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Look To Area Settlers For Inspiration

With real estate prices beyond any rational means of explanation — here in Chautauqua County and elsewhere — I’ve had some fun reading about the very first pioneer settlers in Chautauqua County. I’m not a big fan of how the Native Americans were treated, but it’s interesting to see how early Americans approached living on a plot of land they sometimes paid no more than twenty-five cents for, according to a historical piece posted on the internet by the McClurg Museum called “The First Frontier.”

While a few pioneers had trickled in earlier, the 1840’s saw an increase in settlers who cleared their plot of land in the woods in what is now Chautauqua County and built a one-room cabin. The living wasn’t easy. Winters were cold, food staples were hard to come by, and sometimes children were victims of bear or wolf attacks. An excerpt from “History Of Chautauqua County, New York and Its People:”

“The pioneers were as poor a class of men…Many of them got possession of their lands by paying mere nominal sums; in some instances not over twenty-five cents. There are now in Chautauqua many families whose last dollar was spent when they arrived at their locations in the forest, erected their log cabins, and supplied themselves some scanty stores of provisions. They made long journeys on foot, through wilderness paths, and primitive roads, returning with a peck of meal, perhaps a bag of flour, and sometimes with but a few potatoes, for the sustenance of themselves and families.”

I like to imagine the native trees in those years, which were so numerous, early American settlers recorded that there was one big giant forest of 100-foot virgin trees (and taller) from the east coast of America all the way west. Much of North America was once blanketed in forests. Today less than 10% of those forests remain. That’s what our leaders have always called progress.

The trees were a menace for our settlers, but also a blessing. History records thirteen prominent species in the area–a few we gush over today, including black walnut, black cherry, elm and chestnut. But the undergrowth was covered with wild grape vines, entwined with sassafras and spice bush, so the land was of no value until it was cleared. And most pioneers’ yards were a mess of tree stumps and a jumble of tree debris and burnt or cut wood.

Deer were abundant, which won’t shock anyone today, especially those with flowers in their garden beds. But so was trout in small streams, and other fish and wild game.

Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the love of taverns in America. It seems all you had to do was build a tavern back in the day and the people would come. In fact, after some early settlers by the name of Colonel McMahon and Mr. McHenry opened a tavern here, “settlers came in rapidly.”

The most interesting story was that of Zattu Cushing, a ship builder from Massachusetts, and his family, who braved a ferocious storm to land in Chautauqua County, a fate many of us can identify with. Here’s a recollection that brings their peril to the fore. It appears two oxen were pulling them on two sleds over the ice on Lake Erie as they made their way one February day:

“It seemed as though their lives would end at any moment. The wind in the lake was blowing a steady twenty knots and gusting more often at two or three times that speed. The snow wasn’t falling, it was slamming into them. His hands, feet and face were frozen… He no longer hurt. He was heavy with numbness and he knew if they didn’t seek shelter and warmth soon, they would lose their fingers and toes.”

Can you imagine putting your wife and children through such an ordeal? Cushing kept falling off the sled in an effort to steer the oxen, who were encased in ice and badly needed rest and shelter. The new settler was doubting himself, but they surely would have died if they’d stopped. In the end, it was a Chautauqua resident who saved them. Cushing kept sounding a dinner bell from his sled, and a resident responded by sounding his own bell, guiding Cushing to shore.

We’re still the county of good neighbors. That hasn’t changed.

Like a lot of people before us, we’re not guaranteed an easy life in the era where our own lives fall. But as long as we keep ringing the dinner bell for one another, we’ll be okay. It may sound a little sophomoric, but it’s the only thing that’s ever gotten people through.

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