We get a feel for that in a family history written by Allison Joseph Abshire, who describes the life of John Abshire and his wife Frances Hargrave in south Louisiana in the late 1700s. John was born in 1744 in Germany. His wife was the daughter of Benjamin Hargrave Sr. and Rebecca Gwaltney of Virginia.
Records and accounts vary, but John apparently settled about 1778 on the so-called German Coast of the Mississippi River near today’s Des Allemands and moved to New Iberia with Francisco Bouligny in 1779. There is a church record of his marriage to Frances in New Iberia in 1780.
They apparently lived there for a while and then pushed westward in 1794 to begin farming on land about a mile north of present-day Abbeville. As Abshire writes, their story is remarkable not because they were exceptional, but because it shows how they and other first families of Acadiana learned to cope with the primitive conditions of south Louisiana.
John and Frances did have two problems that some others may not have met: language and religion. The Abshires spoke German and English, their neighbors spoke French. The Abshires were Protestants and the only church in the entire area was the Catholic church in St. Martinville, which they eventually joined.
Otherwise, as Abshire writes, “frontier life for John and Frances in the marshlands and prairies of southwest Louisiana was rugged and hazardous. Settlers lived virtually in isolation, depending almost entirely on their own resources. The hot, humid, subtropical environment … with its floods, hurricanes, snakes, alligators, and mosquitoes — was quite different [to them].”
There were no roads, only rugged trails that provided rough and slow going for their ox carts. They traveled only when they had to.
Their first homes were a far cry even from the simple Acadian cottages that many of us think of us the earliest housing here. These first settlers built cabins that were framed by setting posts in the ground and thatching the top and sides with palmetto leaves.
“As the settlers’ situation improved,” Abshire tells us, “better homes were built using wood from the local forests. … In time, the homes were built on blocks, became larger, had galleries added to provide shade and had mud chimneys built for … heating and cooking.”
There were no convenience stores, or even inconvenient ones. If the settlers didn’t bring something with them, grow it to use, grow it to barter, or build it from materials at hand they didn’t have it.
They made their own tables and chairs and armoires. They grew cotton that was spun into cloth and dyed with peach leaves or indigo. They used the cloth for clothes and curtains and mattresses that were stuffed with Spanish moss or straw or even corn husks.
“Farmers raised livestock and grew crops for food and to barter. Important farm animals included cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry,” Abshire records. “Horses and mules were raised to provide transportation and labor. … Plants … included cotton, sugar cane, rice, vegetables and fruit trees. Food was also provided by hunting and fishing.”
Living this way, John and Frances reared 10 children to adulthood. Three others died.
That in itself seems pretty remarkable. There weren’t any doctors or drugstores around, settlers learned to use herbs and folk remedies and to minister to themselves and to their families.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.