Utah Stories

How Ogden Trappers and Pioneers Celebrated Christmas

A look back at a home-grown Christmas in Ogden.


Beginning in the 1820s, mountain men were lured to northern Utah by promises of wealth in the lucrative beaver pelt trade. Frontier trappers were the first inhabitants who kept records of events in the Ogden Valley. This was before there were trails through the mountains. The beauty of the wilderness was immaculate, but there was hardness and danger in that beauty.

The threat of death was persistent. Darwinian survival skills separated the men from the tourists. Victims of the wild were buried in shallow graves or left for scavenger feed. Many died attempting to ford rivers. Many more died in Indian attacks. Still, the allure of frontier life and the promise of wealth attracted dozens of hardy men to the region. The city of Ogden is named after one of these—fur trader Peter Skene Ogden.

Politician and mountain man, Osborne Russell kept a journal from 1834 to 1892, which offers insights into Ogden’s first recorded Christmas gathering. Russell recounts in his diary: “The principal topic which was discussed was the political affairs of the Rocky Mountains, the state of governments among the different tribes, and the personal characters of the most distinguished warrior chiefs.”

The Ogden Valley was a famous rendezvous point where Indians and trappers traded tobacco, whiskey, fur, food and wares. Trappers preferred bear meat to the more abundant beaver, squirrel or bobcat. Their Christmas dinner was likely comprised of dried venison, moose or perhaps fresh bear meat, roasted slowly on a spit over an open fire.

Indians dried wild berries and harvested pine nuts. Some trappers carried a bag of grains to bake basic biscuits, but grains were scarce, and due to the need to travel light, they were only available if a nearby wagon train was carrying supplies and was willing to sell or trade them. The closest wagon trail in the 1830s was the Oregon Trail, which ran fifty miles North of Ogden.

Miles Goodyear was the first trapper to build a permanent residence in the region, and in 1845 he welcomed early settlers to establish themselves away from his settlement on the Weber River, or to purchase his trading post and expensive property and animals. They chose the latter, and Goodyear left his cabin, which still stands today, after he sold his livestock and land to Brigham Young for $1,700.

Old-timer D.O. Newton, who was one of the original Pioneer settlers, recounted her first Christmas in the Ogden Valley in an Ogden Standard Examiner article written by Dorothy Porter many years later. “We celebrated all the holidays which are nowadays, but in a different manner. For instance, on Christmas we never had a tree and we did not receive so many beautiful gifts; it was just the spirit of the day that made everything so nice.”    

By the 1870s, settlers had to be self-sufficient. Pioneers often attempted to prepare specialty foods from their countries of origin, so the predominantly Scandinavian and English Pioneers likely enjoyed favorites such as Yorkshire pudding with brown gravy, savory meat pies and honey rolls.

An 1869 editorial in the Juvenile Instructor (a Mormon publication) recorded that “[the winter] holidays provided long evenings for social gatherings and parties with pleasant fireside intercourse, and in no country, and among no people, are they more valued than in our territory and by the Saints who reside here.”

In another account we learn that “One hundred fifty guests celebrated with a large feast comprised of locally-grown foodstuffs, and dancing occupied the visitors until a late hour.”

Though sweets were a luxury during most of the year, by the Saints’ second Christmas, a sufficient supply of molasses had been stored—enough to make candy canes for the children. Honey, taffy and animal-shaped cookies made from sweet dough filled the stockings of the more fortunate children on that frosty Christmas morning. Pioneer children would jump up and down in delight over sweet dough and molasses candies in their stockings.

Simple pleasures no longer entice us, and today, if Santa doesn’t provide kids with the video game of their desires, parents plan for a tantrum. The world is a much different place. 

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