Many people who move to the friendly, beehive state scratch their heads when most offices close their doors on July 24 while Utah celebrates Pioneer Day.
Back in the early 1990s, my boss, who worked out of corporate headquarters in Houston, Texas, was shocked when he peered out of his Little America Hotel window to see the curbside cluttered with chairs at 5:30 a.m. on July 24.
It is now Utah Jazz lore that Karl Malone initially thought the 1985 Days of ’47 Parade was in celebration of his 22nd birthday and signing of his first NBA contract.
On Pioneer Day, which celebrates the entrance of the first group of Mormon pioneers to Salt Lake Valley, all state, county and city offices close while most private sectors continue business as usual.
For LDS faithful it is a time to remember the trials and travails of those who crossed the plains by wagon, handcart and/or foot. I also believe it is a time to remember what is often regarded as a simple asterisk in history: the Mormon Battalion.
The Mormon Battalion is usually mentioned in general terms in western U.S. and Utah history classes. It is the story of 500 volunteers who endured a grueling 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego, California.
Side notes usually mention that the only battle the battalion really encountered was in Arizona against a sizable number of wild bulls that had destroyed some mules and wagons as well as injured two enlisted men.
I suggest that the Mormon Battalion contributed much more to our country’s heritage and the settling of the West than these few incidents.
For a broader depth and understanding of the battalion’s dramatic experiences, I suggest reading “The Mormon Battalion — U.S. Army of the West” written by Norma Baldwin Rickets.
Here are a few points that may help us appreciate the historical significance of this westward march as we approach the day we celebrate our heritage:
• After more than a decade of dealing with religious bigotry in the form of mobs and expulsions, the Mormons were not in a cheery, patriotic mood when Capt. James Allen arrived at Mt. Pisgah, Iowa in the summer of 1846.
• Allen was authorized to enlist 500 volunteers to help secure California in the war with Mexico. Few knew that Brigham Young had actually sought help from the federal government since the 20,000 Mormons were in difficult financial straits.
• Most of the Mormons opposed assisting the U.S. Army when initially contacted by Capt. Allen; however, that quickly changed at the urging of top LDS leaders. The quota of volunteers was then reached within two weeks.
• The Mormon Battalion is the only religiously based unit in United States military history. All were members of the Mormon faith with exception of six soldiers, the commanding officer, and a few regular army officers.
• Men in the battalion represented a wide range of various occupations and backgrounds. Ages of the soldiers ranged from 14 years to 68 years. There were 31 wives who accompanied their husbands. Records show that 43 children accompanied the 31 married couples.
• All of the existing states were represented, with the exception of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.
• Veterans of the battalion played significant roles in America’s westward expansion in California, Utah, Arizona and other parts of the West.
• The battalion’s march and service supported the eventual cession of much of the American Southwest from Mexico to the United States, including the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 of southern Arizona and New Mexico.
• The march also opened a southern wagon route to California.
• After being discharged some members took part in the 1848 discovery gold at Sutter’s Mill.
• They opened the Mormon-Carson Emigrant Trail over the Sierra Nevadas.
• They drove the first wagons over the Spanish Trail and Hensley’s Salt Lake Cutoff of the California Trail.
A few years ago when Janna and I visited our dear friend Tina Maria Lopez Aragon in New Mexico, we stopped along an Interstate 25 front road about halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque to view a Mormon Battalion monument.
The plaque showed a map of the 2,000 mile journey across the harsh southwest desert of the United States. The raised brass letters also record these words from Col. Cook summarizing the hardships endured:
“Thus, marching half naked and fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.”
As we inch toward Pioneer Day, it is my hope that we all remember the sacrifices endured by generations before us so we can experience our countless liberties and blessings today.
Roberts is a former LDS bishop of the Tooele 6th Ward.