Early Utahns knew how to have fun, and pioneer histories are filled with stories of celebrations that lasted from dark till dawn.
The “First General Festival of the Renowned Mormon Battalion” ran for two nights in February 1855. Supper consisted of “elaborate dainties” of beef, mutton, chicken, pork, turkey and fifteen different pastries, including Deseret and Tipsy cakes. After the feasts, speeches, concerts and many rounds of toasts, dancing lasted until 2 a.m. the first night and didn't end until 5 a.m. the second.
When the citizens of Huntington dedicated their first log meeting house on Dec. 31, 1880, they staged an all-night New Year's Eve party. St. George residents commemorated Pioneer Day at Pine Valley in 1865 and spent most of two nights dancing.
During 1915 and 1916, about 1,000 Socialists attended a three-day Fourth of July celebration. A dance on Saturday night stopped promptly at midnight, but on Monday “dancing continued until the exhausted dancers cried `enough,´” The Duchesne Record reported. “Two orchestras relieved each other, and when both orchestras were 'played out,' the piano player was brought into service.”
A jubilation at Escalante in 1910 proved to be much less light-hearted, but it was memorable enough for someone to record what happened. During a midwinter celebration, perhaps on New Year's Eve or Washington's Birthday, an elderly man known as Pete Indian entered the hall and interrupted the festivities.
The Koosharem band of Utes and Paiutes spent their summers at Fish Lake and the winter near Escalante. Desperately poor, only about two dozen of them had survived the Indian wars. When the federal government finally created a reservation for them in 1928, officials expected the band would eventually die off.
Pete had a homestead at Deer Canyon and raised hay, grain and corn in the summer and trapped coyotes and wildcats in winter. Like many Utah Indians, Pete and his family were Mormons.
“My friends,” the old man said, “it is right for white man to have a celebration to talk about land—white man land—and the white man's flag and the great United States.” The white man's money had an eagle on one side, and like the eagle, the white man was great and powerful.
Pete held up a dead eagle a white boy had shot and left to rot. There were once many eagles, he said, gesturing at the tall cliffs that surrounded Escalante, but they were dead now, and maybe this was the last eagle. The Indians had killed a few eagles, but the "white man shoot too much." Now the eagles were all gone.
Maybe pretty soon, he said, the Indians would be all gone too. There had once been many Indians with many children, and now the children died. There had once been many rabbits, much fish, and many deer, but now they were few and the Indians were hungry. They had to beg for the white man's bread, but it was no good. The Indians did not like to beg.
Once he had been a chief, he said, and he took off his eagle feathers to show that now he was no chief. “No good! No good!” The eagles were all gone, and maybe pretty soon the Indians would all be gone too.
Fortunately for Utah, the old Paiute's fears did not come true. Eagles and even condors have returned to our skies, and as our new century begins, Indian historians like David Begay, Clifford Duncan, Nancy Maryboy, Mae Parry, Gary Tom, Mary Jane Yazzie and Forrest Cuch remind us that Utah's Indians have a future as well as a past.
Will Bagley found Pete's sermon in Nethella Woolsey's 1964 book, The Escalante Story.