THE Boundaries of the Mojave Desert are difficult to define. In Kern County it commences at the easterly base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there on it is a continuation of desert as far east as Utah and also covers most of Nevada and Arizona and the southeasterly portion of California. So far as I know, however, only those portions of the desert in the easterly part of Kern County and the northerly part of San Bernardino County are designated on the map as the Mojave Desert.
In my youth the Mojave Desert was regarded by the traveler and prospector as a place to be dreaded and of genuine danger for travel, both in the winter and the summer seasons. In those days there were no mapped roads and in fact very little in the way of roads, usually just two ribbons through the sand where the teaming was being done.
While the springs and watering holes on the desert were reasonably well known, yet they were uncharted and distances were unmarked. There were, therefore, many tragedies recounted of prospectors and travelers dying of thirst in the summertime and of exposure in the winter season, and frequently bodies were not found until they were skeletons.
My Dad often made excursions to the Mojave Desert for prospecting purposes. He firmly believed until the last remaining years of his life that he was some day to find a fabulously rich
mine, so every now and then he would take a team and wagon, with his bed and cooking outfit and a barrel to haul water for himself and his team and make a prospecting trip to the desert.
Ordinarily he was not gone over a month or two, but the last time he was on the desert for two years.
He, of course, became thoroughly acquainted with all the roads, trails, and springs and was well able to lookout for himself and yet, he tells of one instance where he and his two companions almost lost their lives because of having gotten off the road which they should have taken and not discovering it until it was too late to turn back.
It was in the summertime and they left early in the morning, as most of the traveling was done at that time on the desert so that they might avoid the heat and also be sure of arriving at their water hole in ample time.
When they became aware of the fact that they had taken the wrong road they found themselves in a country with which they were totally unacquainted and had no knowledge where the next water was to be found.
As they were following something of a road and as it headed into some mountains in the distance, they felt sure they would find water when they got to these mountains so kept pushing on. The water they had with them gave out shortly after midday and from that time on both the horses and the three men suffered terribly from thirst. This, of course, slowed the pace of the horses. The tongues of all three men swelled badly.
Finally Dad’s two companions became delirious. Dad always said he saved himself by placing a $5 gold piece underneath his tongue. This caused an additional flow of saliva. I have also read in desert lore that if you will cut a small piece of live greasewood and then peel it and place it
on either side and underneath the tongue, it will materially aid the flow of saliva and delay the swelling of the tongue. As your thirst increases one undergoes great torture and finally the tongue swells so badly you are totally unable to talk and in time you become delirious.
The men finally arrived at a canyon in which they could hear the drip of water. It was quite some distance from where the road crossed the canyon. Dad unhitched the team and took them, together with the burro and also all the canteens which they had along and started
up the canyon toward the drip of the water. He finally found a small spring dripping into
a barrel. He realized the danger of over-drinking to both the animals and himself. Therefore,
he securely tied the animals before going to the water and then watered them by a bucket he
had along and allowed them to drink only a bucketful at a time. He was also very cautious of the amount he himself drank. He then filled his canteens and retraced his steps to where his two companions were. He laid them both on the ground, covered their faces with a woolen blanket and poured the water onto the blanket, so that the only moisture they could get was what they could suck from the blanket. This was necessary to avoid over-drinking. He kept this up all
night long. By morning they had sufficiently recovered to be able to speak and to take a little nourishment. It required all the next day, however, before the two of them recovered fully.
They then found themselves in a bad dilemma as they did not know where they were, or
whether to attempt to follow the old wagon trail further, or turn around and go back. They finally decided upon the latter, but retraced their steps mostly during the night and early morning hours.
It was certainly a very narrow escape. Dad always had many stories to tell of the other instances which he knew had happened, of tragedies and near tragedies which had occurred on the desert.
He had participated in many rescues on the desert and also in the finding of many who had not been rescued, all of which rather closely resembled the tales which Dad used to relate.
I also knew of an instance of two miners who had spent years mining on the Mojave Desert and were acquainted with all roads and trails and watering places. The had gone to town for supplies, traveling by night. The next night they attempted to return and took what they thought was a short cut. They got mixed up in some unexpected washes and erosions and did not reach camp until three o’clock the following afternoon. Their tongues were swollen so
they were unable to speak, but did reach camp before they be came delirious. They saved their lives by sucking cold coffee through a woolen blanket.
One time I spent thirty days in Death Valley. It was in April and the weather was quite pleasant, but I was genuinely tortured by thirst. While I had plenty of good water, it would not quench
my thirst. Every swallow was delicious, but each swallow called for another one and no matter how much I drank the thirst continued.
Each day I went to the spring and got into a barrel full of water and stayed in an hour or more, with the hope this would help to relieve the inordinate demand for moisture. It did help, but very little. I finally took refuge in an old mining tunnel and for four days ate and drank nothing except cold tomatoes. This eventually alleviated the intense desire for moisture.
We never left camp that we did not take with us three or four canteens of water. We had a little Ford pickup that we used in traveling around the territory. This was before the days of good roads.
At that time the roads were nothing much more than wagon wheel tracks through the sand and, of course, there were no maps. It was fortunate I was with one who thoroughly knew Death Valley and where every wagon track led to. However, we never left the pickup, even to be gone only an hour, that we did not take a canteen of water with us and usually the water was all
gone by the time we got back to the car. The real cause of the inordinate thirst was the excessive dryness of the atmosphere.
Today there are, of course, excellent roads properly marked and excellent accommodations in Death Valley. It is a genuinely pleasant place to which one can make a trip in the winter and early spring, and also a place to avoid in the summertime.
To me the desert has always been a place of great charm. There are beauties to be seen everywhere and the desert flowers are unsurpassed in beauty.
The many carvings from erosion are often as magnificent and as lacy as the carvings on the cathedrals of Europe and the formations caused by these erosions are of many colorings, making a genuinely inspiring sight to view.
In addition to all of the above is the ever-present haze on the desert. All is inspiring to one who loves the great outdoors. The greatest inspiration, however, is to spend a night on the desert, out underneath the stars. To me there is nothing more moving. You have heard of the beauty which filters down through tinted windowpanes. That is nothing compared to the inspiration which comes to one when spending a night on the desert, out underneath the great dome of Heaven. It certainly makes one feel that there is a great God over all.
Chap 39 – Mojave Desert
Pioneer Days in Kern County
by Arthur S. Crites
The Ward Ritchie Press – 1951
“One of Victor’s (Jacob Nash Victor) greatest contributions was supervision of a number of bridges constructed in San Bernardino County. The first and longest of these was the railroad crossing of the Mojave River in the lower narrows. It is not known just how directly involved he or Perris (Fred T. Perris) were with this project, since their correspondence includes a letter regarding recommendation from New England of another engineer-bridge builder anxious for employment just then. Whoever was directly responsible, huge granite blocks were shaped to fit snugly into cemented buttresses, which have not cracked or moved in over 100 years of continuous use and several devastating floods. The iron bridge, described as one of the finest structures of its kind on this coast, was brought in sections by railroad to Barstow and freighted from there to the site. This bridge was replaced early in the 20th century, including a second set of tracks, but the subsequent structures have all continued to utilize the same basic foundation buttresses. This would be the oldest structure in the region (the buttresses were built in 1885).”
~ History of the Victor Valley – Lyman
Published by Mohahve Historical Society
TODAY’S TRAVELER to Panamint sees a crazy quilt of bare foundations and ramshackle walls. He marvels, too, at the old brick mill which for almost 100 years has challenged decay and oblivion. But it is not what he sees that affects the traveler; it’s what he feels. As he stands on the road looking up Surprise Canyon which nestles unpretentiously on the Western slope of the Panamint Range, about 10 miles south of Telescope Peak, the years roll back. Breezes echo gruff, untutored voices, and there is a raucous clang as the 20-stamp mill’s witchery produces precious silver ingots for shipment to “Frisco,” fabled financial capitol of the 70s. The lizard on the big granite boulder is unimpressed that a bearded miner’s pick lay on this same rock many years ago. And now, one looks vainly on the old dirt road for tracks of heavily-loaded desert burros. They’re gone just like the silver city herself.
The story of Panamint probably began in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock lode. On this’ date a silver fever began which swept the United States and was especially “fatal” in the Western frontier where curiously every man was a modern day Jason tirelessly searching for his kind of fleece. But after 1859 many frontier men thought of just one thing—to trek the unknown for silver.
William T. Henderson was such a man. Spurred on by the silver news emanating daily from the Comstock, and from legends of the enormously rich lost Gunsight mine, the bearded prospector coaxed his burro across colorful Death Valley. With him were S. P. George and Indian George. S. P. George was weaned on the old gunsight lore. Indian George had long since discarded the ways of the red man and made the hopes of the white man his own.
These three dreamers in I860 skirted the flaming cliffs on the west side of Panamint Mountain. While Henderson found nothing to satisfy his thirst for silver, there was something about the ancient granite and metamorphic rocks of Panamint escarpment that promised wealth untold. So, he returned. This time with a legendary adventurer named William Alvord, a sourdough named Jackson, and the ever faithful Indian George. Again Henderson’s dreams of wealth were stymied. He left Panamint never to return. Alvord, his partner, was more unfortunate still. In the upper reaches of Surprise Canyon he was bushwacked by Jackson and left for vultures. All these anxious probings for silver into the desolate sunscorched Panamints were futile. Silver wasn’t discovered until late in 1872 when two of the most colorful champions of the silver west, R. E. Jacobs and Bob Stewart, wandered up Surprise Canyon and found a huge fragment of rich silver ore.
The great migration to the silver diggings began. Crude buildings sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The most useful Panamint edifice was, of course, the Surprise Valley Mining and Water Company’s 20-stamp mill. It was finished in a matter of weeks while miners with huge stacks of ore chaffed at the bit. Good mechanics, carpenters, and millwrights got top wages of $6 per day. Most popular, of course, were the saloons and Panamint in those days had some fine ones. Like San Francisco, Panamint had its own Palace Hotel. Its barroom was built by skilled Panamint craftsmen and had a beautiful black walnut top. On the side walls were handsome pictures of voluptuous females in varying states of dishabille. But Dave Neagle, the owner of this splendid saloon, was especially proud of his magnificent mirror. It was 8 x 6 feet with double lamps on each side.
Fred Yager early determined that his “Dexter” saloon was going to surpass Neagle’s. Fred especially wanted the finest mirror in town. So, he sent to San Diego for a beauty. The mirror installed was to be a 7 x 12 foot sparkler. Tragedy struck, however, when an inebriated miner fell on the shimmering reflector just as it was being positioned against the wall. Sheltered in the confines of his Palace, Dave must have smiled at his rival’s sore plight—perhaps murmuring encouragingly that breaking a mirror leads to seven years bad luck.
There were two outstanding architectural omissions in Panamint. There was no jail—criminals had to be taken to Independence for incarceration. Further, though it was sorely needed, Panamint never had a hospital. On several occasions Panamint News editors Carr and later Harris cried out in their columns for a community hospital. Interestingly enough, the two crusading editors were mute concerning the lack of a jail.
Although it was not bruited about as such, the building owned and tastefully decorated by Martha Camp, played a significant role in the development of the new town. In Martha’s care was a bevy of attractive, if overly painted, young ladies whose lives were dedicated to two things: to make money and keep miners content.
It cannot be doubted, however, that Panamint prosperity was due to its mines. The two richest were suitably entitled Jacobs Wonder and Stewarts Wonder. Assays of these two mines showed ore values ranging from $100 to $4,000 per ton, the average being about $400. Stewart, a well known Nevada senator, later joined with another Nevada senator, J. P. Jones, to form Surprise Valley’s biggest mining combine, The Surprise Valley Company. Stewart and Jones had other
local interests. They owned the Surprise Valley Water Company and a toll road procured from grizzly Sam Tait which trailed up Surprise Canyon. Charges for ascending this road were quite nominal: $2.00 for a wagon, 4 bits for a horseman, and 2 bits for a miner and burro.
The two editors of the Panamint News, at first Carr and later Harris, were rhapsodic in their faith in Panamint’s ultimate prosperity. Late in 1874 the front page of the news throbbed with excitement. “There is reason to believe, the News stated, that a busy population of from three to four thousand souls will be in Panamint in less than a year,” and later, “When we begin to send out our bullion it will be in such abundance as will cause the outside world to wonder if our mountains are not made of silver.” Harris’ beginning enthusiasm must have haunted him later, for his paper of March 2, 1875 modestly informs us that “there were only 600 people at Panamint.”
Despite the fact that the Havilah Miner proclaimed that Panamint City’s silver yield would one day eclipse the Comstock, capital funneled slowly and sporadically into the silver city. Private persons mostly subsidized Panamints mining activities. Senator Jones’ faith in Panamint was shown by hard cash accumulations of partially developed mines. The Senator’s brother caught the silver virus and plunked down $113,000 for a number of claims in the Panamint district. Stock sales never boomed. One wonders if the wildly energetic silver sun of the Comstock lode were not out to eclipse a potential rival. After all, shares in the Con Virginia were flirting a’la Croesus with the San Francisco stock exchange at the $700 mark. More dramatic was E. P. Raine’s method of seeking money for Panamint. He carted 300 lbs. of rich ore across the Mojave to Los Angeles. He staggered into the Clarendon Hotel and dumped the ore on a billiard table. Unfortunately, hotel patrons were more interested in the fact that Raine bought drinks for all than they were in the welfare of Panamint.
Probably the most popular method of getting freight to Panamint was sending goods via Remi Nadeau’s Cerro Gordo Freighting Company. Remi’s swaggering mule teams made daily trips from San Fernando to the Panamint mines. Remi was ever the epitome of optimism. Although untouched by such 20th Century transportation behemoths as the cross country truck and the jet cargo plane, Remi’s corporate slogan was “all goods marked C. G. F. C. will be forwarded with dispatch.”
But most characteristic of Panamint transportation in the early days was the solitary miner who arrived on foot followed by a heavily-laden burro. Within his hair-matted bosom slumbered the lion’s share of the vigor and courage of frontier America. Courage, however, wasn’t always the answer on the torrid road to Panamint. Bleached bones of unlucky prospectors sparkled all too frequently in the Mojave sun. When Panamint hearts were at their lightest and silver ore seemed to stretch like a ribbon of wealth to the center of the earth, the people of Panamint, spear headed by their grey-haired champion, Senator Jones, attempted to build a railroad from Shoo Fly (Santa Monica) to Independence. This railroad was to make Panamint the silver empire of the world. Already England was being heralded as an inexhaustible market for Panamint silver. Unfortunately, however, the railroad was to remain a dream railroad. The project clashed with the wishes of the great Southern Pacific quadrumvirate of Stanford, Crocker, Hopkins, and Huntington. The proposed Shoo Fly to Independence railroad won some initial battles—Senator Jones’ Chinese laborers soundly trounced a corps of General Huntington’s forces in the Cajon Pass, but the good Senator lost the decisive battle for his beloved railroad in the hallowed halls of Congress. The Southern Pacific, sans Winchester, had a clear blueprint for winning the West.
Recreation for Panamint’s thrifty merchants and boisterous sourdoughs centered, of course, in the city’s saloons. Whiskey was excellent and surly Jim Bruce dealt in a neat hand of faro. Whether tired miners came into Dave Neagle’s to ogle at pictures of nude ladies, to have a few drinks, or to chat with lovely, but garishly painted young ladies, all present usually had a good
time. Rarely was there serious gun play. Once a Chinese window washer served as target for the six gun of a frolicsome and intoxicated miner, but usually life in a Panamint bar did little to disturb the city’s reputation as an “orderly community.” In their more gentle moments, some men attended the Panamint Masonic Lodge.
For the respectable female, recreational possibilities were severely limited. Legendary is the dance that Miss Delia Donoghue, proprietress of the Wyoming Restaurant, threw in honor of George Washington, the father of her country. To a four piece combo led by learned Professor
Martin and paced by the twangs of a soused harpist, doughty men danced with 16 lovely ladies, almost the entire female population of the city.
Panamint certainly wasn’t as wicked as Tombstone, but it had its share of crime. Crime in this petulant silver metropolis ranged from writing threatening letters and petty thievery to infamous murder. The anonymous letters were sent to editor Harris. They criticized his reporting of the murder of Ed Barstow, night watchman for the Panamint News building, by gun fighter and chief undertaker Jim Bruce. This murder took place in Martha Camp’s pleasure house on Maiden Lane. Ed learned that his pal Jim was making time with Sophie Glennon who, demimonde damsel or not, was his girl. He burst into the bedroom firing his six gun blindly. Jim, drawing from his wide experience in such emergencies, sighted his target carefully and pumped two bullets into his erstwhile friend. A sentimental wrapping was given the whole affair when on his death bed Barstow confessed that he was drunk at the time and that his friend was guiltless. More sentiment was piled on when editor Harris used the crime as an excuse for moralizing on the dangers of drink.
A woman figured in one Panamint murder. Sleek Ramon Montenegro resented the words Philip de Rouche used to his comely escort. Montenegro, as lithe as a rattlesnake and with all its speed, knocked down the offender. For revenge, de Rouche later used the butt of his gun to play tattoo on Montenegro’s face. However, the handsome Latin won out in the end. Panamint sreets were a sea of flame for one moment as Montenegro’s gun flashed and killed the Frenchman. Taken to Independence for trial by Deputy Sheriff Ball, Montenegro was tried by a
Grand Jury and, although pleading guilty, was acquitted.
Panamint’s most celebrated crime would probably never have been committed if Panamint were a stable community and due process of law an accepted way of righting wrongs in the silver city. A. Ashim was a respected member of the Panamint community. He belonged to the
local Masonic Lodge and ran the town’s largest general merchandising business. But like most town males, Ashim had a six gun and had experience using it. So, when Nick Perasich ran off to Darwin leaving behind an unpaid bill of $47.50 at his store, Ashim walked into a Darwin restaurant. There Ashim shot Perasich three times, killing him instantly. The vendetta which resulted was not inferior to Mafia revenge killings of our day. Perasich’s brothers, led by the volatile Elias, pressed to kill Ashim. They almost succeeded. Hiding behind cornstalks along the roadside, they intercepted the stage and fired into it. Ashim escaped, but his mother received a powder burn on her nose.
But it was those wily ex-New Yorkers, Small and McDonald, who turned Panamint criminology into something resembling a comic opera. From their infamous castle nestled in Wild Rose Canyon, these disheveled silver “knights” rode their sleek chargers into clandestine rendezvous
with those jolting fortresses of the West, Wells-Fargo stage coaches. Once, the wily knaves hunted for a silver mine—and found one. They had no intention of working it. As soon as they could, they unloaded the mine on Senator Stewart. Money received from the sale of the mine
could not have come at a more fortuitous moment for the unholy pair. They had been apprehended by Jim Hume, Wells-Fargo investigator, for robbing the Eureka and Palisades stage. Wells-Fargo forgot to press charges when Small and McDonald turned over to them the money received from the Senator for the sale of the mine.
After their close brush with Wells-Fargo, a legend started by twinkle-eyed Senator Stewart says that the desperados kept their eye on Senator Stewart’s progress with his new mine. Alarmed by the undue concern of the bandits with his property, Stewart devised a clever ruse to
foil the waiting thieves. He melted ore from the mine into five silver balls weighing over 400 pounds each. When the bandits thought the time was ripe, they opened their saddle bags and
pounced on the mine. Imagine their amazement at the sight of the five huge balls of silver. Legend adds that Stewart was horribly vilified by the disappointed pair for his unsportsmanlike conduct. In this case, however, legend is not correct. Remi Nadeau tells us in his book on California ghost towns that Stewart’s mill fashioned five massive ingots as a precaution against theft.
The criminal activities of Small and McDonald were destined to end soon after the robbery on Harris and Rhine’s store in the spring of 1876. Briefly, the brigands made nuisances of themselves around Bodie. A dispute over spoils, however, led to a heated dispute which led to
gun play. John Small was not quite as fast on the draw as his partner.
Why did Panamint die? People nowadays think that the silver veins were surface-bound and did not extend to any great depth. This reasoning appears quite cogent; after all, the silver city’s star did rise and set in four short years. A contrary viewpoint, however, was expressed by
Professor O. Loew who, late in 1875, was quoted as saying: “Never have I seen a country where there was a greater probability of true fissure veins than that of Panamint. In the Wyoming and Hemlock mines large bodies of ore will be encountered.” But even as Loew spoke, decay burdened the wind. Editor Harris left Panamint for Darwin in 1875; Doc Bicknell followed soon after. Before Harris packed his wagon for Darwin he advanced his notion why Panamint died—
the lack of road and rail transportation. Harris genuinely felt that a railroad could have saved the city.
There was another reason why Panamint became an untimely ghost town. Two hard-bitten prospectors, Baldwin and Wilson, discovered two rich mines in the nearby Coso mountains. The two miners told the people of Panamint that they had the two richest mines in the world. Panamint accepted their words and their enthusiasm as gospel. Immediately a great exodus of wagons trailed down Surprise Canyon headed for the promising capital of the Cosos, Darwin. Unquestionably the discovery of these silver mines in the Cosos provided the coup de grace for the already stricken city as Coso mines were “argentiferous” and did not require milling.
The deluge that swept down Surprise Canyon in 1876 was perhaps the final curtain in this historic drama of the old West. Its rushing waters played around empty shacks and deposited layers of heavy silt on little more than dreams. But there was one person enslaved by the charm of the silver city, Jim Bruce. Long after the mines were closed this formidable faro dealer and gunfighter lived a tranquil if uncertain existence in the city he loved.
Panamint flexed feeble muscles of silver again in 1947. On this date Nathan Elliott, movie press agent, established the American Silver Corporation in a last ditch attempt to wrest silver from long dormant Panamint mines. Elliott spun a sumptuous verbal web that entrapped many of the film Capitol’s finest. Aided by Vice President and Comedian Ben Blue, the silver-tongued promoter succeeded in raising $1,000,000. With this money Panamint mines were deepened.
But Elliott’s hopes for a bonanza never materialized. To the wonder and rage of the movie world, the great developer vanished into protective oblivion.
Today Panamint is deserted except for the Thompson sisters who live up Surprise Canyon a few miles north of the old mill. They are old-time residents of the area and their residence, Thompson camp, is a soothing backdrop of green poised against bitter desolation. The Thompson home is encircled by tall trees; a fenced yard secures a well-watered lawn which
always has the appearance of being freshly mowed.’ This is due to the wonderful “automatic mower” owned by these ladies, a dusky well-fed burro.
These soft-spoken daughters of the Mojave own a number of mining claims in the area. From time to time they hire miners to sample ores from neighboring hills or to repair rickety scaffolding. Although, the Thompson sisters run a relaxed operation now, their mining activities
would be greatly accelerated by an increase in the price of silver. You can be assured of this not only from what they say, but also from the silvery sparkle that sometimes dances in their eyes.
Tempest in Silver by Stanley Demes – Desert Magazine – February 1967
Transportation to and from Goldfield improved greatly with the arrival of the railroad. On September 12, 1905, at 12:30 p.m. the first passenger train arrived in Goldfield, greeted by 300 people. It was operated by the Goldfield Railroad Company. The arrival of the Railroad kicked off three days of celebrations, but mourning for some stage lines. In all there would be four railroads serving Goldfield, and one local line operated by the Goldfield Consolidated Milling & Transportation Company.
The Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad built railroad shops and a terminal near Aluminum and Fourth Streets, in May of 1910. The T & G operated until October of 1947, and had a life span of 44 years.The Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad was built in 1906 & 1907, from Las Vegas to Tonopah, and had stops in Beatty, Bullfrog, Rhyolite, and Goldfield. The LV & T ran for 14 years, until October 31. 1918, when the Nevada Department of Highways purchased the railroad right-of-way for Highway 95.
The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad was built starting in November 1905, and completed October 30. 1907. It ran from Ludlow, California northward via Death Valley Junction to Gold Center, just two miles south of Beatty, and then northward on the Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad. The T & T Railroad ran until June 14, 1940, a span of 33 years.
The Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad was constructed starting in May 1906, probably starting at Milltown in the Goldfield Mining District, at the terminal of the T & G tracks, and was completed southward to Beatty by April, 1907. The Bullfrog Goldfield freight depot and maintenance building was situated at Fifth Avenue and Pearl Street across from the Santa Fe Saloon and is under reconstruction today. The Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad operated until January, 1928. During various stages of its existence, the BGRR leased its tracks to either the T&T or LV&T. Management changed hands five times during its 21 year life span.
Railroad Day September 12, 1905. The arrival of the Railroad marked the end of the stage coach to and from Goldfield and Tonopah.
Goldfield Historic Walking Tour Booklet
The Goldfield Historical Society
The famed “Headless Horseman,” found in the desert in 1965 will finally return home Saturday, May 6, 1972. He will go on display for the first time at the Mojave River Valley Museum during the museum’s annual barbecue at Dana Park. Proceeds from the event will be used to continue research to identify the mysterious horseman who met such a sudden and violent death in the sand dunes of what is now the J.D. Mitchell ranch east of Yermo.
The mystery surrounding the Headless Horseman symbolizes the history of the Mojave Desert and particularly the Mojave River Trail. Bones of the man and his horse were found on October 29, 1965, at a dune area that was being leveled by Don Hughes, the picturesque gray-bearded man who was popularly known as Calico’s “uncle Don.”
Hughes was clearing the land when he spotted a highly mineralized axe head. Retracing his bulldozer cut he found a piece of jawbone and skull, then saw bones protruding from the ground thirty feet away. With the help of Mrs. J.D Mitchell he carefully uncovered the find and discovered human bones astride horse bones.
Lt. James K. Harvey and Deputy E.L. Robinson of the Sheriff’s Substation were notified and conducted an investigation along with Deputy County Coroner Walt Terry. Museum director Dr. Gerald Smith and amateur archaeologist Charles Williams excavated and charted the bones, which have been in the custody of the San Bernardino County Museum at Bloomington ever since.
Soon after the find, a drive was started to collect a building fund for a small museum to house the Headless Horseman at Dana Park. With assistance from Barstow service clubs in supporting the museum’s annual barbecues and from sororities, youth clubs and hundreds of individuals, construction began in 1968. Now the unidentified young horseman is returning home to the desert.
An interpretive study of the Headless Horseman does reveal some facts. He was a male, about 21-23, and he was small, probably 5’1″ or 5’2″. His teeth were slightly ground down, indicating some subsistence on stone-ground food containing stone particles. Assumptions could therefore be made that he might have been part Indian and part Mexican or an Indian who worked on a mission or rancho, and he was probably from New Mexico or Southern California.
Another speculation is that he may be a Ute Indian who joined American trappers in raiding California ranches and missions for horses and mules.
It was first thought the young man had been burned because of a black-greenish material found between him and the horse. Closer examination indicated this was homespun cloth discolored by sand, mold and age. The cloth was of two types, one fine-woven and one a burlap like the New Mexican wool blankets, similar to the one in the museum’s Mexican period display.
Three butcher-type knives were found in the upper torso. Since 1826, Jedediah Smith and other trappers had been trading butcher knives with the Ute Indians. Among other items found with the bones were rounded pieces of wood, possibly the remains of a lance; a small metal box containing lumps of yellow vermilion dye which was used by Indians and used to trade with them; a package of percussion caps used in pistols and rifles even after the Civil War; buttons which have not yet been analyzed or classified and various types of cloth. Microscopic study is needed to compare the items with material found in missions and with museum material in New Mexico, Utah and Los Angeles.
Much has also been learned by approaching the mystery from the historic point of view. The discovery area near Minneola Rd. had permanent pools of water until as recently as 30 years ago and was a natural camping spot for the Paiute or Vanyume Indians. The area still shows signs of Indian occupation, chipped chalcedony flakes, broken pottery and fire-broken camp rocks.
When Antonio Armijo opened the New Mexican caravan route to Los Angeles in 1830-31, this became a stopping place before the long stretches between the water holes of Bitter Spring, Salt Springs, the Amargosa River, to Las Vegas and then New Mexico. In every New Mexican expedition there were Indian vaqueros and servants. Frequently the Paiute or Chemehuevi villages were ruthlessly raided for women and children to be sold as slaves to California or New Mexico ranchers.
There were many legitimate traders bringing blankets, serapes and religious items to trade for horses and mules, but they were outnumbered by illegal traders. Choice mules could be purchased for $10 in California and sold for $50 in New Mexico; yet some New Mexicans stole the mules and tame mares or enticed the California Indians to steal them. The inland valley became a grazing area for stolen animals awaiting the yearly traders from New Mexico. The Mojave River Trail was the entry and escape route from 1833 to 1846.
The camping spot on the “Old Spanish Trail,” which was neither old nor Spanish, east of Yermo became known as “Punta de Agua,” or point of water. When the United States took over and opened the military road to Fort Mohave near Needles, the location became known as Forks in the Road. This historic spot (later John Daggett’s Mill and Hawley’s Station) was as important to travelers then as Barstow is today.
Although we know the Mojave River Trail was the key route for legitimate travelers as well as nefarious adventurers, we do not know all the meetings, plans, camping and rendezvous spots the Mojave Desert held before and after the thrusts into the California rancho lands.
Runaway mission Indians, bitter with hatred toward the Mexicans; desert Indians seeking revenge for the annual two-way slave trade of the New Mexicans; the Mohave Indians with a history of disputes with the Spanish, then with the Mexicans; American trappers seeking profits in a world of declining beaver and falling beaver prices; the New Mexicans plotting, who would check in legally to Los Angeles with passports from New Mexico and who would scout the interior valley to trade for stolen mares and mules; Ute Indians under the famed Walkara (Wakara) making his raiding trips, sometimes 1500 miles round-trip. All were a part of the Mojave River scene during the 18th century.
The camping site of Punta de Agua could tell enough stories to fill 1000 novels. One of these could be the unrecorded ambush of a traveler or wrangler bringing in tired horses or an internal dispute between thieves.
The identity of the Headless Horseman may be forever hidden in the mystery of time, space and secrecy.
~ Cliff Walker
(Wm. Mutschler collection)
Mountain man Jim Beckwourth flees California during the Bear Flag Revolt Stealing Horses Along the Way
I had but little time to deliberate. My people was at war with the country I was living in; I had become security to the authorities for the good behavior of several of my fellow-countrymen, and I was under recognizances for my own conduct. The least misadventure would compromise me, and I was impatient to get away. My only retreat was eastward; so, considering all things fair in time of war, I, together with five trusty Americans, collected eighteen hundred stray horses we found roaming on the Californian ranchos, and started with our utmost speed from Pueblo de Angeles. This was a fair capture, and our morals justified it, for it was war-time. We knew we should be pursued, and we lost no time in making our way toward home. We kept our herd jogging for five days and nights, only resting once a day to eat, and afford the animals time to crop a mouthful of grass. We killed a fat colt occasionally, which supplied us with meat, and very delicious meat too rather costly, but the cheapest and handiest we could obtain. After five days’ chase our pursuers relaxed their speed, and we ourselves drove more leisurely. We again found the advantage that I have often spoken of before of having a drove of horses before us, for, as the animals we bestrode gave out, we could shift to a fresh one, while our pursuers were confined to one steed.
When we arrived at my fort on the Arkansas, we had over one thousand head of horses, all in good condition. There was a general rejoicing among the little community at my safe arrival, the Indians also coming in to bid me welcome. I found my wife married again, having been deceived by a false communication. Her present husband had brought her a missive, purporting to be of my inditing, wherein I expressed indifference toward her person, disinclination to return home, and tendering her a discharge from all connubial obligation. She accepted the document as authentic, and solaced her abandonment by espousing her husband’s messenger. My return acquainted her with the truth of the matter. She manifested extreme regret at having suffered herself to be imposed upon so readily, and, as a remedy for the evil, offered herself back again; but I declined, preferring to enjoy once more the sweets of single blessedness.
I left the fort on a visit to San Fernandez. I found business very dull there on account of the war, and great apprehensions were felt by my friends in regard to the result. Perceiving that was no very desirable place to remove to, I returned to my community. General Kearney was just then on his march to Santa Fe. I took a drove of my horses, and proceeded down the Arkansas to meet him on his route; for it was probable there might be an opportunity of effecting some advantageous exchanges. The general came up, and found me in waiting with my stock; we had been acquainted for several years, and he gave me a very cordial reception.
“Beckwourth,” said the general, you have a splendid lot of horses, really; they must have cost you a great sum of money.”
“No, general,” I replied, “but they cost me a great many miles of hard riding.”
“How so?” he inquired.
“Why, I was in California at the time the war broke out, and, not having men enough at my command to take part in the fighting, I thought I could assist my country a little by starting off a small drove of the enemy’s horses, in order to prevent their being used against us.”
“Ah, Beckwourth, you are truly a wonderful man to possess so much forethought,” and he laughed heartily. “However,” added he, ” trade them off as quickly as possible, for I want you to accompany me. You like war, and I have good use for you now.” …
from: The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth
Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians
Of all the brother acts operating in and around San Bernardino County during the Mormon period, Few accomplished more for the ultimate benefit of the area than the Stoddard boys, Arvin and Sheldon.
Neither cut an imposing figure. Arvin, the quiet one, was only 5’5″ tall and weighed 135 pounds soaking wet, while Sheldon wasn’t much larger. But what they lacked in height they more than made up in spirit.
Arvin, however, had an imposing ally in his wife Caroline. She was 6 feet tall and weighed well over 200 pounds — a formidable Amazon and an extremely vocal one too. One is tempted to ask if she carried him across the threshold on their wedding night.
She became Arvin’s mouthpiece and did not hesitate to make her opinions known, particularly when the chips were down. As their grandson, R. Jackson Stoddard wrote in the March 1970 issue of the LA Westerners Branding Iron, “For although she followed the will of her husband, in many cases the will of her husband was truly only a reflection of her own wants and desires.”
Today, a stretch of the Mojave Desert between Victorville and Daggett is blanketed with sites bearing the Stoddard’s names. They include the Stoddard Mountains, Stoddard Hills, Stoddard gulch, Stoddard Valley, Stoddard Well and Stoddard Wells Road — all directly attributable to Arvin’s work in the area during the 1850s and 60s.
There were four Stoddard Brothers at the beginning; Rufus, Albert, Arvin and Sheldon, who were all born in Canada. When their father died in 1838, mother Jane gathered them all up and crossed the United States border, first to Ohio in then to Warsaw, Illinois, where she became hooked on the Mormon religion. When the church made it’s great trek to Salt Lake City in 1847, she and her boys were in the initial contingent.
Rufus was the first of the boys to reach California, arriving in San Diego as a member of the Mormon Battalion. After his group was disbanded in Los Angeles, he remained in the area for almost a year before he rejoining his family at Salt Lake City in 1849.
Sheldon was the next to go. Leaving Salt Lake in 1848, along with 30 other men found for the placer diggings near hang town, they traveled as far as Mountain Meadows with a larger company who hired Capt. Jefferson Hunt to guide them to Los Angeles over the Old Spanish Trail.
At the Meadows they left Hunt’s party and turned west to take what they thought was a shortcut to the gold fields and for the next 17 days blindly followed a false trail without a guide, compass or map to go by.
On the 18th day, hopelessly lost in facing death without water their lives were spared when a sudden rain squall drenched the area. As Sheldon later wrote, “We caught the water by spreading out our rubber blankets on the ground and drank it with a spoon.”
They then turned east on the Muddy River, followed at South until they fortunately encountered Capt. Hunt’s company again and accompanied it up the Mojave River, through Cajon Pass and down to the Chino Ranch.
Tragically enough, on the same trip another group of would-be minors left Hunt’s command at Provo, Utah, insisting they also knew a shorter route to the gold fields, only to blunder into Death Valley, where five died before the survivors made it to Los Angeles.
From Chino the party went on to Mariposa, where they broke up to mine, while Stoddard ran a trading post in nearby Carson Valley for a few months before returning to Salt Lake with a herd of horses and mules.
in March 1851 Sheldon married Jane Hunt, daughter of Capt. Hunt, and the following month they accompanied the first group of Mormon colonizers to the San Bernardino Valley, making temporary camp at Sycamore Grove.
After the Mormons purchased the San Bernardino Rancho that September, and moved down into the valley, Sheldon built the first log cabin in the settlement on First Street,, west of I Street. His cabin was later moved to and made part of the Westside of this stockade constructed on the present courthouse site as protection against hostile Indians.
For the next 14 years Sheldon Stoddard was engaged in freighting and carrying mail between San Bernardino and Salt Lake City, crossing the Mojave 24 times in all. In 1865 he made one trip to Nevada in Montana with a mule team which covered over 1300 miles, and took six months to complete.
Arvin Stoddard and his wife also came to San Bernardino with the first Mormon train and lived in the stockade for three years before receiving an urgent message from Mormon leader Brigham Young, authorizing him to investigate a gold strike in the Calico Hills to see if he could ” obtain as much gold as possible to help finance the founding and furtherance of the faith,” keeping only enough to live on during the venture.
Arvin and Caroline, ardent church devotees, packed their wagon and with their poor young children in tow, headed for the hills without hesitation.
But before looking for gold, Arvin search for water to raise crops to feed his family and stock and to flush through sluice boxes used to separate flakes of gold from the desert sand.
One of his more successful wells, known as Stoddard Well, is still flowing today and besides furnishing the family with ample water, also provided and impetus for others to break out a new road on almost a straight line from Lane’s Crossing, near today’s Oro Grande, to Fish Ponds Station between present-day Barstow and Daggett, thereby saving many miles compared with the old route, which followed the westward band of the Mojave River.
Although it took him almost 8 years of prospecting, Arvin finally struck a rich claim and extracted a sum that Caroline estimated at $60,000 before calling it quits and lighting out for Salt Lake City to hand to Brigham Young.
But before they reach the Mormon Temple, they were held up by Indians and robbed of all their hard-earned loot, except for a few thousand dollars hidden in Caroline’s underwear.
As her grandson related, “The Indians were neither red nor brown. they were more white than any Indian she (Caroline) had ever seen.” Caroline deduced they were renegade Mormons, acting on behalf of the church, and although her suspicions were never resolved, her once benevolent attitude toward the Mormon hierarchy changed overnight and led to her eventual break with the church.
In 1869 the Arvin Stoddards move to Milford, Utah, where they build a hotel called, naturally, “The Stoddard House,” where they lived until Caroline died in 1904.
Sheldon Stoddard remained in San Bernardino for the rest of his life, Rev. and honored by all who knew him for his contributions to the county and state.
After serving as president of the pioneer society, he spent his final years surrounded by old friends like John Brown and Billy Holcomb. They camped and fished together in their mountain retreats and dedicated monuments to the pioneers in Cajon Pass. he was active up to the day of his death in 1919 at the age of 89.
Heritage Tales 1988
by Fred Holladay
published by the City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society
In 1930, Lucerne Valley boasted having this post office building on the Box “S” Ranch in this widely homesteaded area. Famed for its pure Mojave dry air, World War I veterans who suffer being gassed in France found breathing here are easy. One section of the valley is called “Little Inglewood.” This stems from many homesteaders, originally from Inglewood, California, moving there in the 1920s and 1930s.
from – Images of America – Mojave Desert by John Swisher
A hacksaw doesn’t do much good in a jail without bars to saw through. Dagget jail was a 10 x 15′ unventilated, suffocating, box made of railroad ties. There was absolutely no insulation meaning it was oven-hot in the summer, and icy, frozen-cold in the winter. Of course, this was the charm and ambiance of the jail which was meant to be reformatory rather than rehabilitative. It was punishment, and being cooped up with four or five other men; thieves, miscreants, dubious characters, cheats and/or drunks–making the place unbearable, and whether you remained in town or left, a man just didn’t want to go back.