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Origin of the Bulls at Rancho San Bernardino

Few stories provide as invigorating a romp through the deep sweep of history as does “The Battle of the Bulls,” waged and won by the Mormon Battalion in the Arizona desert on December 11, 1846.  It was the only “battle” in which the Mormon Battalion engaged during its historic march.  Yet because of prophetic implications, this incident wields distinctive historic and human interest, especially for Latter-Day Saints.

An intriguing plot for the story derives from a remarkable promise made by Brigham Young as he bade farewell to the command at Council Bluffs in July of 1846: “Though there will be battles fought,” he prophesied, “you will not have any fighting to do…. Then he added this unusual clause, “…except with wild beasts,” and he did so invoking his prophetic calling saying: “in the name of Israel’s God.”

Historians are prone to ignore the religion, but not the question, “Where did the bulls come from?”  The answer sets the stage for the fulfillment of Brigham Young’s three-pronged promise—1) there will be battles; 2) but you’ll not be in any of them; 3) except with wild beasts.

The historical romp begins all the way back to the year 1493, the year Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the New World.  At Santo Domingo on the isle of Hispaniola, the great Admiral of the Open Seas unloaded 17 ships worth of cargo, including Spanish cattle with peculiarly long horns.

Within decades Cortez conquered Mexico and Coronado had traversed the future site of the Battle of the Bulls on the San Pedro River in today’s southeastern Arizona.  Within two centuries the cattle that these two conquistadores introduced to the mainland had multiplied and spread throughout the dominions of New Spain.  This particular breed had two remarkable advantages—it did very well on the sparse vegetation of semi-arid scrubland and it could withstand very long cattle drives.

In 1690 the first herds of cattle were driven further northward than ever before. Some 200 cattle were driven as far away as the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border.  In that same year, Father Kino followed Coronado’s trail down the San Pedro River where some 150 years later the Battle of the Bulls would unfold.  While stray cattle lingered, multiplied, and adapted to harsh conditions no significant Spanish foothold could be established at that time.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Spanish determined to make a more serious effort to occupy and establish undisputed control of the northern regions of Chihuahua and Sonora.  Missions and garrisons called presidios similar to the one established by Father Junípero Sera on Presidio Hill above the Mormon Battalion Historic Site were incentivized with gigantic land grants.  Missionaries, soldiers, courageous settlers and their herds were dispatched.

Alas, these attempts, too, failed miserably.  The satellite force at San Bernardino Springs was withdrawn back to Fronteras after a perilous three-year stint. The Terrenate group on the San Pedro suffered nearly four years of hostilities before retreating back to Las Nutrias.  Thus the soldiers, settlers, and missionaries disappeared… but the longhorns remained.

In the late spring of 1822, just one year after Mexico won independence from Spain, the adventurous Lieutenant Ignacio Perez obtained the San Bernardino land grant. This 73,000-acre spread extended out over the entire southeast corner of what is now Cochise County, Arizona and south past the Springs into the heart of Sonora.  The Tumacacori Mission, along the Santa Cruz River just west of the San Pedro rounded up some 4,000 head of the free-ranging longhorns as initial stock with which Perez launched his cattle operation, known as Rancho San Bernardino.   Unfortunately, his enterprise likewise succumbed to Apache raids and hostilities.  For a third time the settlers retreated, abandoning their herds to the call of the wild.  Only Tucson limped along with a few tenacious folk whose presence and the Mexican garrison stationed there became the only military threat to the Mormon Battalion during the march.  But the rest of the outlying areas, including the San Pedro River Valley as well as the entire of Rancho San Bernardino were deserted.

Thus there was no fighting to do, because there were no people to fight.

The abandoned cattle, however, multiplied and spread through the countryside to the point of becoming the most plentiful wild game in a massive Apache hunting ground.  Moreover, since there were no ranch hands to geld calves, what should have been docile steers became thousands of testosterone-laden raging bulls competing for cows and forage.  More difficult to bring down than cows and calves, these bulls more readily survived Apaches’ arrows and grew older and wiser and as wild and fierce as any beast in the open country…and as numbers increased, they became ever more dangerous.

Such were the conditions when the Mormon Battalion came out of the Guadalupe Mountains.  At first the bulls were a welcome addition to the dismal diet of famished souls.  Then an unlikely scenario unfolded on the banks of the San Pedro when a herd of bulls stampeded into camp.  At the end of the ruckus several were injured, some seriously; one got his thumb blown off in the frenzy of musket fire; four mules were disemboweled, wagons were overturned and damaged.  At least nine bulls were shot dead.  At least one hero, David Frost, earned the compliment from Colonel Cooke—“one of the bravest men I’ve ever seen”.  But then it was all over and the soldiers moved on.

To the secular world the Battle of the Bulls may represent little more than a tick mark on an interesting timeline with connections backward to Columbus and forward to the great American hamburger.  But to the members of the Mormon Battalion this was a symbol no less significant than Noah’s rainbow.  Because no one expected any kind of literal “battle” with wild beasts, this incident became a point of inspiration and vindication of their trust in their leader.

While history speaks to this conclusion, there were other trials of their faith.  On December 16th, just five days after the Battle of the Bulls, the Battalion was ordered to load muskets and prepare for battle at the gates of Tucson. But the Mexican garrison departed during the night and here again the Battalion had no fighting to do.

At that point the men of the Battalion were unaware whether there had been any battles at all.  Later they heard the tragic tale of Kearny’s debacle and his decimated dragoons at the Battle of San Pasqual; about the siege at Mule Hill; and about the dramatic rescue wrought by 180 sailors and marines on December 11th, the same day as their Battle of the Bulls.  They also learned of other battles fought at San Gabriel and Los Angeles and that California had been won weeks before the Battalion crossed the Colorado River.

In the end, although there were indeed battles fought, the men of the Mormon battalion had no fighting to do…except with wild beasts.