Pioneer Life of Indiana

by J. Trusedell

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in Indiana when it became a state in the early 1800's?  What would you eat? What kind of clothes would you wear? How would you travel?  How did that impact why our families settled in Decatur Township?  Was it because it was on the banks of the White River and the soil was fertile because of river silt?  Though this web quest we are going to look at pioneer life in Indiana and find out how our ancestors lived and if their living was impacted by the river.


Then and Now- Research Page- this page will help you organize your information for your powerpoint about Pioneer life in Indiana





Your task will be to research the lifestyle of the pioneers of Decatur Township and create a Powerpoint presentation.

You must first understand how the White River and the Geography of Indiana played a part in the settlement of Decatur Township. 


Click here if  you need a bigger map to complete your assignment


Student Page  to get the map you will be needing to complete



Read through the resources gathered from these different web pages and complete the research page.  You will have the following information written on your page.


Clothing  Clearing the Land  Food  Travel  Entertainment


Clothing the family of the 1830s was an important task, and most of the work was the responsibility of the women. Every stitch of the sewing had to be done by hand.  Ordinary people didn't have the large wardrobes we expect today. They made do with one outfit for everyday, one for Sunday best, and perhaps one other, or parts of another, for seasonal change.

Where a family lived determined to a great extent where and how they obtained their clothing. City and town dwellers usually purchased the fabrics, if not the entire garments, from specialty or general stores. People in rural or remote areas were more likely to undertake the whole process themselves. Many pioneers would spin their own yarn to make woolen clothing from the sheep that they raised and sheer (which means give a hair cut!).  Clothing was also made from cotton and flax which the farmers grew and would spin into thread then weave into clothing.

Clearing the Land Decatur Township had many trees with black walnut, poplar (the tulip tree) oak, and maple.  This area being heavily wooded was a problem for the early settlers requiring a lot of hard work to clear the land so they could grow crops for their animals and their families. 

Food Certain foods were found by the settler upon arrival to the Indiana lands. The varieties of nuts found in hardwood areas were hickory nuts, black walnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts along with hazelnuts and pecans in some areas. Other wild foods were the paw paws, wild cherries, persimmons, wild grapes, plums and crab apples. Berries were found in many wooded areas, especially the wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Herbs and roots found wild in the woods were gathered for teas, medicines and seasonings. Lastly, wild game, such as deer, wild turkey or squirrel, and fresh fish could round out the settler's meals.  Once the pioneers has cleared fields of trees, corn was planted and used as a major source of nutrition.  They would ground the corn and make corn meal.  This was used to make corn bread, corn mush and johnny cakes which are like pancakes.

Not enough time! While such foods were known to be available, this does not necessarily indicate that they were always found on the table during meal times. The fact must not be forgotten that the newcomer was faced immediately with the need to provide shelter for his family and animals, the job of clearing fields for gardens and larger crops such as corn and beans, and the building of tools and household furniture. With such tasks all taking up portions of the daily work pattern, there would not have been an extremely large amount of time left to gather foods for the table. 

Importance of children Children would often fish or pick wild fruits, but their aid in the rest of the household work load was critical, especially for the family's survival during the early settlement years.

Corn was the most commonly used dietary ingredient, out of personal preference as much as economic practicality. Before it could be planted, it was traded for by the settler, and then became the major crop for the newly cleared fields. Corn meal in varying forms was the basis of many meals well into the first half of the 19th century. A stiff dough made from meal, water and salt was cooked in a covered pan over coals to produce "corn dodgers." "Corn pone" used these basic ingredients plus the addition of mild and yeast, thus producing a richer mixture. "Johnny-cake" or "hoe-cake" consisted of meal plus a shortening of bear grease, lard or butter, baked flat on a board.

Once Settled Once settled on the land, the family's diet could expand to include the domesticated crops of pumpkin, potatoes, squash, beans, peas, cucumbers, cabbages, carrots, onions, rhubarb, radishes, lettuce, turnips, melons, and grains for flour. Seasoning herbs were planted in gardens near the house and included sage, thyme, mint, mustard, horse-radish, tansy, parsley and rosemary.

Wild game could soon be supplemented by pork. Other meats, including lamb, domesticated chicken, and beef were added but never came close to the popularity and commonness of pork dishes. Cows provided a source for milk and cheese. Chickens provided a source of occasional eating eggs once they were added to the farm's livestock.


Most pioneers would walk wherever they wanted to go unless they were fortunate enough to have a horse or mule.  There were other forms of transportation which were used in different parts of the state.

River travel - Rivers provided an important means of transportation and communication during the early years of life in Indiana. Their importance could be seen by the establishment of towns and villages along their banks and cutting of roads to follow their courses.

Flatboats and Steamboats were forms of transportation which were used on Indiana waterways. At seasonal highwater, fleets of flatboats carried Midwestern produce down to New Orleans and other lower Mississippi markets. The Wabash River, which fed into this system, was also a main trade route to the south and provided the means by which flatboats and some steamboats navigated successfully. The White River was not a major commercial route, though more traffic occurred south of Indianapolis than north. Travel was more restricted to flatboats which carried small amounts of produce to local markets, simply because the White River was navigable. In 1831 one steamboat, the "Robert Hanna," arrived in Indianapolis with much fanfare over the navigability of the White River; however, on its return journey, it hit several sandbars and became grounded for some six weeks, thereby effectively ending steamship travel on the White River until 1865. (Dunn, Greater Indianapolis, 1:19)

Canoes were used for personal use if the pioneers were fortunate enough to live near a waterway.  In Decatur Township, many residents used the White River for transportation.

Roads- The so-called roads in Indiana were in very poor condition. Personal travel was limited to foot or horse; sturdy wagons were used to transport goods and immigrants.  The Michigan Road, which resulted from the 1826 treaty with the Potawatomi Indians, was the first major road in the state, targeted to run from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River. The route was selected in 1828 to pass through Michigan City, South Bend, Logansport, and Indianapolis.

Travel Times 1820 - 1843
The following are a series of travel times taken from various sources in the Conner Prairie Research Department. Unless otherwise indicated, horseback was the mode of travel used.

Noblesville to Indianapolis, 4 to 6 hours (1835-1843)

Corydon to Conner's Trading Post, 6 days (1820)

Indianapolis to Lawrenceburg, about 3 days. (1843)

Indianapolis to Cincinnati, 2 days (1834)

Cincinnati to Indianapolis, 2 1/2 to 3 days (1834)

Madison to Indianapolis by stage, 2 days (1834)

Richmond to Indianapolis on National Road 2 1/2 days (1840)

Richmond to Terre Haute through Indianapolis 6 to 7 days (1840) [This may be an excessive amount of time]

Indianapolis to Fort Wayne 5 days (1824)

Fort Wayne to Indianapolis 5 days (1835)

Indianapolis to Westfield 54 hours (1843)

Philadelphia to Indianapolis, about 3 weeks (1841)

Philadelphia to Indianapolis, record time 6 1/2 days. (1841)

Driving hogs Indianapolis to Cincinnati, 15 - 20 days

Driving hogs, Noblesville to Indianapolis, 3 to 4 days.

Games and Entertainment

Pioneer Life



Information gathered from Conner Prairie

History of Indianapolis and Marion county by Berry Robinson Sulgrove