It was during the period of which I have just spoken, that the Mormon battalion of 520 men was recruited and marched for the Pacific Coast.
At the commencement of the Mexican war, the President considered it desirable to march a body of reliable infantry to California at as early a period as practicable, and the known hardihood and habits of discipline of the Mormons, were supposed peculiarly to fit them for this service. As California was supposed also to be their ultimate destination, the long march might cost them less than other citizens. They were accordingly invited to furnish a battalion of volunteers early in the month of July.
The call could hardly have been more inconveniently timed. The young, and those who could best have been spared, were then away from the main body, either with pioneer companies in the van, or, their faith unannounced, seeking work and food about the north-western settlements, to support them till the return of the season for commencing emigration. The force was therefore to be recruited from among the fathers of families, and others whose presence it was most desirable to retain.
There were some, too, who could not view the invitation without jealousy. They had twice been persuaded by (State) government authorities in Illinois and Missouri, to give up their arms on some special appeals to their patriotic confidence, and had then been left to the malice of their enemies. And now they were asked, in the midst of an Indian country, to surrender over five hundred of their best men for a war-march of thousands of miles to California, without the hope of return till after the conquest of that country. Could they view such a proposition with favor?
But the feeling of the country triumphed. The Union had never wronged them. “You shall have your battalion at once, if it has to be a class of Elders,” said one, himself a ruling Elder. A central “mass meeting” for council, some harangues at the more remotely scattered camps, an American flag brought out from the store-house of things rescued, and hoisted to a tree mast-and, in three days, the force was reported mustered, organized, and ready to march.
There was no sentimental affectation at their leave-taking. The afternoon before was appropriated to a farewell ball; and a more merry dancing rout I have never seen, though the company went without refreshments, and their ball-room was of the most primitive. It was the custom, whenever the larger camps rested for a few days together, to make great arbors, or boweries, as they called them, of poles, and brush, and wattling, as places of shelter for their meetings of devotion or conference. In one of these, where the ground had been trodden firm and hard by the worshipers of the popular Father Taylor’s precinct, was gathered now the mirth and beauty of the Mormon Israel.
If anything told the Mormons had been bred to other lives, it was the appearance of the women, as they assembled here. Before their flight, they had sold their watches and trinkets as the most available resource for raising ready money; and, hence, like their partners, who wore waistcoats cut with useless watch pockets, they, although their ears were pierced and bore the loop-marks of rejected pendants, were without ear-rings, finger-rings, chains, or brooches. Except such ornaments, however, they lacked nothing most becoming the attire of decorous maidens. The neatly darned white stocking, and clean, bright petticoat, the artistically clear-starched collar and chemisette, the something faded, only because too well washed, lawn or gingham gown, that fitted modishly to the waist of the pretty wearer-these, if any of them spoke of poverty, spoke of a poverty that had known its better days.
With the rest, attended the Elders of the Church within call, including nearly all the chiefs of the High Council, with their wives and children. They, the gravest and most trouble-worn, seemed the most anxious of any to be the first to throw off the burden of heavy thoughts. Their leading off the dancing in a great double cotillion, was the signal bade the festivity commence. To the canto of debonair violins, the cheer of horns, the jingle of sleigh bells, and the jovial snoring of the tambourine, they did dance! None of your minuets or other mortuary processions of gentles in etiquette, tight shoes, and pinching gloves, but the spirited and scientific displays of our venerated and merry grandparents, who were not above following the fiddle to the Fox-chase Inn, or Gardens of Gray’s Ferry. French fours, Copenhagen jigs, Virginia reels, and the like forgotten figures executed with the spirit of people too happy to be slow, or bashful, or constrained. Light hearts, lithe figures, and light feet, had it their own way from an early hour till after the sun had dipped behind the sharp sky-line of the Omaha hills. Silence was then called, and a well cultivated mezzo-soprano voice, belonging to a young lady with fair face and dark eyes, gave with quartette accompaniment a little song, the notes of which I have been unsuccessful in repeated efforts to obtain since-a version of the text, touching to all earthly wanderers:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept.”
“We wept when we remembered Zion.”
There was danger of some expression of feeling when the song was over, for it had begun to draw tears! but breaking the quiet with his hard voice, an Elder asked the blessing of heaven on all who, with purity of heart and brotherhood of spirit had mingled in that society, and then all dispersed, hastening to cover from the falling dews. All, I remember, but some splendid Indians, who, in cardinal scarlet blankets and feathered leggings, had been making foreground figures for the dancing rings, like those in Mr. West’s picture of our Philadelphia treaty, and staring their inability to comprehend the wonderful performances. These loitered to the last, as if unwilling to seek their abject homes.
Well as I knew the peculiar fondness of the Mormons for music, their orchestra in service on this occasion astonished me by its numbers and fine drill. The story was, that an eloquent Mormon missionary had converted its members in a body at an English town, a stronghold of the sect, and that they took up their trumpets, trombones, drums, and hautboys together, and followed him to America.
When the refuges from Nauvoo were hastening to part with their table ware, jewelry, and almost every other fragment of metal wealth they possessed that was not iron, they had never thought of giving up the instruments of this favorite band. And when the battalion was enlisted, though high inducements were offered some of the performers to accompany it, they all refused. Their fortunes were with the camp of the tabernacle. They had led the farewell service in the Nauvoo temple. Their office now was to guide the monster choruses and Sunday hymns; and like the trumpets of silver, made of a whole piece, “for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps,” to knoll the people into church. Some of their wind instruments, indeed, were uncommonly full and pure-toned, and in that clear, dry air could be heard to a great distance. It had the strangest effect in the world, to listen to their sweet music winding over the uninhabited country. Something in the style of a Moravian death-tune blown at day-break, but altogether unique. It might be when you were hunting a ford over the great Platte, the dreariest of all wild rivers, perplexed among the far-reaching sand bars, and curlew shallows of its shifting bed-the wind rising would bring you the first faint thought of a melody; and as you listened borne down upon the gust that swept past you a cloud of the dry sifted sands, you recognized it-perhaps a home-loved theme of Henry Proch or Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn Bartholdy, away there in the Indian marches!
The battalion gone, the host again moved on. The tents which had gathered on the hill summits, like white birds hesitating to venture on the long flight over the river, were struck one after another, and the dwellers in them, and their wagons and their cattle, hastened down to cross at a ferry in the valley, which they made ply night and day. A little beyond the landing they formed their companies, and made their preparations for the last and longest stage of their journey. It was a more serious matter to cross the mountains then than now, that the thirst of our people for the gold of California has made the region between them and their desire such literal trodden ground.
Thanks to this wonderful movement. I may dismiss an effort to describe the incidents of emigrant life upon the Plains, presuming that you have been made more than familiar with them already, by the many repeated descriptions of which they have been the subject. The desert march, the ford, the quicksand, the Indian battle, the bison chase, the prairie fire-the adventures of the Mormons comprised every variety of these varieties; but I could not hope to invest them with the interest of novelty. The character of their every-day life, its routine and conduct, alone offered any exclusive or marked pecularity. Their romantic devotional observances, and their admirable concert of purpose and action, met the eye at once. After these, the stranger was most struck, perhaps, by the strict order of march, the unconfused closing up to meet attack, the skillful securing of the cattle upon the halt, the system with which the watches were set at night to guard them and the lines of corral-with other similar circumstances indicative of the maintenance of a high state of discipline. Every ten of their wagons was under the care of a captain. This captain of ten, as they termed him, obeyed a captain of fifty; who, in turn, obeyed his captain of a hundred, or directly a member of what they called the high council of the Church. All these were responsible and determined men, approved of by the people for their courage, discretion, and experience. So well recognized were the results of this organization, that bands of hostile Indians have passed by comparatively small parties of Mormons, to attack much larger, but less compact, bodies of other emigrants.
The most striking feature, however, of the Mormon emigration was undoubtedly their information of the tabernacle camps and temporary stakes or settlements, which renewed in the sleeping solitudes, everywhere along their road, the cheering signs of intelligent and hopeful life.
I will make this remark plainer by describing to you one of these camps, with the daily routine of its inhabitants. I select at random, for my purpose, a large camp upon the delta between the Nebraska and Missouri, in the territory disputed between the Omaha and Otto and Missouri Indians. It remained pitched here for nearly two months, during which period I resided in it.
It was situated near the Petit Papillon, or Little Butterfly river, and upon some finely rounded hills that encircle a favorite cool spring. On each of these a square was marked out; and the wagons as they arrived took their positions along its four sides in double rows, so as to leave a roomy street or passage way between them. The tents were disposed also in rows, at intervals between the wagons. The cattle were folded in high-fenced yards outside. The quadrangle inside was left vacant for the sake of ventilation, and the streets, covered in with leafy arbor work, and kept scrupulously clean, formed a shaded cloister walk. This was the place of exercise for slowly recovering invalids, the day-home of the infants, and the evening promenade of all.
From the first formation of the camp all its inhabitants were constantly and laboriously occupied. Many of them were highly educated mechanics and seemed only to need a day’s anticipated rest to engage at the forge, loom, or turning lathe, upon some needed chore of work. A Mormon gunsmith is the inventor of the excellent repeating rifle, that loads by slides instead of cylinders; and one of the neatest finished fire-arms I have ever seen was of this kind, wrought from scraps of old iron, and inlaid with the silver of a couple of half-dollars, under a hot July sun, in a spot where the average height of the grass was above the workman’s shoulders. I have seen a cobbler, after the halt of his party on the march, hunting along the river bank for a lapstone in the twilight, that he might finish a famous boot sole by the camp fire; and I have had a piece of cloth, the wool of which was sheared, dyed and spun and woven, during a progress of over three hundred miles.
Their more interesting occupations, however, were those growing out of their peculiar circumstances and position. The chiefs were seldom without some curious affair on hand to settle with the restless Indians; while the immense labor and responsibility of the conduct of their unwieldy moving army, and the commissariat of its hundreds of famishing poor, also devolved upon them. They had good men they called Bishops, whose special office it was to look up the cases of extremest suffering; and their relief parties were out night and day to scour over every trail.
At this time, say two months before the final expulsion from Nauvoo, there were already, along three hundred miles of the road between the city and our Papillon camp, over two thousand emigrating wagons, besides a large number of nondescript turn-outs, the motley make shifts of poverty; from the unsuitably-heavy cart, that lumbered on mysteriously, with its sick driver hidden under its counterpane cover, to the crazy, two-wheeled trundle, such as our own poor employ for the conveyance of the slop-barrels; this pulled along, it may be, by a little dry dugged heifer, and rigged up only to drag some such light weight as a baby, a sack of meal, or a pack of clothes and bedding.
Some of them were in distress from losses upon the way A strong trait of the Mormons was their kindness to their brute dependents, and particularly to their beasts of draught. They gave them the holiday of the Sabbath whenever it came round: I believe they would have washed them with old wine, after the example of the emigrant Carthaginians, had they had any. Still, in the slave-coast heats under which the animals had to move, they sometimes foundered. Sometimes, too, they strayed off in the night, or were mired in morasses; or oftener were stolen by Indians, who found market covert for such plunder among the horse-thief whites of the frontier. But the great mass of these pilgrims of the desert was made up of poor folks, who had fled in destitution from Nauvoo, and been refused a resting place by the people of Iowa.
It is difficult fully to understand the state of helplessness in which some of these would arrive, after accomplishing a journey of such extent, under circumstances of so much privation and peril. The fact was, they seemed to believe that all their trouble would be at an end if they could only come up with their comrades at the Great Camp. For this they calculated their resources, among which their power of endurance was by much the largest and most reliable item, and they were not disappointed if they arrived with these utterly exhausted.
Remember a single instance of this at the Papillon camp.
It was that of a joyous-hearted, clever, fellow, whose songs and fiddle tunes were the life and delight of Nauvoo in its merry days. I forget his story, and how exactly it fell about, that after a Mormon’s full peck of troubles, he started after us with his wife and little ones, from some “lying down place” in Indian country, where he had contended with an attack of a serious malady. He was just convalescent, and the fatigue of marching on foot again with a child on his back, speedily brought on a relapse. But his anxiety to reach a place where he could expect to meet friends with shelter and food, was such that he only pressed on the harder. Probably for more than a week of the dog-star weather, he labored on under a high fever, walking every day till he was entirely exhausted. His limbs failed him then; but his courage holding out, he got into his covered cart, on top of its freight of baggage, and made them drive him on, while he lay down. They could hardly believe how ill he was, he talked on so cheerfully-“I’m nothing on earth ailing, but home-sick: I’m cured the very minute I get to camp and see the brethren.”