Seattle's First Christmas

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 1/30/2003
  • Essay 4138

Christmas of 1851 found a great change at New York Alki, the place of the very beginning of our city of Seattle. Only six short weeks had passed since the Arthur Denny party had made their historic landing from the small schooner, Exact, in a drenching, pouring-down rain. Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011) contributed this story of Seattle's first Christmas. The story is based on her wide reading in Seattle's early history.

A Small, Young, and Wet Group

Nineteen-year-old David Denny, Arthur's young brother, and John Low had walked from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to select a place for settlement on Puget Sound, finally deciding on the point of land known to the local Indians as "Smaquamox" for their venture. John Low took the long trail back to Oregon to bring the pioneer families, taking with him a note to their leader, Arthur Denny, from David, saying they had found "the place" and to come. The landing of the Denny party, on November 13, 1851, was in answer to that note.

David, an accomplished woodsman, had expected to build log cabins to house them when they arrived, but had only erected the four walls of the first one, when his axe slipped and he cut a deep gash in his foot. When the party arrived on the beach, they were dismayed to find David terribly ill and shaking with fever and not even one completed dwelling to move into. There were 24 people to shelter in one small, unroofed building. That was in the middle of November.

On Christmas Day, along with that structure, now snugly roofed, there was another, larger log house, and two homes built of split-cedar boards, patterned after the dwellings of the local Indians. Arthur and Mary Anne Denny and their three children, Arthur's brother David, and Mary Anne's sister Louisa Boren, lived in the larger log house. The smaller log structure housed Carson and Mary Boren and their baby daughter. John and Lydia Low, with their four children, and William and Sarah Anne Bell, with their four, occupied the two split-cedar dwellings. Charles and Lee Terry were sort of revolving guests, first living in one home and then in another. These 24 hardy souls were the entire population of the little village on that first Christmas.

Since Arthur and Mary Anne Denny's house was the largest, Christmas was celebrated there, with each member of the party helping with the preparations. Louisa Boren led the children into the forest to gather cedar boughs to use as decorations. They cut armfuls of Oregon grape branches, that Northwest native shrub whose stickery leaves were like the holly of their earlier home in Cherry Grove, Illinois. They fashioned a wreath for the door from the Oregon grape, and Louisa used her own red hair-ribbon to make a festive bow.

The other women cooked the feast, to which Samuel Maple and Henry Van Asselt, two bachelors from the Collins settlement on the Duwamish, were invited guests. David Denny, now well and strong, provided them with the main course, two wild geese. There were salmon and wild potatoes purchased from the Indians. Pies were made from the few dried apples remaining in their kitchens. There was a small amount of tea for the elders, and the children drank clam juice, though they sorely missed the milk they could no longer have since the settlement had no cow.

There had been a flurry of washing and mending and the whole company was spruce and clean. Even their shoes, which had been worn to the point of having paper or cardboard liners, had been cobbled, so they were well shod. It was a far different-looking group than it had been just a few weeks earlier.

Before they had started their westward journey along the Oregon Trail, Louisa Boren, with her wonderful gift of forethought, remembered that there would be a Christmas to celebrate in their new home. She had secretly tucked in, among her own belongings, small toys and trinkets to surprise and delight the children on the Special Day.

There was good food and family and friends with whom to share it in this new, wilderness home they had come so far, and through so many hardships, to find. It was a truly Joyous Christmas, that December 25, of 1851!


Dorothea Nordstrand contributed this story of Seattle's first Christmas. The story is based on her wide reading in Seattle's early history.

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