Christmas at Fort Clatsop
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he Corps of Discovery's third Christmas celebration together showed that the bonds of brotherhood, woven of travail and triumph, had drawn them close together. There was even a surprisingly large ration of charity in the observance, considering how poor they were on the whole.
Christmas Day at Fort Clatsop was rather warm and, as usual, rainy. At dawn the captains were roused, according to Clark, by "the discharge of the fire arm[s] of all our party & a Selute, Shoute and a Song which the whole party joined in under our windows, after which they retired to their rooms [and] were Chearfull all the morning."
The "Selute" was, of course, that volley of gunfire. The "shout" was another Southern tradition: If you could surprise someone by shouting "Christmas gift!" first, you were owed one, although, in the spirit of the day, reciprocity certainly was in order.
In another traditional detail, compared with Christmas at Fort Mandan, the observance at Fort Clatsop was just short of grim. "We would have Spent this day the nativity of Christ in feasting," Clark journaled, "had we any thing either to raise our Sperits or even gratify our appetites. Our Diner concisted of pore [i.e., lean, not fat] Elk, So much Spoiled that we eate it thro' mear necessity. Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots." It was certainly, he emphasized, "a bad Christmass diner."
Nevertheless, although they were dangerously short of supplies in general, they salvaged the day with gift-giving. The captains had thoughtfully reserved a few treasures for the occasion. They distributed half of their remaining 12 carrots of tobacco among the users, and gave handkerchiefs to the rest of the men. Clark received some woolen clothing from Lewis, moccasins from Private Whitehouse, an Indian basket from Private Goodrich, some tasty roots from the Clatsop Indians, and two dozen weasel tails from Sacagawea, who obviously had started her Christmas shopping early.
Furthermore, Private Joseph Whitehouse noted, the men were "mostly in good health, a blessing which we esteem more than all the luxuries this life can afford." He continued in a more reverent tone, as if from a familiar prayer book: ". . . the party are all thankful to the Supreme Being, for his goodness towards us. —hoping he will preserve us in the same, & enable us to return to the United States again in safety." Our seasonal greeting today—"Merry Christmas!"—was current at the time of the expedition, as Sergeant Ordway's remark shows. But the shout with which the men greeted the captains that morning was more than likely the typical Southern greeting of the season, "Christmas gift!" which announced that personal exchanges were in order.
--Joseph Mussulman, 11/99; rev. 6/03