Sunday, July 26, 2009


Glimpse of the past: Newton library debuts Mormon Battalion exhibit

Ruby Woodward points out items in an exhibit on the Mormon Battalion at the Newton Town Library in Newton Friday.
By Emilie H. Wheeler
Sunday, July 26, 2009 3:03 AM CDT
NEWTON — Nearly 60 years ago, nine buses drove through America’s Southwest carrying descendants of Utah pioneers.

The symbolic journey carried two meanings: to commemorate the march of the Mormon Battalion in the 1840s and to help mark California’s discovering of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and the state’s admittance to the Union in 1850.

Among them was J.J. Larsen, a Newton resident who would die 18 years later but leave at least one tangible piece of the commemorative journey for his granddaughter to find several decades later: his uniform.

Now, the uniform hangs in a new exhibit in the Newton Town Library honoring members of the Mormon Battalion — especially those with descendants currently living in Newton.

Over the past several months, Larsen’s granddaughter, Ruby Woodward, and assistant librarian Cleo Griffin have researched stories of those who marched in 1846 and 1847 from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Los Angeles, collected items from that time period and searched for photos of ancestors of current residents. Those photos now hang in the display and details of their history during the march are scattered through the exhibit.

Newton resident Catherine Phelps helped by securing several items, like an authentic gun and trail marker, which are on loan to the library for a couple of months.

“We tried to make it as personal as we could,” said Woodward, the Friends of the Library chairwoman who got the idea for the exhibit after reading a book about the Mormon Battalion.

Formed in July 1846, about 500 volunteers created companies of infantry meant to participate in the Mexican-American War at the request of the U.S. Army. The group marched nearly 2,000 miles to California, the longest recorded march in military history, for training before being discharged in July 1847. On the way, they encountered provisional Mexican troops at Tuscon, Ariz., but the Mexicans fled without shots being fired. The unit’s most dangerous conflict was the “Battle of the Bulls,” during which the soliders were forced to fire at a herd of stampeding cattle.

While Woodward has been creating the display, Griffin — who has her own Mormon Battalion ancestor — has been putting together a book of histories. Members of the public who view the display can sign their names in the book under names of those in the Battalion who they’re related to.

Woodward said they’re always looking for more information, as well.

“If they’ve got a history, we’d love to have it,” she said.

Because of Griffin’s penchant for historical research, the library — with its impressive collection for a smaller community library — has become a destination of sorts for people looking for information about their ancestors.

“Last month, we had four travelers from Washington who spent the day here doing research,” said library director Sarah Rigby.

The group of women hope more individuals will come to the library to view this research and add to it in any way possible.

Woodward said the experience became personal to her — and she hopes others will feel the same way.

“The most fun was reading these histories,” she said.


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