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Food Items used by the Mormon Battalion

From the time of their enlistment into the U.S. Army to their reunion with their families in either the Salt Lake valley or Iowa Territory, the members of the Mormon Battalion encountered a wide variety of foods recorded in their journals and diaries. There are undoubtedly others not included here, but hopefully, the descriptions and uses here will be informative.

The Battalion received provisions at major population centers, such as Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. Also, provisions were sent to established army supply depots, such as Sarpy’s Trading Post outside Council Bluffs, Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River, and Council Grove outside of Fort Leavenworth. However, some of their food stuffs were obtained by purchase or trade at villages and settlements on the march, such as Tucson or Warner’s Ranch, and the Pima and Maricopa Indian camps. As was a common practice, where possible, the Army included in its logistical planning bringing livestock as a source of fresh meat, such as beeves or beefs (cattle) and sheep, which were amiable to being herded, but also required fodder, grazing and water. Oxen and mules that were pulling their wagons would collapse from fatigue and be unable to recover. When times were desperate, these fallen animals were butchered for the meat, often of poor quality, and the hides used for trousers, moccasins and footwear. Also, to provide some variety in their diet or when food rations dwindled, the Battalion engaged in foraging and hunting from off the land.

HARDTACK – Yes or No?

Hardtack was a military staple used by both army and naval forces. Tack was the slang term for food used by British sailors. Hardtack was also called by other names: ship biscuit, sea biscuit, pilot bread, sea bread by the navy and hard bread by army soldiers. Hardtack is an extremely hard biscuit or cracker made of flour, salt and water. Other affectionately descriptive names for hardtack included: sheet iron, molar breakers, and tooth dullers. Because of its dryness and lack of oil or lard, it resisted spoilage or mold, but was often infested with weevils. Hardtack was baked in pans beforehand and the individual biscuits, about 3-inches square and 3/8 to1-inch thick, with 16 small holes in a 4×4 array, were wrapped in waxed paper for protection and long term storage. One version of Army hard bread may have been similar to melba toast or zwieback (twice-baked), described as a cedar shingle. Hardtack made for troops in the Mexican War was issued during Civil War times (around 15 years storage). Hardtack was broken into pieces, sometimes requiring a rock or the butt end of a rifle, and eaten either by soaking in a hot liquid, such as broth or coffee, or by softening in the mouth with saliva. The biscuit could also be soaked and then the resulting dough kneaded and fried in bacon grease.

Battalion journals don’t mention the use of hardtack or hard bread per se, so the common inference among historians is the Battalion didn’t have hardtack. However, Norma Ricketts includes in her book a facsimile of the rations ledger for Company A at Fort Leavenworth. All entries but the second item listed are easily deciphered: flour, pork, beefs, salt, sugar, soap, vinegar, rice. I believe a case can be made that the second entry is “h bread”, short for hard bread, possibly because of lack of space in the ledger cell to write out the entire word. The ledger records 36 lbs, quantity and rations for 12 days issued on what appears to be Aug 12 (date smudged). This date coincides with the date supplies were sent ahead to Bent’s Fort supply depot by order of Lt. Col. Allen to resupply the Battalion during their march to Santa Fe. However, the body of the Battalion took the Cimarron Cutoff instead of going to Bent’s Fort. Rather, the Bent’s Fort supplies were accessed by the Sick Detachments camped out at Fort Pueblo. Another possibility is that the supply of hard bread at Fort Leavenworth was in extremely short supply, most having already been issued to Gen. Kearny at his earlier departure from Fort Leavenworth in June 1846 to support his 300 dragoons and Col. Doniphan’s 850 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers. Col. Price with his regiment of about 500 2nd Missouri Mounted Volunteers were also at Fort Leavenworth at this time loading up with supplies in competition with the Mormon Battalion.


Meat is the major source of protein in the army diet. The typical meats issued to army troops for traveling were salted pork (bacon), and salted beef. Fresh meat was obtained from animals herded (stock-on-the-hoof) such as beef cattle and sheep with the troop movements. Gen. Kearny had 800 head of cattle with his vanguard army out of Fort Leavenworth. The Battalion departed Fort Leavenworth with 180 beef cattle. Col. Cooke obtained 28 beef cattle and a total of 380 sheep after the Battalion left Santa Fe. The Battalion herded loose cattle with them to San Diego from their camps below San Luis Rey Mission. As occasion required, these animals were butchered and dressed out for consumption. For example, in order to feed the Battalion, one meal consisted of an entire cow and 12 sheep. The Battalion acquired much of their fresh meat by hunting game off the land. Each company was issued 5 hunting rifles for this very purpose. Journal entries record the diverse types of game meat consumed while traveling through Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, including: buffalo (American bison), bear, black-tailed deer and antelope. Charbonneau shot a huge grizzly bear which was so big it had to be loaded into a wagon to bring into camp. Tasty antelope was roasted in an open pit. Wild cattle from abandoned ranches in New Mexico and Arizona were also available. When meat was plentiful, the soldiers would jerk (dry) the meat as a means of preservation and future consumption on the trail. Dried meat (jerky from beef, goat, sheep or horse) was bought from Mexican and Indian traders. Salmon trout and catfish were speared with swords and bayonets in the Arkansas River and were greatly enjoyed.

At Pueblo, the Sick Detachments feasted on elk, deer, rabbit and wild turkey. At Warner’s Ranch William Corey, William Hyde and Nathaniel Jones purchased a hog for a meal. However, following army customs, livestock was also commandeered from local farms in Missouri as the army passed through. Some men disobeyed Brigham Young’s instructions and made off with chickens, ducks, and pigs for supper without owner’s permission or compensation. When times were desperate, fallen mules and oxen were slaughtered and distributed to the companies. In Arizona, Samuel Rogers recorded, “The appetites of the men have become so sharp that they now eat beef hides, tripe, feet, heads and entrails (internal organs), in fine, everything that can be eaten.” Daniel Tyler recounted, “The entrails were generally utilized by hanging them over a stick and broiling and then eating them. The hide was used by cutting it up into pieces, singeing the hair off and boiling it until tender enough to eat. The tripe was also boiled.”

While in San Diego, Azariah Smith took advantage of ocean bounties and obtained clams, mussels and oysters to make a supper fare. A journal entry records he once caught 23 1-lb ocean fish.

Upon the return home in the plains of Wyoming below Ft. Laramie, the desperate state and survival skills of the Battalion veterans is portrayed by their having a supper of mule brains and eating a horse that had drown while crossing the Loup Fork River in the freezing December weather. Coming through the Sierras, mountain chickens and sage hens were killed and trout was also caught.


Milled wheat flour was a mainstay food item. At night while traveling in Missouri on their way to Ft. Leavenworth, the men would mix flour with water to make dough, which was wrapped around a stick and baked over a flame to make biscuits, called “doughbobs”. When their march allowed, and flour was available, loaves of bread were baked. Flour was also used as a thickening agent for soup and gravy instead of making bread, particularly when in short supply. In Tucson, Col. Cooke loaded supply wagons with bushels of public wheat. Rice and corn meal were also standard military issued supplies. At the Colorado River, mesquite seeds were gathered for use by both soldier and mule. The mesquite seeds were eaten raw, roasted or ground into a flour using coffee mills from which bread or pudding was made. The seeds were slightly sweet with a pleasant taste, but caused constipation.


Upon leaving their families in Council Bluffs, men took some parched corn with them. While marching through Missouri, the men appropriated potatoes, onions, and corn from local farms. For example, while marching through Missouri, Henry Sanderson recorded, “I came across a man in his garden digging potatoes. I asked him civilly if he would give me two or three. He told me no and raised his hoe on me and told me to get out of his lot. I stood a few moments in a daring attitude and then stooped and picked up two or three potatoes, went a few steps to an onion bed, pulled up two or there of them and went on my way leaving a very mad man using very bad language while I was saying nothing . . .” Sanderson continued, “ Vegetables were a treat to persons living principaly on bread and bacon and were appropriated by some on the route as also chickens, honey, pigs and roasting ears of corn and Col. Allen, being an old Soldier, seemed to think that it was a natural consequence. I remember at one time we made our camp close to a large corn field. The proprietor came to the Col. as soon as he seen that camp was going to be made and requested the Col. to keep the boys out of the corn and he circulated that such request had been made and soon after fires had been kindled I happened to be to the Cols. and roasting ears were plentiful around it and much corn was consumed that night.”

Parsley plants found at Cow Creek, KS, were boiled and seasoned with vinegar. Onions and corn were obtained in Santa Fe. Outside of Santa Fe, bushels of corn were purchased by the Quartermaster for the men to have parched corn on the trail. Dr. Sanderson mentioned in his diary soldiers eating too many peanuts (probably dried peas) that may have contributed to stomach ailments. While traveling through New Mexico, mescal or muscale (a barrel-shaped agave cactus) and some type of vegetable recorded as pedistol were eaten. Near Guadalupe Arroyo, AZ, local Indians brought sweet and nutritious cooked roots for sale. The Pima and Maricopa Indians traded corn, wheat, flour, pumpkins, squash, red peppers and beans for buttons and ragged shirts. James Brown traded his belt for a hatful of acorn mush. Outside the Temecula valley, mustard greens were cooked and deemed a treat to go with the beef. Upon arriving at Ft. Pueblo, the Mississippi Saints planted gardens and had pumpkin, melons and turnips for the winter, which were shared with the families and soldiers from the Sick Detachments.


By the end of summer and early fall, many fruits were becoming ripe to eat. Outside of Ft. Leavenworth, wild grapes and plums were found. At Santa Fe, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, melons and pine nuts were bought and enjoyed. White grapes were located in an abandoned vineyard at White Ox Creek, NM. At Tucson, quince and pomegranates were enjoyed. Watermelons were obtained from the Pima Indians. On their way from San Luis Rey to Los Angeles in March, the Battalion stopped overnight at the San Juan Mission (Capistrano). Journals mention quince, pear, apple, orange, fig, olive, pepper and date trees with a large vineyard, but no mention is made to whether any fruit was available or eaten. After discharge, Reddick Allred’s body of 50 Battalion veterans camped at General Pio Pico’s ranch where there were grapes, figs, pears, apricots, cherries, plums, peaches, apples, olives, black peppers and dates. Wild huckleberries were plentiful near Johnson’s ranch on the Bear River in the western foothills of the Sierras Nevadas.


Salt was the basic seasoning for foods as well as a preservative. Salt was issued to the Battalion at Ft. Leavenworth and at Santa Fe. After that provision was exhausted, the soldiers complained of having to eat beef without salt. Three bushels of salt were appropriated in Tucson. Also, vinegar was a staple seasoning issued that was added to leafy greens. Sugar was a very important staple. Sugar was usually a course brown sugar hard packed into a cone and wrapped in paper. The cone was scrapped with a knife or blunt utensil to obtain granules of sugar. While marching through Missouri, an unidentified soldier absconded with a beehive containing honey. Outside of Ft. Leavenworth, Robert Bliss found a bee tree and secured about 20 lbs. of honey which provided a delicious repast.


Coffee was another army staple issued at Ft. Leavenworth and Santa Fe. The coffee beans were ground using coffee mills that were issued to mess units. Coffee was also used as a bartering commodity. In Los Angeles, Henry Standage sold coffee for 37 cents/lb in exchange for saleratus (sodium bicarbonate or baking soda) at 50 cents/lb. At Ft. Leavenworth, ice cream was bought for 5 cents, a special treat in the hot August weather. Nearing Pueblo, on the Arkansas River, Joel Terrel of the Brown Sick Detachment purchased 3 pints of milk from a settler from Carolina for 25 cents then another pint for15 cent. Milk was also purchased at San Luis Rey from Indians. While on mule guard in San Diego John Borrowman found a nest with duck eggs, which his mess enjoyed for supper. Several tea beverages are mentioned in journals: Henry Bigler brewed a tea from ginger he brought from Ft. Leavenworth to help alleviate body aches and pains. After being discharged, men in Reddick Allred’s group fixed a tea out of watermelon seeds for Henry Hoyt, who was severely ill from hepatitis since leaving Sutter’s Fort. After crossing the crest of the Sierra Nevada, one group of Battalion veterans made a refreshing drink by boiling pine needles.

At times to lengthen inadequate supplies, daily food supply was reduced to quarter rations: ¼ lb of meat and 6 oz. of flour. Near starvation, the Battalion soldiers became resourceful out of necessity, often resorting to foraging skills and desperate measures to obtain enough sustenance to survive.


  1. Day, Robert O., March of the Mormon Battalion, Called to Serve, 2003.
  2. Fleek, Sherman L., History May Be Searched in Vain – A Military History of the Mormon Battalion, 2006.
  3. Ricketts, Norma N., The Mormon Battalion, U.S. Army of the West 1846-1848, 1996
  4. 19th United States Infantry –
  5. McCaffrey, James M., A Call to Arms – Life in the U.S. Army