Life on an army post in the mid-19th century-offered a unique life style. Because of the transient nature of army life, friendships were quickly made and abruptly left, often to be re-established at a different post at a later date. The writings of several army officers’ wives reveal a strong interdependence among families, especially at the western posts where civilian populations were small. While Fort Ontario was not an isolated post, we know little about the extent to which officers and their wives there interacted with the civilian community of Oswego.
Many officers’ wives kept diaries and journals that were later published. Although none of these women ever lived at Fort Ontario, their activities were no doubt of a similiar nature. From these accounts, it is evident that army officers’ wives engaged in a wide variety of social activities, particularly during the long, cold winters. Luncheon and supper parties, both held in the evening, were quite popular. One woman served her guests “baked ham, cold roasted chickens, chicken salad, buttered biscuit, and three kinds of cake.” On another occasion she had the entire garrison in for the evening and “Between nine and ten o’clock I had fruit cake, sponge cake, some lovely coffee with real cream and some candy (little lady apples) too.” Card parties were popular and whist was one of the favorite games. Other winter activities included skating (when the ice froze smooth enough) and sleighing.
During the summer “there were horseback rides, and drives, dances, card parties, charades, and every kind of entertainment that we could devise.” On August 3, 1864, the Oswego Daily Palladium reported that “The officers at Fort Ontario gave a brilliant little party at the post last evening.” The party started about nine in the evening and the guests were treated to fine music and tempting foods. The affair was pronounced a “complete success” and the guests stayed until the “wee small hours.”
Almost all the wives wrote about the Friday “hop,” an informal dance where “there is usually a good orchestra and army officers are proverbially good dancers.” One wife wrote that she had:
seen gray-haired ladies at an army post dance at the hops with as much enjoyment as the younger ones, and they are always invited by the men, young and old to do so as a matter of course. The hops are more like a family reunion than a gathering of strangers.
It is not known if the tradition of the “hop” was still carried on at Fort Ontario in 1868-69 when there were only two officers there. It may well be that parties and dances in-cluded some townspeople as well.
Today, a whole industry has developed to provide us with entertainment. Previously most people devised their own amusements. Theatricals were quite popular and many of the women wrote with delight about the productions, such as this 1868 description of the talent at a western post: “Among the officers and ladies enough theatrical talent appeared to make it possible to place on the stage many very entertaining plays.” Costumes and props were made from materials on hand and those without acting ability worked behind the scenes. During the winter of 1868-69 the folks at one Montana fort had a great time:
At half past six we were all ready in our theatrical costumes and on the stage, as the performance was to begin punctually at seven. At seven the orchestra struck up a lively tune, the curtain rose, and I felt as if I were one of the stars belonging to Wallack’s [a theater in New York City] that had suddenly been dropped down here for the occasion… .we played loan of a Lover and Ici on parle Francais.
Charades and other parlor games were played frequently in the evenings. Most of the popular monthly women’s magazines carried a column that listed new games and parlor tricks. A sampling of parlor amusements published in Peterson’s Magazine during 1867 included: cupid’s box (a kissing game) ; the bouquet (each player imagines himself a bouquet of three different flowers which others try to guess) ; universal biography (a quiz game); and assorted card tricks.
When the weather was cooperative, walks, picnics and croquet were enjoyed. Croquet was all the rage in the late 1860s and Peterson’s Magazine published directions in three monthly installments during 1867. One officer’s wife wrote that her husband had a croquet set made for her and
we have enjoyed it ever so much. Yesterday afternoon Mr. Quinan, Doctor, Mrs. Quinan and I played all afternoon and had a real merry thne. We played down in the hospital yard.
Another good spot to play was the parade ground.
In the winter of 1867, one woman wrote from Camp Cook that “The winter is passing away. We have had little dinner dances and card parties to help pass the time.” Although Oswego, New York, may not have been quite as bleak as the Montana territory, the following winter of 1868 probably passed in similar manner for the residents of Fort Ontario.