Squirrel Pot Pie – The Featured Dish of Cincinnati’s First Christmas Dinner of 1788


The First Christmas dinner in Cincinnati, or as it was known in 1788 – Columbia – was a sparse one. There were about 50 poor souls, all badly needing a good bath with soap. But, it would be at least five more decades before Proctor and Gamble invents soap that floats.

All fifty families were crammed into four chinked-log blockhouses near what is now Lunken Airport, later called Turkey Bottoms, to protect themselves from the local Shawnee tribe natives, who were known to attack the new white Northeasterners settling on their hunting grounds. The group had arrived the week before Thanksgiving on flatboats on the Ohio River in 1788. Most of the families at Columbia were from New Jersey. And, they were all part of the Baptist Church that was fleeing persecution in the Northeast, now facing attack from another group – the Shawnees.

The family names of those first Cincinnati settlers were Stites, Gano, Bailey, Buxton, Cox, Woodruff and the Dunn family of Hugh and Mercy and their five children, who had just arrived in December. The good thing was that a party of the Columbia settlers had made a truce with the local Shawnees, after being run up into trees on a hunting expedition shortly after their arrival. So, in the spirit of good neighbors, they invited the natives to their Christmas dinner.

Only having a month to get settled, there were no cornfields to harvest or any other crops to eat. The party had brought provisions in the form of flour and probably salt cured meats to get them through the winter. That was supplemented by the local free range meat they could hunt – squirrel, possum, bear, raccoon, turkey, pheasant, and fish from the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers nearby.

In 1857, one of the Columbia settlers, Isaac Dunn, recalled that first Christmas dinner with the Indians. He would have been six years old at that time, but was in 1857, a prominent judge living in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

Dunn said that it was an unseasonably warm that first Christmas Day, kind of like the warm December we’ve had this year. And so, the Columbia settlers put up a big table near the shore of the river, and , in addition to the Shawnee, also invited a party of officers from nearby Ft. Washington, closer to what is now downtown Cincinnati. The site of the uniformed, musketed officers scared the Indians at first, but their fears were eventually quieted and all sat down for a big dinner of what ?

Isaac Dunn said in his recollection, “The principal dish in the feast was potpie, which were made in two ten gallon kettles. My mother (Mercy Dunn), being a Jersey woman, with the other ladies assisting, superintended the making of the potpies.” The fact that Mercy was the head chef makes us think that potpie was a familiar dish to New Jersians. The potpies were probably made of squirrel, which Dunn said was the most prominent meat they had available, and the crust made of flour they brought and lard. Crisco wouldn’t be invented by P & G until about 140 years.

These Jersey meatpies were probably very interesting to the Shawnee guests. The whiskey accompaniment from the Ft. Washington soldiers, who received that as part of their monthly ration, would have also been something new to the Shawnee. Everything passed off fine and the Indians departed, bellies full and in good spirits.

Unfortunately that spring there was a huge flood in the Columbia settlement, and the Shawnee decided to run off with all the horses of the Columbia settlers. Isaac Dunn’s family had enough and moved to higher ground, forming the settlement of Elizabethtown, Ohio. Many other Columbia settlers moved out of the original settlement to higher ground to areas like what would become the village of Mariemont. It was kinda like the story of the original Roanoke Colony, but we know where they went. Many of the early settlers are buried at the Columbia cemetery across from Lunken Airport, including the majority of the Stites family. Others are buried at the community church yard in Mariemont.

After the family moved out of Columbia, Isaac’s brother Micajah Dunn built a log home that is now on the site of the Shawnee Lookout Park. And the Dunn family continued to eat their New Jersey potpies as they prospered and proliferated.


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