Salida Christmas 1806
The first Christmas celebration in Colorado happened in 1806, a few miles north of Salida, near the mouth of Brown’s Canyon. Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike and his 15 soldiers had reason to celebrate.
They were in the highest valley of the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter, and their last food had been a turkey and a hare shot on Dec. 22. But on Christmas Eve, Dr. John H. Robinson and interpreter Baroney Vasquez killed four bison, and another hunter, Private John Sparks, killed four more. They would enjoy a Christmas feast. We may never know why Pike took the course he did. But we do know what he had to say about the first Christmas in Colorado:
“We now again find ourselves all assembled together on Christmas Eve. and appeared generally to be content, although all the refreshment we had to celebrate the holiday with was buffalo meat, without any salt, or any other thing whatever.”
“Dec. 25th. It being stormy weather and having meat to dry, I concluded to lie by this day. Here I must take the liberty of observing that, in this situation, the hardships and privations we underwent were on this day brought more fully to our mind, having been accustomed to some degree of relaxation, and extra enjoyments. But here, 800 miles from the frontiers of our country, in the most inclement season of the year – not one person clothed for the winter – many without blankets, having been obliged to cut them up for socks, etc., and now lying down at night on the snow or wet ground, one side burning whilst the other was pierced with the cold wind – such was in part the situation of the party, whilst some were endeavoring to make a miserable substitute of raw buffalo hide for shoes, etc. … We spent the day as agreeably as could be expected from men in our situation.”
The journey started on the 15th day of July, 1806, twenty four soldiers, under the command of Pike set out to navigate the Arkansas and Red rivers. We know what they were doing on this expedition that began near St. Louis on July 15, 1806, and eventually reached Chihuahua, Mexico, on April 2, 1807. But to this day, historians are not sure why they were out here.
Why was Pike in such a hurry when he came to Colorado? He and his men were in their summer uniforms, and their lack of proper gear caused two privates to lose their feet to frostbite. Soldiers toted 70-pound loads through waist-deep snow in sub-zero temperatures. Lewis and Clark holed up for the winter; we must wonder why Pike didn’t build cabins at what is now Pueblo or Cañon City and wait for better weather.