Twenty-eight years after the United States proclaimed its independence from England, somebody west of the Mississippi finally got around to celebrating the Fourth of July. Guess nobody had bothered to teach those Wild West Indians, Spanish traders and French voyageurs the joys of living freely and democratically or the thrills of fireworks and barbecues. Never fear, Mr. President, July Fourth picnics and other civilized American events would soon come churning up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
On July 4, 1804, according to Captain William Clark, the Corps of Discovery that was heading to the Far Ocean passed a creek (in what would become Kansas), and since it had no name, dubbed it Independence Creek. “We fired a swivel at sunrise in honour of the day…and saluted the departing day with another gun,” wrote expedition member Patrick Gass, who also mentioned that between those firings, when the gang stopped to dine at 1 p.m., “one of our people got snake bitten, but not dangerously.” Not Gass, Clark or even Meriwether Lewis wrote of any ant trouble at their picnic in America’s backyard.
One year later, on July 4, 1805, the Corps was busy portaging the Great Falls in what would become Montana. But after the day’s work was done, as Lewis reported, “we gave the men a drink of sperits, it being the last of our stock, and some of them appeared a little sensible of it’s effects.” A fiddle was played and the men danced until a rain shower struck at 9 p.m. At that point, Gass said, “we retired to rest.” Well, maybe Gass did; Lewis noted that the mirth continued with songs and festive jokes until late at night. And the men (presumably Sacagawea, too) ate well. “We had a very comfortable dinner of bacon, beans, suit dumplings & buffaloe beaf,” Lewis wrote. “In short we had no just cause to covet the sumptuous feasts of our countrymen on this day.”
On July 4, 1806, the Corps was again in future-Montana, on the return trip; the day before the travelers had temporarily divided into two parties to head east by different routes. Lewis’ party, which included Gass, bid farewell to some friendly Nez Perce guides on the Fourth and traveled about 18 miles through dangerous Blackfeet country, but apparently did nothing special to celebrate Independence Day. Clark’s party, however, was in a partying mood. “This being the day of the decleration of Independence of the United States and a Day commonly Scelebrated by my Country,” Clark wrote, “I had every disposition to Selebrate this day and therefore halted early and partook of a Sumptious Dinner of a fat Saddle of Venison and Mush of Cows (roots).”
It is uncertain how many of the mountain men who followed in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps paused in their labors or loneliness to become festive on the Fourth. But on July 4, 1819, a celebration occurred in the Missouri River on Isle au Vache (Cow Island), where the year before Cantonment Martin had been established as the first U.S. military post in what would become Kansas. “Our colours are flying,” Major Willoughby Morgan wrote on the morning of the Fourth,“and Riley is preparing something to eat—We shall have a pig with savory tarts to grace the table.”
Also in 1819, Colonel Henry Atkinson, commanding the Yellowstone Expedition, established a post at old Council Bluff (in what is present-day Nebraska), a site recommended by Clark as “a very proper place for a trading establishment and fortification.” Trouble was the site chosen for Cantonment Missouri lay along the river bottom a mile north of the actual bluff. The mighty Missouri flooded the camp the following spring, so the troops built again on top of the bluff. The new post became known as Fort Atkinson, and it was a nice, dry place to celebrate the Fourth; artillery salutes, a military parade and musical entertainment at dinner made Fort Atkinson the hot place to be west of the Mississippi on July 4, 1824. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson—the man behind the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the author of the Declaration of Independence—died at his home in Monticello, Va. Yes, it was on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of that declaration.
In May 1841, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) began surveying Puget Sound, near the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Nisqually (in modern-day Pierce County, Wash.). The British residents put out the welcome mat for Wilkes and his crew. But no doubt they felt like withdrawing it on July 5, 1841. Near the fort was an American-led Methodist mission that had been established by Dr. John P. Richmond in 1840. On the 5th, Wilkes brought his men to the mission to celebrate Independence Day, a day late since July 4 fell on a Sunday that year. The festivities included a parade and a speech by Richmond about how the United States was bound to control Oregon country. The Brits understandably could not muster much enthusiasm for what might have been the first Fourth celebration on the West Coast.
Some American transplants down in Texas might have been celebrating the Fourth of July even when the place was in Mexican hands in the 1820s. But Texans soon had something “bigger” to celebrate—Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1836. They had the Alamo in San Antonio to remember, and after the victory at San Jacinto on April 21, they truly had their independence, recognized as such by the United States on March 3, 1837. The Republic of Texas stood by its Lone Star until it became the 28th state on December 29, 1845. War broke out between the United States and Mexico a few months later, but that didn’t keep folks in San Antonio from enjoying an “American Independence Day” celebration on July 4, 1846.
One year later, the earliest recorded celebration of the Fourth in California took place at so-called Fort Hill, a prominent hill overlooking the pueblo of Los Angeles (an elevation less than 1,000 feet north of the present-day Los Angeles City Hall). Atop Fort Hill was built Fort Moore, which was officially dedicated on July 4, 1847, and was named for Captain Benjamin Davies Moore, a casualty of the 1846 Battle of San Pasqual. Planned by Lieutenant J.W. Davidson of the 1st Dragoons, it was primarily built (actually, it was never finished) by the Mormon Battalion. On the Fourth, some of the Californios who had been fighting for their independence now shouted “Viva Los Estados Unidos!” (“Long Live the United States”), while the American flag was raised at Fort Moore to a 13-musket salute by the 1st Dragoons. Captain Stuart Taylor read the Declaration of Independence in English, and future mayor of Los Angeles Stephen C. Foster read it in Spanish. A lively fandango capped off this multicultural Fourth.
The Mexican War officially ended on February 2, 1848, and California was ceded to the United States. The California Gold Rush followed, and the Americans who swarmed in were soon celebrating the Fourth in Sacramento and elsewhere, as long as they weren’t too busy turning up golden nuggets. California officially became the 31st state on September 9, 1850, a couple of months after Shasta reportedly became the first town in northern California to commemorate the Fourth of July.
During the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s, Westbound emigrants on the Oregon and Mormon trails, because they usually left the Missouri River in the early spring, most often spent July 4 in what would become central Wyoming. They knew they were on schedule to beat the fall mountain snows if they arrived at a turtle-shaped, 130- foot-high rock by July 4. Independence Rock supposedly was named by mountain man William Sublette after a Fourth of July celebration there in 1830. The rock was easy to climb, and emigrants began carving their names in the granite; in 1840 Father Peter J. DeSmet referred to it as “the great registry of the desert.” July 4 celebrations at Independence Rock were not limited to resting, climbing and inscribing, of course. Gunshots in the air, boisterous drinking, singing and patriotic orations were often part of the travelers’ holiday package.
On May 30, 1854, Kansas Territory, which included much of present-day Colorado, was formed, but it would remain a political battleground over the issue of slavery. The next year, the town of Lawrence would attract more than 1,500 people on Independence Day. Three months later, in October 1855, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery; Independence Day was taking on a new meaning to many people there and around the soon-to-be-divided nation. Denver was still part of Kansas Territory when it celebrated its first Fourth of July at the mouth of Cherry Creek in 1859. The newly organized gold rush town (called Denver City) was full of whiskey peddlers, but missionary W.H. Goode reported that “the first Rocky Mountain celebration of our national independence” had no drinking or carousing; instead there was a reading of the Declaration of Independence, prayer, “a chaste and appropriate oration” and wholesome band music.
In the decades to come, most Western Fourth of July celebrations would prove more lively. In 1876 many three-day (July 3-5) Centennial celebrations were held throughout the United States, including one in San Francisco, which drew 10,000 participants and featured a parade that was more than four miles long. Some of the celebrating around the country was dampened by shocking news out of Montana Territory—that on June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his immediate command had been wiped out by Sitting Bull’s Plains Indians at the Little Bighorn.
North Platte, Neb., had one of the most famous Fourth of July celebrations in Old West history in 1882 thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s “Old Glory Blowout.” Along with the traditional parade, singing and speeches, the event featured cowboys’ roping and riding buffalos and steers, horse races and, at night, fireworks. Cowboy “sports” during the Fourth of July had been held previously, such as in 1869 at Deer Trail, Colorado Territory, and in 1872 in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. “The exhibition that Buffalo Bill mounted in North Platte that summer, though,” writes Robert Carter in his 2000 book Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend, “is considered the beginning not only of the Wild West show but also of the rodeo, although that word was not applied to the contests until 1911.”
Soon after the Northern Pacific tracks passed through the Yellowstone region in 1883, Livingston, Montana Territory, held an Independence Day celebration. Four years later, the first Fourth of July celebration was held in Yellowstone National Park. A flag was raised at Camp Sheridan (later replaced by Fort Yellowstone), and speechmaker E.C. Waters said that the crowd had gathered there “to pay our kindly respects to the dear old flag…may it ever be protected in this National Park by as gallant a commander and troops as today are its protectors.” Some 30 years later, National Park Service personnel replaced the U.S. Army as the flag’s official protectors.
In 1884 the old cow town Dodge City did something different on the Fourth of July to attract attention and business; it staged the first Mexican bullfight on U.S. soil (see story in the October 2007 Wild West). The event was a financial, if not an artistic, success, but there was a cry of indignation in Kansas and elsewhere. Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, complained to the Kansas governor, “Humanity and public decorum have been trampled under foot and the blood-red flag of barbarism elevated above them.” Needless to say, bullfights did not become popular on American soil, nor a Fourth of July tradition. The red-white-and-blue flags of patriotism were what counted most on Independence Day—and that’s no bull.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.