A poignant story of sacrifice, triumph and tragedy is depicted in a new Church video about the Mormon Battalion and its role in the settlement of California.
"More Precious Than Gold: The Contributions of the Mormon Battalion" was produced by the Church's Audiovisual Department in conjunction with California's commemoration of the discovery of gold 150 years ago. The 17-minute video has been donated to the state for viewing at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, Calif., some 40 miles northeast of Sacramento. Coloma is the site of Sutter's Mill, where the first gold was discovered Jan. 24, 1848. (Please see related article on page 4.)Gary Cook, a producer with the Audiovisual Department, told the Church News that making this video and donating it to the state of California "is a great opportunity for the Church to tell the story of the Mormon Battalion."
During the interview, Brother Cook referred to the gold discovery centennial observance in 1948 at the state park when the Church built a replica of a cabin used by members of the battalion working at Sutter's Mill 100 years before. Within the cabin, the Church furnished an exhibit about the battalion and its part in the gold discovery that led to the gold rush of 1849. According to the Church News, Jan. 21, 1948, Gordon B. Hinckley, then executive secretary of the Church Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee, prepared the exhibit.
Brother Cook explained that during production of the video, which began in September 1997 and finished in November, there were challenges to completing the film in time for the sesquicentennial. At times, the cast and crew of about 50 were rained out and one time lightning struck nearby during filming. "I said to myself, `This must be an important film because in my experience the more opposition we get the more helpful the film will be.' "
He spoke of the "collaborative effort" it takes to produce a Church video and expressed gratitude for the crew and cast, including many volunteers. He also expressed gratitude for the research of Norma Baldwin Ricketts in her book, Mormon Battalion: U.S. Army of the West.
The video tells the battalion story through the eyes of actual battalion members. It portrays events from the battalion mustering in Iowa to its part in the discovery of gold and the blazing of the first wagon trail across the Sierra Nevada range. The 17-minute version primarily features battalion member Ezra Allen. In a poignant moment, Ezra hugs his wife and children goodbye.
After reaching the shores of the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, the battalion is discharged. A small group of battalion members traveled north, thinking their families might have gathered in northern California with Mormon pioneers on the ship Brooklyn, which had recently arrived in what became San Francisco. Eventually, the battalion members took employment at Sutter's Mill near what was later Sacramento to fund their trek east to reunite with their families.
Then, the actors portraying the battalion members are depicted being with James Marshall when he discovered the first gold flakes on Jan. 24, 1848. The gold rush followed the next year.
With thousands flocking west, the battalion members were among the few going east - away from the gold fields. In crossing the Sierra Nevada range, Ezra Allen and two others were killed by unknown assailants in an area now known as Tragedy Spring. The video depicts the remaining grief-stricken battalion members continuing eastward, blazing a tedious trail over the mountain range.
The end of the film shows Ezra's wife standing beside her cabin at Winter Quarters, Neb., waiting for her husband's return. A narrator, portraying the voice of Mrs. Allen, says: "I looked forward to the time when his strong arms would lift these burdens from my shoulders waiting and watching, listening to the sound of every footstep that approached my door."
Eventually, news of her husband's death reached her - along with a small pouch of gold dust he had panned. This gold helped fund her way west to the Salt Lake Valley.
Brother Cook said the poignancy of the film comes from telling the stories of real people in a historical context.
He also commended Bishop Dennis Holland of the Placerville Ward, El Dorado California Stake, who originally spearheaded the making of the video. In 1995, Bishop Holland, whose ward encompasses Coloma, was called as chairman of the stake's commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the discovery of gold. His efforts soon led to production of the video for the state park.
Bishop Holland, in a telephone interview, expressed great relief at seeing the completion of the video. "I've always had an affection for the people who established the Church here, but now I'm a great fan of the Mormon Battalion."