Frontier style Christmas
Christmas History at Fort Laramie
FORT LARAMIE – Fort Laramie National Historical Site is best known for its years as a military post from 1849 to 1890. In 1870, President Ulysses Grant made Christmas a legal holiday in the U.S. While many traditions have stayed the same over the years, Christmas looked slightly different back in territorial Wyoming.
According to www.wyohistory.org, Fort Laramie, originally known as Fort Williams, was first established in 1834 by fur traders as a stockade made from cottonwood logs. Then in 1841, it was rebuilt using adobe bricks and named Fort John. Finally, in 1849, the structure was bought by the U.S. Army and it became known as Fort Laramie. Throughout its history, it has been an important post for the fur trade, robe trade, emigrant supply and military.
“Christmas was celebrated in territorial Wyoming much like it is today with family dinners, parties, church services and school programs,” according to www.wyohistory.org.
The decorations looked a bit different at Fort Laramie than in many other places. The fort was not near a pine forest or any other wood source. Firewood had to be obtained from a far way away, at least fifty miles. Christmas trees often had to be a different type of tree or even just a twig of a tree or a branch.
“The Christmas tree tradition is a German tradition,” Caroline Rohe a museum technician at the fort said. “Trees initially, in the 1800s, started off small. They were tiny trees that you would have in your front parlors. Since pretty much all of the wood around here would have been sourced from the Laramie peak area, out here they would rely on cottonwoods, small ground shrubs, or whatever they could find.”
Rohe said the buildings at the fort are currently displayed according to different time periods including the Christmas decorations. The Christmas decorations based on the 1870s and 1880s time periods are created out of natural recourses and homemade items. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that big trees began to be used in American homes.
The displays in the captain’s house, also known as Quarters A, represent the fort in the 1870s and early 1880s time period. The decorations in this area include a Christmas tree made out of a dead branch, handmade candy canes and gingerbread men. There are also stockings by the stove with small presents.
The decorations in the surgeon’s quarters are from the 1880s. The parlor in this building has a tree branch decorated with handmade ornaments. The display in the Burt house is based on the late 1880s to 1890s time period. The tree in this area is a small artificial tree decorated with tinsel and candles.
“Early decorations would be stuff that you could make, like candies and cookies,” Rohe said. “In the 1800s, you’d have cookie molds that you could make your own cookie decorations with. Our cookies in the displays are made out of clay because of mice, but historically they would put the actual cookies on the trees.”
The fort’s location was extremely isolated, without access to large cities or other civilian populations. The officers and their families stationed at the fort did not have many opportunities to socialize or do other activities. As a result, the fort always tried to make a special effort to celebrate holidays, including Christmas.
According to www.wyohistory.org, “In 1877, one writer in a letter to the editor wrote, “Good old Christmas was fitly celebrated in Fort Laramie... Every window in the post was brilliantly illuminated with a dozen candles each, the quarters were decorated with evergreen... Wine flowed freely, and many a hearty toast was drunk to the happiness of old friends...”
In another letter on www.wyohistory.org, the writer offered a different view, “Seeing the brief but improper item in your columns (about Christmas at Fort Laramie)... The would-be correspondent gives not only an improper description but a selfish account of the whole affair. But few evergreens were seen, the only being in the Band quarters. The tree was nine inches high (when placed on a bunk) and was decorated with old cigar stumps. Our would-be correspondent does not for an instant speak of the quality of the wine which flowed so freely. I have not the least doubt but some of that wine is flowing yet.”
Rohe also said the earlier celebrations at the fort would have been more rustic compared to later years. In the 1880s to 1990s, more families would have been living at the fort and the decorations would include more items made by the kids.
According to prairierosepublications.blogspot.com, “Mrs. Elizabeth Burt, wife of Captain Andrew S. Burt wrote of Christmas at her home, Fort Laramie, in 1866: “As Christmas approached we made as great an effort as possible to enter into the spirit of the season. We made different kinds of candy... Judge Carter had brought a small supply of gifts in his ox train...The stockings were hung in the, wide open fireplace, down which Santa Claus could descend with ease. My six Sunday school scholars were made happy by homemade candy, ice cream, cookies and doughnuts.”
The adult’s celebration centered on dances, music and food.
“Around the time it would have been cold and snowy like this and they would have had a big holiday meal,” Rohe said. “On our database, I have a quote from 1864 where one soldier talked about “hoping to get the mail by Christmas, if not just after Christmas.” They talk about “cutting and packing ice.”
Rohe continued by saying their Christmas meal would have been local game, like deer or waterfowl. A traditional Christmas meal would have been Christmas goose, fried cabbage, cornbread, and rice pudding.
According to kingfm.com, at one of these celebrations on December 25, 1866, was the saddest holiday celebration in Wyoming history. On this day, the soldiers and their families were holding their annual Christmas party in the bedlam building.
“Unbeknownst to the merrymakers, just three days earlier, 81 of their former colleagues had been ambushed and killed at Fort Phil Kearney, near present-day Buffalo,” according to kingfm.com. “John “Portuguese” Phillips was one of the few soldiers to escape the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho warriors. Following the battle, Phillips rode over 230 miles through snow and sub-zero temperatures to deliver the news. Phillips arrived at Fort Laramie just before midnight on Christmas.”