In doing Oregon Trail research for genealogy (a hobby of mine), I came upon an essay written in 1909 about “mossbacks,” an unflattering term given to the early settlers of the territory of Oregon and Washington.
The term ‘mossback’ usually refers to a fish or object in nature that remains still long enough that moss grows upon its back. Here on the Gulf Coast, I’ve seen turtles who have earned the term.
In use to describe old settlers, the term was used in a derogatory way, to express frustration at their lack of moving forward, of leaving things be, of not improving their homestead or, especially, their community.
It was a bit of a shock to me to hear that the pioneers who went by wagon train for most of a year to reach the Oregon Territory, who built homesteads out of nothing but nature, who established sawmills and stores and roads — could ever be known as indolent!
Here is our clue:
“The energy and enthusiasm of the first New Year’s gradually gave away before the fact that such energy was wasted. There was no difficulty experienced in it required but little effort to raise all they could dispose of and in time, even this effort became burdensome.”
The author goes on to describe the abundance of the area: no diseases or invasive insects plagued the gardens or fruit trees; there was so much firewood in fallen branches that trees didn’t need to be cut for the effort; the winters were mild enough that the farmer could get through the season without storing a large amount of hay for his livestock.
The people began to enjoy their life of ease and sought ways to work even less. Though the woods “abounded with vine-maple and alder, wood that made an excellent smudge for curing meat,” “one genius found that straw would do almost as well and required no effort to cut.”
“The habit of doing as little as possible was naturally adopted by the children at an early age. Thus the boys rushed through their alloted tasks and hurried away to the trout streams where the hours were idled away, wading in the cool water, fishing in the choicest pools or basking in the sun along the sloping banks.”
The field supplied bait; the trees furnished a pole. It required but little skill as an angler to catch fish in those days. There were no long, tiresome waits. The bait no sooner struck the water than there was a flash of silvery brightness and the rod would bend with the weight of a speckled beauty.”
He ends the essay with “Let us view with charity their shortcomings and remember that the lack of progress which characterized them, was the logical outcome of their environs.”
We are in a time of ease here in America, one where we don’t even have to fish at all, or collect firewood. It is an ease that makes me uncomfortable, and I think there must be many like me since the homesteading community is growing like a “tsunami,” as one farmer says.
We dream of the day when we can be on acreage that holds challenges: where will we collect water, how will we get electricity, how much firewood will we need for Winter? Why would we intentionally place ourselves in a life of unease and discomfort? I’m not exactly sure. For me, it’s an urge, one that will not let go, and even when I lived in a neighborhood home in Florida, I did many things the hard, slow way: hand stitching, baking bread, growing herbs…
I’ve wondered if this urge stems from 15 generations of American farming in my blood, or half a childhood spent in a primitive village, or from a father with a strong work ethic and in ability to sit still. But maybe this urge is also a prodding from God, as we read in the Scriptures, to not “go to the cities,” not “be a hearer only,” and instead, to “go to the wilderness,” and “be a doer.”
The 21st Century American life is easy. We can get almost anything we want, delivered to our doorstep, and we don’t have to provide for our water, food, heating, etc. I know it’s easy, and I know it’s tempting, But I don’t want ease. I want an adventure.
I don’t want to be a mossback.
I’m wondering if you feel the same.
(p.s. you can read the 1909 essay on Mossbacks here – you’ll discover you have to patch together paragraphs; it must have come from a folded pamphlet)