Grace: Christmas in the early days of Omaha was 'big-time bleak' -
Published Monday, December 23, 2013 at 3:00 am / Updated at 6:20 pm
Grace: Christmas in the early days of Omaha was 'big-time bleak'

They were young, women were few, turkeys for their Christmas meal were fewer and it was too cold to do much.

So how did Omaha's first settlers celebrate the Lord's birth?

According to an account published in the Omaha Sunday Bee, they got drunk and ran up a bar tab that is probably still unpaid. They planted crop seeds in the snow. They ran up Douglas Street hooting and carrying on. They staged a fake legislative session with a made-up committee on marriage. They mourned the terrible male-female ratio as the hunkier among them drew the few available women at dances.

Mostly, they celebrated Christmas the best they could in those first hard years in an Omaha unrecognizable today.

It was the mid-1850s, and Omaha was a hodgepodge of mud streets and wood-frame buildings and log cabins. There was no Old Market. There were no brick streets. There were no trees. Males over age 16 outnumbered their female counterparts by about 2-to-1.

Local historian Harl Dahlstrom said the city, more like a village with 645 people spread from Omaha to Bellevue, looked bleak and at Christmastime was “particularly bleak. Big-time bleak.”

“One of the things that hits you over the head is the starkness of these frame buildings,” he said. “They have a look of impermanence to them. What you see behind them in the background is a raw landscape. It looks very much like a western landscape. The thing that hits you is the almost complete absence of trees.”

Dahlstrom is a history professor emeritus who helped me understand a news story from 1889. The Nebraska State Historical Society unearthed the Dec. 22, 1889, edition of the Omaha Sunday Bee. The society delighted in the retelling of old-timers' memories of early Christmases in Omaha and excerpted the story on its website.

Dahlstrom and a researcher named Max Sparber from the Douglas County Historical Society helped me travel back in time to the 1850s.

William “Billy” Snowden crossed the Missouri River by ferry in July 1854 — the year the United States government made Nebraska a territory, thereby planting a giant welcome mat on the western banks of the Missouri River. Snowden is counted as Omaha's first white settler. His wife, Rachel, joined him.

The Snowdens ran a boarding house for ferry workers called, appropriately enough for this column, the St. Nicholas.

Billy Snowden vividly recounted that first Christmas in Omaha in a story the Bee published 35 years later under the headline “THE POURING OF LIBATIONS.”

A quick aside: Even back in 1889, Christmas wasn't without commercialization. The top third of the page this article was on was dedicated to a giant ad for J.L. Brandeis & Sons, telling people about the “1,000 dozen silk mufflers” and “dress goods” for sale.

“Here are our prices of CLOAKS!” screams a headline.

But the ad reflects an Omaha much different from the city Snowden entered in 1854. By 1889, Omaha had become a full-on big city — bigger than Los Angeles at the time. A conservative population estimate for 1890 put Omaha at 103,000 people. A decade later, Omaha was the fourth-largest city west of the Missouri River (behind San Francisco; Kansas City, Kan.; and Denver).

By then, streets were paved, buildings were brick, industries were launched and the city was no longer a bleak, treeless landscape. People and business had filled in the canvas.

Snowden reminded Bee readers that the Omaha decades earlier was rough.

Back then, he told the Bee, there existed a general store at 12th and Jackson that carried two things: whiskey “of a very poor quality” and garden seed “that never had a fair chance to exert itself.”

“On Christmas in 1854,” he said “the boys got on a spree and drank up all the whisky (sic) and planted the garden seeds in the snow.”

Who were these “boys”?

“I won't tell you,” Snowden told the Bee. “Many of them are here now in high places and never drink anything cheaper than champagne, and they wouldn't care to have their names mentioned in these little festivities in which we used to indulge.”

What was for Christmas dinner? Snowden couldn't remember the menu but knew there wasn't turkey. Turkey was a luxury that came from Iowa and “they came high, too high for us most of the time.”

Another early settler named A.B. Moore shared a colorful Christmas memory with the Bee.

“There weren't many of us,” Moore said. “But we made up what we lacked in numbers by noise, and our energy in getting around.”

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Ah, but there were few women, Moore said, and presumably handsome A.J. Hanscom and John I. Redick “and some of those fellows who were the dudes of those days, got the girls and the rest of us had to stag it.”

Moore's group went through a barrel of eggnog, “a very popular drink in those days, and a very effective one, too,” and when that barrel was done “we didn't pay much attention to the sidewalks, but took the streets.”

Moore described how, in a later year, the territorial Legislature was in session and his buddies staged a pretend one.

“On Christmas, we organized a third house and had a mock session,” he said. “I was a member of the committee on matrimony, and had some fun out of A.J. Poppleton, a member of the legislature, who was keeping company with Old Man Sears' daughter over in Council Bluffs. J. Sterling Morton made us a speech and after that we went out on a painting expedition, as you young fellows now call it.”

This “expedition” didn't get anyone on the wrong side of the law.

“We had no trouble with the police,” Moore said, “as all the state and town officials were in the party.”

A man named John A. Hornbach recalled how he sold $64 worth of whiskey and other liquor to a party of territorial legislators, in Omaha for Christmas in 1855, and still hadn't gotten paid.

“I have the account on my books yet,” Hornbach told the Bee in 1889.

“All of the big guns got loaded with that whiskey,” Hornbach said, “and marched up Douglas Street 40 abreast yelling.”

Herman Kountze, one of the founders of what would become First National Bank, lived with his brother Augustus and a widowed sister “in a little log cabin out on 10th Street.”

Kountze told the Bee that on Christmas Eve 1856, a man from Iowa came into Omaha with a wagonload of turkeys, selling them for $5 apiece.

“They were luxuries in those days,” Kountze said. “We had a turkey dinner for Christmas and thought we were living high.”

James Creighton scoffed at the possibility of turkey at Christmas 1856.

“Turkey?” he told the Bee. “Why turkey that Christmas was taken from the side of a hog!”

Dahlstrom and Sparber told me that Omaha was barely a city then and winters were brutal. The 1855 inaugural ball of Nebraska's third territorial governor, Mark Izard, was a disaster after the heat went out and efforts to insulate the hotel with mud and ice just made the floors so slick no one could dance.

“Just protecting themselves from the elements was a really awful task,” Dahlstrom said. “It was a place hanging on by the margins.”

But hang on Omaha did, perhaps, in those early years, thanks to the young, the bold and a little whiskey.

Follow Omaha World-Herald's board Old Omaha Photos on Pinterest.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

Keystone XL pipeline backers blast ‘political expediency’ as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, W Streets
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs, police say
Dems criticize governor hopeful Beau McCoy's ad in which he strikes a Barack Obama doll
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »