gold rush settlers

Sanford Porter and the Mormon Battalion

Submitted by Roger Robin Ekins

My wife’s second great uncle, Sanford Porter Jr., was a 23-year-old private in Company E of the “Mormon Battalion,” serving under Captain Daniel C. Davis. After being discharged, he returned to his family in Utah on Oct. 16, 1847. Sanford was baptized at the age of eight in 1831, personally knew the Prophet Joseph Smith and even–according to an interview published in the May 27, 1897 issue of the Deseret News–stood guard in Nauvoo for eight weeks prior to the martyrdom of Joseph and his brother, Hyrum. At the time of Sanford’s death (12 Dec., 1913) he was possibly the oldest living member of the church.

Relatively little is known of Sanford’s adventures with the Battalion. However, the following account was handed down through our family history from his son, William Ira Porter, as recorded by his granddaughter, Dorene R. Jones: ” At one time, with feet bleeding and faint with hunger and fatigue, he stuck the bayonet of his gun in the ground and hung his knapsack on the stock and laid down to die, thinking perhaps someone might find his remains. He then bid adieu to this world and placed himself in the hands of his God, and fell asleep. He did not know how long he slept, but when he awoke he found himself sound and well. He felt like running and jumping. He shouldered his knapsack and gun and went into camp, where he joined his companions. He gave his rations to a sick comrade and stood double guard that night. From that day until the end of the march he never suffered any pain or hunger.”[i]  This incident is also recorded by Sgt. Daniel Tyler.[ii]

Students of the Mormon Battalion are familiar with about the only skirmish the Mormons encountered, often rendered as “the Battle of the Bulls.” But according to fellow Battalion member, Henry Standage, he and Sanford missed all the excitement: “Sanford Porter and I went fishing following the stream instead of the wagon trail and had poor luck fishing. 3 p.m., we came into the trail and found plenty of beef. Made a fire and boiled some fat ribs. The Brethern had quite a battle with the bulls today, killing 9 at one time and the bulls killing 2 mules while in harness, several hurt.”[iii]

It might be well to include here some details concerning the formation of the Battalion which are not widely known. Some only recently came to light as a result of a cache of letters and other materials shared with me by a descendent of Jesse C. Little, some of whose descendents were among those who settled in Gridley, California.

Contrary to later accounts–likely promulgated by Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow Smith and others to elicit sympathy for the Saints during the mid-1800’s–the idea for the Battalion did not originate with the United States Government as an imposition on church members. According to Edward W. Tullidge, Snow, for example, characterized the formation of the Battalion as “one of the most remarkably unreasonable requisitions” and “a heavy tax–a cruel draft.”[iv] And Young and others repeatedly touted the exceptional patriotism of the Mormons in responding to their country’s rather oppressive call to arms.

Not that they were not patriotic, but it was at the behest of Brigham Young that Little (who served at the time as the presiding officer over the Eastern branches of the church) wrote a letter to U. S. President  James K. Polk on June 1, 1846 in which he proposed that the U. S. Government both arm and help fund the Mormons in their westward trek so that they could protect other immigrants and assist in putting down any resistance from Mexico. But along with his humble request, Little issued a thinly veiled threat. He wrote that “We would disdain to receive assistance from a foreign power [i.e. Great Britain]–although it should be proffered–unless our government shall turn us off in this great crisis and will not help us, but compel us to be foreigners.” Little added, “if I cannot get it in the land of my Fathers I will cross the trackless ocean where I trust I should find some friends to help.”[v]

In other words, Little suggested that the Mormons might align themselves militarily with Great Britain–which, at the time, had interests in seizing Alta California for itself–unless the United States armed the Mormons. Figuring that it was better to have the Mormons fighting with them, rather than against them, Polk and his cabinet, who had already decided to occupy New Mexico and then invade California before winter set in–authorized the arming of 500 men. In his diary, Polk made it very clear why he had authorized this requisition: “the main object of taking them into service would be to conciliate them, and prevent them from assuming a hostile attitude towards the U.S. after their arrival in California.”[vi]

Although it has been long known that Thomas L. Kane–a non-Mormon friend to the Saints–greatly assisted Little in his approach to President Polk, we have only recently learned of the depth of Kane’s involvement, thanks to the discovery of the “Jesse C. Little Collection,” recently made available to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this collection of letters, which was presumed by historians to have been lost to a fire in the 1930’s, one can read how Kane and Little not only corresponded with one another, but even met in a hotel under assumed names as they planned their approach. Kane attested to Little’s character and introduced him to influential figures in Washington, including Amos Kendall, a close personal friend to Polk, Senator A. G. Benson, and Vice President George M. Dallas.

One letter, from Kane to Vice President Dallas, dated 18 May, 1846, is of particular interest in that it suggests that the idea of the veiled threat originated with Kane himself, rather than with either Young or Little. In this letter Kane attests to Little’s character and notes that he comes to Washington “with no other object than the laudable one of desiring aid of government for his people, who forced by persecution to found a new Commonwealth in the Sacramento valley, still retain American hearts, and would not willingly, sell themselves to the foreigner, or forget the old commonwealth they leave behind them.”[vii]

Other pertinent items in this collection of interest to students of the Battalion include a copy of a 23 Aug., 1846 letter from George P. Dykes, Adjutant, and Samuel Gully, 2nd Lt., Co. E, to President Polk.[viii] It is in the hand of Dykes. In this letter, Dykes and Gully–both Mormons–sadly announce the demise of Lt. Col. Allen.  As a result, they note, “the command now devolves upon our Senior Captain, Jefferson Hunt.” Hunt was, of course, also a Mormon who went on to become very prominent in the settlement of San Bernardino, yet this was only a temporary arrangement, much to the chagrin of the troops.

Also included is an Aug. 28 letter from Geo. P. Dykes (“Council Grove”) to “Brother Little” (Peterborough, NH), copied by Little.  This is a cover letter apparently accompanying the letter to Polk. Here Little is urged to “use your influence in having us marched into U. California to be discharged in the Great Basin the place of our future residence.”

Additional letters from members of the Battalion include one from Lt. E. Price (29 Oct., 1846), one from Jefferson Hunt (6 Feb., 1847), and a copy of Commander James Allen’s July 20, 1846 letter of commendation for the Mormon people and its leaders. Included in the collection are some fifty items of correspondence to and/or from Kane, Young, Wilford Woodruff, William Smith, Daniel H. Wells, Ezra T. Benson, Jedediah M. Grant, William L. Marcy, Amos Kendall, William E Prince, Robert Campbell, Luke Miller, John N. Steele, Orson Hyde and Chauncey W. West. (All of this was discovered as a result of an offhand comment by a member of the author’s Sunday School class, when we were discussing the Mormon Battalion.)

I trust that those not interested in the intricacies of the origin of the Mormon Battalion stopped reading several paragraphs ago, but hope that there is something here of interest for anyone who stuck it out to this final paragraph. The Mormon Battalion was, indeed, an incredible feat and regardless of the motivation of either the Latter-day Saint or U. S. leaders in bringing it about the men and women who marched that long distance, contributing significantly to the establishment of California, certainly deserve our admiration and gratitude.

[i] Pioneering Morgan County, Morgan County News, as recorded by Dorene R. Jones, “Sanford Porter Jr. History,” located on Sanford Porter Jr.’s page at familysearch.org.

[ii] Tyler, Sgt. Daniel. A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846-1847. Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1998, 141.

[iii] Qtd. by Dorene R. Jones, Sanford Porter Jr. History,” located on Sanford Porter Jr.’s page at familysearch.org. See also Sgt. Daniel Tyler’s reference in his Concise History, 221.

[iv] Qtd. in Roger Robin Ekins, Defending Zion: George Q. Cannon and the California Mormon Newspaper Wars of 1856-1857, Vol. V, Kingdom in the West, Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2002, 180

[v] For a complete and relatively accurate transcription of this letter, see Will Bagley, Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives, Vol. 4, Kingdom in the West, Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 2000, 32-35. The copy of the letter Bagley used, in the hand of George Q. Cannon, is found online via the Church History Library; the copy by Little is found in the “Jesse C. Little Collection,” MS 28541.)

[vi] Qtd. in Bagley, 36.

[vii] Church History Library, Jesse C. Little collection, Call No. CR 12341.

[viii] ibid, Call No. MS 28541