May 1995

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Letters to Suzanna

Father Settles


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

This is a letter from a ghost—a friendly lady ghost who will tell you how I lived when I was your age.

It was 1808 and not many people lived in this part of New York State near Seneca Lake in what is now Schuyler County. This was Seneca Indian land before the American Revolution. Most of the Senecas had gone to Fort Niagara by 1779. There, their friends, the British, promised to take care of them in return for Seneca help given to the British during the Revolution and even afterward.

A few came back here after peace settled in. There is a village about ten miles south of my home in Town of Reading where a few Indians now live (in 1808). They have houses like ours. Seneca Indians never lived in tepees as the Plains Indians did. Rather, they built long-houses of logs and bark. Several families lived side by side in each long-house.

My father came here from Connecticut in 1797. He had a land grant for helping the Continental Army during the Revolution. The land was his pay because the new government did not have cash for soldiers and financiers.

Papa and his father walked all the way from Connecticut, camping nights wherever they found a suitable site. There were no roads. Papa had a compass. Sometimes they found Indian trails or animal paths that were easier to follow than slogging through marshes or cutting a way through brambles. They brought a team of oxen and a milch cow, two axes, what you would call a bedroll apiece, some seed corn, a bit of dried beef and journey cake. Some people called this Johnny Cake. It was cornbread that lasted well on a trip. Grandma had wrapped it in a clean white cloth. There was no such thing as wax or plastic paper or even paper bags in 1797.

When the journey cake was gone, Papa used the cloth for a towel. He also brought a gun with ammunition (gun powder and lead balls) and a scythe. Oh, yes! Grandma also packed a cake of soap which she had made. Papa used it for bathing and washing dishes and washing clothes, too. He had a quilt that his Connecticut neighbors had made for him when they learned he was moving to the wilderness.

Papa and Grandfather registered his land claim in a village called Bath, about forty miles from the homestead. It was early May. Grandfather helped cut trees and burn the trimmings until there was a clearing for the oxen to turn ground with the single-furrow plow they had also carried from the old home. Corn and a few other staples were planted.

Our farm was on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake from the west. No one had yet lived in the area, not even the Indians. The woods grew thick and dark and there were few open fields nearby. After the corn was planted, Grandfather returned to tend his own farm.

All summer, Papa slept in a lean-to made of logs and evergreen branches. It was just big enough for him to crawl in and lie down. Sometimes he worked at cutting more trees and building a small log cabin from his own trees. Sometimes he went to the big marsh at the south end of Seneca Lake to cut native hay. After it dried enough, he loaded it on a drag which the oxen hauled back up the hill, about four miles, to his farm. Oxen walk so slowly that by the time they went to the lake, loaded the hay and came back, it took all day.

A few times, Papa went fishing in Seneca Lake. There were very big trout that he called Salmon. There were many kinds of smaller fish, too. Sometimes he shot a rabbit or pheasant or wild turkey. He picked wild berries and found wild horseradish. All summer long, his only bread was corn bread because there was no flour. He had milk. He carried water from a creek where he also washed his clothes and took a bath when the weather was warm enough.

By September, Papa's cabin was built. He used his quilt for a front door. He put in only two small windows because there was no glass at hand. He didn't even have a way to cover the windows when it rained or the wind blew cold.

He built a bunk bed against the wall near the fireplace. The fireplace was made of fieldstone gathered from along the creek and hauled on the drag by the oxen. He built a bench table and used parts of two tree trunks for chairs—more like stools.

In September, Papa's brother, John, came. He rode one horse and brought another. He also brought other helpful things, like oiled brown paper to cover the cabin windows. It made the room darker but kept out rain and lessened the effects of breezes. Grandfather sent some dried beef, potatoes, turnips, carrots and wheat flour. Grandmother sent a batch of journey cake and Papa was glad for that because he wasn't really a very good cook. Uncle John dragged logs, by oxen power, to the mill. It was about ten miles away and nobody lived between our farm and there. The mill was a place called Catharinestown. It was named in honor of a woman who was the last "ruler" of the Seneca Indians when their village was near the same place the sawmill proprietor had settled. She was one of the Senecas who came back to the old home to live after peace came.

At the mill, Papa and Uncle John helped make boards for a door for the cabin. They paid the miller with more logs for his own use.

After the door was in place, they built a lean-to on one side of the cabin to shut in the animals on winter nights because there were wolves, bears, bobcats and panthers (Papa always pronounced it "painters") which might attack when their natural food was scarce in winter. Most winter days, just as the rest of the year, the livestock was allowed to roam and forage for food. This saved the hay so laboriously harvested from the marsh.

Uncle John stayed all winter. He and Papa hunted and trapped and cured some animal hides to trade for tea and eggs and whiskey or rum from the store near the mill. In March, Uncle John rode to Connecticut to get more soap and candles, seeds and clothes and a few tin dishes. He even brought back a rake and a tin tub for a bath tub or for washing clothes.

After the garden had been planted, Uncle John stayed behind and Papa went to Connecticut. He rode one horse and took the other. He married Mama and they came back to the homestead on horseback.

I was born in 1800 in that cabin. Papa made a swinging cradle for me. Our family has kept it ever since. After Mama could take care of house again. Uncle John went back to Connecticut, leaving one horse for Papa. Soon after, Uncle John married a lady named Jerusha.

Winter set in and Papa collected more animal hides and cut down trees to open more crop lands. Mama, taking care of a new-born daughter, never went far from the cabin. There were still no neighbors, anyway.

Mama worked very hard just as Papa did. There were no disposable diapers (or napkins as we sometimes called them) and she had to wash a lot of baby clothes because all my garments and bedding kept getting wet, of course. She did not have a washboard, only that one tub, and they were still dependent on drawing water form the creek and heating it in the fireplace in the one big iron pot.

At that point Papa had not had time to dig a well. Anyway, he didn't own the right kind of shovel for such work.

Mama hung clothes to dry on bushes when weather allowed. Otherwise, they hung from pegs in the wall near the fireplace.

When I was three, my brother, John, was born. That year, Papa built a small room on the side of the cabin opposite the animals' lean-to. The new room became the children's room. He built my bunk against the wall. He made ropes from wild grape vines and these were attached to the bunk frame to hold a feather bed. Every time one of us was big enough for a bunk bed, Grandmother sent a featherbed to fit it. Father was pretty good at making bunk beds and, in time, our room was lined with them except for the door opening. There were no windows in the children's room. Our clothing hung on pegs over our beds. Most of the time, we had one change of clothes to hang while we wore the other set. We each had a cloak for cold or rainy weather.

Shoes were hard to come by and we all went barefoot as much as we could.

Mama never had a spinning wheel because we never kept sheep and had no way to grow flax for linen thread. Mama made most of our clothes. Every year when Grandfather or Uncle John visited, Grandmother sent discarded adult garments or lengths of cloth and Mama made these into our clothing. She did it all by hand and I was taught to sew when I was six years old.

We never had much cash money. Papa had seed to sell after each harvest. He also sold logs and animal pelts or, more often, traded them for things we needed to buy like white flour and tea and shoes. We raised most of our own food. Mama had some chickens so we had eggs. She let some of the old hens set so we had new chicks every year. They ran loose to find their own food. Sometimes a fox or hawk took a chicken. Sometimes a skunk would rob a nest of eggs. Papa put up a shelf in the lean-to where the chickens could roost in cold weather.

Papa made stools as table-chairs for all of us as he cut suitable trees. I also used mine to stand on so I could reach to wash dishes in a pan on the table. By the time I was eight, I could bake journey cake and wheat muffins in the fireplace. I could fix meat and potatoes and vegetables in stew when Mama was helping Papa with farming. At such times, it was Johnny's job to keep the fire going. Both of us learned to care for the younger children and either of us could change a baby's nappie.

When I was six, Papa was delighted when some old friends from Connecticut, the Culvers, came to live near us. There was a big family of them, some already grownup and married, so they opened two homesteads. By 1810, several families had settled within five miles of us and that formed a tiny village. One man stocked a little store in the entry room of his house.

My sister Ruth and her twin, Sarah, were born when I was six but Sarah didn't live long. Two years later, Mama bore two more twin girls and called them Mary and Molly. Neither of them lived to learn to walk. The next year after Mary and Molly, William Josiah, whom we always called Will, was born.

When I was nine, the neighbors got together to build a school on land donated by Judge Dow who had been elected a town official. It was a log building and had one door and three windows with real glass. It was two miles from our place. We children went to school when weather allowed or when we were not needed at home to help with the work.

Sometimes a parson came to the village. He rode a brown horse that Papa said was really too old for such journeys. I remember the man's big black hat with a broad brim. I don't think he washed very often. He smelled funny. He stayed with one neighbor or another and held services in the school. He talked so long that it was hard for children to sit still except for the smallest ones who fell asleep on someone's lap.

Every spring, some of the Indians from Catharinestown walked to the Onondaga reservation to visit. They always brought back salt which came from natural seeps, there, and was evaporated in the sun. Most of us would trade for salt. The Indians would accept pelts or cloth or clothes. The one who usually came to our house was Telenemut. He loved Mama's yellow cake and would give her salt for some of that.

He slept on the floor by the fireplace if it was too cold to stay outside.

Telenemut did not like bunks. He helped Johnny make a bow and arrows and taught him to hunt. He spoke English very well because his wife had had a French grandfather from Canada who had all his children and grandchildren taught in a white man's school until they could read and write and speak English and learn arithmetic. We liked Telenemut.

Well, Suzanna, there is a lot more to tell you but this letter is long enough. More later —

Your Friend Susahannah

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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