Christmas at Fort Hartsuff, Part 2

We may assume that Christmas came and went well at Fort Hartsuff that year. On December 30, 1874, Cynthia wrote a letter to their children’s grandmother:

“We had a very pleasant Christmas Eve. We had a nice pine tree (no doubt from Jones Canyon) loaded with bags of candy and popcorn and with presents…Captain and Mrs. Munson and her Emma, Doctor Laine, Mr. Holloway the post trader, Mr. Graham who has charge of buildings here, and his wife, and Joe (Capron) were the company. Joe and Mrs. Munson put the things on the tree while I dressed. I had been pretty busy for a week. I can tell you, and had no nurse girl. When the children were ready, Thad took Elo and Henry to the doctor’s quarters and Hazen went over to play cards with Emma till everything was ready.”

“They were delighted when they saw the tree; Elo particularly so, when she saw there were two dolls. Thad had a set of shirt studs and a nice necktie from me, a box of cigars from Mr. Graham and from Mr. Holliday, half a dozen bottles of champagne and sherry, a box of candies and one of cigars.

“I had from Thad, a very pretty silver butter dish. From Mrs. Munson a nice ivory handled silk fan. From Mr. Graham, Tennyson’s Poems in one volume, which I prize very much. From Mr. Holliday a nice knife; tortoise shell and four blades. From Emma a very pretty pink and white worsted hair pin holder on a mat.”

“Joe had a pretty silver napkin ring from Thad and me. Hazen had from Thad and me a small box of tools, a transparent slate, a nice picture reader, a storybook, a camera and a box of jack straws. From Captain and Mrs. Munson, a magic lantern. From General Baird a gun that shoots caps. General Baird is Inspector General on General Sheridan’s staff. He was here at the post a little while before and took dinner with us while here. He was very pleasant, and sent back some presents for the children and Emma.

“Elo had from Thad and me a doll, a very nice little bureau; made here. It is about 18 inches high, with three large drawers, two little ones on top and a looking glass. It is made of cedar (again, the trees used for raw material by the post carpenter probably came from Jones Canyon) and is very neatly and durably made. Also a transparent slate, a bound half yearly volume of the The Nursery , a little flat iron and stand. From Mrs. Munson a box of building blocks. From Emma, “Puss in Boots”. From Mr. Holliday, a doll, a nice little gilt rimmed china washbowl and pitcher, and an earthen toy. He gave Hazen a little axe, a few days before, for his present.”

(We had) “A little trunk of candy from General Baird. Little Henry had a wooly sheep to be drawn around on wheels, from Mrs. Munson. Captain Munson had a very nice slipper case from his wife and a pen from Emma, and a box of cigars from Mr. Graham. Mrs. Munson had a nice photograph album from Mr. Graham, hair pin holder from Emma. The presents the Captain sent for, for her and Emma did not come in time. She had a knife like mine from Mr. Holliday. Emma had from Mrs. Munson The Chatterbox. From Thad and me, a microscope, a book and a little table, made here… We did not wish them to bring any presents, but they did as they pleased about that. It was so pleasant here that we did not need any fire, scarcely…”

So ends Cynthia’s fine descriptive list of gifts received by all at their 1874 Christmas gathering at the new Fort in the Loup Valley.

Having witnessed a happy and generous Christmas through the eyes of Mrs. Lieutenant Thaddeus Capron, we have selected another impression of Christmas as experienced by a settler’s wife, Mrs. Truman Freeland. It was chosen to illustrate a stark contrast to conditions.

Truman Freeland was also from Illinois. He first visited the valley of the North Loup River in the year 1870 at the age of 18 years old. He returned in 1872 and became the second homesteader in the vicinity of present-day Burwell in Garfield County. His homestead was about four miles above the site of Fort Hartsuff.

Freeland married Miss Jane Russell, a hometown sweetheart, in the year 1874. Both Freelands were good diarists and we own them a debt of gratitude for providing honest and candid insights into the lives and hardships of settlers in this region. Quotations used in this account come from a journal begun on January 1, 1875. Mr. Elmer “Turk” Freeland, Truman’s son, was kind enough to share the original with this writer back in the 1960’s and even trusted me to arrange to have it microfilmed by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Turk was proud of his heritage and was always supportive of my use of his father’s manuscript and published material.

We pick up the diary on November 10, the day Truman and a few hunters left the valley to hunt buffalo in southwest Nebraska. Jane kept the local diary, while her husband, Truman, kept his own record of the hunt. He was unable to maintain close communication with her and for weeks at a time she would not hear from him. She often assumed he was dead, wished she was back home, and was otherwise worried and dissatisfied. The tenor of her state of despair is well conveyed as we pick up her diary account of December 24th, Friday, 1875:

“Oh, what a lonely Christmas Eve. My heart is too sad to write. Am all alone, hungry and cold, no wood to cook my supper nor to keep me warm. When I think of the contrast between this and last Christmas Eve it really does seem to me that I cannot stay here alone tonight…I wonder if mother Marie and Ella, Lois, Charles, Ed, Art and a numerous host of nephews and nieces and other friends that met with me last Christmas Eve are thinking of me tonight…I was spitting blood again this morning. It is early, but I must retire for I am cold. Good-night, dear husband. Next Christmas Eve, if you are living, perhaps I shall be in the land of the living-not, in a land of dying.”

And on December 25th, 1875, Jane Freeland continues:

“Christmas Day. Last night I went to bed cold, slept cold, and got up cold this morning and remained cold until I could chop wood enough to build a fire. I was badly frightened when I opened the door and saw a man bending over the fireplace kindling a fire. I did not think of seeing any person in the house. I had a little fire in the stove but not in the fireplace. I hope the Lord will reward him for his kindness for I am sure I never can…”