by Drew Desmond, Contributing Writer, Prescott Western Heritage Foundation
Winter began early in 1864, “and by the middle of December the trails were mostly snowed under and lost — all but those often traveled, which led to the placer gold mines on Lynx Creek, or to Walnut Grove and the camps on the Hassayampa. The snow lay white over the hills; the tops of the high peaks were crystal white and cold; and the pine and cedar and juniper trees were sparkling like trees on a Christmas card,” one writer of “Christmas 1864” remembered.
From a distance, one could see two welcoming American flags flying in the wind. One flag flew from a tall staff that stood on the parade ground of Fort Whipple; the other from the Governor’s Mansion.
“There were only a few dozen log houses in Prescott — along the plaza and the banks of Granite Creek.” The town’s streets only existed on the papers of Robert Groom, “who had just laid out a capital city among the forest trees of the little valley,” it was recalled in “Christmas 1864.”
“Where the plaza now lies, campfires burned under trees; tents and shelters stood haphazard; and a few wagons with dirty canvass covers … were pulled up under the best tree shelter their owners could find.”
There were roughly 200 to 300 Anglos around the Prescott area, and the few houses that did exist happily opened their doors to all who arrived.
“Through the window shutters of whip-sawed boards the light of the fireplace or candles filtered out to cheer late travelers,” The Prescott Evening Courier observed. There were no glass windows in Prescott then, not even in the Governor’s Mansion. “But there was Christmas cheer even if no windows reflected it.”
The women welcomed in everybody they could, and their home cooking was “as good a Christmas present as any man in the wilderness would ask,” the newspaper reported.
The governor welcomed guests by the dozen. His private secretary, a renowned cook, served a large dinner that featured roast venison and wild turkeys and also beef, which was a great treat even if it was a tough old work steer. There was a “jolly crowd of officials, and the military band played for the ball that night,” the paper noted.
“Little girls danced with grave and dignified officers whose tall shoulders were far above the pig-tailed heads of their little ‘pardners.’ One little girl spoke of how she carried her Christmas doll in one hand as she danced.”
Festivities at the mansion concluded with “a little service of song with Parson Reed, the first minister in Prescott, in charge,” the newspaper said. Since stores were far away, gifts were mostly homemade.
Prescott’s first Christmas was both simple and beautiful. Those early settlers displayed the kind of community they desired to raise their children in — one that was friendly, generous and patriotic.