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Kentucky Early Manners and Customs

Kentucky History and Genealogy Network, Inc.


Early Manners and Customs

   The following sketch of early life is drawn from various sources but we are principally indebted to Doddridge Notes. The household offices were performed by the women and the men who cultivated the soil, hunted the game and brought in the meat, built the houses garrisoned the forts and freely exposed themselves to danger and privations in defence of the settlements. Most of the articles in common use were of domestic manufacture. There might have been incidentally a few things brought to the country for sale in a private way but there was no store for general supply.

Utensils of metal except offensive weapons were extremely rare and almost entirely unknown. The table furniture usually consisted of wooden vessels either turned or coopered. Iron forks, tin cups, etc. were articles of rare and delicate luxury. The food was of the most wholesome and nutritive kind. The richest meat,  the finest butter and best meal that ever delighted man’s palate were here eaten with a relish which health and labor only know. The hospitality of the people was profuse and proverbial.

The dress of the settlers was of primitive simplicity. The hunting shirt was worn universally. Many of these garments are still in use in the back settlements and their appearance is familiar to almost every reader in the west. Backwoods costume was peculiarly adapted to the pursuits and habits of the people and has been connected with so many thrilling passages of war and wild adventure that the Kentucky hunting shirt is famous throughout the world. The bunting shirt was usually made of linsey sometimes of coarse linen and a few of dressed deer skins. The bosom of this dress was sewed as a wallet to hold a piece of bread cakes, jerk tow for wiping the barrel of the rifle and any other necessary for the hunter or warrior. The belt which was always tied behind answered several purposes besides that of holding the dress together. In cold weather the mittens and sometimes the bullet bag occupied the front part of it. To the right side was suspended the tomahawk and to the left the scalping in its leathern sheath. The shirt and jacket were of the common fashion. A pair of drawers or breeches and leggings were the dress of the thighs and legs and a pair of moccasins answered for the feet much better than shoes.

They were made of dressed deer skin. They were generally made of a single piece with a gathering seam along the top of the foot and another from the bottom of heel without gathers as high as the ankle joint. Flaps were left on each to reach some distance up the leg. Hats were made of the native from the buffalo. Wool was frequently employed in the composition of cloth as was also bark of the wild nettle.

The forts in which the inhabitants took refuge from the fury of the savages consisted of cabins, blockhouses and stockades. A range of the former commonly formed at least one side of the fort. Divisions or partitions of logs separated the cabins from each other. The walls on the outside were ten or more feet high the slope of the roof being invariably inward. A few of these had puncheon floors but the greater part were earthen. The block houses were built at the angles of the fort. They projected two feet beyond the outer walls of the cabins and stockades. Their upper were about eighteen inches every way larger in dimensions than the under one leaving an opening at the commencement of the second story to prevent enemy from making a lodgment under their walls. A large folding gate made of thick slabs closed the fort on the side nearest the spring. The stockades cabins and blockhouse walls were furnished with ports at proper heights and distances. The entire extent of the outer wall was made bullet proof. The whole of work was made without the aid of a single nail or spike of iron which were not to be had.

The inhabitants generally married young. There was no distinction of rank and very little of fortune. The first impression of love generally resulted in marriage and a family establishment cost but a little labor and nothing else. A Kentucky wedding in early times was a very picturesque affair and was an event which excited the general attention of the whole community in which it occurred. The following description of the proceedings had on these occasions is taken almost verbatim from the account of one who had been present at many of these joyful assemblies. In the morning of the wedding day the groom and his attendants at the house of his father for the purpose of proceeding to the mansion of bride which it was desirable to reach by noon, the usual time of celebrating nuptials which ceremony must at all events take place before dinner. Let the reader imagine an assemblage of people without a store tailor or mantua maker within a hundred miles, an assemblage of horses without a blacksmith or saddler within a like distance. The gentlemen dressed in shoe packs moccasins, leather breeches, leggings, linsey hunting shirts, and all home-made. The ladies in linsey petticoats and linsey or linen bed gowns, coarse shoes stockings, handkerchiefs and buckskin gloves. If there were any buckles, rings, buttons or ruffles, they were relics of old times. The horses were caparisoned with old saddles, old bridles or halter and pack saddles with a bag or blanket thrown them a rope or string an often constituted the girth as a piece of leather.

The march in double file was often interrupted by the narrowness or obstructions of the horse path for roads there were none and these difficulties often increased by the jocularity and sometimes by the malice of neighbors felling trees and tying grape vines across the way. Sometimes an ambuscade formed by the way side and an unexpected discharge of several guns took place so as to cover the wedding company with smoke. Let the reader imagine the scene which followed this discharge as the sudden spring of the horses the of the girls and the chivalric bustle of their partners to save them from falling. Sometimes in spite of all that nothing could be done to prevent it and some were thrown the ground. If a wrist elbow or ankle happened to be strained it was tied with a handkerchief and little more was thought or said about it.

Another ceremony took place before the party reached the house of the bride after whisky was introduced which was at an early period. When the party had arrived within a mile of the house two young men would single out to for the bottle. The worse the path the better as obstacles afforded an obstacle for the greater display of intrepidity and horsemanship. The start was announced by an Indian yell, logs brush, muddy hollows, hills and glens were passed by the rival ponies. The bottle was always filled for the occasion for the first who reached the door was presented with the prize with which he returned in triumph to the company. The contents of the bottle were distributed among the company. The ceremony of the marriage preceded the dinner which was a backwoods feast of beef, pork, fowls, and sometimes venison and bear meat roasted and boiled with plenty of potatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. After dinner the dancing commenced and generally lasted till next morning. The pace of the dances were three and four handed reels or square sets and jigs.

About nine or ten o’clock a deputation of young ladies stole off the bride and put her to bed. This done a deputation of young men in like manner stole off the groom and placed him snugly by the side of his bride. The dance still continued and if seats happened to be scarce every young man when not engaged in the dance was obliged to offer his lap as a seat for one of the girls and the offer was sure to be accepted. In the midst of this hilarity the bride and were not forgotten. Pretty late in the night someone would remind the company that the new couple must stand in need of some refreshments. Some black betty, which was the name of the bottle, was called for and sent up stairs but black betty did not go alone. Sometimes as much bread, beef, pork, and cabbage was sent along with her as would afford a good meal for half a dozen hungry men. The young couples were compelled to eat and drink more or less whatever was offered them. The marriage being over the next thing in order was to settle the couple.

A spot was selected on a piece of land of one of the parents for Habitation. A day was appointed shortly after their marriage for the work of building the cabin. The fatigue party consisted of choppers business it was to fall the trees and cut them off at the proper length. A man with a team for hauling them to the place and arranging them properly at the sides and ends of the building, a carpenter if such has might be called whose business it was to search the woods for a proper tree for making for the roof. The tree for this purpose must be straight-grained and from to four feet in diameter. The boards were split four feet long with a large froe and as wide as the timber would allow. They were used without planing or shaving. Another division were employed in getting puncheons for the floor of  the cabin. This was done by splitting trees about eighteen inches in diameter and hewing the face of them with a broadaxe. They were half the length of  the floor they were intended to make. The materials being prepared the neighbors collected for the raising.

The roof and sometimes the floor were finished the same day and the house was raised. A third day was commonly spent by carpenters in leveling off the floor and making a clapboard door and table, the last was made of a split slab and supported by four round legs set in auger holes. Some three-legged stools were made in the same manner. Pins stuck in logs at the back of the house supported clapboard which served as shelves for the table furniture. A single fork placed with its lower end in a hole in the and the upper end fastened to a joist served for a bedstead by placing a pole in the fork with one end through a crack in the logs of the wall. This front was crossed by a shorter one within the fork with its outer end through a crack. From the front pole through a crack between the logs of the end of house the boards were placed which formed the bottom of the bed. A few around the wall for a display of the coats of the women and the hunting of the men and two small forks or bucks horns to a joist for the rifle and pouch completed the carpenter’s work.

The cabin being finished the ceremony of house-warming took place the young people were permitted to move into it. This was a dance of a night’s continuance made up of the relations of the bride and groom and neighbors. On the day following, the young people took possession of their mansion. At a house raising, log rollings, and harvest parlies,  everyone was expected to do his duty faithfully. A person who did not perform his share of labor on occasions was designated by the epithet of Lawrence or some other still more opprobrious and when it came to his turn to require the like aid his neighbors the idler soon felt his punishment in their refusal to attend to calls.

Although there was no legal compulsion to the performance of military duty yet every man of full age and size was expected to do his full share of service. If he did not He was hated out as a coward. Thefts were punished. With all their rudeness these people were hospitable and freely divided rough fare with a neighbor or stranger and would have been be offended at the offer of pay. In their settlements and forts they lived they worked they fought feasted or suffered together in cordial harmony. They were warm and in their friendships but bitter and revengeful in their resentments.

From  “Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky” 1878 edition


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