These Canyons Are Full of Ghosts: The Last of the Death Valley Prospectors Emmett C. Harder
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Nowadays tourists from all over the world travel to Death Valley but most all of them never see the romantic and mysterious badlands, the south end of the valley. This area is off the beaten path, remote and dangerous! This book is about the gold hunters that loved to search the southern wastelands, the high hills and deep canyons, come hell or high water. It is about their last days, an era lost forever. The whole valley is off limits now for prospecting. No longer can you hear the distant sound of dynamite nor will you see men or women in tattered denim clothes, with pick and shovel, working their mining claims. However in these pages you can step back to when they were there, and share their excitement and share their dreams–and you will be sure to strike it rich!
Grit and Gold: The Death Valley Jayhawkers of 1849
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No other Western settlement story is more famous than the Donner Party’s ill-fated journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But a few years later and several hundred miles south, another group faced a similar situation just as perilous.
Scrupulously researched and documented, Grit and Gold, tells the story of the Death Valley Jayhawkers of 1849 and the young men who traveled by wagon and foot from Iowa to the California gold rush. The Jayhawkers’ journey took them through the then uncharted and unnamed hottest, driest, lowest spot in the continent—now aptly known as Death Valley.
After leaving Salt Lake City to break a road south to the Pacific Coast that would eliminate crossing the snowy Sierra Nevada, the party veered off the Old Spanish Trail in southern Utah to follow a mountaineer’s map portraying a bogus trail that claimed to cut months and hundreds of miles off their route to the gold country. With winter coming, however, they found themselves hopelessly lost in the mountains and dry valleys of southern Nevada and California.
Abandoning everything but the shirts on their backs and the few oxen that became their pitiful meals, they turned their dreams of gold into hopes of survival. Utilizing William Lorton’s 1849 diary of the trek from Illinois to southern Utah, the reminiscences of the Jayhawkers themselves, the keen memory of famed pioneer William Lewis Manly, and the almost daily diary of Sheldon Young, Johnson paints a lively but accurate portrait of guts, grit, and determination.
Halleck had zapped in here before. There was no point in attempting to figure out a time or how long ago anything was. There was space and that was strange because there had become a time of no time. There were infinities upon infinities of possibilities actually everywhere.
Moving was simply a matter of being, and that was everywhere. That was how those big-winged birds could fly backward smoothly in jilted frames. The wind was a concern. It was spiraling at supersonic speeds. Mannequins were crying as pretend hands melted away swirling as a gaseous plastic mist into the voracious storm. There was no time, so unfortunately there was neither beginning nor end for the suffering mannequins.
Halleck came to find his love, Betty Dont, which in itself was an omen.
Under the Metallic Sun: Invasive Species (Mirror sun and stucco flower by Dennis Rudolph)
By Francisco Tomás Hermenegildo Garcés, Elliott Coues
Crossing the Sierra
Mar. 21. Leaving the river I set forth southwest- ward, and having gone two leagues through a Canada and some hills, I arrived at a rancheria of five huts (xacales) on the bank of the river.
I continued on a course to the south and entered into a Canada of much wood, grass, and water; I saw many cottonwoods, alders, oaks, very tall firs, and beautiful junipers (sabinos); and having gone one league I arrived at a rancheria of about 80 souls, which I named (Rancheria) de San Benito. I was received with great joy, and they made me the same obeisance.
Mar. 22. I went three leagues and passed over the sierra by the southsouthwest.
The woods that I said yesterday reach to the summit of this sierra, whence I saw clearly the sea, the Rio de Santa Anna, and the Valle de San Joseph. Its descent is little wooded. At a little distance from its foot I found another rancheria where the Indians received me very joyfully. I continued westsouthwest, and having traveled three leagues along the skirt of the sierra, I halted in the Arroyo de los Alisos.
Mar. 23. I traveled half a league westsouthwest, and one south, at the instance of some Indians who met me and made me go to eat at their rancheria. Thereafter having gone another league westsouthwest I came upon the road of the expedition, which . . .
1: factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation
the data is plentiful and easily available— H. A. Gleason, Jr. comprehensive data on economic growth have been published— N. H. Jacoby
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answered to the best of my knowledge
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from; WILLIAM WOLFSKILL, THE PIONEER [Read June 23, 1902.] BY H. D. BARROWS.
I now propose to give some account of William Wolfskill. Mr. Wolfskill was born in Madison county, Kentucky, March 20, 1798, and was reared from the age of eleven to twenty-one, in what is now Howard county, Missouri, but which then was in the heart of the Indian country.
The Indians of that region during the War of 1812 were so bad that the settlers had to carry their fire-arms at the plow and to be unceasingly on their guard, night and day.
After the war, in 1815, William went back to Kentucky to attend school. In 1822, at the age of twenty-four, he started out in the world on his own account to seek his fortune, to penetrate still farther into the far West, and to find “a better country” in which to settle.
With a party under a Captain Becknell, he went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He spent the summer of 1822, at Santa Fe, and in the fall engaged in trapping beaver. He went down the Rio Grande to El Paso del Norte in January, 1823.
He was accompanied on this trip by a single companion, a New Mexican, who had trapped beaver with him the fall before. They caught what beaver they could as they proceeded down the river. The weather was cold, the ground being covered with snow; and to protect themselves from the cold they built a small brush house.
Within this, with a fire in front, they could lie down and keep warm. One night (the 27th of January, 1823) Mr. Wolfskill waked up and saw that the New Mexican had built a big fire at the door; but he thought nothing of it, and dropped asleep again. But some time after he was aroused to consciousness by receiving a rifle ball in his breast. He jumped up and rushed outside, where he stumbled and fell, and although it was moonlight he saw no one. He had first reached for his rifle, which had been lying beside him, but that was gone, only the shot-pouch remaining.
Supposing that marauding Indians had shot him and killed his companion, who was missing, he thought it was all over with him. At first, he believed himself mortally wounded, which doubtless he would have been had not the ball been retarded by passing through his blankets and also through his right arm and left hand, his arms having been folded across his breast while asleep.
He was able to rise again, and he started back on foot for the nearest Spanish settlement, called Valverde (Green Valley) twenty or twenty-five miles distant, where a small military force was stationed, and where he finally arrived late the next morning, well-nigh exhausted – cold, faint, and weak, from the loss of blood. He went to the Alcalde, who made the matter known to the guard.
Meantime, who should make his appearance but the New Mexican, who reported that he had been attacked by Indians, and that his partner (Mr. Wolfskill) was killed. But he was considerably astonished to learn that Mr. Wolfskill had got in before him.
He was compelled to go back with the soldiers at once (much against his will), and show them where Mr. Wolfskill had been shot. There they found, in the snow, the footprints of the two trappers, and none others.
The New Mexican had told the soldiers that the Indians shot Mr. Wolfskill and had taken the gun, etc., and that he (the New Mexican) had shot several arrows at them. No signs of Indians were discovered, and of the arrows he had been known to have had beforehand, none were found missing.
They took him back to Valverde bound, and kept him confined several days, where he came near being frozen. He finally promised to go, and did go, and show them where the gun was hidden. He then pretended that he had shot Mr. Wolfskill accidentally, not being used to the hair-trigger of the rifle. He got on his knees, and opening his shirt, bared his breast and asked Mr. Wolfskill to take his life, if he had wronged him, etc.
But the evidence was too strong to be evaded, or to be explained, except by his guilt.
He was examined by the Alcalde, who ordered him to be sent off to the Governor of New Mexico, at Santa Fe, for trial. But Mexican fashion – is it not sometimes also an American fashion? – his punishment was delayed, and he was kept going back and forward, under escort, between Valverde and Santa Fe; and at last, as Mr. Wolfskill afterwards learned, he was turned loose – a denouement which in similar cases has been known to happen in the United States.
What motive the New Mexican could have had for thus shooting his companion, Mr. Wolfskill never could imagine, unless possibly it was for the sake of the old rifle, for that was about all Mr. Wolfskill had in the world, except a few old beaver traps; and there existed no enmity between them. They had never had any quarrel, or any cause for quarrel.
But an old Mexican – a good-hearted man, with whom they had once stopped, up the river – had warned Mr. Wolfskill to be on his guard against that man, “for,” said he, “he is a bad man.”
For so little cause, or for no cause at all, other than the instincts of a devilish heart, will some men attempt murder. Mr. Wolfskill was of the opinion that the loss of blood, and his nearly freezing in that long tramp to the settlement, saved his life. The ball did not penetrate his breast-bone, and was soon afterwards extracted. He bore the marks of the wounds on his person to his dying day. In fact, it is a question if they were not the remote origin of the (heart) disease of which he died, although his death occurred many years after those ghastly wounds were received.
If this society could gather the multitudinous and exciting episodes of hair-breadth escapes of each one of the adventurous pioneers who came to this distant land, either overland or by water, the collection would be unique in variety and interest as well as in permanent historical value.
Adapted from Watch Dogs of the San Bernardino Valley San Bernardino County Museum Association– Winter 1970
Foremost among the unsung heroes of San Bernardino County during its formative years is Chief Juan Antonio of the Cahuilla tribe. Records speak of this “Watch dog of the Valley” as early as 1844. As an enforcer of the laws and protector of the Valley, he had no peer, and to him, more than anyone else, the towns of San Bernardino and Redlands owe their survival in those early years.
Juan’s birthplace is recorded as having been in San Timoteo in 1873 as closely as we can tell. Undoubtedly, Juan had been raised with a knowledge about the white man and his ways, for long before 1835 the Cahuillas and Serranos of this region had been partially Christianized, hence Juan had been subjected to the thinking and actions of the Spanish before we hear of him in the historical records.
Christian teaching seem to have had little effect in Juan’s personal life, or the lives of the Cahuillas as a tribe, for early records time and time again refer to their returning to untamed savages. As a group the Cahuillas were fierce and loved the sting of battle, as their name brings out. (Cahuilla, Master, or The Great Nation.) The Cahuillas were short of stature and almost black in complexion.
Being from such an aggressive tribe and realizing what was expected from the chiefs of other tribes at that time, one can only assume that Juan Antonio was not an exception to the rule and that he no doubt also won recognition and respect the hard way.
The first time the records speak of Juan Antonio in San Bernardino history came at a time of crisis for the Lugo family. Neophyte Indians of the Valley had joined in with their savage brothers from the desert and were raiding the ranchos of the region. Protection and aid during those years was hard to come by.
The Lugos had previously made an agreement with the Trujillo family whereby they turned over the Politana area for aid in stopping such raids.
Juan Bandini, who was also looking for the same kind of protection, offered the Truillos a better deal in the “Bandini Donation,” hence the Trujillos pulled up stakes and moved to their new home.
Just how the Lugos and Antonio met and agreed on a working agreement is not stated however.
“After the departure of the settlers from Politana, the Lugos placed Juan Antonio, the Cahuilla chieftain, on the vacated tract, and he and his warriors rendered faithful service in protecting the lugo stock. In a letter Antonio Maria wrote to a friend in Los Angeles in February, 1844, he said that very day Cahuillas were fighting near San Bernardino with savage Indians whom he was expecting to attack the rancho at any moment, presumably to run off his livestock. This encounter may have marked the coming into the Valley of Juan Antonio and his followers, and their behavior then may have suggested the idea of enlisting their aid in combating Paiute and Mohave intruders regularly.
“Juan Antonio did not occupy the adobes on the bluff, but located his rancheria on the ridge near the headquarters of Vincente Lugo, and near the settlement and near the settlement of unconverted Indians to whom Antonio Maria had referred to in his petition of four years before. The abandoned cabins became mere landmarks. In 1851, when the Los Angeles County Court of Sessions defined the public road from San Gabriel to San Bernardino, it described it as running “by the old pueblo of the New Mexicans, known as Apolitan.” The settlement seems even then to have been so nearly forgotten that the name Apolitan was being applied to Vicente Lugos rodeo grounds and to the rancheria on the ridge.”
Thus began a long and close friendship that was to last until the end of the Mexican period in the Valley. Right up until the end, Juan Antonio’s loyalty to his employer never wavered. It was during the Mexican War that Antonio showed his faith in the Lugos. While other Indian groups were quick to desert their sponsors and join with what looked like the sure winners, Antonio held fast to his bargain.
“Helen Hunt Jackson says that he received the title of ‘General’ from General Kearney during the Mexican War and never appeared among the whites without some signs of a military costume about him.”
The Luiseno Indians of the Pauma Valley, seeing the Mexican troops defeated by the Americans, sensed an opportunity to impress the new rulers by joining with them. Eleven Mexican troopers were massacred by the Luiseno tribe in the most horrible way. Vengeance, however, has a way of striking back.
“General Flores was heading the revolting Californians in Los Angeles at this time, and when the news of the killing of Pico’s troopers reached him, he delegated Jose del Carmen Lugo to go in pursuit of the assassins. Lugo left Los Angeles with fifteen men, and recruited along the way until he had twenty-one, five from San Bernardino. Juan Antonio went with fifty of his fighting men. By a ruse, Lugo succeeded in catching the Luisenos in an ambush, killed many of them and captured others. The captives were placed in the charge of Juan Antonio, who promptly put them to death. When reproached by Lugo for his needles cruelty, he remarked coolly that if they had caught him they would have roasted him alive. He added that Lugo was captain of white men, while he was captain of Indians, and there was a difference. This wreaking vengeance on the Luisenos by Lugo’s party was regarded as a noteworthy exploit.
The signing of the articles of capitulation at Cahuenga brought very little change in the established pattern of life in the area. Cattle, horses, and sheep were the economic basis of the ranchos, hence records continue to record raids into the Valley and the use of Chief Antonio’s Cahuillas in meeting such forays with force.
“San Bernardino, February 3, 1848. … I write to inform you of what occurred today. We set out for the mountains of the Agua Caliente in pursuit of the Indians who stole the horses, and Juan Antonio and his people fought with them and killed six Indians, two of them captains.”
The Americans proved to be more aggressive than had the Spanish authorities and in most areas the Indians were quickly brought into line by a strong show of power. San Bernardino, however, was still somewhat of a frontier area and the Indian problem persisted for some time.
“During the winter of 1850-51, Wak’s (Walkara) Utah Indians had been particularly active, harrying the ranchos in the San Bernardino Valley as far west as the present towns of Pomona, Claremont and Azusa. So great was the annoyance they caused that a large party of Californians and Americans, supplied with firearms from the United States military post at Chino, went in pursuit of them. General J. H. Bean, commander of the militia in Southern California, finally recommended that a company of fifty volunteer rangers be authorized by General McDougal as a protection for these frontier regions. The company was organized and stationed in Cajon Pass. Later, because of persistent bad weather at that point, General Bean moved it near Apolitan on Lugo’s ranch, and established Camp Dolores, not far from the present San Bernardino Valley Junior College grounds.
“Before the rangers had gone to the Cajon, the Utahs had driven off a large band of gentle horses belonging to Jose Maria Lugo, of Jumba, and he and his neighbors, accompanied by Juan Antonio, and his warriors, pursed the robbers into the desert. On the Mojave River they received a volley of rifle balls from an ambuscade, and one of the white men of the party was killed.”
On their way back from the ambush that had taken place during the pursuit of Walkara, two of Jose Maria Lugo’s sons, accompanied by two others of the original group, ran into a couple of men encamped in the Cajon. After ascertaining their presence in the valley the young men returned home. A few days later, another party going through the pass found the wagon and the bodies of the two white men who had been encamped in the Cajon. The two young Lugo boys were blamed for their murders. The case was transferred to Los Angeles. Here, an American soldier, John Irving, accompanied by a number of Sidney Ducks and other ex-soldiers, offered to tear down the jail and free the two Lugo boys for $5000. The grand old man refused, preferring to depend on his lawyer and justice. This infuriated Irving and he threatened to kill both the Lugo boys if they were set free. To make a long story short, the Lugo boys were set free. Irving, in the meantime, swore revenge on the Lugo family and headed with his men to San Bernardino. He got mixed up on his way, however, and stayed at the Rubidoux Rancho. In the meanwhile, the Lugos had been warned. The “Watch Dog” was waiting and a running battle took place across the Redlands plains to the Sepulveda home in Yucaipa. From here Irving and his men made it to San Timeteo Canyon only to be bottled up by Juan Antonio and his braves. In the ensuing fight, eleven of the twelve man army, including Irving, were killed.
May 1941 The bonanza days in the Death Valley region have long since passed, but grizzled prospectors are still picking away in the hills, confident that rich ledges of gold and silver are yet to be uncovered.
By LeROY and MARGARET BALES Desert Magazine – May 1941
The bonanza days in the Death Valley region have long since passed, but grizzled prospectors are still picking away in the hills, confident that rich ledges of gold and silver are yet to be uncovered. Ballarat was one of the boom towns in that area in the late ‘nineties. Only crumbling walls and a few weathered shacks remain on the treeless landscape to mark the site of the town today but some of the veteran mining men still spend their winters there—and Ballarat will never die while these old-timers remain to recall tales of the past and keep their faith in the new strikes yet to be made.
A ghost town with living inhabitants–that’s Ballarat. Standing on a treeless desert horizon at the foot of California’s Panamint mountains, its roofs are mostly gone, its walls are crumbling away—but in a few of the ancient shacks still dwell men “who knew the town when.”
They are a restless lot, these surviving desert rats of the old days—here today, tomorrow somewhere in the mountains 20 miles away. They come and go like the ghosts of the gala, golden era in which the town sprung into being.
Panamint Tom, the killer Indian; Shorty Harris, the most successful—and the most unlucky—prospector who ever packed a burro; French Pete, and a hundred others—famous and infamous—had a part in the boom day era. And one other, whose name on the desert is synonymous with Ballarat—Chris Wicht—-0l’ Chris, who ran the saloon, kept it open in fact long after the town itself had died.
For four years after the boom’s collapse Chris “fed and drank” the stranded prospectors “because I couldn’t help but feel I owed them something. They always left their dollars with me when they had ’em.”
“I “Kept figuring the town would come back,” he explains, “but when I’d gone broke too and no rich strikes made I knew I’d finally have to fold up.”
He doesn’t think he was generous. “I had it. They needed it. They paid me when they could,” is the way he puts it. Maybe that’s why, whenever you mentionBallaratin a desert mining town, someone remembers Ol’ Chris.
We were 200 miles away, having coffee at Big Rock springs on the edge of the Mojave, when we first heard about him. It was in October, 1940. We were on a hunt for ghost towns in the desert.
Mrs. Howard Bland, an attractive woman and an old-timer in the Mojave, told us about Ballarat and Chris as she served us coffee in the combination grocery store and lunch counter. There were interruptions while she waited on other customers, but we were in no hurry, and as time permitted she came and sat at the table with us and related her experiences in the old mining camp,
“I’ll never forget Ballarat,” she said, “any more than I will forget Chris Wicht and a certain postal inspector who paid the camp an official visit long after its gold had been worked out.”
Ballarat’s heyday was between 1895 to 1907. Then it was a bustling supply center forPanamint valleyprospectors—a link between the borax mines in Death Valley and the outside world. It was 15 years later that Mrs. Bland first saw the old camp. Then it was just a cluster of buildings in a beautiful barren setting. There was a hotel that nobody used, a closed store, a post office where mail never came or went. Ol’ Chris and his saloon were all that was left.
The government had found out that it had a post office that wasn’t being used and a postal inspection must be made. The postmaster who had also been the grocer, had just drifted off after the others. The postal department sent an elderly dignified Bostonian, whose habits of living had made him hopelessly useless according to desert dwellers’ way of thinking. The train dropped him at Randsburg, and since the bus driver was away, Mrs. Bland, whose husband was then the Randsburg grocer, was elected to take him to Ballarat in her Model T Ford.
“It was a cold, threatening day,” she related. “The road over Slate range was just two deep ruts with a high ridge between. There were hairpin turns around cliffs that dropped 600 feet. Buzzards circling overhead.
“The postal inspector was nervous. All he could see were mountains of rock, a few buzzards in the sky, and way below a wide barren flat. You could almost hear him shudder. I pointed out Ballarat – just a speck at the foot of the range on the other side of the valley. He didn’t see how people and animals could live there. What, for instance, could those big birds find to eat?
“I tried to wither him with a look. ‘Any old carcass is a feast to a buzzard,’ I said, and that stopped all small talk till we got to Ballarat.
“It was late afternoon, but the sky was already dark because of the storm clouds. Chris Wicht came out and met us. I liked him right away. He helped us open the old store, and the inspector got out the combination to the safe and started to work. He was pretty sure of himself at first, but after about 10 tries he became a little upset. So was I. I didn’t like the looks of that storm coming on.
‘Why don’t you give it a good cussing?’ Ol’ Chris suggested. ‘That’s the way the grocer used to make it work.’ The inspector wouldn’t even look at him. But he got up and handed me the figures. He said he guessed he didn’t have the right touch.
“Well, I tried it six or seven times I guess—until I was ready to try a charge of dynamite if nothing else would work. Chris was still standing there with that funny little smile of his, so I said, ‘How about you, Chris? Can you remember the words the grocer used?’
“Chris had never herded a burro, but he did all right. But even that didn’t work this time.
“I was ready to start for home. But not the inspector. He took back his figures and started in all over again. Chris watched him awhile and shook his head. ‘I think he needs a drink,’ he said.
“I sat down and chewed my fingernails. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I asked him to look outside and see the storm coming up. And I told him about the water spout that hit Surprise canyon a couple of years before and cut a 20-foot gully where there used to be a road. I tried to make him understand that it doesn’t just rain in this country—it pours. And that even a Model T didn’t have a chance, and the road across the dry lake would be just as slippery as a gravy dish and we had 65 miles of rough desert road before we got back to Randsburg. I must have made an impression finally because he said he guessed we might as well go.
“I helped him into the Ford and we jogged out of town over the long washboard of road that crossed the valley. I couldn’t tell whether the inspector’s teeth or the Ford chattered loudest. I was holding the throttle open as far as was safe. But I needn’t have bothered. The car stopped just before we got to the foot of the range. Ballarat was at least 10 miles behind us.
“I checked the gas, the plugs, even used my nail file on the points. It wasn’t any use.
“The inspector seemed to have lost his voice, but he managed to whisper shakily, ‘You don’t suppose we’ll be stranded here?’
” ‘Unless you know more about the insides of this thing than I do, one of us will,’ I assured him.
“He slipped down in the seat. ‘I never drove a car in my life,’ he said.
“I asked him how he was at walking. He just looked out into the darkness and shook his head. I wondered what the post office department was thinking of—sending a city man to Ballarat.
“There were two chocolate bars in the car pocket. I gave him both of them and warned him to stay put because of the jackals in the hills. When I left him he was shaking all over and all he could say was, ‘Jackals!’
“Well, it was a rough hike, but Ol’ Chris welcomed me at the end of it with a warm fire and a cozy chair. I suspect he enjoyed the inspector’s predicament. He said he’d get a burro out to him. He sent an old prospector and two burros. They returned hours later with a storm-washed inspector whose pince-nez dangled sadly on its chain.
“The next day a man from the Tanks on the other side of the range came over and fixed the Ford. The road had jolted loose all the ignition screws. I took the inspector back to Randsburg, and that was the last I ever saw of him. I don’t believe he ever visited our desert again. Ol’ Chris? They tell me he’s still somewhere around Ballarat. Back up in the hills with his own claim. Look him up. He’s one in a million.”
After hearing her story we wouldn’t have missed seeing Ballarat. Going over the Slate range we knew that except for grading, the road couldn’t have been changed much. There were the same sheer cliffs, the same hairpin turns, even a buzzard circling overhead, with Ballarat a little group of patched up buildings at the end of a ribbon of road across an alkaline flat.
Half a dozen men, a woman and her son, made their homes in the old structures and managed to find a living in the jagged forbidding range of the Panamints. Even the old double-boarded jail had become somebody’s home. It didn’t look as though it had ever been very strong.
“Didn’t have to be,” said Billy Heider, one of the old-timers. “Nobody ever in it but drunks. Didn’t even bother to lock the door on them. What was the use? Why should Ballarat feed ’em when all they needed was to sober up so’s they could go back out and spend their own money again?”
“But weren’t there bandits and outlaws in the early days? Wasn’t it true thatPanamint Cityhad been founded by a couple of stage coach robbers who accidentally discovered the rich veins of silver there way back in ’73—that one of them lived to a ripe old age in Ballarat?”
“Maybe so,” he agreed. “You hear a lot of things. But we don’t ask too many questions about a man out here—just so long as he’s straight with us. Sure, we had our share of outlaws—every mining town does. Had our share of shootings too. But nobody ever got hurt. Generally just playing around, happy and blowing off steam.”
Most of Ballarat’s prospectors pull out when summer comes. The men all have cars of one sort or another, and the High Sierra isn’t too far away. Some of them go up there and fish the summer away. Others have destinations unknown and never mentioned. Like Slim Ferge—Seldom Seen Slim. If the winter was lucky, he just disappears. When he’s broke he comes back—goes into the Panamints a few ore samples—sets up beside the highway in the Mojave, sells the samples to tourists for a new stake and starts all over again.
Most of the prospectors are hunting for gold. The Panamints have low-grade silver, but mining it is not profitable according to Chris Wicht, who has a whole canyon of it and ought to know. Some of the newcomers have found scheelite, which is composed of calcium and tungsten oxides. Tungsten is an important factor in the manufacture of armaments, and with an eye to the future and war industries booming, they know the supply can never equal the demand. The essential part of their equipment” is a violet ray lamp with batteries strapped to their chests. The light picks out the ore in little glowing patches.
But even the scheelite prospectors do not stay in Ballarat during the summer. The only one who is sure to be around is Ol’ Chris Wicht. They told us where to find him—a group of cottonwoods halfway up Surprise canyon where he has a silver claim and a bunch of cabins—”runs a sort of resort.”
That was news! A resort in Surprise canyon.
“How are the roads?” we asked.
“Oh, fine,” Slim assured us. “No bad roads around here. Don’t find bad roads till you get down around Granite wells.”
We didn’t go down around Granite wells, but we decided, bumping along the road up Surprise canyon, that Seldom Seen Slim had a real sense of humor. We even wondered if it wouldn’t be a nice idea to write Henry Ford a letter, providing there was anything left of our car to write about. But, at that, it might not have been so bad if we could have forgotten that the deep ravine beside the narrow ledge of road was where another road used to be and a waterspout took it out. Chris’s place is a little paradise in the Panamints after you get to it.
He has a group of neat furnished cabins and running water the year round. He’s even built a swimming pool where customers can “dehydrate” when the weather gets really hot and, for ultra modern convenience, he’s put in his own electric light plant. Crude, maybe, but it works. He had to use what he could find—a water wheel from an old mine and an old Dodge generator.
Chris thinks there isn’t any place like the Panamints. He doesn’t work his claim much. “If it was gold,” he says, “it would be all right. But by the time I’ve loaded silver onto the trucks, hauled it in and had it smelted, there isn’t anything left.” He still has faith in Ballarat. “There’s plenty of gold left yet in the Panamints.
It runs in ledges in the mountains to the south, lots of good pockets if you can find them. Trouble is, you have to be like a mountain goat to get around. And these automobiles don’t help any. In the old days, with a burro, a prospector could go almost anyplace. Now he either has to hunt around the edges, or leave the car behind and walk. Besides, who ever got any satisfaction out of trying new words on automobiles?”
“Sure,” he said, ” I still think Ballarat will come back some day.” He swept his arm broadly. “The reason may lay two hundred feet deep — but it’s there, hid someplace in the Panamints.”
In the early seventies, while the Southern Pacific Railway was building from San Francisco to
San José, some twelve or fifteen bandits, carousing at a country dance in the Mexican settlement, Panamá (about six miles south of Bakersfield) planned to cross the mountains and hold up the pay-car. They were unsuccessful; whereupon, they turned their attention to the village of Tres Pinos, robbed several store-keepers and killed three or four men. They were next heard of at little Kingston, in Tulare County, where they plundered practically the whole town. Then they once more disappeared.
Presently various clues pointed to the identity of the chief bandido as one Tibúrcio Vasquez, born in Monterey in the thirties, who had taken to the life of an outlaw because, as he fantastically said, some Gringos had insolently danced off with the prettiest girls at fandangos, among them being his sweetheart whom an American had wronged. With the exception of his Lieutenant, Chavez, he trusted no one, and when he moved from place to place, Chavez alone accompanied him. In each new field he recruited a new gang, and he never slept in camp with his followers.
Although trailed by several sheriffs, Vasquez escaped to Southern California leading off the wife of one of his associates—a bit of gallantry that contributed to his undoing, as the irate husband at once gave the officers much information concerning Vasquez’s life and methods. One day in the spring of 1874, Vasquez and three of his companions appeared at the ranch of Alessandro Repetto, nine miles from town, disguised as sheep-shearers. The following morning, while the inmates of the ranch-house were at breakfast, the highwaymen entered the room and held up the defenseless household. Vasquez informed Repetto that he was organizing a revolution in Lower California and merely desired to borrow the trifling sum of eight hundred dollars. Repetto replied that he had no money in the house; but Vasquez compelled the old man to sign a check for the sum demanded, and immediately dispatched to town a boy working for Repetto, with the strict injunction that if he did not return with the money alone, and soon, his master would be shot.
When the check was presented at the Temple & Workman Bank, Temple, who happened to be there, became suspicious but could elicit from the messenger no satisfactory response to his questions. The bank was but a block from the Courthouse; and when Sheriff Rowland hurriedly came, in answer to a summons, he was inclined to detain the lad. The boy, however, pleaded so hard for Repetto’s life that the Sheriff agreed to the messenger’s returning alone with the money.
Soon after, Rowland and several deputies started out along the same trail; but a lookout sighted
the approaching horsemen and gave the alarm. Vasquez and his associates took to flight and were pursued as far as Tijunga Pass; but as the cut-throats were mounted on fresh horses, they escaped.
Even while being pursued, Vasquez had the audacity to fleece a party of men in the employ of
the Los Angeles Water Company who were doing some work near the Alhambra Tract. The well known Angeleño and engineer in charge, Charles E. Miles, was relieved of an expensive gold
In April, 1874, Sheriff Rowland heard that Vasquez had visited the home of “Greek George”— the Smyrniot camel-driver to whom I have referred—and who was living about ten miles from Los Angeles, near the present location of Hollywood. Rowland took into his confidence D. K. Smith and persuaded him to stroll that way, ostensibly as a farmer’s hand seeking employment; and within two weeks Smith reported to Rowland that the information as to Vasquez’s whereabouts was correct. Rowland then concluded to make up a posse, but inasmuch as a certain clement kept Vasquez posted regarding the Sheriff’s movements, Rowland had to use great precaution.
Anticipating this emergency, City Detective Emil Harris-four years later Chief of Police-had been
quietly transferred to the Sheriff’s office; in addition to whom, Rowland selected Albert Johnson, Under Sheriff; B. F. Hartley, a local policeman; J. S. Bryant, City Constable; Major Henry M. Mitchell, an attorney; D. K. Smith; Walter Rodgers, proprietor of the Palace Saloon; and G. A. Beers, a correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle. All these were ordered to report, one by one with their horses, shortly after midnight, at Jones’s Corral on Spring Street near Seventh. Arms and ammunition, carefully packed, were likewise smuggled in. Whether true or not that Vasquez would speedily be informed of the Sheriff’s whereabouts, it is certain that, in resolving not to leave his office, Rowland sacrificed, for the public weal, such natural ambition that he cannot be too much applauded; not even the later reward of eight thousand dollars really compensating him for his disappointment.
By half-past one o’clock in the morning, the eight members of the posse were all in the saddle and silently following a circuitous route. At about daybreak, in dense fog, they camped at the mouth of Nichols’s Canyon-two miles away from the house of Greek George-where Charles Knowles, an American, was living. When the fog lifted, Johnston, Mitchell, Smith and Bryant worked their way to a point whence they could observe Greek George’s farm; and Bryant, returning to camp, reported that a couple of gray horses had been seen tied near the ranch-house. Shortly thereafter, a four horse empty wagon, driven by two Mexicans, went by the cañon and was immediately stopped and brought in. The Mexicans were put in charge of an officer, and about the same time Johnston came tearing down the ravine with the startling statement that Vasquez was undoubtedly at Greek George’s!
A quick consultation ensued and it was decided by the posse to approach their goal in the captured vehicle, leaving their own horses in charge of Knowles; and having warned the Mexicans that they would be shot if they proved treacherous, the deputies climbed into the wagon and lay down out of sight. When a hundred yards from the house, the officers stealthily scattered in various directions.
Harris, Rodgers and Johnston ran to the north side, and Hartley and Beers to the west. Through
an open door, Vasquez was seen at the breakfast table, and Harris, followed by the others, made a quick dash for the house. A woman waiting on Vasquez attempted to shut the officers out; but Harris injected his rifle through the half-open door and prevented her. During the excitement, Vasquez climbed through a little window, and Harris, yelling, “There he goes!” raised his Henry rifle and shot at him. By the time Harris had reached the other side of the house, Vasquez was a hundred feet away and running like a deer toward his horse. In the meantime, first Hartley and then the other officers used their shotguns and slightly wounded him again. Vasquez then threw up his hands, saying: “Boys, you’ve done well! but I’ve been a damned fool, and it’s my own fault!”
The identity of the bandit thus far had not been established; and when Harris asked his name, he answered, “Alessandro Martinez.” In the meantime, captors and prisoner entered the house; and Vasquez, who was weakened from his wounds, sat down, while the young woman implored the officers not to kill him. At closer range, a good view was obtained of the man who had so long terrorized the State. He was about five feet six or seven inches in height, sparely built, with small feet and hands-in that respect by no means suggesting the desperado-with a low forehead, black, coarse hair and mustache, and furtive, cunning eyes.
Not the Spanish Alejandro; a variation doubtless suggested by the Italian Repetto’s forename.
By this time, the entire posse, excepting Mitchell and Smith (who had followed a man seen to leave Greek George’s), proceeded to search the house. The first door opened revealed a young fellow holding a baby in his arms. He, the most youthful member of the organization, had been placed on guard. There were no other men in the house, although four rifles and six pistols, all loaded and ready for use, were found. Fearing no such raid, the other outlaws were afield in the neighborhood; and being warned by the firing, they escaped. One of Vasquez’s guns, by the way, has been long preserved by the family of Francisco Ybarra and now rests secure in the County Museum.
Underneath one of the beds was found Vasquez’s vest containing Charley Miles’s gold watch, which Harris at once recognized. The prisoner was asked whether he was seriously hurt and he said that he expected to die, at the same time admitting that he was Vasquez and asking Harris to write down some of his bequests. He said that he was a single man, although he had two children living at Elizabeth Lake; and he exhibited portraits of them. He protested that he had never killed a human being, and said that the murders at Tres Pinos were due to Chavez’s disobedience of orders.
The officers borrowed a wagon from Judge Thompson—who lived in the neighborhood—into which they loaded Vasquez, the boy and the weapons, and so proceeded on their way. When they arrived near town, Smith and Mitchell caught up with them. Mitchell was then sent to give advance notice of Vasquez’s capture and to have medical help on hand; and by the time the party arrived, the excitement was intense. The City Fathers, then in session, rushed out pellmell and crowds surrounded the Jail. Dr. K. D. Wise, Health Officer, and Dr. J. P. Widney, County Physician,administered treatment to the captive. Vasquez, in irons, pleaded that he was dying; but Dr. Widney, as soon as he had examined the captive, warned the Sheriff that the prisoner, if he escaped, would still be game for a long day’s ride. Everybody who could, visited him and I was no exception. I was disgusted, however, when I found Vasquez’s cell filled with flowers, sent by some white women of Los Angeles who had been carried away by the picturesque career of the bandido; but Sheriff Rowland soon stopped all such foolish exuberance.
Vasquez admitted that he had frequently visited Mexicans in Los Angeles, doing this against the
advice of his lieutenant, Chavez, who had warned him that Sheriff Rowland also had good friends among the Mexicans.
Among those said to have been in confidential touch with Vasquez was Mariano G. Santa Cruz, a prominent figure, in his way, in Sonora Town. He kept a grocery about three hundred feet from the old Plaza Church, on the east side of Upper Main Street, and had a curiously-assorted household. There on many occasions, it is declared, Vasquez found a safe refuge.
Five days after the capture, Signor Repetto called upon the prisoner, who was in chains, and
remarked: “I have come to say that, so far as I am concerned, you can settle that little account with God Almighty!” Vasquez, with characteristic flourishes, thanked the Italian and began to speak of repayment, when Repetto replied: “I do not expect that. But I beg of you, if ever you resume operations, never to visit me again.” Whereupon Vasquez, placing his hand dramatically upon his breast, exclaimed: “Ah, Señor, I am a cavalier, with a cavalier’s heart!”—¡Señor Repetto, yo soy un caballero, con el corazón de un caballero!
As soon as Vasquez’s wounds were healed, he was taken by Sheriff Rowland to Tres Pinos and there indicted for murder. Miller & Lux, the great cattle owners, furnished the money, it was understood, for his defense—supposedly as a matter of policy. His attorneys asked for, and obtained, a change of venue, and Vasquez was removed to San José. There he was promptly tried, found guilty and, in March, 1875, hanged.
Many good anecdotes were long told of Vasquez; one of which was that he could size up a man quickly, as to whether he was a native son or not, by the direction in which he would roll a cigarette—toward or away from himself! As soon as the long-feared bandit was in captivity, local wits began to joke at his expense. A burlesque on Vasquez was staged late in May at the Merced Theater; and the day the outlaw was captured, a merchant began his advertisement: VASQUEZ says that MENDEL MEYER has the Finest and Most Complete Stock of Dry Goods and Clothing, etc.”
from: Sixty years in Southern California, 1853-1913, containing the reminiscences of Harris Newmark. Edited by Maurice H. Newmark; Marco R. Newmark
The next day W S W 8 or 10 miles across a plain and entered the dry Bed of a River on each side high hills. Pursuing my course along the valley of this river 8 or 9 miles I encamped. In the channel of the river I occasionally found water. It runs from west to east alternately running on the surface and disappearing entirely in the sands of its bed leaving them for miles entirely dry. Near the place where I entered its Bed it seemed to finally lose itself in the plain.* (* It is perhaps reasonable to suppose that the Salt Plain has been formed by the waters of this river overflowing the level country in its freshets and in the dry season sinking in the sand and Leaving a deposit of salt on the surface. The waters of the River at this place are sufficiently salt to justify this conclusion.) At this time my provision was nearly exhausted although I thought I had provided enough to last me 10 or 12 days. But men accustomed to living on meat and at the same time traveling hard will eat a surprising quantity of corn and beans which at this time constituted our principal subsistence. One of my guides said he knew where his people had a cache of some provision and the next day as I traveled on he went with one of the men to procure some at night they returned bringing something that resembled in appearance loaves of bread weighing each 8 or 10 pounds. It was so hard that an ax was required to break it and in taste resembled sugar candy. It was no doubt sugar but in that imperfect form in which it is found among nations to which the art of granulation is unknown. On inquiry I found it was made from the cane grass which I have before spoken of on Adams River and the same of which the Amuchabas make their arrows. For three days nothing material occurred Our course was up the river which sometimes run in sight and then for miles disappeared in the sands. In places I found grass and the sugar cane and in some places small cottonwood. I also saw the tracks of horses that had been here during the summer. My guides Belonged to a tribe of Indians residing in the vicinity called the Wanyumas. Not numerous for this barren country could not support them. At this place was some sign of antelope and mountain sheep Mr. Rogers killed an antelope which tasted quite strong of wormwood. On the 4th night from the salt plain an Amuchaba Indian that had come this far with me disappeared. I suppose he had become tired of the journey and returned. My guides had expected to find their families here but were disappointed. The next day still following the course of the River which had a strong current in places 20 yds in width and in others entirely disappeared in the sands. After a long days travel I arrived late at a Wanyuma lodge. Close by were 2 or three families of the same tribe. Here I remained the following day and in the mean time was well treated by these Indians. They gave us such food as they had consisting of a kind of mush made of acorns and pine nut bread made of a small berry. This bread in appearance was like corn bread but in taste much sweeter. As there were in the neighborhood a plenty of hares the Indians said they must give us a feast. Several went out for this purpose with a net 80 or 100 yards long. Arriving at a place where they knew them to be plenty the net was extended among the wormwood. then divided on each wing they moved in such direction as to force the frightened game to the net where they were taken while entangled in its meshes. Being out but a short time they brought in 2 or three dozen a part of which they gave me. Seeing some tracks of antelope Mr. Rogers and myself went out and killed two. In this vicinity there are some groves of cottonwood and in places sugar cane and grass. On the following day after making the Indians some presents I moved on keeping a right hand fork my course nearly S W passing out at the head of this creek and over a ridge I entered a ravine running S W I proceeded down it nearly to where it entered some high hills which were apparently covered with pine. At this place I encamped. In the course of the days I passed hills covered with a scattering growth of bastard cedar and bushy oak. Some antelopes were seen in the course of the day and the tracks of bear and black-tailed deer.
Power lines, not being all that aesthetic, can really mess up a pretty, scenic shot. Not much can be done about them, but if you are under them, they more or less cease to be an issue, and the maintenance roads in the right-of-way can lead to many other opportunities.
Pilot Rock, Pilot Knob–I’m certain there is some kind of argument going on for what the proper name is; but the operative word is ‘Pilot.’ I’ve seen this peak from the highlands way out in the desert, however, it comes plainly into view along the Mojave River southwest of Barstow. Pioneers along the Old Spanish Trail, and later, the Mormon Road to California, would use this point to guide them from the low riverbed to the top of the Cajon Pass to begin the descent to their hard-earned destination.
A. Gold is where you find it! Good luck with that. One tip I do have for you is you should look for a “promising outcropping.” Many of the stories I read have somewhere in there where it say the prospector came upon a “promising outcropping.” Cut to the chase and look for these first before anywhere else.
Atlatl: An atlatl is a throwing stick that essentially extends arm length to assist in throwing a dart harder and farther than one normally would in hunting and warfare with a spear. This tool was used for thousands of years prior to the bow and arrow which was in use for only the last 900 years or so. I’ve had the opportunity to try using one 3 or 4 times in target practice–sort of I say “sort of” because the very first time I used one I went after live game.
I was on an archaeology field trip and we broke for lunch. Food was provided and substantial consisting of bologna sandwiches, chips, a piece of fruit and some soda pop. The site archaeologist was running a little late, so our guide decided to let us try throwing with the atlatl he had made. One after another the members of our group took turns. I watched carefully and when it came to be my turn I was ready. All of a sudden, a pickup drove up and the archaeologist started to get out. He was about 50 yards away. He started to get out of the truck and as the door opened I hurled the dart hard and smoothly. I was aiming for the meaty part of the archaeologist’s thigh.
All I’ve heard about hunting man was true. It was exhilarating and exciting. He was considerably larger than me and bagging him would have been a rush. Unfortunately, a kill would not be the case on that day. The dart landed short of him and went point first into the ground then fell over flat. Now the predator had turned into the prey. For me it was either fight or flight. My back was against a rock wall. As I mentioned, he was larger than I, so I tried the only defensive move I could think of. I yelled, “Oops!”
I’ve never heard a professional laugh so hard. I didn’t know they could. Usually I’ve found them to be quite stolid and impassive to my attempts at humor. Apparently he did not feel threatened. Good thing he didn’t realize my intention. I could have killed him, or at least bruised his foot.
It all turned out well considering the circumstances. Rather than be banned or shunned from the group he paid special attention to me the rest of the day making sure all of my questions were properly answered. He kept watching my hands though. He turned out to be a pretty nice guy. Very sorry I tried to kill him.
With the completion of the text in Pioneer of the Mojave by Richard Thompson, I’ve been going through and putting in links and back links. One page I’ve finally got around to making is a page about Point of Rocks, a stop along the Mormon trail near where Helendale is today.
Pilot Rock, 18 miles south of Victorville, California in the San Bernardino mountain range can be seen from far out into the Mojave Desert. Pioneers on the Mormon Road would head in the general direction of the 5,260 foot high peak in order to find the Mojave River and their way into southern California.