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Cooke’s Wagon Road


Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke led the Mormon Battalion out of Santa Fe with the mission to (1) march the battalion to California, (2) bring the wagons Gen. Kearny had left behind to California and (3) to “open a wagon road to the Pacific.” Gen. Kearny specifically selected Cooke for this assignment because of Cooke’s experience as a veteran frontier army dragoon officer, who was an expert in logistics, foraging, managing livestock, marching over inhospitable terrain, and keeping his troops ready for combat. The 37 year-old Cooke, a West Point graduate at age 18 (class of 1827), was an imposing figure, standing 6’4”. He was known as a tough, strict disciplinarian, rigid task-master, thorough planner, harsh, but fair to his men. He was adamant on following orders at any cost, with zero tolerance for failure, unprofessionalism or disobedience. His was a daunting task to lead a hastily assembled and meagerly supplied contingency of heavily laden wagons and fatigued, untrained civilian volunteers on the most challenging and demanding part of the Battalion’s trek – crossing 1100 miles of harsh, uncharted mountains, deserts and rivers of the Southwest. The Battalion now depended on their individual strength and will power combined with Col. Cooke’s leadership in order to succeed.

Departure from Santa Fe

On Oct. 19, 1846, the Battalion left Santa Fe with 30 wagons: 15 government mule wagons each pulled by a team of 8 mules, 6 ox-drawn wagons pulling heavy supplies, including shovels, picks, crow-bars for road tools, 4 mule-drawn wagons for the command staff, quartermaster (Lt. A.J. Smith), medical corp (Dr. George Sanderson) and paymaster (Major Jeremiah Cloud), and an additional 5 wagons
purchased by the soldiers to help carry their equipment. The quartermaster had secured full rations of flour, sugar, coffee and salt for 60 days; salt pork for 30 days and soap for 20 days. They also herded 28 beeves (cattle) and some 300 long-legged sheep (churros) for fresh meat. In order to reduce weight in the wagons, Cooke left some heavy equipment behind, such as skillets and ovens.


Because the maps available in 1846 (Tanner’s American Atlas and Augustus Mitchell’s 1846 map of Texas, Oregon and California) lacked detail, Cooke declared, “I discovered that the maps are worthless; they can be depended on for nothing.” Cooke obtained several experienced reputable guides to act as pioneers (advanced scouts) for the Battalion to look for the best route for the wagon procession, campsites and sources of water: Pauline Weaver and Philip Thompson. Dr. Stephen Foster (Yale-educated medical doctor living in Santa Fe) was hired as chief interpreter and scout. Willard Hall, formerly of Doniphan’s 1st Missouri Mounted Volunteers, served as a scout, messenger, aide and assistant to Cooke. Other Mexican and Indian guides were only known by single names: Tasson, Chacon, Francisco and Appolonius. Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau, members of the 1803 Lewis and Clark Expedition, was assigned to the Battalion by Kearny and joined the Battalion on Oct. 24 outside of Albuquerque. The most experienced and lead scout, famous mountain man Antoine Leroux, was originally with Kearny’s advanced troops, but was sent back to guide Cooke along Kearny’s route because of his familiarity with the Gila River valley.

Cooke’s Wagon Route Initiated

Traveling south from Santa Fe, Cooke followed the established 200 year-old El Camino Real that paralleled the Rio Grande River and connected Santa Fe with Chihuahua. It was an excruciating ordeal traveling over flat river bottoms, hills and sandy stretches that often required the heavy wagons to be double-teamed, pushed and pulled by the men through the rough terrain. On Nov. 2, the scouts found a note left by Gen. Kearny that read “Mormon Trail,” intending for the Battalion to follow his westward route. On that same day, Leroux arrived in camp and related to Cooke that Kearny’s route was too difficult for wagons and too arid for men and animals. Following Leroux’s recommendation, the Battalion took a route 80 miles to the south and then west 300 miles to intersect the San Pedro River.

On Nov. 9, Cooke made the assessment that in order to achieve the objectives of the Battalion he had to lessen the constraints and conserve limited rations. He ordered the 3rd Sick Detachment to Fort Pueblo. He discarded unnecessary equipment into several wagons: excess camp and cooking equipment and tent poles. The men used their muskets for tent poles. Messes were increased from 6 to 9 men. Excess mules and the spare 10 yoke of oxen were packed with loads of 60-80 lbs.

On Nov. 13, Cooke located a note from Leroux directing the Battalion off the established trail whereupon they commenced to blaze a new southwest road across the uncharted arid tablelands and deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. This marked the beginning of Cooke’s Wagon Road. With the scouts leapfrogging days ahead to find the best route for the wagons (flat ground) and water, Cooke realized he was heading too far southeast toward Mexico not California, so he instructed his bugler to “blow to the right,” and turned the Battalion to the southwest. The Battalion men considered this action an answer to their fervent prayers.

The march was exhausting with the men existing on half rations and very little water for days at a time. The men were stretched out for miles. Lewis Dent, civilian clerk to Maj. Cloud, recorded his poignant observations, “I saw athletic and vigorous men reduced, by thirst and fatigue, to the imbecility of children … their bodies attenuated and feeble; their faces bloated; their eyes sunken; their feet lacerated and bruised, mechanically moving forward, without a murmur and without an object; the latter having been lost sight of in the gloomy contemplation of their present helpless condition.” When water was found, the stronger men filled canteens and retraced their tracks to bring water to their struggling comrades who were strung out for miles behind. On Nov. 28, Cooke sent his scouts to locate Guadalupe Pass for passage through the rugged New Mexico mountain range. Unable to locate the Pass, the Battalion was forced to make a road through steep canyons for the wagons. Supplies were packed onto 150 mules so the emptied wagons could be lowered down steep, narrow ledges and ravines using ropes. After passing over the Guadalupe Mountains, the Pass was found just a mile away, which greatly angered Cooke regarding the competency of the scouts. Due to a relative abundance of wild cattle from deserted ranches and wild game (bear, deer, antelope and fish), the men ate well on fresh meat, much of which was jerked for consumption on the trail.

Across Arizona

The Battalion intercepted and followed a trail first used by Col. Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775 to the San Pedro River. On Dec. 11, the legendary “Battle of the Bulls” occurred in which the Battalion column fought off an assault by several dozens of wild bulls (reported numbers range from 20-81) from the abandoned San Bernardino Ranch. Confusion erupted resulting in several men and mules being gored and wagons overturned. 12 downed bulls fed the Battalion for several days. Upon approaching the Mexican town of Tucson purportedly armed with 130-200 Mexican troops and 2 or 3 brass cannons, Cooke communicated back and forth with the Mexican commander, Capt. Antonio
de Comaduran, in which neither side wanted armed conflict. Since conditions set by both sides were unacceptable to the opposing side, Cooke took the offensive and marched through Tucson rather than going 100 miles around the town. The fatigued Battalion was relieved that the Mexican garrison had left the night before, thus avoiding any direct confrontation. From Tucson to the Gila River, men and livestock suffered greatly from lack of water. Many men were walking with footwear made from rawhide, canvas, or pieces of blanket and old cloth. The Battalion intersected Kearny’s route, referred to as the Dragoon Trail, near the friendly Pima Indian camps.

Here the Battalion traded buttons, old clothes and ragged shirts for bread cakes, corn, beans, squash, molasses and watermelon. Further along the Gila River were the equally hospitable Maricopa Indians, who were also eager to trade. Christmas dinner consisted of cold beans, pancakes and pumpkin sauce with watermelon as the treat of the day. Already on half rations, the food supply was running low. The men were reduced to chewing strips of rawhide as they marched. Mesquite seeds were gathered and eaten raw, roasted, or ground into meal with their coffee mills to make bread and pudding.

On Jan. 1 Cooke decided to lighten the mules by floating 2500 lbs of flour, pork and provisions on a pontoon raft constructed by lashing two of the water-tight wagons between 2 dry cottonwood logs. The heavy barge ran aground on shallow sandbars of the Gila River and had to be unloaded, so it could go downriver. Only a small portion of these unloaded supplies, including road tools, were recovered.

Crossing into California

Entering California required the dangerous crossing of the Colorado River, which was about a half-mile wide and an average of about 4 feet deep. This crossing was accomplished Jan. 10-11 near Yuma in a slow and methodical maneuver using the previously constructed pontoon raft to ferry men and equipment. Wagons forded the river pulled by mule teams. Three wagons had to be abandoned on the California side to be retrieved at a later date. The Battalion proceeded with 7 of the original 25 government wagons. Several water wells were dug along the way. The long forced marches, lack of rest and water caused a repeat of previous stretches in November and December when the men were strewn out for miles with their stronger comrades retracing their path with canteens of water for the fatigued stragglers. After trudging a hundred miles through desert terrain, they passed Carrizo Creek, camped at the Palm Spring oasis, and then traveled to the verdant Vallecito Valley where they recouped for a day.

On Jan. 19, the Battalion struggled over a difficult pass (Campbell Grade), made a 180º turn to the east, followed a dry creek bed and then encountered a narrow defile, subsequently named Box Canyon. The cliffs narrowed to where it became impassible for the wagons, requiring men to disassemble and carry two wagons through the canyon. The sides of the cliffs then had to be
chiseled with crowbars, axes and spades to allow the remaining wagons to pass through. A 20-foot wall of rock then had to be bypassed by hewing a large rock enabling the wagons to climb out of the creek bed and traverse along a mountain slope before reentering the creek bed, which led to Blair Valley. Here the Battalion camped, but the next day, Jan. 20, they had to chisel out a wagon path over a ridge out of Blair Valley. This pass was later named Foot and Walker Pass. The Battalion proceeded north through the flat San Felipe Valley to Warner’s Ranch, where they enjoyed several days of good meals and rest, including soaking in hot springs.

Arrival at San Diego

The Battalion continued north through Temecula where they peacefully passed a battle line of 150 friendly Temecula Indians who had buried 100 fellow warriors killed in a fierce battle with local Californios. The Battalion traveled south over a pass, through the current area of Rainbow, to the San Luis Rey River. They followed the San Luis Rey River west where they eventually arrived at the magnificent and impressive Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, considered the King of the California missions near present day Oceanside. Upon climbing a nearby bluff, the Battalion at last beheld the Pacific Ocean. Private Henry Boyle recorded, “I never Shall be able to express my feelings at this enraptured moment. When our columns were halted every eye was turned toward its placid Surface every heart beat with muttered pleasure evry Soul was full of thankfulness, evry tongue was Silend, we all felt too full to give shape to our feelings by any expression.”

On January 29, 1847, of the Mormon Battalion broke camp at San Dieguito and following orders from Gen. Kearny to camp at the Mission San Diego de Alcala, 6 miles east of the small town, marched through Cañada de la Soledad toward their long-awaited destination. From atop a mesa Robert Bliss recorded that he saw the masts and rigging of naval men-o’-war vessels (Commodore Stockton’s U.S. Navy frigate U.S.S. Congress and other naval warships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron anchored in the bay).

Around 3:30 pm on January 29, 1847 the 335 men and 4 women, 5 government wagons and 3 private wagons, arrived at the San Diego Mission, thus completing their 6-month, 2000-mile march from Council Bluffs, IA. Many men were shoeless, wrapped in blankets, wearing ragged makeshift clothes and foot ware from rawhide, rags or wagon canvas, and sporting 6-month growth of long hair and beards. Col. Cooke recorded, “The evening of this day of the march, I rode down, by moonlight, and reported to the General in San Diego.” The next day, Cooke penned his famous commendation which was delivered to the Battalion on Feb. 4 at San Luis Rey, “The lieutenant colonel commanding
congratulates the battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and the conclusion of their march of over two thousand miles. History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry.”

Subsequent to the Mormon Battalion, other long marches of infantry in American military history were accomplished. Companies of the 6th Infantry marched from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Bridger and then (with a 2 week rest) on to forts on the Pacific coast totaling 2,200 miles following the Utah War in 1857. The 7th Infantry marched 1,900 miles from Fort Belknap, TX to Camp Floyd, UT in 1858. However, some historians qualify the Mormon Battalion’s 6-month trek (estimates vary 1,900-2,200 miles) as the longest sustained march of American infantry. Regardless of the mileage controversy, Col. Cooke’s statement most assuredly considers the Mormon Battalion’s epic march to be unequaled in endurance, perseverance, hardship, difficulty and achievement compared to any other infantry outfit.