Artist: Walt Curlee
Americans today have it made compared to the pioneers. When something breaks, we can just drive down to our local home hardware store and pick up what we need. We even can order online and wait for the item(s) to arrive on our doorstep!
It certainly wasn’t that easy for the pioneers. Whether they had just arrived in the New World, were traveling West in hopes of grabbing some land, or were settled on their farm, there were few “mercantiles” or general stores to be had.
How did they manage to survive? Good old ingenuity for one, a few working skills, and a few tools made all the difference.
Let’s examine 15 of their most useful tools.
Building and Construction Tools
No matter where they ended up, the pioneers had to build their own shelter. While some homes were made from sod, many more were made from wood. This made saws and axes both valuable and common. Of course, if you could afford to pay the mill to cut your logs, you were fortunate, but most people simply cut their own logs to make cabins to live in and barns for their livestock. Hatchets and axes did any work that saws couldn’t.
Hammers were vital. Hammers can split logs (with a wedge, which was another important tool), work metal, break rocks, and, of course, hammer nails. These ancient but super-flexible tools came in several types and sizes, depending on your need.
Shovels, or spades as they once were called, were another fundamental tool. Holes needed to be dug to support log cabins, turf was often used as roofing material, and a spade would be necessary to cut out those blocks.
Many of the early settlers had root cellars that would preserve food as the temperature was more stable. Even a small root cellar required a whole lot of digging! Pioneers also used shovels for the same things we do today — planting vegetable gardens, cleaning out stalls, and planting trees.
Farming and Planting Tools
Every pioneer would need to do at least some planting in order to survive, even if they only wanted to grow food for themselves and their livestock to survive through the winter.
Therefore, almost every farmer relied on his plow. Whether drawn by hand or pulled by an animal, a featured, pioneers, survival, tools, was an absolute necessity. John Deere invented the first steel plow blade in 1837, but long before that, people used wood or sharp rocks for plow blades.
Hoes were another invaluable tool for farmers. Crops involve much more than just seeds and water; weeds need to be removed. With a sharp hoe, a person can go at a slow walking pace and remove weeds.
Scythes were great for those who could not afford the mechanical horse drawn crop reapers. These slightly curved blades enabled a person to cut crops or clear tall grass and weeds from a standing position.
A tool that many people today are unaware of, which enabled grains to be removed from the husk, is the flail. It’s a simple tool, but quite effective. A flail consists of one larger stick that the person would hold, connected by a chain or hooks to a shorter stick. Harvested grain crops, such as wheat, were placed in a pile, and then the person would beat (thresh) the grain with the small stick, until the husk surrounding the grain fell off.
Artist: Hanne Lore Koehler
People of today have it made in the simple process of day-to-day cooking and cleaning.
Washboards were, for many years, exactly as the name implies — nothing more than pieces of rounded wood strips, nailed to a frame. It sounds very primitive, but it must have been in improvement over beating your clothing with sticks or rubbing them over rocks in the river!
Spinning wheels changed the wool from sheep or cotton balls into fibers that could be used to make clothing and blankets. Spinning wheels were used in Europe since at least the year 1250, so it was a common tool that almost every woman knew how to operate.
Once you had the wheat threshed, you needed to grind it into flour. This was done with a little device that some of us today think of as a meat grinder. Pioneer women used this same type of hand-powdered device to grind their grains to make flour.
Let’s not forget the lowly needle. While many of the needles used by the pioneer women are pretty much the same as the ones we use today, they had a much larger variety that was needed. In addition to the regular clothing that needed to be made or repaired, they had to sew their own blankets, in addition to sew horse blankets and leatherwork. Most saddles would be made by professionals, but the repairs to straps or bridles could be done if one had a large needle.
While most pioneers were very resourceful and independent, they cherished nearby neighbors who could be counted on in a pinch. Common tasks were often shared by neighbors or nearby family members, knowing that when the need arose, they also would benefit from this shared labor. It was not uncommon to see neighbors get together to help build a house for newlyweds or to help out with household chores when a family was sick or having difficulties.
Hunting Tools and Weapons
One of the most useful tools that every pioneer owned was a shotgun. A shotgun was used for protection and as their main source of killing animals for meat. Some of these hardy mountain men also kept pistols as a backup, but the shotgun or rifle was the weapon of choice.
A hunting knife also was an essential tool, and most pioneers had several of them. A good hunting knife was priceless, as it could handle almost every chore or need. It could be used to kill in close quarters, to skin and gut the animal, and to hack off a few branches for wood if necessary. Knives are one of the most versitle tools around, which would explain why many pioneers, like the indigenous people, had special places to store them so they wouldn’t be misplaced.
Hatchets also were sometimes used in self defense. Many pioneers kept both a hunting knife and a small hatchet on their person at all times.
What tools would you add to our list? Share your thoughts in the section below:
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