Education on the frontier was erratic. Some children learned the alphabet and numbers from their mothers.
Others went to make-shift schools a few months a year. Here they learned basic reading and writing skills. Most of the life skills children needed they learned at home.
Susannah Brooks later recalled the education she received while living on the frontier in the 1790s:
Most of my education was obtained at home. Here I learned to card, spin, and weave. I know all about milking, making butter, and cheese, washing, ironing, and bleaching. In short…all the labors that pertained to early life in the west.
Children over the age of three were expected to help in the home. Young children tended the babies, calling for their mother if she was needed. Older children brought in firewood, gathered kindling, carried water inside, swept the floor, and ran errands.
By the time he was eight, Daniel Drake was riding on the plow horse to guide it while his father plowed behind him. Drake, who grew up on the frontier in the 1790s, also chopped wood and hauled it to the house. By the time he was 11, he had his own gun with which to hunt and scare away pests from the fields. At 13, he split rails and built fences and was given the sickle to swing at harvest.
Other children were given great responsibility at a young age. Ten-year-old Susan Blount went to keep house for a week when their neighbors traveled from home. She looked after twin girls and an elderly man. She cooked meals, cleaned, and got the girls ready for school each day.
Life wasn’t all work during this time. Children, much like those today, liked to play. They played tag, or blind man’s bluff. Boys pitched horseshoes, shot marbles, or whipped spinning tops. Girls had dolls. Stores sold dolls with cloth bodies and ceramic heads, feet, and hands. Others made do with cornhusk or rag dolls.
- An engraving of a school room with the teacher in front and the students sitting on benches with the title "Teacher and pupils." Library of Congress
- Portrait of young girl who was the sister of R.M.Boyers. This oil portrait was done at the same time as the wedding portraits of Robert and Elizabeth Boyers. TSM Collection, 83.31.
- An engraving of a building that is described as "the first school building erected in 1780." It is connected with Samuel Doak who taught in a log building. Tennessee State Museum
- A drawing of a young woman turning a spit with a piece of meat cooking over a fire. Very often it was the children's job to turn the spit so the meat would cook evenly on all sides. Tennessee State Museum
- Drawing showing two boys top whipping. Frontier children played top whipping by wrapping a line around a top and then pulling the string in order to make the top spin. This drawing was created by Edwin Tunis and published in his 1957 book Colonial Living. Tennessee State Museum Collection
Frontier >> Living on the Frontier >> Everyday Life >> Children's Lives