As a Latter-day Saint teen growing up in Northern California, Brandon J. Metcalf was surprised to discover the existence of Mormon Street near the American River, just up the hill from Mormon Island, a Gold Rush community now partially submerged beneath the waters of Folsom Lake.
“I wondered as a youth what Mormons were doing in the area and why they were mining for gold,” said Brother Metcalf, now an archivist with the Church History Department, who gave the latest lecture on July 10 in the Men and Women of Faith lecture series sponsored by the Church History Library and held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.
“Over time, I learned about the 1846 arrival of Mormons aboard the ship Brooklyn in California, followed by the Mormon Battalion in 1847 and their subsequent involvement in California’s legendary Gold Rush,” he said. “Until recently, historians have largely overlooked or ignored the role Latter-day Saints played in this pivotal time in California’s history.”
Before news of the gold discovery brought hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers to the rivers and canyons along the western slope of the Sierras, a number of recently discharged members of the Mormon Battalion were in Northern California, Brother Metcalf said. Their presence at Sutter’s Mill, where gold was first discovered, was fortuitous and “was merely a brief stopover along an 18-month journey to be united with their families and Church.”
Many of the battalion kept journals and wrote letters, leaving nearly 80 separate records coming from a body of 500 men.
“The soldiers of the Mormon Battalion served for one year, from July 1846 to July 1847, for the most part, before being discharged, and they never participated in combat during the war,” he said. “Yet their list of wartime accomplishments is not insignificant and includes establishing new wagon routes to the Pacific and helping to secure California for the expansion of the United States. They completed a nearly 2,000-mile trek from the Missouri River to San Diego. The soldiers endured privation, thirst and a litany of other hardships during the seemingly endless march to the Pacific and during their subsequent return routes to be reunited with their families, who also sacrificed greatly during the military absence of their husbands and fathers.”
Titling his presentation “A March of Faith,” Brother Metcalf focused on the faith and personal experiences of the battalion participants through their eyes as he shared their firsthand accounts.
The recruitment of the battalion occurred while the body of the Church was encamped on the plains of Iowa, having been driven by mobs from Nauvoo, Illinois, and preparing to push on the next year to their destination in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Brother Metcalf said the story of the Alva and Margaret Phelps family is one of the saddest of the Mormon Battalion saga. Alva sickened and died at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the staging area of the battalion march. The news caused Margaret back at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to collapse.
The rigors of the march constantly took their toll on the well-being of the battalion, Brother Metcalf said. “Of all the dangers and discomforts, thirst was the immediate threat to their health and survival. ... One journal entry described the men sucking and straining the water through their teeth to keep back the live as well as the dead insects and the mud from being swallowed wholesale, and, after quenching their thirst, they filled their canteens from out of the tracks from the oxen and mules.”
So scarce were rations that the malnourished soldiers “were forced to lower their ideas of acceptable food just as they had with their limited water sources,” said Brother Metcalf.
The threat of combat on a couple of occasions aggravated their suffering, he said. “It is easy to look back, knowing what we know today, and think these men never fought and perhaps downplay or ignore the fact that the war was a real possibility and an added stress on their minds. But none of them knew that they would never engage in battle at the time of the march.”
Brother Metcalf said one lesson from the experience of the battalion is to remain focused on what matters most.
“Despite negative feelings and misunderstanding about the Church at the time, the battalion’s work ethic and commitment influenced several non-Mormons, whom they encountered before, during and after their trek to the Pacific,” he said.
He related an experience of Thomas L. Kane, a politically connected lawyer and reformer from Pennsylvania, who became a great benefactor of the Latter-day Saints during the trek west and afterward.
Learning of the Saints’ predicament, Kane traveled from Washington, D.C., to learn more about the Mormons and see how he could be of help, visiting them in their camps in Iowa.
Battalion soldier Henry G. Boyle recorded an experience that occurred as he and Kane were walking through the camps and came upon a man praying in the woods. The two removed their hats in respect, and Boyle noticed “tears falling fast from [Kane’s] face while his bosom swelled with the fullness of his emotions.”
They watched as the man, unaware of their presence, arose from his knees and walked back to camp. Boyle recorded that Kane “sobbed like a little child and could not trust himself to utter a word.” Upon gathering himself, Kane said, “I’m satisfied your people are solemnly and terribly in earnest.”
Another who came to admire the battalion soldiers, Brother Metcalf said, was Col. Richard B. Mason, military governor of California, where the battalion had reached its destination and there performed garrison duty. In a letter to Brig. Gen. Roger Jones, Mason said, “As a body of men, they have religiously respected the rights and feelings of these conquered people, and not a syllable of complaint reached my ears, not a single insult offered or an outrage done by a Mormon volunteer.”
Mason wrote that he made “strenuous efforts to engage their services for another year” and added, “Some few of the discharged Mormons are scattered throughout the country, but the great masses of them have gone to meet their families supposed to be somewhere in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake.”
John Sutter, in whose service some discharged battalion soldiers were engaged when gold was discovered, recorded in his diary: “Paid off all the Mormons which had been employed by me in building these mills and other mechanical trades. Some of them became very rich and wealthy. But all of them are bound for the Great Salt Lake and to spend their fortunes to the glory and honor of God.”