As I bicycle through southern Arizona this winter, my thoughts will sometimes focus upon the Mormon Battalion, an untrained and inexperienced band of American volunteer soldiers who marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California, more than 160 years ago. They enlisted to serve in the war with Mexico that the U.S. Congress had declared May 13, 1846, for the purpose of conquering and holding isolated provinces of Mexico that now are part of Arizona south of the Gila River and southern California.
If I run low on water before reaching the next supply station or store, I will take comfort in the recognition that my situation is far better than the one that Henry Standage reported on September 17, 1846.
We traveled 25 miles this day across one of the most dreary deserts that ever man saw, suffering much from the intense heat of the sun and for want of water. The grass not more than 2 inches high and as curely [sic] as the wool on a negro’s head and literally dried up with the heat of the sun. The teams also suffered much from the sand. I drank some water today that the Buffaloes had wallowed in and could not be compared to anything else but Buffalo urine, as a great portion of it was of the same, yet we were glad to get it (“Mormon Battalion Trail Guide,” p.15).
This arduous march took place because the United States was enlisting a volunteer army to fight its battles in the desert Southwest and the Mormon church was urging its people to leave Nauvoo and other places where they were persecuted and find new homes in “the good valleys of the Rocky Mountains” (McClintock, p. 8). 500 Mormon men agreed to volunteer to be part of the force that were to represent the United States in the war with Mexico. Their salaries went straight to the church and thus helped finance Brigham Young’s wagon train to the great Salt Lake in 1847.
With supplies pulled in animal-powered wagons, they traveled day after day in the most harrowing of conditions. They commenced their march on August 12, 1846 and reached Santa Fe, New Mexico, in October, and Tucson, Arizona, in December. Their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean was on January 27, 1847.
From Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, the Battalion followed the already established Santa Fe Trail, but from that time on they had to create their own route. They pieced together fragments of older trails and took advantage of the rivers, especially the south-flowing Rio Grande through much of New Mexico, the north-flowing San Pedro in southeastern Arizona, and the Santa Cruz and Gila Rivers in southwestern Arizona.
They cut through the southeastern corner of Arizona, traveling westward in territory that now is part of Mexico, and re-entered territory that would become part of the United States near the later town of Douglas. In the region around Tucson, they worked their way according to the landmarks that identified the Old Spanish Trail. It has been suggested that the Mormon Battalion laid the groundwork for the first wagon road over much of this terrain.
Two legs of the PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic tour in late February follow a route that parallels the Mormon Battalion’s march: north from Tucson toward the Casa Grande built by an earlier Native American irrigation society and then through lands made habitable by the Gila River.
Note: The Henry Standage quotation comes from “Mormon Battalion Trail Guide,” edited by Charles S. Peterson and others (Utah State Historical Society, 1972). Useful information is contained in “Mormon Settlements in Arizona,” by James H. McClintock (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1921, 1985). The map of the route comes from a Web site accessed January 27, 2012. My photo of the San Pedro River near Tombstone was taken on a PAC Tour trip in Desert Camp 2010. The Mormon Battalion Association provides a list of resources about this history-making journey.