Early Pioneer Life in Benton County, Arkansas

Log cabins were the domiciles of the pioneer settlers, and the building of one was a notable event. The first two or three settlers had to erect their own, with the assistance of their families. Later, the pioneer, upon arrival into the country intended for his future operations, would stop and camp at the house of some former settler, and leaving his family there would, under the guidance of the former settler, set out and hunt and select a place to his liking, usually at a spring or some creek, and then return and move his family thereto. The next thing to be considered was a cabin in which to dwell. A day for its erection would be appointed, and the former settler would mount a steed and ride far and near to the habitations of the few scattered settlers and notify them when and where the “raising” was to take place. They would come from within a radii of fifteen to thirty miles, and on the day appointed the cabin would go up; meanwhile the newcomer would clear the spot for the new house, and live with his family in the “covered wagon.” Axes, with which to cut and prepare the logs, froes, with which to rive the clapboards, and augers, with which to bore holes for pins and to prepare the wooden hinges for the doors, were all the tools required. If there were enough helpers, the logs would be hewed, otherwise put up round. Ridge poles would be placed in order, and the clapboards placed thereon and weighted down with poles, and thus the cabin would be covered. A huge fireplace cribbed with logs at one end of the building, lined with stone and mud, and topped out with a stick and mud chimney, constituted the heating apparatus. The floor and door would be made of puncheons, and the door hung with wooder hinges. Thus the pioneer’s cabin would be completed. With the use of the ax and auger bedsteads were made of small poles in the corners of the building. In such humble houses the pioneers dwelt, wore plain apparel and fed on humble fare–lived comfortably, happily and well. They did not sport fine clothes, but had plenty of comfortable and durable linsey and jeans and homespun cotton, much better suited to their rough-and-tumble life.


The increase in the population of Benton County, since its settlement, was very gradual until since the year 1880. In 1860 it was 9,285; in 1870, 13,782; in 1880, 20,255, and now it is 31,000; an increase of 10,745 since 1880. This unusual increase is due mostly to the large influx of immigrants that have come into the county since the completion of the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad through it, and since the fact has been advertised that this region is unexcelled in the United States for the growing of all kinds of fruit. The population of Benton County, by race, for the dates here given, is as follows: For 1860, white, 8,905; negro, 385; Indians, 16. For 1870, white, 13,640; negro, 182; Indians, 9. For 1880, white, 20,167; negro, 128; Indians, 33. Of the present population the number belonging to each race cannot be accurately given. By a comparison of these figures it will be noticed that while the white population is rapidly increasing, that of the colored is decreasing, there being only one-third as many of the latter in 1880 as there were in 1860, and more than three times as many whites as there were then. It will also be noticed that the small Indian population doubled in the same period of time.

Wild Animals, Game, etc

The wild animals that originally inhabited the territory of Benton County were buffaloes, bears, wolves, wild cats, catamounts, panthers, elk, deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, etc. The buffaloes fled in advance of the approach of the white man, and but few lingered after his coming. Sylvanus Blackburn remembers having seen two soon after he settled, in 1832. Probably these were the last ones seen in the county, or, at least, among the last. Unlike other wild animals, they did not remain to annoy or be annoyed by the settlers, but sought new pastures farther toward the setting sun. The bears, not willing to abandon their native haunts, lingered and struggled with their exterminators. Many were killed by the “bear hunters,” who loved the dangerous sport. In the open country they have become extinct, but occasionally one is yet found in the mountain fastnesses. They were very annoying to the early settlers, and destroyed many of their hogs. The wolves were very numerous and troublesome, and destructive to sheep, pigs and young cattle. Sylvanus Blackburn relates that they killed nine of his sheep for two successive nights.

The bears would kill the largest hogs, and the wolves would generally take the pigs. The bears were hunted and killed for their meat and skins, and for their extermination. Many were killed simply to gratify the love of the adventure. The wolves being unfit for food, and their skins being of no value, were hunted and killed with a view of their extermination. They are not wholly exterminated, but are no longer troublesome. A few yet remained in the broken country distant from the settlements. The wild cats, catamounts and panthers, once very numerous and annoying, have become so nearly extinct as to cease to be troublesome. The elk became extinct many years ago. The deer were numerous but not annoying. They were hunted and killed for food. Their skins were also valuable. Josiah Blackburn, son of Sylvanus Blackburn, was a great hunter. He killed forty deer one winter on one “hunting snow.” The old gentleman, though not a professional hunter, sometimes killed as high as three deer per day. Many of the surviving old settlers say that they often went out and killed a deer before breakfast. Many a deer lost its life by approaching too near the “clearings” of the old settlers, who always had their trusty rifles near at hand. The other animals mentioned above, though not so numerous as they formerly were, still abound in considerable numbers.

Wild fowl, of various kinds, especially turkeys, were numerous. The turkeys, like the deer, were easy of acquisition, and were extensively used by the early settlers for food. The wild fowl still exist, but in very limited numbers. The varieties are those common to all parts of America in this latitude. In the hollow trees of the forests wild bees and their honey were found in great abundance by the early settlers. Had there been a market near at hand, the quantity of honey that could have been gathered from the forests would have been a considerable source of revenue, but, as it was, it was only gathered for home consumption. When a bee tree was found, the next thing to be done was to kill a deer and skin it. Then the deer skin, by true pioneer ingenuity, was formed, and tied up so as to form a sack that would hold about two bushels. Into this deer skin sack the honey would be placed and carried home, the sack hung up in a safe place, and left hanging until the honey was consumed. The reader may think this was a novel vessel in which to put the honey, and so it was. In those days the people were not close to market where they could purchase earthen and wooden vessels to suit their conveniences, and consequently were obliged to improvise many things that we would not think of using at the present day. Sylvanus Blackburn and other surviving pioneers can testify to the truth of the foregoing concerning the wild bees and their honey.

Hardships, Advantages, Disadvantages, etc

The first settlers labored under great inconvenience from the want of grist and saw-mills, post-offices, blacksmith and other mechanical shops, there being none within convenient distance. The pioneer, before entering the extreme frontier, would provide himself with a supply of meal, which would last for a short time after making his settlement, then a new supply had to be obtained. Then came the test of pioneer life–some corn had to be obtained by making a long trip to some point back from the frontier, or to some distant settler, who had “made” a crop and had a few surplus bushels. Mr. Sylvanus Blackburn, of War Eagle, and those that settled with him, went to Richland, about twenty-five miles distant, to get their corn. Many others had to go a greater distance. The corn being obtained the next thing to be done was to reduce it to meal, and in the absence of mills how was it to be done. The following is the method as related by the old settlers, who of necessity had to use it: First a large tree was felled, so as to leave a stump with a level surface, then a fire was kindled and kept burning on the center of the top of the stump, while the outer portion or rim thereof was kept wet to prevent its burning. In this way a hole would be burned into the stump, and when it was of sufficient depth to form a good bowl, the fire would be taken out and the hole cleaned, the coals adhering to the wood would be scraped out with some edged instrument, and a bowl thus formed sufficient to hold a quantity of corn. Then a pole with one end hinged to a forked post set near the stump, and extended horizontally over the stump, and a pedestal or maul suspended to the pole over the bowl in the stump, completed the pioneers’ grist-mill. The corn would then be placed in the bowl, and one or two persons (often the settler and his good wife) would take hold of the loose end of the pole or “sweep” and move it up and down, thus causing the pedestal to pound the corn into meal. Such were the pioneer grist-mills on which the corn was ground for the hardy settler, his wife and little children. The first few grindings would be considerably mixed with the black, burned wood of the stump, and the meal would be of a dark color. Bread or “hoe-cakes,” made of such meal, together with wild meat, of which they had a great abundance, and a little coffee and sugar–the two latter articles being very inconveniently obtained–usually constituted the diet of the pioneers for the first year and until they could raise a crop.


Their clothing consisted of what they brought with them, which they subsequently made out of cloth manufactured at home with the spinning wheel and loom; and while it was not the finest in quanty or of the most fashionable style, it was withal very comfortable. Until stores were opened on the frontier, it was very inconvenient for the settlers to obtain such goods as they could not manufacture. Another great inconvenience was the absence of post-offices. It took as many months, or more, as it now takes days for the news of the East to reach the settlers on the frontier. Many were the inconveniences, too numerous to mention here, which they were compelled to endure. Children should remember with gratitude the parents who endured these hardships and deprivations for their benefit.

Later Mills

The stump and pedestal mills were superseded by “horse mills,” and these by small water mills. Among the first of the latter kind erected was one put up by John E. Turner, on War Eagle Creek, about six miles below the present War Eagle Mills. This was probably in what is now Washington County. There is no mill there now. The first mills at War Eagle were put up in 1848. The early settlers in the western part of the county went to the Elk Mills, in Missouri, to get their grinding done. Subsequently the Hilterbrandt Mills were erected on Flint Creek, in the Indian Territory, about twelve miles southwest of the present village of Bloomfield. For many years these mills were patronized by the people of the western part of the county. Finally the Hico, the Bloomfield and other mills were erected within the county, and now it is well supplied with both saw and grist-mills. Several of the flouring mills are supplied with the latest improved machinery and apparatus for making the roller process flour. The most noted ones are mentioned in the history of the towns in which they are located.

Although the early settlers had to endure many hardships and privations, they certainly had many of the sweets of life along with the bitter. After having raised and gathered a crop, and thus secured a supply of breadstuffs and vegetables for their families, they lived on the fat of the land, which was then “flowing with milk and honey.” The milk was supplied by the cows that fed upon the luxuriant wild grasses, and the honey was procured from the hollow trees, where the busy little bees had stored it in great quantities, the latter costing nothing but the labor of securing it, and, perhaps, an occasional sting. Yes, with plenty of bread and vegetables, wild honey, venison, turkey and other wild game to suit their tastes, they could certainly prepare meals such as kings and potentates, in the midst of magnificent splendor, never dreamed of enjoying.

Pioneer Weddings

The courting of the young people, in the frontier settlements, was attended with some inconveniences. For the want of house room it was often difficult to visit and woo a young lady except in the presence of her parents. No costly parlors furnished with upholstered chairs, into which the young couple might retire to tell of their loves and expectations, then existed, and it was seldom that a young man had the pleasure of escorting his lady love to church or to Sunday-school. But there were “frolics” and dances on the puncheon floors, and in spite of the many inconveniences the young people enjoyed themselves. The climate being mild, there is no doubt but that the native forests were often utilized by young lovers for pleasure walks, and that on such occasions, underneath some beautiful shade tree, the question was asked and the answer given that forever bound their hearts together. A pioneer wedding could not compare, in point of elegance and finish, with one of these days, for there were lacking the paraphernalia of display, and the pomp and circumstances attendant, in this age, upon affairs of that character. In those days the wedding trousseau was not costly and elegant, but plain and simple. The bridal toilet was neither expensive, elaborate, fanciful or showy, but it was sensible, for it was sufficient and appropriate to the times, the manners and circumstances. Yet she was as well dressed as the groom with his coon-skin cap, his jeans coat, his linsey or cotton shirt, his jeans or coarse linen trousers, his feet in home tanned shoes, and without a glove to his hand or name. But for all the discomforts and disadvantages, the marriages were as fortunate and felicitous, and the weddings themselves as joyous, as any of those of modern times.

Early weddings were sometimes attended with some public amusement. A shooting match was sometimes common, and foot races and other athletic sports were frequently indulged in. At night a dance, in which all participated, was common. The wedding feast was well worthy the name. The champagne was good old whisky, manufactured at some local distillery, clear and pure as mountain dew. Then there were venison steaks and roasts, turkey and other wild meats, and other delicious edibles, sufficient to appease the appetites of the most fastidious guests. The particulars of the first marriage or marriages in Benton County cannot now be given, nor the names of the first parties married, unless they were some of those mentioned in connection with the War Eagle Settlement. If any public record of the early marriage was made, it has been lost or destroyed, as no such record can be found in the clerk’s office prior to the year 1860.

So spelled on the record.

The record was commenced in 1861, and records only three marriages for the year 1860, viz.: March 28, Thomas Wells and Miss Adaline Baker; August 30, James Riddle and Mrs. Emla* McWilliams; October 9, T. J. Holum, aged twenty-three years, and Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, aged forty-one years, all being solemnized by Rev. H. Powell. Sixty marriages are recorded for the year 1861, and six in January, 1862, and then no more are recorded until July, 1865, after which forty-two are recorded for that year. The war suspended marriages, or else they were not recorded. For subsequent years the record shows the number of marriages in the county to have taken place as follows: For 1866, 108; for 1870, 133; for 1880, 142; and for 1887, 243.

Back to: Benton County, Arkansas History

Source: History of Benton, Washington, Carroll, Madison, Crawford, Franklin, and Sebastian Counties, Arkansas. Chicago, IL, USA: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1889.

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