By Catherine Ulrich Brakefield
Christmas will be here soon—are you ready? Whether ham or turkey, duck or goose, the Christmas meal will be served with all the trimmings passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Speaking of which, what would those first missionaries have prepared in the Pacific Northwest wilderness in 1836? There would be scant supplies available. No grocery store, no store whatever to restore depleted supplies of sugar and flour. Just what would a pioneer woman prepare for her hungry family? How would she create a Christmas that was a special treat for all who came to her table?
In the mid-1830s Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding embarked on an unheard-of journey for females and accomplished a memorable historical event.
They became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. Narcissa Whitman was pregnant, traveling across swollen rivers, mountains, and hostile Indian lands. Hers would be the first white child born west of the Rocky Mountains.
Narcissa and Eliza were accompanied by their husbands, Marcus Whitman and Henry Harmon Spalding. All were devoted members of the Congregationalist mission in the Northwest and felt divinely called to minister to the American Indians about the saving grace of Christ Jesus.
Marcus chose the north bank of the Walla Walla River, twenty-two miles upstream from its junction with the Columbia to settle in. Here the Cayuse Indians lived.
Henry Spalding selected a site 110 miles to the east on Lapwai Creek, two miles from its confluence with the Clearwater. Here the Nez Perce tribe lived.
Whitman and Spalding had come a year earlier and built the best cabins humanly possible with the scant supplies offered them.
Now that there was to be an added responsibility of a child, Marcus worked to improve the makeshift structure. But suitable timber was scarce.
He had built a crude log lean-to as a shelter to ward off the approaching cold winter. The structure had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a pantry, and a fireplace. The roof was made of poles covered with earth and rye grass. The main part of the house was made of sun-dried adobe bricks.
With help from Marcus’s helpers, they trekked up to the Blue Mountains some twenty miles away searching for pine trees. Felling them, they whipsawed them to make a floor.
Then they sawed down what they needed in cottonwood trees that grew along the river’s edge to make their furniture. Pierre Pambrun contributed a small heating stove and a rocking chair brought from Fort Walla Walla. Bedsteads were made of boards nailed to walls. Except for a feather tick Narcissa acquired at Fort Vancouver, corn husks and blankets served as their mattress.
Inside the four walls, it was dark. The little cabin was without windows—and the only door had blankets covering the opening. Narcissa had to keep the blankets drawn open during the daylight to see inside the dark cabin. (A photograph of the Whitman cabin was unattainable, however, here is one of the Spalding cabin at Lapwai.)
Narcissa probably thought that at least she had four walls to shelter her instead of a flimsy wagon tent, and a solid floor beneath her instead of a wagon bed that often swayed to the whims of storms and winds.
Soon she would have her first child here—yes, she was blessed indeed. Now, what was left of their supplies to make a proper meal and—especially a Christmas dinner for herself, her husband, and his helpers?
Narcissa’s kitchen corner consisted of a few shelves. A roughed-out wooden trough-like box served as her sink, which had no drain. A wooden sideboard held a pitcher, wash basin, and towel. The rain barrel under the cabin eaves collected her water. If she needed more, she would have to hike down to the stream.
Refrigeration was a wooden box or rock house built over a stream or spring that allowed crocks of milk and butter to sit in the cool water in summer. During the winter months, that wooden box was next to the cabin in the snow.
In Wilted Dandelions, missionaries Rachael and Jonathan Wheaton followed a year later to the Pacific Northwest. As Narcissa’s mother’s recipes would be little use to her, so were Rachael’s. Here's why.
They had arrived in Oregon too late in the season to plant a garden, and their flour and sugar supplies were depleted, like the Spalding’s. During that first year, the missionaries depended on the Hudson’s Bay Company for provisions to tide them over to their first harvest.
Dr. Whitman wrote in his memoir about that first year, “We have killed and eaten twenty-three or four horses since we have been here, not that we suffered which causes us to eat them, but if we had not eaten them, we would have suffered.”
Narcissa gladly passed around what little she had that first Christmas. Perhaps, dandelion greens, crackl’n bread, and dandelion jam. With God’s help, she had accomplished her first Christmas dinner far from home.
Their Christmas tinsel was meager, perhaps a small evergreen tree in the corner of the candle-lit room, and beneath the green branches, the baby Jesus carved out of the discarded wood from one of the pine trees. All were in a joyful spirit to have made their trek across the Great Divide. God had to have been watching over them—the reverence of a Divine God and Savior sent a hushed admiration throughout the room during prayers.
Narcissa, Marcus, Eliza, Henry Spalding, Pierre, and the others welcomed the athletic and statuesque Cayuse and Nez Perce Indians into their midst to celebrate the Savior of the world, and that made up for anything they lacked that Christmas Day!
Their voices rose in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” around their little fern tree garnished with holly spray, pinecones, and mistletoe. And for dessert, snow ice cream! What a feast they had that first Christmas in their new wilderness home awaiting the Holy of Holy’s Divine directions!
Crackl’n Bread Recipe
(Crackl’ns are meat scraps left in the skillet after the fat is cooked out)
¾ cup cornmeal, ¼ cup boiling water, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp. salt, 1 cup whole wheat flour, ½ cup brown sugar, 2 cups buttermilk, ¼ cup crackl’ns
Combine cornmeal and boiling water in a mixing bowl. Set aside. In a separate bowl sift the soda, baking powder, and salt with the flour. Stir dry ingredients into cornmeal along with sugar, buttermilk and crackl’ns. Spread mixture in a greased 8x8-inch baking pan and bake in 400 degrees F. oven approx. 20 minutes, or till crusty golden brown.
One-quart dandelion blossoms, 2 quarts water, 1 pkg. pectin, 5 1/2 cups sugar, 2 Tbs. orange extract
Pour blossoms into a large saucepan or soup kettle with the water. Bring to a boil and continue boiling approx. 4 minutes. Strain through cheese cloth, pressing out 3 cups of dandelion liquid. Return 3 cups of the liquid to the kettle. Add pectin and let boil, stirring constantly. Gradually stir in sugar and boil 5 minutes more. Add orange extract. Boil 1 minute. Skim foam from jelly. Pour into sterilized jelly glasses.
Snow Ice Cream
4 quarts clean snow, 4 eggs beaten, 2 cups milk, 1 cup sugar, 2 tsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. nutmeg
In a mixing bowl beat eggs and milk, then add sugar. Beat until sugar is completely dissolved. Stir in vanilla and nutmeg. Pour the mixture over the snow you piled into a large bowl or crock. Fold mixture into snow until blended. Children love this!
Wilted Dandelions: Rachael wants to be just like her heroine, Narcissa Whitman, and dreams of becoming a missionary in the new Oregon Territory—only, she’s a spinster. Dr. Jonathan Wheaton is desperate to become a pioneer missionary in this new Oregon Territory. However, he’s told he must be wed to do so. Rachael and Jonathan enter into a marriage of convenience and discover God doesn’t create coincidences—He designs possibilities!
Author Bio: Catherine is the author of the inspirational historical romances: Wilted Dandelions, Swept into Destiny, Destiny’s Whirlwind, Destiny of Heart, Waltz with Destiny, and Love’s Final Sunrise. History books: Images of America, The Lapeer Area, and Eastern Lapeer County. Her short stories have been published in Guidepost Books, Baker Books, Revell, CrossRiver Media, and Bethany House. She lives in Michigan with her husband, Edward, and her Arabian horses. Her two children are grown and married; she and Edward are blessed with four grandchildren. Visit CatherineUlrichBrakefield.com for more information.
Recipes from: Old Pioneer Recipes, Published by Bear Wallow Books, J. S. Collester, 1988