Summer Travel Series: Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Tucked into a corner of Old Town San Diego is a place where people of all ages can step back in time and discover some unsung heroes. At the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, visitors learn about the only religion-specific military unit in American historyand what motivated their 19th-century trek from Iowa to California. The recently remodeled site offers a fun, interactive experience for the whole family.

Historical Background

In July 1846, the United States was involved in the Mexican-American War and the Mormon pioneers were in the middle of their trek to the Salt Lake Valley. While the pioneers were in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a request came from President James K. Polk for volunteers to march to Fort Leavenworth (present-day Kansas) and then to California on a one-year U.S. Army enlistment.

About 500 men enlisted in the Mormon Battalion, and about 80 women and children traveled with them. They began their journey in the sweltering heat of Council Bluffs, Iowa, on 20 July 1846, leaving their loved ones behind. The battalion completed one of the longest infantry marches in American history — about 2,000 miles (3,220 km) through what are now seven states and into Mexico. The Mormon Battalion carved out a vital road for wagons through the American Southwest.

The group arrived in San Diego on 29 January 1847, where they helped build the city’s first courthouse. Some members of the group then returned to join the pioneers, while others traveled to northern California and were present when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill.

Before the battalion departed, Church President Brigham Young prophesied that not a single member would be lost to enemy engagement. Twenty members died due to the difficult conditions they endured, but the only shot fired by the battalion was at a herd of rampaging bulls.

“These young men displayed remarkable patriotism and service during the march and when garrisoned in San Diego,” said Elder Tim Evans, director of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. “The battalion members blazed many trails. They set the stage for the gold rush and for immigrants who were looking for ways to better their lives. That experience comes alive here. There is no place like this to bring to life this important history.”

A monument to the Mormon Battalion was dedicated in San Diego on 28 January 1940. The visitors’ center was built in the 1960s and reopened in January 2010 after extensive renovations. In its first year of operation, the revamped facility hosted 120,000 visitors, and Evans said they are on track to break that record this year.

“Even if people have been here before, they should come back because it is totally different,” Evans said. “There is more of a focus on history than there was before. This site is probably the best kept secret in California!”

What to See and Do

When visitors walk through the front door of the site, they are greeted by enthusiastic volunteer tour guides dressed in period clothing. A guide leads visitors to a series of framed pictures on the wall where the guide engages in conversation with the people in the pictures, who are brought to life by digital technology. The characters converse with the guide and with the other people in the framed pictures in relating the story of the Mormon Battalion. One of the digital characters walks out of the picture on the wall into the next area, where the guide escorts the visitors into the Encampment Room. Tents are set up and visitors sit among them on logs listening to more of the story from the characters on three big screens. Two additional rooms depict Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, one of the stops on the battalion’s march west, and the old courthouse in San Diego.

The historic feel of the site is a big draw for local schoolchildren who are studying California history. Larry Standforth, a teacher in the San Diego School District, says touring the Mormon Battalion Historic Site helps students learn valuable lessons.

“This tour gives the fourth graders a chance to experience the historic role of things like prejudice, diversity and conflict resolution,” Standforth said. “The Mormons and the Mormon Battalion were prime examples of dealing with these issues. The tour also shows the students how the Mormons faced hardships and overcame them.”

One of the visiting fourth graders said, “I learned that you need to treat people how you want them to treat you.”

Another student said, “I thought that was cool when the picture was talking and telling the story.”

Visitors can pan for gold, make bricks, try on replica period clothing and play multimedia games. They can also pose for historic-looking pictures, which they can have e-mailed to them or take the finished print with them as they leave. There are also authentic artifacts on display, such as muskets, a gold pouch, baskets, actual bricks from the foundation of the Old Town courthouse and a cannon that the battalion rolled across the United States.

“The tour gives the students a chance to learn about the gold rush, which was probably the biggest event in California history,” Standforth said. “The panning for gold exhibit gives them a chance to see how the process was really done. It is the most authentic and realistic gold panning re-creation that I have seen. The entire tour is so well done and is first class.”

The site is very family friendly, according to Jessica Plowman of Woods Cross, Utah, who recently visited with her three young children.

“This is such a fun, interactive place and there is really something for all ages,” Plowman said. “My kids loved panning for gold and we all enjoyed the movie. It was so great to learn about the amazing people who were part of the Mormon Battalion.”

Sister Nancy Woodbury, who is serving a Church mission at the site, said visitors walk away knowing more about the remarkable members of the Mormon Battalion.

“The tour really helps visitors feel what the Mormon Battalion must have experienced, and they develop an appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments of those who have gone before us,” she said. “The free tour is fun and holds the interest of children as well as adults.”

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The site hosts visitors from around the world and offers tours in Spanish and soon in Mandarin. Even though the saga of the march of the Mormon Battalion is an American story, people from everywhere are impressed with the battalion’s faith, sacrifice and courage. One visitor from mainland China commented, “This is an unbelievable historic story. I learned much I didn’t know. I am so glad I came.” A visitor from the British Isles said, “What a great show! It was one of the highlights of my trip.”

The site offers important lessons for the 21st-century visitor, according to missionary Elder Bruce Woodbury.

“As people go through the presentation at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site they look at the sacrifices these men made 164 years ago and realize that they can make the same type of sacrifices in their lives today to make a difference in the world around them,” he said.

Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily

2510 Juan Street

San Diego, CA 92110


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