Early Day Christmas at Texas Forts


“The Christmas Tree.”  January 1, 1870. John Whetten Ehninger, American artist, 1827–1889. Wood engraving, illustration for Harper’s Bazaar.  Classification: Prints. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

By Barbara Barton
Published December 2010

Christmas in the 1800s was wonderful, but people celebrated somewhat differently than we do now.  Presents were usually handmade and the type of food served depended on what could be raised or killed.  The holiday season at Fort Concho in 1873 was one example.  Forrestine Cooper wrote about that Christmas in his book, “Child of the Fighting Tenth.”

Although most officer families at the fort usually trimmed a Christmas tree, that particular year was different.  So many of the husbands were away from the fort doing scout duty, that no one had a tree. Col. Merritt and his wife felt sorry for the children who would miss having a tree, so they decided to decorate one in the commanding officer’s home. So each child would have a gift, the colonel told each parent to bring to the home gifts so they could be distributed at the party also.

Forrestine Cooper, also called Birdie, was a 6-year old girl living at Fort Concho during the fall of 1873.  She liked to walk around the area near the fort with Col. Merritt, but she liked even better to ride her horse, Dobbin.  Birdie’s father was Charles L. Cooper, one of the men stationed with the 10th Cavalry at Fort Concho.  He seemed to give Birdie free rein to go on little excursions some miles from the fort.  Some people said Birdie was downright mischievous, impudent and unrestrained.  We’d call her spoiled, I guess.    

One day Birdie came dashing in from her horseback ride and made a big entrance into her mother’s front room.  At the time, her mother had a guest, Mrs. Gasman, who was also a soldier’s wife.  But Birdie was most interested in what lay in Mrs. Gasman’s lap.  The older woman had a beautiful doll with china head, legs and arms.  Mrs. Gasman was busy making a white Swiss dress for the doll that had ruffles edged with pink ribbon.

Immediately, Birdie rushed to the doll and asked Mrs. Gasman if it was for her.  The woman told her no.  Being very upset, Birdie told the lady that the doll wasn’t pretty anyway.  Birdie said it had three eyebrows.  Mrs. Gusman tried to explain that the doll had eyebrows, eyes and eyelashes, but Birdie was very sad and didn’t want to hear her explanation.  The doll disappeared, and Birdie didn’t see it until the day of the Christmas party.  When she came into the Merritt’s home, the doll was hanging where everybody could see it.  With envy, Birdie wondered who would get the fine china doll.  Then Col. Merritt came forward dressed as Santa and began to pass out the gifts.  When he picked up the doll, he said, “For Birdie Cooper.”   Everyone laughed and 6-year-old Birdie was the happiest girl alive to have a three-eyebrowed doll.

Residents of Fort Concho in the late 1800s more than likely would use a juniper bush such as this if they chose to put up a Christmas tree. Officer’s quarters during Christmas at Old Fort Concho. The soldiers had several ways they celebrated the holiday season.  Some troopers shot off their rifles to get into the Christmas spirit, making a large volley.  Sounding a booming shot may have been their version of popping firecrackers.  Food was also an important part of the early-day Christmases.  The list of dishes served at Fort Ringgold in 1886 sounds like the menu in a fancy restaurant.  This fort was in the southern tip of Texas, and it survived for nearly 100 years.  Its buildings are now transformed into an elementary school in the town of Rio Grand City.  
Many Christmas dinners at Texas forts included a dance that lasted far into the night.

Soldiers attending a Christmas dinner at Fort Ringgold in 1886 recorded the various foods they enjoyed.  The feast began with tomato soup and oysters.  The main courses included roasted pork, venison with mayonnaise sauce, and chicken. Vegetables included cabbage, mashed potatoes, French peas, turnips, corn and tomatoes.  Desserts sounded great as they included jelly cake, oranges, nuts, apple pie and mince pie along with lemon pie.  On top of all this good cheer, each man was given a quart bottle of beer.  These were presented to the troops by their saddler, James Patterson.

Visitors get a feel for old time Christmas at Texas Forts at the Christmas at Old Fort Concho event in San Angelo. Although soldiers at Fort Ringgold enjoyed balmy days during December, recruits stationed at Fort Belknap near the upper Brazos River and modern-day Newcastle, received the full-force of winter’s chilling breezes.  During December of 1856, residents of Fort Belknap felt the full force of winter’s rain and ice because they were situated on unprotected high ground.  No trees or fences protected them from the cold north wind.  While trying to get in the Christmas spirit in 1856, a few young soldiers made eggnog from frozen eggs.  Even though they may have been under the influence of spirits, their commander said they performed the ceremony of the guard quite well the next day.  Two days after Christmas, ice froze 6 inches thick and horses on picket lines froze to death.  Wintertime on the high plains was tough.

Winter weather in Texas was always uncertain, according to Lydia Spencer Lane, wife of Lieutenant William B. Lane who was stationed at Fort Clark.  Their home was about 30 miles southeast of present-day Del Rio. On Christmas Eve of 1864, Lydia, her small baby and her husband left Fort Clark traveling in a wagon driven by a man named Biles.  They planned to spend the holidays in San Antonio.  On their departure, the weather was so nice that Biles didn’t even bring a coat.  However, a short time into the trip a cold norther blew in.  Biles had already started his holiday celebration by imbibing heavily in the spirits.  He passed out, so William had to sit beside him and drive the wagon team.  Biles kept falling over, so William cracked him with a whip from time to time to rouse him and keep him from freezing to death.  

Lydia laid her baby on her lap and covered her with layers of blankets.  First she worried because the little one wasn’t warm enough. Then she worried that she would be smothered with so much cover.  Miraculously, they made it to their destination with all bodies alive.
Back in the 1880s the best holidays at the forts seemed to center around families and friends getting together to visit, eat and dance, if possible.