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The frontier holiday : being a collection of writings by Minnesota pioneers who recorded their divers ways of observing Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's online

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Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on InterThe frontier holiday : being a collection of writings by Minnesota pioneers who recorded their divers ways of observing Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's → online text (page 1 of 4)
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I . H o S .




Being a collection of writings by

Minnesota Pioneers

who recorded their divers ways of

observing Christmas, Thanh'

giving and New Year's


Edited & Illustrated by Glenn Hanson ^ Published by The
North Central Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, 194H

\M The special contents of this book are copyrighted 1948
by the North Central Publishing Company.

Dedicated . ♦ .

... to that forward-looking faith which moti-
vated the early builders of Minnesota and
which is a source of our strength today.

}0k The sketch above is based on
an old wood engraving of the Chapel of St. Paul,
first church in what is now Minnesota's capital city,
the site of which is marked by a boulder on Kellogg
Mall. Father Lucien Galtier described the building
of the rude church in a letter of 1864:

". . . In the month of October, 1841, 1 had on the . . .
place logs cut and prepared and soon a poor log
church that would well remind one of the stable of
Bethlehem was built . . . On November 1, I blessed
the new basilica, smaller, indeed, than the basilica
of St. Paul in Rome, but as well adapted as the
latter for prayer and love to arise therein from pious
hearts . . ."


V^HRISTMAS today is marked by lights which bubble
nervously on the tree, near-human dolls with an impressive
array of natural functions and egg nog delivered right to your
door by the milkman. All of which may be nice, but the rash
of gadgets, the neon-lighted commercialism which characterize
the contemporary season too often make it difficult for us to
remember the reason for Christmas.

Close upon two thousand years ago the birth of a baby
brought to the world a message of Hope and Peace, a message
which is as bright and meaningful today as it was to those
waiting shepherds on the hills.

Perhaps a return to basic values, unfettered by the tinseled
striving of business and society, is the best therapy for this
confused and fearful world.

With this thought in mind, we have turned backward to
discover how the early builders of our own state observed the
holidays of Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's. Here
is a collection of true stories written by Minnesota pioneers,
stories which include doughnuts fried in coon's grease, a New
Year's hymn sung by Indians in a lonely mission, hospitality
accorded strangers from New England and Sweden and St.
Paul, the thought-provoking proclamation of Minnesota's first
Thanksgiving and dozens of other details which make warm
the fabric of pioneer holidays.

This collection of pioneer stories is timely since 1949 is the
territorial centennial of Minnesota when the entire state pauses

to study the sturdy foundations of the state as built by our
pioneering forefathers. The homely writings reprinted here
reflect the spirit and faith which guided the founders of

The Frontier Holiday does not pretend to be a scholarly
work with a preponderance of new historical material ; indeed,
much of the material has been reprinted before. But the pub-
lishers do hope that the writings, collected in this form, will
provide a pleasant and informative hiatus in the work and
worry of this jittery era.

If this book, with its simple narratives of holiday festivities
often in a setting of primitive hardships, reminds the reader
of the real message of the holiday season — and if it does awaken
interest in the roots of our state, then it will have justified its



HE editor of The Frontier Holiday wishes to express his
sincere thanks to the start members of the Minnesota Histori-
cal Society who helped him in his search for lore on early
holidays in the territory and state.

Special thanks should go to Miss Bertha L. Heilbron, histor-
ical publications editor, Mr. G. Hubert Smith, curator of
the museum. Miss Heilbron's article, "Christmas and New
Year's on the Frontier," published in the December, 1935, issue
of Minnesota History, plus her suggestions furnished many
leads for material in this collection. Mr. Smith located some
helpful pictures from the Historical Society's picture files and
suggested sources for further illustrative background.

Featured articles in this book are reprinted from newspapers
and manuscripts in the Historical Society's collections, and the
source of each is noted in the prefatory copy preceding each

Background material for the prefatory remarks and illus-
trations is from various issues of Minnesota History, quarterly
magazine of the Minnesota Historical Society; Minnesota His-
torical News, monthly bulletin formerly published by the So-
ciety; St. Paul, Its Past and Present, by Frank C. Bliss, F. C.
Bliss Publishing Company, St. Paul, 1888; Minnesota As It is
In 1870, by J. W. McClung, published by the author, 1870;
Early Days and Ways in the Old Northwest, by Maude L.
Lindquist and James W. Clark, Charles Scribner's Sons, New
York, 1937; The Pageant of America: The Lure of the Fron-

tier, by Ralph Henry Gabriel, Yale University Press,
Haven, 1929; Album of American History, volumes 1 and II, by
James Truslow Adams, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York,

The drawing on page eleven is based on an 1870 photograph
of Duluth, while that on page 19 is from a photograph of St.
Paul's Third Street from Market to Wabasha made in the
1860s. The drawing on page 36 is from an early sketch of Fort
Snelling published in Germany.

The editor's work on this volume gave him a hint of the
vast material open to the public in the Minnesota Historical
Society and the Society's varied services to the citizens of the
state. The territorial centennial year of 1949 will dramatize the
importance of the Society among the institutions of the state.
Minnesota citizens should be proud of its Historical Society,
not only for its leadership in the field, but for the fact that the
Society has literally grown up with Minnesota. The Historical
Society was founded in October, 1949, only a few months after
the establishment of the Territory of Minnesota and, as the
oldest institution of the state, certainly stands as a tribute to the
foresight of the pioneer founders of Minnesota.


Christmas in Early Winona 1

The Holidays of 1805 with Pike 4

Minneapolis Christmas: 1866 6

Christmas at the Head of Lakes 10

An Indian Agent's Christmas 13

A Christmas Fair of 1850 15

Christmas in a Sod House 17

Christmas Tree in the Schoolhouse 25

"To Give No Countenance . . ." 31

Cornbread is No Luxury Cold 32

Making the Rounds on New Year's 35

Proclaiming a Day of Thanks 39

Excelsior Thanksgiving: 1854 42


Christmas in Early Winona

^ "Desolate Wabasha Prairie" served to
describe for early St. Paulites the handful of houses on the edge
of the Mississippi that later grew into the substantial city we
\now as Winona. Perhaps the St. Paulites of the early 1850's
had a right — in their metropolitan center of a couple of thou-
sands of hopeful pioneers — to loo\ down upon the scant down-
river settlement because Wabasha Prairie, soon to be renamed
Winona, boasted then a mere handful of wooden homes and
unprepossessing business houses. But what the embryonic
Winona lacked in numbers was made up in old-fashioned,
heart-warming hospitality. Winona's first community Christ-
mas dinner was recalled in later years by an early settler,
Catherine Smith, who leads us to believe that doughnuts fried
in coon's grease can be a tasty holiday delicacy. This account
is among the Orrin F. Smith Papers in the Minnesota His-
torical Society.

IN the early Winter of 1852 and 1853, a sleighing party
which had for its object the taking to ride in one sleigh, of
every lady then a resident in Winona, was gotten up by two
young settlers, Irwin Johnson and Edwin Hamilton. The for-
mer drove the team while Mr. Hamilton looked after the wel-
fare of the ladies. Every lady resident of the prairie, as it was
then called, except two, who did not care to go, but for whom
there was ample room, participated in this sleigh ride. Mr.
Hamilton, remarked, in delivering the invitations, that the

The Frontier Holiday

time was not far distant when one sled would not carry all the
female residents of this growing town. Stops were made at all
the "shanties" then on the prairie and where occupants were
found at home calls were made, while at the vacant ones the
names of the callers were written in lead pencil upon the door
thereof by Mrs. "Elder" Hamilton.
The visits aroused considerable curiosity among the shanty

dwellers, as lady visitors were
quite unusual. The ride was
much enjoyed and on its com-
pletion it was decided to give
a public dinner on Christmas
at which every resident should
be present.

The Christmas dinner was
given in the upper story of the
Winona House on Water street,
in which Edwin Hamilton was
keeping what was called Bach-
elor's Hall. The young men set
up stoves and Mrs. "Elder"
Hamilton and myself looked after the culinary part of the din-
ner. In the absence of the bird that usually graces the Christ-
mas dinner we were obliged to use coon, or rather several coons,
with entrees of venison and wild goose. At the request of the
young men, who said it would not be a Christmas feast without
them, we fried doughnuts in coon's fat, and they were much

By 11:00 o'clock every resident of Winona, old and young,
big and little, except Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gere and Mr. and
Mrs. Thompson, some thirty in all were present. In addition

We fried doughnuts in
coon's fat.

Christmas in Early Winona

to these were several from Minnesota City, besides some St.
Paul men who were hauling goods on the ice from La Crosse
to St. Paul and who shortly before noon broke through the ice
on the river opposite the business part of the town. These men
were assisted in rescuing their teams and goods by our towns-
men and invited to share the hospitalities of our Christmas.

It is needless to say that our guests were surprised at their
reception. One of them in a short speech said that their knowl-
edge of Winona was obtained from the St. Paul paper which
usually referred to our little town as desolate Wabasha Prairie.
He also expressed his intention of seeing hereafter the town at
which they partook of a public Christmas dinner and which
included in its menu five kinds of cake, three kinds of pies
and plenty of coon and venison.

The remnants of this dinner furnished us with a bountiful
supper, of which all partook except one man who had gone
over the lake in search of fish. While we were at supper this
man came back and excitedly asked for a team and sled with
which to haul his catch.

It turned out that this man found an air hole in the ice on
the lake and he had but to dip into the water to get all the fish
he wanted. This find proved to be of nearly as much benefit to
the "Wabashaites" as it did the quails to the children of Israel
when in the wilderness — and was the beginning of many fish-
ing trips. I remember one trip on which my husband, accom-
panied by Edwin Hamilton, caught a great many fish. Mr.
Goddard took for a net a woolen shirt that had been tied up
at the neck and sleeves and taking a position where the stream
was narrow held the improvised net in the creek, while Mr.
Hamilton, who had entered the stream further up, drove the
fish into the net held by Mr. Goddard.

The Holidays of 1805 with Pike

& The holiday season of 1805 was ob-
served with jew frills by Li. Zebulon Pike and his small force
of men who were exploring the limitless wilderness of the
North that winter. Pike had built a stockade at Little Falls,
limit of navigation for his boats which had carried the expedi-
tion from St. Louis, and struck northward to seek ine source
of the Mississippi. His Christmas entry in his journal is re-
printed in toto.

W EDNESDAY, 25 th December.— Marched, and encamp-
ed at 11:00 o'clock: gave out two pounds extra of meat, two
pounds extra of flour, one gill of whiskey, and some tobacco,
to each man, in order to distinguish Christmas Day: distance
advanced, three miles.

}0 A week teter Pife was in the Pine
River area where he observed New Year's Day by exploring
ahead with a companion. The holiday was barely mentioned in
his journal for the day, although the hazards of the day's dis-
coveries are made vivid for the contemporary reader.

WEDNESDAY, 1 st January, 1806. — Passed six elegant
bark canoes, on the bank of the river, which had been laid up
by the Chippeways, also a camp which we conceived to have
been evacuated about ten days. My interpreter came after me
in a great hurry, conjuring me not to go so far a-head, and
assured me that if the Chippeways encountered me without an

The Holidays of 1805 with Pike


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Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on InterThe frontier holiday : being a collection of writings by Minnesota pioneers who recorded their divers ways of observing Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's → online text (page 1 of 4)