Grand Thanksgiving Ball

Sir Rose Price, the famous world traveler, hunter and writer, left Fort Hartsuff on November 28, 1875. His hunting adventures, centered on Fort Hartsuff, were recounted based on his 1877 book detailing his sporting experiences in North and South America. Oddly enough, he did not mention Fort Hartsuff’s Grand Thanksgiving Ball held shortly before he departed.

The ball was held on the 25th of November 1875. Price certainly must have attended. Though he was silent regarding this event, we are fortunate to have another account of the ball.

One of the attendee’s children wrote her reminiscences of that evening. We will recount her description a little further on. First, we will briefly describe how such “balls” were parts of military social life during the Indian Wars.

Socializing was an important aspect of military garrison life. The grand ball was the highlight of all such events. Invitations were sent to all responsible soldiers, officers and their women, and to local citizens of good character.

A ball would typically begin about seven p.m. and might continue until three or four in the morning. About eleven p.m. a supper would be served to all participants. Among dances of the period would be waltzes, gallops, reels and Germans. The more lively dances such as gallops and Germans were generally more popular at the less formal hop.

Hops were held more frequently than balls, perhaps monthly and might be oriented only toward enlisted soldiers. At large posts with numerous officers, a hop might be scheduled for their entertainment. Hartsuff was a small enough post (averaging about fifty men and three officers) that officers and men sometimes intermingled socially. Among their common social events were the musicales, plays and dramatic readings. But balls were the principal social events at forts such as Fort Hartsuff during the Indian War period.

It is recorded that a Christmas ball was held at Hartsuff in 1874. Very little is known of that celebration except that it marked the completion of some essential buildings. Most important was the enlisted men’s barracks.

The main room of the barrack was 80 X 30 feet in size. It was the largest smooth wood floored room anywhere in Nebraska northwest of Grand Island. The barracks fixtures, except for stoves, were moved to make room for the dancers. The iron composite single bunks and wooden chests were stacked in corners or outside. An area might be screened off for the lady guests to primp and powder. Add a raised platform for the music makers, perhaps some flags for decoration and let the ball begin!

We are fortunate to have a description of the 1875 Thanksgiving Ball. It was written by Hildred H. Mead of Saint Paul about the year 1961. It is in manuscript form titled “Back in Pioneer Days.” The entire descriptive paragraph says:

“One of the incidents or happenings at the Fort, told to my by my parents that I’m sure you will find interesting, happened on November 25, 1875. A great Thanksgiving Ball was held at the Fort. I still have in my possession the invitation my father and mother received to that great event. The officers were in full uniform and the invited guests danced to the music furnished by the string band of Morton T. Jackson. W.H. Dougherty was Master of Ceremonies. My little brother and “Little Indian Dick”, worn out by the excitement of it all, fell asleep soon after the music started and an improvised bed was made for them in the corner of the dance hall. Near the midnight hour, my father told my mother that he would go to their dugout and check on their belongings. He came back in great excitement and spread the news that his buckskin horses had been stolen. This broke up the dance and all of the soldiers started a search for the beautiful buckskin horses. It was discovered that a man, by the name of “Markley” had stolen my father’s horses and spring wagon, another man’s wife, and had left the country. I believe it was on the third day, late in the afternoon that they located them near Fremont. They were returned to the Fort and Markley was placed in the guardhouse. The incident created a lot of excitement and that Thanksgiving Ball was long to be remembered.”

The father mentioned was Leander Herron, a very interesting character in his own right. He was a former soldier who had won a Medal of Honor in actions against Indians in Kansas in 1868. In the autumn of 1874 he moved his family to a dugout near Bean Creek. He was employed as engineer at the Fort’s sawmill where he was in charge of one of the steam engines.

During the summer of 1876 Lee Herron helped build a small stockade around the fort windmill. This strong point was serviced by a covered trench leading up the hill from the fort buildings. The whole project was a response to widespread Teton Sioux activity during the 1876. The extra labor was supplied by men of a company of soldiers (Co. K, 23rd Infantry.) They were sent out from Fort Omaha to reinforce Company A of that regiment.

Another important fort character mentioned in Meade’s manuscript, and also appearing on the ball invitation, was Sergeant William H. Dougherty. He was a popular soldier engaged to a young officer’s servant girl. Little could anyone anticipate that this fine soldier would be killed at the Battle of the Blowout the following 28th of April 1876, barely five months after the Grand Thanksgiving Ball of November 25, 1875.