Life on the Frontier


            The life that Alexander and his family lived was a harsh one with many deprivations. Roads were almost nonexistent on the western side of the Appalachian mountains. Footnote There were no schools, medical care, or protection from the natives who lived in the area. At the age of twenty-four, Louis-Philippe, King of France from 1830 to 1848, and his brother traveled in the spring of 1797 to the Cumberland Gap area in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. He kept a dairy of his observations that provides a glimpse of the living conditions in the Appalachian Mountains. Louis-Philippe, Diary of my Travels in America (Delacorte 1977)(Cited as “LP”)

 

Louis-Philippe, King of France from 1830 to 1848


            The prince observed many things about the terrain, customs and people who had settled around Virginia and Kentucky where Alexander and his family lived. He “saw maples . . . and again enjoyed the sight of their huge branches bowing earthward.” He noted that the trees produced a very good sweetener. He found “wild grapevines . . . that must subtly alter our impression of the landscape . . . They always grow about another tree, twining to its upper limbs, whence tendrils droop to the ground. They produce very tart grapes, edible only after a frost.” LP at page 55.


            Concerning the mountains and the “road” he followed to Kentucky, he recorded:

 

The [eastern side] of the Alleghanys . . . are covered with oaks; one sees hardly any pines. The soil is dry and arid. It is no more than stony sand, not cultivable . . . Crossing the Alleghanys I saw evidence of Americans’ ignorance, or laziness, about mapping their roads. The one we followed crossed over the tallest of the rounded hills, leaving vales left and right where it would have been far easier to cut a road because with the land overgrown and no streams in the area, there would be no cliffs or swamps to hinder the work, just trees to fell, the same on the crests. The only way I could make sense of this road was by assuming that the first travelers who blazed a trial across the Alleghanys were attracted to high ground by their impatience to see the land to the west, and that sheer laziness led the road builders to follow that trial and spare themselves the trouble of cutting a new one. He stated that “the western slope of these mountains struck us as infinitely worse than the eastern. The soil is sandy and dry, the land flatter, and the springs rarer.” LP at page 50.


He was not impressed with many men he met in the area:

 

The indolence and churlishness of the workingmen around here are unparalleled. When a horse throws a shoe, you can cover twenty-five miles and call upon five or six farriers before you find one willing to work. If the least thing goes wrong with a saddle, or clothes, or a boot, you cannot find a soul to make repairs, and the other day a cobbler answered us, “Yes, that’s right, I’m a shoemaker, and sometimes I work, but I’m not in the mood right now.” LP at page 60 (emphasis supplied).

 

Almost all [the] emigrants come from North Carolina, a state so arid and unhealthy that people abandon all or part of it in search of good land and a more salubrious climate to the west. The recent peace with the Indians, promising colonists a spell of tranquility, attracted prodigious numbers of them, so many that shortly they will have nothing to fear from the Indians; on the contrary, they will pose and even greater danger to the Indians, the newcomers’ general desire being to strip the tribes of their lands, as has already been done to sever in the north. And these immigrants are far from admirable. With their Negroes they bring the obduracy and laziness of slave owners. These slaves will settle here and by normal increase maintain their ratio, and under such a system I doubt that the region will ever attain the level of culture and prosperity which it certainly favors otherwise. LP at pages 107-08.


On the food served:

 

The food . . . is nothing much; generally it amounts to no more than fried fatback and cornbread. Eggs have disappeared and the potatoes are finished. In the better places they make us little wheat cakes that are rather good. There is coffee everywhere, but bad, very weak. The sugar is always muscovado, or unrefined maple sugar, which I like better. LP at page 60.


On the type and abundance of wild game, he commented:

 

Tonight we saw five wild turkeys. They are black and white. The negro at Mr. Armstrong’s where we are spending the night, killed a buck this morning and they served it at supper. There is plenty of game in this area, we see many common gray grouse and sometimes even a red one. A bluish dove is very common, and there are forest magpies, or rather hoopoes with red heads, white bellies, and slate gray wings and back. There are also winey-red cardinals and other completely scarlet. The birds here about sing very little, which deepens the melancholy of the forests; but now that the trees are green, we hear more of them. The woods are quite beautiful. The oaks tower to an extraordinary height; some are enormous around the trunk. LP at page 59-60.


The prince was shocked about the conditions for traveling in the area:

 

We finished our descent from the Cumberland mountains and entered the valley formed by that river. We found marshy terrain covered with tall trees and a species of rushes that grow ten or twelve feet tall with roots (usually as long as the stem) that are the bamboo we home make walking stick of. The americans call this rush cane. It grows very thickly, and usually buffalo and bears live within the stands. The roads through this cane are terrible. They are swampy; the sun cannot penetrate. They never dry; and with the continual passage of horses and carriages they deteriorate day by day. The land is not as level as might be expected. The traveler goes up hill and down hill almost constantly. LP at pages 106-07.


Thus, the life lived by Alexander and his family was not the romantic one presented in a Hollywood movie or television show.

 

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