Close this search box.

Christmas on the Frontier, 1817

I’ll be frank. I’m not the sort of guy who dives into the holiday-season spirit much. Not that I’m a bah-humbug Scrooge, but I’m just not the type to devote hours and hours to decorating the house, going on shopping sprees for gifts, or baking goodies for the neighbors. And yet I’m on an every-other-Sunday blog schedule here at BVC, which meant I needed to post something this very day. Christmas Eve. Okay. So. When called upon, I am perfectly capable of saying something about the winter holiday season. You just have to realize that it was somewhat inevitable I would end up tackling said challenge through the lens of genealogy.

Several weeks ago I offered excerpts from the memoir of Esau Johnson (1800-1886), nephew of my great great great grandmother Rachel Starr Strader. For Esau, there was good reason he would, as an elderly man writing his memoir, recall a particular Christmas, and that was the one that took place in 1817, when he was a teenager. It was memorable because it very nearly was his last Christmas. As in, he nearly died.

I have already described the incident in passing as part of an extensive posting devoted mainly to a remarkable occasion when Esau was called upon to set the broken leg of his young cousin, Jacob Marsh. To reiterate the circumstances: Esau and his family, which consisted of himself, his parents Henry Johnson and Lizzy Starr, and his younger siblings Rachael, John, Catherine, Anna, Naomi, and infant Jabez, settled in 1815 in what was to become Vermilion County, Illinois. They were the very first family of European extraction to establish a homestead in that county. They were edge-of-the-frontier pioneers, enduring (somewhat by preference) an isolated existence with no neighbors and no one to depend upon but themselves.

Things began to change late in the year 1817 when the Johnsons welcomed the family of Lizzy’s younger sister Margaret and her husband William Marsh. The Marshes settled on an adjacent parcel. Finally Esau had youngsters besides his siblings he could hang out with. The most significant of those was the eldest of the Marsh kids, John Starr Marsh. Though the latter was six years Esau’s junior, he was someone who Esau felt he could impress by his example.

There was no better context for establishing that big-brotherish, cock-of-the-walk status than the holiday doings. Imagine the significance of that Christmas for the Johnson household. Finally, they were no longer alone. They could have a proper celebration. As part of that, Esau and his cousin enjoyed the indulgence of personal sets of ice skates.

Esau couldn’t wait to show off. He and John headed up the frozen Little Vermilion River. Esau, at seventeen able to easily out-distance his eleven-year-old companion, raced on ahead. Whereupon he fell through a patch of thin ice and nearly drowned.

What I didn’t do last time was offer Esau’s own words. That was an easy decision to make. Esau was not a natural storyteller. His memoir, composed when he was eighty-two years old and then expanded upon over the next two years, was the only extended piece of writing he set to paper in his entire lifetime. The document can be a challenge to read. That’s a shame, because it is magnificent to have a firsthand account of what life was like at such an early point in the history of the Wabash River region written by a common man. There is no other source material like it. Other volumes that cover the history of that region in that era are scholarly works and/or were composed by outsiders — for example, there is a compendium of letters written by a couple of wealthy second sons of English nobility who barged into the region back then in order to set up a colony of their peers, but what they saw, and how they wrote of what they saw, sprang entirely from the entitled perspective of well-to-do foreigners who had no true understanding nor respect for the reality of the lives lived by those “of” the area, i.e. regular folk who got by not through money and privilege, but through sheer fortitude and day-by-day physical effort.

So, I summarized the anecdote. To me it was the polite thing to do, as in not make it so hard to get through the material that you cease to want to do so. Today I take the opposite tack. Below is the passage from Esau’s memoir that describes the ice-skating, Christmas-Day misadventure. Call it my holiday-season gift to you. Though I must point out, even here I am saving you some of the ordeal you would face if you read the original manuscript. For one thing, you would have to cope with Esau’s penmanship. Even more than that, you are spared from the need to imagine where the punctuation should be. Esau did not use any punctuation at all, not even periods or paragraph indentations.

John Marsh and I was going to be very smart. We bought each of us a pair of skates and would go to the river skating. On Christmas Day we went skating.

I outrun John. We were running up the river. We had run some two miles or more. Down there the ice does not freeze as it does here [Esau is making a comparison to Monroe County, WI, where he was located in 1882 while writing the memoir]. It will freeze into thin ice, then break and run together and form a dam across the river. There above that dam the river will freeze again to form smooth glare ice from half a mile to a mile or more. We skated on that smooth glare ice. I had crossed two dams of ice. I got forty or fifty rods ahead of John Marsh. I came to the third dam or ridge of ice. I thought it looked as if the water had fallen some since the dam was made. I tried to break it with my skate, but it did not break. I then went up on the top of the ridge of ice. I stepped down with my left foot pretty solid. As my foot struck the ice my foot went right through. That throwed me lengthwise along the ridge of ice and I broke through.

My whole length went down in the water till I thought I had best to come out as there was not any big fish there for me to catch. I commenced paddling and came up to the ice. I tried to raise the ice but there was nothing to bear on to help me, only the water. Then I knew there was no way for me to get out but to go upstream and get out at the hole I had made when I went in.

The current had taken me down below the dam. I then went upstream to where I broke through. I throwed my left arm out on the ice then went on to my right arm. Then I went out onto the ice. I laid there and didn’t get up at first. I had been under the ice and there was no air to breathe. I felt as though I wanted to breath some to match the time I had been under the ice and water.

After breathing a little, I got up and went to the east bank of the river. I went out up onto the bank some twenty feet, got down, took off my skates, laid them down, and I left them there. I thought that was a warning for me to let them alone. I never took them up. I let them stay there. I have never put skates on since.

(The image adorning this blog entry is also genealogically inspired. It is a scan of a Christmas card sent in 1914 from one of my maternal grandfather’s nieces to one of her first cousins, a bit of correspondence that was preserved in a trove of memorabilia.)

Happy holidays, y’all.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *