“We Had a Weighing Frolic” – The Mormon Battalion Weight Loss Plan

August 28, 2015  - by 

Sergeant Nathaniel Jones’ journal entry for January 5th, 1847 as he marched with the Mormon Battalion down the Gila River in Arizona reads as follows:

“Camped half a mile from the river near the Salt Lake. We had a weighing frolic. I weighed 128; weight when I enlisted, 198.” [1]

Now six months into their seven month long march from Iowa to California, Jones had lost over one-third of his adult body weight. How had that happened and what yet lay ahead for him?

Four Months Earlier…

General Stephen Watts Kearny had provided a wagon train of supplies for the Mormon Battalion. Because Santa Fe had not yet been captured, the wagons were sent to the American frontier trading post owned by the Bent brothers. By the time the Battalion arrived at the Cimarron River crossing on September 16, Santa Fe had been taken without bloodshed and all the remaining military units were ordered to take the Cimarron route short-cut to Santa Fe. Thus, the Battalion missed their food supplies cached at Bent’s Fort.[2] The men were placed on half-rations and they foraged for what food they could.

Three Months Earlier…

In early October, learning that the Battalions’ original commander, Captain James Allen, had died at Fort Leavenworth, General Kearny directed one of his best officers, Captain P. St. George Cooke, to return to Santa Fe, take command of the Mormon Battalion and lead them to California. Their specific task was to build a wagon road as they travelled.

Some Battalion journalists complained of poor management by the military quartermasters – that they started from Santa Fe without sufficient food – that they could and should have procured more food. However, General Kearny, in his orders appointing St. George Cooke as the new Battalion commander specified;

“Fit them out with 60 days provisions – not to encumber your selves with baggage as a part of the route will be difficult for the passage of waggons & follow on my trail…”.[3]

Keeping with frontier military management skills, immediately upon leaving Santa Fe, now Lt. Col. Cooke ordered the men on half-rations to extend how long they could last. Like all frontier military units, Cooke would rely on his hunters to find game to kill and bring to camp. With no commissary or stores, going on half-rations was standard practice for all frontier Army units. [4]

One Month Earlier…

While passing down the San Pedro River (Cochise County, Arizona), the Battalion encountered cattle left to graze on Mexican rancho land grants. These cattle had multiplied as free-range cattle do and were very wild and strong. On December 11th, the Battalion hunters were ahead of the column hunting on both sides of the river. Something spooked the cattle and they began to run through the line of wagons and column of men. They attacked the wagon train and charged some of the men.

Imagine the annual “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona Spain – except with more and wilder bulls and lots of men with guns shooting at the bulls. The journals record a “running battle” kind of skirmish with multiple passes of bulls through different sections of the line which likely extended for a mile or two. The fight was fierce before the cattle were driven off. Only a few men were hurt and the “Battle of the Bulls” resulted in a rich harvest of fresh beef which lasted the Battalion for over a week.

Two Weeks Earlier…

Passing through Tucson nearly resulted in an actual battle, however, both US Army and Mexican Army leaders decided fighting in such a remote location just didn’t make sense. The US troops bartered with the people of Tucson for food and Colonel Cooke confiscated some wheat to feed the Army draft animals. In short, both sides found a way to make it work. E Pluribus Unum.

A few days later, when the Battalion finally reached the Gila River, the O’Odham (Pima) tribe met the men. The tribe was friendly and provided much needed vegetables and plant foods. They were also found to be industrious, honest and helpful – something recorded by many journalists.

Five Days Earlier…

Lt. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, the career Army cavalry officer with 23 years frontier experience, commanding a group of infantry volunteers, while marching through the desert building a wagon road, decided to attempt a naval experiment.

On New Year’s Day of 1847, Doctor Sanderson, wrote,

“two of our Ponton Waggon bed’s which are used for Boats, when required, finding our animals failing and unable to get along with even the light load’s they had in the waggons.[5] We put in to each of these Boats one Thousand pound’s consisting of Pork, Flour and Corn. Lt Stoneman took charge.[6] How this enterprise will succeed time will tell. … I think it [the river] would float a boat drawing [text missing] of water.”

Col. Cooke noted the river was running rapidly with a depth of three and four feet in places – more than enough to float the barge. Now was Cooke the only Army cavalry captain to think about using boats. Captain Abraham Johnston – with Kearny – had written on November 17th, that,

“If we were supplied with boats, we could easily float to the mouth of the river. There is no timber here, however, out of which a canoe could be dug.” [7]

Sadly, after the men had marched on ahead, Lt. Stoneman found that sandbars in the river prevented the barge from moving downstream very far and they got stuck. In order to refloat the barge, Stoneman had to lighten the load significantly by putting food out on the river banks. This caused the loss of six days rations, something Cooke would not learn about until days later.

January 5, 1847…

Immediately upon learning that the raft had failed and being informed of the flour left behind, Col. Cooke ordered a halt for the day. All the foodstuffs from all five companies were gathered and weighed. Apparently none of the men noticed that Col Cooke added his personal rations into the communal pile. He literally “threw his lot in” with his men.

Another two weeks would be needed to reach Warner’s rancho, the first place to obtain food. A calculation was made to determine how much flour per day could be used. It amounted to about 9 ounces of flour per day – barely a half-pound plus a half pound of salted pork.

Sgt. Nathaniel Jones helped weigh out that remaining food. When their work was done, some of the men began wondering just how much weight they had lost on the trail. They lined up and sat in the scales – probably laughing at their unbelievable and ridiculously low weights. That’s when Jones wrote,

“We had a weighing frolic. I weighed 128; weight when I enlisted, 198.”

The young, healthy and vibrant Jones had lost 35% of his adult body weight – not from disease or injury, but just from unrelenting marching, limited diet, combined with performing camp chores, standing guard duty at night and the metabolic effects of the cold weather.

What does someone that physically stressed look like? Certainly not as bad as survivors of Auschwitz or the Bataan Death March. They would have looked like someone with a very serious case of malnutrition or an advanced wasting disease. Perhaps you know someone whose cancer reduced their weight severely. That’s what they looked like. Their ragged clothes hung on their ragged frames.

The Biggest Losers Team …

What Jones’ journal doesn’t mention was that the most demanding part of the journey still lay ahead. They already knew the 90-mile crossing of the barren Imperial Desert would soon start. It would take them five days to cross with only a few water holes along the way. In our time, irrigation has made the Imperial Valley a grower’s paradise. In 1847, it was all just sand and dust with a few mesquite bushes.

After they arrived at Warner’s Agua Caliente rancho on January 21, beef, in all its varieties was easily obtained. William Pace wrote, “We had roast beef, boiled beef, fried beef and every other kind then know at once.” There wasn’t any salt or seasonings and meals without bread were not very satisfying.

They arrived at San Diego on January 29th and were detailed to San Luis Rey where they took up residence on February 3rd. Ironically, it was from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) that the first resupply of provisions arrived three weeks later.

Sgt. Jones didn’t record weighing himself again, but it isn’t hard to imagine he dropped a few more pounds before starting to regain weight. Multiply that by 350 men and the Battalion collectively lost over ten tons of weight. The Biggest Losers team indeed!

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[1] Jones, Nathaniel V.; The journal of Nathaniel V. Jones, with the Mormon Battalion; Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 2, p 6-23.

[2] While of no help to the Battalion’s main command, these supplies proved to be an important resource for all the sick men eventually sent to winter at Pueblo Colorado. The Pueblo detachments did not suffer for lack of food.

[3] Lee, John D.; Mormon Battalion Diary; New Mexico Historical Review, October 1967, p 302

[4] This was true for Kearny’s 1845 “South Pass Expedition”. The same situation – half-rations – prevailed for all the men stationed in Santa Fe through the winter of 1847 as reflected in many diaries.

[5] “Ponton” is not a mis-spelling for “pontoon.” It is the French spelling and the French wagon pattern was used.

[6] Lt. Stoneman’s family lived on Lake Chatagua in New York and he did have experience with ferrying supplies and people. See Ben Fuller Fordney’s text, George Stoneman, A Biography of the Union General; MacFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008, p 9.

[7] Johnston, who died at San Pasqual, in Emory’s “Notes of a Reconnaissance…”, p 605; Executive Document No. 41.

This article was written and submitted by Kevin R. Henson. Kevin Henson can be reached at: kevin@battaliontrek.com.

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