The Frontier Garden ©
By Darrel Sparkman
Stories of westward expansion are often fraught with inaccuracies. Media and writers go with the exciting parts. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Or, “don’t waste time with boring life, just write the important stuff.” So, we get war and conflict, cattle drives, gunfights, bank robberies and the like. Tension. Conflict. There was plenty of that going on. But, there was another area of adventure seldom mentioned.
What about the settler and his wife braving the wilds for a promise of owning their own land—beholden to no one—and whose existence was on occasion protected by the exciting souls we write about and see in movies.
I want to focus on gardening. What? I know. BORING! I can visualize editors throwing paper in the air, gathering them together and then setting it all on fire. Or me, if they could catch me.
But, you know? People eat. Trail drovers often survived on beef and beans. I’ve read they’d ride miles out of their way for a little variety. Vegetables, air-tight (canned) peaches, dried apples, or bear-sign (doughnuts) come to mind. A good cabbage stew? Yuck! I’d have to be real hungry.
If the settler, or ranch owner, wanted to plant a garden for culinary variety, where did they get their seed? How did they know when to plant various crops? How do they care for them? Many of these settlers just pulled foot and left their settled homes in the east for the siren call of the west. They weren’t always farmers by nature or training. They were like people today that say, “if the world goes to pot, I’ll just grow my own food.”
Uh, no you won’t. Other than kicking the dirt with their feet, how do they get started? All good questions to avoid sore toes. A good many in the western expansion died before they learned.
One of the main staples of the American Indian was the three sisters. And for good reason. Beans, maize (corn), and citronelle’s (squash, pumpkins). Some tribes grew these to supplement the meat they harvested. Especially since they’d last up to six months in storage. Add in nuts, berries and occasional fruit and their diet was well suited for their life style. Some were mixed together to make Stanica, Pemmican, or their own version of Trail Mix.
The problem? They worked at it year-round and it took a huge area to supply their needs. Many moved to keep up with migrating herds of animals. In some cases, ref (1), the Osage would plant their crops, tend them for a while and then leave to go on a buffalo hunt. I should note that I’m focused west of the Mississippi.
The fate of the Osage veggie crop was left to Mother Nature. I can imagine the beasties of the forest just loved that. They still do. When I walk away from my garden, I can see their beady little eyes staring at me from the fence row. And the trees. And peeking around the garage. And in the sky as their shadow crosses the land. Ahem.
As a side note—necessity is always the mother of invention. By 1829 some 3500 eastern Cherokee had already moved willingly to Arkansas from their lands east of the Mississippi. Add that number to the several thousand Osage and Delaware, you can see how that would deplete the supply of ready game. The Cherokee brought their farming skills with them. In a census done that year, they had 22,000 black cattle, 1300 slaves, 2000 spinning wheels, 700 looms, 31 grist mills, 10 sawmills, 8 cotton gins, 18 schools and one newspaper. (ref 1) They were getting it done.
A funny thing. This same type census collected in 1811 also reported 20,000 hogs. In 1829 none were reported. Clerical error? Dunno. Now we know where all those Arkansas razorbacks came from.
So, while some Native Americans often needed all that space to survive, what gave the interloping settlers a small advantage? Though playing catch-up with the Cherokee, what gave them a subtle advantage over the other tribes? Although most of this would happen west of the Cherokee lands, some should have stopped to take lessons.
Their advantage was the ability to survive on a comparatively small plot of land. Sometimes before they started a dwelling, like a log home, soddy, tent, or converting their wagon—they broke ground for a garden and brought out their precious seed.
What helped them with that? What else? Technology. Yes, even then.
Usually, at least one of the family could read. Women often had a better education than the men. Either way, the information was there for them if they could take advantage of it. There were versions of frontier Cliff Notes and How-To’s every step of the way.
Depending on when their journey started, they may have had a copy of HUSBANDRY AND RURAL AFFAIRS, printed in 1801, ref (2), by J. B. Bordley. Sitting next to the Bible, there might have been a copy of THE COTTAGE ECONOMY, printed in 1833 by William Cobbett, ref (3). Or, a little later THE KITCHEN GARDENERS, printed in 1847. The information was far reaching and accurate.
You could find information ranging from keeping the garden and small fields clean of weeds and pests, to advice for the young wife to not hang her crockery close to the door lest if fall and shatter when her husband slammed it.
Garden seed was a vital and protected commodity and hoarded by the settler. Growing it to harvest and saving seed for the next year was vital. They had to bring everything needed for survival with them. There were no guarantees of trading or buying if they happened upon a town. You can imagine the despair if they lost the contents of their wagon in a river, or other catastrophe. Seeds, plants and tools were their life.
Tending the garden, along with the homestead, was a full-time job. Once that ground was tilled, either by hoe or what nowadays we’d call a chisel plow, seeds were sown, sprouted, nurtured, cultivated and fertilized. When they harvested the crop, the plants were composted for working back into the soil as fertilizer and humus, along with any manure to be found. Many plants were double or triple cropped, like beans or shorter maturing cabbage, lettuce, or carrots and radishes. And the ever-ready staple—potatoes.
When you see scenes in movies of the men driving cattle over the ‘nesters’ gardens, don’t think nuisance and intimidation—thing starvation.
Settlers often had a few cows or oxen, maybe a horse or two. Extra animals could be butchered in the winter if needed for survival, but they’d rather supplement with wild meat or fowl if possible. Hunger always trumps everything and changes plans.
As with the Native Americans, survival for the settler was a full-time job. They did it by managing a small parcel of land with intensive labor. Of course, if they were successful—they grew. Successful operations tend to begat neighbors, and those grew into communities. If looked at closely, it’s a business model used by ‘off-the-grid’ folks and homesteaders today. Grow what you eat.
Fifty years ago my wife’s family operated a greenhouse and garden center. Most everything we sold, from produce to flowers—we grew. I can tell you, when you are looking at several acres of garden with nothing to keep you company but a sharp hoe and the baking sun, it’s not fun.
Everyone had a garden back then and we sold several thousand pounds of seed a season. Like all things, that changed. We still sell seed, but only a couple of hundred pounds. Competition? Nope. There aren’t many gardens left, or the desire to grow.
Is that a good thing? We can just go to the store and buy what we need? I hope so. If not, those old books are going to be hard to find.
In 1840 approximately 89% of the American people lived in rural areas of the country. These country folks had the skills and knowledge necessary to supply and/or make most of their food and clothes, tools and shelter, furniture and amusements. They raised crops for food and fodder, cared for livestock, used tools we never knew existed to do things we never knew needed doing. And sometimes, they wrote down their thoughts and knowledge and published them for others.
Those numbers have flipped. Since 1840 people have been leaving the farms and heading for the cities. According to the last census, there are about 81% of us living in urban areas. The skills and knowledge it took to be self-sufficient are gone. We have become more and more dependent on modern cities, just in time deliveries, and super stores. Our great grandparents did a wider variety of things before breakfast than we do all day long.
Next time we’ll see how the settlers and their native American peers spent their day.
Credit: Ruralskills.blogspot.com and D.B. Beau
Ref (1) Indians of The Ozark Plateau, by Elmo Ingrenthron
Ref (2) Husbandry and Rural Affairs Picture provided
Ref (3) The Cottage Economy Picture provided