Remembering Jackson Hole’s first Christmas

Provided by the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.

When the Wilson family arrived in Jackson Hole in November 1889, they found a valley sparsely populated by a group of bachelors – a population of 28 to be exact. Men typically summered in the Hole, and wintered elsewhere.  The arrival of Sylvester Wilson, his brother Nick, his son Ervin, and son in-law Selar Cheney, along with their respective wives and collective 20 children, more than doubled the existing population.

Some intrepid early homesteaders were also trappers, making the small revenue they could make in winter worth the trouble to stick it out and survive through the harsh, snowy cold. The few year-round homesteaders welcomed the extra company for the long winter ahead and actually hosted them in their own homes. John Carnes and his wife Millie gave Sylvester, Mary and their five children their old homestead cabin east of Millers Butte, on today’s Elk Refuge. Carnes’ neighbor John Holland housed Selar and Mary Wilson Cheney and their three children. Will Crawford hosted Nick and Matilda and their eleven children west of Millers Butte. John Cherry lodged Ervin and Mary Wilson and their newborn son north of East Gros Ventre Butte. It would be a winter to remember, with multiple capable hands to help with chores and entertainment.

The extended Wilson family settled in for a long, quiet winter. Despite living so close together, winter travel was quite hazardous and visits were few and far between. However, the Wilsons would soon learn about a new Jackson Hole holiday tradition that warranted a trip cross “town.”

Three years prior to the Wilson’s arrival, in 1886, the first Christmas was held in Jackson Hole. It was hosted by Stephen Leek on Flat Creek where the High School sits today. News of the party traveled by word of mouth, or “snowshoe telegraph,” as old-timer Fern Nelson put it, reaching all the way to Togwotee Pass. Leek procured a trumpeter swan as the centerpiece, others shared beans, sourdough bread, dried fruit and a cake (it’s difficult to know what qualified as “cake” to a group of trappers). Dinner was served at midnight, with cards and storytelling for entertainment. One bachelor brought a harmonica, and a band was formed using whatever household object lent themselves to a tune. There were no women at this early Christmas party, and so the men divided themselves up for the female roles for the dances. Those filling the female half would go bare-headed while the “men” wore hats. Coffee was the beverage of choice because the men knew better than to travel at night; the party eventually wrapped up at dawn.

With this simple recipe of good food and good company, the tradition of night-long parties to while away the winter hours began. This early Christmas party was replicated for years to come, as families would travel across the valley to gather together for a midnight dinner, music and dancing until the first light. Everyone would get home in time to feed the horses and cattle in the morning (and sleep all day, no doubt).

Three years later, the Wilson family was included in the traditional Christmas party and contributed their slightly less hardened tastes to the meal. The menu was expanded to include elk steak, roast goose and duck, and vegetables. By November, whatever vegetables existed would have been consumed by the year-round homesteaders, so the Wilson’s late arrival meant that some color was added to the palate. Desserts were closer to what we’d expect: plum pudding, mince pies and bear grease-fried doughnuts. A note is made in the Wilson writings that bear fat makes excellent pie crust. Multiple instruments were available for this party, and an official band was formed. There were 5 violins, a banjo, and a guitar. Men would continue to outnumber women for some time, but like the bachelor Christmas, everyone participated and danced all night.

Whether you celebrate with friends, or an extended family, we hope your celebrations are as full as they were more than a century ago.

Photo provided by the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Research and Text by Samantha Ford, Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.

To get in the holiday spirit and continue these traditions, come to the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s Old Time Christmas at the Wort on December 12th at 7pm. It’s an evening of music, storytelling, and community gathering!

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