Title Reviewed:
A Home in the Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana; Oliver Johnson's Reminiscences of Early Marion County As Related by Howard Johnson.

Author Reviewed:
Howard Johnson; Martin Ridge; Willard B. Moore; Carolyn Hickman

James E. Davis


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 76, Issue 1, pp 58-59

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Home in the Woods: Pioneer Life in Indiana; Oliver Johnson's Reminiscences of Early Marion County As Related by Howard Johnson. By Howard Johnson. Foreward by Martin Ridge; afterward by Willard B. Moore; drawings by Carolyn Hickman. Reprint. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, in association with the Indiana Historical Society, 1978. Pp. xxv, 133. Map, notes, illustrations. $8.95.)

Born in 1821 and raised just north of Indianapolis, Oliver Johnson grew up with Indiana. He lived until 1907, long enough to regale his grandchildren with stories of his boyhood days. One grandson, Howard Johnson, soaked up these reminiscences, distilled them, and later penned them in the first person, producing an unusual, useful, and always interesting account of pioneer life.

Oliver Johnson's contemporaries appear as individualistic, resilient, inventive people, people who sought and achieved a large measure of self-sufficiency. Their society was also broadly consensual, warmly supportive, participatory, and amazingly trusting. These traits emerge from Johnson's recollections of grist mills, new farms, and hog drives. Social tensions surfaced frequently, the products of local political maneuverings, conflicting customs among settlers, and clashes between eastern values and aspirations and western conditions. Rough play and fist fights were socially acceptable outlets for aggression.

This work is generally free from the sentimentality and sweeping generalizations commonly found in oral histories. Valuable, detailed glimpses of everyday life abound: working with farm animals, solving crop problems, clearing and constructing, balancing a diet, and attending a subscription school. Even so, the many decades separating Oliver Johnson's boyhood from Howard Johnson's writing cast some uncertainty on the work; time may play havoc with memory and motives, making evidence somewhat suspect. The work is further diminished by the omission of an index.

Militating against these weaknesses are helpful sketches and an afterward which links Oliver Johnson's world to Conner Prairie, a "living" museum near Indianapolis. This reprint captures the spirit and essence of pioneer Indiana. Through the writings of Howard Johnson, Oliver Johnson observed: "We had our ups and downs, but nobody went hungry and nobody done much complainin. We just about lived off the land and was satisfied" (p. 33).

James E. Davis, Illinois College, Jacksonville

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.