15 Tools That Helped Pioneers Survive On The American Frontier

American culture unapologetically romanticises the lives of the first pioneers. Through rose-coloured glasses, we see Manifest Destiny as fate, leading our heroic ancestors across a perfectly manicured landscape. In reality, the frontier was a terrifying, dangerous wilderness. And you were only as good as the tools you carried.

Pioneers were responsible for clearing their own land, building their homes, defending themselves, sewing their own clothes and hunting for their own food. And the devices and tools they brought with them — severely limited by weight and size — were vital lifelines to succeeding in all of those pursuits. So what were they?

Top picture: The "New home" in the far west by W.U. Morgan & Co Lith, Cleveland, O. This trade card advertising a New Home sewing machine, show a happy family outside of their house, c1881. Source: Solomon D. Butcher/Library Of Congress


An allegorical depiction of "American progress" carries telegraph wire westward. Behind her, settlers follow with stagecoaches, conestoga wagons, and railroads, symbolising the virtue of taming the western frontier. But, in truth, such conveniences took decades to appear.

Painting: George A. Crofutt/Library Of Congress


This was the reality most settlers knew. A family in front of a typical sod house, in 1886, in Nebraska, Custer County. Instead of a plush toy the boy on the right is holding a young bull. Note the ornament high on the facade.

Picture: Solomon D. Butcher/Library Of Congress


Pioneers would make their own clothes, from shearing the wool and spinning it into thread, to actually weaving the fabric and finally fashioning it into a garment.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


A spinning wheel from the 1820s.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


The print below shows two women preparing supper on a small, portable stove — a relative luxury — in front of their tents, in 1866.

Picture: James F. Gookins/Library Of Congress


A grain reaper was a vital piece of agricultural machinery. Invented by Cyrus H. McCormick in 1831, this contraption still serves as the basis for modern-day grain harvesting machines.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


A grain fanner, from the 1850s, would blow air through wheat to separate the chaff — an otherwise time-consuming task.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


Crude ferries made river crossing incredibly dangerous. Here, people cross the Red River, in Texas, during a flood in 1874.

Engraving: Robert Hoskins/Library Of Congress


"You need only one soap: Ivory soap," proclaims this ad from 1898, which shows a pioneer washing with a novelty — floating! soap, at his campsite. You can observe other household objects and tools in the background as well.

Picture: Strobridge & Co. Lith./Library Of Congress


Messengers were sent to warn the settlers of the Indian uprising, seen here in an illustration from 1899. Note the hand-operated plow and broad axe in the picture.

Drawing: Reginald Bathurst Birch/Library Of Congress


Farm kitchen cutlery and kitchenware.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


By the late 19th century, families were more established. Here, we see a family standing in front of sod house with windmill on roof of adjoining building. Coburg, Nebraska, 1884-85.

Picture: Solomon D. Butcher/Library Of Congress

Frontier utility knives: a butcher knife, a skinning knife and a small antique paring knife.

Picture: Heritage Auctions


This apple crusher and cider press was high-tech for its time.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


A cast iron stove from the 1820s.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


A carving bench let craftsmen whittle and carve comfortably.

Picture: Frontier Culture Museum


A lambskin money vest, from 1853, was designed to (at least in theory) protect a settler's valuables. The vest has three rows of button pockets for holding gold and silver coins, the medium of exchange in California.

Picture: Heritage Auctions


And finally the two ultimate survival tools for the pioneers. First, a colt revolver…

Picture: Heritage Auctions


…and second, a Winchester.

Picture: Heritage Auctions

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