American history is filled with survivalists. The first settlers in Plymouth can be seen as a group of survivalists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to find their retreat. Likewise, those who participated in the westward expansion of our country, moving west to open up and settle new lands, were all survivalists. They may not have thought of themselves that way, but their lives showed it. Each and every one of them needed to be aware of what it took to survive, every time they left town.
It didn’t matter if one was homesteading a farm, building a town or starting a cattle ranch, survival in the “Wild West” was the name of the game. Ultimately, everyone in that first generation of settlers had to know how to survive and use those skills on a daily basis. Those who came along behind had it easier, but that first generation had to depend on their survival skills — or they would not last.
While some of those skills may seem very commonplace to us, others are not. Each of them were trying to survive, and they often did things that helped each other out. Take property, for example. If you were traveling and needed to get out of the weather, it was considered normal to use another man’s cabin for shelter if he wasn’t home. But if you burned his firewood, you would go cut wood to replace it. Likewise for any other resources that you used. Good people appreciated the help and would never take advantage of another.
Here are a number of interesting tips I’ve found from my studies of the Old West, which are survival tips for us, but were just part of their day-to-day life.
1. Never Leave Home Without Your Saddlebag
No one ever rode out of town without having a saddlebag. The saddlebag was the frontiersman’s emergency survival kit. It contained a number of essential items, such as a tinder box for starting fires, some food, cordage (usually leather) and some spare ammunition. With it and the knowledge they had, one could survive any number of calamities.
They also carried a small blanket roll behind their saddle seat, on the skirt of the saddle. This would consist of one blanket and a rain slicker. That would have to be enough shelter to keep them dry in warmer weather. In the winter, if they had a spare coat, that would be added to the roll.
Cowboys and others who traveled a lot would often have a larger blanket roll as well, which was kept in the chuck wagon while on trail drives. That roll usually contained all of their possessions — mostly some extra clothing — but often a couple of books and a photo of someone special would find its way into that roll as well.
2. Share Stories
Whether gathered around a campfire or sitting in a tavern, cowboys and others would share stories of places they had been and things they had seen. These were more than just bragging about their accomplishments; they were a way of passing on information. Many lessons about surviving a host of situations could be learned just by listening.
Those stories were also a way of telling others about the countryside. They developed a keen eye for the trail and many would know an incredible amount of detail about trails they had never traveled. That would include information about good campsites, watering holes, springs and even places that were prone to flooding in the rain. Sharing that information with others was a good way of helping each other out — so that they all could all survive.
3. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Being aware of what’s going on around you is essential in any survival situation. While Indian attacks may not have been as commonplace as the movies make them out to be, they did happen. Often, the only warning you would get would be a stirring in the grass or a bird flying up out of cover. If you weren’t aware of these details, you would be caught unawares.
One had to keep a constant eye out for weather and wild animals, as well. There are places where the weather can change rapidly, such as the front range of the Rocky Mountains. It’s possible to go from sunny skies to full-blown storm in less than an hour, simply because you can’t see the clouds coming over the mountains. With that short of lead time, you could be trapped if you aren’t keeping an eye out for incoming weather.
4. Stockpile Constantly
We tend to think of stockpiling as a one-time event, which we do as part of our preparing to survive a disaster. But our ancestors had a much different view of stockpiling. To them, it was a way of life. They didn’t just stockpile and then buy food to eat for that week; they ate from their stockpile and constantly replenished it. They had to, so that they would have enough to get them through the winter months.
This wasn’t limited to food, either. Firewood was harvested whenever the chance presented itself. Often, it was activities like harvesting firewood that would fill the slack days between planting and harvest time. Every day had its tasks, and many of those were associated with making sure there was enough to make it through the lean times.
Even while traveling, one would stockpile. Travelers kept their eyes open for good tinder and would gather it when they could, to keep their tinderbox full. Hunting wasn’t usually undertaken as a separate activity, but rather whenever one was traveling through the country he would keep his eyes open for game. If he happened to bag a deer or antelope on the trail home, it would add to the larder.
5. Always Be Armed
The West was a dangerous place. When one was outside of town, there were countless things that could kill you in an instant. So it was necessary to be ready to defend yourself. Mountain lions and bears weren’t afraid to attack a man if they had the chance. And some Indian tribes were almost constantly on the warpath. Even the horse and cattle they worked with were dangerous.
Many of the men who settled the West were veterans of the Civil War, so they were no stranger to firearms or the type to shrink from danger. Rather, they met danger head-on, whether it was from marauding Indians or from a forest fire. A gun was just a tool used to help protect oneself.
In town, people rarely wore sidearms or carried a rifle. Many towns enacted laws that required visitors hanging up their gun belts when they came into town. While the guns were necessary in the mountains and prairies, sidearms could cause problems in town. Asking people to lay down their guns while in town was seen as a way of avoiding any potential problems. However, if they didn’t want to lay them down, they were always welcome to leave.
6. Community Can Save You
Communities grew out of the need to survive. Mankind realized early on that gathering together gave them the ability to help each other survive. While there were those in the Old West who were loners, many wanted the company of others around, as well as the security of being able to depend on them in the midst of a problem.
By working together in a community, the westerners leaned that they could make their survival tasks easier. One could concentrate on specific needs, in the knowledge that others would be taking care of different needs. They would share with each other, either through bartering, sharing or outright selling.
7. Help Each Other Out
Living in hardship, the people of the West were quick to help each other out. When a family was in need, others would gather together to assist. It didn’t matter if it was the loss of a family member or the need to raise a barn; the community was there to help.
This extended to all walks of life. A man drifting through could always count on a meal and a bed, even if the bed was nothing more than the hayloft. Travelers would often pay for this kindness by doing some chores around the homestead, but that was not necessarily expected of them. Those who did were doing so voluntarily.
In this, the Old West was somewhat different from the modern prepping movement. We tend to think of just taking care of our families, and no more. There is good reason for that, as there is no way that a family can stockpile enough to take care of their whole neighborhood. But at the same time, a day may come where we need to extend a hand to those who haven’t prepared. In doing so, we will be following in the footsteps of those who settled the land before us.
What do you think? Could we learn from the Old West? Share your thoughts in the section below: