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Winter Survival Skills That Kept The Pioneers Alive

Winter Survival Skills That Kept The Pioneers Alive

Artist: George Henry Durrie

 

If you live in certain parts of North America, then you know all too well how cold and long a winter can be. In bad years, they can last from November through April. When ice is several inches thick on ground that hasn’t been salted, when the wind whips so hard it pulls young trees out of the ground, and when you finally have to venture outside to go to the grocery store a few blocks away, it can seem like a dangerous trip.

Have you ever stopped and wondered how the pioneers survived? There was no central heating, no supermarkets, no water heaters to help warm up frozen fingers.

Our ancestors were certainly tough, no doubt about it, but we would be wise to pay attention and learn a few of their survival skills. Here are a few:

Food Preparation And Storage

Knowing that winters could be long and harsh, pioneers spent a great deal of the summer months preparing. A lack of preparation usually meant death by starvation, so they took these chores seriously.

Almost all pioneers had what we call a cellar or a root cellar. This was a room dug underground that would protect their stored food from freezing and guard it from marauding animals.

Root vegetables were a favorite because they keep for a long period of time without spoiling and without any special preparation beforehand. This made things like carrots, beets, sweet potatoes,  parsnips, radishes, rutabagas, regular old potatoes and turnips valuable crops.

Other crops that keep well without canning are corn, onions, garlic, squash, cabbage, cauliflower, pears, oranges, cucumbers, pumpkins and apples. Some fruits and berries were dried, but others, like apples, keep remarkably well when placed in a cool, dark place.

Canning was an invaluable tool to store food for winter consumption. This was the common method of storing foods that went bad fairly quickly, such as berries, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes and artichokes.

Meat also was dried and salted to preserve it for the winter. A family could slaughter one of their livestock animals, eat what they could for a day, and then pack the remainder in large barrels, stacking it in layers and then covering them with salt and brown sugar, before sealing the barrel.

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Of course, meat killed during the winter simply could be kept frozen outside, as long as one was careful to keep it out of reach from the local wildlife.

Staying Warm

A full belly is great, but if you are stuck outside in subzero temps, it won’t be enough to keep you alive!

Winter Survival Skills That Kept The Pioneers Alive Most pioneers lived in cabins made from logs. These can be quite insulating when the holes and cracks are properly filled with mud, grass or cloth, but in sub-zero (Fahrenheit) weather, one will still need a good fire.

This means lots of back-breaking hours cutting and storing firewood. Imagine trying to guess how much wood you are going to need for one winter season? Of course, if you saw you were running low, you always could head out to the woods and start cutting, but in freezing temperatures, it would be hard and exhausting work! Better to stock up when the weather was good and the wood softer

During the winter months, fires were rarely allowed to die. However, if a warm spell was followed by a super cold snap, chances are you better be able to find your flint and steel to start another fire. Since matches were not even common until about 1900, if you were without flint and steel, you would have to hoof it to a neighbor’s house to “borrow” some hot coals.

Last, but not least, clothing. The early Americans wore clothes they had made themselves, usually from cotton they had raised or wool off of their sheep. A few men wore pants made of buckskin, but most wore outer clothes made from cotton. However, winter months required a bit of extra warmth, usually in the way of woolen (and scratchy) “long Johns.”

Trapping and hunting skills provided meat, so rifles or shotguns were very common. Some pioneers used simple traps to capture smaller game (rabbits or game birds).

However, for those who could manage it, livestock was invaluable. Pigs could be sold, traded or simply killed for meat. Cows also could provide both meat and milk. Goats were not as common, but in a pinch a goat will eat almost anything and it, too, provides milk and meat. Chickens have been kept for ages as a means of eggs and meat. Of course, these animals needed to be fed and protected, so during harsh winter months, if you couldn’t feed them, you ended up eating them.

First-Aid And Folk Remedies

Doctors also were few and far between. Many people learned common first-aid remedies and folk remedies, and they kept a variety of healing herbs on hand. Women, especially, shared this information with each other and often helped each other out during the difficulties of childbirth. If your child had a fever in a blizzard, you couldn’t call the doctor and you couldn’t just pop down to the local drug store. Pioneers relied on their own herbal remedies.

Since log cabins had few windows, lanterns and candles were the main source of light on dark days and long winter nights. Candles were commonly made from beeswax, with cotton wicks during the summer. Although kerosene could be bought for lamp fuel, its smoky blackness — and expense — made it unpopular. Many pioneers used fat from their animals for soap and for lamps.

How did pioneers prevent cabin fever after living for months in a 12X16 log cabin with who-knows-how-many people? Families would read out loud, make up stories, or recount family history. The sewing of clothes and the repair of farm tools would have taken some time, and games such as checkers helped to pass the time. With a bit of fortune, a family member even would have had a musical instrument to help fill the hours with a bit of song.

Although I really enjoy learning the old-fashioned ways of doing things, I’m not at all certain I could have survived during pioneer times. What about you? Do you think you could have survived during those times?

Share your thoughts and tips in the section below:

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8 comments

  1. Winter is tough, no matter what! I grew up on a ranch in the Colorado high country, my Grandparents homesteaded there . I heard all the stories of winter and was involved in winter prepping. I appreciate what I learned , more all the time.
    Now I plow snow for CDOT on I 70 in the Colorado high country. Where I grew up the saying was “We have two seasons the 4th of July and winter. Now the saying is ” We have winter and 3 months of poor skiing. So much for global warming!!!
    Still a good idea to have winter skills and share them with each other. Never know when you will learn something different !!!

    • I am living this lifestyle right now! It is possible, but not very fun. My family is living in a small cabin for a year, while we build our home this spring. A well- insulated cabin, a reliable woodstove, and an endless supply of firewood is key to staying warm in our sometimes sub zero temps. We fill our water jugs from an obliging mountain waterfall, and take showers and do laundry in town. We don’t rely on a garden for food yet, as we won’t put our garden in till spring. We are surrounded by people in similar situations where we live, in our Alaskan wilderness.

      • Chris, please feel free to respond I’ll provide my personal information. Myself and my family will be in the same situation as you. Also in Alaska. Perhaps I can get some pointers?

        Wolf (zer0) (zero) one @ gmail.com

        I’m looking for any advice i can get, and some info + Tips and tricks.
        What Part of AK are you in?

    • And there were only 2 colours, in winter…brown & grey unless it snowed.

  2. I grew up in a log house in Wyoming not far from the Colorado border. That was many years ago, when a trip to town was a major event. We heated with wood which chops easier in freeing weather. I remember Daddy and “the boss” working long days in the fall to haul in enough wood and cut it to stove length to get us through those long winters which often started in September and didn’t end until the end of May.

    We kids slept in an unheated second story under quilts so heavy we could hardly turn over. Mom heated rocks on the stove, wrapped them in rags and gave the to us to keep our feet warm. The roof wasn’t very good and more than one morning, we woke up to snow on the quilts!

    Besides salting meat, some of it was put in crocks under fat, some of it was dehydrated ala jerky and some of it was fresh as Daddy and “the boys” hunted rabbits and deer. Dried food like beans and peas were a large part of our winter diets because they kept very well.

    Those were the days, though! Today we are so insulated from everything uncomfortable that we are fat, weak and unhappy. Sunshine, fresh air, hard work, real food and sometimes limited calories makes a person healthy.

    • Sounds like you had a childhood like I dreamed of. My parents always wanted to move west from Pa. However, never made the move. I guess we were to poor to afford the gas it required.
      I remember sleeping under “a ton” of homemade quilts and sharing the bed with my kid brother. Waking up in the mornings with about a 1/2 inch of ice on the inside of the window as we only had heat in the downstairs.

    • Thanks for sharing your memories with us, Pat!

  3. I’m really, really curious what the author means by “pioneer”. I think 1700s era or before. My ancestors might be considered pioneers when they came west in the 1850s.

    But then she talks about canning, as if it was common in pioneer times. Newsflash: canning didn’t become common until at least 1890, probably more like 1910. That’s when the technology of a dependable, reusable canning jar was invented. Even then, pressure canning wasn’t common until 1940. Canning is a modern invention.

    Before canning, people used various methods of food preservation for fruit and vegetables. Drying was very common. Fermentation was the most commonly used. Fermentation was used extensively, but it isn’t even talked about now because it isn’t considered safe by modern standards. It uses the healthy bacteria to preserve the food. Now we are scared of any bacteria, yet it was the bacteria that kept the gut healthy. It amazes me how ill informed 99% of the population is today.

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