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The Mormon Batallion

12th Sep 2022 in

The Mormon Battalion in the Anza-Borrego

By Kent Duryee

Mormon Battalion Route
Route of the Mormon Battalion - click/tap to enlarge

Understanding the Mormon Battalion’s place in desert southwest history requires a brief glimpse at the state of affairs in the United States during the first half of the 19th century.  After Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 and before it became a state in 1850, California was populated primarily by several groups:  its native Indians, Mexican Rancheros, and those Yankees who had found their way there through various means, including jumping from trading ships, traveling cross-country by foot, or sailing around the tip of South America. Yankee trading ships called at southern California ports as part of their route along the west coast, loading hides from cattle for export to the eastern seaboard and to Europe. One of these ports of call was located at what is now Dana Point in Orange County, California. The loading process from this particular point is described in Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast. Hides were literally thrown from the bluffs down to the beach and were then loaded by skiff onto the vessel waiting offshore. In fact, Dana Point is named for the author of the book.

Dana Point, CA
Dana Point, named for Richard Henry Dana

The Yankees who came to California’s shores found a paradise brimming over with natural resources. For the Yankee who desired to set up residence in California, some simple requirements had to be met: he must become Catholic and pay lip service to the Mexican government. This was not a difficult process, and many took advantage of the generous land grants and the affections of Californio women that followed their profession of faith. (The term Californio refers to the Mexican populace of Spanish descent living in California after Mexican independence.) Due to the difficulty of reaching California however, few made the journey and so the Yankee population remained small for almost 30 years after Mexican independence.

During this time, a continent away, a new religious movement was taking root that would have a prominent place in the history of the west. Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1820s. Through persecution and the resulting search for someplace to practice their religion freely, Smith and his followers eventually founded the city of Nauvoo, Illinois.  It was here in 1844 that Joseph Smith was murdered and the members of his church, now numbering in the thousands, realized that they would have to move out of what were then the boundaries of the United States in order to practice their religion as they saw fit. Stranded on the frontier of a young nation without resources or capital, and with the ill will of an entire nation behind them, their future looked bleak.

Meanwhile, on the southern frontier of the new nation, tensions were increasing between the United States and Mexico over the issue of Texas. “The Saints”, as the Mormons referred to themselves, had regrouped at Council Bluffs in Iowa on their way west. Due to stereotypes and misunderstandings that ran rampant on both sides, the government of the United States considered the Mormons a hostile force and was ready to intercept the Mormons should they cross the Rocky Mountains. Hearing of this, 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 hostile plan on the Mormons' part to ally with other nations against the country. It was at this time that Mormon leadership also began to lay plans to obtain government patronage while journeying west. Eventually, the decision was made by the United States to invade California, and President Polk issued an order that a battalion of men was to be drawn from the Mormon emigrants then in Iowa.

This was welcome news to both the Mormons and Kearny’s Army of the West, because now the Saints could emigrate west out of the U. S. with the financing generated from the battalion of men, literally at the expense of the U. S. Government, while at the same time reinforcing Kearny’s Army of the West (Tyler, 110-112).  The importance of the decision to the Mormon population was not lost on Brigham Young: “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.”

The Mormon troops set out on their journey from Iowa at the end of July 1846.  Most of them left their wives and children behind at Council Bluffs, however a few women did accompany the Battalion to help with domestic chores. One of these women was Melissa Burton Couray. Melissa and her husband William kept diaries of their journeys, and it was these diaries that were used by Norma Baldwin Ricketts to piece together a fictional biography of Melissa’s travels, Melissa's Journey With the Mormon Battalion: The western odyssey of Melissa Burton Coray. Another journal writer was Sgt. Daniel Tyler, who left us with the first published official diary of the Battalion’s journey across the country, titled A Concise History of the  Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War. Norma Ricketts has also published an account of the Battalion, Mormon Battalion: United States Army of the West, 1846 - 1848, which is in diary form, but is a narrative pieced together from many different journals. Here are some excerpts from these books regarding the Vallecito region of the Anza-Borrego, the first of the arrival at Palm Spring, just south of present-day Vallecito:

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.

In The Mormon Battalion; U. S. Army of the West, 1946 – 1848, Ricketts describes the forcing of wagons through Box Canyon:

January 19, 1847. The soldiers were ordered to march in front today with the wagons in the rear in case of attack by the Californians. Nothing but beef to eat and not enough of that. They crossed through a mountain where they had to use crow bars, picks, and axes to hew a passage through the rock. The sides of the canyon were of solid rock and the width of the canyon was one foot too narrow for the width of the wagons. The wagons were emptied. One wagon was taken apart and carried through. Other wagon bodies were lifted and carried through sideways. The last two light wagons were pulled through by mules without unloading. After carrying all supplies through the narrow canyon and reloading the wagons, they continued along an arroyo for a short distance. They ascended a ridge where they camped without water, [Blair Valley].

Box Canyon from Google Maps
Box Canyon today - click to enlarge

Over the course of 1500 miles and three years, the Mormons were never engaged in battle, and 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 were four women and one child who had made the entire trip from Iowa to California. They had begun the trip with 25 army wagons and 12 privately owned wagons. Five of the army wagons and three of the private wagons reached San Diego. It is for this reason that the Mormon Battalion is considered to have forged the first overland wagon route to California.  

The Great Southern Overland Stage Route was the name given to the trail blazed by the Saints after the Butterfield stage began its short-lived but famous mail route from Missouri to San Francisco. At one particular spot along the Battalion’s route, the trail hacked through the rocks of Box Canyon is plainly visible, as is the route taken by the Butterfield stagecoaches just uphill from the original Mormon trail. Their time spent in the desert was without a doubt some of the most miserable of their trip. If it weren’t for the fact that the Battalion crossed the region in January, history may well have been very different.  


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