By Mick Woodcock

In 1863, Christmas was new to the list of celebrations for most people in the United States.  Popularized in part by the drawings of Santa Claus and Christmas done by Thomas Nast for Harpers Weeklymagazine, much of the tradition as we know it today was in place by the time of the founding of Prescott.  That particular Christmas was remembered and recorded by a number of people.  No doubt the fact that this was the formation year of the Territory of Arizona had much to do with it.

By March 1863, a list of officials had been appointed by President Lincoln to govern the new territory and they were given a short time to take care of their affairs in the east before setting out for their assignment “at the gold fields of Arizona.”  By September, two groups set out by different routes for the newly established Arizona Territory.

The portion of the Governor’s Party coming overland from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas had encountered problems in re-outfitting the wagon train in New Mexico.  It was after the middle of December when the expedition got on the trail again.  It was far behind schedule since the territorial officials had expected to be at Ft. Whipple by Christmas.  By December 22, they had gone only as far as Ojo De Pescado, or Fish Springs, between Inscription Rock and Zuni in New Mexico.  These men had made the ride by moonlight, leaving the Rock at sunset, and arriving at the Spring by eleven o’clock.  Joseph Pratt Allyn said it seemed that all the winds had concentrated in the canyon where the spring was situated and it was the chilliest night they had spent in camp.  There was no wood nearer than half a mile, so they hurried to bed; but next day, within a mile of the springs, coal was found that worked well in the forge.  A stop was made for two days to repair the wagons and rest the animals.  By now it was Christmas Eve.

Allyn, judge of the Third Judicial District, wrote for the Hartford Evening Press under the pen name of Putnam.  He described the festivities in the wilderness, far from home or even the place they would soon call home:

“We determined to celebrate Christmas Eve, for in this sort of traveling, one never knows what a day may bring forth.  A wagon was sent off for wood and greens.  It went three times, and just as we got all ready it began to snow.  The wood, however, was heaped up, the wagons corralled to keep off the wind, and draped with the old flag.  The rear of a wagon served for the orchestra, and a feed box, for the rostrum, while a huge caldron of hot water was hissing on the fire.  Speeches were made that, no matter what was their merit, had attentive, earnest, and enthusiastic listeners.  Captain Chacon made a speech in Spanish, translated by Col. Chavez that was touching and eloquent; he told of the love he had for the flag, of his sacrifice and aspirations for the republic; it thrilled the mixed audience that stood in that pelting storm, and three rousing cheers went up.  The toddy proved excellent, through we had no eggs.  The music was admirable, the John Brown chorus carrying the Mexicans off their feet, and a German soldier gave us ‘I fights mit Siegel.  The whole affair was closed just as the moon peeped out of the clouds, by some remarks by the chaplain and a short prayer.  On the whole, it was unique, impromptu, and a success.”

Arizona Territory’s first officials traveled cross country for four months before reaching Ft. Whipple in January of 1864. Seated: Judge Joseph Allyn, Governor John Goodwin and Secretary Richard McCormick. Standing: Henry Fleury (the governor’s private secretary), U.S. Marshall Milton Duffield and Attorney General Almon Gage (Call Number: PO-1321p).

While most of the Governor’s Party had traveled overland, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Charles D. Poston and U.S. Marshall Milton B. Duffield, along with traveling companion J. Ross Browne, an author for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, found themselves in Yuma, Arizona at Christmas.  Browne wrote of his experiences in the new territory in his 1869 book, Adventures in the Apache Country:

“I never experienced such exquisite weather as we enjoyed during our sojourn.  Christmas Day came and with it some natural longings for home and the familiar faces of the family circle.  Yet we were not so badly off as one might suppose in this region of drought and desert.  Colonel Bennet and his amiable wife got up an excellent dinner at the fort; and in the evening we had a baile, or Spanish dance…

“Next day superintendent Poston and myself held a grand pow-wow with the Yuma chiefs and their people…  Every village had its delegation…lizards and snakes and mice were hastily cast aside in the wild anticipation of muck-a-muck from the Great Father.  Hungry and lean…they came in to receive the bounty of the mighty Federal chief.  Great were the rejoicings when we opened the boxes and bales of merchandise so liberally furnished by the Government contractors…blankets, military suits, old swords…sun glasses for lighting cigars, and penny whistles for the small fry.  It was indeed a wonderful display of the artistic triumphs of civilization…”

While Prescott is no longer the capital, it is “Arizona’s Christmas City.”  It follows a tradition started 149 years ago when the town’s founders paused in their journeys to honor the Savior’s birth.

(Mick Woodcock is Chief Curator of Collections at Sharlot Hall Museum.)

Published in Prescott Courier: December 23, 2012