Monday, June 8, 2020

Sparking Fire on the American Frontier

Misty M. Beller

As a writer of historical fiction, I've always been a little fascinated by how people had to light flame before the invention of the friction match we use today. 

(By the way, the first "matches" were actually invented all the way back in 577 AD using sulphur, and various versions of sulphur and phosphorus to make fire were experimented with for centuries. None were practical, inexpensive, and safe for the general public until the friction match was invented by English chemist John Walker in 1826. But that, my friends, is a blog post for another day.)

There were two main methods of producing fire before matches came into widespread use. Most of the "civilized world" used flint and steel to build their fires, however when Lewis and Clark explored the vast lands of the Louisianna Territory, they found that the natives mostly used various versions of a bow drill to spark flame for campfires. 

Versions of the flint and steel method for starting fire. From the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), Washington D.C.

Regarding the flint and steel method, below is an excerpt Herbert Manchester's book, The Diamond Match Company; a Century of Service, of Progress, and of Growth, 1835-1935, which gives an unfortunately realistic description of how a morning fire was started: 
"known to the Romans and . . . developed in the Dark Ages along with hand-wrought steel for weapons and armor. The steel, which was curved so as to form a handle, was held in the left hand and struck with the sharp edge of the flint. Good tinder was very important and was made by charring lint, or other easily combustible material, and keeping it dry in a tinder box or pouch. The fire maker blew upon the lighted tinder to spread the fire and added shavings, or perhaps so-called matches, which then meant only splints dipped in sulphur. If everything went right, a fire was kindled in a few minutes, but the flint might have lost its sharp edge, the steel might be blunted and the tinder might be damp from rainy weather or merely from fog; moreover, as the fire was usually built in the dark before sunrise, which was the getting-up time in those days, the knuckles might be hit instead of the steel, and the fumes in-haled in ineffectual puffing."
If the fire was being built on the trail, add to the above image the challenges of wind and rain, and the difficulty of securing decent tinder like dried moss or shredded birch bark.

Versions of the bow-drill method for starting fire. From the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), Washington D.C.

As for the bow-drill or other methods of using wood upon wood for the friction to create a spark, there were as many variations as there were people using this method to start fire. Typically a spindle about a foot long would be held upright with one end in a hole in a block of wood that sat on the ground. The base board should be made from spruce, cedar, balsam, tamarack, or similar, non-resinous wood. The string of a bow was wrapped once around the spindle, so that it was tight enough not to slip during operation.
Diagram of a bow drill designed for fire starting

With these two methods as the primary ways to build a fire, no wonder people rarely allowed fires to go out, even in the hot summer months. A fire had to be used for cooking, so banking coals, so they could be re-kindled into flame, became a carefully honed skill.

But for settlers, frontiersmen, or Native Americans on the trail, a new fire would probably need to be built at each stopping point. Especially in the cold winter months, where the campfire would serve for both heat and cooking. If a fire wasn't needed for warmth and they had sufficient cooked food, the groups would certainly not go through the effort. But hunting along the journey was usually the primary source of food, and that meat had to be cooked.

Cooking, of course, required a fire. 


Misty M. Beller is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic mountain stories, set on the 1800s frontier and woven with the truth of God’s love.

Her latest release, Hope in the Mountain River, is an epic journey along the path taken by the Lewis and Clark expedition—an epic journey through breathless landscapes and adventure so intense, lives will never be the same.

For a limited time, you can get one of Misty's bestselling novels free here:


  1. Interesting post! My husband is very "Daniel Boone," and I've seen him use the bow drill method to start a fire. Exhausting but it works!

    1. Oh wow! I can remember trying the bow drill method when I was a kid (my brother and I spent many long hours exploring on the farm and pretending we lived out in the woods), but I don't think we ever successfully accomplished a flame. Your husband sounds like an amazing guy! :-)

  2. Thanks for the interesting post! I also think nowadays it's best to carry a lighter, as I've seen matches even well-stored refuse to light on a camping trip. I file it under an"anything that can go wrong camping" file.

    1. You're right about that, Connie. :-) It's amazing how far we've come with the making of fire!