Pennsylvania: Scotch-Irish Centre (3)

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER IX (3) Start of Section

Doddridge's account of the domestic crafts of his region is doubtless applicable to all the backwoods settlements. It depicts conditions that were once general outside of the coast settlements where supplies could be obtained from Europe. In colonial times society in such centres as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Richmond and Charleston was ornate and even luxurious among the well-to-do, but the people who tamed the wilderness and gave the nation its continental expansion lived in the style Doddridge describes, and these include the mass of the Scotch-Irish immigrants. Some extracts from his account will exhibit living conditions:

"The hominy block and hand mills were in use in most of our houses. The first was made of a large block of wood about three feet long, with an excavation burned in one end, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, so that the action of the pestle on the bottom threw the corn up the sides toward the top of it, from whence it continually fell down into the centre. In consequence of this movement, the whole mass of the grain was pretty equally subjected to the strokes of the pestle. In the fall of the year, while the Indian corn was soft, the block and pestle did very well for making meal for Johnny cake and mush, but were rather slow when the corn became hard. . . .

"A machine, still more simple than the mortar and pestle, was used for making meal, while the corn was too soft to be beaten. It was called a grater. This was a half circular piece of tin, perforated with a punch from the concave side, and nailed by its edges to a block of wood. The ears of corn were rubbed on the rough edges of the holes, while the meal fell through them on the board or block to which the grater was nailed, which being in a slanting direction, discharged the meal into a cloth or bowl placed for its reception. This to be sure was a slow way of making meal; but necessity has no law. . . .

"The hand mill was better than the mortar and grater. It was made of two circular stones, the lowest of which was called the bedstone, the upper one the runner. These were placed in a hoop; with a spout for discharging the meal. A staff was let into a hole in the upper surface of the runner near the outer edge, and its upper end through a hole in a board, fastened to a joist above, so that two persons could be employed in turning the mill at the same time. The grain was put into the opening in the runner by hand. . . .

"Our first water mills were of that description denominated tub mills. It consists of a perpendicular shaft, to the lower end of which an horizontal wheel of about four or five feet diameter is attached, the upper end passes through the bed stone and carries the runner after the manner of a trundle-head. These mills were built with very little expense, and many of them answered the purpose very well.

"Instead of bolting cloths, sifters were in general use. These were made of deerskin in a state of parchment, stretched over an hook and perforated with a hot wire. Our clothing was all of domestic manufacture. We had no other resource for clothing, and this, indeed, was a poor one. The crops of flax often failed, and the sheep were destroyed by the wolves. Linsey, which is made of flax and wool, the former the chain and the latter the filling, was the warmest and most substantial cloth we could make. Almost every house contained a loom, and almost every woman was a weaver.

"Every family tanned their own leather. The tan vat was a large trough sunk to the upper edge in the ground. A quantity of bark was easily obtained every spring, in clearing and fencing the land. This, after drying, was brought in and in wet days was shaved and pounded on a block of wood with an axe or mallet. Ashes were used in place of lime for taking off the hair. Bear's oil, hog's lard and tallow answered the place of fish oil. The leather, to be sure was coarse; but it was substantially good.

"Almost every family contained its own tailors and shoemakers. Those who could not make shoes, could make shoe packs. These like moccasons, were made of a single piece of leather, with the exception of a tongue piece on the top of the foot. This was about two inches broad, and circular at the lower end, to this the main piece of leather was sewed, with a gathering stitch. The seam behind was like that of a moccason. To the shoe pack a sole was sometimes added. The women did the tailor work. They could all cut out and make hunting shirts, leggins and drawers."

Such were the living conditions to which the Scotch-Irish subjected themselves as they poured into the country. They were not at all repelled by them, as they were inured to privation, and skilled in self-help through their Ulster training. The abundance of game and wild fruits made the basis of subsistence more ample and varied than they had been accustomed to in Ulster. That they took to backwoods life with relish is shown by the alacrity with which they moved forward wherever lands could be obtained for settlement. The rapid expansion of the United States from a coast strip to a continental area is largely a Scotch-Irish achievement.

The practices peculiar to them as a class belong to their religious system, which was a culture and a discipline whose effects upon American national character have been very marked. From old church records that have been preserved some idea may be obtained of the thoroughness with which religious instruction was diffused through Scotch-Irish settlements. Big Spring congregation, in the western part of Cumberland County, was organized not later than the spring of 1737, for in June of that year a minister was called. This congregation had a succession of pastors, either natives of Ulster or born of Ulster parents. One of these early pastors was the Rev. Samuel Wilson. He was born in 1754 in Letterkenny township, now included in Franklin County, was graduated from Princeton in 1782, licensed by Donegal Presbytery on October 17, 1786, and was installed pastor of the Big Spring Church, June 20, 1787. Some records of his pastorate have been preserved, and they give an instructive view of the workings of the system, the details showing that Ulster traditions were still vigorous after the lapse of over half a century. He used a form of address in the marriage ceremony which illustrates the plainness and directness of speech then still in vogue. After searching inquiry whether or not objections to the marriage existed Mr. Wilson proceeded to address the couple as follows:

"The design of marriage is, that fornication may be avoided, and as our race is more dignified than the lower creations, so then, our passions should be regulated by reason and religion. It is likewise intended for producing a legitimate offspring, and a seed for the church. There are duties incumbent upon those who enter this relation, some of them are equally binding upon both parties, some upon one party, some upon the other.

"First, it is equally binding upon you both to love each other's persons, to avoid freedom with all others which formerly might have been excusable, to keep each other's lawful secrets, fidelity to the marriage bed, and if God shall give you an offspring, it will be mutually binding upon you both, to consult their spiritual, as well as their temporal concerns.

"Secondly, it will be particularly binding upon you, Sir, who is to be the head of the family, to maintain the authority which God hath given you. In every society there must be a head, and in families, by divine authority, this is given to the man, but as woman was given to man for an helpmeet and a bosom companion, you are not to treat this woman in a tyrannical manner, much less as a slave, but to love and kindly entreat her, as becomes one so nearly allied to you.

"Lastly, it is incumbent upon you, Madam, who is to be the wife, to acknowledge the authority of him who is to be your husband, and for this, you have the example of Sarah, who is commended for calling Abraham, Lord. It seems to be your privilege in matters in which you and he cannot agree, that you advise with him, endeavoring in an easy way by persuasion to gain him to your side; but if you cannot in this way gain your point, it is fit and proper that you submit in matters in which conscience is not concerned. It will be your duty in a particular manner, to use good economy in regard to those things which may be placed in your hands. In a word, you are to be industrious in your place and station."

The congregation was regimented under the elders, John Carson, John Bell, William Lindsay, John McKeehan, David Ralston, Robert Patterson, Robert Lusk, Samuel M'Cormick, Hugh Laughlin and John Robinson. One of the elder's duties was to visit the members in his district and catechize them upon questions prepared by the minister, whose duties included not only the conduct of religious worship, but also the systematic instruction of the people; and the elders discharged among other functions, that of district examiners. Lists of questions used by the elders of Big Spring Church in 1789 have been preserved. Here is a specimen:

John Bell's District

1. What do you understand by creation? Is it a work peculiar to God?

2. How will you prove from Scripture and reason in opposition to Aristotle and others, that the world is not eternal?

3. How will you defend the Mosaic account, which asserts that the world has not existed 6,000 years, against ancient history, which tells us of Egyptian records for more than thirteen thousand years, and the Babylonians speak of things done four hundred and seventy thousand years before, and the Chinese tell of things still longer done?

The third chapter of the Confession of Faith also to be examined upon.

The elders did not use the same set of questions, although some questions appear in more than one paper, particularly the following:

What are those called who do not acknowledge divine revelation? What objections do they offer against Moses and his writings, and how are their arguments confuted?

Is the doctrine of the saints' perseverance founded on Scripture? If so, how will you prove it, and defend the doctrine against those who deny it?

What do you understand by the law of nature?

The extracts make a fair exhibit of the range of the questions. The papers were prepared by the pastor, and in view of the large size of parishes in those days it is to be presumed that the elders were coached by the pastor and made the medium of instruction supplementary to his pulpit discourses. It is plain that the questions assume a considerable degree of knowledge on the part of the people. In considering such records the historian feels that he is peering into the source of the extraordinary zeal for education displayed by the Scotch-Irish, which made them as a class superior in literacy and knowledge to the general run of American colonists.