The Headless Horseman

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)