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
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.
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
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
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
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
Johnson, Oliver. A Home in the
Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana. Oliver Johnson's Reminiscences
of Early Marion County. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP,
Ridge, Martin. Foreword. Johnson ix-xxi.
In Johnson. xxii.