Christmas for the Miner's Children
I first read this story in 1998. I cried. To date,it remains the most touching example of Western Christmas history I have encountered and the reason N.P.W. exists.
The recollections of Hermann Sharmann, published by San Fransisco Call Dec.1909
We took the overland route to the west, starting early in 1849. It took us nine months to make the trip and,young as I was at the time , the terrible sufferings and privations we endured have never been effaced from my mind.
At Independance, MO...my father was made captian of a train of 75 immigrants...Our family had one wagon, a prairie scooner...and a yoke of oxen. It was slow, difficult traveling and for weeks we plodded on into a world that was a brown, flat plate under an inverted blue cup.
The train broke up as we advanced, and when we had crossed the Rockies and were struggling into the terrors of the great American desert we were alone. Misfortune swept upon us when we had covered part of that hopeless stretch. Our water was nearly gone and our cattle had died... My brother and myself were strong and well able to do our share, but mother and little sister grew weaker.
Day by day we threw away our possessions to enable us to make the distance we must make or perish...Shortly my sister died. I have never been able to identify the spot.
December found us established on our first claim. The nearest settlement was Bidwell's Bar, though that was nothing more than two or three tents, and the nearest town was Marysville, 90 miles away. We had no neighbors and my mother was the only woman for many miles around in that wilderness. With our depleted supplies we were in a bad way. A sheet of canvas stretched on piles served us for a house. It did little but keep the full sweep of the rain from finding us. Furniture we had none , nor beds. We slept on the ground wrapped in our ragged blankets. By day my father, my brother and myself worked at pacer mining on the Upper Feather River.
My mother never recovered from the effects of the trip across the desert...Toward the middle of the month, my father too, fell ill. His trouble was scurvy, due to the wretched food, which was all we could procure, we had managed to get a horse and my brother rode to Marysville where he brought some potatoes at 2.00 a pound and about a gill of vinegar. We scraped the potatoes and soaked the scrappings in vinegar. With this we saved my father's life.
As Christmas approached we two youngsters fell to making plans. Brought up, as all Germans are, to regard Christmas as the great fete of the year..we could not quite forgo observing it, though there was little to rejoyce in. We had saved a small quantity of gold dust as our share of the mining operations and we were determined to spend it in celebrating.
Two days before Christmas, my father then being somewhat better, my brother and I mounted the horse and started for Marysville, riding foremost by turns. We followed the trail down the river and reached the town worn and tired, but happy for a time in the sound of new voices, the sight of men and dwellings and the thought that we might purchase some few articles in the store. It took us a long time to make our selkection. We had enough for a gift for each one of us.
"What you see that would make a welcome gift for the father and the mother?" my brother asked me. I looked over the few shelves of goods hopefully. There were small calicos and some colored 'kerchiefs' that I thought mother might like...if she would ...live to wear them. I saw a bright, sharp hunting knife that I wished I might get for my father, but it seemed scarcely the thing to give a sick man. It seemed to me that nothing would be so welcome to them as some delicacy that would break the monotony of the bad food, the soggy flapjacks and salt meat.
"Let us buy something good to eat,"I said, and we turned to the provisions. We hesitated over a box of sardines and some smoked herring, until it occured to us that what we wanted was a still rarer and more tempting dish. Jacob reached over and picked up an object with a glaring lavbel.
"Hermann," he cried. "Look at this. Canned peaches! Could anything be so delicious? Let us take the peaches."
I agreed and we found that the storekeeper would let us have the peaches for the sum we had brought with us. He had but one can and regarded it as the most desirable thing in his stock.
After carefully wrapping up our prize and tying it firmly to Jacobs's belt we mounted our horse and started back. When dawn was breaking on Christmas morning we reached our camp by the river.
Our parents lying on their blankets, answered our wishes of a "Merry Christmas" as cheerfully as they could. We kissed each other tenderly and talked for many hours of the former happy Christmas days we had spent back in our Brooklyn home. Jacob had brought with him a branch of pine which he had plucked on our homeward journeyand he set this up in the earth that formed our floor.
"It's our Christmas tree," he said, and our good mother and father smiled through their tears. We found some bits of ribbon and cloth and all the little trinkets we had retained. With these my brother and I dressed our poor tree and we sat before it, trying to think that it was glorious, all covered with brilliant baubles, and loaded with sweets and packets of good things.
"What did you get in Marysville?" my father asked. But we only nudged each other mysteriously and would not tell. That was to be the big surprise, and the feast that should make us all believe that we were back in the pleasent land of plenty. We set about preparing the Christmas dinner with great secrecy and care. Jacob fried the flapjacks and made coffee. I mixed flour and water for the biscuits. We had not known salt since our arrival and we used a substitute which was commonly adopted among the forty-niners, gunpowder. It gave some savor to the food, though I should scarcely recommend it as a condiment.
When everything was in readiness we set out an empty box between the pallets on which our parents lay. This was the table. We had two pails which served well enough for chairs for Jacob and myself. We brought in the hot meal on tin plates and arranged everything neatly where father and mother could reach without getting up. We both left the tent and ran to where we had hidden the peaches. We opened the can with a knife and Jacob, as the elder, had the honor of carrying it in.
We came in procession, Jacob leading and bearing the peaches like a butler bringing in the wassail bowl, I following. Jacob placed the can on the box with great dignity and looked at father and mother for applause. And then we had our crushing disappointment.
Neither of them could touch the delicacy. Nor could either taste the meal which we had arranged with so much pride. we both cried a little, but our mother comforted us and told us we that we should eat the share for them.
So we sat down and ate the peaches.
I am afraid that most of the flapjacks and biscuits were wasted.
Our hunger and the rare treat before us made us forget the sorrow of the futile gift and we ate until not even a trace of syrup was left inside the can.
That was Christmas in California in '49. It was a time when we were close to bitterness and pain ... Many happy Christmas days I have passed since then, but always there comes a moment, when my children and my grandchildren are about me, when I remember our sad celebration under the canvas roof on the banks of the Upper Feather River.