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The Story of Portsmouth, "Pioneer Life"

By Audrey Stratton | Local Happenings

Stories inspired from "The Story of Portsmouth" by Elmer Sword

In our third edition of “Did You Know?” with local tales from our county’s history, we are heading to “Pioneer Life.”

Most of the early settlers came down the Ohio river by flatboats and keelboats. What was so incredible about our early pioneers is that the boats were often dismantled and used to build the settler’s homes. These boats often carried livestock, household goods, and entire families.

The settlers would stop at a place called Oldtown, finding it a convenient place to stay until they could determine their final destination. This was a good place to stop because of the extensive clearing done by the Native Americans.

After moving through Oldtown, they would move on to places such as Alexandria, Portsmouth, and even Union Mills which is known today as West Portsmouth.

The Pioneer Family

The pioneers faced hardship during their times of settlement. Because of the forests and swamps, there were unforeseen dangers. Each family needed to be able to survive on their own. The women were the “true pioneers”, as Elmer called them.

The women would have nearly a dozen children, most of them dying at young ages. They would feed the family, raise the children, and prepare food for the winter. They would aso make all of the family’s clothing as well as work in the fields.

As a result of working from sunup until long after sundown, these women often died at a young age. It was not uncommon for a man to be buried next to multiple wives who had preceded him in death.

Early Mail

There used to be a postmaster named Doctor Waller. He would make deliveries two days a week by horseback. The dangers in carrying mail required high rates. It would be 8c for 40 miles, 12 ½c for 150 miles. And 25c for more than 500 miles.


The only forms of communication during these times were by word of mouth, newspapers, or mail. In the case of emergencies, one would often have to run, ride horseback, or in a wagon to bring a doctor back to their homes.

With obituaries, these were only published in the papers as long as someone could get the death notice before the paper went out. If they were from a wealthy family, a notice of death along with time and place of the funeral was printed on a card with a black border and carried to relatives and friends.

Early Medicine

Little was known about medicine during this time and surgery was a fear of the patient and doctor. Before the discovery of ether in 1864, a sedative was given for surgical practices. This practice was nowhere near the anesthesia we have today.

Broken bones were handled by means of amputation and childbirth was handled by midwives.

How the Settlers Came to Portsmouth

Most of the early settlers who came to Portsmouth were Scottish-Irish and German Quakers from the valley of Virginia and the state of Pennsylvania.

They would travel in covered wagons until they reached Pittsburg and they would then sell those wagons for boats and travel down the Ohio river. These trips were often very dangerous as they were often encountered by Native Americans who did not want white settlers to move in on their land.

He Was Easy to Recognize

One of the easiest men to recognize in Portsmouth was Mayor John Belli. He was an old school man who hadn't changed his wardrobe since the Revolution. While he lived among the backwoodsman, he was always seen wearing his wig, a cocked hat, a coat with facings, a waistcoat, knee breeches, stockings, and shoe buckles. His queue was braided and tied back with a ribbon.

Join us again next week as we take a look at, “The Canal Comes to Portsmouth”.


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