Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Holiday Celebrations:

Warren Ferris records a Christmas and a New Years celebration near the Flathead Post during the winter of 1833-1834 in his book Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Christmas 1833: "In the mean time Mr. Montour and myself, set about constructing a log cabin, rather because we had nothing else to do, than from any necessity, as his lodge was uncommonly large, and quite comfortable. Christmas was passed agreeably with the family of mine host, and we were rather more sumptuously entertained than on ordinary occasions.  Our "bill of fare" consisted of buffalo tongues, dry buffalo meat, fresh venison, wheat flour cakes, buffalo marrow, (for butter,) sugar, coffee, and rum, with which we drank a variety of appropriate toasts, suited to the occasion, and our enlarged and elevated sentiments, respecting universal benevolence and prosperity, while our hearts were warmed, our prejudices banished, and our affections refined, by the enlivening contents of the flowing bowl.  Our bosoms glowed with the kindling emotions, peculiar to the occasion. -  Remote from our kind, and the thralling, contracted opinions which communication with a cheating world are apt to engender, when our stomachs were filled with substantial viands and our souls with contentment, we were at peace with all mankind and with ourselves, and had both time and opportunity to expatiate largely on honesty, charity, and philanthropy; which we did till our goblets (tin cups) were drained of their inspiring contents, and night summoned us to repose."  

New Years 1834:  "The new year was ushered in with feasting and merriment, on dried buffalo meat, and venison, cakes and coffee; which might appear to people constantly accustomed to better fare, rather meagre variety for a dinner, not to say a feast.  But to us who have constantly in mind the absolute impossibility of procuring better, and the no less positive certainty, that we are often compelled to be satisfied with worse, - the repast was both agreeable and excellent; for think not, that we enjoy, daily, the same luscious luxuries of cake and coffee, that announces the advent of 1834; by no means. Our common meals consist of a piece of boiled venison, with a single addition of a piece of fat from the shoulder of the buffalo; except on Sundays, when we have in addition a kind of French dumpling, made of minced meat, rolled into little balls enveloped with dough, and fried in the marrow of buffalo; which is both rich and pleasant to the taste."


Christmas Day 1833, Fort Clark.  Prince Maximilian records (Reference) a subdued holiday celebration while he and Karl Bodmer were residing at Fort Clark that winter.  

"At Midnight the engagés of the fort fired a volley to welcome Christmas day, which was repeated in the morning.  The 25th of December was a day of bustle in the fort.  Mr. Kipp had given the engagés an allowance of better provisions, and they were extremely noisy in their Canadian jargon.  The poor fellows had had no meat for some time, and had lived on maize, boiled in water, without any fat."

This winter had been extremely severe, provisions were low, and everyone in the fort was on short rations.  


Christmas Day 1839, as recorded by Osborne Russell (reference) while in winter camp amongs the Snake Indians:

"Decr. 25th It was agreed on by the party to prepare a Christmas dinner but I shall first endeavor to describe the party and then the dinner.  I have already said the man who was the proprietor of the lodge in which I staid was a French man with a flat head wife and one child.  The inmates of the next lodge was a half breed Iowa a Nez percey wife and two children his wifes brother and another half breed.  Next lodge was a half breed Cree his wife a Nez percey 2 children and a Snake Indian.  The inmates of the 3d lodge was a half breed Snake his wife (a Nez percey and two children). The remainder was 15 lodges of Snake Indians. Three of the party spoke English but very broken therefore that language was made but little use of as I was familiar with the Canadian French and Indian tongue. About 1 oclk we sat down to dinner in the lodge where I staid which was the most spacious being about 36 ft. in circumference at the base [11-12 feet in diameter] with a fire built in the center around this sat on clean Epishemores all who claimed kin to the white man (or to use their own expression all that were gens d'esprit) with their legs crossed in true Turkish style - and now for the dinner The first dish that came on was a large tin pan 18 inches in diameter rounding full of Stewed Elk meat The next dish was similar to the first heaped up with boiled Deer meat (or as the whites would call it Venison a term not used in the Mountains) The 3d and 4th dishes were equal in size to the first containing a boiled flour pudding prepared with dried fruit accompanied by 4 quarts of sauce made of the juice of sour berries and sugar Then came the cakes followed by about six gallons of strong Coffee already sweetened with tin cups and pans to drink out of, large chips or pieces of Bark Supplying the places of plates. on being ready the butcher knives were drawn and the eating commenced at the word given by the landlady as all dinners are accompanied with conversation this was not deficient in that respect The principal topic which was discussed was the political affairs of the Rocky Mountains The state of governments among the different tribes, the personal characters of the most distinguished warriors Chiefs etc One remarked that the Snake Chief Pah da-hewak um da was becoming very unpopular and it was the opinion of the Snakes in general that Moh woom hah his brother would be at the head of affairs before 12 mos as his village already amounted to more than 300 lodges and moreover he was supported by the bravest men in the Nation among whom were Ink a tush e poh Fibe bo un to wat su and Who sha kik who were the pillars of the Nation and at whose names the Blackfeet quaked with fear. In like manner were the characters of the principal Chiefs of the Bonnak Nez percey Flathead and Crow Nations and the policy of their respective governments commented upon by these descendants of Shem and Japhet with as much affected dignity as if they could have read their own names when written or distinguish the letter B from a Bulls foot. Dinner being over the tobacco pipes were filled and lighted while the Squaws and children cleared away the remains of the feast to one side of the lodge where they held a Sociable tite a tite over the fragments. After the pipes were extinguished all agreed to have a frolic shooting at a mark which occupied the remainder of the day."

Change the names and the settings and this sounds very much like a lot of Christmas Dinners that I've been to.


Christmas Day 1851, recorded by Rudolph Friederich Kurz (reference) at Fort Union.  The fort bourgeois at this time was Edwin Denig.  

Christmas.  We were very busy the entire day; our only variation from the usual routine being an extra course at dinner of cake and stewed dried apples served with cream.


Daniel Williams Harmon (reference), a clerk with the North West Company describes Christmas celebrations while at the Swan River Fort??? in 1802.

Thursday, December 25.  Severe cold weather.  This day being Christmas, our people have spent it as usual, in drinking and fighting. -My education has taught me, that the advent of a Saviour, ought to be celebrated in a far different manner. -Of all people in the world, I think the Canadians, when drunk, are the most disagreeable; for excessive drinking generally causes them to quarrel and fight, among themselves.  Indeed, I had rather have fifty drunken Indians in the fort, than five drunken Canadians.”  


Grace Lee Nute refers to statements made by Robert Kennicott in his journal as follows: “The day after Christmas, Flett gave a Christmas ball.... The dancing was, I may say without vulgarity, decidedly ‘stunning.’  I should hardly call it graceful.  The figures, if they may be called such, were only Scotch reels of four, and jigs; and .... The main point to which the dancers’ efforts seemed to tend, was to get the largest amount of exercise out of every muscle in the frame.... The music consisted of a very bad performance of one vile, unvarying tune, upon a worse old fiddle, accompanied by a brilliant accompaniment upon a large tin pan.”


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