Tennessee Records Repository, Giles County, TNGenNet Inc.

A Brief Sketch of the
Settlement and Early History of
Giles County Tennessee

by James McCallum, 1876

Published by the Pulaski Citizen, 1928

Chapter Seven, pages 63-70

Character, Habits, Their Mode of Life, Manners and Customs.
       The early settlers traveled the roads opened by previous emigrants to the point nearest the place they wished to go to, and then cut the cane at the place they stopped at. The cane on the rich lands was from twelve to twenty feet high, and on the ridges and thin land from four to seven feet high. The emigrant stopped frequently in the midst of a cane-brake, by a spring, cleared away the cane from a few rods of ground, erected a temporary shelter for his family, and then put up a log cabin, split out puncheons for the floor, the door shutters were made out of long, wide boards, pegged on battons, and hung with wooden hinges. The chimneys were made of sticks and clay, generally very wide. The table was made out of slabs or boards, planed or drawn with a drawing knife.
       The cupboard in one corner to the right or left of the fire place made of the same material, and very rough. The bedsteads were made in the simplest and rudest style. The cradles for the children were made out of like material. Some times a sugar trough served the purpose or the bark from a Hickory or Lynn tree, taken off in the spring with a head and foot piece. Many of our brave ancestors were soothed to sleep in such a cradle in their infant days. There were no nails or plank to be had in the country; a chopping axe, (and sometimes a broad axe,) a frow, iron wedge, drawing knife, and hand saw, an auger and one or two chisels, occasionally a jackplane, were the mechanical tools of the early settlers, and with these he made every thing. Occasionally a settler would bring a cross-cut saw, and it was loaned for six or eight miles around. A few years later the whip-saw was brought in and plank sawed by hand for particular uses. Such was the indispensable out-fit of an early settler, together with his trusty rifle and keen butcher-knife, with which they were expert.
       For the women it was equally indispensable to have a cotton spinning wheel and cards, and occasionally a flax wheel; and also a loom on which to weave cloth. The looms and everything were made in the rudest and most primitive style imaginable, and for want of house-room the looms were often set up at the end of the house outside, and covered by a shelter of boards. Deer, bear, panthers, wolves, wildcats, etc., were abundant, scarcely a day passing without seeing or hearing these animals. The men were all hunters, from necessity. In this way they provided meat for their families until they could raise hogs. The women made all the clothing, carded, spun, and knit, every night until bed time, and when the men and boys were not otherwise engaged, of nights, they picked the seed out of the cotton for mother; the women preferring to spin the cotton picked by hand. They spun and wove clothing for their husbands and sons, dyed the thread or wool with home-grown indigo, or with the bark and roots of various trees. The also spun and wove their own clothing.
       It was very rare to see either man or woman with apparel that was made of imported goods. In addition to scarcity of goods and difficulty of procuring them, Giles County was settled soon after the restrictions on trade by the British Government know as “the orders in Council,” followed by the “Milam Decrees,” and then by the embargo of Congress in December 1807, and finally by such restrictions as almost prohibited all trade. And such was the opposition to Great Britain, that the wearing of imported goods or using anything imported, was deemed Ďa disgrace and unpatriotic. An incident illustrative of the times was told of the grandmother of Mrs. Kercheval. A gentleman from one of the Eastern States at breakfast playfully remarked that the coffee, (which was made of rye or okra, as was common in that day,) smelled very strong of the embargo. The lady replied with spirit that it smelled equally as strong of liberty. Such were the patriotic feelings that pervaded all classes that they cheerfully submitted to hardships and privations to sustain the action of our Government, and maintain its precious honor. Very little imported coffee, tea, or sugar was used. Coffee was made of okra, rye, parched corn, etc.
       The Bohea tea plant, a species of black tea, and cultivated and used by those fond of tea; it grew very well, and doubtless would yet. Sassafras tea was a favorite tea, and is still used very largely by people in the country. Large quantities of sugar was annually made from the sugar tree; every family made enough for family use, and same made it for sale. Molasses from the sugar tree, of a very fine quality, was made for family use. Every family had a sugar camp, where they boiled the water that ran from the trees; each family having from fifty to one hundred trees tapped and running at a time.
       They lived almost entirely on corn bread. The Johnny cake, baked on a board about sixteen inches long, was a favorite mode of preparing it, and it tasted excellent.
       The costume of the men and boys was generally the hunting shirt. It was comfortable and convenient for laboring men and easily made. It was worn by our soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was the militia uniform, and the early settlers cherished it for its associations. In the war of 1812 it was the uniform or most usual dress of the militia and Volunteers from Tennessee. It is said that no troops impress a beholder with more awe, than a company of stout, athletic men, uniformed in the old-fashioned black hunting shirt. After the battle of New Orleans, it was inexplicable to Europeans how the flower of the British army was so easily defeted by undisciplined troops. A British soldier who was in the battle, on his return to England, was asked what kind of troops they encountered. He said they were large, strong- looking men, perfectly fearless, who wore black gowns, and had long black guns; and when they went to shoot they peeped along the top of their guns.
       The early settlers tanned their own leather in troughs made for the purpose, and dressed the skins of deer killed by them, and made buck-skin, out of which hunting shirts, pants and vests were made for men and boys. They made their own shoes, their bridles and harness; often, at night, when the day’s work was over, by the light of a candle or grease lamp, the boys would pick cotton, or reel thread for their mothers and sisters. The mother and girls would card, spin or knit until bed-time. This was all done in the same cabin. One great advantage to the children was, they heard all the conversations of their parents, and between them and grown-up persons who might be there as visitors, or sojourning for the night. They heard the tone of voice and saw the expression of countenance of their parents, when they condemned what they thought wrong, or praised virtuous and meritorious acts; and in this way the parents instilled into their children their own views of right and wrong by their daily life and actions before them; and left their impress upon them to a degree that cannot now be done, when the children spend most of their time in rooms to themselves. If children had school lessons to learn at night, they studied them in the room where their parents were, and the lesson was talked about and the children greatly assisted.
       Again, children thus raised in the company of grown-up persons, hearing them talk about all subjects, their ideas were enlarged and more early matured; men were more communicative for boys, and more companionable; but the boys were quite different from what they generally are at present time. They treated boys like they thought they knew something. In this one respect the children of the first settlers were better off than the children of the present day, and makes on wish for the old times again. Whilst the want of house room occasioned some inconvenience, it was not without advantages. Very little surplus fuel and candles were wasted by young men sitting up with the girls until mid-night. Young men then were men, and they meant business when they went to see the girls, and it did not take them very long to tell it and receive an answer. The fire-place was generally six or seven feet wide; the old folks would sit on one side and the young folks on the other; and if there was a couple that wanted to court, they sat next to the corner and the other young folks, between them and the old folks. Some of the best and most effective courting that ever was done in the County was carried on with the old folks on one side of the fire-place, and the parties courting on the other.
       When a new-comer arrived all the neighbors assembled to help build his house; and if it was late in the Spring and he was likely not to get enough ground cleared, on which to raise his bread-corn, the neighbors all put in a day or two chopping or making rails for him. When any of these settlers had a house to raise, or logs to roll, the neighbors went to help him, and very often their wives would go too, and have a quilting or sewing for the wife of the man whose logs were rolled. In the evening after the labors of the day were over, the men would amuse themselves with athletic exercises, wrestling, jumping, etc., and sometimes after supper they would have a country dance, or perhaps the young people would play “Old Sister Phoebe,” or “William Co-Trim- ble-Toe,” and the old folks would sit around and tell how it was when they were young.
       So that these times of generous and substantial help to neighbors, were made scenes of social enjoyment, and pleasure to those who performed the labor. Although the early settlers as a class were deficient in learning, such as is taught in schools they were remarkable for their practical common sense, and their almost unerring discrimination of character. They were practical judges of human nature, and were rarely mistaken. If a new-comer was honest, truthful, and industrious, and was not a coward, he had friends, and although he might have a fight at every muster, as long as he acted honorably and brave, he had friends; but if he showed the least proclivity to dishonesty or falsehood, or was lazy, he lost all claims to the sympathy of his neighbors; and if he was cowardly, that, of itself was looked on as little less than a crime. Men at that day fought when they were insulted; public opinion forced them to do it, without regard to whether they whipped or got whipped. But they fought with nature’s weapons. It was a fist fight; and when over they made friends, took a drink and the past was forgotten.
       A man who would then draw a pistol or dirk on his antagonist, would be ostracized, called a dirty coward, and lose all prestige of chivalry.

       The hospitality of the first settlers was proverbial; travelers had no difficulty in staying at any house where night overtook them, if they were willing to put up with the fare, such as the family enjoyed; their horses were cared for and they provided for, as comfortably as the circumstances of the family would enable them to do, without fee or reward, except those few on thoroughfares, who kept houses of entertainment as a means of living. No traveler was charged for a night’s lodging. The entertainment, unostentatious and humble as it may have been, was so cordial, and every attention rendered so cheerfully, that if it was poor the traveler went away their friend, and if he was in search of land to buy, he felt as if he would like to be in that neighborhood.

       It was a maxim of the first settlers to buy nothing they could produce or make themselves. No farmer sent to Nashville for seed potatoes or for wheat or oats to sow, these were produced in the County; and one neighbor got from an other very often by an exchange of commodities. Mechanics in those days seldom laid in stock, but worked the material of their customers. The farmer furnished the iron and steel out of which his axes, plows and other tools were made, and the smith charged a certain price for his work. When boots and shoes were made by a regular shoemaker, the leather and even the shoe thread was furnished by the customers, and the shoemaker charged for the making. Men and boys when they wanted fine hats, caught the raccoons, or got the requisite number of skins, and took them to the hatter and he charged a certain price for making. In this way a hat cost about twenty per cent less than to buy it, and the saving to the customer with the blacksmith and shoemaker, was in the in same proportion. The first settlers raised their own rice and cleaned by beating in a mortar. They cultivated the Indigo plant and made their own Indigo, which was preferred by the old women who understood dyeing, to the Indigo of commerce. They raised their own flax, prepared it and had it spun for shoe thread or wove it into linen for the summer wear for men and boys. They raised their own hemp and made their own rope. The women were as economical and industrious as the men, and even more so. They made jeans, linens, and cotton goods, knit socks, saved the feathers from their geese and ducks, made tree sugar, butter, cheese, tallow candles, soap and many other things, which they bartered in stores, for such goods and articles as they wanted; and many of them paid their entire purchases in this way. And it was not confined to them whose circumstances made it necessary for them to do so, but the wives of the most influential and wealthy prided themselves in paying all their own expenses. Like all noble women of their day they sought by domestic economy to keep down expenses, and better their estates. The most of families had their merchants with whom they traded, and had an understanding with them in relation to such articles as they expected to barter, and the women thought no more of sending their barter to their merchant, when it was ready or going with it themselves, than their husbands’ did in sending their bacon, wheat, hemp, and other farm products to the same merchant, often to be bartered for something else. The women made their own dresses and the clothing for their husbands and sons. There were but few tailors and a considerable portion of their custom was in cutting out Sunday coats for men and boys, which were made at home. We had then no milliners or banks, and no use for either, as it took only six yards of calico to make a woman a dress, and there was little money in the country. But now they have both become indispensable, and the trouble is as to which shall have precedence.

Transcription © 2003 by
John Moore

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