As a woman business owner, I find myself wondering about the women who were instrumental in settling Yankton, laying the foundation for what our community is today. What it must have been like for these adventurous pioneers to travel to this barren land with unforgiving weather to build a community from the ground-up? “What it was like for women during these early years? As the holidays approach, I wonder what the holidays were like in early Yankton?

In 1859, Yankton was a little village comprised of about a dozen buildings not far from the Missouri River’s edge. Like most settlers of the Dakota Territory, Henry and Mary Ash (Yankton’s first white female) were seeking financial opportunity, and made the decision to move from Sioux City, Iowa to Yankton. Henry Ash arrived in October with Mary and their two children Ben (8), Julia (6), and Anna Heider (14) an orphan girl the Ash’s were raising arriving on Christmas Eve.

Christmas was not overlooked due to the timing of their move.

Mary prepared the holiday meal for her family, and rumor has it several townsfolk as well. According to legend, the meal consisted of catfish and molasses with young Ben later recalling “after supper, father, mother and myself went to [Joseph] Presho’s cabin to spend Christmas Eve, who we found boiling mush in an old black kettle…

Presho filled some tin plates for each one of us, with blackstrap molasses as sugar. It made a real Christmas treat…”

Following this first Christmas, and as time went by, Yankton was growing. In 1861, Henry and Mary built their new hotel located within the Yankton Stockade on the northwest corner of what is now Third and Broadway. The Ash Hotel was the central location of town hosting most of the social activities within the village’s first few years of existence.

As the population grew, Mary would no longer be the only white female citizen in Yankton. According to the Weekly Dakotian dated July 13, 1861

“…And in December 1859, Mrs. Ash became the first white female citizen in Yankton. The same winter came Mrs. Reynolds; and in the following spring and summer Mrs. Foote, Mrs. Stone, and Mrs. McLeese were added to our female society. Many lonely hour of tears and trials have these noble women passed in their jail-like cabins of logs and dirt, until better and more comfortable houses could be cut from the forest, hauled, hewed, and erected, for their accommodation. All of these ladies have, in days past, moved in refined society and enjoyed the pleasure and conveniences of eastern homes; and yet they have borne the hardships of their pioneer life with commendable patience and courage.”

By 1864 more women and children had arrived in Yankton, which meant more holiday celebrations. Mrs. Osgood H. Carney, widow of a grocer and daughter of James S. Foster the first territorial superintendent of schools, shared her account of Christmas with her younger siblings in their log home on the west side of Pine Street between Second and Third Streets.

Young Carrie was concerned Santa Claus would not find them living “so far out west”. While there is no mention of decorations or a Christmas tree in their home, a description of their twelve by fourteenfoot one room cabin (a former Army commissary) is said to have grease spots on the walls from where the meat hung and sheets tacked to the ceiling to prevent the sod roof from falling in.

When Carrie turned 83 she wrote a letter to the editor of the Press and Dakotan about her first Christmas experience in Yankton:

“December 24 [1864] came a clear, cold day, and after supper dishes were disposed of, three little stockings were hung on the wall behind the stove for Santa Claus, and the three little folks sat by the table, the girls telling their smaller brother wonderful stories until their eyes grew heavy. Then the trundle bed was drawn out and soon two little brown heads were still on their pillow and sweet sleep had claimed them, while mother rocked her baby boy to sleep in her arms.

Before daybreak the next morning the happy children were out of bed after their stockings [and] back into bed again to examine the contents. Each on had received three cookies, a hard-boiled egg, a beautiful red heart of gum and some candy. How delightful!

Dear Old Santa had come, and we did not feel so far away from our old home. We played ‘going to see Grandma’ all day, and our Christmas dinner of potatoes, chicken, pot pie, bread and butter, and cookies-like Santa Claus brought us-was richly flavored with the spirit of love and contentment.”

As time progressed, organizations emerged, churches were built, and more elaborate holiday celebrations were held across Yankton. A Christmas festival was hosted by the Ladies Educational Aid Society at the territorial capital in 1865. The Episcopalians built their own church on the corner of Walnut and Third Streets and the Congregationalists and Methodists held services in the capitol. Sunday school was held, and children were remembered at Christmas with gifts hung on the trees. A traditional Christmas dance was held at the International Hotel, once the Ash Hotel.

The Union and Dakotain dated December 28, 1867 describes a Christmas Eve party for children hosted by the ladies of the Episcopal church in the “Brown School” located on the southwest corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets:

“The trees were beautiful with their rich load of gifts and lights scattered among the branches. Old Santa Claus amused the old and delighted the young by his timely arrival to distribute the gifts; and the fur covered, sunny hearted old fellow made many a little child happy in the performance of his office…

The singing of the children was one of the most interesting and attractive features of the evening. It is a blessing to witness such a sight in our community…We doubt if another town of the age or population of ours can be found where the ladies have so much of the spirit of ‘true religion’…as the ladies of Yankton.”

Thinking about the holidays over the years, things have not changed much regarding the importance of the holidays in Yankton. Our main streets are decorated with decorations on our light poles, businesses windows are adorned with scenes of holiday joy, and our neighborhood homes are beautifully decorated with vibrant lights and festive displays in the yards.

The Meridian District’s Parade of Lights, themed “Merry and Bright” this year, has grown bringing floats and parade goers from neighboring communities, and businesses helping celebrate with activities for young and old alike. The arts abound in December with a holiday play at the Lewis and Clark Theater, music celebrations including the beautiful Mount Marty College Vespers in the Cathedral, caroling to our elderly in the nursing homes, and much more.

Overall, I think Yankton’s founding men and women pioneers whose hard work, struggles, and perseverance would be pleased with the progress this community has made. Most importantly, I think they would be proud to see Yankton is still steeped in tradition and a sense of strong community.

Sources: Yankton: A Pioneer Past, Bob Karolevtiz, North Plain Press, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 1972.

Yankton The Way it Was! Being a Collection of Historical Columns in the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Bob Karolevitz, Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, 1998, 2011.