The Mormon Battalion
In The Deserts of the Southwest By Kent Duryee
The Mormon Battalion, a force of some six hundred recruited by the United States Army in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, became witnesses, if not prime movers, of many historical events during the westward expansion of the United States between 1846 and 1855.
The story of the battalion (originally comprising more than five hundred men plus thirty four women and fifty one children), its formation and its difficult journey west is not widely known. However, the battalion's march through New Mexico, Arizona and California, across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and California deserts, was an integral part of the history of America’s "Manifest Destiny."
While not the first "white" people to travel the route, the battalion, en route to a rendezvous with General Stephen Watts Kearney in San Diego, was the first group to bring wagons west across the deserts, and it is given credit for forging the first east-to-west road through the region. The route traveled – overlapping the one traveled by Father Kino and Juan Bautista de Anza from Tubac, Arizona, to California – became a route for thousands of pioneers, treasure seekers and others who would follow the lure of California and gold. Further, the battalion proved the importance of this lower, warmer route, which could be traveled year-round. The road, through a region annexed by the United States with the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, would become part of the route of John Butterfield’s Southern Overland Mail Route.
Not only was the battalion instrumental in the incorporation of the Southwest into the boundaries of the United States, members of the group were also the first to find the remains of the Donner Party disaster; they discovered the grisly truth of the tragedy and buried the remains of the victims. Battalion members were also present on the banks of the rivers of central California when gold was discovered. Battalion members established the Spanish Trail and the Salt Lake Cutoff of the California Trail as wagon roads instead of pack trails.
Understanding the Mormon Battalion's place in Southwest history requires a glimpse of events unfolding in the United States during the first half of the 19th century. Before it became a state in 1850, California was populated primarily by three groups: Native Indians, Hispanics and a few Yankees. The whites found their way to California through various means, including sailors who deserted trading ships, trappers who came by foot, or travelers who sailed around South America’s Tierra del Fuego.
Yankee trading ships called at southern California ports as part of their route along the west coast, where they loaded cattle hides for export to the Eastern Seaboard and to Europe. One port was located at what is now Dana Point in Orange County, California. The loading process was described by Richard Henry Dana in his classic Two Years Before the Mast: "Hides were literally thrown from the bluffs down to the beach and were then taken by skiff to the vessel waiting off shore." Dana Point is named for the author.
Meanwhile, Joseph Smith had founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in western New York state during the late 1820's. Searching for someplace to practice their religion free of persecution, Smith and his followers moved westward and established the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. Near here, Smith was murdered in 1844. Members of his church, now in the thousands, realized that they would have to move farther west, beyond the boundaries of the United States, to practice their religion. Stranded on the frontier of a young nation, with no resources or capital, and facing the ill will of the nation, their future looked bleak.
Due to stereotypes and misunderstandings, the government of the United States considered the Mormons a hostile force. With tensions rising between the United States and Mexico over claims to Texas and the Southwest, President Polk eyed the Mormons, who called themselves "Saints," as a threat to the continued westward expansion of the nation. He was ready to intercept them should they attempt to cross the Rocky Mountains.
The Mormon leadership, notably Brigham Young, sent letters to Stephen A. Douglas and other members of Congress to persuade the government that there was no plan on the Mormons' part to ally with other nations against the United States. Simultaneously, the Mormon leadership began to lay plans to obtain government patronage while journeying west. Eventually, the decision was made by the United States to invade California. Polk issued an order that a battalion of men be drawn from the Mormon emigrants in Iowa, a move calculated not only to allay fears of Mormon secession, but also to bolster the pathetic state of Kearney's Army of the West.
This was welcome news. The Saints could emigrate west, out of the United States, with financing generated from the battalion of men, literally at the expense of the U. S. government, and they could reinforce Kearney's Army of the West. Brigham Young said, "The enlistment of the Mormon Battalion in the service of the United States, though looked upon by many with astonishment and some with fear, has proved a great blessing to this community. It was indeed the temporal salvation of our camp."
Mormon troops set out on their journey from Iowa at the end of July, 1846. Most left their wives and children behind at Council Bluffs. Some women and children, however, did accompany the battalion. It turned into a fearsome, six-month journey. Twenty five army Box canyon anza borregowagons and twelve privately owned wagons began the trip. Five army wagons and three private wagons reached San Diego.
Some members of the battalion kept journals of the travels, and today we are left with many accounts of their westward journey.
Daniel Tyler, whose chronicles became the first officially published diary of the battalion's journey across the country, told of the passage through Box Canyon, in the Anza-Borrego region: "As we traveled up the dry bed, the chasm became more contracted until we found ourselves in a passage at least a foot narrower than our wagons. Nearly all of our road tools, such as picks, shovels, spades, etc., had been lost in the boat disaster [at Yuma, Arizona]. The principal ones remaining were a few axes...a small crow bar, and perhaps a spade or two. These were brought into requisition, the commander taking an ax and assisting the pioneers. Considerable was done before the wagons arrived... The passage was hewn out and the remaining wagons got through about sundown, by unloading and lifting through all but two light ones, which were hauled by the mules."
Melissa Burton Couray, another chronicler, described the battalion's arrival at Palm Spring, just southeast of Vallecito in the Anza-Borrego region: "January 18, 1847. The men were so used up from thirst, fatigue, and hunger [after crossing the desert from the Colorado River at present day Yuma] there was no talking. Some could not speak at all; tongues were swollen and dark. Sixteen more mules gave out. Each man was down to his last four ounces of flour; there had been no sugar or coffee for weeks. Only five government wagons and three private wagons remained... When they arrived at Vallecito Creek, they rested and washed clothes and cleaned their guns. An Indian from a nearby village brought a letter from the alcalde in San Diego welcoming the Battalion to California. In the early evening there was singing and fiddling with a little dancing."
The time the battalion spent in the desert was without a doubt some of the most grueling of the trip. Had not the battalion crossed the region in January, when the weather was relatively cool, history may well have been very different.
Over the course of almost one thousand five hundred miles and three years, in spite of historic accomplishments and near brushes with hostility, the Mormons never engaged in battle. They never fired a hostile shot. On January 29, 1847, ten days after they hacked their way through Box Canyon, they reached San Diego. Included among the men arriving in the small village of San Diego were four women and one child who had made the entire trip from Iowa to California.
Tyler said: "Traveling in sight of the ocean, the clear bright sunshine, with the mildness of the atmosphere, combined to increase the enjoyment of the scene before us... The birds sang sweetly and all nature seemed to smile and join in praise to the Giver of all good; but the crowning satisfaction of all to us was that we had succeeded in making the great national highway across the American desert, nearly filled our mission, and hoped soon to join our families and the Saints, for whom, as well as our country, we were living martyrs."
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Merk, F. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
Riketts, N. B. Melissa's Journey with the Mormon Battalion; the western odyssey of Melissa Burton Couray: 1846 - 1848. Salt Lake City: International Society Daughters Utah Pioneers, 1994.
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Cooke, P. S. et. al. The Conquest of New Mexico and California in 1846 - 1848. Glorieta, NM; Rio Grande Press, 1964.
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