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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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