MERRY CHRISTMAS!! This month I’m interviewing historian and author John Monnett about his book Rocky Mountain Christmas: Yuletide Stories of the West, published in 1987.
Monnett filled the book with everything from the “Bill of Fare” John Fremont’s men “enjoyed” for Christmas dinner in 1848, to what prairie pioneers gave each other when pickings were slim.
Monnett, who lives in Colorado, has also written, among others: Where a Hundred Soldiers Were Killed, Massacre At Cheyenne Hole, Tell Them We Are Going Home, The Battle Of Beecher Island, Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight and The Indian War Of 1867-1869.
My first question is about Zebulon Pike, the famous explorer for whom Pike’s Peak was named. Pike attempted to climb the mountain in 1806.
ROBB TO READERS, Pike was a soldier in the U.S. Army and he explored when ordered to do so; not that he was reluctant. On his first expedition Pike and his 24 men went all the way from St. Louis to the Rockies in an attempt to “ascertain the direction, extent, and navigation of the Arkansas and Red Rivers.”
But exploring must have seemed a little challenging on Christmas Day, 1806. Pike and his men were snowed in, in the Rockies, without winter clothes or blankets.
They had already cut up their blankets to make socks and other garments. Pike wrote he was forced to lay uncovered on the snow, “one side burning whilst the other was pierced with the cold wind.”
Luckily, a hunting party sent out on Christmas Eve did kill eight buffalo, so the men ate.
ROBB: Zebulon Pike and his expedition really had a hard Christmas in 1806. Can you tell us more about that?
MONNETT: They were snowbound in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above modern Salida, Colorado and near the San Luis Valley, one of the coldest areas of the state with temperatures reaching 40 below zero.
ROBB: John Fremont and his expedition were also snowed in while traveling through Southern Colorado, but in 1848, 42 years after Pike. Was the Christmas menu for “Camp Desolation” based on reality?
ROBB TO READERS, Thomas Breckenridge, a member of the expedition, wrote explorers were having the following:
Soup: Mule tail. Meats: Mule steak, fried mule, mule chops, stewed mule, damned mule, short ribs of mule with apple sauce (without the apple sauce), etc.
ROBB: Was this what they were really eating?
MONNETT: Fremont’s Christmas feast is probably part truth and part sarcasm. Played out Mules often fell victim to feasts if game was not plentiful. I think the “menu” reflected the malaise and boredom, and longing to be home of the men on the expedition.
ROBB: Can you tell us about the “Mountain Man’s Christmas” of 1813 and the part Flathead Indians played? (Flatheads were really the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes.)
To achieve flat foreheads, the Indians wrapped their baby’s heads in a bandage and used a board, hinged to the cradle-board, to press down on the baby’s foreheads.
MONNETT: In 1813, white fur trappers were the minority group in the mountain West. As such they married into Indian tribes like the Flatheads, often to forge a trading alliance with the band, learned and spoke the native tongues, and shared customs with the Indians.
Economically, the two races depended on each other and mutually benefitted from trade.
Customs were also exchanged. The Indians referred to the white man’s feasting at Christmas as “the big eating” and the trappers and Indians eventually shared this tradition.
ROBB TO READERS: During one shared Christmas feast, the trappers roasted a heifer, but both the whites and the Indians declared the meat inedible. They were used to the leaner buffalo.
Also, when the Flatheads appeared that Christmas they held Blackfoot captives, who they agreed to release in return for ammunition to use against Blackfoot raiders.
ROBB: Who was Sir St. George Gore and why did he travel to the Rocky Mountains?
MONNETT: Sir St. George Gore was a British nobleman and adventurer. Colorado’s Gore Mountain Range is named for him.
There were more than a few of these guys in the early 19th century. They were quite flamboyant. The Brits were fascinated with the American West to hunt, explore, and write about their adventures. Too often they exploited the game resources of the West.
Later they monopolized land for private hunting preserves. When game became exhausted they thankfully sold their “claims” and went home.
ROBB: Gore employed Jim Bridger as a guide. Can you tell us more about him?
MONNETT: Jim Bridger was perhaps the most famous Mountain Man in western history. He first came West in 1820 with the famous Ashley Expedition that opened the fur regions of the northern Rockies, thru the Dakotas, and into Wyoming and Montana.
He later scouted for the U. S. Army in 1865-1866 on the Bozeman Trail.
He knew the Sioux and Cheyenne intimately.
As a teenager in 1820 with Ashley, Bridger learned the trade of the mountain man. He was depicted as the young “James” in the movie The Revenant. He is credited with the discovery of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
ROBB to Readers: For the record, Bridger married three Indian women and died in his 70’s, on his Missouri farm.
ROBB: Can you tell us how they celebrated Christmas in Taos in the 1840’s?
MONNETT: Southwestern traditions at Christmas are my favorite. They are a mixture of Anglo, Hispano, and Pueblo assimilations. The Santa Fe traders first brought paper bags to New Mexico that were used for the simple candle-lit luminaries we know today.
Passion plays, especially Las Posadas, where the community goes door to door on Christmas Eve looking for the Christ child, are a tradition still performed today.
Dances at the Pueblos mixed with Latin Mass are an age old tradition since Spanish Colonial times.
Some remote Hispano communities around Santa Fe and Taos still look for the Christmas spirits that dwell in the mountains and visit homes on Christmas Eve. They are both male and female beings, “Abuelos and Abuelas,” grandfathers and grandmothers.
ROBB: What did the pioneering Sutton family (who lived in a sod house, on the Dakota prairie) give each other for Christmas, and why?
MONNETT: During hard times, pictures of desirable items were cut from the pages of the catalogs and given as gifts. Even when life was often hard, pioneer families kept the spirit of Christmas alive with their innovative traditions.
Prior to close railroad connections, when permanent houses had yet to replace sod homes, Christmas was a simple affair with isolated families.
On the treeless prairie west of the 100th meridian sage bushes were often utilized as Christmas trees (Tumbleweeds did not arrive from Russia until the 1890s when railroads would deliver real Christmas trees to rural towns).
Ornaments were made from local materials and colored paper wrappers that had been saved all year. Straw dolls for girls, carved wooden toys for boys were often all that was available.