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Monthly History Article

December 2014 - A New Year’s Day Celebration on the Prairie

Ancient Greeks served them as an incentive to drink. Romans imported and fattened them. American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home.

And in Dakota Territory in 1880, oysters were a New Year’s Day treat for some famous settlers.
Charles and Caroline Ingalls, their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace, and their fellow homesteaders and friends near De Smet, Robert and Ella Boast, began the new year with a special dinner.
“There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day,” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.

Charles Ingalls referred to the occasion as “the first oyster festival in Kingsbury county.”
Pioneer Girl is Wilder’s original nonfiction account of her life. It is the true story behind both her fictional “Little House” books for youngsters and the long-running Little House on the Prairie television series starring Michael Landon. The autobiography was recently published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.

In Pioneer Girl, Wilder describes 16 years of the mostly westward journey that the Ingalls family took from 1869 through 1885. In 1879, the Ingalls family was living near Walnut Grove, Minn., when Charles accepted a job as bookkeeper and company storekeeper for A.L. Wells and Co., which sold goods to the graders on the Dakota Central Division of the Chicago & North Western Railway Co. The railroad was expanding its rail service west from Tracy, Minn. The family arrived at Silver Lake, near De Smet, in September.

The Boasts homesteaded about a mile east of De Smet. The Ingalls family had New Year’s dinner at the Boasts’ house.

“It was all the more fun because their one room was so small, that with the table set, we had to go in the outside door and around to our place at the table one by one and leaving the table we must reverse the order and go out the door following the scripture that, ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’” Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl.

It was probably canned oysters on which the Ingalls and Boasts dined. Fresh or canned, oysters had soared in popularity in the 19th century, according to an annotation in Pioneer Girl. Packed in hermetically sealed cans, oysters “traveled the breadth of the wide trans-Missouri region almost as soon as Americans ventured there,” according to historian Paul Hedren. Railroads brought oysters almost everywhere by 1880.

In her fictional account of the New Year’s Day meal in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Wilder described how they dined on oyster soup and that Laura had never tasted anything as good as the “sea-tasting hot milk” with oysters at the bottom.

The first day of 1880 ushered in a winter that Wilder described in Pioneer Girl as passing quickly and merrily.