Thursday, March 12, 2015

Memoirs of Nancy Hamilton Adams and early pioneer life in Decatur County

In this blog post you will read the memoirs of one of the first pioneer families in Decatur County, Indiana. James E. Hamilton and his brother, Cyrus along with their wives, sisters Jane and Mary McCoy, respectively settled here in 1822 near Kingston.  Charity Mitchell from the Historical Society of Decatur County has offered this memoir of James Hamilton's daughter, Nancy Hamilton Adams (1826-1913). This very valuable memoir has been reprinted many times. It will stand as one of the best historical documentations of life in the earliest pioneer days (1830-1850) of Decatur County, Indiana.
Marker on County Road 80NE near where the families built the first cabin.

Some Reminiscences of my Childhood Days

Out of the mists of the memory of my early childhood arises a square log house where I first saw the light, March 12, 1826. My parents were Kentuckians. Father, James E. Hamilton, born in Nicholas County in 1795. Mother, Jane McCoy, in Bourbon, an adjoining county, the following year. They married in 1818. In March, 1822 Father, Mother and their two little children, Philander and Robert A., also Cyrus Hamilton, a brother of my Father’s, and Polly McCoy, a sister of my Mother’s, who had just been married, emigrated with them to Decatur Co., Indiana, near what is now Kingston. They went in hired wagons. Much of the way was a wilderness, and they followed a blazed trial, which served as a guide through the unbroken  forest, and on the 11th day of March unloaded their household goods by the side of a large poplar log (Tulip tree), the wagons and drivers returning to Kentucky. A  temporary shelter was made out of bark, until logs were cut and a cabin erected. Here, away from the blighting influence of slavery, they began their life work to found a home for themselves and their children, and how they worked! Later, a second cabin was built, the one in which I was born. In 1830 the brick house was built, where I passed my childhood and girlhood, until my marriage to Jacob Clendenin Adams, June 7, 1849. Those early days of my life were indeed in the long ago, and primitive times they were, of life in the far west, as Indiana was then considered. Father being a man of great energy, and strong will and frame, kept everything moving about him. Mother, was energetic and ambitious too, but worked beyond her strength. Almost all the cloth needed for clothing for the family and the home furnishing was manufactured at home. Flax was raised and spun and woven into cloth. The process of getting the flax into thread, as I remember it, was this:  The flax was pulled up by hand out of the ground, and left spread out to dry a while, then was gathered up and laid a big bundle at a time on a hand machine and pounded to break the coarse fibre which encrusted it. Then came the scutching process. A large handful was held by one hand on an upright board or post, and with the other hand on a long knife shaped wooden instrument the flax was scutched or beaten downwards, thus getting out the broken crusty pieces, and the flax was ready for the hackle. This was a board about six by twelve inches, in which sharp iron spikes were placed in upright position. The flax was drawn through this machine by handfuls again and again,  taking out all the coarse flax or tow, as it was called, leaving the long fine glossy fibres which was spun into very fine thread, and woven into table linen, sheets, pillow slips, sewing thread, etc. The tow was also spun into thread and woven into cloth for men’s trousers, flour sacks, wagon covers, towels, etc. The flax was wound around a distaff, and always spun on a little wheel. I have often seen my mother sit and spin flax. I loved to watch her draw out the thread turning the wheel rapidly all the time with her foot which was on the treadle. It was easy, comfortable looking work. In summer we wore home made cotton dresses. The cotton thread was bought and part of it colored indigo blue, and part with copperas making an orange yellow, and a little white was put in to brighten it. This was woven into striped, or checked cloth, good and strong, and looked very well too. The  dresses are expected to last, and did last two years—well suited to healthy, romping, climbing children. I remember of being perched in an apple tree one day, and attempting to jump from one of the lower limbs to the ground, distance of eight or ten feet, but alas, the hem of my cotton dress caught on a project and there I hung suspended head downward. As I was alone and some distance from the house I despaired of anyone finding me and thought I would die, but my good mother heard my cries and to my great joy came to my relief.

      Flannel was made for winter wear. The wool was sheared off the sheep, washed,  dried and all the burrs and trash carefully picked out, then sent to a carding machine, (I can just remember of hand cards being used for a small amount of wool) to be made into rolls, when it was brought home, spun into thread and dyed with indigo and madder, which made a pretty red color (No diamond dyes in those days). This was also woven into stripes or checks, and made very pretty comfortable dresses. For the men and boys jeans was made, also what was called fulled cloth. I think the latter was used for overcoats. Woolen stockings were universally worn, and of  course knit at home. Sugar, soap, starch, candles, etc., were also made. I can remember of my Mother making buttons out of thread. Perhaps haw thorns were used for pins, but I do not remember. There was little to buy anything with, and for such things as were absolutely necessary, some kind of cloth was usually made, and exchanged for them.

     The canning process was then unknown and there was much drying of fruit. There was a great abundance of peaches. The long row of trees extending along one side of the large apple orchard were always full year after year of luscious fruit. A great deal of it went to waste, or rather was fed to the hogs, but a great many bushels were dried on a kiln made for the purpose. Apples were dried in the sun as as the kiln did not answer so well for them. I think much more apples and peaches were dried than were used at home, and were exchanged for necessaries. In the very early days Father tanned the leather and made our shoes at night when he could not work on the farm. These were only worn in the winter time or to church, and I do not suppose had much style to them. There was very little work hired—friends and neighbors exchanged work, helped each other. There were many house and barn raisings, log rollings, (great black walnut logs were burnt or split into rails), corn huskings, flax pullings, wool pickings, apple parings, quiltings, etc. Corn planting was always  a busy time and all the help possible was taken from the house. I was considered a good dropper—could drop the corn in the intersections of straight rows running both ways, so the corn could be plowed both length and crosswise. It was very tiresome walking on the plowed ground and the dinner horn was a welcome sound, so was the setting sun longingly watched for, as that was the signal for quitting work. The first four working days of the week mother would weave, spin, dye, etc., day in and day out and then on Friday and Saturday came washing and ironing, mending, baking and scouring till everything shone and was in readiness for the Sabbath. By this time she was often laid up with a terrible sick headache, but I do not know that it ever occurred to her that it was caused by overwork. Her busy life was ended when she was fifty-four. My dear, sainted Mother! She was one of the excellent of the earth. Always sympathetic, affectionate, in confidence and touch with her children in all their joys and sorrows. No wonder, she was beloved. Father was different in my ways. A man of few words, undemonstrative, but quick tempered and absolute in his government, which was more  common in those days.There were no “whys” or “what fors”, instant obedience was expected and given, so he had little occasion to punish. Doubtless he loved his children but he did not show it, as a consequence there was a good deal of fear mixed with the love his children had for him. While not demonstrative, his love for his children was evidence by his gifts of land on the marriage of each of his children, and later by more land to each one, and still later of money in considerable amounts. In this way he showed more affection and trust than most fathers, and I will insert here a tribute lately received from my brother Robert who is still living at the ripe old age of eighty-six years.  “Father was a public spirited man in all public enterprises and improvements --- did more work  and gave more money than any man to build the railroad (Big Four) to Indianapolis which has grown to a great system. Though as I look back now he took a fearful risk in endorsing the bonds to get money to build the road. If the road had failed, as some of them did, it would have bankrupted him, and as I look back at him leaving the hills of Kentucky a poor man with a small family, stopping in the woods (of Indiana) until a rude cabin was built to shelter the little family, and his long steady life work in building up a great county, I see him in front of a race of giants. He grows bigger and broader as the years go on and the world progresses. He did his full part in the day he lived.” I may add that he left benefactions to church and community in which he lived, that will ever keep his memory green. He lived to be nearly eighty-six, and his character and disposition ripened, and sweetened as the days and years went by so that he was beloved by all, and his children and children’s children could rise up and call him blessed.

      But to go back to my childhood days. Accidents happened of course. I will relate one which seemed very serious for a time as I came near losing an eye. When I was about five years old I fell from a high rail fence on to a clump of  spice bushes, and one of the branches ran up one of my nostrils. I pulled out the projecting stick before help reached me. The blood streamed from nose and mouth, and there was a very sick little girl carried home that day and for several weeks afterwards. The opposite eye from the sore nostril was greatly affected, swollen, almost to bursting with the lids always closed and every effort to open them seemed unavailing. The doctor probed in my nose but could find nothing, yet he felt convinced that a piece of the stick had been left in somewhere which caused so much inflammation and found he was correct by fitting the pieces of the stick together, but as no one knew what could be done about it, some weeks passed with but little change when a remarkable circumstances happened. A good faithful animal, the mother of a young colt, had been sick for hours with what they called colic, and at bed time father left her in the door yard, thinking nothing more could be done for her, but the suffering creature seemingly in hope of relief went round and round the house, until finally she fell against one of the side doors which burst from its hinges, landed on top of a bed that providentially was not occupied, and poor Dolly fell dead on the floor inside the room. I was lying in my mother’s arms and with the shock my eye opened which had been so long closed. My mother’s heart overflowed with thanksgiving and tears of joy fell on my face and from that time on my eye improved steadily. I was aware that there were grave fears that I would be disfigured for life and for some timer there was a great difference in my eyes, but I outgrew this to a great extent. But the strangest part of this incident remains to be told. About twenty-three years after the accident occurred, and had been almost forgotten, I was sitting one evening reading aloud to my family, which was rendered difficult by my nose  being much stopped up with cold, and I resolved to make an effort to clear it with a good blow, when lo, the identical piece of spice stick, loosened from its mooring of so many years, put in its appearance. I felt it come into my nostril and pressed it out. It was in a good state of preservation, about one and one-half inches long and only one half of the stick, the crease for the pitch showing plainly on that side and there was considerable bark on the other side. It was thought it had lodged in the cavity in front of the brain, and I was not aware of the occupant, doubtless it was better so.

      There were no ranges or cooking stoves. All the cooking was done in the great fire place, across which was an iron bar or crane, from which hung a number of pot hooks. From these were suspended kettles, pots and boilers for the cooking process. A very few had brick ovens built for baking, but we had none. We used pot metal skillets and ovens with lids for baking bread and all such things. They were placed on the hearth before the fire with coals put underneath and on the lids, and sweeter bread was never made, although it was hot, trying work in front of a big fire of logs. The bread for every day use was usually made of corn meal, often what we called “Johnny Cake”, which was baked on a long narrow board about six inches wide and baked in front of the fire. It was delicious, so was the light corn pone. This was put into quite a large oven and baked all night in the corner of the fire place. How good it was for breakfast with plenty of good butter and rich sweet milk. Wheat was somewhat scarce. I can remember when it was cut with a sickle and the grain tramped out by horses on the barn floor. Flouring mills were not very accessible. In the early days Father would pile on his large horse, Old Charley, quite a number of sacks of wheat and go to Whitewater to mill to have it ground into flour. This was twenty miles away and the trip would not be made very often and the flour had to last a long time. Some grist mills for grinding corn were scattered through the country. As soon as the growing corn was dry enough, we children grated corn every afternoon from which delicious mush was made for supper. Mush and milk was the supper for the family all the year round, and what was left over was warmed up in milk for breakfast for us children. Boiled dinners were universal. The meat was boiled in a pot over the fire and some sort of vegetable cooked with it. As a rule there were no second courses, corn bread and milk completing the meal. When we went from home it was on horseback, often two on a horse, and in case of children one behind and one before was very common. Visitors were always expected to stay for a meal, and to stay all night was a common way of visiting.

       As there were no matches it was never expected to let the fire go out, or coals would have to be brought from the neighbors. Some fire was always covered in the ashes when not needed for heat. But I have said nothing about any pleasures that we had. It was not all work and no play. Child life in the country in many ways is beautiful. The restful memory picture that comes back to me often times is of myself and my younger sister, Mary, roaming over the blue grass pastures in the warm bright spring days. It was a lovely place thickly studded over with sugar maples. Wild flowers in great variety were in abundance, as were the feathered songsters. We gathered flowers to our hearts’ content, hunted  the birds’ nests, also the  nests of the geese or lingered around the fascinating young goslings. Then there was the winding branch, or brook, where we wondered up and down, removing all obstructions so the clear water could ripple over the pebbly bottom, and we could watch the little minnows dart in and out or glide peacefully along with the current. Oh, the city child does not know of such happiness! Communion with nature is always helpful, always uplifting. David as the shepherd boy communed with nature, so when he became the “Sweet Singer of Israel”, what beautiful imagery he had. “Like the tree planted by the rivers of water”, “As the hart pantest after the water brooks”. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters”. “The Heavens declare the glory of God, -etc. Also the 104 Psalm complete, and many, many other portions.

      But I digress, I have not spoken of the educational facilities of my childhood years. Church and Sunday School were started almost with the settlement. The first church building was a large round log structure, Sunday School was at 9 A.M. after which came morning service – a sermon of goodly length. Then an intermission of about an hour when we ate our lunch, then assembled again for another service. So it was along in the afternoon before we reached home, when the catechism was studied and recited to Father in the evening. We took all this as a matter of course and I do not remember that we considered the day at all tiresome. There were day schools for a few months in the winter as soon as there were children to go to them. I was started when I was almost four years old. My first school was across the country about a mile through the wood. In a small brick room which was built in the pastor’s yard for his study, and which he gave up for a time for school purposes. The long parsonage of several rooms stood near by. The Teacher, Miss Susan Howe, was a Yankee school marm whom the pastor had brought from the East. Home missionary work, no doubt. She was a sweet lovable woman. Children were not dressed so warmly in those days as now—no warm underwear. Not even drawers of any kind. So baby that I was I often reached the school room almost frozen, when this kind good woman would take me on her lap to warn me up, put my stiffened fingers in her warm bosom to thaw them out. I remember of crying with the cold as I trudged home through the freshly fallen snow which flew up on my bare limbs and stiffened my skirts. My oldest brother, Philander, was along. He was about eleven years old and I thought him quite a big boy. He saw my distress and persuaded me that I could run faster than he could and we would soon be home, so he made a pretense of running very fast, but let me get ahead, thus beguiling me into forgetfulness of my troubles. Not long after this a brick school house was built near our home and I had no more tribulations in getting to and from school. I have always thought that our teachers were superior to those of country neighborhoods generally. Not only were “The Three R’s taught, but grammar and geography  as well, and very thoroughly too, especially was good spelling insisted upon. Spelling  Matches formed part of the routine in school. I was always chosen first as I seldom missed a word. Arithmetic was not considered so important for girls. I remember of doing an example in long division which covered one side of my slate. I was so proud of it that I carried it home to show my Father. He looked at it but refused to believe that I had done it without assistance. I never progressed very far, for my school life ended when I was very Young. It was very seldom indeed that anyone was from home in order to have better advantages in school. My oldest Brother, of whom I have spoken, while yet a boy, had an accident to his knee that made him a cripple for life, and on that account he was sent to Hanover College where he was graduated in 1839. This brother so full of promise passed away in early manhood aged twenty-eight years. I do not suppose there was a thought of my other brother, Robert, going away. For he was to be a farmer, of course, which was all right in his case for he made a very successful one. When I was eleven years old I was taken out of school, and put to the spinning wheel. It nearly broke my heart. I shall never forget the wretchedness of that first day. How weary, footsore and hopeless I felt as I walked back and forth by that big wheel, trying to draw out the rolls of wool into something like even thread. With practice the art became easier, but I never was an expert. I never could accomplish as much as my older sister, Margaret, so after a while when I was older I was set to weaving on a loom. This I liked better than spinning and I wove a great many years of cloth of different kinds in the years that intervened until woolen mills were started through the county, which took this kind of work out of the homes. I had no regret in no longer hearing the hum of the spinning wheel or not seeing the shuttle fly back and forth in the hand loom. I have spoken of my sister, Margaret, and the very name brings up this bright capable sister. Beautiful, too, she was, and so as young girls together, I so timid and bashful, I almost lived and moved and had my being in her, and was almost inconsolable when she married and went to a home of her own. During these years my school days seemed to be ended, but when I was eighteen a new pastor came to us, whose wife and an educated eastern woman, and who probably seeing a special need, opened a private school in her own house, to which I was only to glad to go. There was a rapid review of the studies we had previously gone over, and some new ones added.  United States history, advance in Arithmetic, Comstock’s Philosophy, with Astronomy in the back part, was taught. I was very much interested in these studies for they seemed to open up a new world of thought. But it was all too short, only lasted one winter, and was my “finishing school”. How insignificant were my opportunities  compared with those of the girls of the present time. I often wonder what the girls and women of the twentieth century will do with their great opportunities. I trust make better  wives, better mothers, beautiful in Christian Character, and in all that goes to make truly womanly women. I had another sister, Fidelia, whom I have not mentioned. She was nearly twelve years younger and so came little into my childhood and girlhood, and after we left the home did not live near each other. The changes that have come since those early days are almost like the passage to another planet. Changes in the whole comfort, convenience and healthfulness of living and working, and in the relief of the sick and suffering.

      Just before the discovery of Chloroform my poor Mother underwent a very painful surgical operation. The eminent surgeon for the time, Dr. Mussey of Cincinnati, Ohio, said she was very brave, greatly above the average, but even yet it makes me shudder to think of it, and regret that this wonderful discovery  did not come sooner. So it was with many, many other things. The telephone, telegraph, phonograph, and so many other wonderful inventions, too many to even mention in this paper. They would have seemed incredible within my memory, and I often wonder if there can be as many changes and inventions in the next century as in the last one. Flying from one place to another seems almost here, but it is useless to  surmise what will take place in the future. Even the end of the world may be near at hand,  for we “know not the day nor the hour”. One by one the little flock that was sheltered and nurtured in the old house of my childhood has passed over the river. My brother Robert and myself alone remain awaiting the sound of the “Boatman’s oar”, and of the voice “Fear not, I will pilot thee”.

     The years that I have traveled lie stretching in long array behind me, and I have reached the time that one lived much in memory, hence these reminiscences. They may be of some interest to my children and children’s children when I am living in this world only in memory.

                                                                             Nancy Hamilton Adams

Topeka, Kansas

February 10, 1908

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