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North Dakota's first Christmas: Who, When and Where?

Many of us awoke this morning thinking, "This is Christmas Day." So here are today's questions: Who was the first person to have that thought on this date in our state? In other words, who first acknowledged the day as Christmas within the borders of what became North Dakota? When? And where?

The answers may be unknowable. Only one thing is certain. The person was European. Christmas is an imported holiday. There are several possibilities, but each comes with a caveat. Acknowledging the holiday isn't limited to observing it in a religious sense or celebrating it in a secular way. Acknowledgement, observation and celebration are not the same.

The first Europeans known to have visited North Dakota in winter were members of a party led by Pierre Gaultier de la Varennes et de la Verendrye, a French military man in the service of the French king, who reached the Mandan villages in the Missouri River Valley in late November 1738 and was back at his post on the Assiniboine River in late January — meaning he must have been in what is now North Dakota on December 25. Here's one of the caveats: That date would have been 11 days later on the calendar then in use, or Jan. 6. Here's another: Verendrye wasn't good at reckoning longitude and latitude. The exact point of his encounter with the Mandan has been disputed.

Another of the caveats, of course, is the use of the word "known." As Elizabeth Fenn notes in Encounters at the Heart of the World," her Pulitzer Prize winning history of the Mandan people, "Europeans ... slipped through the cracks of the historical record." One who did not was named Mackintosh, a trader who said that he arrived at the Mandan villages on Christmas Day in 1773.

Neither of these caveats applies to David Thompson, who also visited the Mandan. He was a skilled geographer; his reckoning of locations has been admired since he made them. On Dec. 24, 1797, his party was within sight of Dogden Butte, a high point about 50 miles northeast of the Mandan villages. There is no journal entry for the next day, Christmas. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes him as "abstemious and pious."

These caveats would not have applied to Charles Jean Baptiste Chaboillez, an important figure in Canadian fur trade history. A Catholic and the father of a nun, Chaboillez was at the mouth of the Pembina River on Christmas Day in 1797. He "gave the men each a dram on account of it being Christmas," and he invited his customers were invited to the party. In fact, they provided the feast, buffalo cows "which I paid 12 skins value in rum for," Chaboillez acknowledged. The quotation here is from Roy Johnson's Red River Valley, a collection of columns first published in The Forum.

Chaboillez wasn't the first trader at Pembina; Peter Grant was there in 1790, but we don't know exactly when or how long. By the 1820s, when American surveyors arrived, a sizable community had developed there.

Alexander Henry the Younger was at the mouth of the Park River on Christmas Day in 1800. He treated his crew to "high wine, flour and sugar." Like Chaboillez, he made no distinction in his generosity toward European and native people.

The first Americans known to have been in North Dakota on Christmas Day, members of Lewis and Clark expedition, spent the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan. There is no reference in any of the journals to any kind of religious observance. Instead, the flag was raised, guns were fired, brandy was distributed, fiddles were played and dancing took place. Some men went hunting.

"We had the best to eat that could be had, and continued firing, dancing and frolicking during the whole day," John Ordway wrote in his journal.

The Mandan were not invited to the party, Ordway wrote. The Mandan were told this was "a great medicine day with us."

Only three native women "our interpreters' wives, were at the fort," Joseph Whitehouse wrote. The evening before, he noted, "Our officers distributed among the party flour, dried apples etc. that they might celebrate Christmas."

Clark himself wrote that "the men were merrily disposed." These quotations (adjusted to conform to newspaper style) are from Clay Jenkinson's A Vast and Open Plain. In a footnote, he says, "The whereabouts and disposition of Meriwether Lewis are unclear." Another note says, "Presumably the captains made no attempt to explain the origins and significance of Christmas...President Jefferson's antipathy to missionary activity was well known."

Many of the explorers and early residents of the area wouldn't have had scruples about religious observance of Christmas, but they would have been "without benefit of clergy." The first Christian clergy reached North Dakota about 1820; organized evangelism didn't get under way until the 1840s.