usually housed in separate cabins or outbuildings on the property, but sometimes granted a small sleeping space near the kitchen.

    Farms and Plantations
    Hammer and wood-working toolsBack to Top

    Patterns of Western agriculture were shaped by climate, soil, technology, and the market for fertile land. Kentucky's climate, while temperate, was not warm enough on an annual basis to support large plantings of crops such as cotton or rice. The soil of the Bluegrass was rich, as were expanses north of the Ohio River, but many areas of Kentucky were hilly, rocky, and difficult to till.

  • Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Innes

  • The gentleman's new pocket farrier
  • Where the soil had supported the growth of lush native grasses and cane, wooden plows of the period proved inadequate to cut through the dense network of roots embedded below the surface. Clearing dense forests thus became the preferred method for creating agricultural land.

    Large trees were often killed by a process known as girdling, in which a band of bark was stripped from the trunk a few feet above the ground and the tree was left to die. Small trees and bushes were chopped down and burned. The rough ground with stumps still in place was broken with a light plow or hoe, and the first seeds were planted. It was said that the average adult male could clear five or six acres of wooded land a year in this fashion.

    Farms varied greatly in size and organization. The wealthiest farmers could own as much as 1,200 acres or more, part of which was used for planted fields and part left free as rangeland for livestock. Less wealthy farmers with smaller parcels of land under thirty acres worked hard to raise enough crops to feed their families and hoped for a small surplus of produce to sell or barter. The smallest farms were those of the squatters, who cleared only a few acres and stayed on the land until they had enough money to buy a farm elsewhere or were expelled by the legal owner.

    Teaching and Learning
    Page from Abraham Lincoln's sum bookBack to Top

    Education was an early interest for western settlers, but the rigors of frontier life and scarcity of trained teachers made schooling a rare and discontinuous experience for most children.

  • Page from Abraham Lincoln's sum book

  • Report, on the Transylvania University, and lunatic asylum
  • Simple lessons taught by rote were the limit of most curricula, supported by a few elementary textbooks, some of them published in Kentucky. For young girls from wealthier families, female academies offered more genteel training in literature, languages, and the arts.

    In 1780, Transylvania Seminary was founded by a group of Presbyterians in Danville, Kentucky. Led by the Rev. John Todd and the Rev. Caleb Wallace, the founders were able to secure a charter and endowment for the new institution.

    Moved to Lexington in 1787, the seminary was eventually renamed Transylvania University. Under the leadership of the first chairman of its trustees, anti-slavery campaigner Rev. David Rice, Transylvania made its reputation as the first institution of higher learning to be established west of the Appalachians.

    Church and Faith
    Cane Ridge Meeting HouseBack to Top

    American evangelical Protestantism first found its voice in the Great Awakening that swept the British colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Led by ministers such as Jonathan Edwards in the north and George Whitefield in the south, this surge of religious fervor generated revivals and camp meetings and helped spur the movement of evangelicals away from the state-supported churches of the eastern seaboard. From 1740 to 1790, America experienced a Second Great Awakening, which took place primarily in the South and was led by ministers from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations.

  • Shakertown Journal

  • Thoughts on the exercises which have occurred at the camp-meetings in the western parts of our country
  • The spiritual energies of the Awakenings impacted the West as ministers and missionaries crossed the mountains and descended the Ohio in search of souls. In the Bluegrass, Protestant denominational loyalists were joined by independent preachers and adherents of new faiths such as the Quakers and the Shakers.

    In August 1801, at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, 20,000 to 30,000 people were drawn to an open-air revival that saw waves of the faithful taken by great emotion, collapsing on the ground, shouting out in prayer and song, and heeding the call for conversion. The spirit of Cane Ridge led within a few years to the formation of new American denominational groups including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Churches of Christ.

    The Roman Catholic Church was also active in western missions from the 1780s onward. In 1808, a new diocese was created for Bardstown, Kentucky, that extended over nearly all of the trans-Appalachian West from Detroit to New Orleans. In 1811, Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget arrived in Kentucky to assume leadership of western Catholicism, and by 1819, construction of the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Bardstown was completed.

    Medicine and Health
    Medical FloraBack to Top

    In an age when poultices, herbal remedies, and bleeding were conventional medical treatments, illness in the West often carried the danger of death. Whooping cough, scarlet fever, and measles killed or disabled many. The "ague," a malarial fever with chills, was associated with swamps and standing water. "Milk sick" brought death to those who drank milk produced by cows that had eaten poisonous plants. Most serious of all were the epidemics of small pox and cholera that swept through whole communities. As threatening as these diseases were for the settlers, they were often even more devastating for Native Americans.

  • Letter from Enoch Smith to Asa Blanchard

  • Magendie's physiology
  • In the face of these challenges, the medical profession made significant advances. In 1799, the trustees of Transylvania University established a medical school and appointed Dr. Samuel Brown to teach chemistry, anatomy, and surgery. Dr. Benjamin Dudley, head of the medical department at Transylvania after 1817, became one of the world's leading surgeons in the removal of bladder stones. A Transylvania medical graduate, Dr. Walter Brashear, performed the world's first successful amputation at the hip.

    Dr. Daniel Drake, another influential physician raised in Kentucky, established a notable medical practice in Cincinnati and later founded the medical departments at the Medical College of Ohio, Cincinnati College, and Miami University.

    Entertaining Pursuits
    Drake's Theatre broadsideBack to Top

    In a region where arduous work was a daily commonplace, recreation was particularly treasured.

  • Memorandum concerning the influence of music on the common mouse

  • Bill to James Morrison for room and board
  • Activities necessary to rural life such as hunting, shucking corn, or quilting could also be made into pleasant shared events and essential points of connection for a scattered community. Dances and church socials offered other opportunities for friends and relatives in a neighborhood to gather, as did speeches offered by candidates for public office.

    In villages and towns, more resources were available for popular diversion. Larger populations could support regularly published newspapers and the establishment of lending libraries.

    Touring troops of players presented theatrical productions, and itinerant lecturers instructed and entertained in courthouse squares and lodge halls. Musical groups assembled in parlors and public lyceums to perform, and private tutoring on musical instruments was available for the well-to-do.

    Public taverns were also a center of lively interchange and entertainment. In the large public rooms of these establishments, locals and travelers mingled and exchanged gossip. In one corner of the main room or in a separate room, a bar offered refreshment.

    Guests made their way upstairs at the end of the evening, rarely to a private chamber, more frequently to a common dormitory room to share a bed, and often with a stranger.

    Encountering the First American West

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