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What Early American Small Towns Teach Us about Survival

September 08, 2022 0 Comments

“The small town once occupied a central place in American culture, society, and politics, but is largely a thing of the past.
 - Historian Amy S. Greenberg

As Americans, we pride ourselves on our independence. Here at My Patriot Supply, we strongly believe in the need to be self-reliant.

But independence and self-reliance should not prevent you from forming relationships with your neighbors.

The reason is simple. If you face an emergency at home, the people closest to you will be the ones who can help you first.

As early Americans understood, community is essential. People knew if they were to survive, they needed to depend on one another – and were intentional about getting to know those in their community.

Today, we tend to isolate ourselves from eachother (and often, we have a good reason), but as a result, we’ve lost that small-town feeling.

Pew Research found, “A majority of Americans (57%) say they know only some of their neighbors. […] About a quarter (23%) of adults under 30 don’t know any of their neighbors.”

Pew Research also reports, “Four-in-ten rural residents say they know all or most of their neighbors, compared with 24% of urban residents and 28% of suburban residents.”

If SHTF, would you know whom you could turn to for help? If you needed help right away, could you ask your neighbors? And if you did, would they even help you?

Survival Tips We Can Learn from Small-Town America

In early American small towns, community was everything. Let’s take some time today to consider how early Americans practiced independent living – together.


The first settlers to Jamestown were men and boys. Understanding they were in an unfamiliar territory facing potential enemies, one of the very first things they did was work together to build a fort. Within the fort walls, they constructed barracks and lived together. Women and children began arriving in 1609.

Eventually, the settlers outgrew the initial fort, so the colony expanded. Colonists worked together to build mud and stud dwellings for families. These dwellings were minimal.

As we know from Thanksgiving lessons, the settlers’ survival largely came down to the help they received from their neighbors – the Native Americans. When tensions reached a boiling point between the colonists and the Native Americans, it was the colonists who suffered…and starved.

When trade between the Powhatan and the colonists ceased, the colonists were confined to the fort and unable to hunt. When ships arrived with more supplies from England (including pigs, goats, and cows), the women in the colony took care of dairy activities.

Eventually, the Jamestown colonists began to plant tobacco, which provided another opportunity for the community to work together for a common goal.

According to Battlefields, “Men, women, and even children contributed to the cultivation of their family’s tobacco crop – clearing fields of trees, planting the tobacco seeds, weeding the crops and ‘topping’ the plants, and removing the tobacco worms that threatened to destroy the crop.”

Homestead Act Settlers

Whether they settled in the prairies or in the Wild West, homesteaders proved they could live independently with one another, but valued their neighbors and relied on them.

Settlers traveled together in covered wagons carrying only the necessities. They built their sod shanties and then small towns. They visited storefronts, trading posts, and saloons. They used weapons to protect themselves and protect one another.

While they were seeking a self-reliant and independent life, they never disregarded the need for community.

Some of the best representations of living independently alongside community out West come from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, which was based on her family’s pioneer journey in the 1800s.

Take the first episode of the revered Little House on the Prairie television series, which was entitled “A Harvest of Friends.”

Once the family settles in Plum Creek, Pa Charles gets several jobs to afford lumber to build their little house.

However, Charles is injured and can’t do all his work. The children try to help, but it is too difficult for them.

That’s when the men of Walnut Grove come together to help get the job done.

Pa claims at the end of the episode that he reaped a harvest he didn’t expect – a harvest of friends.

How to Practice Early American Small-Town Living Today

While I don’t live in Plum Creek, I am fortunate to live in a small community and to know my neighbors. I don’t just know their names or wave hello when we see each other checking the mail. We interact with one another regularly.

We share a pond with our neighbors, so all the parents look out for one another’s kids by the water. We share meals together occasionally.

Most importantly, we help one another. We borrow lawn tools and share our produce. We’ve helped each other take down large trees and haul them off our land.

But when we’ve really appreciated living in a small town and knowing our neighbors the most is when we’ve faced an emergency.

Recently, my niece swallowed a coin and had to be rushed to the emergency room. We called our neighbor, and she immediately came running and took my other child to her home while I left with my daughter.

On a different occasion, another neighbor showed up on my doorstep in the evening with her kids because her husband had been in a car accident, and she needed somewhere safe for her children to stay.

When we were stranded due to a freak ice storm, our neighbors came together to make sure everyone stayed warm and had power, food, and other survival essentials.

Could you do the same? And vice versa – would your neighbor feel comfortable coming to you for help?

Use the following lessons from Early American small towns to practice community.

1. Be self-sufficient, but know where to turn.

While you should strive to be self-sufficient, it is important to know who can help if it is needed. For example, which neighbors have certain skills that would come in handy in a survival situation?

2. Shop local, but not in one place.

We’ve become accustomed to shopping at chains and mega stores, but those places won’t help when SHTF. Instead, it is necessary to shop locally.

Visit your farmer’s market and get to know who sells what.

In early America, people made a point to support their neighbors and their whole community, believing the favor would be returned.

3. Practice intentional community building.

Early Americans were very intentional about building community. They sought purposeful connections, such as befriending those who could provide services or goods they needed.

4. Learn to live with less.

Early Americans lived minimally. They were able to do so because they bartered and borrowed from their neighbors. For instance, one person might borrow a horse from a neighbor to go to town, and the neighbor would enjoy fresh eggs in return.

5. Develop your skills.

In America’s early towns, every person was counted on to do a certain job. The small town could not function if certain needs were not met, so children grew up helping their families and apprenticing.

6. Work together.

In early American small towns, people recognized the necessity of working together. Whether it was sharing a fish trap between three families or building a protective fort, they found it is easier with people working together toward a common goal.

7. Take care of those in your community.

Today, many Americans live the “take care of yourself” motto. But, in early America, small towns would not have survived if everyone was only worried about themselves.

Since every job was important to keep the town running, if someone were sick or injured, others in town would pick up the slack. If not, things would fall apart.

In addition, people defended one another. The colonists built a fort and fought to protect one another. In the Wild West, it was common for people to defend their property and their neighbors.

Today, it may be something as simple as staying aware and alerting your neighbors to something unusual or joining a neighborhood watch.

Meet your neighbors, friends.

In liberty,

Elizabeth Anderson

Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply

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