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History at Home looks at children’s lives on frontier

Photo by Brandon HicksWhat was life like for children on the frontier?
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area offered a look into the past to help give an idea of what it would have been like through the History at Home program.
On Thursday morning, seasonal Interpretive Ranger Tanner Wells led a session detailing some of the aspects of life for colonial children.
The session covered colonial toys, chores and responsibilities for children of the time and some of the dangers and hardships facing children and families during the early settlement years.
Sisters Clare and Cloe Clark, along with brother Colby Clark, attended the session with their mother to learn more about colonial children.
“Living in the colonial times was very hard,” Cloe said. “You would have had to live on nature and only nature.”
Clare said she enjoyed learning the different games colonial children would play, but wasn’t sure if living in the colonial times would have been a good thing.
“Something I think it would be OK to live in colonial times,” Clare said. “Sometimes I don’t.”
Wells explained that starting early in life, children were expected to work and contribute to the household. Girls were to work in the house, while boys were to go outside and follow in their father’s career path.
“Toddlers and babies were exempt,” he said. “After that, the child’s chores followed in the steps of the parents. Daughters were trained to be caregivers and wives. Boys traditionally followed their father’s career path so they would start learning that.”
Girls would work in the home helping with child care, cooking, laundry and other housekeeping duties. The boy’s work would depend on the family’s lifestyle.
In farming families, the sons would help out with milking, egg gathering and harvesting crops. Frontier families would have their sons help with hunting, fishing or collecting furs from traps. The more urban families would send their sons to work with the father to learn the skills of his trade.
In most cases children would only receive basic education. Girls would be taught to read and write at the most. Boys would complete the basic education and had the option to go on to grammar school or college if the family did not need the boy to help with the work load.
“Typically, it was just the boys that got an education,” Wells said. “Education then was heavily influenced by scripture, which helped instill ethics and morals in the education process.”
Toys and recreation were still a big part of the children’s lives in the colonial period.
But a major difference was that any toys were either games invented by families or were made with scraps of materials found around the home.
Typical games would include tag, hide-and-go-seek or freeze.
Toys would be items like corn husk dolls, ball-on-a-stick or a game of graces. The game, ball-on-a-stick was a stick with a cup or saucer on top. A string was attached to the bottom of the cup with a ball on the end. The point was to swing the ball into the cup on the end of the stick.
A game of graces was for two or more players. Players would toss a wooden hoop to each other using sticks.
“All of their games involved some sort of hand-eye coordination,” Wells said. “They didn’t do anything without a purpose. The toys helped keep the children’s creativity and imagination going. The games didn’t need anything to play, so they were more economical for families who didn’t have a lot.”
For all members of the family, life on the frontier was a challenge. Wells said all members of the family were expected to contribute to survive.
The Watauga settlement was located outside of the original colonies and was outside the realm of the British monarchy, which meant that if any trouble occurred, the settlers were left to their own defenses to handle it.
Another challenge was disease. Many diseases spread easily through settlements and would often kill people at an early age.
“They would adapt as they could to survive,” Wells said. “The larger families meant there were more members to work and that meant a better chance at survival. They had the ingenuity it took to adapt to those situations.”