Articles & Stories

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 nearby.
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 skins.
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.