To learn the history and traditions of the earliest Kentucky settlers, we need to look at their lives in the states from which they came. Today, weÂ’ll take a look back to Virginia, as most of the tools, houses, traditions and dress came with them into Kentucky. This series will be interspersed with other tips.
When many people came into Virginia from the Â“old countryÂ” they were penniless. They had to serve a term of labor known as being indentured servants, bond servants or redemptioners. Most of them ended up in Virginia because the need for workers there was greater. Some of course, came against their will; but when they reached the Virginia shores, they had to sign or put their Â“xÂ” on a standard agreement which bound them for a stated number of years, normally 4-5. The man paying their the passage was known as the owner and demanded this servitude in return for his payment of up to several hundred dollars. This covered not only their passage but food and clothing. They were normally provided with a suit of clothes and some primitive tools. If they were lucky and the owner was generous, they might receive some corn and maybe up to 50 acres of land for them to work. Many were promised land, but never received it at the end of their indentureship. These were likely to head off for the Â“far frontierÂ” where they could obtain much more than 50 acres.
These white immigrants were as completely a slave as their black co-workers while serving off their indentureship. They were treated the same Â– the same whippings, long hours, hard work and neglect Â– or the same fair treatment. Those treated harshly attempted to run away, but if caught, their punishment was severe, including often having an iron collar placed around their neck. Those lucky enough to escape attempted to blend in with the other free whites and blacks.
An interesting aside is that sometimes, those white men arriving as free men Â– i.e. paying their own passage, sometimes willingly bound themselves out. They were in a strange land, many times with no family or friends, and thought this would be a way to Â“learn the lay of the land.Â” They were looking for on the job experience, a security blanket of having someone else responsible for them until they could find where they wanted to settle and put down roots.
When the indentured white slave had served out his indentureship, he began in earnest looking for his own land. If he was still short of money, he might have to work a few more years as what we would call a hired hand. If his owner was a decent sort, he might give him a few things to get started with Â– nails, tools. The man usually ended up in what was called the back country, land that was still totally wooded and unimproved; the good, rich land had already been claimed by the wealthier. A makeshift shelter was erected on what acreage he could afford and crops put out as soon as the land was cleared. Sometimes he was forced to plant his crops right in the timber and fight the undergrowth difficulties until he had the time to clean out the stumps. Most began by growing tobacco as this was the crop that brought in the money.
As he found time, the farmer tried to build the family a better home Â– a little cottage in the woods. Most look liked the homes of the old world Â– thatched roofs, clapboards (called weatherboards in the south). If he added windows, they were tiny and covered with shutters to protect somewhat against the Indian attacks. The home normally only had one room which served all the needs of bedroom and living quarters. The floor could be earth or bricks. The door was large and thick; there was a fireplace at one end used for heating and cooking.
The well-to-do farmer had plantations. You will see the term plantations in Kentucky after the Virginians began settlement here, but it usually was not the plantation that was seen in Virginia. Each plantation tried to locate in an area where it had its own wharf so that the ships could come right up beside the land to pick up the tobacco. The house was called the Â“manorÂ” and was brick. These were just fancier houses with larger rooms and likely many fireplaces. The furniture was imported if the owner were wealthy enough, if not, they were simple homemade pieces. They often did not compare to those settlers in the northern areas of the country where most of the furniture was imported at the earliest dates. Over the years, as the monies came in from the sale of tobacco, the furniture improved and the dress became finer. Separate kitchens were built, keeping the heat down in the house during those hot summer months. This tradition came into Kentucky as well. Some of the manor houses had a passageway between the kitchen and the main house. The kitchen had a large fireplace from which all the delicious meals were prepared by the slaves.
The main food staples, like Kentucky later, were corn, fish, pigs and beef (had to be eaten immediately as their were not good preservations used early). The early planter sometimes started his day off with a morning beer and then went out to do his work. At around 10 am he came back for breakfast and the main meal at night. Eggs were not widely enjoyed as the hens hadnÂ’t been thought of as a food source. The main meal was normally eaten between 4-5 p.m., visitors could then be entertained and a supper around 9 pm.
Making clothing was a full time occupation for the ladyfolk. They not only had to clothe their own family, but their white and black slaves. All the clothing at first came from the spinning wheel and needles of the women of the household. If they wanted wool, it had to be imported.
Illness created a special problem for the early settlers in Virginia. There were no physicians as such to be found easily. So it was the womenÂ’s job to nurse everyone back to health. Many trust the Indian medicine man more than the English trained physicians! But, many died. Infants had the least chance of survival and if you will note from the records of most states, the life expectancy was 40-50 years old. If they lived that long, many had second or third wives and husbands, the previous spouseÂ’s bodies just Â“gave out.Â” You will also find that if a man had lost his spouse, he tended to marry younger women each time; he normally had a house full of children and needed someone strong, healthy and willing to increase his number of off-spring! Those that died had to be buried immediately in handmade little coffins that rather outlined the shape of the body.
There were no dentists anywhere and when faced with tooth decay, the people just accepted it, never thinking for many years that anything could be done. When it started hurting too much to stand, any strong person was asked to pull the tooth out. Many times, the local blacksmith served well in this capacity. Maybe that is why no one smiled when the first cameras were invented or the local artist painted a portrait; it has been said that a majority of people were completely toothless by age 30!
Drinking was quite acceptable, but the southerner soon discarded the importation of English ales with corn liquor or hard cider. Women, as well as men, started the day with a drink and most homes had a brewing kettle somewhere in the house. Beer was made by mixing together all sorts of ingredients Â– milk, dry white wine, spices Â– all stirred into the fermented liquor.
The lady of the manor was regarded as the mistress of the house, and depending on how many servants she had, the less work she was responsible for. But, she was to be loving and kind to all the family, black and white and gave orders regarding the cooking, laundry and every day tasks. She encouraged her daughters to learn how to spin and weave. She, if a decent sort of lady, was respected by the slaves and spent gab sessions with them.
To be continued.
(c) 2 September 1999, Sandra K. Gorin, All Rights Reserved, firstname.lastname@example.org