Christmas in Dakota, Then and Now

The odds of there being a white Christmas here in Pierre are looking slim. Festive decorations abound, but the unseasonably warm temperatures make it hard to believe that we are in the thick of the holiday season. This year being my first living in South Dakota, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. The lack of cold, snowy weather certainly seems a stark contrast to the Ingalls family’s idyllic first Christmas in Dakota Territory in 1879. As Wilder describes it in Pioneer Girl, they enjoyed ample snow, homemade gifts, and a bountiful feast of “jack rabbit roast, mashed potatoes, beans, warm biscuit and dried apple pie with tea.” While jackrabbit would not be my first choice—especially considering the precipitous decline of South Dakota’s jackrabbit population in recent years—I don’t doubt that Wilder had, as she claimed, a “jolly Christmas” (pp. 185–186).

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A white Christmas often means bad roads, like the ones this horse-drawn plow attempted to clear in Fort Pierre, circa 1915. South Dakota State Historical Society

Jolly, at least, for the Ingalls clan. Ella and Robert Boast seemingly had a less pleasant experience. The Boasts, who hailed from Iowa, had acquired a homestead near De Smet and planned to spend the winter there. They made it to Dakota just in time for Christmas but arrived in a harried condition. As Wilder writes, due to deep snow on the roads, “they were many days later than they had planned and at last about six miles back their sled had stuck in a snow drift” (p. 185). The Boasts unhitched their horses and rode to the Ingalls house, where they warmed up by the fire. The next day, they joined the family for Christmas dinner, and the Ingalls children hastily made them presents. Things turned out fine for the Boasts, and the weather improved, too—“the snow was nearly gone” by New Year’s Day (p. 186). Of course, the denizens of De Smet would not be so lucky the following year, when they endured a winter so hard that it inspired a stand-alone book in the Little House series and at least one in-depth climatological study.

While a conspicuous lack of winter weather—or jackrabbits, for that matter—is no cause for celebration, there is a silver lining to this holiday season’s dearth of snow. Those planning to drive long distances this weekend, myself included, will not have to grapple with the treacherous road conditions that befell the Boasts.

Happy Holidays, and safe travels, from the Pioneer Girl Project.

Cody Ewert

The First Oyster Festival in Kingsbury County

“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.”

Oysters Ad

The Overland Oyster Express Company advertisement, n.d. The Library of Congress

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.

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

The Oyster Bay in Deadwood, South Dakota, n.d. The South Dakota State Historical Society

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