If you are planning a vacation in San Diego and want to add a fun yet educational experience to your trip, put Mormon Battalion Historic Site high on your list of places to visit! The popular attraction commemorates the Mormon Battalion, the first and only religious military unit in the United States’ history, formed exclusively from one religion and given a religious title as the unit designation.
In this article, we tell you how the military unit came to complete one of the longest military marches in American history, what they did while stationed in San Diego, and what to expect when you visit the historical location.
The History of the Mormon Battalion
The 175-year-old story of the Mormon Battalion started in early 1946 during the Mexican-American War.
The Mormons were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) who were enduring severe persecution and mob violence in their city Navous, Illinois. They had decided to move west to the Great Salt Lake Valley to start a new life under the direction of Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Before they left for Salt Lake Valley, their leader Brigham Young wrote to the U.S. government to tell of their plans to settle in Mexican territory and request help, or else they would accept assistance from the rival government.
To make peace with the Mormons and stop them from taking sides with the enemy, the U.S. President James Polk sent a small group of army officials led by Captain James Allen with an order to recruit 500 Saints to enlist in the army.
The Mormons were only just building temporary settlements in the Middle Missouri River Valley and didn’t seem eager to pledge loyalty to a country that failed to protect them. However, they were encouraged to enroll by Brigham Young, who explained that their military salary could help the church migrate safely and that their patriotism could earn them the government’s approval to camp on Western land.
In July 1846, the Mormon Battalion, U.S Army of the West, comprising 500 men, 32 women, and 44 children, mustered in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Although they never fought a single battle in the war, only 335 men and four women arrived in San Diego, California, on January 29, 1847, looking weary and raggedy after marching more than 2000 miles of uncharted lands under the directives of the United States Army. They had lost 23 Saints to death by sickness or accidents and had to send the women, children, and 159 sick men to Pueblo, Colorado.
When the Mormon Battalion arrived in the city of San Diego, the war was already over, but they had six months left in their enlistment. Some members were asked to remain in San Diego, while others had to proceed to Los Angeles.
The Mormon Battalion in the City of San Diego
The locals in the Old Town San Diego Historic District feared and hated the Mormons, so the Saints performed many valuable services to contribute to the economy and win their hearts.
They laid sidewalks, built plenty of wells, chimneys, roads, and a bakery, whitewashed fading buildings, opened a blacksmith shop and a tannery, and built the first brick house in San Diego, which was later used as a courthouse and schoolhouse. They worked on many public service projects and also protected settlers and immigrants.
Mormon Battalion members James Wilson Marshall, Henry William Bigler, and probably four others also discovered gold in Sutter’s Mill in California, which led to the California Gold Rush in 1849.
When their service year ended, many returned home to their families, while others continued Brigham Young’s trek to the Salt Lake Valley. But, the residents in San Diego never wanted the Mormon Battalion to leave; they even submitted a petition to the government requesting that they convince the Mormons to stay.
To this day, the city of San Diego remembers and celebrates the Mormon Battalion. An event holds annually to mark the date when the Saints first arrived in San Diego and to honor their legacy of faith, service, and sacrifice in the Old Town San Diego Park.
Where Is the Mormon Battalion Historic Site?
The Mormon Battalion Historic Site sits on the grounds of the City of San Diego’s Mormon Battalion Visitor Center in Old Town San Diego State Park. You can find it at 2510 Juan St, San Diego, CA 92110.
The Visitor Center is open to the public, and guided tours are available. Admission is free.
What to Expect When You Visit the Mormon Battalion Historic Site
At the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, missionaries will guide you on a fun and interactive 45-minute tour that will help you learn about the faith, service, and sacrifices of men, women, and children who volunteered for the long and arduous march from Iowa to California. After that, you can check out historical artifacts and watch demonstrations on brickmaking and gold panning.
The historic site is near many popular attractions in Old Town, so feel free to check out other historical attractions, restaurants, stores, and parks.
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