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Seeing Like a Pioneer

By Daniel Hubbard | October 13, 2009

To try to understand the people that I’m researching, I like to try to think like them and to look at my surroundings like a pioneer. Often that means thinking like a pioneer in the forests of eastern North America.

The next time you are walking in the woods, try this experiment. Do your best to see your surroundings the way a pioneer ancestor might have seen them. Imagine you are trying to find a site for a cabin. Look around. Is there a source of fresh water anywhere nearby? Is there a navigable river or stream in which to launch your canoe so you can keep in contact with distant neighbors and buy and sell goods? Might the river flood in the spring, forcing you to rescue your possessions and abandon your cabin? Is there open land that you can plant immediately without needing to go through the laborious process of clearing trees right away? Does game seem plentiful? Is there a lake or a river full of fish nearby? What is the soil like? Does it look like good, deep soil? Are you familiar with the type of soil, so that you would know how to farm it well from the beginning?

How far is the nearest settlement? Do you want to stay isolated or do you want to settle in a place that you expect to attract others in the near future? If the area might attract others, how could you profit from that? Are there people like you—your ethnic group or from the same part of the country—already living in the area?

What “extras” does the vicinity provide? Is there ore, stone for building or grinding, or even coal that is apparent? Is there clay for making bricks or pottery? If there are any of these things, would they be for your own use or would you try to sell some of what you might produce. How about a good place to build a mill? Even if you don’t build one yourself, it might be convenient if there was a mill in the area eventually.

If your ancestors settled in the prairie you will have many of the same concerns. For example, a source of wood will be important but on the prairie that often went hand in hand with having a waterway nearby. Prairie ancestors would also have questions that are related to, but different from, eastern pioneers. The distance to the nearest railroad would be a new question on their minds.

Immigrants who settled in cities would also have a list of questions you can ponder while walking along a busy street. They might want to live in a neighborhood with people from the same part of “the old country,” people who would speak the same dialect of the same language and worship the same way. Maybe they would even move in with relatives who had already immigrated. They would need work, so, if they could, they would want to match any skills they had to what work was available. Instead of looking for available land, they would be looking for rent they could afford.

So, the question is—What were your ancestors questions?

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