A Community on the March: The Mormon Battalion and the Militancy of Migration

David Krueger, Harvard University

The 2,000 mile, seven month long march of the Mormon Battalion from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean in 1846 is usually treated as sideshow to the Mexican American War or a footnote in the history of continental imperialism that is of limited interest except to specialists in the history of early Mormonism. In contrast, this paper interprets the Mormon Battalion as something that is simultaneously exceptional, being a religiously homogeneous military unit, and also profoundly representative of larger themes in the history of transcontinental migration. Examining the experiences of these 500 men and their families reveals the inherent militancy of frontier life and overland travel, and the centrality of family and community to organizing, disciplining, and motivating collective endeavors.

This work attempts to reimagine the Battalion’s trek as not simply a military campaign across territories of the United States, Mexico and Native American nations, but as an example of a community on the march. Like other contemporary military organizations and frontier migrations, the Battalion consisted not just of adult men, but of a network of families and camp followers whose presence and labor were vital to the happiness, health, and sustenance of the community. Soldiers and units were connected by bonds of kinship that fostered morale and cohesion, while the daily lives of family members became structured by the rhythms of martial routine. This paper examines this reimagined community through the voices of its members, revealing the ways that its participants’ lifestyles and relationships both resisted and conformed to the challenges of military organization. Moreover, it recontextualizes their experience within a transnational discourse of popular dissent, as a population composed heavily of European immigrants seeking economic opportunity alongside meaningful religious and political participation, with Mormonism, migration, and military enlistment serving as vehicles for achieving greater measures of self-governance.