The simple monument along the San Pedro River is only the beginning of a larger story.
Along the river between Tombstone and Sierra Vista is the site of the only battle in Arizona during the Mexican-American War. The combatants: a Mormon battalion and a herd of wild bulls.
It went down in history as an oddity, relegated to the white monument on the San Pedro and a footnote in the odyssey of the Mormon Battalion.
The inscription on the stone reads: “Mormon Battalion: The Narrows, Dec. 12, 1846, Battle of the Bulls, Erected 1960.” No more explanation.
Here’s the story.
In 1846, a pack of wild bulls roamed Southeast Arizona; the remnant of what was once thousands of head of cattle.
They came from abandoned ranches. Near-constant Apache raids drove off their owners a few years earlier.
Most of the cows and calves had been killed off a while ago, according to Tucson historian Jim Turner, but “bulls were a little more difficult.” They traveled in herds to protect themselves from predators like mountain lions.
A thousand miles away, the Mormon Church was facing persecution in Nauvoo, Illinois, where members had settled. They wanted to move west, but had no money.
In Washington, “James K. Polk was worried about the Mexicans making an end run to take over the West Coast,” said Kent Dalton, a religious educator at the Tucson LDS Institute of Religion and enthusiast of Mormon history.
When Polk asked for volunteers, Brigham Young offered the men of the Mormon Church. They were given money for uniforms, most of which they gave to the church to facilitate a mass move west.
United States army officers led them on the journey. Their commander was a man named Philip St. George Cooke.
Though they didn’t have uniforms, the men of the battalion had a white sash and a rifle. They looked like a ragtag band.
“Soldiers usually get promoted during wartime but we hadn’t had a big war since 1812,” said Turner. “Poor Colonel Cooke, trying to get promoted and he gets saddled with F troop. There were women, old men, all sorts of people on the march.”
The soldiers trekked from Council Bluffs, Iowa, destined for California.
“You think about 1846-what was America? Who knew?” said Dalton. “The Mormon Battalion gave people a sense of geography.”
Five months after they began the march, the battalion stopped to camp on the banks of the San Pedro River. It was dark. The men had worn through their shoes; they hadn’t seen a human face since they left what is now the area of Silver City, New Mexico, a few weeks earlier.
They walked down to the riverbank in the gathering dusk.
All of the sudden, a pack of bulls came upon them and charged.
“It’s not in their nature to charge humans,” said Turner. “These guys are marching along the riverbed and these bulls are just spooked.”
The charge caused “great confusion and fear,” according to the diary of Colonel Cooke. He writes that “they charged men, mules, and wagons,” killing three mules.
“Cooke had ordered the men to unload their guns,” said Turner. “But they didn’t listen to him and their rifles were already loaded. Imagine his surprise when the bulls are coming and men are firing at them!”
Three men were injured, according to the diary. One man had his thumb partially ripped off when reloading his rifle. Another was “trapped between a bull’s horns,” and the last was gored in the leg.
In the end, the bulls were no match for guns.
“One of the blessings of fighting the bulls was not just meat but hide,” said Dalton. “They were wrapping strips of hide around their feet for shoes.”
“Armies think they can live off the land but you can’t do that in Arizona,” said Turner. They were so hungry that when they encountered the bulls “they were going crazy killing bulls and making sandals and jerking meat.”
Finally Colonel Cooke told the men it was time to leave for Tucson.
“The diaries said we were really mad because we couldn’t stay long enough to dry the meat,” said Turner.
The confrontation was the only time the men of the battalion would use their guns. According to Dalton, “Brigham Young promised they wouldn’t face any conflict. The Battle of the Bulls was the only time the men used their guns in an offensive way.”
Gabby Ferreira is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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