Pioneer life in Alfred, NY
From: History of the town of Alfred, NY
From the Earliest Times to the Present
By: Cortez R. Clawson, A. M.
Published by: Sun Publishing Association
Alford, NY 1926


“The pioneer is treading; in his grasp
Is his keen axe that wondrous instrument,
That, like the talisman, transforms
Deserts into fields and cities,
Beside some rapid stream,
He rears his log built cabin. . .

“Allegany’s pioneers were men of push and pluck Who came to win, but not by chance or luck; And when they sought but found no way, They carved out one without delay.”

Many of the early settlers came on foot to Alfred. Others came in carts drawn by oxen, in many cases the roads had to be cleared before passage could be made. The paths were little more than Indian trails and many made their way by fol’owing “blazed trees” through the forest. There were no bridges and every stream had to be forded.

Pioneer life was rude and attended by many hardships. Aside from the anxiety occasioned by lack of food there was that ever present dread of the lurking savage who might without warning, emerge from the thickets, tomahawk and burn.

In any new settlement where clearings had first to be made sickness was prevalent. Fevers and influenza were common ailments. Physicians, if there chanced to be any near, with their saddlebags filled with scant remedies, rode day and night guided only by a “blazed path.”

The cabins were usually about 20 by 26 feet, constructed of round logs chinked with pieces of split logs and plastered on the outside with clay. The floors were made of split logs with the flat side up and the roof of the same material. As a rule the windows were mere holes with no protection. Oiled paper and bleached cotton cloth sometimes furnished substitutes for glass. Nearly every house contained a spinning wheel and overhead near the kitchen fireplace were suspended the rifle, bullet pouch and powder horn.

Very little machinery and few farm tools were brought into the settlement and necessity proved the “mother of invention” in many cases. Implements were hastily improvised. The ground encumbered with stumps at first could be little more than scratched over with plows made from crotched trees. So rich was the soil that grain dropped with this slight preparation of the ground grew luxuriantly and ripened into good harvests. Sickles were used for cutting grain and flails for threshing it. Trees and stumps were burned just for the ashes. The manufacture of potash was a source of small income. Maple sugar was a godsend. Abel Burdick who settled in Alfred about 1818 made in one year more than 2800 pounds of sugar. His good wife not to be outdone in adding to the family budget, made 50 pounds, boiling the sap in a small kettle on a stove in their rude cabin home.

The flax raised was prepared by hand, carded, spun, woven and converted into clothing. Hides of beef found their way to the tannery and were made over into boots and shoes.

Food consisting of fish and meat was plentiful. Mush and milk, corn bread and milk, with an occasional johnny cake, were common articles of food in every cabin home. These were eaten for the most part, from tin or pewter dishes with iron spoons. Baking was done in a large iron kettle which was set in a bed of live coals. The fireplaces were large enough to accommodate a back log two feet in diameter and about four feet in length. Between this and the forelog, the fire was started usually from a tinder box, for friction matches had not yet been invented.

Food of every sort was cheap. Butter sold for six cents per pound in 1828, and eggs for six cents per dozen. Sugar, cheese and lumber were taken to Bath and the Genesee valley to exchange for wheat and various household necessities. It to:ok three days to make the trip from Alfred to Bath and return.

The pioneer had the advantage of a ready market for salt. All who possessed kettles entered upon the manufacture of this new article of commerce. So highly were the waters impregnated with salt, that eight pounds of water, when evaporated, made one pound of pure salt.

Lands timbered with elm, beech, and maple supplied a value in ashes to almost pay for clearing the land. Trade in the product of ashes for which merchants paid half in cash, half in goods, aided the pioneer in paying his taxes and in meeting other expenses. Pine
was so abundant about Alfred village that one tree capable of producing 8000 shingles was sold for 50 cents.

Going into the wilderness before tenements were erected, the pioneers were often forced to sleep on the ground with hemlock boughs for a mattress. During the night the settlers were often serenaded by wolves with an occasional scream of a panther. Timid deer would approach, gaze upon the new corners to determine whether they were friends or foes. It was not an uncommon scene to see half a dozen deer feeding with the cattle in the early morning.

The social life of the time was not without its joys and pleasures. As rude and hazardous as the pioneer life was there was always a time set apart for festivities. Men, women and children were often seen at logging, raising, quilting, appleparing, husking, and other “bees,” and many restful evenings were spent after days of hard toil. The younger members of the families found diversion in various ways. It is recorded that a certain Jehial Smith cut four cords of four foot wood at two dollars per cord in order to earn money enough to take his best girl to a Fourth of July celebration. Wages were very low and a hired girl might consider herself fortunate if she received 50 cents per week for her services.

Whiskey was a common drink and a curse to both whites and Indians. At every “bee” or “raising” a jug was in evidence. Not only were church members addicted to the practice of drinking, but ministers of the gospel as well, partook with the others on such occasions. The first temperance worker in Alfred was a woman. Mrs. Esther Stiliman, wife of Maxson Stiliman, Sr., proposed to her husband that their new home, which was to be one of the best frame houses in Alfred, should be raised without whiskey—a thing unheard of in those early days. Her husband readily seconded the proposition and no rum was used on the occasion, but a bountiful supper was served instead. This was an innovation but it took well with the people and started an influence that had a remarkable effect on the later life of the community. In later years through the efforts of such strong advocates of temperance as Maxson and Allen, who stood boldly for the truth and righteous living, and who combated the evils of intemperance wherever found, Al fred became free from the curse of strong drink.

One extremely interesting record pertaining to the early history of the town was the introduction on a small scale, of what was very common in the southern colonies namely, indentured servants. From the town records under date of October 1, 1851, the following entry occurs:

“Indenture of apprenticeship between Meribah Perry and Samuel Whitford and Samuel W. Perry Witnesseth the said Samuel W. Perry aged seven years on the 26th day of November, 1851, by and with the consent of said Meribah Perry, his mother doth hereby bind himself as an apprentice to the said Samuel Whitford until the 26th day of November, in the year 1864 from the date hereof, to learn the trade and occupation of a farmer, and the said Samuel W. Perry for himself and by his said mother doth hereby covenant with said Samuel Whitford, to faithfully serve him and correctly demean himself during the term of his apprenticeship; and the said Samuel Whitford doth hereby covenant with the said Meribah Perry, Samuel W. Perry and each of them that he will teach the said occupation and will provide him during said apprenticeship with meat, lodging, medicine, washing, clothing, and all other necessaries suitable for an apprentice, and will teach or cause him to be taught to read and write and so much of arithmetic as will include the single rule of three, and at the expiration of said term of service will furnish the said Samuel W. Perry with a new Bible and at least two suits of common wearing apparel at the expiration of said term of service. In testimony whereof, the parties have hereunto set their hands and seals this 25th day of September, 1851.”

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