James Ferguson (1828-1863) was born in Belfast, Antrim, Ireland, in 1828, forever proud of his Irish background. At age 12, working as a clerk in Liverpool, England, he met the “Young Lions of Mormonism”, missionaries who baptised him in 1842. After accompanying Apostle Wilford Woodruff and his family to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1845, he started with the Latter-day Saint emigration to the West.
Along the trail, in Council Bluffs, he enlisted in the Mormon Battalion at the outbreak of the Mexican War. We have two handwritten letters in our collection which he wrote to his girlfriend back in Liverpool named Jane Robinson, who would eventually become his wife.
The first letter is written from “Council Bluffs, East Side Missouri River” and is dated July 15, (1846):
My Dear Jane,
As Elder Taylor is about leaving for England I don’t like to let him go without saying a few words by way of informing you how I am situated….I am now going to tell you something that will astonish you. I have enlisted in the U.S. Army. This I must explain. The President of the (United) States sent a messenger to the Twelve, making them an offer of the privilege to send 500 men as pioneers to our people to California, they are to call by way of Santa Fe, and establish the Standard of the U.S. in California. By this means we shall be able to lay claim to all Upper California, insure ourselves the protection of the U.S.and have our institutions established at their expense. So I am a soldier. But only for one year. We are not sure whether we shall have to fight any or not, but it is generally believed that we will not; but it will be all right whether we do or not.
I expect to see you in California when I get there, now mind that you come. I forgot to tell you that we do not wear regimentals. There is a reason for this. I have time to say very little more. I have a good deal to do and have to be ready to receive marching orders in the morning by 8 o’C, we shall have to track all the way and carry our knapsack containing our change of clothes and the blankets we roll ourselves in like an Indian to sleep. We shall also have all our cooking to do…. Your affectionate and faithful James.
The second letter is from “Headquarters Mormon Battalion U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth August 6, 1846
My Dear Jane,
As a few moments are mine, I employ them to give you a little information concerning my present situation and how a soldier’s life agrees with me thus far….We left Council Bluffs on the 21st of last month and arrived here on the 1st of August, a distance of 180 miles. We marched it all on foot. The weather was exceedingly hot. Your warmest weather in England compared with it would be cold, and the roads for the most part rough and hilly. The oxen that drew our provisions were so tired out that several of them gave up and had to be loosed from the yoke. We did not draw our tents till we came here, so that we sometimes just wrapped us in our blankets and lay by the side of a tree, and sometimes built a wigwam of bushes for a covering. Six of us mess together. We have to cook every night and morning as we draw flour instead of bread.
During our march, some of the stoutest looking chaps we had in the battalion gave up and had to ride part of the way, but thank God I was enabled to hold out and did not ride a step. We had one man who died the second day we started. They just wrapped him in his blanket and put him in the back of a tree, then laid him in his grave without any funeral ceremonies.
Since we came here we have received our muskets, bayonets and other accoutrements, but have no regimentals. I have been elected to 1st Sergeant since came here, and before I left Council Bluffs. I was appointed by Dr. (Willard) Richards to be the Historian of this Company. So you may expect I have plenty of business on hand. The duties of 1st Sergeant are to give out ratrions, call the roll, containing the names of the Company at Sunrise and Sunset, see that order is observed among the soldiers & different other matters. I have scarcely a moment to myself.
The Captain of our Company is a first rate old fellow. He and I are particular friends, and Lieutenant Colonel Allen the Commander of the Company, although not a member of the Church is a fine chap. He has no pride about him, and is respected everywhere….
I will be discharged in California on the 16th of July of next year. I hope you will be there before that time waiting for me….Let us then be faithful to each other and to God and when we have done with the troubles of this life, we shall gain a Crown in the Kingdom of our Father which shall never be dimmed….Accept my best love and believe me ever, your affectionate and faithful James.
Jane and James were later married and they played an integral role in the early history of the Saints and Utah Territory. James later served as an attorney, and as the first Sheriff in Salt Lake City, became a famous local actor, served a mission to England, outfitted the ill-fated 1856 Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and helped set off and fight the Utah War in 1857. He became one of the most colorful characters in our nineteenth century history.