CHAPTER VI. SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE WEST (1820-1830)
Arrived at the nearest point to his destination on the Ohio, the emigrant either cut out a road to his new home or pushed up some tributary of that river in a keel-boat. If he was one of the poorer classes, he became a squatter on the public lands, trusting to find in the profits of his farming the means of paying for his land. Not uncommonly, after clearing the land, he sold his improvements to the actual purchaser, under the customary usage or by pre-emption laws. [Footnote: Hall, Statistics of the West, 180; Kingdom, America, 56; Peck, New Guide for Emigrants to the West (1837), 119-132.] With the money thus secured he would purchase new land in a remoter area, and thus establish himself as an independent land-owner. Under the credit system [Footnote: Emerick, Credit and the Public Domain.] which existed at the opening of the period, the settler purchased his land in quantities of not less than one hundred and sixty acres at two dollars per acre, by a cash payment of fifty cents per acre and the rest in installments running over a period of four years; but by the new law of 1820 the settler was permitted to buy as small a tract as eighty acres from the government at a minimum price of a dollar and a quarter per acre, without credit. The price of labor in the towns along the Ohio, coupled with the low cost of provisions, made it possible for even a poor day-laborer from the East to accumulate the necessary amount to make his land-purchase. [Footnote: See, for example, Peck, New Guide for Emigrants to the West (1837), 107-134; Bradbury, Travels, 286.]
Having in this way settled down either as a squatter or as a land- owner, the pioneer proceeded to hew out a clearing in the midst of the forest. [Footnote: Kingdom, America, 10, 54, 63; Flint, Letters, 206; McMaster, United States, V., 152-155; Howells, Life in Ohio, 115.] Commonly he had selected his lands with reference to the value of the soil, as indicated by the character of the hardwoods, but this meant that the labor of clearing was the more severe in good soil. Under the sturdy strokes of his axe the light of day was let into the little circle of cleared ground. [Footnote: Hall, Statistics of the West, 98, 101, 145.] With the aid of his neighbors, called together under the social attractions of a "raising," with its inevitable accompaniment of whiskey and a "frolic," he erected his log-cabin. "America," wrote Birkbeck, "was bred in a cabin." [Footnote: Birkbeck, Notes on Journey, 94.]
Having secured a foothold, the settler next proceeded to "girdle" or "deaden" an additional forest area, preparatory to his farming operations. This consisted in cutting a ring through the bark around the lower portion of the trunk, to prevent the sap from rising. In a short time the withered branches were ready for burning, and in the midst of the stumps the first crop of corn and vegetables was planted. Often the settler did not even burn the girdled trees, but planted his crop under the dead foliage.
In regions nearer to the east, as in western New York, it was sometimes possible to repay a large portion of the cost of clearing by the sale of pot and pearl ashes extracted from the logs, which were brought together into huge piles for burning. [Footnote: Life of Thurlow Weed (Autobiography), I., ii.] This was accomplished by a "log-rolling," under the united efforts of the neighbors, as in the case of the "raising." More commonly in the west the logs were wasted by burning, except such as were split into rails, which, laid one above another, made the zig-zag "worm-fences" for the protection of the fields of the pioneer.
When a clearing was sold to a later comer, fifty or sixty dollars, in addition to the government price of land, was commonly charged for forty acres, enclosed and partly cleared. [Footnote: Kingdom, America, 10, 54.] It was estimated that the cost of a farm of three hundred and twenty acres at the edge of the prairie in Illinois, at this time, would be divided as follows: for one hundred and sixty acres of prairie, two hundred dollars; for fencing it into four forty-acre fields with rail-fences, one hundred and sixty dollars; for breaking it up with a plough, two dollars per acre, or three hundred and twenty dollars; eighty acres of timber land and eighty acres of pasture prairie, two hundred dollars. Thus, with cabins, stables, etc., it cost a little over a thousand dollars to secure an improved farm of three hundred and twenty acres. [Footnote: J.M. Peck, Guide for Emigrants (1831), 183-188; cf. Birkbeck (London, 1818), Letters, 45, 46, 69-73; S.H. Collins, Emigrant's Guide; Tanner (publisher), View of the Valley of the Miss. (1834), 232; J. Woods, Two Years' Residence, 146, 172.] But the mass of the early settlers were too poor to afford such an outlay, and were either squatters within a little clearing, or owners of eighty acres, which they hoped to increase by subsequent purchase. Since they worked with the labor of their own hands and that of their sons, the cash outlay was practically limited to the original cost of the lands and articles of husbandry. The cost of an Indiana farm of eighty acres of land, with two horses, two or three cows, a few hogs and sheep, and farming utensils, was estimated at about four hundred dollars.