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Guest column/Christmas in Steubenville Land Office in 1830

During the holiday season, the First Federal Land office at Historic Fort Steuben will be open on weekends to present an experience of what Christmas was like there in 1830. Visitors will be surprised to learn how very different it was.

In 1830, Steubenville was a thriving river town of 3,000 people, mostly of Scotish, Irish and German descent. There was one newspaper, several church congregations (one Episcopal; two Presbyterian; three Methodist; one Catholic, dependent on a traveling priest; one Baptist and one for “persons of color”); one bank, several woolen mills, one cotton and two glass factories and one iron foundry. The female seminary (educational institution) was well known with young ladies attending from throughout the country. It sent missionaries around the world.

Among the trades common in the city at the time were tailors, hatters, machine shops which produced much of the machinery used in the mills, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, nail-making facilities, clockmaking facilities, pottery, tannery, shoemakers and one gunsmith. A paper from the early 1800s notes that there were 27 merchants and 16 taverns.

Christmas in the early 19th century was nothing like we know it now, especially in the newly settled Ohio country that relied on horse and wagon or barge deliveries of products from the east.

The holiday was celebrated more like the Fourth of July, with the noisy and smoky blasts of muzzleloaders and playing games like “shinny” (hockey) and having shooting matches. A popular activity was a greased pig contest where a young porker would be shaved, greased and let loose in a penned area. The first man to catch it got to keep it. Homes might be decorated with greenery and, possibly, a small tabletop tree. The tradition of hanging stockings by the hearth or of exchanging gifts was not common until later in the century, especially after the Civil War.

More common were special yuletide feasts or meals for friends and family. The only church service in Steubenville that Christmas was at the Episcopal church — then meeting at “the old academy on high street.”

There were particular foods — especially baked goods — and drinks that were traditions with the various groups in the area. While the women were busy preparing food, the men spent time in the taverns to have something “to warm the cockles of their hearts.” It might be strong beer, Jamaica rum, imported madeira but generally liquor with hot water and sugar added.

The character of Santa Claus was not yet a common symbol. Although the Dutch in New York had St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas), it wasn’t until 1823 that “The Night Before Christmas” was published and 1844 when Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” came to America which began the tradition of the “jolly old elf.” There would have been no Santa or Mr. and Mrs. Claus in Steubenville in 1830.

The registrar at the land office was David Hogue who lived here with his family. Their sleeping quarters were upstairs while the activities of daily life occurred in the main room, with the hearth as the center.

There was no central heating or running water or electric or gas lights — or indoor toilets. Many of the objects on display in this room are from the mid-19th century.

The land office was one of three established in 1800 to allow those who had purchased property or received land grants from the government in the recently acquired “Ohio country” to register their deeds. The logs in the current building are original — imagine the stories they could tell if walls could talk.

(Bratten is executive director of Historic Fort Steuben and the Steubenville Visitor Center.)

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