Guest column/Memories of Christmas before cell phones
Christmas on the American frontier was a much different affair than it is today.
For most pioneer families, like my five-time removed great-grandparents Daniel and Mary Pegg Higgins, the birth of Jesus Christ was marked each year with a quiet, simple celebration. There were no fancy lighting displays, no shopping frenzies and no extravagant parties. Instead, it was a time of prayer and fellowship with friends and neighbors.
An April 2, 1977, article in the Wheeling Intelligencer that was written by Richard S. Klein and Alan H. Cooper told the about the frontier I grew up hearing about. The article recalled interviews of former militiamen conducted by Layman Draper, considered to be among the most important of all primary source documents about the early settlers.
The 1846 interview with Daniel Higgins states that “a Maj. McColloch was put on the campaign.” Higgins was born in 1758 and was 88 when interviewed. He makes no further mention of McCollogh, but does speak of Capt. Samuel Brady. It is interesting that these men recalled McCollogh after 66 years. He must have made some impression. Also, we can understand the lack of mention, since a young soldier would be more liable to have contact with one closer in rank than a major.
On Christmas Eve, I was given a glimpse into how American frontier families, such as the Higgins’, might have celebrated Christmas in the late 1700s, with stories once told to children at the hearth with a blazing fire. Many of those tales centered around Grandpa Higgins, who was an American Revolutionary War hero and frontiersman. He was born on Aug. 25, 1759, in Northern Ireland, working as a bond boy at the Davis plantation in Virginia. He married his wife, the former Mary Pegg, who was born on Aug. 9, 1764, in Sussex County, N.J. They were married in 1781 at Old Fort, Centre County, Pa., and resided for a time in Washington County, Pa., the Northern Panhandle of what is today in Brooke County and settled in Warrenton in Jefferson County.
The family was raised in a small pioneer cabin with a brick bake oven.
His second son and his wife, my four-time removed great-grandparents, Jonathan and Jemmima Chamblin Higgins, were married on March 18, 1281, in Jefferson County. The Daughters of the American Revolution application says that he and his wife died together of Asiatic cholera in 1832. The disease killed more than 4 percent of the population, usually within two to four hours of contracting it. The bodies were wrapped in bed sheets and burned in an 8-foot-deep choler’s pit to prevent further spread of the epidemic in the Upper Ohio Valley. They had two children, George and Mary Catherine, who were raised by Daniel Higgins Jr. and Delilah Revenaugh.
In 1971’s “The Christmas Story,” Grandpa Walton said, “More than one –flood, fire, freezing weather, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, loneliness and hard times.” John-Boy said, “I thought you meant wars.” Grandpa replied, “Them too …”
George Wyatt grew to be the great-grandfather of my great-grandmother, Nina May Higgins McConnell. She passed the name of the little boy whose parents had died from cholera in 1832 to her only son, George Wyatt McConnell, who was killed during World War II in 1945 in Manila.
Christmas stories at my house growing up were about children working until the crops had been harvested and the fields laid by until spring; when the days had grown shorter and colder, and the nights had begun to come faster and lasted longer; of the autumn, followed by the first big frost; and walking 5 miles to the one-room schoolhouse in the deepest of snow and bitters of cold.
There were tales of a summer that was filled with memories about playing and wading in the creek, looking under rocks for crawdads until those tiny feet turned ice cold and were warmed in the sun; chores, which were part of a childhood in a settlers’ family, including milking the cows, collecting eggs and, who could forget, strawberry season at the Higgins homestead and shoe-ware time.
The Higgins young men helped dress the meat and pack it in salt, sugar and honey, while the young ladies were busy at making soap. These were my childhood memories.
Take away the cell phone and iPad from the children over the holidays. They’ll still, you will find, be interested in the timeless pondering of what happens if you hold lizard eggs in your hand.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the frontier hearth of Crocket and Boone to your warm fireplace.
(Traubert is a resident of Wellsburg.)