Mormon History

Salt Lake City Christmas Street Brawl - 1854

Living History: Christmas 1854 was celebrated with a street brawl

Salt Lake Tribune

Roger McDonough

    All was quiet in the city that bright December morning. A light snow had fallen steadily for a week, but it had been unusually warm and not a trace of it lingered to whiten the landscape.

   As was the custom, the citizens went abroad on that special day to visit with friends, promenade downtown and share food and drink. But shortly before noon, the quiet of the holiday morn was abruptly shattered by a big, messy street fight.

    It was Christmas Day, 1854, in Great Salt Lake City, Utah Territory.

   The community had been on heightened alert for months, excited by the news that a team of seven U.S. Army surveyors under the command of Capt. John Gunnison had been murdered on the banks of the Sevier River in south central Utah. Blame had been placed on a hostile band of Pahvant Ute Indians, but officials in Washington suspected Mormon complicity in the ambush. In August, Col. Edward J. Steptoe and his troops were sent to Salt Lake City with orders to investigate the murders.

   Relations between the Mormons and the soldiers had been peaceful but strained. It was widely rumored that Steptoe was out to avenge the death of Gunnison, his West Point classmate. In addition, The New York Times had reported that the colonel was destined by Washington to replace Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory and quoted the Mormon leader as saying, "I will step down as governor . . . only if it is God's good pleasure."

   On Christmas Day, animosities between locals and Federals boiled over into a downtown street brawl that lasted for several hours until officers under Steptoe's command finally managed to put a stop to it. One witness was William Hickman, a member of Brigham Young's personal guard, who wrote:

   "They got along peaceably until Christmas Day, when a portion [of soldiers] and a good many [Salt Lake] citizens got drunk. They had a regular street fight, and there were a good many sore heads and bloody noses on both sides."

   It was the first major confrontation between Mormons and Gentiles in the Salt Lake Valley.

   A week later, Brigham Young took it upon himself to patch up relations between the community and the Federals by inviting Steptoe and his officers to a grand New Year's Day ball.

   The weekly Deseret News described the scene:

   "The walls were beautifully studded with fir boughs and paintings. Our national flag, the stars and stripes adorned the west wall . . . . On the posts around the building, near the top, were fastened fir tree branches, and on each side of the posts hung out from the branches the flags of all nations. Below, the posts were wreathed in roses, with a base of broad green silk ribbon."

   An enormous feast included oxtail and lobster soups, roast bear, beef, mutton and turkey and 19 different kinds of desserts.

   Music and dancing lasted well into the night, and all the shreds of animosity that had been present a week earlier appeared to have vanished.

   Above the spectacle, by Brigham Young's official request, a large green banner was unfurled. It read: "Peace to the Stranger."
   Roger McDonough is a writer and amateur historian in Salt Lake City