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Dorothea Nordstrand of has a detailed account of how Seattle's first white settlers celebrated Christmas when they were holed up in New York Alki


The First Christmas in Seattle, 1851: Cold, Wet, With Festering Leg Wounds, but Otherwise Merry

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Dorothea Nordstrand of has a detailed account of how Seattle's first white settlers celebrated Christmas when they were holed up in New York Alki (now West Seattle). It involves rain, log cabins, axe wounds, fevers, pie, salmon and even some toys.

It begins, as many things do when talking about early Seattle with David Denny and the rest of the Denny Party.

Nineteen-year-old David Denny, Arthur's young brother, and John Low had walked from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to select a place for settlement on Puget Sound, finally deciding on the point of land known to the local Indians as "Smaquamox" for their venture.

David apparently had bad luck with axes (a trend that would continue later in life when a worker accidentally struck him in the head with an axe).

First home on Alki Point built in 1851
David, an accomplished woodsman, had expected to build log cabins to house them when they arrived, but had only erected the four walls of the first one, when his axe slipped and he cut a deep gash in his foot. When the party arrived on the beach, they were dismayed to find David terribly ill and shaking with fever and not even one completed dwelling to move into. There were 24 people to shelter in one small, unroofed building. That was in the middle of November.

The group still apparently managed to squeeze everyone in the one house and then put the women and children to work.

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Sisters Mary Ann Boren (right) and Louisa Boren
Since Arthur and Mary Anne Denny's house was the largest, Christmas was celebrated there, with each member of the party helping with the preparations. Louisa Boren led the children into the forest to gather cedar boughs to use as decorations. They cut armfuls of Oregon grape branches, that Northwest native shrub whose stickery leaves were like the holly of their earlier home in Cherry Grove, Illinois. They fashioned a wreath for the door from the Oregon grape, and Louisa used her own red hair-ribbon to make a festive bow.

David had just recovered from his leg wound and likely was barred from using anything sharper than a butter knife, for fear he'd take out his eye. But by now the meal was coming together and it sounds like it was a doozy.

There were salmon and wild potatoes purchased from the Indians. Pies were made from the few dried apples remaining in their kitchens. There was a small amount of tea for the elders, and the children drank clam juice, though they sorely missed the milk they could no longer have since the settlement had no cow.

Dinner was great. Manners were minded. And afterward, Louisa Boren, David's wife, even played Santa Claus.

She had secretly tucked in, among her own belongings, small toys and trinkets to surprise and delight the children on the Special Day.

So seems like things weren't so bad for the pioneering Dennys. Sure, they had to build their own cabins and they occasionally hewed their own limbs nearly off, but there was good food, lots of family members and at least one usable house.

Besides, within a matter of years, most of those same people would be celebrating their Christmases in mansions.

Merry Christmas/Holidays/Chanukah etc., Seattle. May it involve much more pie and salmon than it does axes and fever.

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