It all started when Kevin Henson’s 11-year-old Boy Scout patrol took part in a “living history event” in Bay City, Michigan, in 2002.
The Bay County Historical Society hosts an annual event along the Saginaw River called “The River of Time.” Reenactors from all time periods are invited – from archaic Indians, French voyageurs, Revolutionary War, Civil War, all the way up to the Gulf War.
In 2002, Henson’s scouts reenacted the role of the Mormon Battalion, thereby representing the Mexican-American War. Their participation has now become a staple of the “River of Time” and has grown in numbers and scope to include about 50-60 local members of the Church and community.
But now he and other devotees of early Mormon history are preparing to undertake an even more ambitious “living history” event – a complete reenactment of the 1846-1847 march of the Mormon Battalion.
The Mormon Battalion
The Mormon Battalion was formed in 1846, when President James K. Polk requested the Mormons raise a battalion of 500 men to march to California as part of the Army of the West in the impending war with Mexico.
Although the Mormons had little reason to enlist – given the treatment they had received in Missouri and Illinois – it was decided it still might be advantageous to them, both as a source of income and as a sign of continuing allegiance to the United States.
Latter-day Saint men were mustered into service at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on July 16, 1846. Including stopovers, the Battalion took 194 days to march approximately 2,000 miles to San Diego, one of the longest marches in U.S. military history. As it turned out, they did not have to do any actual fighting, but they did endure many hardships and harrowing experiences.
After a year of service, the Battalion was disbanded at Los Angeles.
Prior to their departure, Brigham Young had told them, “The Mormon Battalion will be held in honorable remembrance to the latest generation … As the Lord lives … you will never be forgotten … but you will be had in honorable remembrance forever and ever.”
“As far as I know, the entire Mormon Battalion route has never been re-hiked in a commemorative way,” Henson said. “I decided to do it as a personal goal. Once word of my plans got out, many descendants of Battalion soldiers and other interested people started asking to accompany me.
“Planning dynamics have been changing to include insurance, permits, coordination of groups, campsites, food, water, communications, and other details. I’m convinced that this trek will succeed because of the volunteers who have caught the vision and come to love these largely forgotten pioneers as I do.”
He continued, “If we can start a tradition of ‘living history,’ perhaps we can inspire a new generation of people to perpetuate the Battalion’s story and thereby broaden and deepen our understanding of their contribution to the tapestry of North American history.”
When and Where
The trek will begin on July 4, 2008, and is scheduled to end on Feb. 21, 2009. The starting point is Mt. Pisgah, Iowa, and the destination is Los Angeles, California. Planned stops along the trail include Council Bluffs, Iowa; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson and Yuma, Arizona and San Diego, California.
Henson realizes that such a trek requires a time commitment that many cannot make. So the plan is to have hikers join the trek anywhere along the way for as long as they can. Although there will be a core group that will hike the entire distance, most are invited to join the trek at certain points and hike for one day, two days, a week or longer.
Each day, the trekkers will travel 17 to 20 miles. Most participants will need to supply their own food, water, transportation, and tent or camper. This trek is reminiscent of a 1997 wagon train that traveled from Winter Quarters, Nebraska to Salt Lake City. Henson and his wife, Denny, who also will be making the trek, consider it an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Within the trekkers there will be a special group of reenactors known as Cooke’s Cadre. Those who want to participate in the cadre at any point along the way will be asked to dress in period clothing and will be issued 1846 army uniform accouterments, a period-authentic pack and a replica musket to use while he or she marches. Cadre members will pitch a replica tent and will eat and sleep as a group, with meals and tents provided by trek leaders.
Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke was the Mormon Battalion commander from Santa Fe to California. He was not a Latter-day Saint, but many credit Cooke’s leadership with the fact that the lives of Battalion members were preserved in their difficult march across the desert. To honor his memory, Henson decided to have a number of trekkers be more immersed in the experience, if they so choose.
“Being part of Cooke’s Cadre will be the most authentic way to experience the trek and will create lasting memories for cadre families,” Henson said.
If you can’t make it, there is another way. Virtual Trails, a corporate sponsor of the trek, is developing a computer program that will provide updates of progress along the trail. Historic and route information will be available for a fee. Information is found on the home page in a tab on the right titled “Travel the Trail as a Virtual VIP.”
“Our trek isn’t intended to be a completely accurate reproduction of the Mormon Battalion’s 1846 trek, Henson said.
It will take the modern-day trekkers about as long as the original trek, and the planned route actually is considerably longer than the 1846 route, due to property lines and farms being in place now, versus a wide-open prairie. Henson used computer software to plan the route.
“We are excited to be joined in this trek by people who want to pay tribute to the original Battalion members. We hope to represent them in honorable remembrance. We will learn much, but that 1846 event stands alone in the annals of American history.”
There will be a fee involved for participants ranging from $15 per day for day-trekkers to $50 per day for Cooke’s Cadre, and online reservations are required. People who want to trek for more than two weeks and can contribute skills or services will qualify for a discount. Anyone who is interested in doing the entire trek needs to contact Henson directly, as soon as possible.
In order to accomplish this endeavor, a charitable corporation was organized.
The Mormon Battalion trek is not just looking for participants to join the walkers. More is needed. Individuals and businesses are encouraged to support this effort by contributing needed goods and services or by making a financial donation at one of several levels.
Complete information about the Mormon Battalion Trek, including reservation forms, lists of needed supplies and equipment and costume suggestions, can be found on the web site, www.battaliontrek.com.