Old West Fort Christmas
The Spirit of Chistmas Post
Before we go rushing off into Christmas at "The Fort", it is important we address the question of "What constitutes a fort?" By proper definition, a fort is considered to be "a fortified place or position stationed with troops", but if the West had written the dictionary instead of Webster, we would find a more robust and less restrictive description.
To the West, a fort was any enclosure be it existing or to be constructed by any means obtainable from whatever materials are readily available. The finished product of such labors then being employeed for purpose of providing brave and generous protection to any or all of the following; persons, ideals, property, commerce, travel, progress. This protection shall be given by any entity within fort boundaries without regard to military station, personal profession, training or desire and direct force shall be applied against all threats be they real or perceived as such. In English, we can simply say a fort could be anything manned by anyone at any time for any reason, this broad definition being thus is one of the foundations for the diversity we find.
To further confuse things the term "fort" could used in the naming of institutions military or not, such as Fort Manual, S.D. which was a fur trading post. To the opposite end a military fort could be built upon existing civilian buildings such as homes, missions or stage stops. Before 1870 trading posts were a option often taken, for in many cases they were already fortified in an effort to discourage thievery, as was the case at Fort St. Vrain and Pease. But it is in instances where actual construction is necessary we find the greatest inconsistency for nature does not bless all equally. Log is used where there were trees, adobe where there are none, and reliance on natural barriers as well. And so we find island forts as well as those of sod and stone.
This rugged patchwork military can be seen woven across the West in a vast array of ingenious structural examples ranging from the almost Victorian Fort Shaw to the bleak and frozen Camp Halleck. Fort Grattan was sod, Montana's Fort Custer was wooden while the more hastily constructed Chouteau's Fort was a nothing more than a barracade of baggage and then there was Fort Union, New Mexico which could not make up its mind. At its beginning it was a log fort, then tried its hand at being earthen structure and finally rounding out its resume as adobe. Possibly the most inventive Western fort served as such due to its profound simplicity. The prehistoric Fort Rock was nothing more than a volcano crater used by clever Indians as a shelter.
For all of their differences there were striking similarities among the forts as well.
None of the U.S. Army posts were constructed with comfort or convienence as a priority and food was mearly the fuel for the human machine. It was not prepared for enjoyment, which we can easily see in Captain Marcy's 1859 recipe for pemmican, which he recommends as a regular on the menu of the marching soldier;
"…The buffalo is cut into thin flakes, and hung up to dry in the sun or before a slow fire; it is then pounded between two stones and reduced to a powder; this powder is placed in a bag of the animal's hide, with the hair on the outside; melted grease is then poured into it, and the bag sewn up. It can be eaten raw and many prefer it so. Mixed with a little flour and boiled, it is a very wholesome and exceedingly nutritious food, and will keep fresh for a long time."
Another common element bonding these far flung military siblings was the widespread complaint of monotony which appears so often in letters and diaries that it is almost as if it were cried out with one universal voice.
Everything in fort life was done by the book, from what was eaten to what was not drunk, when to sleep and when to rise. Even who you spoke to and how was a matter of strict regulation and Army protocol. Many of these social rules applied to the fort wives as well thereby creating distinct social classes in a rather limited environment.
And so it is here at the fort that we can most clearly see that by the light of hundreds of tiny regulations, the stage being brilliantly illuminated for the annual entrance of Father Christmas. Once a year the barriers came down, drink was allowed, and the food as we will soon see, was as lavish as funds could provide, for even though it was Christmas the army did not pay for these meals.
Forts closest to the railroads faired the finest since anything from lobsters to lace could be ordered from stores back east and delivered in fairly short order, sometimes arriving within 10 days.
"…Our Christmas Day and dinner were all that could be desired. We had sent a wagon to the railroad, 162 miles, as we did about once a month, for supplies that we
ordered at Grand Isle Neb. There, many articles are quite reasonable- eggs 10c a dozen-butter 15c a pound-chickens 10c a pound-turkeys and ducks 12c. we sent to Chicago for Booths oysters which came in flat tin cans, packed in ice so that the dinner we sat down to was a sumptuous one…" 1877 Fanny Corbuiser, Camp Sheridan
Festivities such as concerts, plays, sleigh rides and company dinners were not uncommon as even mess halls were dressed up for dances. Even in the Artic, the remote Fort Conger saw fit to celebrate.
And then there was the issue of the tree. A post with children almost always had a community tree, and officers often had one in their private quarters as well. Nowhere in the West was it considered acceptable to forgo this wonder for want of an evergreen! When one was available yes, it was used, but many a pioneer post boasted of a decorated sagebrush, or willow branches decked out with green paper leaves or some other equally inventive interpretation of this holiday tradition.
"…We hung the plants in relays from the ceiling down to within a few feet of the floor, and beneath them was a washtub decorated with gaily painted paper and filled with sand"
Kathrine Gibson Fort Abraham Lincoln,Dakota Terr. 1875
"Not a green tree or branch in the entire country. But we had a Christmas tree not withstanding. Dr. Slaughter possessed a pair of magnificent elk horns of which he was very proud, and we had the post carpenter fasten them upright in the center of the
dinning room, and decked them up with pretty ribbons and bright colored fringes and fastened little gifts to its many prongs …"
Linda Slaughter, Camp Hancock, Dakota Terr. 1872
Decorations, at times, could prove challenging here as well, but not so much so as to leave a bare tree. Once again some artfully applied imagination saved the day, and there have been accounts of everything from flags and neckties to painted cigar butts and silver cigar wrappings being enlisted to perform decorative duty.
In Sitka, Alaska, Emily Fitzgerald, wife of the post surgeon who constructed stars from covering cardboard with sheet lead and other fancies from bits of ribbon, perhaps she summed it up best...
"You would be surprised how many little things we got up out of nothing" even the good Doctor became involved, constructing candlesticks as well as frames which she used to house gem chromos photos.
For posts where store bought or mail ordered toys were not an option, women often exchanged and remade the outgrown toys of their older children, thus creating their own new joys to be opened beneath the tree on Christmas morning.
When all is said and done we find a fort is nothing more, or less, than a small town and Christmas, the celebration, was, as it remains in towns all about the West, a unique expression of the spirit of American imagination.