Indiana Folklore and Folkways

We lived the same as Indians 'ceptin we took an interest in politics and religion,' Dennis Hanks, cousin of Abraham Lincoln, said of the Indiana of 1817, the year after the State was admitted to the Union. And Lincoln described his boyhood home as a 'wild region with bears and other wild animals still in the woods.' All about was unbroken forest where 'the clearing away of surplus wood was the great task ahead.'

In such a frontier region it was inevitable that the folk life would express itself in terms of the backwoods. Folklore and folkways were conditioned by the scenes and customs of the locality where they had originated or had taken root after having been transplanted. Most Indiana folkways were not indigenous but, in common with those of other Midwestern States, had survived migrations over trails such as the one made into the western country by Daniel Boone. Many migrants followed this trail into Indiana, where they became integral parts of a variegated backwoods pattern.

The pioneer necessarily was hard-working and practical. This new country offered a challenge to muscle rather than to mind, and the early settler contented himself with the limited culture he had brought with him. The family Bible and sometimes another book or two were the extent of his cultural tools.

With all these limitations, however, there has come down from the frontier a lore composed of beliefs, customs, crafts, anecdotes, both true and untrue, bearing in its content and terminology the unmistakable stamp of the backwoods. The daily round of living yielded its natural by-product of stories about eccentric members of the community; exaggerated tales of prowess in hunting, fishing, and working; tales of giant reptiles and beasts with more than ordinary intelligence; stories about freaks of the weather, floods and great droughts.

Good or bad luck to crops and to members of the family was indicated by certain infallible signs. Evil luck was presaged by the flight of a bird past the window, by the breath of a horse on a child's head, by a dog crossing the hunter's path. It was considered better to cut fence rails in the light of the moon and to plant crops that ripened above ground in the full moon and root crops in the dark of the moon. Soap should be made in the light of the moon and stirred one way by one person. Butchering had to be done before the full moon if the meat was not to 'fry hard and leave only lard.' A waning moon was good for shingling because it pulled the shingles flat. These and many more were sincere beliefs among almost all the early settlers. Some went further in their faith in signs and portents, and believed in ghosts and witches and in the efficacy of the silver bullet to exorcise the witch.

Today the imprint of the frontier is found on all the traditional tales, beginning with those about the Indians and continuing through the French settlement and the various waves of American migration into the Indiana wilderness. By the light of the fireplace in the pioneer cabin, in the crossroads store, in the wake of the circuit-riding preacher, there has grown up a wealth of stories and anecdotes telling of the early days of a people. For the most part they form no body of myth around supernatural beings. They probably do not offer a close parallel to European or Oriental folklores, but they do reflect the life, customs, and beliefs of the frontier. This body of material has been transmuted by some strange alchemy of soil, climate, and varied personalities into something that we can label Indiana folklore and that reflects in an infinite variety of ways that indefinable entity called Hoosierdom.

The first need of the pioneer was water, so cabins were usually built along creeks or rivers. Those who pushed farther inland commonly made use of the willow divining rod to locate underground springs. It was believed that since the willow was accustomed to wet ground it would dip, in seeking its favorite element. The earliest settlers were of necessity hunters, not farmers. After the ax, the rifle was the most essential tool. A little land, enough to provide some corn, wheat, and a few vegetables, was cleared. It was partly tended by the womenfolk while the men hunted and fished to provide meat. However, this promised land turned out to be a land of plenty and, as George Ade once said, 'The pioneer had gumption enough to unpack once he had arrived.'

The social life of these first comers also drew its inspiration from their environment and was expressed in log-rolling, house-raising, and other tasks that could best be accomplished and celebrated co-operatively. During these affairs the women of the family, with the wives and sweethearts of the visiting helpers, quilted, sewed, and talked. Recipes and zodiacal signs for weaning babies, planting seeds, and curing meat were freely exchanged. Children should never be weaned when the sign was in the stomach, but when the sign was in the feet. A good way to remove freckles was to wash in dew or stump water before sunrise the first of May. A girl should never marry until she could pick clothes out of boiling water with her fingers. If she sat on a table, she would never marry.

If a person killed a toad, his cow would give bloody milk. One must never move a broom or a cat from one home to another. Children were measured by 'string doctors' for short growth; the string was buried and when it began to rot the child began to grow. The rite was most effective if performed by the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Incantations were said for rickets and fits. When Venus went into ascendancy as the evening star, it was 'Mary going over the mountain.' If it rained on that day, it would rain for six weeks; if it was fair, the weather would be fair for six weeks.

The time to plant corn was when elm tree leaves were the size of a squirrel's ear. When the corn reached the roasting-ear stage, the ears were cooked in hot ashes. Some of the kernels were grated and water added; the liquid was then strained and allowed to stand overnight. The result was a supply of starch for laundering the men's 'biled' shirts.

Whisky was a cure-all, and it was a poor occasion that did not call for it. It was used to keep off heat strokes in the summer and to keep one warm in the winter; for chills, fever, ague, snake bites, and toothache; and as a partial anesthetic during the performance of the crude surgery of the day. Bleeding was freely practiced, and many varieties of 'yarb tea' were much used.

Tongues wagged as fingers flew and turned scraps of calico into beautiful quilts. Elaborate quilt patterns were the Prairie Rose, Log Cabin, Lone Star, Irish Chain, and Flower Garden. Four Patch and Nine Patch were simpler designs for everyday use.

Cooking for these gatherings taxed the housewives' cupboards to the utmost. Corn bread was baked in a spider over a pile of coals or on a hoe. (From this comes the present word 'hoecake.') Wild berries, plums, and apples, dried or preserved, were the fruits. Turnips, potatoes, dried corn, all sorts of wild game and fish, and sometimes chicken and dumplings filled the table. Spreads were maple syrup, pumpkin butter, and wild plum preserves.

Children stood around the table to 'strengthen their legs.' After supper they went to bed in the loft to sleep on straw ticks exposed to winter snows that came through chinks in the logs.

The by-products of the pioneer's recreation were almost as useful as the products of his regular work. Sugar making, bee hunting, husking bees, and apple cuttings were standard amusements. Shooting matches, cockfighting, 'rassling,' and foot racing were the main sporting events.

Shooting matches were always an accompaniment of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The match began early in the day and lasted until darkness made the target -- a live chicken or turkey -- invisible. There were rules, of course. Should the target be struck above the knee by a bullet, it became the property of the marksman who had hit it. If the ball struck below the knee, the wounded fowl was left tied and the firing continued.

Cockfighting usually took place on a Sunday when the settlers would gather with their favorite birds. A ring was cleared, and the owners of two cocks, matched evenly for fighting weight, would bind steel spurs or gaffs upon each bird's leg over its sawed-off natural spurs. The cocks would then be held close and allowed to pick at each other. Then they were taken to opposite sides of the ring and released. They would meet high above the center of the ring in a whirring kaleidoscope of brilliant feathers and flashing steel. Feinting, leaping, slashing, they fought until one was dead or ran away -- which seldom happened. They were blooded birds whose ancestors had been brought from England or Ireland and purity of strain was jealously guarded.

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