Living Off The Land Lessons From The Pioneers

The notion of “living off the land” often evokes a romanticized ideal of simplicity and independence. However, the reality of this lifestyle required specific tools and resources for survival, such as a long-barreled flintlock rifle, gunpowder, lead and bullet molds, a hunting knife, an axe, awls for stitching moccasins, and iron cooking pots.

These items were not easily obtained and often required bartering with animal hides, such as deer, as they could not be manufactured on the frontier. Despite the hardships involved, many people still chose to live this way as a form of rebellion against government interference or simply for the sake of being self-sufficient.

Living off the land back in the day

Modern tools have made gardening significantly easier than the crude, improvised tools used by backwoodsmen and their families. These gardens were typically located in clearings near cabins and required bartering for any metal parts, such as hoe blades. The range of crops was limited, with corn, beans, and squash being among the most widely cultivated.

Saving seeds was essential, but fortunately, many native food plants grew abundantly, including various berries, greens, Jerusalem artichokes, cat-tails, mushrooms, ferns, wild fruit, and nuts. The frontier people relied heavily on these wild food plants for survival, using them not only for sustenance but also for medicine, dyes, soap, and other purposes.

For instance, the blackberry plant was a valuable resource, providing berries for culinary use and for making wine or brandy. Leaves were dried, and roots were dug, cleaned, and dried for medicinal use, as all parts of the plant were helpful in cases of diarrhea and dysentery.

A teaspoonful of crushed, dried root mixed with a cup of boiling water was drunk as a remedy, with one or two cups per day taken until the condition subsided. Even eating a large quantity of fresh blackberries in season could provide relief. Unlike modern times, frontier people paid close attention to the potential uses of native plants, recognizing the importance of these resources in their daily lives.

In the past, having a food garden destroyed by marauding Indians could be disheartening, and losing the whole homestead was even worse. Today, as gardeners, we fret about slugs, cutworms, plant diseases, and neighbor’s cats, which is quite a contrast. In the past, pioneering folks would gather their possessions and move to a different area when the soil played out, or game became scarce.

Today, we are less inclined to move on a whim, and we are not in a fight for survival. However, we still continue to live off the land, albeit not to the extent that our forefathers did. The land is still here, and it is up to us how we use it.

Nowadays, it is uncommon to procure meat by shooting a turkey or deer from the back door of a cabin. Instead, we depend on local markets and suppliers who raise livestock, poultry, and fish. Those who have extensive acreage under cultivation are called farmers, and those of us who like to have our own good quality food supply participate in a top-rated recreational activity known as food gardening.

We are not entirely dependent on what we grow, but we do derive deep satisfaction from living off our land, whether it is a small backyard garden or one that covers half an acre.

There are some gardeners who prioritize aesthetics over vegetables. They enhance the beauty of their surroundings with flower pots and plots, and delight in being part of garden clubs. As tillers of the soil, we are a diverse group with a rich history.

Even today, our gardens still feature many descendants of the plants that sustained pioneers, but they have undergone significant improvements through hybridization and selective breeding. Take greens, for example. For those of us who enjoy them, there are now numerous types of mustard, turnip, sorrel, and more to harvest. Plant breeders have developed superior-tasting turnip greens, like Tokyo Cross and White Lady, whose roots are of higher quality than the old varieties and can even be used in salads.

Living off the land lessons


turnips a staple food of the pioneers

Luckily, transporting vegetable seeds didn’t require much space, and many immigrants from Europe to the New World brought seeds with them. Turnips, believed to have originated in northeastern Europe, were commonly grown by these immigrants.

Turnips are particularly well-suited for cool seasons in spring and fall, and they produce plentiful seeds when they bolt with the onset of warm weather. With proper storage in a cool location, turnips can be preserved for long periods. While pioneers resorted to root cellars for storage, we now have the convenience of refrigeration.


Another plant of European origin that has become naturalized in some areas is mustard, thanks to its abundant seed crop. In addition to its flavorful leaves, mustard is desirable for making dry mustard from its dried seeds.

However, it’s best to harvest the seed pods before they are completely dry to prevent scattering. Clipping the stems and hanging them upside down in bags will keep the seeds contained. After threshing and winnowing, the seeds can be ground into a powder using an electric blender and stored in airtight jars indefinitely.

Today, one of the most popular mustard varieties is Florida Broadleaf, which is easy to grow and can survive mild winters, providing tangy leaves throughout the cold season. A delicious sandwich can be made with butter or mayonnaise and a generous serving of fresh mustard leaves.

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The early settlers relied on various wild members of the mustard family for sustenance. One such plant is peppergrass (also known as pepperweed or poor man’s pepper), which can be found growing in dry soils on roadsides, fields, and clearings throughout the United States and southern Canada.

The leaves have a peppery taste and can be eaten raw or cooked, with the best flavor achieved when they are gathered before seed pods form in early summer. The seeds have a hot, spicy taste and can be used to add flavor to soups, stews, or salads, and may be dried in the same way as regular mustard seeds.

To separate seed pods from stems, rubbing the dry stems between your hands is the best way. Only the tender leaves of peppergrass should be cooked, as the stalks tend to be tough. While it takes a considerable amount of peppergrass alone to make a pot of greens, I remember it from my childhood during the Great Depression when it would be gathered and mixed with other greens. To store the seeds, simply place them in airtight containers and use as desired.

Sheep sorrel

For those of us fortunate enough to have spent our early years in the countryside, memories of walking along paths where sheep sorrel grew in abundance are vivid. I distinctly recall picking a sorrel stem and enjoying the sour taste of both its stem and arrow-shaped leaves.

Sheep sorrel is a plant that shines when mixed and cooked with other greens or used in salads. In our garden, we have French sorrel, an improved version of sheep sorrel with large leaves that are much easier to gather and rinse. Both native and improved varieties of sorrel are perennials, and the native sorrel can be found all over the United States.

There are countless useful native greens, such as lambs quarters, purslane, poke salad, plantain, dandelion, dock, and many more. Most of these are perennials and will re-emerge year after year if left undisturbed. They can be found throughout the United States, southern Canada, and even some parts of Mexico. If you cannot forage for these plants in the wild, most can be grown in gardens, as long as precautions are taken to prevent them from becoming invasive.

Wild garlic & onion

wild grlic foraging just like the pioneers did

The frontiersmen of the past were not only hunters and gatherers but also skilled farmers who knew how to cultivate the land and grow plants to enhance the flavor of their meals. They had extensive knowledge of the Allium genus, which includes several wild and cultivated varieties such as wild onions, wild garlic, leeks, and chives.

These plants were particularly useful as they added a distinctive onion or garlic flavor to meats and vegetables. If you are unsure about their identification, you can rely on your sense of smell to detect their signature aroma. Fortunately, all of these plants are easy to grow, but like some other plants, they can become invasive and take over your garden. Therefore, it is essential to keep them under control.

One way to manage them is to snip and freeze their tops when they are young and tender, especially as they tend to go dormant when hot weather arrives. By doing this, you can preserve their fresh flavors for later use. In addition, the bulbs can be dug up when they are dormant and spread out to dry in a shaded spot. Once dry, you can brush off any dirt and store them in cheesecloth bags in a cool room.

Using these dried bulbs is a great way to add flavor to your dishes, and you can grind them to a fine powder or chop them into small pieces. You can use them as a seasoning for meats, vegetables, soups, stews, and sauces. They are also an excellent addition to marinades and dressings.

In summary, the Allium genus is a versatile group of plants that has been used by frontiersmen for centuries to enhance the flavors of their meals. With a little bit of knowledge and care, you can grow and harvest these plants in your garden and enjoy their delicious flavors all year round.

Jerusalem artichoke

Plants with edible tubers can provide a valuable source of nutrition, particularly when other food sources are scarce. Among these plants, the Jerusalem artichoke stands out as one of the most widely cultivated and appreciated by those in the know. Indigenous to North America, the Jerusalem artichoke is now found across the United States and beyond, and its small, knobby tubers are prized for their unique nutty flavor and versatile culinary applications.

To harvest the tubers, one should wait until the plant has gone dormant and then carefully dig up only what is needed, leaving the rest in the ground or covered with soil nearby. Unlike potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes keep better when covered with soil than when cleaned and refrigerated, so it is best to leave them in the ground until ready to use. Before cooking, simply wash the tubers and scrub them with a vegetable brush; there is no need to peel them.

Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten raw as a snack or in salads, but they are perhaps most commonly boiled, fried, or scalloped. Unlike potatoes, they contain no starch, but rather a carbohydrate called inulin, which makes them a safe choice for diabetics. They are a delicious and nutritious addition to any meal.

To grow Jerusalem artichokes, it is best to plant them alongside a fence, as the plants can grow quite tall and may fall over onto other plants if not supported. They will grow in a variety of soils, but seem to do best in poor soil. With proper care, they will yield an abundant crop of tasty tubers year after year.

Poke salad

Assuming all is well with the landowner, foraging for food plants can be a fun and rewarding activity. In the southwestern region of Arkansas, one of the most dependable and nutritious native plants is the poke salad. This perennial plant emerges early in the spring, producing tender and flavorful leaves that can be harvested for a delicious meal.

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However, it’s important to be mindful of how you harvest poke salad to avoid harming the plant. Some people may be tempted to cut the young shoots at ground level, but this can be damaging to the plant’s main stem. It’s best to clip the leaves from the plant, leaving the stem intact for future growth.

Luckily, poke leaves are relatively easy to clean, as they are typically left alone by pests such as aphids. Simply swish the leaves in clean water to remove any dust particles, then parboil them by bringing them to a boil for about three minutes in a small amount of water before draining. Be sure to use plenty of leaves, as they will cook down significantly.

Next, put the parboiled leaves in fresh water and season them as you would any other greens. Boil until tender, then serve the delicious dish of poke salad topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs. Yum!

As the plant matures, it will produce small greenish-white flowers, which will eventually turn into purple-black berries when fully ripe. However, it’s important to stop harvesting the leaves once the plant starts producing flowers, as poke can become poisonous after a certain stage in its growth. Once the leaves and stems start turning red, the plant’s phytolaccic acid content increases, making it unsafe to eat.

But don’t let that discourage you from enjoying poke salad! The mature berries of the plant can still be useful for making ink or dyeing, producing a deep and rich royal purple color. However, be aware that birds are particularly fond of the berries and may eat them and then leave behind unwanted “gifts” on your clothesline.

If you’re interested in growing your own poke salad, it’s actually quite easy to raise in a garden. However, keep in mind that it is a tall-growing plant and should be planted along a fence or out of the way of shorter plants. Poke is a sturdy plant and is unlikely to be blown over by strong winds.

When harvesting poke seeds, be sure to save some for planting in the spring, and thin seedlings to stand about 18 inches apart. It’s best to wait until the second spring before harvesting some leaves, as the plant will need time to establish itself. Poke does not seem to be too particular about soil type, though it tends to grow best in rich, fertile soil such as that found in a barnyard. With a little bit of care and attention, poke salad can be a delicious and nutritious addition to any meal.

Fruits and nuts

fruits native to the old land

The pioneers relied heavily on native fruits and nuts for sustenance. Wild plums, with their tart flesh, were often used for jams and jellies. A variety of other wild fruits were also considered desirable, including blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, dewberries, pawpaws, muscadines, wild grapes, crab apples, persimmons, hickory nuts, native pecans, butternuts, American chestnuts (which are now nearly extinct due to chestnut blight), black walnuts, and chinquapins, to name a few. Although these fruits and nuts can still be found today, they are not as abundant as they were in the past, due to deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural expansion.

Despite these challenges, it is still possible to find and gather wild foods. However, much of the land where these plants grow is now privately owned, so it’s important to obtain permission from the landowner before foraging. Trespassing on private property can result in legal consequences and is generally not a good idea.

A last word

If you are keen on foraging or cultivating native plants and living off the land, it would be helpful to acquire a book on the subject or seek guidance from someone experienced in foraging. Practical experience is the most effective way to learn.

The most costly books that cover the entire United States may not always be the best, so it is advisable to look for a book that provides substantial information about plants in your area, as well as recipes for using the produce you intend to gather.

Foraging for valuable native food plants can introduce you to an entirely new world, as it did for the early settlers, and it is still feasible to enjoy many of the same plants that they once depended on.

Suggested resources for preppers:

Harvesting and canning wild greens

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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