A 1709 engraving of Hernando de Soto in 1541 encountering Indians on the Mississippi River. In 1540, the de Soto Expedition celebrated the first European Christmas in present day Mississippi, probably with a pork barbecue. It was at the Chickasaw village of Chicaza in the present day Starkville, West Point, Columbus area. Photo by: Courtesy photo
A 1730 engraving of a rather fanciful view of de Soto at either Tascaluza's Mabila, or the Chickasaw village of Chicaza. The Chickasaw village, which was located in the present Starkville, West Point, Columbus area was in 1540 the site of the first European Christmas celebrated in what is now Mississippi.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
An ad in a Columbus newspaper announced there would be horse racing on Christmas Day.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
December 15, 2018 10:01:44 PM
My column today is a look at some unusual Christmas celebrations in Mississippi during the 1800s and earlier. In the 1830s and 40s, towns across Mississippi seemed to have the same idea as to how to celebrate Christmas Day. At least in Columbus, Natchez and Canton they all had the same idea -- horse racing.
At Columbus, the Hyde Park Race Course claimed to be "one of the handsomest and best improved courses of the South." Its newspaper ads stated, "Race horses will be accommodated with stables and litter gratis."
The races at Columbus were often advertised in Mobile, Huntsville, Nashville and Montgomery newspapers. The purses usually ran from $200 for the preliminary races to $1,000 for the featured race. That was more than the price of a nice house in the 1830s and 40s.
The Hyde Park 1837 Christmas Day races were a big event in Columbus. Newspaper ads ran stating:
"On Christmas Day a race of mile heats, purse of two hundred dollars, free for anything. Entrance, twenty-five dollars. Entrance money to go with purse.
"Second day, three mile heats, purse four hundred dollars; entrance fifteen dollars.
"Third day, sweepstakes for mules, ten dollars entrance -- Six entries made; to close the day preceding the race.
"On the first day a Match Race will take place for $1,000 a side, between William A. Verell's horse Oceola and F.R. Gregory's mare Virginia - two mile heats."
Christmas Day races were also held in Canton and Natchez.
As I was researching these races, as so often happens, I stumbled onto something else of interest. On Dec. 21, 1843, it was reported in Columbus that "Several droves of hogs are now in Town. Those persons of the county who desire pork can be accommodated. Brains and ribs are fine for Christmas."
The combination of pork and horse racing on Christmas Day brought to mind that the first Christmas celebrated in what is now Mississippi was by the Hernando de Soto Expedition in 1540. According to de Soto scholar Dr. Charles Hudson (his reconstruction of de Soto's route was used by the National Park Service's historic trail study), "it is probable that the trail their guide from Apafalaya [Indian province centered near Tuscaloosa] was following led them to the Tombigbee River at present-day Columbus, Mississippi."
De Soto's men constructed a large piragua and crossed the river on Dec. 16, 1540. Part of the expedition reached the Chickasaw town of Chicaza late on that day, with the rest of de Soto's men arriving Dec. 17. At Chicaza, Christmas in 1540 was the first Christmas known to have been spent by Europeans in what is now Mississippi. The site of Chicaza has not been located but is within the Black Prairie, about a day's march west of the Tombigbee.
There, the Spanish established their winter camp of 1540-41. The Chickasaws brought food and blankets to the Spanish and the large number of Europeans probably greatly depleted the Indians' winter food supply. The Spanish expedition had with them a drift of pigs, being 300 in number at its start. Pork was eaten when food ran short or for special feasts. The Spanish did not hesitate to avail themselves of the Chickasaws' food supplies.
De Soto had been specifically ordered to spread Christianity among the Indians. He and his men considered themselves not a Spanish expedition but a Christian expedition, but their treatment of Indians was anything but Christian. The Chickasaw chief and other tribal leaders were treated to at least one feast of pork. Later, three Chickasaws were captured attempting to take some of the Spanish pigs. Though the Spanish had been freely taking food from the Chickasaws, for taking the Spanish hogs two Chickasaws were executed and the third had his hands cut off before being sent back to his village.
Christmas was probably the date the Spanish first slaughtered some of their hogs for a feast in what is now Mississippi. That Christmastime cooking by roasting meat over an open fire was called a barbacoa. It was from that word and form of cooking that barbecue took its name. That Spanish meal would have been the first pork barbecue ever held in Mississippi and makes this month the 478th anniversary of pork barbecue.
Interestingly Rodrigo Rangel (private secretary to de Soto) described Christmas Day at Chicaza as "... it snowed with as much wind as if they were in Burgos, and with as much or more cold." Burgos is a city in northern Spain which is located at the Iberian central plateau or highland plain.
Are barbecue and horses our oldest Christmas traditions in Mississippi? In December 1540 de Soto brought the first barbecue and horses to what is now Mississippi and in the early 1800s people in Columbus celebrated Christmas Day with horse racing and eating pork brains and ribs.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]
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