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Monday, December 15, 2014

Christmas 1866 at Fort Laramie

In my recent novelette, A Christmas Promise, I concluded with an author's note about one of the events that took place at Fort Laramie on Christmas night in 1866. Here is a little more detail about that Christmas day.

1858 view of Fort Laramie with walled remains of old Fort John to the left.

Like most frontier forts, Fort Laramie was built in a location based on its strategic value in relation to the surrounding terrain, its access to water, its defensibility and, in this fort's particular case, because there was an earlier trading fort there that provided a foundation on which to expand. It was not built near large cities with easy access to civilian populations. In other words, it was isolated. This resulted in a dearth of opportunity for recreation and sociability for officers, men and their families. To help make up for that, those stationed at the fort made a special effort at organizing memorable celebrations on certain holidays, including Christmas.

Thanks to the German influence of Prince Albert when he married Queen Victoria of England, Christmas celebrations including Christmas trees, Christmas stockings, special foods, decorations and Christmas caroling and become popular in the United States as well as Great Britain. Much of the information about what was popular in Europe and the eastern United States was passed to the frontier through Godey's Lady's Book.

However, Fort Laramie was not near a pine forest. In fact, wood was scarce. Firewood for use in the fort was obtained from as far away as forty to fifty miles. At the fort, often another type of tree, or even a twig of a tree, was decorated with fruits, nuts, pine cones, and small homemade gifts. Decorations were cleverly devised from pictures clipped out of magazines, old buttons, painted cigar butts, bits of lace and ribbon, egg shells, strings of apples/berries, and paper chains substituted for the classic pine tree of traditional celebrations. 

If there were children present, the tree might also include tiny hand stitched dolls and children’s mittens added a personal touch, and treats such as candies and sugar cookies. Mrs. Elizabeth Burt, wife of Captain Andrew S. Burt wrote of Christmas at her home, Fort Laramie, in 1866:

“As Christmas approached we made as great an effort as possible to enter into the spirit of the season. We made different kinds of candy… Judge Carter had brought a small supply of gifts in his ox train...The stockings were hung in the, wide open fireplace, down which Santa Claus could descend with ease. My six Sunday school scholars were made happy by homemade candy, ice cream, cookies and doughnuts.”
1877 Old Bedlam

For the adults, the Christmas celebration centered on dances, music and food. Officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men did not celebrate together, but there were several social events with feasting, drinking and receptions being enjoyed by nearly all members of the garrison.
Restored "Old Bedlam"- Photo by Robyn Echols June 2014

1866 had been a year of tension due to the hostilities between the Cheyenne and Sioux and the white settlers traveling through Indian land up the Bozeman trail effectively breaking an  earlier treaty that guaranteed that land for the sole use of the native tribes. The fort, along with the other forts in the area had been under constant threat of attack. To help provide relief from that constant fear, it was decided by the officers and their ladies to hold a white glove ball in Old Bedlam on Christmas night.

The party was in full swing in "Old Bedlam," a nickname reminiscent of the insane asylum given to the single officers' quarters, with everyone enjoying the merriment which was expected to last until midnight. It was cut short when about 11 p.m. a man, stumbling with exhaustion and dressed in an ice-fringed buffalo robe appeared in the doorway, asking hoarsely to see the commanding officer. The man was John (Portugee) Phillips, one of Colonel Carrington’s scouts. He had just ridden 236 miles, mostly at night to escape observation, to report that 81 men led by Capt. William J. Fetterman had been massacred while riding to the relief of one of Fort Phil Kearny’s beleaguered wood parties.

John "Portugee" Phillips

The news shocked the party-goers, many of whom knew Capt. Fetterman and some of his men. It brought the reality of the danger to the eastern Wyoming forts posed by the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne. The party immediately broke up and the officers and families returned to their homes. 

John Phillips passed along Colonel Carrington's request that reinforcements be sent to Fort Phil Kearney at once. Plans were set into motion to provide the requested relief. Unfortunately, blizzards and -23 degree weather kept the relief Carrington wanted so desperately from leaving Fort Laramie until January 2, 1867.

Zina Abbott is the pen name for Robyn Echols. Her current historical western novelette is titled A Christmas Promise and is available on Amazon, Nook and Smashwords.



  1. So interesting. I love learning about homespun Christmases. One year when I was room mother for my son's class, we got the theme "American Christmas" for the all-school party. I learned that in prairie communities with no trees to waste, families would find a bare tree branch and cover it with cotton batting, like snow, then hang it with little home made decorations. My husband I did just that, we were relandscaping at the time so took a bare tree branch, covered it with batting, then the kids made decorations out of walnut shells, paper, etc. Great fun!

  2. It is always eye-opening and humbling to see how people celebrated in times past. Thank you for sharing this story with us. Doris

  3. Robyn, military life in one of the outposts sounds absolutely miserable. It would take a special kind of person to be able to live in such desolation. Add to that the threat of being massacred by Indian Tribes on the warpath. Sounds like they were pretty brave souls one and all.

  4. It makes me wonder how they even built the fort with wood so meager at that site.
    What a reality crusher to have such a report given during a party. I can't even imagine what that must have been like.
    I enjoyed reading this chunk of history about a Christmas celebration in Wyoming back in history, Robyn. Happy holidays!

  5. Robyn,

    People certainly used their creative thinking to come up with ways to *make-do* when they wanted to bring a feeling of civilization to their uncivilized surroundings.

    John Phillips was one tough cookie to have made it through the storm with his message. Prairie blizzards are storms to be reckoned with, that's for darn sure. I've lived on the eastern Colorado prairie for most of my life. My growing-up years were spent about 2 1/2 hours south of Ft. Laramie, so I know the area fairly well.

    Great post. :-)