“Well, here we are,” Charity says.
Ibbie and Ezra stand outside what appears to be a cave. Our home? Are we to live in a cave? Ibbie quickly puts a friendly face back on, but her mind is racing.
“How does everything seem to thee?” Charity asks, smiling at Ezra. More white hair falls from her cap, her face red with exertion.
“The New World?” asks Ezra, “Well, unbelievable. I’ve scarcely traveled thirty miles from my home before, and now––”
Ibbie and Ezra look about them. But in this cold season, the riverbank covered with dead grass and fallen leaves, the cave’s entrance seems to lack even the simple serenity of her childhood home. And the cave? Was Charity asking them about the cave? It looked like no more than a hole in the bank of the Delaware. Could that hole in the steep bluff be a door? It looked as if they were about to embark upon some strange hunting venture rather than move into a cozy cottage.
Living in the 17th Century
I’ve spent the past few months living in the 17th Century––at least my mind has gone there for part of each afternoon, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a cave. One of the challenges of historical fiction writing is discovering an important tidbit of information such as “Early Quakers in Pennsylvania lived in cave homes,” and then expanding it into a whole story world.
What would a cave home look like?
A cave home? What would it look like? The only thing I could think of was the dugout in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek.” A Google search and emails with Darby Pennsylvania historian Harold Finegan offered up some photos of cave homes in other places, most notably Ireland and Sweden, not to mention the American West. But I still was stumped as to what these would have looked like in old-time Philly.
Someone was already there
Darby Pennsylvania was originally home to the Lenape and Susquehanna. The land was largely wilderness, a place of forests and swamps. The Lenape moved from one site to another along the rivers, without permanent settlement. These Native Americans were the first cave dwellers who were said to have enlarged muskrat holes, using them for temporary winter shelter. A few Swedish settlers then lived in the caves.
A practical solution to a housing shortage
This excellent article from Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine gave me some background. To wit: there was a housing shortage in Philadelphia in the 1680’s. Quakers desperate to leave England imagined there would be somewhere for them to live in America.
My ancestors, along with other early Darby inhabitants, arrived in the winter of 1682-3, one of the fiercest on record. Before they built cabins between the banks of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, they settled in cave homes along the steep bluffs of the Delaware. Quakers, both men and women, enlarged holes in the river bluff or bank, and then built a high earth wall around the part of the excavation that extended out from the side of the bluff, partly below ground. The open part of the roof was covered with layers of tree limbs and topped with sod or bark, or thatched with straw or river rushes. Chimneys were made of stones mortared with clay, reeds, and pebbles. I found this description confusing, though Howard Pyle’s illustration at the start of this blog entry is helpful.
Though many Quakers were poor, a few had been quite affluent in the Old World. These Quakers brought money to America as well as their possessions including warm clothes and blankets. They began to buy furs from the Native Americans to keep cozy. William Penn made sure that those with little had what they needed in terms of blankets and food (including wild pigeons and venison), visiting the cave dwellers frequently on horseback.
After building cabins the following spring, the newcomers found their new homes to be less comfortable than the caves. Despite my character Ibbie’s horror upon first seeing her cave home (even after having grown up in a tiny stone shepherd’s cottage) many Quakers lived happily and comfortably in these caverns, leaving no “complaining record.”
One tale from the time said that a domestic cat caught rabbit and squirrel whenever a certain family was hungry, dropping them at a Quaker woman’s feet. She then made dinner from the animals, rewarding the cat with a meal of its own. Another says a Quaker woman, whose husband died of smallpox on the voyage from England, found a snake in her cave. She made it a pet, sharing her porridge with it. In another cave, where a pine torch was used for light, a Quaker family’s blankets caught on fire but they escaped death, saying they were directed by a “Powerful Hand” through the smoke and flame.
In addition, early settlers heard rumors of romantic rendezvous, “Indian Warrior”/Quaker woman hook-ups, drinking houses and general “loose conduct”
Penn’s pamphlet on cabin design
By 1684, most Quakers had moved out of the caves and into houses they built, often to William Penn’s own design.
Fun with writing
I had a lot of fun using my imaginary caves as homes for my characters Ibbie, Ezra, and their friend Charity, as well as an English translator, Gideon who prefers cave life to any other.
By the end of this summer, I’d finished another book and came up with another sample cover. Now I’m just hoping to find an agent or small publisher to bring my first two novels to life!
Where do you wish you lived? As winter comes, I think I wouldn’t mind living in a cozy, Quaker cave home.
In Friendship, Kate
P.S. If you’d like to read a free story from my novel, please visit Friends Journal.
P.P.S. Ever wonder what it would be like to be kicked out of Quaker Meeting like Ibbie and Ezra? People from around the world stop by my website every day to read “Membership Discontinued.”