A New Home

When arriving at the final destination of a Westward journey, it was usually a primary concern to build a house. Ocaissionally, and more frequently in later years, there was a building to go to which would be a family's new home. When this was not the case there were several choices for accomadation.

The log cabin is probably our most common notion of the Western home. Of course, in reality it was a phenomenon of the near West and West coast. The plains' home was more frequently an earthen structure. The framed house was a rarity up until 1860 and even after that was cause for remark. Of this group of writers, there is mention of log, sod, and framed houses.

The dugout was the easiest and quickest structure to build in as little as a few days. Because of these qualities, it was frequently the first structure to be built. A room was dug from the side of a hill and the opening closed in by wood, earth, or fabric, such as the wagon's cover. Drawbacks to this shelter were in permeability -- particularly to water, but also to mosquitos and other animals (Dick, 111).

The next step up from a dugout was a sod house, frequently called adobe. Jennie Wriston gives an account of such a building. Generally speaking, this building was created by stacking slices of prairie turf as though they were bricks. Roofing was wood or more sod. A sod roof was most unsatisfactory during rains due to its ability to hold water. If it held enough the roof could collapse, otherwise it merely leaked everywhere. This structure was much longer lasting than a dugout, lasting up to seven years.

A mudhouse was made of raw bricks: clay mixed with straw or grass, but unbaked. The walls were two to three feet thick, comfortable in hot and cold weather, and strong. They could be whitewashed.

A log house was constructed of large straight trees, stacked and then chinked with mud or twigs. There was usually a fireplace at one end which was made of sticks, grass, and mud. Roofs could be shingled, planked, or earthen. A dirt floor served at first and could later be easily replaced with a wooden surface. Eliza McAuley describes her first vision of a log house, what she calls a "California House."

The establishment of a residence in the West was a step by step procedure when the family stayed on the same property long enough. They built as much comfort as they could with what they could afford. Once the house was made, probably the family would set to making it into their home. Oddly, of the accounts used in this project, this facet of domesticating the frontier is seldom mentioned. These women hardly write of making and arranging their furniture, outfitting their linen chests, and the like. Perhaps this is because such writing went into letters to home rather than in diaries or memoirs, or perhaps the women were too busy making their homes to write of them. Probably there is little novelty in these activities. A house made of logs or dirt is odd and so worthy of note; deciding where to place your bed is an activity that was as much a part of New York as it was of North Dakota, and so it was not recorded. In any case, there is some, but little talk of furnishing the home.

"Saturday, September 18th, 1852. We started down the valley, passing a house on the way, which I must describe as it is the first California house we have seen. It is three logs high, about six feet long, and four wide, one tier or clapboard or shakes as they are called here, covering each side of the roof. Leaving this, and passing through a gate we soon came to another cabin of larger dimensions."

Eliza Ann McAuley

"Mon Aug 9 Got up before daylight and went to the old fort and laid by for the day. Found very good buildings, good rooms with good fireplace in them and furniture. Found one good large stove which we used to cook in. Found a good yard for our cattle. This fort, we hear, has been deserted about 3 years. We washed and cooked and had fine times in our houses. Weather warm and mosquitoes a plenty."

"we are building a small frame house"

Martha S. Read


"April 8th. We traveled yesterday 16 miles and camped on a vast prairie in Lafayette Co [Iowa] where nothing but land & sky were to be seen save one little log house. But to make up the absence of other interesting matter we found a wedding party assembled in the aforesaid 'log house.'"

Polly Lavinia Coon

"The houses, long distances apart in many instances, were frequently built of sod, and were called adobe. The sod was cut in regular shapes as desired and laid up as the wall of a stone house would be. The roof was usually framed with poles made of young cottonwood trees, or when available, of willow or alder. This was covered first with anything available, such as brush or coarse reeds from the river bank, and then with earth topped with sod." The sod was cut from the open prairie in the short-grass country where the roots of the buffalo grass are of such a fibrous nature that they penetrate the soil so compactly that the sod can scarcely be torn apart but must be cut. It was very durable; the buildings lasted for years, and were warm and comfortable during the long, hard winters. The inner walls of the better homes were washed with lime, when it could be obtained. This, however, necessitated a long trip to the nearest town, often taking a week to go and come with a good team of horses."

"The ranch, which was to be our temporary home, had much of interest in itself. The house was a long, low, one-storied building with rooms on end in a row. Just behind it stood what was called the "shanty" where the men of the ranch and cowmen lived." The main house was substantially built of logs with portholes in all sides, through which many shots had been fired at Indians in other days; bullet holes produced by the guns of the enemy besiegers were to be found in the outside logs. In the floor was a trap door opening into a cellar, out of which was an underground passage to a never-failing spring of water, and also one to a very large outdoor cellar in which vegetables were stored. It had been used many times as a fortified place during Indian raids in previous years."

Jennie Atcheson Wriston

"Another thing to relieve the monotony was the commencement of an addition to our log house, to consist of two rooms--a parlor and bedroom. They were to be framed, and joined to the log house on the north. We also had our kitchen chimney built and a small window put in, so that in April we moved our utensils into the new establishment. It stood about five feet from the main house and a roof extended across, making a shelter from sun and rain; a platform to pass over was also made. The "white folks" thought we had a "power of room," and were 'power down well fixed.'"

Christiana Homes Tillson

"July, Friday 11, 1890 -- Cleaned our house, fixed the border of the cealing [sic], it looks nice."

Emily French