Following is an article
that appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Kentucky Explorer.
Readers are welcome to submit articles.
Keeping Warm Was No Easy
Task For Early Americans
Down The Backroads
By Bob Smith - 2014
When the temperatures are hovering around zero on our thermometers,
I wonder how the peoples of the past survived in adverse winter
weather. The American Indians of the Northern Plains survived
terrible blizzards and bone brushing cold. Temperatures even
today drop to 40 to 50 degrees below zero in that area. Some
of the mountain men who trapped and hunted in the high plains
and the Rocky Mountains froze to death in that area in spite
of being adept at survival.
Few, if any, records survive of Indians freezing to death on
the plains or any other parts of America, but in all likelihood,
many did. The mountain men often lived among the Indians and
reported that the buffalo hide teepees or lodges were comfortable
and fairly easy to heat. Wood and dried buffalo dung were the
only fuels available to the Indians of the plains. The buffalo
chips were said to produce a very hot, intense flame.
The mammoth and mastodon hunters, who followed the great, hairy
elephant-like beasts across the land bridge of the Bering Strait
from Asia during the Ice Age, must have faced terrible weather
conditions as they made their way down across Alaska and Canada.
Some scientists tell us that these hunters and their families
butchered the great beasts where they were during the kill. They
made huts from the bones and hides of the slaughtered mastodons
and camped near their kills until the meat was consumed or processed.
Once the meat was gone and the rest of the game in the area was
becoming scarce, the hunters moved on south, trying to find more
game and additional shelter. Scientists believe that temperatures
of our own area were much colder than they are today.
These hunters and their families would eventually populate much
of North and South America, including this region. The migrations
would require thousands of years. Nomads they might be, these
people preferred to live in caves for a long time because the
temperatures inside the caves remained fairly constant. The caves
were much easier to heat than a lean-to and certain other types
of shelters. Not all areas had caves and the early hunters made
their camps in the rock shelters or overhanging cliffs. In woodland
areas, such as the Kentucky River watershed, rock shelters were
plentiful and the early Indian cultures utilized those shelters
frequently and the ample wood supply they found around them.
Archaeologists and anthropologists aren't exactly sure when the
mammoth and the mastodons disappeared or when their hunters came
out of the caves and began living in villages. For many years,
the scientific community told the world that the mammoth and
mastodon just somehow became extinct. For whatever reason, the
learned folks seem to have trouble accepting the fact that the
Native American probably hunted those great animals to extinction.
The chances are better than good that the Indian peoples began
living in villages soon after they took up farming and began
taking their fishing seriously. Fishing villages grew up along
the lakes and rivers and other cultures began flourishing where
maize, beans, pumpkins, and squash could be grown. The vegetable
harvest gave these early peoples a more reliable food supply
for the cold winters looming in their future. Pumpkins and squash
might have prevented starvation, but they didn't keep one warm
at night, when it was so cold that the poplar trees split.
Many different Indian cultures lived in Kentucky at one time
or another. They were hunters and fishermen, farmers and gatherers
all rolled into one. Some bands relied upon one means or the
other for procuring food more so than did other tribes or bands.
Over the centuries, a number of different types of housing evolved
among the Indian cultures. The more permanent or stone structures
were developed in the American Southwest, Central America, and
in South America where the Incas dwelled. The Anasazi built their
cliff houses all the way up into Colorado. The plains cultures
grew up around the horse and the Indians who followed the buffalo.
The plains people created the buffalo hide teepee or wicki-up.
The hides were stretched around lodge poles set in a conical
fashion. This dwelling could be assembled or torn down quickly
when it was desirable to move the village.
Farther to the east, lodges were constructed of mud and grass
or reeds and sometimes poles and willow bark. In the Northeast
the "long houses" became commonplace, and the Iroquois
Federation developed with these pole houses covered with sheets
of willow bark.
In the Southeast, including our own area, the permanent villages
or towns were more likely to feature grass houses with pole
frames. The grass or thatching was put on heavily to shut out
the cold, rain, and snow. During heavy rains these houses may
have leaked a bit, but not much. Some archaeologists believe
that with maintenance these grass houses may have lasted a century
or two. A fire was maintained inside at all times and generally
kept the house dry. A smoke hole or chimney was usually located
near the center of the roof to allow the smoke to escape freely
from the grass house. Obviously, large bonfires were not practical.
A single spark could burn the house down around the inhabitants.
A fire hole in the ground kept the fire confined and low. A glowing
bed of coals was preferred over a crackling blaze. The Indian
knew the value of dry, seasoned, wood and keeping flames and
smoke to a minimum. Columns of smoke would be a dead giveaway
to the location of the village for enemies that might be lurking
Indians of this area primarily fashioned their clothing from
the furs and animals they killed. Sewing was done with bone awls
and strands of buckskin. Leggings, breech clothes, and moccasins
were made from cured deer hides. Shirts of deer hide were sometimes
worn in the winter. Robes of buffalo hides were pulled tightly
about the shoulders to keep out the cold. Mountain men, who sometimes
lived among the Indians, claimed that the Indians protected themselves
from the cold by rubbing the grease from bear fat onto their
Indians were great believers of soup, especially in the winter.
Initially, the soup was cooked in hide containers by dropping
heated stones into the container of soup. Hickory nuts, walnuts,
roots and herbs were included in the soup along with whatever
small game animals could be found. Eventually, pottery containers
could also be used for cooking food. A shell ladle of hot soup
warmed the Indian peoples' insides on the coldest nights.
Bob Smith, Editor-Publisher of The Three Forks Tradition
newspaper, kindly shares a little part of Kentucky's history
with our readers each month. He is a native of Fleming-Neon and
would appreciate any historical information from that area. He
can be reached at The Three Forks Tradition,
P. O. Box 557, Beattyville, KY 41311; 606/464-2888.