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Copyright 1999-2013,
 all rights reserved.

History of the
Settlement and Indian Wars
of Tazewell County, Virginia.

By Geo. W. L. Bickley, M. D. (1852)

  
 

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CHAPTER XVII

MANNERS AND CUSTOMS.

Under such a general head, I could say but little for the information of my readers, I shall therefore, introduce several subjects, properly belonging to this place.  And I must ask such of the sons and daughters of the noble people whose habits form a theme for my pen, who are either vain or proud, to forgive me for exhibiting their fathers and mothers, in such a light as I necessarily must.  I too, am of these people, and hope I am as sensitive of my ancestors, as the vainest or the proudest.

The people of all mountain-countries have some customs peculiarly their own.  The same pastoral simplicity which characterizes the people of the Scotch highlands, the mountainous regions of Europe, and the hill country of ancient Judea, may be here clearly traced.  The same industry, love for stock, determination to be free, hatred of oppression, pure sentiment, etc., are found here.

DRESS OF THE EARLY SETTLERS.

That worn by the men, has already been described; that worn by the women, is well described by Dr. Doddridge, in the words, "linsey coats and bedgowns," which he says "were the universal dress of women in early times," and further suggested "that they would make a strange figure at the present day."

The garments made in Augusta, Botetourt, and other older settlements, had worn out, and a different material was brought into use.  The weed now known among us as wild nettle (Urtica dioica), then furnished the material which served to clothe the persons of our sires and dames.  It was cut down while yet green, and treated much in the same manner in which flax is now treated.  The fibrous bark, with the exception of the shortness of the fibers, seemed to be adapted to the same uses.  When this flax, if I may so term it, was prepared, it was mixed with buffalo hair and woven into a substantial cloth, in which the men and women were clothed.  It is a true maxim, "necessity is the mother of invention."

HOUSE FURNITURE.

"The furniture for the table, for several years after the settlement of this county, consisted of a few pewter dishes, plates, and spoons; but mostly of wooden bowls, trenchers, and noggins.  If these last were scarce, gourds and hard-shelled squashes, made up the deficiency.  Iron pots, knives and forks, were brought from the east, with the salt and iron, on pack-horses."

"These articles of furniture corresponded very well with the articles of diet.  "Hog and hominy," were proverbial for the dish of which they were the component parts.  Johnny-cake and pone were, at the first settlement of the country, the only forms of bread in use for breakfast and dinner.  At supper, milk and mush was the standing dish.  When milk was not plenty, which was often the case, owing to the scarcity of cattle, or the want of proper pasture for them, the substantial dish of hominy had to supply the place of them; mush was frequently eaten with sweetened water, molasses, bears' oil, or the gravy of fried meat."

"In our whole display of furniture, the delft, china, and silver, were unknown.  It did not then, as now, require contributions from the four quarters of the globe, to furnish the breakfast table, viz: the silver from Mexico; the coffee from the West Indies; the tea from China; and the delft and porcelain from Europe or Asia.  Yet, a homely fare, and unsightly cabins and furniture, produced a hardy race, who planted the first footsteps of civilization in the immense regions of the west.  Inured to hardship, bravery and labor from their early youth, they sustained with manly fortitude the fatigue of the chase, the campaign and scout, and with strong arms 'turned the wilderness into fruitful fields', and have left to their descendants the rich inheritance of an immense empire, blessed with peace, and wealth, and prosperity." (NOTE: Doddridge.)

THE WEDDING.

A wedding is thus described by Dr. Doddridge, and from what I have seen and can learn, a more faithful picture could not be drawn of a pioneer wedding:

"For a long time after the first settlement of this country, the inhabitants in general married young.  There was no distinction of rank, and very little of fortune.  On these accounts, the first impression of love, resulted in marriage, and a family establishment cost but little labor, and nothing else.

"A description of a wedding, from beginning to end, will serve to show the manners of our forefathers, and mark the grade of civilization which has succeeded to their rude state of society, in the course of a few years.

"In the first years of the settlement of a country, a wedding engaged the attention of a whole neighborhood; and the frolic was anticipated by old and young, with eager expectation.  This is not to be wondered at, when it is told that a wedding was almost the only gathering which was not accompanied with the labor of reaping, log-rolling, building a cabin, or planning some scout or campaign.  On the morning of the wedding-day, the groom and his attendants, assembled at the house of his father, for the purpose of reaching the home of his bride by noon, which was the usual time for celebrating the nuptials; and which, for certain reasons, must take place before dinner. 

"Let the reader imagine an assemblage of people, without a store, tailor, or mantua-maker, within a hundred miles; and an assemblage of horses, without a blacksmith or saddler within an equal distance.  The gentlemen dressed in shoepacks, moccasins, leather breeches, leggins, linsey hunting-shirts, and all home-made.  The ladies dressed in linsey petticoats, and linsey or linen bedgowns, coarse shoes, stockings, handkerchiefs, and buckskin gloves, if any.  If there were any buckles, rings, buttons or ruffles, they were the relics of olden times; family pieces from parents or grandparents.  The horses were caparisoned with old saddles, old bridles or halters, and pack-saddles, with a bag or blanket thrown over them: a rope or string as often constituted the girth as a piece of leather.

"The march, in double file, was often interrupted by the narrowness of our mountain paths, as they were called, for we had no roads; and these difficulties were often increased, sometimes by the good, and sometimes by the ill-will of neighbors, by falling trees, and tying grape-vines across the way.  Sometimes an ambuscade was formed by the wayside, and an unexpected discharge of several guns took place, so as to cover the wedding company with smoke.  Let the reader imagine the scene which followed this discharge; the sudden spring of the horses, the shrieks of the girls, and the chivalrous bustle of their partners to save them from falling.  Sometimes, in spite of all that could be done to prevent it, some were thrown to the ground.  If a wrist, elbow, or ankle, happened to be sprained, it was tied up with a handkerchief, and little more was said or thought about it.

"The ceremony of the marriage preceded the dinner, which was a substantial backwoods' feast of beef, pork, fowls, and sometimes venison and bear meat, roasted and boiled, with plenty of potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables.  During the dinner, the greatest hilarity always prevailed; although the table might be a large slab of timber, hewed out with a broadaxe, supported by four sticks, set in augerholes; and the furniture, some old pewter dishes and plates; the rest, wooden bowls and trenchers: a few pewter spoons, much battered about the edges, were to be seen at some tables.  The rest were made of horn.  If knives were scarce, the deficiency was made up by the scalping knives, which were carried in sheaths, suspended to the belt of the hunting-shirt.  Every man carried one of them.

"After dinner the dancing commenced, and generally lasted till the next morning.  The figures of the dances were three and four handed reels, or square sets and jigs.  The commencement was always a square form, which was followed by what was called jigging it off; that is, two of the four would single out for a jig, and were followed by a remaining couple.  The jigs were often accompanied with what was called cutting out; that is, when either of the parties became tired of the dance, on intimation, the place was supplied by some one of the company, without any interruption to the dance.  In this way the dance was often continued till the musician was heartily tired of his situation.    Toward the latter part of the night, if any of the company, through weariness, attempted to conceal themselves, for the purpose of sleeping, they were hunted up, paraded on the floor, and the fiddler ordered to play 'hang out till to-morrow morning.'

"About nine or ten o'clock, a deputation of young ladies stole off the bride, and put her to bed.  In doing this, it frequently happened that they had to ascend a ladder, in stead of a pair of stairs, leading from the dining and ballroom to the loft, (NOTE: I have italicised this word, because, even now, the second stories of some of our most costly mansions are termed "lofts," by the older persons.") the floor of which was made of clap-boards, lying loose.  This ascent, one might think, would put the bride and her attendants to the blush; but the foot of the ladder was commonly behind the door, which was purposely opened for the occasion, and its rounds, at the inner ends, were well hung with hunting-shirts, dresses, and other articles of clothing.  The candles, being on the opposite side of the house, the exit of the bride was noticed but by few.

"This done, a deputation of young men, in like manner, stole off the groom, and placed him snugly by the side of his bride.  The dance still continued; and if seats happened to be scarce, as was often the case, every young man, when not engaged in the dance, was obliged to offer his lap, as a seat for one of the girls; and the offer was sure to be accepted.  In the midst of this hilarity, the bride and groom were not forgotten.  Pretty late in the night, some one would remind the company that the new couple must stand in need of some refreshment: black Betty, which was the name of the bottle, was called for, and sent up the ladder; but sometimes, black Betty did not go alone.  I have many times seen as much bread, beef, pork, and cabbage sent along, as would afford a good meal for half a dozen hungry men.  The young couple were compelled to eat and drink, more or less, of whatever was offered.

"But to return.  It often happened that some neighbors or relations, not being asked to the wedding, took offense; and the mode of revenge, adopted by them on such occasions, was that of cutting off the manes, foretops, and tails of the horses of the wedding company.

"On returning to the in-fare, the order of procession, and the race for black Betty, was the same as before.  The feasting and dancing often lasted several days, at the end of which, the whole company were so exhausted with loss of sleep, that many days' rest were requisite to fit them to return to their ordinary labors."

I have quoted this account, written by Dr. Doddridge, because nothing could be more correct and it was beyond my power to tell an original tale so well.

HUNTING.

This constituted one of the greatest amusements, and, in some instances, one of the chief employments of the early settlers.  The various intrigues of a skillful hunter---such as mimicking a turkey, owl, wolf, deer, etc.---were soon learned, and the eye was taught to catch, at a glance, the faintest impression left upon the earth by an animal.  Marks, which would be, by any but a hunter, overlooked, were easily detected.  The times, and ground on which deer, elk, etc., fed, were soon learned, and then the important lesson of preventing spells or enchantments by enemies, were studied; for it is a singular fact that all hunters are, more or less, superstitious.  Frequently, on leaving home, the wife would throw the ax at her husband, to give him good luck.  If he chanced to fail to kill game, his gun was enchanted or spelled, and some old woman shot in effigy---then a silver bullet would be run with a needle through it, and shot at her picture.  To remove these spells, they would sometimes unbreech their rifles, and lay them in a clear running stream for a certain number of days.  If this failed, they would borrow patching from some other hunter, which transferred all the bad luck to the lender, etc.

Game was plenty at the time this county was first settled by the whites, and accordingly, the woods furnished most of the meat.  Considerable bear still exists in various parts of the county.  Deer are scarce, and elk and buffalo extinct.  The elk and buffalo were generally killed at the licks whither they repaired to salt themselves; and even yet, deer licks are watched with profit to the hunter.

Animals were hunted there not merely for their meat, but for their skins and furs.  These served to pay for powder, lead, or anything else, being nominally the currency of the country.

Neither was hunting, the mere pastime, devoid of skill, which it now is.  The hunter might be considered somewhat of a meteorologist; he paid particular attention to the winds, rains, snows, and frosts; for almost every change altered the location of game.  He knew the cardinal points by the thick bark and moss on the north side of a tree, so that during the darkest and most gloomy night he knew which was the north, and so his home or camp.  The natural habits of the deer were well studied; and hence he knew at what times they fed, etc.  If, in hunting, he found a deer at feed, he stopped, and though he might be open to it, did not seek to obscure himself, but waited till it raised its head and looked at him.  He remained motionless till the deer, satisfied that nothing moving was in sight, again commenced feeding.  He then began to advance, if he had the wind of it, and if not he retreated and came up another way, so as to place the deer between himself and the wind.  As long as the deer's head was down he continued to advance till he saw it shake the tail.  In a moment he was the same motionless object, till it again put down its head.  In this way, he would soon approach to within sixty yards, when his unerring rifle did the work of death.  It is a curious fact that deer never put their heads to the ground, or raise it, without shaking the tail before do doing.

The quantity of game will be apparent when it is known that Mr. Ebenezer Brewster killed, during his life, upward of twelve hundred bears in this county.  He died in the summer of 1850, and this statement occurred in an obituary notice.

 

 

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