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The Holidays, Long Ago

Reported by Roy Kirkham


What happened at the time of Thanksgiving, and how were Christmas and New Years celebrated by the Lewis and Clark Expedition? Let's take a trip, back in time, to the Holiday Season of 1805, where the Corps of Discovery was camped in what is now the State of Washington and we see what their situation was like. First, came the Thanksgiving dates.
These paragraphs are taken from Captain Clark's journal:

Captain Lewis branded a tree with his name, date, &c. I marked my name, the day and year, on an alder tree. The party all cut the first letters of their names on different trees in the bottom. Our hunters killed 3 bucks, 4 brant, and 3 ducks today.

In the evening, seven Indians of the Clatsop nation came over in a canoe. They brought with them two sea-otter skins, for which they asked blue beads &c., and such high prices that we were unable to purchase them without reducing our small stock of merchandise on which we depended for subsistence on our return up this river. Merely to try the Indian who had one of those skins, I offered him my watch, handkerchief, a bunch of red beads, and a dollar of the American coin, all of which he refused and demanded ti-ƒ-co-mo-shack, which is "chief beads," and the common blue beads, but few of which we have at this time.
Captain Clark, 22 November 1805

Meeting the Clatsop Indians was something to be thankful for. The Clatsop's told Lewis and Clark about a much better place, across the river, for their winter camp.

Captain Lewis pitched a camp at the site of what became Fort Clatsop and on December 8, 1805 Captain Clark and the rest of the party arrived.
Five days earlier, Sergeant Pryor and Gibson killed six elk, confirming that they were now in the center of good hunting country. By December 8, 1805 Clark determined they were at the best site for their winter quarters and work on Fort Clatsop commenced.

Clark's principal objective was to find a location to make salt, and on December 9th he set out to find such a place. Along the way they met many friendly Clatsop's, they bartered for goods, and the Indians took them to their living quarters. From there they were guided to the location where they established the Salt Works.

Right around the 11th of December Captain Clark was back at the Fort, supervising construction, suffering with fleas infesting robes and blankets, receiving Clatsop visitors and bartering for supplies, and before they know it, Christmas had arrived. Clark writes:

At daylight this morning, we were awakened by the discharge of the firearms of all our party and a salute, shouts, and a song which the whole party joined in under our windows, after which they retired to their rooms. Were cheerful all the morning. After breakfast we divided our tobacco, which amounted to 12 carrots, one half of which we gave to the men of the party who used tobacco, and to those who do not use it we made a present of a handkerchief. The Indians left us in the evening. All the party snugly fixed in their huts. I received a present of Captain Lewis of a fleece hosiery shirt, drawers and socks, a pair of moccasins of Whitehouse, a small Indian basket of Goodrich, two dozen white weasels' tails of the Indian woman, and some black root of the Indians before their departure. Drouilliard informs me that he saw a snake pass across the path today. The day proved showery, wet, and disagreeable.

We would have spent this day, the nativity of Christ, in feasting, had we had anything either to raise our spirits or even gratify our appetites. Our dinner consisted of poor elk, so much spoiled that we ate it through mere necessity, some spoiled pounded fish, and a few roots.

Captain Clark, Fort Clatsop, Christmas, 25 December 1805

December 30, 1805 found the Fort completed and, in the following journal entry, Clark reports about the New Years Celebration:

This morning I was awakened at an early hour by the discharge of a volley of small arms, which was fired by our party in front of our quarters to usher in the New Year. This was the only mark of respect which we had it in our power to pay this celebrated day.

Our repast of this day, though better than that of Christmas, consisted principally in the anticipation of the 1st day of January, 1807, when, in the bosom of our friends, we hope to participate in the mirth and hilarity of the day; and when, with the zest given by the recollection of the present, we shall completely, both mentally and corporally, enjoy the repast which the hand of civilization has prepared for us.

At present we were content with eating our boiled elk and wappato, and solacing our thirst with our only beverage, pure water.

Two of our hunters who set out this morning returned in the evening having killed two buck elk. They presented Captain Clark and myself each a marrowbone and tongue, on which we supped.

We were uneasy with respect to two of our men, Willard and Wiser, who were dispatched on the 28th ult. with the salt makers, and were directed to return immediately. Their not having returned induces us to believe it probable that they have missed their way.

Captain Lewis, Fort Clatsop, 1 January 1806