Following the Mormon Battalion’s Route

August 28, 2015  - by 

When his Scout patrol decided in 2001 that they wanted to become living history reenactors, Assistant Scoutmaster Kevin Henson just rolled his eyes. “Those six boys had no idea what they were asking”, said Henson. “Period clothing, buying reproductions of authentic equipment, learning the history of a group … those aren’t things 11-year old boys generally have the attention span to do. But they kept after me. Months later, the inspiration to portray the Mormon Battalion was one of the most profoundly unmistakable inspirational experiences I’ve ever had”, he continued.

Henson said the idea to hike the Mormon Battalion’s route came when the Scouts were invited to Fort Leavenworth in 2006 to participate in their annual reenactment. “A group of Mormon Battalion reenactors were sitting around discussing their trail and how long it was. Everyone had a different answer. That sent me to do some reading to find out what was right.”

Using the 1971 “Mormon Battalion Trail Guide” by the Utah State Historical Society, Henson began transferring the maps into Google Earth™. “Then I made a serious mistake. I read some journals”, Henson quipped. “As good as the “Trail Guide” was, there were mistakes in it too. And, that got me thinking, ‘Someone ought to go out there, hike the trail and figure this out.’”

Henson sighed, “Dad always said, ‘If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.’ Not that I agree with that all the time, but I realized I was going to hike the Mormon Battalion trail and document it like it had never been documented before.”

That decision started two years of intense preparation and study. “Denny, my wife, said in no uncertain terms that she would not be left home while I went hiking for seven months. That’s what Melissa Coray said in 1846 but Denny didn’t know that at the time. It took us two years to figure all this out. The Battalion men had between two days to two weeks to make their preparations. It amazes me still.”

Mormon Batallion Reenactment 3
On July 5, 2008, the Battalion Trek stepped off at Mt. Pisgah Iowa. Accompanying the Henson’s were two of the original six Scouts that began the Michigan Mormon Battalion group and four more folks along for the first couple of days. “Most of the time, it was just Denny and I out there. We’d take turns hiking a ways. At the end of the day we’d drive back to our camper, have dinner, plot out the next days details and get some sleep.”

The goal was to stay as close as possible to the original trail and hike as much of it as reasonably possible. “We can’t say we hiked every step and there’s still a variety of ways they could have hiked which we’ll never know with 100% accuracy, but my opinion is that we were within a half-mile of the original route for almost the entire distance. We also wanted to stay close to their schedule, so we started when they did and ended on the dates they did. We didn’t match them day-by-day for distances. We had to mix up our schedule some but at key locations we were there the same dates they were.”

Computers played an important role. “We used Google Earth™ to both plan our route and to record our findings”, said Henson. “Internet access wasn’t always available limiting our ability to both transmit and receive data. E-mail kept us in touch with people ahead of us where we were going and letting the folks we had met behind us know how we were doing. We made lots of good friends along the way.“

Peter Guilbert of California was one of those friends. “Peter hiked with me the first day out of Council Bluffs. His ancestors, the father and son team of Moses and Edward Wade, motivated him to come along. Peter joined us again at Tucson for a couple weeks in October.” By Christmas, Guilbert was back and hiked with the Henson’s from Tucson all the rest of the way to San Diego.

“I found that mental fatigue was the biggest problem. You just get worn down. I appreciate now what Colonel Cooke wrote about having his attention stretched all the time to see that things were done properly. We came dragging into San Diego on January 27, 2009 just in time for the annual LDS commemoration of the Battalion’s arrival. They were building the new Mormon Battalion History Center and what a beautiful facility that is.”

The Henson’s amassed a collection of documentation files. “I have no idea how many files and documents there are, but the total is something over 80 Gigabytes and still growing. We took over 22,000 photos and video clips along the way.”

The Map-N-Tour web-based presentation and mobile apps were developed to share the Henson’s findings. “In it’s current form, it’s more research about WHERE the route is located. I’m going to revise it to make it more about the story and events which most folks are interested in. Still, this is the highest resolution and I think most accurate representation of the Battalion routes to date. I hope it becomes a springboard for the next generation to work from.”

MormonBattalian Reneactment 2
What did they learn? “Things look a whole lot different travelling at three miles per hour than they do at sixty”, responded Henson. “You become attuned to the weather moods and land. People are tremendous; they want to believe in things and are willing to help. Volunteers don’t always follow through and that’s made me more determined to finish the things I tell people I will do. A good wife is often overlooked by people who tend to just look at the guy. Denny – and I presume the Battalion wives were the same – was an unstoppable force for good for most of what we did.”

Their plans? “The University of Utah Special Collections Department was kind enough to let Laura Anderson and I prepare a complete transcription of Doctor George Sanderson’s journal. We hope this is published soon so people can read his side of the story. In some ways, he was sympathetic towards the men. If you just read Dan Tyler’s book, you get a very one-sided interpretation for the Battalion story.”

“We have pretty good details on how to find the graves for six of the men buried out on the trails. They are ‘lost’ veterans and we ought to find them if we can. We have contacts with cadaver dog groups who are willing to would work with us to find and mark the burial locations. We just need some modest funding to help offset their expenses.”

Asked about plans for getting back on the trail, Henson replied, “In a heartbeat we would both go again. I’d love to borrow my son’s drone and get some aerial photography taken. There are spots I didn’t quite get right. We do need to go back out there again.”

Mobile device users should check their app store for “Map-N-Tour” then search it for the “Mormon Battalion Trail.”

This article was written and submitted by Kevin Henson. The Hensons can be reached at: kevin@battaliontrek.com or at denny@mapntour.com .

 

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