Real Western Heroes


Amid the rocks, rattlesnakes, and cacti of the New Mexico desert, these Scouts found themselves on the trail of some—

The adventure begins with the road itself. There are ruts so big you expect to see towns and alfalfa fields in the bottom of them, gullies deep enough to be featured in National Geographic. Farther on, the road really gets bad. Fortunately, before you hit that stretch you arrive at the campsite.

The Sunshine District of the Yucca Council is holding its fall camporee on part of the old Mormon Battalion Trail. Here in the southwestern New Mexico desert, tents spring up like mushrooms among the cacti and mesquite and creosote bushes. Scouts dart through the brush like roadrunners, looking for snakes and lizards.

One of those Scouts, Sid Payne, found something fascinating before he even got here. He and his cousin were in the car on the way here when Sid’s dad, Ed, handed the boys several sheets of paper and said, “Read this.”

What they read was so interesting that when they reached the campsite, they stayed in the car to finish the last two pages instead of jumping out of the car and into the fun. They had discovered a little-known group of real western heroes.

This part of the country has a rich history. To the east, turning gold in the late afternoon sun, is Massacre Peak. It’s named for a misunderstanding between some cowboys and local Indians in the late 1800s. (The cowboys lost big.) This is Billy the Kid territory, stagecoach and cattle-drive country.

And it’s Mormon Battalion country. In 1846, while the main body of pioneers was struggling toward the Salt Lake Valley, a group of Latter-day Saint volunteers under U.S. Army command passed through this area on one of the longest infantry marches in history. By the time they reached far-off San Diego, California, they had marched 2,000 miles, had experienced terrible hardships, and had seen great miracles.

At first, Sid didn’t want to read that journal account on the way here. “I thought it was going to be some long, boring thing. But after a few pages, I liked it a lot.” What Sid learned from his reading was that his great-great-great grandfather, Abraham Hunsaker, had marched through this same wild desert nearly 150 years ago. “I never knew he was in the Mormon Battalion. I was really impressed with what he did.”

The other Scouts here are about to hear the same story. But first there’s the matter of dinner. Burgers sizzle on a huge barbecue and a thick plume of savory smoke rises into the darkening sky. Then someone plops three long, pink objects on one side of the grill. Fresh rattlesnake. The burgers are popular and disappear quickly, but everybody wants to at least sample the snake. How is it? Mild—almost tasteless—and as chewy as a garden hose.

It’s dark now. A fingernail of a moon hangs in a sky almost suffocating with stars. On the rocky hillside, some of the LDS Scouts present a pageant about the Mormon Battalion, complete with recorded sound and a spotlight. By the time they finish, everyone has heard the amazing story:

Volunteering for the Mormon Battalion meant a chance to demonstrate loyalty to the United States, as well as an opportunity to earn badly needed cash. But it also meant leaving families to struggle on without fathers and sons. The men were promised by Brigham Young that if they were faithful, all would be spared and they wouldn’t have to fight the enemy.

The march was through desolate country, often without water or adequate food. The men sometimes had to eat their mules, or even leather. Once, they were savagely attacked by a herd of wild bulls. Yet the enemy troops melted away from before them without even firing a shot, and they finally reached San Diego having completed their mission with honor.

It’s a new story to most of the Scouts here. Tomorrow it will become more real.

Massacre Peak is just a black shape against the pink dawn when the bugler blows reveille. After a hurry-up breakfast, the troops get their maps and instructions. That really bad stretch of road we didn’t have to drive on becomes the trail from activity to activity: pioneer foods, shooting black powder rifles and cannon, desert survival, a horseshoeing demonstration—all of the activities make Mormon Battalion times more real.

Ben Sowards, 15, and his brother Abe, 12, live in nearby Las Cruces. What do they think of all of this? Ben responds, “We think we’re roughing it, but we’ve got these tents and water-tank trailers, and everything else. I just can’t imagine walking out here with a backpack and whatever you could carry in a small wagon. It just blows my mind.”

Abe laughs. “I wouldn’t do it!” (You get the impression that he really would.)

Ben looks around at the stark mountains and desert. He grew up in Missouri, the same part of the country where many of the Battalion members originated, a lush green place of rivers and rolling hills. He speculates on what it would have been like to come here in those early days: “It’d be a shock! I can imagine why they came, though. Back in Missouri, some parents wouldn’t let their kids play with us because we were Mormons. I can imagine how much worse it was back then. I can see how somebody might have said, ‘Heck, might as well leave now. I don’t care if it’s a desert. I’m going anyway.’”

Jon Fuller is watching the horseshoeing demonstration when we catch up with him. He first heard about his Mormon Battalion ancestor in a general priesthood meeting talk. Jon was impressed with the story of a John Barnet Cole, who helped rescue a stranded handcart company and who had seen in a dream the woman he would marry. When he repeated the story to his mother, she told him that John Cole was his ancestor. Now, he is learning that his forefather was even more impressive than he had imagined. Jon sums it up: “He was pretty brave!”

Back at camp at day’s end, you find you’ve walked about ten dry, dusty miles. And when you think about walking this country day after day for 2000 miles, you realize what a heritage of bravery and faith the Mormon Battalion left behind.

The road back toward town is just as bumpy and rough. But now it leads to hot showers, good food, and soft beds—and your busy, complex life. You compare your challenges to those of the Mormon Battalion and wonder if they are just as great, only in a different way. And you wonder what your descendants will have to say about your bravery and your faith.

[photos] Photography by Phil Shurtleff and Larry A. Hiller

[photos] From left: Enoch Irvine and dad, Joseph; Edward Dalton, Mormon Battalion member; Edward’s great-great-great grandson, Sid Payne, with father, Ed; Blazer Scouts Justin Hull, Sam Gifford, Trevor Bluth.

[photo] (Above) Throw another snake on the barby? A lot of Scouts wanted a taste, but it was the burgers they filled up on. (Right) Archery was popular; hunting the sagebrush for lost arrows wasn’t.

[photos] (Left) Pulling a cannon gave a brief taste of Battalion life. Shooting apples out of it was just plain fun. (Above) Karl Wood demonstrated pioneer foods, including dried, smoked fish. (It’ll never replace pizza.)

[photos] Clockwise from right: Jon gets a kick from the black powder rifle; everybody gets to demonstrate the most common Battalion activity—walking; Kelly Allred provides a taste of edible local plants; Robert Marks shows how to make horseshoes. (Do you have that in a hightop?)

[photos] (Left) Bob Jakesy, in old-time U.S. cavalry uniform, rides with the colors at the end of the day. The Scouts went home with a greater appreciation for their heritage. They had discovered a whole new band of real western heroes.