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Monday, December 28, 2015

Marietta's First Christmas

The first Christmas in Marietta featured a 2 for 1 deal. No, it was not a "buy one get one" retail promotion. It was two holidays that were celebrated on the same day: Thanksgiving and Christmas were to be celebrated on December 25, 1788. 

A proclamation dated December 17, 1788 was issued by "His Excellency Arthur St. Clair, Esquire, Governor and Commander in Chief," stating that "For as much as it is encumbent on all men to acknowledge with gratitude their infinite obligations to Almighty God for benefits hereby ordain that Thursday the 25th of December be observed as a day of solemn Thanksgiving and Praise..., and I do probihit all servile labor on that day."

It is unclear why Thanksgiving was not observed at the usual time. The Governors Chart of Laws, published by Rufus Putnam on April 9,1788, included both Thanksgiving and Christmas, among other holidays: "Be it ordained that all members of the colony must celebrate 22d February, 7th April, 4th July,  annually. Also in a proper manner observe the 28th November, 25th December, and 1st day January, annually."

Christmas then was not the mega-event that it has become today. Moreover, the New England settlers in Marietta were probably not used to celebrating Christmas. Their puritan ancestors had actually banned Christmas celebrations in 1659. They believed that Christmas was not biblical, had pagan origins, and in practice was more drunken revelry than pious observance. Christmas had been reinstated but was still only loosely observed by the bah-humbug New Englanders in the late 1700's.

1788 had been an historic yet challenging year. Marietta was a new (and the first!) settlement in the newly established Northwest Territory of the United States, the first such territory outside the original 13 states. The town was being laid out, a few houses were built, a fortified community elegantly named Campus Martius (Latin, meaning "Field of Mars") was started, and Indian treaty negotiations were well underway at nearby Fort Harmar. The surrounding lands were being surveyed, and 30 families had recently moved into town. It was a "crazy busy" place.

Yet there were stresses. Food was short at times since the first harvest was limited. Indians seemed friendly, but the peace seemed tenuous to many. There was discord among leaders and citizens. The weather that winter was severe; the rivers froze. Ice and snow made travel - and survival - a challenge. But, life went on. 

It was an event filled December, 1788 in Marietta. The diary of James Backus - a young Ohio Company shareholder, businessman, and civic official - supplies much of the commentary. Quotes are from his journal unless otherwise noted. 

On December 13 nearly 200 Indians were reportedly present for treaty negotiations; the following day there was a parade and military inspection. On December 15, there was a ball. It was the talk of the town, "All of the conversation of the Settlers centered in the Ball." Backus himself "Went to the Ball....drank good wine & came home groggy." He reported the next day: "Tuesday, 16. Fine morning but felt no better for the Ball." Judge Parsons, in a letter to his friend, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, mentioned the ball in glowing terms - with no mention of a hangover: "We had the first Ball in our Country at which were present fifteen ladies as well accomplished in the manners of polite circles as any I have seen in the old states."

The ball was a pleasant distraction from the rigors of frontier living. However, Governor St. Clair viewed the revelry - and the frequent drunkenness of the Indians - with concern. The Indian negotiations were too sensitive and the threat to public safety too great to risk an alcohol fueled incident - from Indians or settlers. 

St. Clair issued a warrant on December 16 for the confiscation of all "spirituous liquors" until treaty negotiations were finalized. The same James Backus, as a recently commissioned deputy sheriff, was responsible for seizing the liquor. He does not mention this in his diary. He kept detailed records and issued receipts for the later return of the liquor. 

Community activity was henceforth more sedate and, well, sober. Dr Solomon Drown arrived in Marietta on December 19 and reported "more decorum (was) observed than in the British Parliament when I was there."

On Christmas/Thanksgiving morning, locals were jolted alert by a three gun salute from Fort Harmar answered by a three shot cannon blast from Campus Martius. Later there was a church service. Judge Parsons gave a sermon from Psalm 103, verse 2. 

Dr. Drown gave an account of the day to his family in Providence, "It being Christmas, public worship was introduced by the Church Prayer Book. Gen'l Parsons read a sermon adapted to the occasion. Good singing. I dined at General Goodale's and as this is such a new country, perhaps you will like to know our bill of fare. A boiled dish, Turkey, beef and bacon, cabbage, turnips and potatoes, butter, etc., A roast turkey 17 pounds. A turkey pie, custards, wheat bread, etc." There was no mention about those disruptive spirituous liquors.

Christmas Day at Fort Harmar may have been similar to that reported by soldier Joseph Buell's journal in 1787: "This being Christmas Day, the sergeants celebrated it by a dinner to which was added a plentiful supply of wine." Backus' journal notes that on December 26 there was "another ball." New Years Eve and New Years Day were also occasions for merriment and "musick." 

The new year of 1789 began with events of note. The Indian peace treaty was signed January 9. There was a gathering of Indian chiefs, a dinner, and parade. On that same day, General James Mitchell Varnum passed away quietly of tuberculosis. An elaborate funeral including citizens, leaders, military honors, and masonic rites followed. Later in January, a son was born to the family of Nathaniel Cushing; he was named James Varnum Cushing. The cycle of life moved on in the new settlement and surrounding territory.

Phillips, Josephine E.,  "The Tide of Time, the Old Northwest Territory's First Christmas," The Tallow Light, Vol.1, No. 3, January, 1967.
Journal of James Backus, various entries, as reported in the Josephine Phillips article above.
Backus, William W., Geneological Memoir of the Backus Family, The Press of the Bulletin Co., Norwich CT, 1889, pages 37-42, accesssed at
The Week Staff, The Week, December 20, 2011, accessed at
Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, an Encyclopedia of the State, Volume II, C. J. Krehbiel, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1907, page 803, viewed at

Note: Special thanks to Campus Martius Museum Education Specialist Glenna Hoff for sending your author The Tallow Light article after a casual conversation and to Charlotte Keim for providing The Week article about Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

FDR Visits Marietta

At 10:30 pm in Washington D.C. on July 7, 1938, the President of the United States boarded the "Presidential Special" train bound for Marietta, Ohio. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would speak in Marietta on July 8 to dedicate the "Memorial to the Start Westward of the Nation" marking the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Northwest Territory and settlement of Marietta, Ohio. Wow. It was a big deal for a small town.

The Sesquicentennial Celebration, as it was called, had been years in the planning. FDR's visit would be the pinnacle of a series of events from July 8-16, 1938. Those included a reenactment of the voyage of the original settlers from Ipswich, MA to Marietta in 1788, an outdoor drama presentation "Stars in the Flag," an air show at the Marietta Municipal Airport (located then where Walmart is now), monuments in Muskingum Park and on Front Street, parades, speeches, and more. 

Roosevelt's visit was brought to mind by a comment from my uncle, Dan F. Baker, who was there for the FDR speech. The President's train arrived on time at 8:45 am, having traveled to Parkersburg WV, through Harmar, across the Muskingum River on the railroad bridge, and then into Union Station along Second Street. The ten car train included about 20 of the President's aides, his personal physician, and friends. There were 27 reporters and 9 photographers. There were also 6 staffers from NBC and CBS plus 3 telegraph operators. Most of the press party represented print media. The network staffers were radio broadcasters; there was no TV or internet yet.

Just before 9:00 am, FDR emerged on to the rear platform of the coach. A cheer went up from the large crowd gathered there. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio and had braces on legs, was assisted into the Presidential car, a Lincoln V-12 touring car brought to Marietta earlier. The entourage wound its way up Second Street to Washington Street, then to Front Street and finally to Muskingum Park for the speech.

Uncle Dan's narrative gives us the setting:

I was 15, a junior high student at Marietta High School. Students were excused from class that day. FDR's son in military uniform helped his father up a ramp to the lectern. I was very close to the ramp (and)... could see that FDR had metal braces on his legs.  I heard them "clank" as he passed near me. I think my friend Jack Lowe was with me.  (When) FDR dedicated the Gutzon Borglum (he also sculpted the figures on Mount Rushmore) monument, "Memorial to the Start Westward of the Nation",....we all moved down the park near the river to see it more closely.  The speech platform was nearer Front street, as I remember.

                                   President Roosevelt speaks in Muskingum Park, Marietta OH
                                                                                          Photo from

It was a pretty memorable day for him and thousands of others.

The President spoke for about 20 minutes. "Two old friends of mine, Bob (Senator Robert) Bulkley and Bob (Congressman Robert) Secrest invited me to come to Marietta in 1938. It seemed a long way off. I told them I'd come if I possibly could. So here I am." FDR's speech honored the pioneer spirit of the original settlers. He also noted the significance of the Northwest Territory expansion of the nation's borders and its forward-looking governance provisions.

               Sesquicentennial reenactors invite President Roosevelt to Marietta; caption below from Library of                                        Congress. Digital file from original negative 


The President used the metaphor of "cooperative self help" to describe the early efforts of self government in the frontier settlement at Marietta. "Under such conditions there was so much to get done, that men could not get done alone, that the frontiersmen naturally reached out - to government - as their greatest instrument of cooperative self get things done.....They looked on government a power over our people but a power of the people."

His speech compared the frontier faced by Marietta's pioneers in 1788 to a "frontier of social problems" that challenged early 20th century America. He also framed the activist New Deal government role of the 1930s as a benevolent version of pioneer cooperative self help. He then recited some of the New Deal programs that he had championed to combat effects the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The connection of frontier Marietta to the New Deal was a tenuous one, in your author's opinion. However, it was a artful mix of frontier spirit and political spin. It worked because of the occasion and his praise of Marietta's courageous settlers. 

Other observations about the visit:
  • Notable quotes from FDR's presidency included this from his Marietta speech:"Let us not be afraid to help each other - let us never forget that the government is ourselves, not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials but the voters of this country."
  • Nearly 80 people suffered "heat prostration" because of the extreme hot weather. One man collapsed in front of the speaker's platform. FDR expressed concern about those affected.
  • He complimented the Mayor P. W. Griffith on the crowd control and remarked he had "never had seen it surpassed." The crowd was estimated at 75-100,000 people.
  • FDR complimented the Marietta Garden Club floral decorations on the speaker's platform. "Well, that's beautiful," he noted upon seeing it, "I've never seen anything like that before." 
  • Author James MacGregor Burns tells of "a little old woman" in Marietta who "symbolized much of the popular feeling (about Roosevelt) when she knelt down and reverently patted the dust where he left a footprint." This illustrated often ambivalent feelings towards FDR; many reviled him; others almost worshiped him.
  • The President left Marietta on the train bound for Covington, KY for a speech at 3:30 that day. His trip continued on to the west coast. It included speech-making stops in several states to promote his programs and endorse liberal democrats.
  • After visiting San Francisco, naval installations, and Yosemite National Park, he boarded the cruiser USS Houston for nearly a month of recreation, traveling down the Mexican coast fishing and sightseeing. I found that curious. It seems unlikely that a President today could enjoy a leisurely vacation on a naval vessel. Highlights of the trip for Roosevelt were landing a 240 pound shark and (FDR's scientist friend) Dr. Waldo Schmitt's discovery of a new palm on Cocos Island, which he named Rooseveltia frankliniana. 
FDR's visit remains a highlight in Marietta's history and a vivid memory to all who were there.

"Start Westward" Monument under construction, circa 1938
Photo from
Courtesy of  Marietta College Legacy Library Special Collections

Marietta Daily Times, July 7 and 8, 1938 editions, via microfilm at the Washington County OH Local History and Genealogical Library
Personal recollections of Dan F. Baker, formerly of Marietta, now living in Surprise, AZ
Davis, Kenneth Sydney, FDR Into the Storm 1937-1940, Random House, 1993, pages 260-264, accessed through
The American Presidency Project, Address at Marietta, Ohio, accessed through
NotableQuotes website, Franklin D. Roosevelt quotes, accessed at
Black, Conrad, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Champion of Freedom, Public Affairs, New York, 2003, pp 455-57, accessed at
Franklin D. Roosevelt Day by Day, A Project of the Pare Lorentz at the FDR Presidential Library, July 7 and 8, 1938, accessed at