Frontier Clothing and Early Westward Expansion

by Susan Jarrett

There is much documentation of what men wore during this period but not a great deal of research on women’s clothing. I suspect this is because early American frontier women and children (of European decent) did not prominently serve as trappers, land surveyors, or explorers. Instead, they made history quietly by building communal ties in what was then the wild and unruly wilderness. What I do know about the clothing on this region I have pieced together from a variety of different historical texts.

The early 19th century was a great time of influx and expansion across America. In 1803, the United States acquired the Louisiana territory from France, doubling the size of the country overnight. Individuals and families began pushing westward from the already settled regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania. By 1800, over 150,000 European settlers had emigrated into the Appalachian region alone.

US map c. 1800

In the 1820s, gold was discovered in Georgia- bringing a rush of spectators into the mountains. From 1830-1838 (against the ruling of the American Supreme Court), Andrew Jackson forcibly removed all remaining Native Americans from their homelands east of the Mississippi to areas known as the New Indian Territories (what is now present day Oklahoma and Kansas). As a result, what was previously deemed as “unsafe Indian territory” was now open to white settlement.

US map c. 1846

With the opportunity for large plots of open land, many frontier families sold their smaller parcels in Kentucky and Tennessee and moved farther west into Missouri. From 1820-1840, immigration to America was rapidly increasing and the concept of manifest destiny was sweeping the nation. Thus, the massive emigration west pushed white settlement even farther into the the American wilderness.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap by George Caleb Bingham. c. 1851. Kemper Art Museum.

American clothing in during this period was still very much regional. In Pennsylvania and Tennessee, the Quakers brought with them “plain dress”- or the wearing of fashionable period styles hallmarked by the lack of adornment. In New Orleans, French fashions were still very much en vogue. In New York, clothing amongst the immigrant population was both a sign of cultural heritage and religion. Immigrants held onto much of their traditional dress. It provided a sense of belonging and a sense of community. But clothing also denoted social status. And, only in America could the poor have the chance to achieve a better life. For these people, clothing was an outward expression of the American dream.

The Immigrants by Charles Blauvelt c. 1850. The Hunter Museum of American Art
Quaker Gown
Silk Quaker Dress. c. 1800-1805. The DAR Museum.

But in the untamed American wilderness, things were a bit different. While European settlers took with them a combination of their traditional garb and their new American styles, these types of garments were not always conducive to the untamed terrain and their new living conditions. As these new settlers pushed further into the frontier, they had to adapt their clothing to the demands of the region. Many incorporated deer skin, fur, and other types of wilderness materials to make European- style shoes, breeches, and outerwear.

The quintessential American Frontier garment- known as the Hunting shirt or Hunting frock- originated during the Revolutionary War when southern male colonists joining up with George Washington’s appeared in these fringed linen “hunting shirts.” Originating in the backcountry of Virginia, the frocks evoked the dress of the Native Americans.  On July 24, 1776, Washington wrote that he �earnestly encourages the use of hunting shirts,� in part because they were �justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.�* By adopting the frock, General George Washington single handedly secured the place of this iconographic garment in our nation’s history.

Buckskin hunting frock
Buckskin Hunting Frock. c. 1830s Autry Museum of the American West.

At home, women planted flax from which they harvested, processed, wove, and dyed to make garments for themselves and their families. Once near an established market town, women could visit stores and purchase fine imported European cloth. Examples included osnaburg, calico, flannel, Irish linen, and silk. But these goods were pricey and in a world where money was scarce, purchasing (or in most cases- trading for) fabric would have only been for very special occasions.

Short gown
Modified Short gown made from imported printed cotton. c. 1820-1824. Fries Museum.

It is known that the garments of these early settlers typically followed the silhouette of the period. However, while many a frontier woman owned a silk gown or two, practicality and functionality mattered more than style. An early frontier family’s day was filled with hard labor and long hours. For women, skirt lengths were shorter, necklines higher, and sleeves were long and narrow. Both women and children wore large sunbonnets or woven hats to protect their skin from the sun. Aprons and smocks were always worn to protect clothing from the laborious chores of frontier life.

1850’s Homeplace near the Tennessee-Kentucky border.

A standard of rural frontier life was the short gown. Originating in the late 18th century, a short gown was a loose fitting informal bodice reaching only to the hip with long or short sleeves. In Europe, short gowns were traditionally worn by female cottagers and servants but various classes of early American frontier women found short gowns ideal for everyday life. Short gowns were always worn with petticoats (or skirts) worn slightly shorter than dressier garments to keep hems clean and ease movement. Essentially, short gown and petticoats were the first mix and match wear and served as the foundation for the late 19th century development in the shirtwaist and skirt combination!

Calico print cotton short gown. c. 1810 Meg Andrews Antique Dress.

Homespun clothing on the frontier was primarily wool or linen. Rough cotton was often mixed with wool to create a blend known as linsey-woolsey (also called wincey). Fine quality cotton was rare in the earlier years of the frontier as it was exported to Europe, printed, and then reimported back to the United States at a very high price. As cotton production technology advanced throughout the early 19th century however, cotton became more affordable and only a few traditional frontier women continued to use flax.

Homespun dyes were natural and came from nut shells, berries, the bark of trees, and flowering plants. Clothing of the American frontier was completely hand woven and hand stitched. And, except for the occasional specialty item, all garments (including shoes) were made by the frontier families themselves.

Sadly, there is little remaining evidence of clothing worn by the settlers of this period. Because cloth is a perishable good, clothing that was no longer mendable, patchable, or usable was recycled into quilts, bonnets, and dress linings. Most documentation of surviving fibers and prints from this period indeed come from old quilts. What we know of how the clothing looked comes from period sketches and frontier diaries.

Nine Patch quilt pattern
“Nine Patch” Linsey-woolsey Quilt, American. c. 19th century. Skinner Auctions.

Selected Bibliography:

*Personal letters of George Washington. Museum of the American Revolution.

Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. PBS Series, 2009.

Bush, F.C. Dorie: Woman of the Mountains. University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Dunn, Durwood. Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community. University of Tennessee Press. 1988.

Dykeman, Wilma. Tennessee Women. Wakestone Books, 1993.

McCaulley, Margaret. A Cades Cove Childhood. The History Press, 2008.

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