Soon after the signing of the American’s Declaration of Independence, criers were sent out to read the document to the public in several American cities. It was a time of celebration for most people who cheered loudly when the document was read. Not everyone was enthralled, of course — there were still around a million or so British loyalists living in the former colonies, after all.
John Adams later opined that the Fourth of July “ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” In his enthusiasm, Mr. Adams may have overlooked that France and Spain owned most of the continent in 1776 — but that would change in time.
Nevertheless, despite the battles that raged between American and British forces, from Canada to Spanish Florida, 4 July 1777 was a day of celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were, as Mr. Adams prescribed, ringing bells, firing guns, setting off fireworks, and giving thanks in prayer in local churches. It may have been Philadelphia’s celebration that set the precedent for Independence Day Celebrations throughout the United States.
Captain William Rogers Clark, co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, recorded celebrations of Independence Day in 1804, 1805, and 1806. Well, perhaps not celebrations as much as they were solemn acknowledgements of what had been accomplished. A new nation, a grand experiment in the ability of free men to govern themselves.
There were educated men and women in Nineteenth Century America, but comparatively few of them in the old west. Most men and women back then were illiterate. They didn’t learn about Independence Day from schoolbooks; they learned about it through stories passed down to them from earlier generations. It is unlikely that they knew any of the details, such as about the Declaration of Independence’s first signer, John Hancock. They may have known that the declaration was written in draft form by Thomas Jefferson, but not that John Adams, Ben Franklin, and William Morris edited it, or the stories of the 56 men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their honor to see independence through to its conclusion.
In 1868, Hamilton, Nevada (today, a ghost town) was a mining community. I’m not sure how many people lived in Hamilton, but a large number of them were miners. The citizens of Hamilton decided to celebrate the 4th of July and they planned to do it by having a flag pageant, a parade, and a hoedown. The Hamiltonians encountered a few problems, though. The mining town of Hamilton had exactly two women. And there was only one musician … a fellow who could play the fiddle.
There was also a test within the other challenges. The fiddler was a connoisseur of rot-gut whiskey, so the 4th of July committee had to find a way to keep him reasonably sober. It fell to the women to organize the town dance, which everyone thought was fair seeing that the women would be dancing for most of the night.
Finding an American flag was also a challenge. The nearest store where a flag might be found was 120 miles distant. Instead, the townsfolk found a quilt with red lining, they found some white canvas, and then somewhat miraculously, a family traveling through town came up with a blue veil. The presence of this family was also a bit of luck because the family had four daughters. Suddenly, the town’s two women had help on the dance floor. When it was discovered that none of the young ladies had any shoes, and when it was realized that it would be somewhat cruel to ask the ladies to dance barefooted on rough floor planking, a call went out for shoes. The miners searched through their few belongings and came up with a couple of pairs of brogans.
After a parade of citizens through the town of Hamilton to the nearby community of Treasure Hills, someone gave a tin of whiskey to a local politician, and he managed to give a patriotic speech that didn’t last too long. It wasn’t long before everyone was in the spirit of Independence Day. For most everyone, it was a good day.
In Texas, everything is done on a grand scale — otherwise, according to most Texans, why bother? In 1876, the 100th Anniversary of the United States of America, the citizens of Corpus Christi surpassed even Texas-style celebrations. Festivities began at midnight on 3 July and lasted until sunrise on 5 July. Heck, even Texans were impressed. It included the firing of howitzers (borrowed from the King Ranch) and the plan was to fire one round for each of the original 13 states. Well, Texas whiskey got in the way and the artillerists fired fourteen. When the guns had fired, church bells began ringing and that kept up until none of the bell men could ring another bell.
At sunrise on the 4th, the howitzers fired thirteen (this time) rounds and the bells started ringing again afterwards. At around 7 a.m., citizens began gathering at the Congregational Church, where they observed a demonstration by the Star Rifles drill team, Captain S. T. Foster, commanding. At 8 a.m., around five hundred folks gathered at the baseball field to watch a game between the Corpus Christi team and Fulton. After the game, a citizen parade took shape, which ended up at Market Hall, where theological students read scripture, led prayers, and entertained the crowd with a choir.
Corpus Christi was quite crowded by 11 a.m. There were men on horseback, of course, and carriages. Ranch hands began challenging one another to horse races, nothing planned, just youngsters feeling their oats. And then there was the incident involving Stan Welch, editor of the Valley Times. Mr. Welch’s job was to sponge the barrel of the gun and ram home the powder charge. His boss, Charlie Beman, publisher of the Valley Times, along with Larry Dunn, J. J. Boerum, and Tomas Rivera, were the loaders and lanyard snappers. What happened was that after the tenth shot was fired, Beman loaded the powder charge and Stan rammed it home — but the barrel was hot and ignited the powder and the gun discharged prematurely. Stanley lost his arm, and his hand was found a block away. As far as I can tell, no other town in America can make a similar boast about Independence Day celebrations.
A grand parade led citizens down Mesquite Street eventually ending up on the school grounds where the Declaration of Independence was read, and people joined in singing “America the Beautiful.” Since the main speaker went and blew off his arm, the job fell to Mayor Headen. Toward the late afternoon, a rain shower cooled everyone down and folks began to mosey over to the long tables for the main dinner. There was enough food on those tables to feed an army. Nearby, barrels of ice water kept everyone hydrated and pitchers of lemonade were set on the dining tables. Chinese style lanterns provided sufficient light. Toasts were offered to the nation, to George Washington, the heroes of ’76, Texas, and the women of America.
After dinner, a dance was held at Market Hall — and the dancing lasted until dawn. It was a great celebration, of course (except perhaps for Mr. Welch), but memorable, nonetheless. Despite losing an arm, Welch went on in life to become an attorney and a judge. He was assassinated in 1906 in the political violence between Democrats and Republicans in Rio Grande City, Texas. His murderer joined the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) on the side of Sr. Carranza.
One of the better-remembered Independence Days took place in North Platte, Nebraska in 1882. This was made possible for William Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill. He called it an Old Glory Blowout. There was a parade, singing, speeches, and cowboy contests, such as roping and shooting, horse racing, and a fireworks display. There were two off-shoots to the North Platt celebration. It was the start of Buffalo Bill’s wild west show idea, and it was also the beginning of American rodeo.
In 1884, the wild town of Dodge City added a new twist to the Independence Day celebration: a Mexican style bull fight — some say, the first ever staged on US soil. But even then, there were folks who thought bull fights were inhumanely cruel to the animals. Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals complained to the Governor of Kansas, “Humanity and public decorum have been trampled underfoot and the blood-red flag of barbarism elevated above them.” Personally, I’ve never understood the purpose of bull fights — but this is yet another characteristic of the independent-minded Americans: there’s not much they agree on.
In the old west, Independence Day was a time for celebration. Festivals took place in mining camps, farming communities, towns, and emerging cities. Americans enjoyed picnics, dances, musical entertainments, rodeos, horse races, foot races, turkey shoots, parades, and of course, there was always the need for speechifying. And a few drinks. Well, maybe more than a few. These events later expanded to baseball games, food-eating contests, and games for the youngsters. At some locations, where Native Americans had assimilated American traditions, Indians also conducted rodeos, pow-wows, traditional dances, and weapons competitions. Everyone seemed to join in the 4th of July celebrations from the plains of Texas to those in Montana, from California to Florida, and everywhere in between.