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The first Christmas in the copper district — wasn’t

The week leading into Christmastide of 1843 was quite mild in the Lake Superior copper district. It was the first Christmas the region was the copper district.

Many mining permits had been obtained that first summer, and on some locations, mineral explorations had begun, particularly at Copper Harbor and Eagle River, and Charles Gratiot had spent the summer at Eagle Harbor, then moved to Eagle River, with his team of Cornish miners. But by the end of the shipping season, anyone with common sense was gone, except for a very few whose job requirements compelled them to remain. They included a few traders and fishing crews with the American Fur Company and Cyrus Mendenhall’s fishing company, scattered across the mainland and on Isle Royale. In the Ontonagon district, a lone pioneer, James Kirk Paul, stayed that first winter, huddled in this log hut on the east side of the river, but history did not record how he passed his Christmas all alone, because he could not write. On the west bank of the river, in back of the Ojibwa village of Okandikan, sat the 18-by-20-foot, hewed log Assistant Mineral Land Agent’s offices and quarters, boarded up and closed for the winter, its agent, Major James B. Campbell, government documents suggest, spending the season at the Mineral Land Agent’s office “the Government House,” at Copper Harbor.

In addition to Campbell, General Walter Cunningham, Special Agent of the Ordinance Department of the Deptarment of War, acting Mineral Agent, was in residence, as was his assistant, Thomas Michler. The Government House provided comfortable quarters for the three men. It was constructed as a hewn log structure, two stories high, with the three rooms for offices “below stairs,” and three rooms “above stairs,” for sleeping quarters, with a detached structure that served as a kitchen. All three men had been come from the Galena Lead Mining District in Illinois Territory last summer.

Because of a report written by Campbell, officially addressed to Cunningham, and stated as being written at Porter’s Island, Copper Harbor, we know Campbell was there, at least during the first part of the month leading up to Christmas week. Included in Campbell’s report was a “statement of the state of the weather from December 4th to the December 20th,” that recorded the temperature on Porter’s Island, at daybreak, before breakfast, was 22 degrees on the 4th, and was 36 on the 20th.

The report also provided very descriptive details of the region between La Pointe, in the Apostle Islands, and Keweenaw Point. But nowhere in his report did Campbell mention Christmas, or even acknowledge it. In fact, his report suggests the opposite, because it was dated December 25th, 1843. So, based on the few documents that survive, on the first Christmas on the frontier, Christmas celebrations consisted of — nothing. Religion, though, may or may not have played a role in that. For the first hundred years or more of the Massachusetts Colony, Christmas was banned. On the other hand, loneliness and isolation may have played a major part in it. While Campbell was stuck in the Lake Superior copper district for Christmas, his wife, Sarah, and the children were at home in the Galena lead district.

While many of the Protestant denominations that arose from the British Puritan movement had banned Christmas, others did not. Cunningham, a native of Poughkeepsie, New York, donated heavily to his Methodist Episcopal church back home, even to donating the land it was built on, and if Methodist Episcopal Missionary, Reverend John Pitezel is an example, the Methodists did not regard ancient, pre-Christian symbols as sinful. Parties, on the other hand, were a different story.

In 1845, Pitezel received an invitation to a Christmas Eve ball at Eagle River, and it would be surprising if his response was not taken as offensive, as well as insulting.

“In the early stages of my religious experience,” Pitezel wrote, “I conscientiously abstained from such amusements as in no way conducive to a life of godliness; it would hardly be expected that, after professing to be a disciple of Christ more than 20 years, I should be less scrupulous.”

Pitezel was dedicated, devout and vigilant, and on the frontier he was keenly aware that as a missionary, he must set the example of Christian piety. But he was not a fanatic. While many Protestant factions that grew out the Puritan Reform Movement within the Church of England in the 1600s abhorred Christmas celebrations as sinful and un-Christian, the Methodist Episcopal Church did not. Holly, ivy, Christmas trees, wreaths, yule logs, and so much more, originated with the Norse and were spread during the Viking Era of the 10th and 11th centuries. Whether the Christmas tree was originally a dedication to the Norse god Odin, it was a hope of life in the bleak mid-winter. In Christianity, it came to symbolize the same hope of eternal life through Christ. So, while many sects, including the Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, and others that followed the theology of John Calvin, hated Christmas, the Methodists did not.

“Christmas Eve was, with us, owned of God,” Pitezel wrote of the 1843 season. “We had our house neatly trimmed with evergreens furnished to hand in such abundance, and well lighted. The meeting was attended by our own and some of the Catholic Indians.”

Some two decades later, Henry Hobart, a school teacher at the Cliff mine during 1862-63, wrote of a social that he attended.

“Christmas nigh, I spent at a social party at Mr. (Daniel) Brockway’s Hotel in Eagle River,” Hobart recorded in his diary. “Custom makes it binding on the respectable class to attend this party.”

The difference between this party and the Christmas Eve ball 20 years earlier was that Brockway’s party was indeed alcohol-free, well-refined, and within Christian principles. Brockway’s brother was a Methodist missionary at the Indian agency at L’Anse, which is where Pitezel operated from. Methodism forbade alcohol consumption, and Hobart founded two temperance organizations while he was at Cliff. He also taught Sunday School.

Christmas had, indeed, by 1800, largely fallen out of cultural practice in both Great Britain and the United States. When Oliver Cromwell deposed King Charles I of England and overthrew the British government in 1649, and instilled a Parliament made up mostly of Puritans. They banned Christmas. Eventually, the Republic was not what the vast majority of British wanted, Charles II was placed on the throne, and the ban on Christmas was lifted.

People were tired of religion, however, and religious wars, and Oliver Cromwell, and gradually, Christmas went into decline as a religious holiday. Given to secularism, little by little, it fell out of practice. In October, 1843, while the mineral agency was settling in for the winter, in far off London, a writer named Charles Dickens missed Christmas, and set out to re-inspire people to celebrate it –this time, not as a secular holiday, nor as a religious holy day, and not as a commercial day for selling and buying — but as a family-centered, spiritual holy day of thanksgiving, and remembrance of the promises of Scripture. As a start to that end, Dickens, in that autumn, published A Christmas Carol.

Although Christmas got off to a slow start in the Lake Superior Copper Mining District, it soon gained huge population. The primary reason it was slow to catch on, was because there was no one in the district to really celebrate it.

Graham Jaehnig has a BA of Social Science/History from Michigan Technological University, and an MA in English/Creative Nonfiction Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is internationally known for his writing on Cornish immigration to the United States mining districts.

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