Christmas at Fort Mandan, 1804

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On Christmas Eve, 1804, while the men put the finishing touches on Fort Mandan, "Flour, dried apples, pepper and other articles were distributed in the different messes to enable them to celebrate Christmas in a proper and social manner."

Snow fell on Christmas morning. The temperature was 15 degrees above zero Fahrenheit at sunrise, and topped out just five degrees higher in the late afternoon. At daybreak the men, "merrily Disposed," wakened the captains with "salutes" of gunfire. "I gave them all a little Taffia [rum mixed with water]," wrote Clark, "and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag. Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Dancing."

Sergeant Ordway added,

we had the Best to eat that could be had, & continued firing dancing & frolicking dureing the whole day. . . . We enjoyed a merry cristmas dureing the day & evening untill nine oClock – all in peace & quietness.

The weather warmed up considerably by January 1, when the men welcomed the New Year with several rounds of gunfire and a couple of glasses of "good old whiskey." At midday half of the Corps traipsed off to one of the Mandan Indian villages, carrying "a fiddle & a Tambereen1 & a Sounden horn." After several rounds of celebratory gunfire they commenced dancing. "A frenchman danced on his head,"2 Ordway reported, "and all danced round him for a Short time then went in to a lodge & danced a while, which pleased them verry much." Clark ordered York, his black "Servent" (read, slave), to dance, which "Some what astonished them, that So large a man Should be active."
"So we danced in different lodges untill late in the afternoon," wrote Ordway.

They were "breakin' up Christmas!"


1. The "Tambereen," or tambourine, was an ancient and universal percussion instrument (the "timbrel" or "tof" of the Old Testament) whose popularity was revived during the late 18th century in the faddish "Janissary," or Turkish music played by European and American military bands. It is possible that someone in the party bought or borrowed from an Indian a small hand-drum resembling a tambourine, and that might be the reason Ordway used the term. Clark noted that one evening while they were among the Teton Sioux (September 26, 1804), "Several men with Tamborens highly Decorated with Der & Cabra [antelope] Hoofs to make them rattle, assembled and began to Sing & Beat."

2. Undoubtedly similar to a spectacular, individualistic, acrobatic style of dancing called breakdancing, which arose in the Bronx during the 1970s.