Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Merry Christmas on the Plains - 1862-1890 by Cora Leland

 Merry Christmas on the Plains


By Cora Leland

Native Americans lived in harmony with nature and their festivals reflected this. Though they didn’t celebrate Christmas like their European-American neighbors on the Great Plains, they did gather on Christmas Day to celebrate their own traditions.


The foods the American Indians ate that day depended on what they'd dried when days were warm.  Indians had always used three main methods for acquiring food staples:  Hunting and fishing, gathering, and farming.


Drying was one of their main techniques for preserving food:  dried meat, berries, fruit and vegetables, corn (maize). Then on winter days, some were cooked into stews.  The dishes they preferred were not heavily spiced, though they did emphasize meat.   Some stories describe Native American delicacies like raw large mammal's stomachs, best eaten soon after the animal's death. However, those are just tall tales, maybe invented, maybe not.


It’s always good to have an historical idea of what had taken place for Native Americans using the Homestead Act of 1862 as a marker.  Why, for example, were they gathering on their reservations on Christmas Day and not sharing their Christmas bounty with their friends, the settlers?


For example, the attached map shows where they’d lived in Nebraska.  (My latest book, Rescuing the Indian’s Bride, has the couple riding their ponies on Oto Indian land and much of the action takes place in or near Lincoln, NE.)  The Dakota Sioux were granted almost unlimited travel throughout many treaties. But they were later removed, like their kindred, to faraway western reservations.


There were many laws enacted in the late 1800’s that demonstrated the ‘closing of the Great Plains’ or the ‘ending of the Great Plains.’  This term sounds more severe than the reality:  much of the farm and ranch lands that had been available to homestead were taken.  However, there were many open acres still remaining that were given through other acts, such as The General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act. Many more acres were freed up when Indian land was divided, then appropriated and sold. (It’s best to consult historical sites for exact information.)


The closing of the frontier took place, according to the Census Bureau, from about 1862 (and the Homestead Act) -  through 1893.  They declared that not just the Great Plains, but the entire western frontier was now occupied.  Between 1862 and 1900, the Homestead Act provided farms to more than 400,000 families, many of whom came from impoverished European countries.



Native Americans participated in this change by moving into smaller areas on the plains, or to entirely different regions.  The government’s formal stance was ‘Indian assimilation’ and not treaty-making.  The Appropriations Act of 1871 had a slow, but steady effect on American Indians. For one thing, they’d been re-located far from the places they’d inhabited. Further laws, such as the Major Crimes Act , influenced them.

Indian education was changed to enhance the federal government’s attitude.   With the help of scores of charitable societies, the federal government transported American Indian children from The Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota – and many other reservations -- to boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Students at Carlisle  Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania





There the rules of assimilation were strictly followed: no communication with family, no Indian languages, dress or food.  However, the children, once they were educated, often returned to their families.  It’s certain that they took some helpful knowledge and skills with them to the reservations.


The European Americans who celebrated Christmas on the Great Plains had foods for their celebrations, but they, too, had limiting factors.  The kinds and amounts of food they got depended on where they lived – in larger areas, there was a bigger variety of foods, for example. 


What they had for cooking and celebrations also depended on their resources: were they able to produce, then cook, some of their recipes?  And, of course, their finances and their situation within a community.  (If they knew many people, they’d be more likely to find what they needed. If they were prosperous, money wasn’t much of a problem during those times.)

Under the Mistletoe


The menus for home-cooked Christmas dinners varied.  One newspaper in 1890 described the Christmas dinner table as being decorated with a huge pile of boughs in the center, with a baked ham or pig near one corner of the table and a huge baked turkey in the other, with a large roast beef near the center.


The vegetables were also abundant: sweet and white potatoes in sauces, for example.  Variety dishes like croquettes were also prepared.


Normal homesteaders, though, fared differently, though with huge preparations.  Women baked breads that needed more than the usual methods.  Salt, rather than yeast, for example, was used in breads and also in making crackers.  Preserved fruits were used, too, in a variety of ways.  Dried apple pies were important, because fresh apples wouldn’t be in homes for months. 


Cookies, sweetened with molasses, were given to the children during the days and nights that followed.  

Settler children  in a sorghum field

But their mothers had been cooking for days in advance.  Even a complicated dessert like plum pudding was prepared for the Christmas festivities!


There were prosperous people, such as the educated engineers and designers in mining towns in the northern areas.  Homesteaders, though, had to be creative during the long, harsh winters on the plains.


The winter of 1800-1 was one of the coldest, with the worst blizzards, in Europe or America.  Schools experienced sudden deadly storms, even during that winter.  The schools closed, but sporadically during that winter and the others on the plains.


However, children swelled the work force on the farms, and they needed entertainment that a long Christmas season provided.  Though the fields themselves might be closed, there were always chores and herding to do.  

These farm families were unable to rely on farm labor beyond their own numbers, though farm workers did travel from farm to farm to make extra money during harvest. Instead, farmers learned to depend on new patents for plows to cut through the thick grass roots, barbed wire for the safety of the domestic animals and new patents for machinery like threshers, windmills and pumps.



And how did prairie housewives feel about creating good homes?

Homestead family in their dug-out

And decorating?  they considered it as part of their job: part of transmitting their beliefs and heritage.


Many authorities state that women were proud of their abilities: to endure sod houses and inconveniences, but to also influence their families to better themselves.  Every day activities centered on reading.  But, too, women kept traditions alive.

 Homesteading wives and mothers were said to pass along the need for beautiful things. 

Often wives had one set of china they reserved for celebrations like Christmas.  And cowboys and farm workers were treated, at Christmas, to homemade eggnog in the best of the homesteaders’ cups.  Often enough these were silver cups just for Christmas use.

But cowboys were a sturdy, respectful influence every day on the Great Plains.







1 comment:

  1. I hope where there were children there was a Christmas celebration, but I know many children did not receive a gift. Even as late as my mom's childhood this was true. One year she got an orange and her sister an apple. That was all. This was in the late 1920s.


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