Who would have thought that William Thompson, the rugged frontiersman who was instrumental in the founding of Virginia City, Montana, was also a published author? Perhaps this explains the penchant of descendants toward things literary.
Asked by the Anaconda Standard to reminisce about his first Christmas at Alder Gulch, a mining camp that included the town of Virginia City, Thompson relates in an avuncular Western style his attempts to salvage a decent holiday meal. He attempted to make bear meat palatable by lacing it with cinnamon and cooking it with onions. The story, first published on December 17, 1899, can still be found on the internet thanks to the Montana Historical Society.
“Bear Meat and Frozen Onions–Virginia City, 1863” is written with self-effacing humor that was obviously passed down through the family. Thompson quickly resorts to the colloquial, recalling that at the time he was “baching” it with his partner, Joe Griffith, and two other “trail blazers,” Nunley and Clanton, whose first names apparently weren’t worth remembering, if he knew them at all.
Thompson, who enjoyed a robust bachelorhood — he didn’t marry until he was 37 — writes that “in due time” the group set out to prepare a Christmas feast. It’s clear from the prose that he’s remembering a time when he lived at his own pace, when family obligations didn’t dictate early holiday meals, when present shopping didn’t have to be done or trees adorned. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, the one-time mayor of Butte, Montana, clearly enjoyed his early freedom in “the far west.”
Elsewhere in the story, characteristic Thompson resourcefulness, not to be confused with insensitivity or sloth, is on display. For instance, we learn early on that the centerpiece of the meal is a piece of bear meat that has been given to the gang by a friend — they didn’t acquire it themselves. Then, Thompson, who probably remained a stranger to the kitchen for most of his life, quickly hands off the cooking to his business partner Griffith.
Thompson’s lone contribution to the meal, in typical male family tradition, is to know where some onions might be had to make the bear worth eating. He sagely remembers onions that had been thrown in the trash after the first cold spell of the season.
Though we may never know for sure, Thompson probably knew the onions had turned bad. In allowing this inference, he seems to be laying out in the finest literary tradition a kind of foreshadowing of the story’s conclusion. He never vouches for the integrity of the onions, though he boasts that he over-payed for them — coughing up $3 for “several” pounds. That’s north of $50, adjusted for inflation.
The onion caper reveals an almost cavalier attitude toward vegetable consumption evident in later Thompson males. Reading liberally between the lines, Thompson dutifully decided that the meal needed to include vegetables — thus his almost instinctive impulse to ferret them out. But that he snatched them from a garbage heap, and then mightily and overpaid for them, evinces a deeply cynical attitude toward the inclusion of vegetables in a holiday meal.
Read another way, vegetables must have meant a lot to the young man. Perhaps the act of “going for vegetables” had been imbued in his conscience from his early life back east. He probably even ate a vegetable or two when he was young. But now that he was out on his own, eating, or much less enjoying vegetables was a far different story.
The menu cobbled together for that early feast was a peculiar one–bear meat, onions, salt-rising bread, coffee, cake, and sugar. How the quartet procured the ingredients is almost as revealing as the partaking of them.
For instance, Clanton, clearly the low-brow of the group, had spent Christmas afternoon at the saloon, playing cards and trying to “win” a gallon of whiskey for the feast. Nunley, his methods no less prurient, had spent the afternoon trying to “rustle” up some ingredients for a cake. One of the great unanswered questions of the Thompson tome is whether Nunley stole the flour and eggs to make the cake. We do know that the group had sugar and “availed” upon a farmer to use his cook stove to bake the cake.
Thompson, who clearly enjoyed roughing it, calls using the acquaintance’s cookstove was a “privilege,” apparently one that our rugged frontiersmen, who later went on to fame and fortune, didn’t often enjoy. No, he was baching it, roughing it, rustling up ingredients for a holiday dinner.
Eventually, the group sat down for their Christmas “spread,” a classic bit of irony. Then, in a move that would later be imitated by family males, Thompson quickly moves the onions to one side of the plate. He had no intention of actually eating the only vegetable offered as part of the meal.
Interestingly, Thompson is the only one of the group who doesn’t eat what he has provided. Joe digs into the “rank and stringy” bear meat; he doesn’t seem to taste the onions. Clanton gets drunk on the whiskey he provided. And Nunley, who had worked his ass off that day, devours nearly the entire cake just to prove that it’s edible. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, the next day Nunley has to call the “medicine” man.
Which brings us to the delicious, unspoken moral of this tale — only a fool would eat what he brings to a holiday feast. It’s not making too much of a leap to assume that the whole idea, in Thompson’s mind at least, is to make other people sick. A literary masterpiece, no. A revealing portrait of the twisted Thompson psyche, yes.