Christmas on the Frontier
Christmas on the American frontier was a much different affair than it is today.
For most pioneer families like my 5x great-grandparents Daniel and Mary Pegg Higgins, the birth of Jesus Christ was marked each year with quiet, simple celebration. There were no fancy lighting displays, no shopping frenzies and no extravagant parties.
Instead it was a time of prayer and fellowship with friends and neighbors. A old Wheeling Intelligencer article by Richard S. Klein and Alan H. Cooper retells the frontier I grew up hearing about. The article recalls interviews conducted by Dr. Layman Draper with former militiamen. The Draper papers are considered among the most important of all primary source documents about the early settlers. “The 1846 interview with Daniel Higgins also states that ‘a Major McColloch was put on the campaign.’ Higgins was born in 1758, and was eighty-eight when interviewed. He makes no further mention of McColloch, but does speak of Capt. Samuel Brady. It is interesting that these men recalled McColloch after 66 years. He must have made some impression. Also, we can understand the lack of mention, since a young soldier would be more liable to have contact with one closer in rank than a major.”
On Christmas Eve, I was given a glimpse into how frontier families, such as the Higginses, may have celebrated Christmas in the late 1700s. With stories once told to children at the hearth with a blazing bright fire. Many of those tales centered around Grandpa Higgins, who was an American Revolutionary War hero and frontiersman. He was born on August 25, 1759 in Northern Ireland, working as a bond boy on the Davis Plantation in Virginia. He married his wife, the former Mary Pegg (born Aug. 9, 1764 in Sussex County, N.J.) in 1781 at Old Fort, Centre County, Pa.; resided for a time in Washington County, Pa., and the Northern Panhandle in what is today in Brooke County; and settled in Warrenton, Jefferson County, Ohio,. He raised his family in a small pioneer cabin with brick bake oven.
His second son and his wife, my 4x great-grandparents Jonathan Higgins and Jemmima Chamblin were married March 18, 1821 in Jefferson County. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) application says that he and his wife died together of Asiatic cholera in 1832. The disease killed more than 4 percent of the population, usually within 2-4 hours of contracting it.
The bodies were wrapped in bed sheets and burned in an 8-foot-deep choler’s pit to prevent further spread of the epidemic in the Upper Ohio Valley. They had two children raised by Daniel Higgins Jr. and Delilah Revenaugh; their names were George and Mary Catherine. In the Christmas Story 1971 Grandpa Walton said, “More than one: flood, fire, freezing weather, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, loneliness, hard times.” John Boy: “I thought you meant wars.” Grandpa Walton replied, “Them, too…”
George Wyatt grew to be the grandfather of my great-grandmother, Nina May Higgins McConnell. She passed the name of the little boy whose parents had died from cholera in 1832 to her only son, George Wyatt McConnell, who died in World War II in 1945 in Manila in the Philippines. Christmas stories at my house were about kids working until the crops had been harvested and the fields laid by till spring: when the days had grown shorter and colder and the nights began to come faster and lasted longer. Then autumn followed by the first big frost walking 5 miles to a one-room school house in the deepest of snow and bitters of cold.
A summer that was filled with memories about playing and wading in the creek looking under rocks for crawdads until those tiny feet turned ice cold then warming them in the sun after chores which were part of a childhood in a settler’s family milking the cows, collecting eggs and who could forget strawberry season at the Higgins homestead and shoe-ware time! The Higgins young men helped dress the meat, pack it in salt, sugar, honey and the young ladies busy at soap-making…this was my childhood memories.
Take away the cellphone or iPad from kids over the holidays, they’ll still, you’ll find, be interested in the timeless pondering of what happens if you hold lizard eggs in your hand. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the frontier hearth of Crockett and Boone to your warm fireplace!