To mark the new year 2014, today we’ll go back 170 years and look at New Year’s 1844.  .  I haven’t researched this specific topic,  but a study could certainly be done on celebrations of the first of January in the Lake Superior country before 1850.  My impressions are that New Years was one of the most joyously-celebrated holidays of the era.  In the journals and records, it stands out as an occasion with plenty of food, drink, kissing, and visiting.  I would be interested to know the origins of the New Year customs described below. Obviously, the observation of January 1st comes from the Christian rather than the Ojibwe calendar, but these celebrations seem well established by 1844, and are somewhat alien to the two Anglo-American authors.  These are customs that certainly date back to the British fur-trade era, probably stretch back to the French era, and pull in practices that are much older than either.   

Although, the celebration of the New Year on January 1st didn’t originate with the Ojibwe, in this part of the the world, it integrated several elements of Ojibwe and French-Ojibwe mix-blood culture.  This is what our two American authors, Rev. Leonard Wheeler at La Pointe, and the unidentified carpenter at Fond du Lac, cannot seem to figure out.

Wheeler, having been at La Pointe for a few years, is prepared with gifts and knows to honor the chiefs and elders, but he still hasn’t wrapped his head around the concept that the Ojibwe at his house are engaged in a tribal tradition of “feasting” door to door, rather than begging (as his Protestant ethic of “individual initiative” demands).  

The carpenter, who we met in this post, wants to participate in all the festivities but he freezes at a key moment and doesn’t know what to do when a group of pretty girls shows up at his door.  Let’s hope that by New Year 1845, he made good on his promise that “they’ll never slip through my fingers in that way again.”   

La Pointe, January 1, 1844:

Missionary Journal                 Jan 1, 1844.                                L. H. Wheeler

Jan 1. 1844. To day the Indians called as usual for their presents.  By keeping our doors locked we were able to have a quiet house till after the customary duties & labors of the morning were through, when our house was soon thronged with visitors very happy to see us, and especially when they received their two cakes apiece as a reward for their congratulations.  Nearly all our ladies received a kiss and some of them were, in this respect highly favored.  At 9 o’clock the bell was rung to give notice that we were ready to receive the Chief and his suit.  When Buffalow and Blackbird with the elderly men entered, followed by the principle men of influence in the Band–and these were succeeded by the young men.  The Indians seated in chairs and on the floor had a short smoke, after which they took their presents and departed.  Then came the Sabbath and day school scholars, who received in addition to their cakes, some little books, work bags and other present from their teachers when they sang fun little hymns and departed.  Our next company at about 11, consisted of our Christian Indians.  Embracing 6 families.  They received their presents of flour, pork, corn potatoes, and turnips and went away very much pleased.  At dinner we were favored with the company of Mrs La Pointe, Francis & Mary [St. Amo?].  At Supper, we had Miss Gates–and all her scholars and some of Mrs Spooners larger Scholars.  At 8 o’clock we had a full meeting of the Indians at the school room after which our tea party returned again to our house, and spent the evening in singing, visiting and in other ways highly gratifying to their juvenile feelings, and adapted to make a good impression upon their minds.  We had the privilege of giving away all our cakes and of receiving nearly all the the expressions of gratitude we expect during the year, except where similar favors are again bestowed.

The same night at Fond du Lac of Lake Superior:

Jan 1st 1844        Warm and misty—more like April fool than New years day


Jan 1st               On this day I must record the honor of being visited by some half dozen pretty squaws expecting a New Years present and a kiss, not being aware of the etiquette of the place, we were rather taken by surprise, in not having presents prepared—however a few articles were mustered, an I must here acknowledge that although, out presents were not very valuable, we were entitled to the reward of a kiss, which I was ungallant enough not to claim, but they’ll never slip through my fingers in that way again.

Happy New Year!

(Both of these journals are from the Wheeler Family Papers, held by the Wisconsin Historical Society at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland.)