A failed Christmas feast

Milwaukee in winter. Rachel Swanson photograph

Photo by Rachel Swanson

In 1803, when Milwaukee was only a trading post in the wilderness, 23-year-old Thomas Anderson arrived with dreams of becoming a fur trader. He was given a warm welcome by French traders in the area and Anderson decided to show his appreciation by treating his new friends to a grand Christmas Day feast. His written account of that long ago Christmas is preserved in the Wisconsin Historical Collection:

On Christmas Eve, my invitations were extended to my friends. I had secured the fattest raccoon the Indians could tree … . My raccoon was unusually large, weighing about 32 pounds, requiring a large quantity of stuffing to fill it out plump.

Anderson, determined to “exercise my best endeavors in the cooking line,” made the stuffing using a great deal of chopped venison, into which he mixed ground pepper, diced onions, and a few cedar leaves.

No coonship’s body, I am sure, was ever so cramfull before. About 8 o’clock, it was stitched up and ready for placing on the spit early the next morning. Then where should it be placed for safety during the night to prevent it from freezing? Of course by the fire. I went to bed and my mind was on the raccoon subject all night.
But what was my mortification, when I got up to hang the coon up to roast, to find it putrid and stinking. Oh misery! Sympathize with me for my lost labor, and with my friends for their lost dinner! So ended my second attempt at cooking. Of course, I went without my dinner and got laughed at by my half-famished friends.

Anderson would spend the rest of his very long life on the frontier as fur trader, soldier, and as superintendent of several Native American reservations. In the latter he was noted for being quick to recognize and take action when he felt the government was neglecting the Indians in his charge.

He was in his 90s when he died. It’s safe to say he never forgot his failed Christmas feast in the frozen tamarack swamp that later became Milwaukee.

Lost Milwaukee, a new book from The History Press containing the very best from Milwaukee Notebook, is now available. Click here for more details.



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