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19th Century Fourth of July Celebrations
By Linda Ulleseit
July 28, 2020

For my entire life, the Fourth of July has meant fireworks and barbecue. I remember my brother and I waving sparklers, and my father lighting off more spectacular displays in our backyard. One year my mother was sick. She loved firecrackers, so we set off a string of them outside under her bedroom window. Hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and corn on the cob are traditional foods. My mother always used to make cupcakes in flat-bottomed ice cream cones so they could be eaten completely with no papers to dispose of. They were always decorated in patriotic colors. This year we were unable to host a large family barbecue and swim party, but my husband and I still barbecued and watched the neighbor’s fireworks late into the night.

Now I’m researching and beginning to write a novel set in 1835 at Fort Snelling, which is now in Minnesota but at that time was Michigan Territory. It’s important to enter the research phase of a book with an open mind, but I must admit I was expecting to read about the people’s hard lives and drudgery. Life wasn’t easy, of course, but I found that the wives and daughters of officers at Fort Snelling were well educated and came from good families. They made every effort to live the lives of country gentry. A girl who worked for Abigail Snelling, the commander’s young wife, said, “Many of these ladies would have shone in any circle. Their households in the garrison were attractive places, and showed evidence of wealth and good taste.” (Citadel in the Wilderness by Evan Jones). 

In 1823, the first steamship brought visitors upriver to the fort. The Fourth of July was celebrated with a trip to St. Anthony Falls where they partook of a “copious and palatable meal” of excellent black bass. Abigail Snelling was quite at home on horseback, and she liked to lead trips to the falls. She also hosted cotillons at the fort for visitors.

In 1835, the year that is central to my novel, painter George Catlin spent the Fourth of July at Fort Snelling. He was eager to paint the Native Americans, so a grand celebration was planned. The Indian agent, Lawrence Talaiferro, sent runners to nearby Sioux villages inviting them to come dance as part of the holiday. He included plugs of tobacco as an inducement. The fort’s cannons blasted the air with a 21-gun salute, and drums throbbed on the prairie between the fort and the Indian agency. For two hours the natives played lacrosse while Catlin sketched the players. At the end of the game, Catlin gave the participants a barrel of flour, some pork, and tobacco.  Later, he painted the champion, He Who Stands on Both Sides, with a racquet in his hand. For three more hours, the Sioux and Chippewa danced, showing agility, strength, and endurance. The Sioux performed specific dances for the visitors. Dressed in wolf skin, men, women, and children performed the Beggar’s Dance. The dancers sang as they sniffed for food among the audience and danced their thanks as they gathered offerings in their skirts. The Dance of the Braves was an improvised dance relating the tribe’s history to the present. The Dog Dance required two dogs to be sacrificed. Their hearts and livers were held aloft on sticks as the two dancers, braves who had taken scalps, danced forward and bit off pieces of meat.

Fort Snelling drew visitors from all over the world to study the native people and the geography of the area.  The French geographer, Joseph Nicollet, played violin accompanied by Mrs. Taliaferro, the Indian agent’s wife, on piano. Evenings of chamber music followed meals of several varieties of fresh meat such as smoked game hens, pheasant, fish, fresh ham, or homemade sausages. This was supplemented by delicacies like asparagus from their garden and baked buttermilk biscuits with molasses. Such a dinner party would make use of linen tablecloths and Mrs. Taliaferro’s black and white china, as well as polished silver and sharpened table knives. The servants would have been busy for days preparing! Celebrants on the Fourth of July sang “To the Spirit of ‘76,” “Yankee Doodle,” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Meals would begin by toasting the Constitution of the United States with Taliaferro’s fine Madeira wine. Lemonade and tiny wild strawberries were offered for dessert. (Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier by Lea VanderVelde)

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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