Life on the Frontier


Pioneering, leaving known territories for lands yet unsettled, is never an easy endeavor.

Robert Hill, my four-times-great grandfather, left North Carolina in 1802 at the age of twenty-two.  His family had lived in colonial North Carolina for as many as 150 years.  Even so, Robert left for the Northwest Territory–the future states of Ohio and Indiana–with a large group of neighbors, friends and relatives from the Back Creek Monthly Meeting (Quaker) in Randolph County, North Carolina.

Their story is told in the Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, which was put together by Henry Clay Fox in 1912 (page 56):

On September 19, 1802, Andrew Hoover, having sold his possessions, left Randolph County, North Carolina, with his family of four sons and six daughters, and started for the Northwest Territory.  After five weeks’ journeying they crossed the Ohio at the village of Cincinnati and pushed on to Stillwater, twelve miles north of Dayton.  Not satisfied there, they removed the next spring to Lebanon, until they could make further examinations.  John Smith was also settled in that locality, with similar intentions.  Says David Hoover:  “Our object was to find a suitable place for making a settlement, and where but few entries had been made.  But a small portion of the land lying west of the Great Miami, or east of the Little Miami, was settled at that time.”  They examined various parts of Ohio, and in company with John Smith and Robert Hill, David Hoover explored the southern part of Indiana, but returned unsatisfied.

David Hoover continues:  “Thus time passed on until the spring of 1806, when myself and four others, rather accidentally, took a section line some eight or ten miles north of Dayton and traced it a distance of more than thirty miles through an unbroken forest to north from where Richmond now is.  It was the last of February of first of March when I first saw Whitewater.  On my return to my father’s I informed him I had found the country we had been in search of.”  In about three weeks David and his father, Jeremiah Cox, John Smith, and several others visited and examined the region.  In May or June of that year, Andrew Hoover entered several quarter-sections north of Richmond and John Smith entered the section south from where is now Main Street.

The tale goes on.  You can read of the clearing of land, the building of roads, the establishment of mills, businesses and homes.

What I think of is Robert Hill, twenty-two years old, traveling with his young wife Susannah and their newborn child, Martha (born April 18, 1802).  I’m not sure whether they traveled with John Smith (who was most likely a relative) or Andrew Hoover or both.  There’s little question that sometime in 1802 he traveled to Ohio and settled north of Dayton after going through Cincinnati.

Cincinnati in 1800

Apparently, it took five weeks’ journeying to get from Randolph County, North Carolina to Cincinnati.  What must that have been like for a young man, his young wife and their newborn child?

Andrew Hoover sold his possessions (perhaps not all of them?) before leaving for the Northwest Territory.  What did Robert and Susannah bring with them?  How did they travel?

While in Ohio, on October 5, 1804, Robert and Susannah had their second child, William.

Then, in 1806,  some of the members of party went thirty miles through unbroken forest to arrive in the area that would become Richmond, Indiana.  Did Robert Hill travel with this group?  Did Susannah and Martha and William come along?

The new settlers in Richmond had to make roads and build cabins in 1806.  “They had to cut out their road through the wilderness of trees, logs, brushes, weeds and nettles.”  And so, they made their roads, built their cabins and established their homes in this wild land.

When Robert Hill built his home near the road that went through the center of the new town, he may have had no idea how many people would pass by on their way to new opportunities.  Within a few years, as many as 200 wagons a day went by on the National Road.

On February 17, 1807, another son was born–Benjamin.  Roughly every two years for the next eighteen years, another baby was born.  (For names and birthdates of the children, see Children of Robert Hill).

On February 24, 1808, little Martha died just short of her sixth birthday.  She was the only of Robert and Susannah’s ten children to die young.

When Wayne County was officially established in 1811, Robert was appointed “fence viewer” in one of its two townships.  A “fence viewer” was a person who examined fences to be sure they met legal standards.  When disputes arose about animals trespassing and destroying property or about the position of fences, the fence viewer was responsible to pass judgment.

Robert also served four terms in the Indiana General Assembly (see my previous post for more details).

In 1817, Robert filed a bond with the governor of Indiana to permit him and his partner, Robert Morrisson, to trade with the Delaware, Kickapoo, Shawnee and Potowatami Indians. (The document is available for viewing in the online American Memory collection of the Library of Congress).

Robert Hill's tavern may have been like this one built around 1837 in Madison County, Ohio

In 1818, he built a two-story brick home that functioned as a tavern and store to meet the needs of the many travelers who were on their way west.  The bricks were made locally and carried in an oxcart by his own children.

In 1827, Susannah died.  After a few years, Robert married a doctor’s widow from Ohio.  A few more years later, he retired from tavern-keeping.

The combination of trade, farming, tavern-keeping and whatever other businesses Robert Hill practiced must have worked well.  When Robert died in 1850, he left money, bank stocks, luxurious household items and land to his second wife and his children.  (See Will of Robert Hill).

While life must have been hard and the challenges many, Robert Hill found success on the frontier.

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6 Responses to Life on the Frontier

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    Most of us need to remind ourselves that in 1802, going from North Carolina to the territory that would become Ohio was a long, grueling, and dangerous journey. The phrase “the village of Cincinnati” illustrates that pretty well. They even had to build the roads, so how did they travel? And then, after the roads were built, what was it like with two hundred wagons going by every day? The movies have glamorized this period in history, at least somewhat. I prefer the accuracy of your posts.

    • Thanks, Charles. I can’t imagine how grueling it would have been to travel in those days. I have a hard time traveling now, even with motorized cars with climate control and entertainment systems. Hauling my family any distance causes great stress and tension even on the best of days.

      What was it like to take a child or two and all your earthly possessions across wilderness, streams, rivers, mountains and everything else to get to a new land just so that you could then clear the land and try to make a life for yourself? I shudder to think. And I’m really thankful I live now instead of then.

  2. jharris says:

    We struggle to take our 9 and 10 year old children more than an hour away. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to take a newborn in a covered wagon, no Nintendo DSI to play with, no air conditioning or drop-down DVD players in the minivan. And then to settle down in the wilds of Ohio and crank out nine more children? I can’t fathom it.

    Perhaps we should turn our little house into a tavern for all the people who pass by on Avery. Or an adorable little coffee shop? With used books. And free WiFi! Bring it, I say!

    • pokedpotato says:

      Everyone talks about how neat it would be to grow up when there were real pioneers & such. I think it would be wretchedly difficult. I second that Julia…cranking out all those kids. And not a single disposable diaper in sight.

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