Anza-Borrego
Desert
State Park
Mormon Battalion;
General Stephan W. Kearny and the Army of the West

GENERAL KEARNY AND THE MORMONS

The Yuma Indians, fierce fighters, succeeded in stopping travel through Vallecito and Yuma until after Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821.  After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, there was a brisk trade between the Californios, (Mexican residents of the province of Alta California), and Yankee traders in hides and tallow. Yankee ships traded for otter skins on the northwest coast of America and transported them to China.  On the way back they picked up hides and tallow in San Diego. Richard Henry Dana, in the classic Two Years Before the Mast, describes the trade engaged in by these people.  Dana Point in Orange County is named for the author, and is the point of land from which Claifornios would literally throw the dried hides to the waiting traders.  The hides were made into shoes in New England and some found their way back to San Diego where they were traded back to the Californios.  Sailors on the Yankee ships were favorably impressed with the climate and soil in California and realized the prospects of the area.  Some jumped ship, became Catholics, as Mexican law required, married Mexican women and obtained vast tracts of land.  Others went back to New England and told their friends about the good life available in California.  Trappers, traders and explorers began trickling in.  Many were jailed and their possessions seized by Mexican authorities but still they came, many of them through Vallecito.

On May 26, 1846, General Stephan Watts Kearny received orders to organize and lead an expedition to seize New Mexico at the outbreak of the Mexican War.  On August 18th, Kearny took New Mexico without a fight.  He was then instructed to proceed to California and seize it for the United States.  He took 300 men and marched west.  On the eighth day, they met Kit Carson, who had dispatches from Washington saying that John C.  Fremont had already conquered all of California.  Kearny sent back 200 soldiers and persuaded Kit Carson to guide the rest of the troop back to California.  After crossing the Colorado River, the party found little water and what there was of poor quality.  The cactus and sharp thorns of the agave plants were a torment to the men and animals.  Many horses died providing "A feast day for the wolves."  They finally reached Vallecito on November 29th at 10 P. M.  after traveling only 16 miles that day.  They rested at the springs for two days and continued on.  After receiving a warm welcome at Warner's Ranch, Kearny's troops were off to the Battle of San Pasqual Valley, which didn't turn out as planned.

Following Kearny by a little over a month, was the Mormon Battalion commanded by Col. Philip St. George Cooke. This group of over 500 men and women had been recruited near Council Bluffs, Iowa during mid-summer, 1846. At this time, the Mormons were still picking up the pieces of their lives and religion after the murder of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons were in the process of moving their entire population beyond the western border of the United States to free themselves from the violent persecution they had faced in New York, Ohio and finally in Illinois. (Click here for a detailed history of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.) 

Due to stereotypes and misunderstandings on both sides, the government of the United States, considering the Mormons a hostile force, was ready to intercept the Mormons should they cross the Rocky Mountains. Hearing of this, the Mormon leadership 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 US. It was at this time that Mormon leadership also began to lay plans to obtain government patronage while journying west. Eventually, the decision was made to invade California, and President Polk issued an order that a battalion of men was to be drawn from the Mormon emmigrants then in Iowa. This not only enabled the almost destitute Mormons to travel west, but also reinforced General Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West (Tyler, 110-112). The Mormons set out on their journey at the end of July, 1846. Click here for a map of the Battalions' route (Ricketts, 10). Sergeant David Tyler wrote a first hand account of his years in the Mormon Battalion, and his book is referenced in the Bibliography.  The book is available from the Mormon Battalion Homepage

Another account of the Mormon Battalion is Norma B. Ricketts'Melissa's Journey with the Mormon Battalion. This is a fictitious account of Melissa Burton Coray's journey based on her journal entries and her husband's.  A journal entry from January 16, 1847 gives us a glimpse of the hardships endured by the Battalion:
 

"Marched 25 miles to water by 2 o'clock, though part of the command did not get to the camp during the day, such was the extreme suffering of the Mormon Battalion. Three days without water and if the fresh beef had not met us nothing could have saved our lives but the unseen hand of Almighty God, as the most of us were without bread stuff entirely...the worst place we had encountered since we left the States."Ricketts, 61

Up until this time, travel through the desert southwest had been only on horseback or on foot.  The Mormons brought wagons, and blazed a route across the region that would be followed for the next century and more.  Their route became used as the Southern Overland Trail, and is today the approximate route of Interstate 8 between Yuma and San Diego.  Ricketts goes on to detail the Battlions' approach to Vallecito across the Carrizo Badlands; 
 

" The men were so used up from thirst, fatigue, and hunger, 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."Ricketts, 61

By the 21st of January, the Battalion arrived at Warner's Ranch Near Mt. Palomar. On their way there, they had literally hacked their way through Box Canyon with axes to make room for the remaining wagons. Box Canyon is now a State landmark and is pictured above. Another journal entry reads:
 
 

"This was a hard day's march though only 10 miles were traveled. We encountered one hill that was almost impracticable, [Campbel Grade north of Vallecito], but the pioneers rolled the largest stones out of the way and we passed on, winding our way up a creek through a very narrow pass, [Box Canyon]. By means of axes we cut the rocks so the wagons could pass and went up and camped on the top of the mountain without water, [Blair Valley?]."Ricketts, 62

Today if you walk through Box Canyon down stream from the historical marker, you can still see the fresh faces of rocks that were hewn by the Mormon Battalion. In the picture below can be seen two historic routes through the Anza-Borrego region. Historic RoutesThe upper, dim trail in the center of the photo is the route of the Mormons, and the slightly more obvious route just below that is the route of the Butterfield Stage. (The stream bed at the bottom of the canyon is not a route of travel.)
 

Much of the information in the paragraphs above was originally researched by Pamela L. Tamplain during her work on her Master's Thesis.