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Howling of the wolves

On Dec. 8, 1846, just west of present-day Douglas, Elisha Smith died in the wilderness. We may read the details 162 years later in dozens of personal journals because Smith was a teamster for his old friend, Capt. Daniel Davis of the Mormon Battalion. They took part in one of the longest military marches in history.
After Congress declared war on Mexico, President James K. Polk sent Capt. James Allen to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to enlist 500 Mormons to help secure California for the Union. They left Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in late August, following the Santa Fe Trail. Many suffered from malaria, dysentery, starvation and exposure. At three different times, detachments totaling 159 men, women and children (including Smith’s wife, Rebecca) were sent to winter in Pueblo, Colo.
Col. Philip St. George Cooke took command of the battalion at Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 9, 1846. The 6’4” tough-as-nails career officer was dismayed at the sight of his new army. The mules were feeble, clothing inadequate and the company “was embarrassed by too many women.”
The army followed the Rio Grande River, turning west just south of present-day Las Cruces, N.M. Cooke took the battalion through a steep mountain pass where soldiers had to lower the wagons down the cliffs with ropes. Men hacked or trampled obstacles to make the road wide enough for the wagons.
When they reached the former presidio of San Bernardino on Dec. 3, it was the first building they had seen in 31 days. For the next few days the road was stony and tough going, uphill through mesquite thickets, plodding through rain, sleet, and snow. Thorns tore their skin and clothing. Wolves circled only a few feet from their camp, disrupting the night with their hideous howls. One soldier wrote that they seemed to smell death in the camp.
Just west of present-day Douglas, the battalion camped near a creek where ash and walnut trees grew in abundance. They named the place Ash Creek. On Dec. 8, Henry Standage wrote, “This morning Sister Brown came to our tent and informed us of the death of Brother Elisha Smith…He had been unwell for several days.”
Daniel Tyler said, “He was buried in the wilderness, alone, and, like the others, without a coffin, or a slab, to mark his last resting place. Brush and billets of wood were piled upon his grave and there burned to conceal his remains from the Indians and wolves.”
The following day, Levi Hancock sang a song he wrote in memory of Smith:
Death and the Wolves
Though the cold wind blew high down the huge mountain shelves,
All was rife with the cry of the ravenous wolves.
Thus we watched the last breath of the teamster, who lay
In the cold grasp of death, as his life wore away.
In deep anguish he moan’d, as if mocking his pain,
When the dying man groan’d, the wolves howled a refrain.
Then we dug a deep grave, and we buried him there –
All alone by the grove – not a stone to tell where!
‘Twas a sad, doleful night! We by sunrise, next day,
When the drums and the fifes had performed reveille
When the teams were brought nigh, and our baggage arranged,
One and all bid goodbye to the grave and the wolves.
From Ash Creek, the battalion went on to their famous “Battle of the Bulls,” on the banks of the San Pedro River near Fairbank. They marched on through Tucson, and reached San Diego on Jan. 29, 1847. Cooke respected them for their courage and determination on this long march, which opened the road for thousands of 49ers heading for the California Gold Rush, the Butterfield Stage and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Modern highways still follow the Mormon road in some places.
Overshadowed by the Civil War, mocked because of their only battle was with some wild bulls, these men and women faced the weather, wilderness, starvation and deadly disease for more than seven months and 2,000 miles. It seems fitting that a pack of wolves howled all night to mourn their travails.
Jim Turner, Arizona Historical Society.

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