Christmas at Fort Hartsuff

The Christmas season was of special importance to people on the frontier. Christmas reminded them of their homes in the East and families and friends they seldom saw due to limits of transportation. Often lacking many nearby relatives, diverse individuals and family units tended to group together. Here in the Loup Valley region of Nebraska, settlement was very new and population sparse in the mid-1870’s. The establishment of Fort Hartsuff in the autumn of 1874 inserted a new population mix. There was now a large community of soldiers, civilian employees and dependants of both.

The first recorded community Christmas in the valley occurred at the Goodenow homestead (on the south side of the river, southeast of Burwell, about one-quarter mile southeast of the present Dimmitt place.) Little information exists about this 1873 event. The following year, a Christmas ball was held at the new fort to celebrate the completion of several of the permanent buildings. No detailed description of that event remains, Fortunately for us, there is a good account of one of the officer’s family Christmas at Fort Hartsuff in the year 1874.

We are indebted to one of the officer’s wives for our information. She was Cynthia J. Capron, wife of Lieutenant Thaddeus H. Capron. Capron was First Lieutenant of Company C, 9th Infantry. He had been with this unit since 1871. He had entered the army in 1861 and married Cynthia Steves in 1867. Capron brought his wife and family to Camp Ruggles, Fort Hartsuff’s predecessor across the river, in the spring of 1874. He was Post Quartermaster as the fifty-thousand dollar fort was being built, so was in a position of some power and influence. He was able to hire his younger brother Joe Capron as civilian Quartermaster clerk at the princely wage of one hundred fifty dollars per month. Joe liked the Loup Valley area so well that he moved to Ord permanently in 1879. He started a newspaper, married and lived a successful life in that community. The large Capron house still stands just to the south of the Loup Valley Public Power District office on South 15th Street. He and several members of his family, including his parents are buried in the Ord cemetery.

The Caprons were from the communities of Durand and Freeport, Illinois. Lt. Capron’s wife was a good letter writer and copies of many of her letters to her family and in-laws have survived. Her husband also kept a regular diary extending from his Civil War experiences right through his Indian War service.

The Caprons had three children. The oldest, Hazen, was born in 1868. The second was Louise, generally referred to in letters and diaries by the affectionate nickname, ‘Elo’. The youngest was little Henry. Name for an uncle back in Illinois, he was born ehre in Nebraska in 1874. Henry was always quite sickly. Mrs. Capron’s health was not good either, and she had to hire help not only with housework, but also for childcare. Baby Henry generally had to be held and rocked all night.

Little Henry’s case ultimately proved to be a tragic one. Upon their Company being transferred from Fort Hartsuff in April of 1875, Mrs. Capron went to Chicago for medical treatment. She ‘farmed out’ the three children to relatives as Lieutenant Capron had been sent on to join his Company at Fort Laramie in Wyoming.

In April of 1876, following a separation of nearly a year, she joined him at Laramie with the three children. Lieutenant Capron’s Company C (Munson’s) of the 9th Infantry played an important role during the dramatic campaigns in 1876 against the Sioux in Wyoming and Montana. On May 22nd the Company joined General George Crook’s command at Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. It was actively engaged in the Battle of the Rosebud in southern Montana on June 17. This battle resulted in a draw between Crook’s thousand soldier command versus many of the same warriors who defeated Custer’s Seventh Calvary a few miles away on the Little Big Horn a week later. After the Battle of the Rosebud, Lt. Capron hurried back to Fort Laramie, arriving on June 27th.

Capron’s son Henry had died on June 7th and had been interred at the Fort Laramie cemetery the next day. He was buried in a metallic casket, laid out in a muslin dress made by Mr. Captain Munson. The whole garrison turned out for the sad burial ceremony. The eight year old son and brother Hazen represented the family; the mother being prostrate with grief and the father far away to the north in pursuit of Indians.

On December 14, Cynthia Capron wrote home “…(Thad) and Hazen started for Grand Island this morning. The weather is very nice. It froze in our house a few nights, but we have very pleasant days. They have mild winters in this valley, always, they say. We hope to get in our house in a month” (they were then housed in temporary quarters as the Infantry Officer’s Quarters was not yet finished.) “They have commenced shingling the roof,” she continues. (Alas, little do they suspect that their longed-for new quarters will be destroyed by fire in January.)

Mrs. Capron goes on with her letter: “We are to have all of the folks here for Christmas and will have a nice tree. I expect the children will almost go wild when they see how many presents they have. I told them that Elo will have a doll and Hazen a book, and that there will be popcorn and candy, and Hazen tried to be satisfied and think it will be nice. He said he was going to every store with his papa to see what he got for Christmas. We have a good many things now, and have sent to New York City for a box of things, so I think he won’t find out much in Grand Island. Mrs. Munson tells me she has got him a magic lantern…”