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December 22: Christmas

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Christmas is soon upon us. Here is a walk-through of how people once celebrated the holiday in North Dakota.

On Christmas Day in 1804 at Fort Mandan near present-day Washburn, the men of Meriwether Lewis’s and William Clark’s expedition celebrated by firing their guns in the morning, followed by a drink of rum and raising the flag. The men danced, ate their best food and celebrated until 9 o’clock at night. Sgt. John Ordway wrote in his journal that the party had asked their Native neighbors “not to come as it was a great medicine day with us.”

Christmases in the 1830s at Fort Clark, also near Washburn, could be elaborate. In 1833, fur trade workers celebrated Christmas Eve by shooting their guns at midnight and again in the morning. Christmas Day included visits from nearby Native people, who danced and sang. Adding to the celebration was the arrival of much welcomed mail from Fort Union.

In 1834, the Christmas Eve dinner at Fort Clark consisted of meat pies, bread, fricasseed pheasant, boiled tongues, roast beef and coffee, made by Toussaint Charbonneau. People who shared the “fine supper” included Native people, Canadians, women and children.

In 1836, men at the fort fired a salute on the morning of Christmas Day. A feast followed, but the fort’s manager, Francis Chardon, had “no drinkables” to give the men. But 1838 was better on that front: Every man got “a glass of grog” and Chardon doled out flour, sugar and coffee.

During an early Christmas in Bismarck in 1872, with no tree to be had, pioneer Linda Slaughter decorated her husband’s mounted elk horns with ribbons, fringes and gifts. The Slaughters welcomed eleven children into their log home that Christmas Eve for songs and games. The next day, a military officer at Fort McKeen hosted a Christmas dinner of roasted pig with a bottle of catawba.

Another Bismarck pioneer wrote of fashioning a Christmas tree, around 1873, by tying together strands of buck brush, “and they answered the purpose very well.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • Edited by DeVoto, B. (1981). The journals of Lewis and Clark. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA and New York, NY. Page 74
  • Edited by Gallagher, M.V. (2017). Travels in North America, 1832-1834: A concise edition of the journals of Prince Maximlian of Wied. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK. Pages 356-357
  • Chardon, F.A. (1997). Edited by Abel, A.H. Chardon’s journal at Fort Clark, 1834-1839. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE and London, England. Pages 18, 92, 179
  • Fifer, B. (N.d.). Toussaint Charbonneau. Discover Lewis & Clark. Retrieved from:
  • Bismarck Centennial Association. (1972). Bismarck 100, 1872-1972. N.p. Pages 7-8
  • North Dakota Historical Quarterly. Volume I, October 1926-July 1927. State Historical Society of North Dakota: Bismarck, ND. Page 140. Retrieved from:
  • Bismarck Daily Tribune. 1902, December 24. Page 1: An early day Christmas

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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