Researching the Mormon Battalion

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“Researching the Mormon Battalion,” Ensign, Aug. 1989, 45–46

Researching the Mormon Battalion

Susan Easton Black, V. Ben Bloxham, Clark V. Johnson, and Larry C. Porter are examining the personal accounts of the approximately 559 men (officers, soldiers, guides, servants, and civilians), 35 women, and 42 children who participated in the Mormon Battalion’s march. Through this approach, they are uncovering much new information.

During the Mexican War and the postwar era, the men and women of the battalion had a traceable impact on the territories and states through which they marched and in which they eventually made their homes. They were, for instance, instrumental in establishing a number of communities. Matthew Caldwell reportedly built the first cabin in what is now American Fork, Utah; served as the first mayor of Spanish Fork, Utah; was a justice of the peace; worked as a schoolteacher; and served as a delegate to the Utah territorial legislature.1

A Canadian convert, Phebe Draper Palmer Brown, was one of four women who marched the entire distance from Council Bluffs to San Diego with the battalion, accompanying her husband, Sergeant Ebenezer Brown. She served as a laundress in Company A. They and their young son, Zemira, made the trip from California to Utah and assisted in the establishment of Draperville (now Draper), Utah. Ebenezer Brown served as a counselor to his brother-in-law William Draper, the first presiding elder in Draperville.2

Lydia Hunter, wife of Jesse D. Hunter, captain of Company B, also marched the entire journey. On 20 April 1847, she gave birth to Diego Hunter, who is referred to as the first American child born in San Diego. Lydia contracted “typhoid fever or a malignant form of Quetidian fever,” according to Dr. John S. Giffin, and died on 26 April 1847. She was buried on Point Loma, at the back of the Quarantine Station.3

Captain Hunter stayed in California after his discharge on 16 July 1847. He was appointed U. S. Indian agent for southern California and moved to San Luis Rey. He later raised cattle at San Bernardino and after that moved to Los Angeles, where he became a brick manufacturer and businessman. When he retired, he purchased about 2,500 acres north of Los Angeles for a ranch. Jesse died in Los Angeles on 27 August 1877, a highly respected citizen.4

The non-LDS participants in the battalion also made their marks. Among the officers, Brevet Second Lieutenant George Stoneman became a general in the Civil War and later governor of California from 1883 to 1887. Both Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke and First Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith rose to the rank of brevet major general in the Civil War.

At least nine guides served the battalion. One of them, Willard P. Hall, was named congressman-elect from Missouri while on duty in the Mexican War and served his term in Washington, D.C., from 3 March 1847 to 3 March 1853. He later served in 1864–65 as governor of Missouri. Another guide, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, was born in 1805 during the Lewis and Clark expedition to the French-Canadian Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife, Sacajawea (Bird Woman), the famed Shoshone. Jean was later appointed alcalde (chief administrative and judicial officer of a Spanish town) within the district of San Diego.5

The fatalities in the Mormon Battalion may have been higher than previously supposed. Aside from civilian deaths, like those of John and Jane Bosco, an elderly couple, twenty-three battalion men died on active duty. Twenty-one of these had been inducted during the first enlistment period (16 July 1846 to 16 July 1847), and two had been among the eighty-two who had reenlisted between 20 July 1846 and 14 March 1848. Still others lost their lives on their return to the Salt Lake Valley or the Missouri River. Melissa Burton Coray, another of the four women who accompanied the battalion on the entire march, saw the death site of battalion members Daniel Browett, Daniel Allen, and Henderson Cox. These three, with the advance guard of a larger group of other veterans, had been attacked and killed by Indians. The spot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was named Tragedy Springs. She wrote:

“They had been killed by Indians and their bodies had been thrown in a gulch, and partially covered with underbrush. I do not know why they took the trouble to half bury the bodies. Perhaps they thought they would catch us off our guard and kill us too. … We had bought a small cannon at San Diego, and were bringing it with us. We were afraid of an attack at night, and so the cannon was fired off every little while to scare off the Indians.”6

The posterity of the battalion marchers have made their family records available for researchers. The leaders and members of the present-day U. S. Mormon Battalion, Inc., headquartered in Salt Lake City, have perpetuated the traditions of the battalion. Colonel R. Paul Madsen, director, and Lieutenant Colonel Elmer J. Carr, battalion historian, have greatly facilitated the research.