Maj. John Wesley Powell solved the last great unknown of the American West in 1869 when he found the mouth of the Green River while exploring the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Powell returned to conduct a scientific survey, which is why a passel of "gentiles" spent Christmas in Kanab in 1871.
Powell's men had been surveying, but rain and snow slowed their progress. They needed a holiday. Some of the Powell Expedition, including the major's cousin, Clem Powell, had settled in at Fort Kanab, but others, including Nellie Thompson (Powell's sister), and the major's wife, Emma Powell, and infant daughter Mary were camped six miles away on a rainy Christmas.
The firing of guns awakened Clem at Kanab, and he "realized with mingled feelings of pleasure and pain that it was again Christmas." Clem was homesick. The weather was dark, gloomy and wet. He felt "perfectly miserable and unhappy. Would give anything if I could spend the holidays at home."
After breakfast, the boys got up a game of baseball, but nobody could agree on rules. The sun broke through about 10 a.m. and they pitched quoits (a game like horseshoes) and played cards until photographer Jack Hillers drove up with some wine and an invitation to Christmas dinner at the camp.
Emma Powell and Nellie Thompson made plum pudding and other holiday delights.
When the cry of "soup" was heard, the surveyors sat down to a dinner of ham, milk, sardines, plum pudding, coffee, bread and butter.
That evening the boys rode up to Kanab as "soft moonlight added witchery to the scene."
"Had a splendid gallop over the sage-covered plain. We were all gay and in good spirits," Clem wrote.
They had come "to see what the Mormons are doing" and go dancing at the small stone building that served as the town's school, tabernacle and town hall.
It had taken three attempts to settle Kanab, and the "entire settlement had a thrifty air, as is the case with the Mormons." The new fort was little more than a year old. Three candles, a kerosene lamp and a blazing pitch-pine fire lighted the crowded room as Bishop Levi Stewart opened the festivities with prayer.
Lyman Hamblin, son of Jacob, the legendary apostle, and a second fiddler struck up a tune. Soon the crowd was in "lively operation" with "a refreshing air of gaiety about the whole assembly." Each man was assigned a number "to even things up" and give them each a chance to dance with a female. Powell's brave explorers seemed to have met their match, since only one got up the courage to ask a Mormon girl to dance. She declined.
"We were made welcome in every respect," artist Frederick Dellenbaugh recalled. Some felt more welcome than others. "The boys are somewhat incensed at the treatment they received," topographer Frank Bishop groaned, "being somewhat unceremoniously snubbed by the Kanab belles."
"And thusly have I spent Christmas out in Mormondom," Clem Powell wrote. "Where will I spend it in '72? I pray God it may be in Naperville in the family circle."
Walter Clement Powell's journal is on the Utah State Historical Society's new compact disc, "The Utah History Suite."