Salt Lake City Christmas Street Brawl - 1854
Living History: Christmas 1854 was celebrated with a street brawl
Salt Lake Tribune
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
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
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
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
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