Pioneer Christmas Trails
In the 1840s vast lands, rich in soil and precious minerals, lured hardy men and women across barren prairies and deserts, over the rugged mountain tops of the Western United States to a place called California. Wagons or hand carts packed to the brim with their belongings and supplies, they said goodbye to family and friends, and all they had ever known for the promise of something fresh and new. They also took with them their homeland memories and their traditions, to satisfy that need to connect with something familiar. Even along the dusty trail they would pause for a moment or two to whoop and holler over the birth of the nation they had left behind on the Fourth of July. Once they arrived to their various destinations they would bring their other holidays with them as well. Christmas was no exception.
The majority of pioneers made it across the frontier without mishap. However, we are more familiar with those who did not. Misguided, misinformed, and continued disagreements, caused the great tragedies of the Donner Party. The Donners, already behind schedule, found themselves in the midst of an early winter. As Christmas Eve arrived at their various High Sierra camps where they were already half starved and frozen, the prospect of more snow just added to the gloom. The children reminisced about Santa's visits in their cozy homes of years past. As the snow piled deeper around them, they realized that even Santa Claus would not be able to find them in their peril.
Christmas morning for the Reed family, whose father had been banished from the Donner Party long before, consisted of rawhide boiled into a "pot of glue". Mother had a surprise in store for them for dinner, however. Mrs. Reed had thought ahead when she had purchased her last oxen and supplies from their fellow travelers who were more fortunate than they were. Imagine the delight in the emaciated faces of the Reed children when they found their mother cooking pieces of frozen ox meat, tripe, a teacup of white beans, a smaller amount of rice, a few dried apples, and a two inch square of bacon. The children were warned "eat slowly, there is plenty for all".
A few years after the Donners met their fate, a group of 49ers found themselves traveling across the Valley of Death for the holidays. Juliet Brier remembered Christmas in the Furnace Creek Wash: "The men killed an ox for our Christmas, but its flesh was more like poisonous slime than meat. There was not a particle of fat on the bones, but we boiled the hide and hooves for what nutrient they might contain. We also cooked and ate the little blood there was in the carcass. I had one small biscuit, but we had plenty of coffee, and I think it was that which kept us alive."
In And Around The Mining Camps
For those more fortunate than the Donner & Death Valley parties, Christmas was a lonesome prospect in the mining camps. Many miners spent the day homesick for those they had left back East. December 25 was just another day of mining drudgery. Some banded together for holiday revelry. A $20 dollar bottle of whisky, a $2 pound of flour, fresh dollar a pound beef, $2 salt fish, and a one pound can of oysters traded for an ounce of gold, provided the meal for a group of Mokelumne miners their first holiday. Others in the gold country typically feasted upon bear, venison, bacon, dried fruits, and wine.
The Sharmann family spent the Christmas of 1849 on their lonely gold claim in their canvas structure.
With the parents ill with scurvy, Hermann Sharmann and his brother rode horseback 90 miles to the town of Marysville. Their hard earned $10.00 of gold dust supplied the family with the makings of a holiday feast. The boys returned home with a branch of pine tree, and began preparing flapjacks, biscuits, canned peaches. Mr. & Mrs. Sharmann proved too sick to enjoy their sons edible gifts, so the boys enjoyed the meal themselves. It was a sad celebration on the banks of the Upper Feather River for the Sharmanns.
In San Francisco and other more established towns of the early mining days, drunkness, gambling, and pranks abound. In Rich Bar, Louise Clappe, also known as Dame Shirley wrote of oysters, champagne, brandy and music to dance to for several days. The diary of Alfred T. Jackson, published by Chauncey I. Canfield, notes the Christmas turkeys promised by a local hotel in Selby Flat. For weeks the hotel owner bragged that he would provide all guests the luxury of a real turkey dinner. Dozens of birds were ordered from Marysville. Those miners who knew about them took bets from others whether the turkeys would actual appear or not. A week before the holiday, the birds arrived, but the stakeholders decided to pay up when they would actually be served. The hotel advertised the Christmas feast for $2.50 a person, and continued to fatten up the turkeys. Two days before Christmas, however, the turkeys disappeared. A deputy sheriff was asked to search various miners abodes with no luck in finding the precious turkeys. The hotel served its meager dinner minus the turkeys, minus dance and celebration, and only a lone mince pie to liven things. Fifty unsatisfied customers of the hotel bombarded the local Saleratus Ranch, expecting to find the good old boys there dining on their turkeys, but found them enjoying old pork, beans, and boiled beef. At last Alfred Jackson went to another miner's cabin and found all who had placed bets that there would be no turkey for the hotel were actually enjoying the birds for their private dinner.
The entire population of the mining camp of Auburn, most likely spent Christmas 1850, witnessing the lynching of an Englishman named Sharp who had shot and killed another miner. So outraged by the incident , a mob seized Sharp from the sheriff, held their own court, then proceed to hang him on an oak tree located in the middle of town. Three years later, the citizens of Downieville sat in court on the day after their holiday, waiting for the sentencing of Ida Vanard, who was being charged with murder. The court room, anxious after the hanging of a woman three years before, broke out in applause when the judge declared Ida not guilty of the crime.
A young man from Pilot Hill grabbed his rifle to kill a deer on Christmas day of 1850 only to be murdered by Indians who walked away with his gun afterwards. When he did not return after some length of time a party was sent out and came back with the Indian chief and five others the following day. The young man's body was found under a pile of leaves and sticks, his head severely beaten, and three gunshot wounds. The Indians were immediately put to a speedy trial, and sentenced to execution.
The Christmas Gift Mine
A few miners wrote in diaries and letters about sending gold nuggets home to their families as gifts. Others wrote of a particularly good day in the diggings, then spending their find on more mining supplies. Some mines were actually discovered on Christmas Day, and given appropriate names. In December of 1860, a group in search of the Gunsight lode in Death Valley, camped at Wildrose Spring. Three miles southeast, Dr. G. George and William T. Henderson found a large silvery lode 25 feet thick, and christened the mine the Christmas Gift. Though assays showed mainly antimony sulphides, there was enough silver for George and Henderson to return to the Panamints in April 1861. They collected a quarter ton of ore, staked more claims, climbed and named Telescope Peak and organized the Telescope Mining District. The ore again proved to be more antimony than silver, but Dr. George persevered.. The combination Gold and Silver Mining Company was formed by the end of July, with a paper capital of $990,000 to open the Christmas Gift and adjacent claims. A few years later, the Christmas Gift had still failed to produce significant amounts of silver. The camp was attacked by Panamint Indians who killed 4 of the miners, and burned the company cabin. The Christmas Gift remained closed for over 10 years. During World War I, Frank C. Kennedy who had re-opened the mine years before, was finally rewarded with rising prices of antimony. Los Angeles mining engineer, Leslie C. Mott, bought the Christmas Gift, formed the Western metals Company, and began pulling out about $3,000 worth of ore a day. The Christmas Gift Mine at last lived up to its name, its worth being declared $1 million. Outside of Death Valley, near the town of Darwin, another Christmas Gift Mine was owned by the New Coso Mining Company. In the year of 1875, though costs were high to run the mine, 6 or 7 tons of bullion (equivelent to 150 - 175 bars) were smelted from the furnaces, producing $2,000 in silver, each day. Reports from 1914 show the Christmas Gift producing shipments averaging 60 ounces to the ton in silver, 45 percent of lead, and $2.00 to the ton in gold.
Christmas in Randsburg
As years passed and more women and children came to California, Christmas began to resemble the holiday we know today. A letter from Marydith Haughton of Trona was given to Dr. Lorraine Blair and read as a part of Christmas at Rand Camp II in December 2001. The letter written by Theresa Kane (McCarthy) talks of Christmas in Randsburg in 1897. By the second week of December, Theresa and her sisters began worrying where to hang their stockings. They did not have a fireplace, and the greasewood bush wasnt tall enough for a tree nor strong enough to hold all five of their stockings. By Christmas Eve, Mama finished with her baking and turkey preparations for the big Christmas dinner, while the children sorted their long black ribbed stockings to find the one that would hold the most amount of candy. Following supper and baths in a long tin tub, Mama prepared to hang the childrens stockings. A white sash rope was tied to the damper of the stove pipe of the living room heater. The other end was fastened to the end of a large knob of Mamas high backed rocker. The children hung their stockings on the line with wooden clothes pins, their names attached to each one with slips of paper held on by safety pins, then they were sent to bed for the night. Papa woke them the next morning singing " A Merry Christmas to All of You!'" To their delight they found popcorn balls, peppermint candy, nuts, oranges, and apples in their stockings. Underneath their stockings they found individual presents - a red doll chair with a doll in a red China silk dress for Theresa; a green dray wagon with horses and driver for Tom; a red fire engine complete with 2 horses and fireman for Leo, china head doll with a doll bed for Sara, and a rag doll and small doll buggy for Marie. Following breakfast, Theresa dressed in her best, took her new doll to show off to all of her friends, and admired their gifts as well. Christmas afternoon she came home to find Mama had laid out a complete Christmas dinner just as many of us enjoy today, complete with stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed cauliflower, celery sticks, home cooked cranberry sauce, olive, pickles and homebaked bread. Mince and pumpkin pies were served for dessert as well as fruit cake.
Many miles, and many years have passed since the 49ers came across the trails to the mines. The Christmas celebrations today are complete with real and fake Christmas trees, church and family celebrations, too much turkey, and too many presents. As for Roger and I, we might just spend our
holiday hanging out with the Dolomite Mine Santas.
Merry Christmas to all....
Cecile Page Vargo