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The American Desert

BY JOHN C. VAN DYKE

John C. Van Dyke

I went alone into the desert with only a fox terrier and a buckskin pony, for company. There was no one on the edge who knew about the interior and those that talked as though they knew did not care to go with me. I was promised plenty of trouble. Predecessors had been “caught up with” again and again. Their bodies, dried like Egyptian mummies, had been found in the sands long after by Indians. The heat and the drought were unbearable, there were sand storms, sulphurcous whirlwinds, poisonous springs, white gypsum wastes, bewildering mirages, desert wolves, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, hydrophobia skunks. I would never come out alive. But I went in, tempted Providence, off and on, for two and a half years, and still live to tell the tale. After all, the dangers were not great. I had had, as a boy, considerable experience in Indian life and was not afraid of the open. And I had no fear of being alone or getting lost. My sense of direction was as keen as that of a homing pigeon, and when I was equipped with food and had located a water hole it really made no difference to me whether I was lost or found. I always knew my general direction, and with the ever-constant sun and stars I could not lose the points of the compass There are two ways of outfitting for a trip into the unknown. The one usually followed is to pack every article of plunder that might be thought desirable. ‘chat generally results in wearing out the most enduring pack train. I preferred the other way, the Indian way, of carrying very little, going light-shod, and retaining ease of movement. So, for myself, I wore nothing but a cotton shirt and trousers, a flat straw hat, and, on my feet, moccasins. I made my own moccasins, Sioux style, with a pointed toe, of strong mule-deer hide. A pair of blankets, a small hatchet, a short-handled shovel, some rawhide picket ropes, several tin cups, a small frying pan, a rifle for large game, and a .22-caliber single-barrel pistol for birds—
The MENTOR Vol. 12 No. 6 Serial #257 JULY, 1924

Scenes in America Deserta

by Peter Reyner Banhamorld:

Las Vegas, Nv.

Las Vegas, Nv.

“Las Vegas is a symbol, above all else, of the impermanence of man in the desert, and not least because one is never not aware of the desert’s all pervading presence; wherever man has not built nor paved over, the desert grimly endures – even on some of the pedestrian islands down the center of the Strip! The presence of such an enclave of graceless pleasures in such an environment is so improbable that only science fiction can manage it; the place is like the compound of an alien race, or a human base camp on a hostile planet. To catch this image you need to see Las Vegas from the air by night, or better still, late in the afternoon, as I first saw it, when there is just purple sunset light enough in the bottom of the basin to pick out the crests of the surrounding mountains, but dark enough for every little lamp to register. Then – and only then – the vision is not tawdry, but is of a magic garden of blossoming lights, welling up at its center into fantastic fountains of everchanging color. And you turned to the captain of your spaceship and said, ‘Look Sir, there must be intelligent life down there,’ because it was marvelous beyond words. And doomed – it is already beginning to fade, as energy becomes more expensive and the architecture less inventive. It won’t blow away in the night, but you begin to wish it might, because it will never make noble ruins . . . .”

Peter Reyner Banham. 1982. Scenes in America Deserta. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith. Pages 42-43.

Michael White (Miguel Blanco) & Rancho Muscupiabe

The Old Spanish Trail had become increasingly used as a pack mule trail between New Mexico and California, and with this traffic came the opportunity for those to take advantage of the distance and desperate nature of the land.

Map of some of the land grants and ranchos in southern California

The rich ranchos of southern California.

California horses were beautiful creatures, and the mules were taller and stronger than those in New Mexico and they were easy to steal.  The rolling hills and plains presented clear paths to the  Cajon where numerous hidden canyons and washes were available to slip into and prepare for the furious run across the desert. Horses would be stolen in herds from many different ranchos at once. Hundreds of horses, even thousands could be commandeered and driven by just a few experienced thieves.

Chief Walkara, ‘Hawk of the Mountains’ and the greatest horse thief in all of history along with his band of renegade Chaguanosos , and notables such as Jim Beckwourth and Pegleg Smith would work together in this illegal trade. During one raid they were said to have coordinated the theft of 3,000-5,000 horses, driving them to Fort Bridger to trade for more horses to run to New Mexico to trade again. Horses would fall from exhaustion every mile and the local bands of Paiute would feast on the remains.

Devore, ca. at mouth of Cajon Pass

From the piedmont between Devil and Cable canyons, Miguel Blanco could keep an eye out for horse thieves entering the Cajon.

 

In 1843 Michael White was granted one league of land at the mouth of the Cajon Pass called Rancho Muscupiabe. At a point overlooking the trails leading into and away from the canyon he was expected to thwart the raiders and horse thieves that were plaguing the Southern California ranchos. In theory it was a good plan but in practice it did not work so well.

Map of Muscupiabe Rancho, Michael White, Miguel Blanco

Muscupiabe Rancho

 

 

 

Crowder Canyon/Coyote Canyon along Old Spanish Trail/John Brown Toll Road

Hundreds and sometime even thousands of stolen horses from the ranchos would burst through Coyote Canyon beginning their ‘journey of death’ across the Mojave.

He built his home of logs and earth and constructed corrals for his stock. However, the location between Cable and Devil Canyon only served as a closer and more convenient target for the Indian thieves. His family was with him, but after six weeks until it became too dangerous. He left after nine months without any livestock, in debt and bitter.

Crowder Canyon map in Cajon Pass

Crowder (Coyote) Canyon – Initially named ‘Coyote’ canyon for Chief Coyote, a horse thief who was killed by Miguel Blanco within the narrow canyon walls.

As the late 1840s and 1850s rolled by wagon roads were being developed in the canyon minimizing the effectiveness of the maze of box canyons being used to cover the escape of desperadoes on horseback.

Victor Valley Crossings

Fr. Francisco Hermenegildo Tomás Garcés, (April 12, 1738 – July 18, 1781) was a Spanish priest who crossed the Mojave Desert in 1776. This map shows his route across the Victor Valley. Following the Mojave River after crossing at Oro Grande he walked through what is now downtown Victorville bypassing the rocky narrows and connecting back with the river near today’s Mojave Narrows Regional Park. Following the river to where the West fork and Deep Creek join to form the Mojave. He visited with the Indians then made his way up Sawpit Canyon and over the mountain ridge descending into the verdant sycamore grove that is known today as Glen Helen.

This map shows the route of Fr. Garces in 1776 during his crossing west. His diary it describes him being taken to an Indian village in the mountains.

50 years after Fr. Garcés made his way across the Mojave from the Colorado River, in 1826, Jedediah Smith retraced the trail of Garcés along the river then up and over the mountains. In 1827, one year after his first crossing, Smith had lost most of his men in a massacre at the Colorado River. Desperate for the safety of civilization, Smith, after crossing the Mojave River in Oro Grande, made his way directly to the Cajon Pass bypassing the San Bernardino Mountains.

The direct route over the summit and down the pass eliminates the steep climb and descent over the San Bernardino Mountains.

$150,000 Summit Road Route Being Considered

Summit Valley Road

Summit Valley Road

State Highway Commissioner Darlington has under advisement the matter of which route to choose for the 15-mile state highway to be built from Summit to Victorville at a cost of $150,000.  A delegation headed by Louis Evans of Hesperia asked Darlington to choose the route that would include Hesperia on the highway.

Los Angeles Herald, Number 58, 8 January 1919

Farmland – Oro Grande

Farmland in Oro Grande along the Mojave River

Farmland in Oro Grande

“During his years at the upper crossing, Captain Lane, as Aaron was known throughout much of his life in California, had ample opportunity to discover where the richest farmlands lie along the Mojave River.”

Pioneer of the Mojave – Green Gold and Mint Juleps

Riverside Cement – Oro Grande

Oro Grande Riverside cement plant, Victor Valley, Mojave Desert

Riverside Cement in Oro Grande, CA started in 1907 as the Golden State Cement Plant. It was shut down during the depression and restarted as Riverside Cement in 1942. The plant was enlarged and completely rebuilt in the late 40s. In late 1997, TXI purchased Riverside Cement.

More about Oro Grande

Keeler to Mojave by Stage

Book Review: 101 moments in Eastern Sierra History
by Dave Babb

“In the 1890s, Mr. W.K. Miller established a six horse stage line between Keeler, on the northeast shore of Owens Lake, and Mojave.

The stage left Keeler and Mojave every other day at noon. In those days the trip took nearly 24 hours of continuous dusty travel through cactus and sand, and around hummocks.

The coach was that typical Concorde carriage of the day, square and rather high. It had a door on each side, and multiple layers of leather straps served as springs.

Inside,  two seats face each other and eight people could be seated. A ninth could write on top with the driver and kids could sit on their parents laps. The fare was $10 per person.

The first leg of the trap, from Keeler to Olancha, was the roughest part of all — taking up to six hours. After a change of horses, which took about five minutes,  Haiwee could be reached in another three hours.

They changed horses eight times during the trip, and had to average about 5 mph to make a few Mojave by noon.  Some 60 horses were kept in reserve to keep the stage rolling in on time.

Passengers carried their own food and water, and comfort stops were made upon request — behind the nearest bush at the back of the stage.”

Dave Babb first came to the eastern Sierra in 1952, at the age of 13 for a two-week camping and hiking trip along the John Muir Trail.   after completing his education receiving BS and MS degrees in wildlife biology he returned to Bishop with his wife and their three children.

He has authored or co-authored nearly two dozen publications on the history and natural resources of the Inyo-Mono region and written more than 170 articles on Eastern Sierra wildlife.

This is a great little book to own, entertaining and informative.
You may be able to find it here.

101 moments in Eastern Sierra History
by Dave Babb
Published by Community Printing
ISBN 10: 0912494395 ISBN 13: 9780912494395