Nina Daniels



Wednesday, January 28, 1948

As crude and inconvenient as the old frame houses seem to-day to young people about to set up a home for themselves, they are palaces compared to the shanties occupied by the first settlers in St. Lawrence County.

The prospectors would come on ahead, locate the place where they intended to establish a settlement, and have it surveyed. These men, the fore-runners of the pioneer community, then returned to their homes, procured their axes, pocket knives, whetstones, wedges, saws, augers, a few handmade nails, frying pans, bake kettles, pails, sups, tin plates, blankets, salt and flour.

They then built a hunter's shanty at the prospective site. A pole was fixed about eight feet high between two trees, other poles were leaned against this ridge pole, and this frame was covered with hemlock or cedar boughs, except for one end, which was left open. Beds were made of the same kind of boughs.

In front of the opening a few stones were placed on which to build fires, which were kept burning all night to frighten away the wild beasts so numerous in those great unbroken forests.

When a shelter was thus prepared, the settlers proceeded to clear a few acres of land so that a shanty large enough for a family could be built. Also, land had to be cleared for the corn and grain that was to be planted. In order to have room for the shanty and crops, the huge hardwood trees were burned after being felled. Not more than two or three acres would be cleared at one time.

Imagine, if you can, these pioneer forebears of ours striking out into that dense primeval forest, thickly populated by wolves, wildcats, bears and deer, clearing a few acres with the meager tools he might have, fighting off wild animals day and night, eating the plainest food possible, sleeping on the crudest of beds, passing months in this way without rest or pleasurable diversion, so that he might bring wife and baby into the wilderness. They suffered these hardships so that they might establish a home and eventually tame these wilds to make a settlement, a village, a town, St. Lawrence County.

The majority came from Vermont and New Hampshire, and they were used to comforts and plenty.

How incomprehensible it seems to us, their descendants, in our electrically equipped homes—this urge to move on westward, ever moving into new hardships, new problems until this mighty continent should have been conquered, the great forests vanquished, even the savages who first knew them overcome, changed, civilized, the immense rivers bridged, and cities built. How marvelous such things could come from the feeble efforts and ambitions of those folk who came in the cruelty of mid-winter to found homes in the wilderness. One who came a long time afterwards told us we "had nothing to fear but fear," but they did not even fear that, knowing it not.

After the land was cleared, the shanty for the new home was built similar to the first one, only larger. The roof would be of bark, boughs or troughs made from split logs. A hole was left for the escape of smoke. Sometimes a floor was made of bark or split slabs, ofterner there was none at all. The door was made of split slabs, with strong wood hinges. They made a heavy latch bar almost the width of the door and securely fastened it to the door post. Then a raw-hide thong was fastened to the latch bar. It was passed through a small hole hither up in the door. By it they could lift the bar out of the notch and the door opened from the outside. When the latch-string was drawn in, it was not possible to enter the shanty. From this came the saying "Our latch-string is always out."

One or two holes cut in the timbers were covered with greased paper. These were the windows. Cracks between the logs were filled with moss from trees. When the shanties were completed, the settlers returned to their homes for their wives and children.

As far as Plattsburgh they could obtain conveyances, but from there they struck out through the forests, following Indian trails or blazed trees, carrying packs on their backs. Although there were no bridges over the streams and lakes, in the winter they could cross them on the ice. They would sleep in hunters' shanties or on beds of boughs on the ground.

If the family was well and strong, this journey was accomplished in six to ten days. Arriving at their new home were these pioneer women aghast at the shanty home made ready for them. They brought with them a few iron pots, pans, skillets, knives, forks and spoons. These were heavy and cumbrous, but all was ready for them. I have one small skillet remaining from some hard-working member of my family. A few years ago I parted with a tea-kettle, weighing many pounds but valuable now as a relic.

The new shanty contained a table made of split slabs; crude benches served as chairs. Beds were made of boughs placed either on the floor or on racks hung on pegs driven into the side wall. The fireplace was like the one used by a family described by the late C. E. Sanford in his History of Hopkinton. Those hardy pioneers lived in a log shanty without a floor, and the fireplace consisted of two logs resting against the wall of the cabin about six feet above the ground. Across these logs firewood would be placed, or often on the ground itself. There they built the fire and overhead in the roof was an opening through which part of the smoke escaped. The descendants of that early family still live in Hopkinton.

The first three or four years were the hardest. Gradually they became accustomed to their hardships, eventually erecting the board houses which I have described. More than a century has passed since the first of those sturdy men and women worked their ways from New England to our county, our town.

Let us honor their memory and emulate their industry, and uncomplainingly shoulder our duties even as they did. Also let us preserve such relics as still remain of those days of hardship and inconvenience, those years with deprivations of which this generation dreams not.



North Country