The winter of 1786-87 was a brutal one in the upper Ohio Valley. Cold. Deep snow. The Ohio River was frozen over which actually helped the men who were transporting stones and supplies from across the river in Virginia.
The First American Regiment had been camping out with the surveyors all summer but by September, Captain John Francis Hamtramck knew that they needed shelter for the winter. He soon chose a site a few miles above Mingo, which he described in a letter as a “Bottom about 50 or 60 yeards from the River and perfectly out of danger from an inundation.”
Construction began October 11. The men had to fell the trees and build a four-sided fortress, with a blockhouse on each corner. The three companies worked to erect and roof the blockhouses and officers’ quarters, including stone chimneys but October 30 brought a nasty change in the weather with cold, blowing snow. However, by November 4th the 150 men were able to move into their winter quarters.
And just in time. According to the diary of John Matthews, who served as a surveyor and then quartermaster at the Fort, two and a half feet of snow fell by December 5. Storms continued through the end of the month making for a white Christmas.
Christmas was not observed that winter at Fort Steuben. Keeping warm, dry, and fed were the main concerns. In the late 18th century, Christmas was not a holiday as we know it today. Where it was observed in the new nation, it was a decidedly religious occasion. Each community had its own traditions based on their country of origin. Most of the soldiers at the Fort came from the “middle colonies,” many from Pennsylvania. This excerpt from an article by the Norfolk Town Assembly provides a good description of holiday traditions in early America:
The early history of the Delaware Valley and William Penn’s inclusive policies created an ethnic and religious mix not found in the other twelve colonies. Swedes, Germans, French Huguenots, and Welsh among others settled and celebrated their traditions.
Swedish settlement in the Delaware Valley preceded William Penn, and they remained an important part of the colony. They brought over their pre-Christmas festival of St. Lucia, its saffron bun (Lussekatter) and simple woven decorations. There is little hard evidence that the Christmas tree was used by other than Germans in the colonial period. They also decorated with boughs of greens, made pretzels (praying hands) and several cookies that have become American traditions
There were several religious denominations, found in the middle colonies, which were opposed to the celebration, and continued to exclude themselves, among them the Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, at least at first. Eventually, the prosperity of Pennsylvania led even Quaker families to decorate their homes with greens and dine on the bounty of the colonies. Holiday Traditions in Colonial America and the Early Republic (norfolktowneassembly.org)
As we prepare to join in the 21st century Christmas celebrations, let’s remember all those soldiers over the centuries who did not have a glittering tree or gaily wrapped presents or a cup of eggnog to enjoy with family. A visit to historic sites like Fort Steuben reminds us of those who suffered, struggled, sacrificed, and served so that we can live with the freedoms we have today. Your support helps us keep alive their memories and our history.
All of us at Historic Fort Steuben wish you a blessed holiday season!