HOLIDAY SEASON IN PRESCOTT, 1864

by Sharlot Mabridth Hall

Editor’s Note: The following is condensed from an article by Sharlot M. Hall written in 1930 as she was describing the new community of Prescott and its first holiday season in December 1864. She was the founder of the museum (1928) that now bears her name.

Counting miners, soldiers, pack-train owners and all, there might have been 200 or 300 men in reach of Prescott that first Christmas season – late December of 1864.

There were half a dozen families, mostly with several children. Most of them arrived in October on a California-bound (wagon) train and decided to try their fortune in Arizona instead of going on further west.

There were only a few cabins, a small group of soldiers at the stockade military post of Fort Whipple, and some scattered camps of gold miners on that snowy Christmas.

Through the window shutters of whip-sawed boards, the light of a fireplace or candles filtered out to cheer late travelers that first Christmas holiday in Prescott, 1864.

There was not a glass window in Prescott that year, not even in the Governor’s “Mansion,” but there was Christmas cheer, even if no windows reflected it.

Big fires burned in the fireplaces of stone or “dobe” or “stick an’ mud,” and good smells came up from the camp fires on the plaza.

Every home opened its door to as many guests as it would hold, and the governor reckoned his guests by the dozen.

Bear and antelope, grouse and quail, and even beaver tail, could be added to the bill of fare with little effort. Beef from some discarded work ox was a prime delicacy and likely as not the governor himself was glad to get a quarter.

Flour was scarce and most of it came by jack mule from Mexico, along with cakes of dark brown sugar and dried figs and grapes. Dried apples and peaches had come with the October (wagon) train that brought the women and children.

A few of the women had hoarded a bit of white flour and white loaf sugar, kept for sickness, but used in the Christmas jollification.

Those pioneer women were notable cooks and there must have been many a tempting dinner served; but the governor’s private secretary, Henry Fleury, had just enough French blood to cook with genius. Visitors of that period to Arizona’s state house have ranked the broad-shouldered, handsome secretary-cook above the big and handsome governor.

Brown Mexican beans, and the little white “navy” bean included in the regular rations of the soldiers, were the available vegetables, with plenty of “sow-belly” and chili sauce to season them – though all of these grew scarce as winter shut down supplies.

No doubt the gray and grizzled Captain (Joseph) Walker was among the guests in the governor’s log house that day. It may well be that he and Captain (Pauline) Weaver sat side by side and talked of the fur trade in the 30s and 40s, when they were young men and pushed their way to Santa Fe and on into California far in advance of (John C.) Frémont and (Stephen Watts) Kearney.

Bright uniforms, too, mingled with the dark coats around the governor’s table that Christmas Day. The commander of the small army lived at the mansion with the jolly crowd of officials, and the military band played for the ball that night – when the dancers found the floor of hard-beaten earth no bar to their fun.

There were gifts, even though stores were far away; gifts mostly homemade but treasured for years and even in a few instances handed down to the present.

The next year, Christmas at the governor’s mansion had the greatest distinction in the life of that old house, for the (second) governor’s lady of Arizona, Margaret McCormick, was hostess to all the little city.

Her lovely and gracious spirit still lingers in the big rooms and keeps Christmas memories sweet and fragrant as boughs of pine and cedar.