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Day Trips: Frontier Christmas at Fort Dobbs

Fort Dobbs was a lonely place, especially in winter. One reenactor stands guard as another hauls firewood to their hut.
Fort Dobbs was a lonely place, especially in winter. One reenactor stands guard as another hauls firewood to their hut. Fort Dobbs State Historic Site

George Washington’s army certainly had a hard time at Valley Forge in December, 1777. Then again, the 50 or so soldiers defending Fort Dobbs just 22 years earlier weren’t exactly getting fat on fruitcake.

Fort Dobbs was thrown together in 1755-56 near present-day Statesville – the edge of civilization in colonial North Carolina.

Fort Dobbs was the sole fortification on the N.C. frontier, the front line of defense against the mighty Cherokee and other American Indian nations angry with colonists. This was during the French and Indian Wars, when Britain and France were duking it out for control of North America. There were massacres in New England; young George Washington of Virginia was almost killed in 1755 in a campaign that involved defending a fort on the site of present-day Pittsburgh.

How isolated was Fort Dobbs at Christmas 1755? There were about 60 families that lived within “a day’s walk – about 20 miles,” according to site manager Scott Douglas.

The fort itself was in the process of being built – a three-story wooden blockhouse; its 8,000 square feet that could hold the 50-some men stationed there as well as anyone in the area fleeing attackers.

The Cherokee attacked in February, 1760, but were repulsed. When the war ended a few years later, the obsolete fort was abandoned and it gradually disintegrated. In the 1940s, efforts began to preserve the location; it became an N.C. Historic Site and now includes a visitor center and nature trails.

And you’re invited to visit Dec. 12 to see how they celebrated the holidays there. The 9 a.m.-5 p.m. program is free; seasonal refreshments, including hot apple cider, will be offered. Through the day, a dozen historic interpreters at the garrison have scheduled musket- and cannon-firing demonstrations, plus demonstrations of open-fire cooking.

There will be displays showing what winter was like in a military camp – and life at Fort Dobbs was hard and lonely. Douglas says they spent that winter the way they spent the other seasons there: cutting trees, building small log shelters and building the fort.

They hunted deer and bison. Rice and dried peas were sold to them by farmers.

Douglas says some soldiers under Capt. Hugh Waddell’s command may have had their families with them – a common practice at frontier forts – but records are scant.

Christmas at the actual fort is also a question mark. Settlers and probably soldiers were Scots-Irish Presbyterians, who did not celebrate the holiday, according to Douglas. English-American soldiers probably had a bonfire. German immigrants at the garrison, or their Lutheran or Moravian ministers from their new settlement at Bethabara, (now part of Winston-Salem) may have had Christmas trees.

The good news? There were no reports of starvation. There were enough dried peas to go around.

John Bordsen: 704-358-5251

Want to go?

Winter on the Western Frontier is 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Dec. 12 at Fort Dobbs, 438 Fort Dobbs Road, Statesville. Admission: free.

From Charlotte, take Interstate 77 North to I-40; I-40 West to Exit 150; take N.C. 15. Turn right on Chipley Ford Road, then right on Fort Dobbs Road. Details: www.fortdobbs.org.

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