Osborne Russell recorded the first known Utah Christmas, celebrating the day in 1840 with American Indians and French mountain men from all over the West at a site that eventually became Ogden. They feasted on fish, stewed elk, venison, fruit pudding, cake and six gallons of strong coffee. Impoverished Mormon pioneers commemorated their first Noel in Utah with a feast of cowhides and thistle roots. In 1848, the pioneers organized "a war of extermination" against ravens, hawks, owls, wolves, foxes and other wildlife the settlers considered "wasters and destroyers." John D. Lee noted: "The reports of guns were heard in every direction, which is nothing uncommon about Christmas times."
Most early holiday celebrations were humble, but when U.S. troops visited old Salt Lake City in 1854, soldiers celebrated Christmas with a drunken brawl aimed at the Saints. Army Colonel Edward Steptoe had orders to stop in Great Salt Lake City to investigate the murder of Captain John Gunnison and his surveying party in 1853. One of Steptoe's officers noted, "the principal object in our wintering here" is to avenge Gunnison. Relations with the Army started off well enough after Steptoe arrived in September, but by December feelings were as frosty as the weather. As John Gunnison had noted earlier, Mormons dreaded the contaminating influence of idle soldiers, especially the possible effects of "the gallantry of epaulettes upon their peculiar institution of polygamy."
Several of Steptoe's young lieutenants used their epaulettes quite effectively, wooing Mormon girls and plural wives who were fed up with polygamy. Lt. Sylvester Mowry courted the wife of one of Brigham Young's sons and claimed the prophet's feisty fifteen-year-old daughter, Alice, told him: "Salt Lake needs only to be roofed in to be the biggest whorehouse in the world."
To keep the peace, local authorities tried to ban the sale of alcohol, but thirsty soldiers could always find a drink on "Whiskey Street." Matters came to a head on December 23 during a play at the social hall. Mormon lawyer Hosea Stout reported a "considerable melee" broke out when the police tried to arrest a soldier in the audience.
Lt. LaRhett Livingston wrote home: "I got my face scratched & hand lamed in trying to quell the disturbance." Lt. Mowry was knocked down early in the action but was not injured. Officers kept the fight from becoming a riot. The pot boiled over, however, on Christmas Day. Drunken soldiers, reportedly hunting for a fight, hit the streets early. Livingston blamed the trouble on the "desperate set of rascals infesting this City" and noted the soldiers "will not be run over if they can help it." Within minutes, there was a general riot in the streets involving 300 "rowdies about town and drunken soldiers."
Some shots were fired on both sides, but no one was hit, Livingston observed. "The stones and clubs did better execution."
Apostle George A. Smith reported the "young growth" among the Mormons put up a stout fight: "Fists, sticks, clubs and stones were used freely." Officers and the police finally quelled the riot and Colonel Steptoe confined his men to barracks for the rest of the holiday. He threatened to move them far away from town, and the prospect of spending the winter in tents at Tooele helped keep the men under control.
Officers and local officials patched up relations at an elaborate New Year's Ball thrown by Territorial Governor Young. He had a large green silk banner painted with a saying that still conveys a useful message: "Peace to the Stranger."
Historian Will Bagley intends to publish the Utah letters of LaRhett L. Livingston in a history of Mormon-Indian relations