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A lone Christmas tree stands in the middle of Third and Center streets in the mid-1950s. Winona’s holiday traditions have changed, but they all trace back to 1851.
Contributed photo.

Winona’s first Christmas in 1851


(12/26/2018)

by NATHANIEL NELSON

Christmas in Winona has always been a beautiful time. Lights wrapped around lamp posts and strung through the streets, dazzling holiday displays lining downtown store windows, holiday boat tours on the Mississippi, ice skating on the lake with a cup of cocoa, and of course, the Christmas dinner. But Christmas in Winona started out small in 1851: a night of camaraderie with six bachelors, a toast, a sleigh ride, and a squirrel pot pie.

In 1851, Winona was barely even a town. The first white settlers had just begun to arrive and take root in the Wabasha prairie. Captain Orin Smith, the captain of the steamboat Nominee which ran between Galena, Ill., and St. Paul, Minn., was the first European settler and founder of the Winona homestead. He watched for an opportunity, and sprung on two locations suitable for landing his vessel. Smith made the carpenter of the Nominee, Erwin H. Johnson, his agent at the location, providing him $25 a month and any supplies he needed.

“The captain furnished me a small quantity of lumber for a shanty, a yoke of oxen, and an abundant supply of provisions and blankets,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson landed at the lower landing on October 15, 1851. Joining him were two people, a wood chopper named Caleb Nash and another unknown man. The first night, they slept on the beach under a few boards before building the first cabin on the next day. 

 

“The shanty, as it was called, was the first ‘claim shanty’ put upon the Wabasha prairie,” Johnson wrote.

Later, Silas Stevens, a lumber dealer from La Crosse, brought two new settlers to the area: his employee George W. Clark and Edwin Hamilton, a young man from Ohio looking for claims on the Upper Mississippi. The two men went down the river to search for Johnson’s shanty, which they had heard was in the area. The group broke bread in the morning before Johnson discussed the boundaries between their claims, which now needed to be more accurately identified.

After negotiations, it was agreed that the land along the river would be divided into half-mile squares, and Johnson took the first two claims for himself and Smith.

On November 13, 1851, the stakes were driven on the Wabasha prairie and Winona’s history began.

In early December, Johnson hired two men during a trip to La Crosse, who joined the group on the Mississippi, and Allan Gilmore and George Wallace became the fifth and sixth settlers on the future island city.

These six bachelors –– Erwin Johnson, Caleb Nash, Edwin Hamilton, Allen Gilmore, George Wallace, and George Clark –– were the first and only residents of Winona, aside from the 300 Sioux Indians that had lived there for centuries, and settled in for a long winter. They lived in two cabins, with one located between what are now Front and Second streets, while the other was planted near what became the Burlington Bridge.

When the holidays rolled around, the six men became homesick for their lives out East, and in response, Hamilton planned a holiday celebration. At the George Clark home, which was eventually torn down in the 1950s, a dinner was planned for all.

This was the first time the six came together for social reasons, and all rivalries and jealousies were thrown out the window. The group decided to celebrate Christmas just like they had in New England. They put on their best clothes, travelled to the Clark home, and prepared for a night of merriment.

Hamilton acted as the head chef, and prepared a large array of cuisine for the dinner. Clark later wrote that they had the best of their common foods, including wheat bread, corn bread, ham, strong coffee, and the “pièce de résistance,” a squirrel pot pie for the main course. For dessert, a pheasant pie was brought to the table. Vegetables and fruit were held off, being too hard to come by in the winter climate.

The six broke bread, celebrated, and ended the night with a sleigh ride through the driftless countryside, just as they would back with their families in the East. As the night closed on the first-ever Winona Christmas dinner, Hamilton stood for a parting toast.

 

“May the six bachelors here assembled by long remembered by each other,” he said.

The six settler shook hands, and agreed to come together again to celebrate the beginning of 1852. According to Clark’s journals, the occasion was capped by seemingly limitless wild honey.