Category Archives: Historical

History of the Communistic Colony Llano Del Rio

by A. R. Clifton. A. M. – 1917

One of the most interesting studies of practical Socialism in Southern California is the history of the communistic colony, Llano del Rio, established in the Antelope Valley in 1914. This colony was founded by Job Harriman, a prominent Socialist of this State, and a company of associates who, like himself, were disappointed at the results accomplished by the Socialist party. In their opinion, tangible and measurable benefits to the cause would follow a practical demonstration of the principles of Socialism through community production and distribution, which could not be expected in any other way. In order to test the plan, this group of men began looking for suitable land upon which they could establish a cooperative settlement. After considering various propositions in Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona, as well as California, it was decided, everything considered, that a tract in the southern part of the Antelope Valley offered the largest advantages, so negotiations were quietly begun for obtaining control of the land and the water.

The site was located between Palmdale and Victorville — about twenty miles from Palmdale and thirty miles from Victorville, and about fifty miles northeast of ‘Los Angeles. Company literature states : “The property lies for the most part between Rock Creek and Mescal Creek, on the plain below, and running to the base of the mountains that form a magnificent watershed and which are snow capped for several months of the year”.1

It is part of the Angelus Forest Reserve and is in township 5 north, ranges 8, 9 and 10 west, San Bernardino meridian.  The company holdings consisted of ten thousand acres when the colony occupied the tract, much of which was in the wild’ state, covered with chaparral, sage, greasewood, yuccas and junipers. The soil is largely decomposed granite, feldspar and lime of unknown depth. It contains sulfides and oxides of iron, potash, soda, carbonate of lime and magnesia. The essentials of plant life are found there in reasonable abundance.

The lay of the land is ideal ; comparatively little is rough and that part is the foothill section, a portion of which was used for reservoir sites, the fish hatcheries, lime! kilns and stone quarries. From here the land slopes gently, making irrigation an easy matter.

The water supply during the development period of the colony promised to be sufficient to meet all needs, present and future, if properly conserved and distributed. The exclusive right of the flow from Mescal Creek, Jackson’s Lake, and Boulder Creek had been secured and practically all of the flow from Big Rock Creek, through the control of the Big Rock irrigation district. Jackson’s Lake alone in the driest season yields one hundred and fifty miner’s inches and could be increased through the use of reservoirs. There are four good reservoir sites on the property with a total capacity of between thirty thousand and forty thousand acre feet.

The chief engineer in his report of 1915 says: “The area of watersheds adjoining these lands is approximately eighty square miles, which, with the usual forty inches of rainfall per annum, should yield about seventy thousand acre feet of water that could be used if it could all be saved — enough water, with the probable character of crops, to maintain forty thousand to fifty thousand acres of land under cultivation. Enough is known to assure an irrigated area of ten thousand acres or more of any crops, enough to support a population of five thousand souls and have a surplus of product for the open market”.2

The fall of water supplying the colony seemed sufficient, after the installation of power plants, to provide all the electricity for both light and power for many years to come. The water of Jackson’s Lake alone could have been distributed and directed so that there would be three separate drops of five hundred feet each. At the other end of the tract the proper development of the flow of Big Boulder Creek would have provided one of the most valuable power sites in the State of California, and the natural formation of foothill and valley would have made the development work comparatively inexpensive. A dam about two hundred feet in length and one hundred feet high, constructed between the hills on either side of the creek, would have flooded two hundred acres, making an immense amount of water available for irrigation as well as power for the generation of electricity.

The Llano del Rio Company had deeds to over two thousand acres of land, held tax titles to three thousand five hundred acres more, and through members of the colony had control of, three thousand five hundred acres additional, which made a tract of over nine thousand acres in all. Even this acreage did not satisfy the ambitions of the colonists. They planned to secure extensive additions — even up to thirty thousand acres, the amount of land in this irrigation district.

The cultivated land during the season of 1917 consisted of about two thousand acres, distributed as follows: alfalfa, four hundred acres ; orchard, one hundred twenty acres ; nursery, one hundred ; garden, one hundred twenty ; corn, two hundred ; and the balance in grain and general farm crops.

Those in authority at the colony maintained that it was possible for the members to devote their energy to the raising of a large variety as well as large quantities of products. The Vice-President informed me that peas, beans, potatoes, melons and all vegetables grew there abundantly; that of the fruits they would soon be producing pears, apples, peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, olives, and figs. These with the products of the dairy, the chicken yards, the rabbitry, the hog ranch and apiary would, according to the plan, not only feed the people of the colony but would enable them to buy in the quantities needed the things they could not produce.

After four weeks of existence, the ninth of May, 1914, closed with five members. They had but a few tools with which to begin work, four horses, one cow and sixteen hogs.

Considering so small a beginning, the growth for the first three years was rather notable. There were, August 1, 1917, about one thousand members with nine hundred residents in the colony. There were one hundred head of horses, one hundred and twenty-five Jersey and Holstein cows and one hundred head of young stock, three hundred hogs, several thousand rabbits and chickens, six hundred eighty stands of bees, one hundred fifty turkeys, thirty-two goats, three trucks, twenty wagons, seven automobiles, a traction engine, a caterpillar engine, leveller, concrete mixer and pipe moulds for the making of cement pipes for the irrigation system, drags, and various other pieces of heavy machinery for clearing and preparing the land for planting on a large scale.

The buildings were largely of a temporary character, due partly to the fact that the site of the residence section was to be changed to ground a little higher, more protected from the wind and nearer the source of water most desirable for domestic purposes. There were tents and adobe houses enough, with the rooms in the club house, to take care of the nine hundred people in Llano at that time, and more were being put up as needed. They had a planing and sash and door mill of sufficient capacity to do all the sawing and milling work for the building operations.

The hen coops and rabbitry were modern in construction and very commodious, and it was intended to increase the capacity rapidly. The cattle barn was constructed of cobblestone, with tin roof, a great improvement over the cheaply constructed barn which I saw on my first visit to the colony in 1915. A fine concrete silo of three hundred ton capacity had recently been constructed, and the plans were well under way for a well-equipped dairy.

The office was small, but it answered the purpose very well. The Llano post office was housed in this building.

The most used and the most popular structure of the colony was the Club House. It consisted of a building fifty by one hundred and fifty feet, containing rooms for single men, the commissary department, the club kitchen and dining room, the barber shop, the colony boarded in the club dirting room. They were charged seventy-five cents a clay for their meals. This room, fifty by sixty feet, was used as the general audience room of the colony. It was here the assembly had its official meeting and where lectures, musical entertainments and parties were held.

The machinery for a steam laundry had been installed, which greatly lightened the housework. A lime kiln of one hundred fifty barrels capacity daily was in operation. An ice plant, a tannery and a shoe factory were to have been established if the plans for the colony had matured.

A printing plant had been established which, though of limited capacity, turned out a large amount of work. It was here the “Western Comrade”, a monthly magazine of thirty-two pages, the “Llano Colonist”, a weekly, and the pamphlets of the colony were published. This office had become the chief California center for the publication and dissemination of socialistic literature.

A well-equipped canning plant which was a valuable asset to the company activities had been installed. Both vegetables and fruits were preserved for the season when they could not be procured fresh. Quantities of fruit were made available by exchanging labor for it. Cleaning, dyeing, and soap-making added their contributions to the Llano industries. The list would not be complete without a mention of the rug-making department. Most excellent work was done — much better than one would think possible in the meager quarters provided. Rugs of beautiful design and good value were produced.

The homes of the people, as would be expected in an enterprise of this kind, were crude — tents and adobe of sun-dried brick, of one or two rooms. They were meagerly furnished for the most part, but sanitary; and no one seemed to be the worse for the pioneer experience. The home planned for the future, however, — the one which according to the contract of the company it was under obligation to build for all members of this cooperative plan, — was to be much more comfortably appointed, and is thus described in the company literature: “The house will be built around a patio or court, turning a blank wall towards the neighbor, against which he in turn constructs his house. Then you look across your own garden at your own windows and neither hear nor see your neighbor, who retires behind a soundproof wall.

When in your garden you can lounge or work at your ease, and if you turn your little children out of doors they will never be out of sight, no matter what room in the house you may be in. There is a living room twenty by twenty-eight feet, a sun-parlor dining room thirty-five by fourteen feet, two bedrooms ten and one- half by twelve and one-half feet, with a bathroom between them. Upstairs there is a flat roof, separated from your neighbor’s by an eight-foot wall with eaves, with two dressing rooms and space for eight beds arranged two by two in separate recesses. These beds only occupy part of the roof at any time, but they can be folded back against the wall, leaving the roof free. So, if desired, twelve people can be accommodated downstairs and up, without any crowding”.8

The proposed construction of these homes indicated a complete system of water works and a sewerage system.

All the products of the colony passed through the commissary department. Here they were weighed, sorted and placed on the market to members of the colony at a price as near cost “as practicable”. It was also agreed by contract that all clothing was to be purchased from the company. Both food and clothing were very plain. All surplus funds were needed in the development work, hence little was left for anything but the bare necessities.

The work of opening up a desert ranch, — planting, sowing, irrigating, harvesting, building and planning, — is strenuous, but there seemed to be a willingness on the part of practically everyone to bear his share of the burdens. Eight hours were the regular day’s work. There were those, however, who worked longer and who were willing to do it, for as several expressed it to me, “We are working for ourselves now. No capitalist who has no interest in us further than that we can increase his wealth, gets the benefit of our extra work. It belongs to us”. There were some, however, who seemed to have no particular desire to put in extra time for the benefit of the community interests.

I was very much interested in the social life and amusements of Llano. In view of the social needs of the community the club house was constructed, which became the natural center of the people. In the large assembly hall, those musically inclined often gathered around the piano to sing, while the rest listened or visited. Here each Saturday night the young people — and many of the older folks, too — gathered for a dance. This was occasionally repeated during the week. One evening when I was present the entertainment consisted of a “suffragette ball”. The girls wore the clothes of their fathers or brothers and the boys borrowed from their sisters or other female members of their families. The whole colony seemed to be present. Those who did not dance appeared happy in the enjoyment of those who did. A jolly good fellowship was everywhere present. The Tuesday night children’s dance was one of the enjoyable social customs of the colony. The young people from the ages of six to fifteen had the floor exclusively to themselves. They were taught, not only the dance steps but the courtesies which belong to the dance floor, in order that they might acquire grace and poise, learn the forms and social customs which characterizes the pleasure and exhilaration which comes from this activity.

Each Sunday evening there was an entertainment of a literary and musical nature. The program consisted of talks or lectures by members or visitors, readings, recitations, home talent plays, concerts or musical numbers by the orchestra, band, the mandolin or guitar organizations, or by individuals or groups who could furnish vocal music. These programs were interesting and instructive and were of greater merit than one not acquainted with the colony conditions would expect to find.

The young men had football, baseball, basket ball, and tennis teams. They had pool and billiard tables and also enjoyed checkers, dominos and chess.

The plans for the new city included tennis courts, running tracks, football grounds, baseball diamonds, golf links and well- equipped playgrounds for children.

There was a woman’s reading circle and an Esperanto club. Notices of the meetings were posted prominently on the bulletin boards of the club house.

Recreation and amusements were given a prominent place in the life of the colonists at Llano. It was their policy to lighten the cares of life by mental and physical activities which afford opportunity for relaxation of mind and body and give zest to the daily duties.

“What would be done with a man who became incapacitated through old age, accident or sickness and was unable to earn anything” ? was a question often asked by colonists, until it was answered at a meeting of the Assembly, July 20, 1915. It was decided by a unanimous vote that all such persons should be cared for by the colony the rest of their lives. While this action might have been rescinded later on, it at least indicated at that time a good degree of “social solidarity”. The policy pursued by the colony in several cases where members were unable to carry their part of the community load proved that the resolution passed at the meeting referred to was not a matter of theory only, but was a part of their practice. They did in this matter just what they promised they would do.

No provision was made in the colony for the building of churches. The company had no intention of constructing any church edifices. There were many denominations represented at Llano, and members held religious meetings in their homes, if they so desired. Later it was expected that halls and auditoriums would be built which could be used for church as well as other purposes. One of the leaders of the colony remarked that they cared little for religion, as such, but were very much interested in every-day Christianity, the proper and just relationship of man to man.

Substantial plans had been made for a good school system m Llano. At the end of the school year, June 30, 1917, there were one hundred twenty-five pupils enrolled. The courses ranged from kindergarten to the second year in the high school, and the work was under the supervision of the County Superintendent. The County course of study formed the basis of the work, and State and County support was received.

Besides this department of education there was maintained what was known as the “Industrial School”, where no County or State requirements were adhered to and for which no County or State support was expected. This school was established at the Junior Colony, where many of the young people lived, worked, studied and grew. The boys did a large amount of the construction work in providing buildings for this center, and the girls cooked and made many of the clothes for the boys as well as for themselves. Here the young people performed the regular duties of industrial, home keeping and agricultural life and learned many practical things in the performance of these duties. Book knowledge was given as the need for it appeared. In this way a motive for learning was given the student.

“The plan is to take up a variety of subjects and teach the practice of, them before the theory is attempted. Thus in the one hundred acres of garden attached to the Industrial School and operated by the boys and girls, they will be taught soil chemistry, botany, horticulture, agriculture, and biology. These sciences will come so naturally to them that they will not be aware that they are being taught. Later when the theory is taken up, it will be thoroughly understood, because the facts have already been inculcated. Time usually wasted by children will be used in absorbing knowledge, yet the children will enjoy it all”.4

“Self-government is also practiced. The boys have their managers of departments, make their own laws, try their own culprits, and acquire a sense of responsibility. They like it, for it is real life. Boys who have seemed to be incorrigible have been transformed into lovable, tractable, good-natured workers. They have received the attention they needed, and have been given an interest in life and healthful means of expanding their superabundant energy”.5 An attempt was being made in this department to eliminate all but the essentials of education and, for Llano del Rio, gave promise of success.

Bonds had been voted for a five thousand dollar school house, which was to take care of the children and of those in some territory not included in the colony. It was organized as any other school district and was under the same general supervision.

The Llano del Rio Company was incorporated under the laws of Nevada. As a corporation its business was transacted the same as that of any other corporation, and it had the advantage of a capital stock consisted of two million shares, the par value of which was one dollar.

The management of affairs in a general way was in the hands of the nine directors, who were elected by the stockholders of the company. They were the legal representatives of the company and as such were responsible to the State through the corporation laws. This board of directors appointed a superintendent of the colony activities, who was directly responsible to that body.

The superintendent, with the sanction of the board of directors, appointed the assistant superintendent and the heads or managers of the various departments, who appointed the department foremen. Assistant foremen were appointed as needed in the different departments. The assistant superintendent and the foremen could be removed at the option of the superintendent and board of directors, the latter body having, of course, power to remove the superintendent. The board of directors could be recalled by a vote of sixty per cent of the stockholders. Thus we see the final authority came back to the stockholders, each having one vote regardless of the amount of stock held.

There were four distinct departments, with a fifth made up of several lines of activity, grouped together for convenience: (1) Farm, (2) Livestock, (3) Industries, (4) Construction, (5) Administration, Architects, Medical, Membership.

The rules and regulations of the managers, before becoming operative, had to be submitted to the board of directors. Managers and superintendent had regular office hours, so they could be easily reached by those who desired to talk over matters with them. In case of trouble or dispute, if adjustment could not be made by the managers or superintendent, the case was presented to the board of directors for final settlement.

The nature of the “contract” and the “Agreement of Employment” is interesting. Leading features included the following :

Each share holder agreed to buy two thousand shares of stock at the par value of one dollar.

Each agreed to pay one thousand dollars in money (cash at time of signing contract, if possible).

Each agreed to pay in labor, one thousand dollars.

Each received a daily wage of four dollars.

The one thousand dollars in labor could be paid by deducting one dollar a day from the four dollars daily wage.

Out of the balance of the three dollars wages the colonist bought his food and clothing from the company store and commissary.

The balance remained to the credit of the individual and could be drawn out in cash from the surplus profits of the colony (if such surplus ever accumulated).

A sum of not more than seventy-five dollars could be drawn each year in cash, which could be spent outside of the colony.

Continuous employment was guaranteed by the company, with provision for annual vacation of two weeks.

No stockholder could’ own more shares than other members.

It was very evident from the conditions of these contracts that all were to be treated alike, regardless of earning ability. The individual was lost sight of in the welfare of the community. All a man could expect — in fact, all he should want, according to the philosophy of the colonists — was the opportunity to earn what he and his family needed to eat and wear, and a place to live in peace and happiness. If he had private property, however, aside from what he had to put into his payments to the colony he was free to take care of it in his own way, but it could not be used in a productive capacity in the colony. He could have pictures, pianos, automobiles, or anything else in the colony which did not interfere with the productive or distributive processes of the colony.

The question was often asked if a single man was not at a disadvantage under this contract. In the first place, such a matter was not supposed to be worthy of consideration with these people. Then, too, if the credits were ever realized on in cash, the members who had made the smallest demands in food and clothing would get the most money.

It is most natural that many difficulties should present themselves in an undertaking of this kind. Some of the troubles of the Llano colony were very similar to those met with by earlier communistic settlements. However, it is probable that some of these difficulties were, as with other colonies, blessings in disguise ; they indirectly contributed, at least, temporary strength to the enterprise.

One of the handicaps to the rapid development of the Llano property and to placing it on a more productive basis was the lack of capital. Land had to be bought, water rights secured and developed, houses built, stock and machinery obtained, offices constructed and an advertising and selling campaign conducted, with very little capital outside of the money derived from memberships. This necessitated a large use of credit and a very frugal use of the resources for even the necessities of life. The common necessity, however, made for community thought and action.

Llano del Rio, like many of the earlier colonies of the country, experienced periods of social unrest and dissatisfaction.

This condition was inevitable unless many applicants were excluded and only people of common ideals, harmonious and select, were permitted to become members. While a more careful and conscientious sifting process might have worked for the ultimate good of the colony, it would have been a hard policy to pursue during the early days when funds and labor were both so much needed in the development work.

The Llano del Rio Company was originally organized under the laws of California and, although later operated under a Nevada charter, it was subject to the laws and regulations governing such corporations in this State and also subject to inspection and super vision by the Commissioner of Corporations. During 1915, com plaint against the management of the colony was made to the Commissioner, which resulted in his appointing Deputy Commissioner H. W. Bowman of Los Angeles to investigate the company affairs generally. Mr. Bowman’s report was submitted to the Commissioner December 31, 1915, and contained material of value in this discussion. This report resulted in the Commissioner of Corporations issuing specific instructions to the company governing the sale of stock, at the time the permit authorizing such sale was made.

Shortly after this thirty-two dissatisfied colonists withdrew from the colony, and in a signed statement presented to the Commissioner of Corporations declared that the colony, organized as a cooperative enterprise, having for its purpose mutual helpfulness, had become a one-man autocracy, an organization dominated absolutely by Mr. Harriman, who ruled arbitrarily and often without a semblance of justice. Although the statement was not specifically made that Mr. Harriman’s management was in his own interests individually, it is an implication that such was the case.

This was followed in a few weeks by a reply to the report of Mr. Bowman and the charges of the colonists who had withdrawn, written by Mr. Harriman.

Mr. Bowman’s report to the Commissioner of Corporations was comprehensive and well arranged. It was submitted in the analytic ‘ style in which attorneys’ briefs are usually submitted. It was written apparently in the spirit of a public official who had discovered a situation which needed, in his opinion, the firm and careful exercise of the law in order to remedy a condition which was producing injustice to a number of citizens of the State.

Mr. Harriman’s answer, on the other hand, was written to justify the conduct of affairs by the company officers. It explained from the official viewpoint the reasons why actions cited in Mr. Bowman’s report as unwise and unjust, were taken. His position was that many of the official acts of himself or the directors of the company, were not only justifiable, but wise, and in the interests of the company as a whole, and, if understood, would be viewed by others in that way.

It is neither necessary nor wise to go into a detailed discussion of this controversy in this paper. It was difficult for each side to appreciate the position of the other, and some injustice probably resulted. However, the final result was no doubt beneficial to the colony and brought about a closer supervision of the company affairs by the Commissioner of Corporations.

The personnel of the colonists is interesting. About twenty-five per cent of the members were Californians and, as might be expected, a majority came from west of the Rocky Mountains — at least sixty to seventy per cent. Recruits came from the South, the Middle West and the East, but they were comparatively few in number. The several occupations of the colonists prior to their coming to Llano are an interesting study. On June 26, 1917, a survey showed that six had been engaged in transportation, fifteen in professional lines, five in the printing trades, ten clerks, eight miners, eighteen workers in manufacturing plants, seventy-three in business lines, thirteen in building trades, and one hundred four farmers.

There were few foreigners in Llano. Nearly all were so far removed from foreign parentage that they would be classed as Americans. Their habits, thought and ideals were formed by American influences.

The character of the members of the colony was above what I expected to find before my visit there. The leaders were wide awake men of affairs, several of whom had had very successful private business experience.

As one conversed with the people one was impressed with the fact that, for the most part, they were men and women of intelligence and common sense. They were not there because they were “down and out” and unequal to the struggle of life. If that had been the case they would have been unable to raise the necessary funds to become members of the colony. They were largely substantial persons who had banded themselves together to attempt to work out a community life that was without a capitalist and where the fruits of toil went where, in their estimation, they belonged, to the laborer.

In the fall of 1917 it was decided by the directors of the company that a change of location of the home or mother colony would be beneficial. It was urged. that progress would be more rapid, and prosperity and ultimate success more sure, if the colony were located in a section of the country with larger agricultural possibilities. The proposal was agreed to by the colonists, and in November, 1917, the company interests, material and spiritual, were largely transferred to Stables, La. Here a tract of sixty thousand acres, well provided with buildings, had been purchased, which was to become the new home, the new center of this communistic enterprise.

Reports from; Stables indicate progress, and those who have watched developments in California will observe with interest the colony career in Louisiana.

Across the Mojave – Mountain Meadows

Mountain Meadows–the dark valley where in late 1857 the murder of 135 men, women and children took place. They were rendered defenseless and surrendered after several days of siege on their defensive circle of wagons losing 10 men in the battle. The unsuspecting victims, expecting to be led to a local town were marched up a hill and the slaughter began in earnest.

The Old Spanish Trail enters the Mojave from the northeast south of Mountain Meadows in Utah.

In 1864 Sarah Rousseau came through the site on her way to California with the Earp family noting the following comments in her diary;

They arrived here in September, ’57, where they were murdered in cold blood by the Mormons. There was a monument raised to their memory once before, but the Mormons tore it down. This spring sometime in May, some soldiers came through California and erected this monument and dared any of the Mormons to touch it.

Mountain Meadows

Mountain Meadows

There were survivors. She continued;

There were 150 cruelly butchered men women and children, only six small children, too young to tell the tale, were suffered to live. They are at Salt Lake City. I cannot for a moment suppose that such barbarism will be buried in oblivion. “Oh, it cannot be.” It will be brought to light and the aggressors punished.

Mountain Meadows

Brevet Major Henry Carleton led his troops into the area discovering the hastily buried bodies at the massacre site.

Maj. J. H. Carleton

Maj. J. H. Carleton

In his special report of 1859 the Major did not hold back his distaste for Mormons and these events;

“In pursuing the bloody thread which runs throughout this picture of sad realities, the question how this crime, that for hellish atrocity has no parallel in our history, can be adequately punished often comes up and seeks in vain for an answer. Judge Cradlebaugh says that with Mormon juries the attempt to administer justice in their Territory is simply a ridiculous farce. He believes the Territory ought at once to be put under martial law. This may be the only practical way in which even a partial punishment can be meted out to these Latter-Day devils.

“But how inadequate would be the punishment of a few, even by death, for this crime for which nearly the whole Mormon population, from Brigham Young down, were more or less instrumental in perpetrating.

In his book, Roughing It, Mark Twain described the reaction of the pubic upon hearing of the mass murder: “The whole United States rang with its horrors.

Hindered by the Civil War and other events indictments were issued but the only one convicted was a Mr. John D. Lee who was executed by firing squad in 1877, 20 years after the fact.



The dream world was as important to the Mojave People as was the physical world. It was from this dream state instruction was given that would guide them to their destiny.

The Mojave Warrior was as brutal and violent in battle as his enemy. Even more so, not only because of strength and endurance but because those who had bad dreams; dreams of death and misfortune, were left behind in the villages with the women so not to bring a curse to the war.

Among the small and dangerous bands were mixed the Kwanamis.  They were the elite warrior captains.  The Kwanamis were said to have dreamed of war and the death of their opponents in the womb before their birth.  Their dreams would be of ripping lion and bear creatures apart with bare hands and emerging from the dust victorious and unscathed.

The Kwanamis lived apart from the rest of the Mohave People, in the south of the valley where Mastamho, the God-son, fought with the serpent under the three peaks.  It was here they would fast and meditate on the death of their opponents and the art of warfare.

These men who were stoic and impervious to heat, cold, hunger, and pain, would practice with their war bows and clubs in order to be the most effective in ministering death to their foes.

Shorty’s Grubstake

Shorty Harris in Ballarat

Shorty Harris in Ballarat

Once I asked Shorty Harris how he obtained his grubstakes. “Grubstakes,” he answered, “like gold, are where you find them. Once I was broke in Pioche, Nev., and couldn’t find a grubstake anywhere. Somebody told me that a woman on a ranch a few miles out wanted a man for a few days’ work. I hoofed it out under a broiling sun, but when I got there, the lady said she had no job. I reckon she saw my disappointment and when her cat came up and began to mew, she told me the cat had an even dozen kittens and she would give me a dollar if I would take ’em down the road and kill ’em.

“‘It’s a deal,’ I said. She got ’em in a sack and I started back to town. I intended to lug ’em a few miles away and turn ’em loose, because I haven’t got the heart to kill anything.

“A dozen kittens makes quite a load and I had to sit down pretty often to rest. A fellow in a two-horse wagon came along and offered me a ride. I picked up the sack and climbed in.

“‘Cats, eh?’ the fellow said. ‘They ought to bring a good price. I was in Colorado once. Rats and mice were taking the town. I had a cat.  She would have a litter every three months. I had no trouble selling them cats for ten dollars apiece. Beat a gold mine.’

“There were plenty rats in Pioche and that sack of kittens went like hotcakes. One fellow didn’t have any money and offered me a goat. I knew a fellow who wanted a goat. He lived on the same lot as I did. Name was Pete Swain.

“Pete was all lit up when I offered him the goat for fifty dollars. He peeled the money off his roll and took the goat into his shack. A few days later Pete came to his door and called me over and shoved a fifty dollar note into my hands. ‘I just wanted you to see what that goat’s doing,’ he said.

“I looked inside. The goat was pulling the cork out of a bottle of liquor with his teeth.

“‘That goat’s drunk as a boiled owl,’ Pete said. ‘If I ever needed any proof that there’s something in this idea of the transmigration of souls, that goat gives it. He’s Jimmy, my old sidekick, who, I figgered was dead and buried.’

“‘Now listen,’ I said. ‘Do you mean to tell me you actually believe that goat is your old pal, whom you drank with and played with and saw buried with your own eyes, right up there on the hill?’

“‘Exactly,’ Pete shouted, and he peeled off another fifty and gave it to me. So, you see, a grubstake, like gold, is where you find it.”

Shorty Harris

Loafing Along Death Valley Trails
A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Author: William Caruthers

Dorsey, the Dog Mail Carrier

During the great silver boom in the Calicos, a small community grew up around the Bismarck mine in the next canyon east of Calico camp. Together with the miners of the Garfield, Odessa, Occidental and other mines, there were perhaps 40 persons in the area, which was known as East Calico.

While Calico was less than a mile away, by airline, the direct trail was steep and rugged and the road roundabout. The government did not consider the population sufficient for a post office, and the miners didn’t care to hike into Calico for their mail. So they contributed to a fund to pay a boy named Dave Nichols to bring the mail over, by burro, from the mother camp. But Dave found a better job and no one else wanted to be mail man.

Calico ghost town photo

Calico 1884

About that time a man named Stacy, brother of the Stacy who was postmaster at Calico (their first names have variously been given as James, William, Everett and Alwin) opened a store at Bismark. The Stacys had a dog named Dorsey, a big Scotch collie who had come to them for shelter one stormy night. The Bismarck Stacy took the collie’ with him to East Calico.

The true story of Dorsey the Dog Mail Carrier

Dorsey, the Dog Mail Carrier

But Dorsey’s affections were divided, and after a few days at Bismarck, he ran away back to Calico. Postmaster Stacy attached a note to his neck, switched him and sent him back to Bismarck. After a few such runaways, Postmaster Stacy conceived the notion of tying a sack with newspapers in it on Dorsey’s back when he sent him home. Dorsey delivered them successfully, and soon little saddlepacks labeled “U. S. Mail” were made and attached to the dog’s back and a regular mail service set up between the two camps on a thrice-weekly schedule.

Dorsey soon became one of Calico’s most famous characters, but success did not go to his head.

Though he was not a civil service employee and his mail route entirely unofficial, he was faithful in the completion of his appointed rounds. Though the miners enjoyed attempting to lead him astray or tamper with the mail, he managed to elude them, then resume his course.

There is only one instance of possible misuse of his office on record. One Christmas Herman Mellen was living in a cave near Bismarck and his mother sent him a box of candy and sweets. Stacy had tied this box under Dorsey’s neck, and when he arrived at Bismarck the bottom was out and the contents missing. Whether temptation had proven too strong, the goodies had been hijacked or whether the package had broken open, allowing the contents to spill out was never determined.

The famous dog mail carrier continued his route for two years, until a dip in the boom caused the mines of East Calico to close and mail service became unnecessary. When the Stacys left Calico, they gave Dorsey to John S. Doe, wealthy San Francisco man interested in Calico mines, and Dorsey spent the rest of his life in comfort and ease in the Bay City.

Calico Ghost Town

Calico Mining History

Calico Print- Established 1882 by Vincent & Overshiner
Published at Calico Silver Camp
San Bernardino County, California


The Old Woman Springs Ranch

About 2009 I read an article titled “Cottonwood Springs” in the December, 1959 Desert Magazine (50 years old) written by a gentleman named Walter Ford.

I wasn’t sure where the place was, although the photo included in the piece that sparked some kind of vague memory. I couldn’t quite remember where it was though.

First off I thought maybe Cottonwood Springs in Joshua Tree National Park. Then again; how many places are named “Cottonwood Springs?”

Helluva lot more than two.

It is the same for many other places using common names;  Arrastre Canyon, Grapevine Canyon, Round Mountain, etc.  I have been told that there are 7 different ranges named “Granite Mountains.”

Old Woman Springs Ranch sign

Old Woman Springs Ranch

The springs were described as located along the Twentynine PalmsVictorville route. Mr. Ford mentioned speaking with A. W. Johnson, a long-time prospector of the area. Johnson said he was visiting the spring in 1914, and mention that you could find Indian artifacts such as grinding stones, broken pottery, and arrowheads being plentiful, and they were there for the taking. The author also mentioned a train running through the desert landscape and then making a sweeping, graceful turn near a sign that read, Cottonwood Station. There’s only one place in the Mojave Desert that fit, and that was confirmed near the end of the article- Old Woman Springs. Eureka! I wondered though, why was the spring renamed Cottonwood Spring some 50 years ago, and again renamed Old Woman Springs?

The Old Women of Old Woman Springs

Cottonwood (Old Woman) Springs - 1959 (left) - 2010 (right)

Cottonwood (Old Woman) Springs – 1959 (left) – 2010 (right)

In 1855 Colonel Henry Washington of the U.S. Army came through the then unnamed Johnson Valley surveying the baseline. Near the west end of the valley he found two elderly Indian women alone at a spring. Names of places came cheap, and I’m sure someone thought the name was appropriate, so the name was recorded for all posterity to ponder. The two Indian women may have been left there to watch young children traveling with the band. The rest were probably in the nearby mountains gathering piñon nuts and hunting, as hunter-gatherers were known to do. The children may have been hiding—watching, as the curious party passed through the valley. The springs, as far as anyone knows, were quiet for
the next 40 or so years.

People & Places

The broad avenue leading into the OWSR

It is through the people, within the times they lived, interacting with the land and their relationship to each other that we learn of and possibly understand the unique character of places in our desert.

Charlie Martin is to Albert Swarthout as Albert is to Dale Gentry. Dale Gentry is to Cottonwood Springs as Swarthout is to Old Woman Springs Ranch, and Martin to the Heart Bar. Now that all that is out of the way, let’s begin in the San Bernardino Mountains with Charlie Martin and the Heart Bar Ranch.

Charlie Martin

At over 200 pounds Charlie Martin was tough, as hard as a horseshoe, and ran with a dubious crowd. In Martha Wood Coutant’s book, Heart Bar Ranch, he was reported to have operated a resort for his criminal friends at his place in Glen Martin. Brothers Bill and Jim McHaney were frequent guests, and of the brothers Jim would come to have his own gang after being run out of the mountains. Charlie, at one time a rustler and later a police chief of San Bernardino, is interesting to note that this apparent conflict in careers could have worked in the good citizens favor. Who else would better narrow the playing field of bad guys but the host of them all? Maybe that’s how Jim McHaney and his gang were forced to find a new range?

According to historian Willenna Hansen, Charlie killed at least two people. The first, after a loud argument broke into a gunfight. Both combatants fired on each other. The victim kept missing Charlie and Charlie didn’t. The second killing was when Charlie was unarmed and approached a claim jumper known only as the Frenchman.He came after Charlie with a knife and started stabbing him. Charlie beat him off with his fists and made his way back to his wagon where he left his revolver. He shot the Frenchman square in the forehead without taking his gun out of the holster. There were no witnesses, so this time Charlie would be tried for murder. In court, his defense consisted only of him taking off his shirt for the jury to observe the 40-some, still-healing, stab wounds on his arms, chest and back. The verdict returned was self-defense.

The Heart Bar Ranch

Charlie Martin had a number of irons in the fire. He came to believe that his fortune may lie in cattle ranching. He approached a Mr. Button regarding a loan for $900. Button, possibly considering Charlie Martin’s reputation, decided he’d rather be his partner than loan him the money. It was in early 1884 when they registered the Heart Bar brand in San Bernardino. Over the next dozen years or so Martin had a variety of partners in the Heart Bar—however; nobody knows what may have come of Mr. Button.

Albert Swarthout

Albert “Swarty” Swarthout was born February 11, 1872 in San Bernardino, California. He was the youngest of five children born of George and Elizabeth Swarthout, Mormon pioneers who came to the area in 1851. George and his two brothers became cattlemen in the San Bernardino Valley. Albert never knew his father, because George died two months after he was born. It was too late; Albert already had cattle in his blood. He grew up dreaming of having his own cattle empire someday.

Ruins of Box 'S' Ranch in Lucerne Valley, Ca.

Box ‘S’ Ranch in Lucerne Valley, Ca.

Swarty married Lillie Furstenfeld of Hesperia on February 10, 1895 at her parent’s house in Alhambra, California. Soon afterward they moved to Lucerne Valley and homesteaded
what became the Box S Ranch. It didn’t take long for Albert to figure out the area was no place for a cattle ranch. They moved back to San Bernardino where he used his family’s
connections to get a job as a forest ranger. He used the opportunity to become familiar with the mountains and meadows in the San Bernardino Mountain Range.

The Old Woman Springs Ranch

Old Woman Springs Ranch

Old Woman Springs Ranch

Al Swarthout, after giving up his claim to the Box S, homesteaded Old Woman Springs. With a 400 acre ranch and rights to 1600 acres of grazing being used as winter range for the Heart Bar in mind, Swarty was poised to begin his cattle empire. Martin and Swarthout entered into a partnership in 1907.

Corral and sheds

There were good years and bad years, and a few in between years. The Swarthouts lived at the Heart Bar headquarters at Big Meadows during the summer and moved down to Old Woman Springs in the winter, driving stock back and forth through Rattlesnake Canyon between the two ranges. Charlie and Swarty seemed to get along pretty well, and Charlie took to Al’s son Donald becoming quite the uncle, taking him camping and riding often. Charlie tired of it all, and in 1914 sold off his share of the ranch to Albert’s next partner.

The Manhunt for Willie Boy

Swarthout kept a tight, hardworking outfit. Those who worked for Swarty liked and respected him, and he treated them as friends. Willie Boy, who in 1909 killed his fiance’s father and became the subject of the last manhunt in the area, according to V.C. Hemphill-Gobar in her book, Range One East, had worked for Swarty. She continues that it had been rumored he stopped by the ranch looking for help. Swarty said he wished he had been there for him. He felt he may have been able to talk Willie Boy into giving up without further bloodshed. Al wasn’t bragging, he knew, and was friends with the ranch hand turned desperado. The reader should note that this subject in itself is controversial, with some believing that Willie Boy made good on his escape and lived to an old age as a rancher in Nevada.

Steady Development through Tumultuous Times

Old Woman Springs

West lake

After another series of partner changes in Heart Bar Ranch ownership, Swarty took an out in 1918. However, in 1922 Swarthout and Dale Gentry formed a partnership and bought the
ranch outright between them.

Over the years before, and during the years after this final partnership was formed, Swarty developed the ranch property; more buildings were built, springs and wells developed, and a field of alfalfa maintained. Even with this much water available, no more than 12 acres of alfalfa could be grown. Martha Wood Coutant states, “It would get so hot, and the crop would have to be harvested by hand quickly before it ‘shattered’ and became useless to cattle.”

Swarty and his friend Julian “Junie” Gobar from Lucerne Valley had figured out a clever irrigation system wherein the most productive spring produced roughly 150 miner’s inches (nearly 1700 gallons per minute) of water flow. The accomplishment was highly regarded by hydraulic engineers of the day.

Old Woman Springs

The grotto

By 1938 the end of the Heart Bar was unavoidable. The price of beef was down and stack was getting mixed in with the herds of other ranches. Many cattle were dying from drinking water poisoned by the cyanide from gold recovery operations further up the mountain. Swarthout and Gentry were arguing and agreed to bring it all to an end. The ranch went into litigation. However, a decision regarding the properties wasn’t reached until 1947. It was decided Gentry would get the Big Meadows property in the mountains and Swarthout the Old Woman Springs property in the desert. Swarty thought it was fair—Gentry did not. Albert agreed to trade halves straight across. The deed was drawn up, done and both went their separate ways. Albert Swarthout at the time was in his mid-70s and still a very active individual. He and Lillie stayed at Big Meadows until 1952, after which they moved to San Bernardino.

Dale Gentry

Water tower and train depot

Throughout the 1950s Dale Gentry was owner of the Old Woman Springs Ranch. There was plenty of water and 400 acres of land to do with as he wished. As a young man living in Hawaii he had worked on a pineapple plantation. He admired the steam-powered locomotives that carried the product in from the fields. Now that he had the money and the room for it, he purchased an engine, tender, two flat cars a boxcar and caboose. They were brought to the ranch along with ten miles of narrow gauge track. Next, a water tower, depot, and roundhouse were built, and Gentry enjoyed giving rides to his visitors at the ranch.

Railroad ties from Dale Gentry's Cottonwood Express

Railroad ties from Dale Gentry’s Cottonwood Express

Other than six or so railroad ties found embedded in the dirt service road awhile back, there is no trace that Gentry’s “Cottonwood & Southern Railway”, ever existed. There are the buildings; the water tower, a depot, the engine room, but when I first toured the ranch in the late 1990s I figured they could be the result of another wild-eyed desert story—Of course they are.

Closing the Gate

From the highway the ranch looks much the same as it could have 100 years ago when it was a part of Swarty’s dream brought to reality. It’s not a stretch imagining him among the cottonwoods with his friend Junie figuring ways of getting more water to more cattle on the range. Not long ago one may be able to imagine Dale Gentry’s steam engine gracefully rounding the curve, hauling a dozen or so happy passengers out to his station at the renamed Cottonwood Springs. Perhaps from there, with little effort, could look further back in time, hundreds, or maybe even a thousand years, when hunter-gatherers would leave their mothers to watch over the children while they went into the mountains for food.

Barn at Old Woman Springs Ranch

Big red barn

Charlie Martin passed away in 1927 of cancer after serving several years as Chief of Police of the City of San Bernardino.

Albert Swarthout died November 10, 1963 at the age of 91.

Dale Gentry seems to have driven his train off into distant and dusty memories.

And, nobody knows what may have come of Mr. Button.

The Old Woman Springs Ranch is private property located in the Johnson Valley, 15 miles east of Lucerne Valley on State Route 247, the Old Woman Springs Highway.


adapted from ~ Cottonwood Springs — Desert Magazine – April 1959 – Walter Ford

color photography by Walter Feller

Fort Piute

Piute Hill Fort Best Preserved Mojave Outpost


Fortifications along the western extension of the Santa Fe trail, route of the Whipple survey, were built initially because of Indian attacks on covered wagon trains of settlers. The Mojave War followed the massacre of one train by Indians at the Colorado River crossing a few miles above the present Needles.

Paiute Creek

Paiute Creek

The Army was not slow in punishing the Mojave tribes, and entire regiment being collected at Fort Yuma and going upstream. This was in the winter of 1858-59. The initial fort, Ft. Mojave, was established at the time. Supplying of this river outpost was both expensive and difficult.

Soldiers attacked

Lt. Col. William Hoffman

Lt. Col. William Hoffman

The road over the desert San Bernardino had been given a bad name by Lt. Col. William Hoffman would take in the company of mounted infantry in a small dragoon escort from the Cajon Pass to the river. Hoffman’s command had been attacked by Indians in route. The Col. was under orders to find a site for a desert fort. He saw nothing between Summit Valley in the river he considered a likely site. In fact, Hoffman condemned the entire route as unsuited for travel.

It is probable the Hoffman report influenced the Army in initially supplying Fort Mojave by steamer from Yuma.  When the river was slow and supplies could not be taken at far upstream the fort garrison was desperate. At this juncture In Winfred Scott Hancock, the same officer who appeared in a recent issue of the series, called on the Banning stage and freight lines to take supplies through. Banning’s experience Teamsters had no trouble They drove again heavy freight wagons, each drawn by eight mule teams to the river in 16 days. The Fort Mojave garrison again had both food and ammunition.

Cady Old Site

Hancock at the time an assistant quartermaster, prove that not only the Mojave Valley road was practical. He also reduce the Army’s transport expense to Fort Mojave by two thirds. The hall from drum barracks at Wilmington to the Colorado River via Cajon Pass cost only a third as much per pound as the long water haul around Baja California and transfer shipment to river  steamer.

Ives Expedition steamboat and crew heading up the Colorado River, 1857.

Ives Expedition steamboat and crew heading up the Colorado River, 1857.

The site of Camp Cady  was used as an Indian “fort” even before California became a part of the United States. Indians engaged in stealing horses from the Mexican ranchos built a crude sort of stronghold on the rocky hillsides of the Mojave River near that spot. It was a few miles East of the old Spanish Trail and also guarded the entrance to narrow Afton Canyon which could serve as an escape route if pursuit became too hot.

Afton Canyon

Afton Canyon

There is documentary evidence of the Indian use of their crude stronghold in 1845 point Benjamin Wilson, the Don Benito of Mexican rule, meeting Indians there in battle in 1845 a few days after the historic discovery of Bear Valley.

California Governor Pio Pico

Governor Pio Pico

Wilson’s account of the pursuit of the horse thieves attributed depredations to renegade Indians from Mission San Gabriel but it is probable Sun desert tribes had Braves in the raiding parties. Wilson was alcalde  at Jurupa  and was called upon by Gov. Pico to punish the Indians. The acalde  gathered a large posse including 22 young Californians mounted on fleet horses. The larger party in fact train went up Cajon Pass. Wilson in the young ranchers took the route up to Santa Ana Canyon, enjoyed hunting bear in what Wilson named Bear Valley, and joined the pack train somewhere near Rancho Verde  in the present Apple Valley.

Wilson, wounded by a poisoned arrow, had his life saved by Lorenzo Trujillo. Trujillo, a New Mexican, was leader in the little colony of Agua Mansa  and its twin town, Trujillo. In the Apple Valley fight the Indians were defeated in three of them killed. Wilson shot the notorious Joaquin, the ex-mission Indian, who was a ringleader among the horse thieves.

Don Benito Wilson

Don Benito Wilson

Several of Wilson’s Horseman pursued the remnant of the Indians down the Mojave  though the wounded Wilson was forced to turn back. Nothing Indians halted in their crude fort near the site of Camp Cady. There, though the entrenched behind rocks, they were again defeated and dispersed.

In addition to the soldiers at the Mojave Desert forts there were a few civilians quartered at some of the posts. For instance, the returns of Camp Cady for December 1866  indicate an assistant wagon master was stationed there. He was paid $75 a month. Teamsters, their number not specified, received hundred and $75 a month, and herders $35 a month.  Other notations would indicate the herders, at least some of them, were Indians. The Teamsters, whose work was the most skilled, where the aristocrats of the road whether they drove Concord stages and six horses or whipped along multiple freight teams. The Army officers themselves received far less pay.

There were also, at least at Cady  and Mojave, sutler stores. The Army had no canteen or post exchange in that. And contractors, called settlers,  were granted the privilege of establishing stores on military reservations and also, for that matter, with armies in the field. Suites that supplemented the monotonous menu, tobacco and whiskey as well as such notions as red, writing paper and ink were for sale at the  sutler stores.

Summit Valley

He (Hoffman) saw nothing between Summit Valley in the river he considered a likely site. In fact, Hoffman condemned the entire route as unsuited for travel.

Soldiers receiving $7.50 a month did not have much money to spend but there was no place to go and as a result the software store almost invariably raked in the Army man’s wages. Passing travelers also helps well the sutler income.

The system was a poor one, and the cause of continuous complaint. The soldier, at times was victimized both by high prices in shoddy material. At one juncture soldier resentment in Camp Cady  passed the usual grumbling stage and the garrison simply looted the store.

Looting did not satisfy the enraged soldiery. They set fire to the store and literally drove the hated  sutler from the camp. The sutler came to San Bernardino and swore out complaints.  That was in August 1867 after Camp Cady  was manned by regulars.

First Lieut. Manual Eyre Jr.  in command at Cady, reported the affair to first Lieut. C. H. Shepherd, assistant adjutant general at Fort Mojave. He said:

“Yesterday the sheriff was here and took with him five of my men for preliminary examination under charges of arson and robbery. The case is stated in my letter addressed to a AAAG  at your headquarters, dated August 8, 1867. I should, I think, be in San Bernardino during the trial of these men, if they are held for trial. I also desire to present before the grand jury’s citizens who have harbored deserters.

“The posted by you till will be established under superintendence of an officer from Mojave. Could not an officer be spared temporarily to  relieved Lieut. Drum and allow him to relieve me for 10 days or two weeks? If the Rock Springs garrison is withdrawn, I can leave Lieut. Drum here in command until my return?

“The intention of this man Dead (the sutler)  is evident to me. He will try to obtain money from these men to let them off. If so, I would like to be present to prosecute him for attempting to compound a felony. I am of the opinion that, as much as  I dislike it, I should be in San Bernardino as soon as possible, even if the men are released after preliminary examination when, of course they would be turned loose 100 miles from camp to find their way as they see fit.”

Both because it served as a headquarters post, and because it was maintained long after the little way stations along the Old Government Road were abandoned, Fort Mojave is far better known than such points as Fort Piute, Rock Springs, Marl Spring, Fort Soda, Bitter Spring, Resting Springs or even Cady.

Fort Pah-ute ruins

Fort Pah-ute ruins

Until recent years Fort Mojave was maintained as an Indian school. When it ceased to be an army post, however, it is records were moved. Some were taken to Whipple barracks in Prescott, others to the Presidio at San Francisco. For Mojave, however had a wealth of old records that escaped attention of the detail entrusted to their moving. Within the past few years the grounds of the old fort were converted to agricultural use. The remains of an old adobe building were bulldozed flat. In the process the bulldozer broke through an old wooden floor long covered with several inches of earth. The accident disclosed a long forgotten cellar. In it were scores of packing boxes containing more records. These were assembled and shipped to Washington. Stacked in a line these rediscovered records stretch 29 feet.

As yet this latest ” mine”  of Pioneer Army records has not been made available to historical researchers. Presumably in a few years, however, they will have been cleaned, indexed and deposited in the national archives and will furnish a far more detailed commentary on conditions in the Southwest during the pre-railroad decades,, and on Army activities at a dozen or more all but forgotten published such as Las Vegas, Resting Springs, El Dorado Canyon, and numerous early Arizona camps. Frequent transfers of headquarters seem to have  made Fort Mojave a convenient depository  for numerous papers no one wanted to which, under regulations, could not be destroyed. Paperwork in the military was almost as involved in the mid-19th century as it is today. Doubtless the company clerk of the Battalion Sgt. major of 1867 rebelled inwardly at the detail required of his job and doubtless to adjutants were hard put to find storage space for the growing mountains of paper but to their credit it must be noted they observed the rules and did not indulge in the periodic bonfires that mark some of the other branches of the federal service. For instance, research on Colorado River steamers is difficult because the customs offices of registry made it a practice to destroy old records.




Shootout at Government Holes

Two Gunmen ‘Shoot It Out’ when Cowpuncher Meets Up with Man Who Did Not Run’

One Found Sitting Against Wall, Legs Crossed, as Other Fell on Bed


Another Dramatic Chapter of Desert History Is Written With Lead

Matt Burts and Bill Roberts, feudists and two-gun men of Government Holes, met face to face Sunday-night.

True to the first law of the range, “shoot it out”–the law that the quickest on the
draw lives–Burts and Roberts never flinched. It was fair; there was no advantage.

“Six-guns” flashed and two of the last of the gunmen of that weird vastness that centers around the water holes In the desert fell, each dying from the other’s bullets. Matt Burts and Bill Roberts died with their boots on: that is the unwritten but the immortal epitaph of the range.

Woman Likely To Be Involved

And even in this lonely desert a woman may he involved, for the wounds on Burts were washed clean and Roberts’ body was lying on a bed when the officers arrived, and woman was known to have been near the scene.

The duel spot is 260 miles by road from San Bernardino in the Ivanpah country, with its open cattle range, famed for lawlessness and gun fights. There last night Deputy Sheriffs Jack H. Brown and Jesus Amarias had not positively concluded that the tragedy with its two deaths was a closed crime. In a telegram to Sheriff Walter A. Shay, the officers bluntly told the story, partly dispelling the first theory that a murderer had slain the two men and fled across the desert hills. The telegram read:

“Bill Roberts and Matt Burts dead. Looks like duel between them, each killing the other. No

Rock Springs Cattle Co.

Rock Springs Cattle Co.

The duel was but another chanter of Government Holes thrilling history. On the wide and rocky ranges run the herds of “a big cattle outfit” the Rock Springs Land & Cattle company–and those of the “little man.” It Is what is known to cattlemen as an open range, worthless without its water holes. And since beef cattle were driven into the country there has been a never-ending dispute as to water rights. Into the quarrels crept the charges of “rustling,” strong words that brought hard men.

Matt Burts Is Two Gun Man

Matt Burts was one of these men. He carried two guns, one on each hip. In the courts here two years ago when Burts appeared as a witness against Bob Holiman in a “rustling trial, Holiman openly charged that Burts had been imported from Arizona to kill him. During the case, Holiman’s attorney requested the court to have Burts searched for a gun. Burts was then an employe of the Rock Springs outfit, but lately has had his own herd of a few cattle.

Bill Roberts kept his job as foreman of the Rock Springs company because he was a “man who
wouldn’t run.” Three foremen ahead of him at Government Holes had been run out of the country by gunmen, threats and by snipers who fired from behind the rocks on the hills overlooking the water hole and the foreman’s shack. Officers of the Rock Springs company charged that, rustlers’ were warring on the foremen, often alone at the holes while range riders were miles away.

Burts, since he left the cattle company, had been a quarrelsome character, drinking heavily and
making his threats against his enemies in the district. He wouldn’t leave; that would be cowardly.  Stories of his enmity toward Roberts have drifted into the sheriff’s office for weeks.

And in the country, wild and barren as it is, was a woman, a Mrs, Ridell, who lives on a lonely homestead In the Government Holes district. She once was arrested for moonshining when Burts was suspected. But she claimed that the still was hers and took her medicine in the Needles courts without whimpering.

Meanwhile, Roberts virtually lived by his guns. Three weeks ago, the cattle outfit foreman came to his shack after a day on the range and found 13 bullet holes through the house a mute warning that Government Holes was unhealthy for him. But Bill Roberts was, too, a man of the waste lands who wouldn’t leave.

Sunday, the story goes. Burts drove up to Roberts’ place with Mrs. Ridell and her grandson. Burts went up to the house, presumably to ask for a drink. Roberts met in the door. In an instant, their guns were in play, firing simultaneously, for neither Bill Roberts nor Matt Burts had a superior on the range for drawing in a hurry. It was the inevitable. Both shot straight and both died.

Two Men Are Found in Cabin

The bodies of Burts and Roberts were found in a ranch house. Burts had been shot squarely through the forehead. He was found in a sitting position, with his legs crossed and his hat on. All blood had been washed away from the wound. Roberts, shot through the abdomen, was found laid out on a bed. Both men were killed by .44 caliber bullets.

Sheriff Shay received word of the duel at midnight Sunday and immediately sent Deputies Brown and Amarias to the scene. The officers left San Bernardino at 1 o’clock Monday morning and six hours later they were in Goffs, 220 miles away an average of nearly 40 miles an hour across the desert. By 10 o’clock they were on the ground at Government Holes, 40 miles south and east of Lanfair.

Map of Government Holes area

Map of Government Holes area

The officers may return late today. They will conduct a thorough investigation of the case, however, as the sinister stories that first reached the city have not died down, and the position of bodies indicate a possible new angle in the case. Mrs. Ridell’s grandson was questioned for hours yesterday, but reiterated the duel story.

Government Holes, however, has had its gun duels before. Six years ago it was the scene of the spectacular gun fight between Pat and Roy Woods, father and son, and Bob Holiman. In the fight, Holiman emerged the victor, although not a drop of blood was lost.

Water Hole Was Cause of Feud

Pat Woods and his son, Roy, were cowboys employed by the Rock Springs company. And again it was the rights to the water holes and the enmity between the “little men” against the Rock Springs company that led to the duel. It was commonly known that Roy Woods practiced shooting by killing jack-rabbits with his six-shooter while riding in a flivver and on horse-back And Pat, the father, could break a beer, bottle with his six-shooter 50 yards away.

In the spring during the roundup, Pat and Roy Woods met Bob Holiman on the open range. Pat began shooting and, apparently rattled, missed Holiman. Then Holiman got into action. He shot Pat Woods’ horse out front under him and with a second shot knocked Roy’s hat off his head.

Fate probably saved the Woods from extermination. Holiman was shooting like a sharpshooter when his gun jammed. Holiman’s friends, who were spectators to the duel, shouted to Holiman to “tickle his horse”–sinking the spurs into his horse’s flanks. And Rob “tickled” his horse and galloped away without a return fire from the Woods.

Trial Resembled Movie Location

The trial in the courts here resembled a moving picture outfit on location. Scores of cowboys of the wide ranges attended and there were no convictions. The Woods, however, left Government Holes and so far as known never returned.

Two years ago, Holiman again figured in tho courts in a case involving the ownership of a calf that he killed. Burts, then one of the stout-hearted men hired by the Rock Springs company to protect their cattle, charged that Holiman killed a Rock Springs calf and sold the beef at Needles. Holiman offered no fight when Burts arrested him. In this case, Holiman was not convicted, the jury disagreeing and the charge dismissed.

It was In this case that Burts’ past life was revealed in open court. Burts, six feet tall, handsome,
and with coal black hair, was a picturesque figure at the trial. On his right hip he wore a six-shooter. When he was called to testify against Holiman, Attorney Ralph E. Swing began a cross-examination

“Have you removed that revolver that you have been toting around?” asked the attorney.

Burts glared back silently.

Did Not Want Witness Armed

“I wish to interrogate this witness,” Attorney Swing told Judge J. W. Curtis, “and I don’t want
him sitting there with a revolver on his hip.”

Burts then arose in his seat, held his coat under his shoulders and
turned around slowly. “I took it off.” he explained.

Then the attorney began questioning Burts.

“Were, you ever convicted of a felony?” he asked.

“Yes, twice,” retorted Burts.

“What was the first offense you were convicted of?” Burts was asked.

“Train robbery.”

“And what were you convicted for the second time?”

“For shooting a fellow.”

Burts then explained that he was sentenced to serve five years for the train robbery and was pardoned after serving six months. This was in Arizona. On the second offense, he was sentenced to serve 10 years and was pardoned by the governor after serving five months, he said. That was years ago, Burts said.

His Brother Deputy Sheriff

Burts has a brother, Tom Burts, a deputy sheriff, living at Tucson. The brother yesterday wired Sheriff Shay asking that the body be forwarded to Tucson.

Little is known of Robert’s past history. Walter S. Greening, president of the Rock Springs company, said last night that he did not know where Robert came from, but that he was sent to Rock Springs “because he wouldn’t run.”

And he didn’t.

San Bernardino Sun Newspaper Headline

San Bernardino Sun Newspaper Headline


This story first appeared in The San Bernardino Daily Sun — November 10, 1925

Roads to Yesterday — Van Dusen Road

In 1861 the county of San Bernardino contracted with John Brown to build a toll road through the Cajon Pass from Devore to Cajon Summit. That would do fine to get wagons and freight between San Bernardino and the Mojave Desert. At the same time the county also approved a subscription road to be built by Jed Van Dusen from near the summit through the mountains so equipment and supplies could be freighted to the mines in Holcomb Valley.

History in the Making

Mountain Road Cost Miners $2,000 in Gold

Brown’s Toll Road

Back in the early 1860s the gold rich but food poor miners of Holcomb Valley decided the number one need for their mountain metropolis was a road.  in typical pioneer fashion instead of looking to San Bernardino, Sacramento or Washington these miners resolved to build the road.

At the time supplies for Holcomb Valley were brought up by way of a packed train trail up Santa Ana Canyon from the San Bernardino Valley and thence to Holcomb Valley by trails threading either Polique or Van Dusen Canyons.  these trails served for burros,  mules or horses but the only way to get a wagon to the gold mines  was to take it apart and load its pieces on pack animals.

Toll Road up Cajon

John Brown Sr.

The Holcomb Valley mines were reputedly among the richest in California. Free gold, as the placers were known,  was becoming hard to obtain in quantities up in the worked over streams of the Mother Lode and accordingly thousands of footloose miners poured into Holcomb Valley making an increasingly heavy strain on the thin supply line.

Down in San Bernardino John Brown Sr. a resourceful Rocky Mountain man, who was one of the leaders in the settlement both during and subsequent to the Mormon regime, had an experienced eye for trade routes. Brown was probably one of the first to vision San Bernardino as a trade center due to its central location and proximity of favorable mountain gateways.

Brown saw that San Bernardino could obtain an even better share of overland travel with better roads. Accordingly he planned to make  the Cajon Pass gateway the  preferable way east. He applied to the Board of Supervisors and was granted a toll road franchise. His road utilized the East Cajon route  which he improved so it could accommodate wagons. Then Brown went farther and started a ferry over the Colorado River at Fort Mohave.

Builder Paid $2,000

Van Dusen Road/ Coxey Truck Trail from Cajon Summit to Holcomb Valley

Van Dusen Road/ Coxey Truck Trail from Cajon Summit to Holcomb Valley

The Brown Road diverted Holcomb Valley traffic  away from the Santa Ana trail. A new trail was blazed down Holcomb Creek, Willow Creek and Arrastre Creek to reach the Mojave Desert floor  in the vicinity of Deadman Point.  From Deadman Point  it was an easy open  path to Brown’s road.

Miners  and supply men who used the new trail  saw that it could be widened to accommodate wagons. The usual method of making a road would have been for the Holcomb Valley miners  to turn out with their picks and shovels, but that meant leaving their claims just when water was high enough for gold washing. Accordingly a person of $2,000  in gold dust was raised and Jed Van Dusen, the camp blacksmith, was hired to build the road. He did just that. Van Dusen was a resourceful fellow. He had assembled a wagon from parts brought up to Holcomb Valley by pack train. In between running his smithy he had some good claims he worked in the canyon  that has been given his name. Van Dusen’s chief claim to fame, however, was neither his skill as a road builder, blacksmith or miner. it rested on the fact he was father of a very pretty little girl named  Belle.

Dead Man's Point

Dead Man’s Point

Daughter Honored

When the miners cast about for a name for their town in Holcomb Valley  they found W. F. (Billy) Holcomb  reluctant to have it named for him. Then someone had an idea. Why not name the camp for Jed Van Dusen’s little girl? So Belleville became the name of the big roaring mining camp that had almost as many residents as the rest of the county.

gold mine

Lucky Baldwin’s Gold Mountain

For a dozen years or so the Van Dusen built road  carried the heaviest traffic in the county. The travel to the mines,  of course, was a great help to the Brown tollway. Heavy machinery needed for quartz mining  was hauled over the road as gold veined ledges were discovered. The latter  included two of the most famous gold mines San Bernardino County history, E. J.  (Lucky) Baldwin’s  Gold Hill property and Richard Garvey’s Greenlead.

During Civil War days the Van Dusen –  built road carried a strange assortment of passengers and cargo. Liquors for Greek George’s  notorious  saloons and dance halls, staple goods, the inevitable blasting powder and large bullion shipments. Strangest of all travelers, however, was a ragged troop of filibusters recruited in Visalia  who called themselves Confederate calvarymen  and commanded by Mariposa County’s  stormy Assemblyman  Dan Showalter. Showalter and his motley horsemen were trying to reach southern lines in Texas but a few weeks later ran into California volunteers near Warner’s Ranch and were taken prisoner.

This was the same Showalter who had recently slain San Bernardino County’s  Assemblyman  Charles Piercy in a duel at San Rafael. The duel  was fought with rifles at 40  paces. First shots of both antagonists went wild and Showalter allegedly jumped the gun and shot the second time at the count of two, killing Piercy. Showalter was a fugitive when he was in Holcomb Valley but secessionist  sentiment plus that of roughs  who wanted no government at all  served to protect the fact it was San Bernardino County’s legislator  he had slain.

The roughs around Belleville  ran things with a high hand, at least until Greek George fell mortally wounded from the knife of ” Charlie  the Chink”  in the drunken aftermath of a Fourth of July celebration. In a reminiscent account written 35 years later Billy Holcomb told of that fatal July 4 and of George’s killing three men before his fatal combat with  the celestial.

Coxey Meadows - Van Dusen Road

Van Dusen Road

It was members of George’s gang, left more or less leaderless, who held up an outgoing stagecoach and relieved the Wells Fargo messenger of $60,000. It was the disgusted miners,  anxious to drive out the roughs, who pursued the highway men and killed them all. The last bandit  was slain a bit too quick for he died while trying to tell where the $60,000 was  hidden. As far as is known it has never been found, a sizable  cache of gold bars  that has  lured treasure seekers  unsuccessfully  for something like 90 years.

Baldwin Garvey Feud

The Van Dusen Road carried the ballot boxes in the weird election when Belleville tried to become county seat, and probably succeeded in polling a countrywide majority but lost on the official count by the “accident”  of a  Belleville  precinct’s box being lost in a bonfire  down in San Bernardino.

After the richer placer deposits had been worked Belleville and upstream Beardstown  dwindled in size. The emphasis’s one to hard rock mining which required less men more capital and tools. In the hard rock field the giant was Baldwin, who at one time was running a 100- stamp mill at Gold Hill and the operation was supporting a good-sized town, the town of Doble.

Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin

Next in size to Baldwin’s operation were those of Garvey.  Garvey had owned Gold Hill at one time and reportedly sold it to Baldwin for $200,000. The Garvey family always contended that Baldwin took a bill of sale for the mine  but neglected to pay the Irish-born Garvey all the promised money. Garvey trusted his supposed  friend.

Garvey held onto the Greenlead, which is almost at the side of the Van Dusen Road in lower Holcomb Valley. When hard times depressed  Los Angeles real estate  Garvey found he owed $300,000 on the land no longer worth the amount of the mortgages. Three shifts worked the Greenlead and Garvey paid all  but $90,000 of the $300,000 debt. The family held onto the Greenlead.  It had been leased, sold and worked from time to time. The new owner from Sherman Oaks was on the property a year ago with plans for reopening the long tunnels where there is still said to be quantities of ore  rich enough to pay for mining even under current costs.

Long Cattle Drives

In the wake of the minors cattlemen moved into the San Bernardino Mountains. The old road to Holcomb Valley saw huge drives in both spring and fall as cattle were moved from desert ranges to the mountains and back again.

When the first dam was built at Bear Valley in the 1880s A. E.  Taylor hauled supplies over the old road, then completed and used the road up Cushenbury direct to Bear Valley. Advent  of the Cushenbury gateway, now Highway 18, and the later Mill Creek and crest routes serve to diminish the importance of the old route but it was not closed.

Coxey Meadows

Coxey Meadows

Halfway down to the desert, at the well-known landmark of Coxey’s Ranch, the Forest Service  had one of its early ranger stations. It was one of the picturesque log cabin structures typical of such stations 40 years ago. A search for the station earlier this summer disclosed that he had reverted to the status of a guard station and that two or three years ago it was burned when a gasoline lantern or stove exploded. The old corral remains Coxey’s. Today’s guards campout and have telephone service.

The old road is a popular one with Forest visitors who like to get away from the pavement and camp out. There are public grounds at Horse Springs, Big Pine Flats, and that Hannah Flats. Numerous Springs make the route a well watered one that it is no place for a pavement driver with a low center car.

L. Burr Belden
San Bernardino  Sun-Telegram  September 6, 1959

Some Thoughts

To the uninitiated there is something rather uncertain about the reasons why a person will take time to view a location or an artifact. Ask the visitor why they make the trek or handle an object. The  response may take the form of a smile, and perhaps the timeworn cliché ” because it was there.”  That smile in phrase only does  partial justice in explaining personal gratification.

Why should we visit sites where history of any magnitude happened?  Perhaps it is because a fresh vista creates a more objective insight in pursuit of historical knowledge. Personal enjoyment and related benefits require one to approach a subject with a receptive and determined mindset.

In stories about stagecoaches and freight wagons  we may be entertained or learn about animals, load, dust, storm, good, evil, driver, passenger, comedy, sadness and so forth –  a whole range of emotions. a writer may have captured our imagination in words, but obtaining a complete and satisfying grasp of the event is a personal quest.

Often our inquisitiveness may provide answers only by standing on the spot, embracing the environment, and getting the feeling of how it may have been back when. Imagine sound, smell of man, equipment noise in animals doing the work. Anticipate the next riser dip the road and how it must have affected progress. Consider the impact on those traveling in good, bad, or indifferent weather.  Envision people, dress, available tools, and reasons for passing this way. Think of small but important details, such as animal harness, conveyancing station construction.  Perhaps the preceding thoughts may help create for you a new perspective and enjoyment of history.

Indian Wells Valley Stage and Freight Stops 
1874 – 1906
Comments and Directions by Lou Pracchia
Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert