Here was a major outfitting point for Latter-day Saints and countless others heading west during most of the overland emigration period. Across the Missouri River from Winter Quarters, Council Bluffs was one of the most significant Latter-day Saint settlements during the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The Latter-day Saints named this outfitting point—originally known as Miller's Hollow—Kanesville in honor of Thomas L. Kane, an influential ally during their darkest years in Nauvoo. Following the departure of the Saints, it was renamed Council Bluffs in 1853. Orson Hyde, Church Apostle and the leading ecclesiastical leader for the area, ran a newspaper in the community, the Frontier Guardian, that became an important source of information for thousands on the move to the West. Up to 90 Latter-day Saint settlements were scattered throughout Pottawattamie County, Iowa, of which Kanesville was the most significant.
It was from this location that the members Mormon Battalion began their long march to San Diego in July 1846.
Both military and historical consensus, says that never in American history has there been an equivalent march of infantry: 600 men, women, and children, recruited by the U.S. Army from a mass exodus of Latter-day Saints then struggling across the plains of Iowa fleeing religious persecution in Illinois. They never engaged in armed conflict, yet they played a key role in securing from Mexico much of the present American Southwest in their 2,000-mile march across half a continent.
Need for a Mormon Battalion
Encamped on the prairies of Iowa in June of 1846, the Latter-day Saints were met with an unlikely visitor with an unusual request. Captain James Allen of the U.S. Regular Army rode into the makeshift refugee camp at Mount Pisgah seeking 500 volunteers for the six-week-old war with Mexico. The volunteers would be paid standard fare for their services. At the time, the Latter-day Saints were fleeing U.S. ambivalence and disdain—for the refuge of the Mexican Territory, and Allen's approach was at first perceived as absolute affrontery. Yet Brigham Young, who had long sought redress from the federal government for losses sustained by his people while under its jurisdiction, saw in the action the hand of Providence.
Within a matter of months, and due in part to the efforts of the Battalion, the distant Salt Lake Valley would switch from Mexican to United States control. And through military pay, the Latter-day Saints would have additional financial means to launch and sustain their new community.
Financial Benefits of the Battalion
The Mormon Battalion, though it extracted 500 able men from the body of struggling Saints, was a boon to the pioneers financially. Battalion members each received a $42 clothing allowance, paid in advance, for their one-year enlistment. The bulk of this money was contributed immediately to a general Church fund from which wagons, teams, and other necessities for the larger exodus were purchased. Actual wages paid out over the next year (collected frequently by Church messengers) came to nearly $30,000. Later, Battalion members returning from California, where they were instrumental in the initial discovery of gold at John Sutter's mill, contributed $17,000 in gold to the fledgling economy of the Great Basin settlement.
Accomplishments of the Battalion
Battalion members cleared the first wagon road across the southern desert to California; secured the presidio at San Diego; established a U.S. presence in Tucson, leading to the acquisition seven years later of the Gadsden Purchase (in extreme southern New Mexico and Arizona); and contributed to the building of Fort Moore (in Los Angeles). Individuals in the Battalion later helped in the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill and the blazing of a wagon road over Cajon Pass and of the route east from California to Salt Lake City.
Battle of the Bulls
Although Battalion troops effectively stared down and intimidated the Mexican garrison stationed at Tucson resulting in the garrison's retreat, their only armed engagement of the war was with a herd of cattle. On 11 December 1846, a number of wild cattle stampeded into the rear companies, jostling wagons and scaring the pack animals, whereupon a number of the Battalion's hunters opened fire on the beasts. The eventual toll from the skirmish, immortalized as the Battle of the Bulls, was "ten to fifteen bulls killed, two mules gored to death, three men wounded."
For Those Who Would Follow
While only 2,000 people crossed to the Salt Lake Valley that first year of the migration, thousands remained on farms set up in Iowa territory to plant crops, harvest, and prepare provisions for the coming migration. One entire village (Kanesville, now Council Bluffs, Iowa) was established with such "travelers' aid" a primary concern. In contrast to most other pioneer groups crossing the plains, the Latter-day Saints cleared roads, built sturdy bridges, erected way-houses and built and manned river ferries at numerous points along the trail.
Women and Children on the Trail
The Mormon Battalion's 500 soldiers were divided into five companies. Each company was assigned at least four laundresses—wives of Battalion members also on the payroll—and other aides. All told, 34 women and 51 children accompanied the Battalion when it left Fort Leavenworth. Most of these were relegated to the winter camp at Fort Pueblo, but four women and perhaps six children completed the grueling 2,000-mile march to the Pacific coast. All but one, who died following childbirth in San Diego, then completed the journey to Salt Lake City.