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Mormon Battalion Trail in Imperial County (1847)

The Mormon Battalion, the only religious unit in the American military, was active in 1846-1847, serving in the Mexican-American War. Their long march from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego, California, was instrumental in securing a route through the western territories being fought over, including what became the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.

Painting of the Mormon Battalion by George Ottinger (Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society).
Painting of the Mormon Battalion by George Ottinger.
Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

The Battalion was authorized by President James Polk in 1846 to march west and join Colonel Stephen Kearney, Commander of the Army of the West, to help him fight in the Mexican-American War. Captain James Allen was put in charge of raising the battalion from the Mormon population in Iowa. The enlistment of men into the Mormon Battalion was the first case of government aide to the Mormon people.

The battalion left Council Bluffs, Iowa on July 20, 1846, in a group that contained officers, enlisted men, women, and children. In August they stopped to outfit the expedition in Fort Leavenworth.  The heat, malnutrition, and poor medical care they suffered made the march to Santa Fe extremely harrowing. The group, including some women, left Santa Fe, New Mexico in October 1846, and was guided by Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition. The battalion chased Mexican soldiers out of Tucson, Arizona, were attacked by wild cattle in the “Battle of the Bulls,” crossed the Colorado River into present-day California on January 9th and 10th, 1847, crossed Imperial County in January, and finally passed through Temecula, California, ending their march at the Mission in San Diego on January 29th, 1847. While the battalion was officially mustered out in July 1847, some men reenlisted in the Mormon Volunteers, a group that helped to open the firs t southern wagon route between Utah and California in 1848.

In January 1847 the Battalion passed through Imperial County on their way to San Diego. After crossing the Colorado River, they traveled through the eastern part of the county before going south into Mexico to avoid the Imperial Sand Dunes. They then traveled north, back into western Imperial County, and crossed the mountains through what is now Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on their way to the coast. A map of their route is shown below.

Map created by Brian Cole. Courtesy of the Mormon Battalion Association.
Map created by Brian Cole. Courtesy of the Mormon Battalion Association.

For more information on the Mormon Battalion, visit the Utah State Historical Society at http://history.utah.gov/ or Mormon Battalion Association at www.mormonbattalion.com.  You can also visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638 ), where you can still see a portion of the trail where the expedition had to cut through the rock to get their wagons up the mountains.