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Oliver JohnsonOliver Johnson

Hoosier Connection: Oliver Johnson grew up in Marion County as Indianapolis, the state capital, was being established. His stories give one of the only first-hand views to what Indiana was like during settlement times.

Works Discussed: A Home in the Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana

A Home in the Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana is a collection of stories that Oliver Johnson told his grandchildren about his life in Indiana from the 1820s to the 1840s, in an area that today is greater Indianapolis. Oliver's grandson, Howard Johnson, wrote down these stories as a memoir, or oral history, in 1951. Howard was born in Indianapolis in 1873. He worked on a farm until a few years before his death at the age of ninety-seven in 1970. In the 1940s, he built a log cabin from trees he felled himself.

Howard's own experience in clearing the land reminded him of his grandfather and inspired him to write down his grandfather's stories in this book. Throughout his life, Howard tried to follow many of the traditions his grandfather had followed. By building his own house in the same manner as his grandfather, he relived part of the life of the early settlers.

Although Oliver passed these stories down to his grandchildren only as entertainment, they have become an important artifact of the period in which white settlers began to arrive in Indiana. This book is a first-hand account of the natural landscape of Indiana and how settlers dealt with it. When settlers arrived in Indiana, most of the land was dominated by forests. Now much of the land is dominated by massive farms, housing additions, and cities, with woodlots scattered here and there. The comparison between pre-settlement and present-day Indiana shows a drastic, almost unbelievable change upon the face of the land.

A Home in the Woods begins with Johnson's description of his first sight of Indiana, in the 1820s. He lists many of the different trees prominent in the area at that time, including "walnut and sugar trees," "gray and blue ash, white, burr, and pin oak" (4), and he describes the attitude of early settlers toward the land:

It’s hard to picture this part of the country as I first remember it. Here and there was a cabin home with a little spot of clearin close by. The rest of the country was jist one great big woods and miles and miles in most every direction. From your cabin you could see no farther than the wall of trees surroundin the clearin; not another cabin in sight.

You might think it a lonesome place to live, but it wasn’t to us.... There was plenty of wild life at all times to keep a feller company.... There was where we got our buildin timber for cabins, timber to make ox yokes, chairs and tables, fence rails, and lots of other things. Firewood was there just for the gettin....

There was a bigness and a certain mouldy or woods smell to a forest that’s hard to describe, but to us it was mighty sweet and satisfyin. (3, 5)

Today, forests like those described here are typically isolated to small, scattered patches across the state.

The land his family selected to build their cabin and farm upon stood between Fall Creek and White River, the present north side of Indianapolis where the state fairgrounds are located. Building the cabin was the first order of business. Once it was built, the family's focus turned toward clearing the land. Oliver explains that they would kill the larger trees but leave them standing until they were easily removed. The first year was filled with hard work since the small trees and undergrowth also had to be killed and cleared:

[A]ll trees under eighteen inches in diameter was cut down...and piled around the standin trees. It was quite a trick to pile all that green stuff so it would burn. When the firin was done, the standin trees was also killed and stopped drawin life from the ground and shadin the corn. (13-14)

They tried to do this as fast as they could in hopes of getting a crop in that first year. He mentions here that they did not care about destroying the trees because they were everywhere and in the way.

For recreation and food, they liked to fish in the river. Johnson discusses many fish that once filled Fall Creek and the White River, but have since suffered tremendous population loss:

If we wanted a mess of fish, all we had to do was grab the gig, jump in the canoe, pole up and down the crick a few times; if the water was clear, you was purty sure to spear a mess. (30)

The rest of the narratives in A Home in the Woods deal with topics ranging from building and farming to hunting and teaching. The Johnsons, like everyone else at the time, relied heavily on cornmeal for food and would haul their corn to a grist mill for grinding.

People also relied on hunting various animals for food and other resources. The animals are listed with particulars about their abundance and uses. As some of Johnson's stories involve sighting or hunting turkeys, grouse, deer, raccoons and even the bears that once roamed Indiana, readers can easily see the contrast between the wildlife of Oliver Johnson's time and that of today.

This book paints a picture of Indiana nearly two centuries ago. Clearly, the scenery has changed a lot since Johnson's time. Instead of walls of trees, there are walls of brick. Many aspects of the life Oliver Johnson knew are now beyond reach. People have forever changed the land, from forests so thick with trees that grass could not grow, to a patchwork expanse of farms and towns.



Johnson, Oliver. A Home in the Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana. Oliver Johnson's Reminiscences of Early Marion County. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1951.

Ridge, Martin. Foreword. Johnson ix-xxi.


In Johnson. xxii.