Christmas on the Frontier

In 1849, California pioneer Catherine Haun wrote, “Although very tired of tent life many of us spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in our canvas houses. I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times. For Christmas we had grizzly bear steak for which we paid $2.50, one cabbage for $1.00 and oh horrors, some more dried apples! And for a Christmas present the Sacramento River rose very high and flooded the whole town!”

Now that’s a holiday to remember!

Celebrating Christmas wasn’t easy for those making their way in new territories, but upholding traditions was an important way of making these places feel like home. Often resources were limited and decorations consisted of whatever was handy—evergreen trimmings, berries, pictures clipped from magazines, popcorn garlands—and presents were often handmade, or ordered from catalogs, if mail service of that kind was available.

In Boise, Idaho, the community shared a tree in the 1860s and residents were invited to “communicate through it with their friends,” according to the Idaho Statesman. People could exchange gifts and there was a Christmas Eve party at the tree.

But what about those people who were truly in the wilderness on Christmas Day? Well, some of them couldn’t take time off from the important business of staying alive as this journal quote from fur trapper David Thompson attests:  “Christmas and News Years day came and passed. We could not honor them, the occupations of every day demanded our attentions; and time passed on, employed in hunting for a livelihood.”

Fort Clatsop

Lewis and Clark and spent several Christmases on the trail during their famous expedition. Christmas of 1804 was spent in Fort Mandan, North Dakota where the men were issued flour, dried apples and pepper to help celebrate the holiday. Clark wrote of this Christmas: “I was awakened before Day by a discharge of 3 platoons from the Party and the french, the men merrily Disposed, I give them all a little Taffia and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag, Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Danceing and Continued untill 9 oClock P, M, when the frolick ended.”

In 1806, the expedition was stranded at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. This was more of a gift giving occasion, according to Clark: “Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, Spoilt fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner. I recved a presnt of Capt L. of a fleece hosrie Shirt Draws and Socks—, a pr. mockersons of Whitehouse a Small Indian basket of Gutherich, two Dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman, & Some black root of the Indians before their departure.”

That “Indian Woman” was Sacagawea.

If you’re interested in learning more about Christmas in the Old West, check out Christmas in the Old West: A Historical Scrapbook, by Sam Travers. The information in this blog was adapted from that book.

Have a Wonderful Holiday Season and a Very Merry Christmas! I’ve loved spending 2017 with you, and look forward to 2018!


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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

30 thoughts on “Christmas on the Frontier”

  1. Enjoyed the article very much. Have been to Fort Clatsop many times and have followed the Lewis and Clark trail from Missoiri on business ventures.
    Am familiar with David Thompson as I am very involved in the fur trade era.

  2. I’ve often wondered how a family that truly lived far out on the range even kept up with what the exact day was. I would be the mom that celebrated on the wrong day. I wish we would get back to the more simple times of celebrating Christmas. We have become too commercialized and tend to forget what Christmas is all about.

  3. I look back at how simple Christmas was from the beginning…. and how it was on the prairie and in small, start-up railroad towns… and how those Pilgrims fled here for religious freedom and the simple celebrations of prayers and food….

    And then I wonder where did we left turn?

    Beautiful post…. inspiring and marvelous.


  4. Jeannie, I really enjoyed this–made me think. Just being together and sharing good times was more than enough for our ancestors. A much simpler way of life and in a lot of ways, better. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  5. I loved reading about these past Christmases and I can appreciate the statement about some of them not being able to take time off for Christmas or New Years. We were dairy farmers for over 30 years and even though we always celebrated both days, we knew that some of the morning and night hours would be spent with our cows at the barn.
    Merry Christmas!

  6. Thank you; I really enjoyed your post. And I too wish for simpler times, like just time spent together and handmade gifts, that is, IF one had the time to celebrate and even gifts to give at all like in frontier times. It’s just my son and me now left in our family, so we have cut the commercial use of Christmas and use the time to be grateful for all of the blessings we already have now and had in the past.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, Jeannie!

  7. Jeannie, Thank you for an interesting post. I will have to check out Christmas in the Old West: A Historical Scrapbook, by Sam Travers. We take our ability to celebrate for granted and rarely think of what it would be like to be in conditions that are less than ideal. I think we should all be in a situation that is less than ideal for at least one Christmas. It would certainly make us appreciate what we have and refocus what is really important.
    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous 2018.

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