Having spent the first few years of my life on a farm with no “facilities,” no running water and no electricity, I realize what a great influence technology has had on our lives. Reading about the rugged lives of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, for example, reminds me of how soft we can get in the modern world. These giants of American history, these champions of freedom and independence, would swim their horses across the Red River in the dead of winter, wring their clothes out and ride on undaunted.
The greatest bit of technology Jim Bowie possessed was his famous knife, one of which was made by James Black of Washington, Arkansas. Of the finest steel, it had a handle ominously designed to resemble a coffin. Davy Crockett’s favorite piece of technology was his famous rifle he called Betsy. He was such a good shot he never worried about having meat to eat. Houston, having been adopted as a teenager by a Cherokee chief, was conversant with all kinds of Native American technology, including the bow and arrow. He was known as The Raven by the tribes in Arkansas when he worked for the government and ran a trading post and he often went public in Cherokee chieftain garb from head to toe. (He later presented a similar costume to his friend, President Jackson).
Those frontiersmen did not have to think about physical fitness. Their lives were hard enough to keep their muscles active. For example, one burns a lot of calories just catching, bridling and saddling a horse. And the act of riding a horse is a vigorous physical exercise itself, especially if you ride through forests, mountains and swamps as they did. We turn the ignition and off we go; their travel was much more difficult and adventurous. In the winter, we flip a switch to turn the heat on. These fellows gathered wood and often struggled to get a fire going.
Communication was quite different back then, as well. We are often on information overload with our computers, phones, televisions and other devices. Frontiersmen wrote letters and spread news by word of mouth. Newspapers came out regularly from towns of any size, but if one is on the road as they often were, news came slowly. Even so, patriots like Bowie, Crockett and Houston were legends in their own time. And, the legends grew with each telling. Modern day historians have quite a task raking away the myths to get to the men.
All in all, the greatest difference between the lives of frontiersmen and the lives of modern Americans seems to be the convenience factor. We take so many things for granted that were true problems for our forebears. I am very grateful for conveniences, but we would all be better off if we were more active, more outdoorsy, more determined and more deeply committed to the cause of independence and freedom. I am grateful for the great advances in medicine in my lifetime, but with more vigorous lifestyles, we probably would not need the medicines developed to deal with symptoms brought on by inactivity.