Pioneer Life adds to Historical Understanding
By Kevin Geary, Curator of Education, Tri-Cities Historical Museum
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 had a significant impact on the settlement of Michigan. The canal reduced the time it took to cross the Appalachian Mountains which further encouraged those wanting to move west. In the decade between 1830 and 1840, Michigan’s population grew from approximately 30,000 people to approximately 212,000. With this rapid increase in settlement, the Michigan Territory applied for statehood in 1833. Due to a few political issues, including the disputed Michigan/Ohio border, statehood was not granted until January 26, 1837.
Early settlers to Michigan travelled in wagons, on horseback, on foot, or by a combination of those methods and they brought all they owned with them. They understood that what they did not have or what was left behind would have to be made once they arrived. Most of those who arrived after the completion of the canal were subsistence farmers. Their first priority would have been to clear enough trees in order to have materials with which to build a home. The house would serve as temporary shelter for both family members and their domesticated animals until more structures could be built. The cleared land could then serve as space to plant crops for food for the family.
Pioneers relied on their animals and took excellent care of them. Farm animals often served many purposes. For example, chickens and geese provided eggs and meat for eating and feathers for stuffing mattresses and pillows. Cows provided milk for drinking and from the milk, families made butter, cream, and cheese. Sheep provided meat and wool. Horses and oxen supplied hard labor and aided in transportation.
Settlers in Michigan, including Ottawa County, would quickly fall into the seasonal rhythm associated with farming in the 18th and 19th centuries. Springtime saw the need for the whole family to sew crops and plant the family’s vegetable garden. Throughout the summer, crops needed to be weeded and watered, nursing them towards the fall harvest. Autumn was an extremely busy time of year for the whole family. Crops needed to be gathered, stored, or preserved for winter use. Early settlers preserved food by salting, smoking, or utilizing the freezing temperatures of late fall and winter.
Wintertime, while not a season of rest, certainly allowed the settlers a bit of down time. Of course, animals needed tending year round, but with fewer outdoor chores needing attention, time could be spent making repairs, sharpening tools, and building needed household items like chairs, tables, and bedframes. Keeping the wood box full would be a priority as the fireplace was the primary source of heat, light, and cooking for the family.
While not all hunting occurred in winter months, much of it was done in cold weather. Food supplies could run low at this time of year, so the necessity for hunting increased. The lack of foliage and the white snow helped animals to stand out better for hunters to spot. Many animals develop layers of fat and thicker pelts in cold weather, which added to their desirability. Meat could be preserved in the freezing temperatures outside.
Winter was also the time when attention could be given to projects like carding wool, spinning yarn, stitching quilts, and knitting scarves and mittens. It would not have been uncommon for several members of the family to have spent time with a pair of carding paddles, whiling away the hours of a cold, snowy day.
Winter months provided the opportunity for children to get schooling, too. While the earliest settlers to Michigan would not have had a school in their community, children could benefit from whatever learning their parents had received, even if it was rudimentary reading, writing, and arithmetic. As more settlers arrived and communities built schools, local children could attend and receive a more formal education. Schoolhouses were full in cold weather months; girls often could attend school for longer periods of time as boys were often kept working through late fall harvests.
As winter turned to spring, maple tree sap began running. Settlers could begin gathering the sap from the trees, which was then boiled in large, iron kettles until it turned into maple syrup. From the syrup, brown maple sugar, maple butter or cream, and maple candy was made.
The early pioneers and settlers in Michigan and Ottawa County laid the foundation for the lives we live in the state today. I encourage all of you to visit the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and see our Pioneer Cabin and Barn exhibits to learn more about this period in our history. The museum also offers displays on a wide array of topics, from the geological history of Michigan to the Victorian Era, and other special exhibits. These are always free to visit and open to the public, Tuesdays-Fridays 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. For more information, please check out the museum’s web site at