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Of the Basic Necessities—Food, Clothing, and Shelter—Food Always Comes First

Of the Basic Necessities—Food, Clothing, and Shelter—Food Always Comes First

by Mary D. Ross, B.A., B.S.Ed, M.S.Ed

Some time ago, I gave a series of eight speeches which revealed life during various eras of the 19th century. The following are snippets from “Settler’s Fare to First Lady’s Feast:  Life in the Breadbasket of the Louisiana Purchase in the First Quarter of the Nineteenth Century, 1806-1826.” Among others, this presentation was under the auspices of the Missouri Humanities Council Speaking Bureau.


The time: November 1806

The place: Ste. Genevieve District of the Upper Louisiana territory near Mother Murphy’s settlement—which we now call Farmington.

The speaker: A typical settler’s wife—a Methodist of Scots-Irish descent by way of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By 1800, Americans outnumbered the French and Spanish—outnumbered everyone except the natives. No one knew how many Osage lived in the wilderness which was not yet named Missouri.


            This is my home, an eleven-by-fourteen-foot log cabin American style with horizontal logs. Eight people live here. A fine cabin it is with wood plank floor and four windows of real glass, not oiled buckskin like newcomers. Our walls are well chinked with cat and clay—river clay mixed with chopped straw and horsehair. We have all the furniture we need, a bedstead with truckle underneath, corn shuck mattresses, and feather beds to stand against the wall during the day. We eat in civilized fashion at a table with two benches. Our cupboard contains plate, bowl, cup, and spoon for every member of the family. We even possess three clothing chests and three chairs—one for the mister, one for the missus, and one for visitors.

            Just steps outside our front door an iron pump brings up the sweetest water anyone ever tasted. Our smoke house is filled to the rafters with hams, bacon, buffalo and venison jerky for pemmican. We have to dig our root cellar larger every year to hold the bounty of sweet potatoes, parsnips, onions, carrots, crocks of spiced peaches, pickles, jugs of maple syrup, and jars of conserve.

            Our chicken coop rests beside a fine new barn with sacks of oats and wheat piling up all the way to the roof. Our wheat is so fine we can sell our flour for $4.50 a barrel—fifty cents more than Ohio farmers. That’s why we’re the breadbasket of the Upper Louisiana Territory.

            We labor all day long, but owning land and having so much to give our children make every minute worthwhile. Our little girl Primrose brings joy every day. When I was fretting over summer’s heat souring the milk, she said she knew how to keep milk sweet. I said, “Well then, Miss Cowslip, how do you keep the milk from going sour?”

            She said, “Keep it in the cow.”

            Such moments make the drudgery worthwhile. Of course, the boys have excitement every day. Before sunup, my husband takes them hunting on the way to check the traps. They always come back with something—raccoons and squirrels in the winter, possum and rabbits in the spring, fish in the summer, deer and elk all year round. But fall is the best of all with ducks, geese, and turkey in their prime. Truly, the men have great burdens. In addition to all the other farm work, the men must catch and butcher wild animals, then dry the extra meat or salt it.

            I swear I don’t know what we’d do without salt. The natives know how much we need it. That’s why they busted up Nathan Boone’s Saltworks over to Boonville last year, but nothing is going to drive us out. Not ever!

            Harvest time is the best time for eating well in the wilderness. Not many buffalo are left, but we have no shortage of bear. Everyone knows that bear tallow makes the finest grease for dressing the hair or a salad either.

            As is right and proper, seasons of the year decide what we shall eat and when. Winter tests our faith and fortitude. Heaven knows I tire of squirrel and turnip stew. That reminds me of what little Primrose said when I asked her to name the four seasons. She piped right up with, “Salt, pepper, vinegar and rosemary—the kind you eat, not my sister.”

            Our daughters are my true blessing, even if they are touched by the sin of envy. Nothing vexes me more than when I have leftover mush from breakfast. All three know the recipe: one dipper of water and two handfuls of cornmeal for each person. But Tansy wants to use up the cornmeal because she’s ashamed of it. Those snooty French girls over to Ste. Genevieve say corn is not for people. Corn is for horses. I tell Tansy they’re wrong. Native tribes were the first to grow and eat corn, and they’re people. It’s oats that are for horses. Heaven forbid we get so poor we have to eat oatmeal.

            If anyone asks whether I’m sorry to have left the big city, I’ll tell you true. I miss ladies of my own age, but I would never go back. Our new freedom, peace of mind, and sense of pride give me boundless happiness. Nothing could replace owning our own farm and turning it into the home we can cherish and leave to our children.