“Now that Christmas is over,” a South Dakota newspaper recently stated, “it’s time to start thinking about celebrations to welcome the New Year. And what to serve at any parties you’re hosting. Why not do as the pioneers did and include oysters?”
Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home. And, while oysters may have declined in popularity since Wilder’s time, when she was a young girl, these bivalves were considered a delicious addition to any special meal—even making an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880.
This small gathering near De Smet included Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, as well as their fellow homesteaders, friends, and hosts, Robert and Ella Boast. As a biography of Charles Ingalls later declared, it was “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”
At the Boasts’ small home, the party “was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She even described the meal: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”
As the Pioneer Girl Project researchers learned, the Ingallses and Boasts probably dined on canned oysters. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the nineteenth century, and packed in hermetically sealed cans, they “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Due to the railroads, oysters were almost everywhere by 1880.
However, oysters were not what made New Year’s Day 1880 special. Instead, as readers of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography can tell from the loving way Wilder described this time with the Boasts, the day was worth remembering because it was shared with friends and was full of joy and song.
As the New Year 2015 begins, we hope your celebrations are just as sweet.
—Dorinda Daniel and Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff
Any word on when there will be more copies available?
Thank you for your question, Sarah. Please see our Pioneer Girl FAQs page.
The article mentions a biography of Charles Ingalls, but does not reference it. Any idea what this is referring to?
Thank you for your question, Eve. The biography of Charles Ingalls appears on page 1024 of the book Memorial and Biographical Record: An Illustrated Compendium of Biography, Containing a Compendium of Local Biography, . . . of Prominent Old Settlers and Representative Citizens of South Dakota . . . etc., published in 1898.
I highly commend Pamela Smith Hill, Nancy Tystad Koupal and all the others associated with the South Dakota State Historical Society Press Pioneer Girl project for undertaking it and seeing it to completion. Oysters on New Year’s Day! On New Year’s Eve my mother, Louise Kingsley McDowell, 1918-1985, always made oyster soup. She also ordered books from the Iowa State Traveling Library in Des Moines for my three younger sisters and me to read during summers on a blanket in our farm’s yard. The first box of books we received – and opened with great anticipation – contained The Little House in the Big Woods. I read it aloud to my sisters – we were born in 1942, 1945, 1947 and 1949 – and with that we became lifelong Laura Ingalls Wilder devotees. My mother was an elementary school teacher and she frequently read Little House books to her students – a chapter at a time.
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