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Mojave Desert Indians - Historic Desert Indian Territories Map: Mojave Indians

Mojave Indian Ethnography & Ethnohistory


History - Explorer Period

Explorers Arrive. The area now set aside as Joshua Tree National Park was probably traversed by the Mojave during this period of 50 years, as at other times, and perhaps by mission Indians on their way to join the Mojave. Insofar as is known, the Mojave culture did not change a great deal during this period. The same cannot be said of the rest of the North American continent. On the east coast, the United States had freed itself from Great Britain, and had come through a second war with that nation with its separate identity intact. It had also acquired a sizable portion of the rest of the continent, which its most intrepid adventurers were busy exploring. Other adventurous men were setting up trapping and trading routes to the west coast. In the meantime, as of 1821, the Southwest, including California, had been freed from Spain and become part of the new nation of Mexico.

The fur trade, long dominated by Canadian adventurers who trapped and traded across the northern reaches of the continent into what is now the northwestern corner of the United States, and from there came in to northern California, was now taken up in the Southwest. Trappers and fur traders streamed across the Mississippi River and into the Rocky Mountains. Kansas City, Santa Fe, and Sonora, Mexico, became great fur trading centers, which were linked by trade routes over which traders ran their caravans of mule packs and wagons.

When the trappers began scouting the western reaches of the Colorado River and its tributaries, the Mojave country was brought, forcibly the attention of the outside world, principally because the easiest place to cross the lower Colorado River was near the Mojave villages. Between 1826 and 1831, Mojave territory was visited by Jedediah Smith and Harrison Rogers (1826 and 1827); Ewing Young in 1827; George C. Yount, in the party of Ewing Young in 1827, alone in 1828; Kit Carson, with Young in 1829 and in 1830; Peter Skene Ogden, 1830; William Wolfskill and George C. Yount in 1831 (Sherer 1994:9, Footnote).

Neither Mojave law nor Mexican law tolerated hunting and trapping within their territory without permission, and the Mojave revered the beaver, which was especially attractive to the fur trappers. The first American expedition to arrive in Mojave territory, that led by Jedediah Smith in 1826, met with a friendly reception from the Mojave because it first came in contact with Mojaves at a Southern Paiute settlement in Utahsas where its members arrived, bedraggled and almost starving, after a long and difficult trip through the mountains. Since they were carrying no beaver skins nor any other signs of being trappers or fur traders, they met with traditional Mojave hospitality, and were fed, guided first down the Virgen River to North Mojave rancherias, and then to the main Mojave settlement in the Mojave Valley. Like GarcÚs, Smith was provided with Mojave guides when he left, and went on to the San Bernardino Valley and Mission San Gabriel, where his welcome was less than warm The two Mojave guides were imprisoned by the mission fathers, and one of them sentenced to be hung for the crime of bringing a foreigner into Spanish territory, although Smith wrote later in his journal that the priest at the mission had been able to secure a pardon for the man (Sherer 1994:13).

In the spring of 1827, the vanguard of a large party of fur trappers and traders led by Ewing Young arrived at the Mojave villages from the south, with numerous beaver pelts in full display.

They marched through the villages, terrifying the inhabitants, and set up camp three miles to the north. The Mojave chief and his retinue of warriors visited the camp and, with gestures, indicated that the trappers should pay a horse in payment for the beaver pelts, which the Mojave considered their property. Upon the visitor's refusal, the chief shot an arrow into a tree and gave a war cry. Captain Young thereupon shot a bullet through the arrow to split it. War had been declared. The Mojaves returned the next morning to find that the visitors had raised a barricade of logs and skins. Their renewed demand for a horse in payment for the pelts having been denied, the chief turned and shot a horse with a spear. He was promptly gunned down. The Mojaves returned in force the next morning to avenge their chief. After the first exchange of fire, in which some of the Mojaves were killed, the trappers withdrew through the villages. Beyond the last of these, the Mojave struck again. Accounts vary as to the outcome of this battle.

Whatever happened between the Indians and this party of fur traders and trappers, the Mojave were not in a mood to welcome Jedediah Smith when he came through their territory a second time later in 1827, after having been told by the Mexicans to leave and not return. To make the situation worse, it was now obvious from the way Smith and his men were dressed and equipped, and by their behavior, that they were beaver trappers. This time he received no warm welcome, but he exchanged some horses with the Mojave, and "bought some corn and beans and made a present to the Chiefs". It was only when he and his men were crossing the river, and busy getting their goods and equipment across it, that the Mojaves attacked, "instantly killing ten men and capturing two Indian women in the party (Smith N.D.). Smith and seven of his men finally managed to escape after using their guns to kill two of the Mojaves and injure another (Smith N.D., Sherer 26-27).

The Mojaves had made their point. Their reputation as a dangerous, cunning, and treacherous people spread across the United States, but in fact, the Mojaves were kind to Ewing Young, Kit Carson, and their 16 companions who reached a Mojave rancheria in 1829 half-dead from thirst, hunger, and fatigue. They sold them a mare in foal to eat, and traded them some corn and beans, and let them cross the river and head for the coast without incident. Likewise, when George Yount and William Wolfskill in 1831 arrived with a half-starved party of 20 men at the Mojave villages after a treacherous midwinter trip through the mountains, the Mojave "fed them, traded pumpkins for some knives and red cloth, and permitted them to go safely on their way across the desert to San Bernardino (Sherer 1994:28, citing Hafen and Rister 1950:147).

Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson's Bay Company, coming down the river with a large band in 1830, posted sentries, and let only two or three Mojaves into his camp at once. Eventually there ensued a battle in which 26 Mojave warriors were reported killed. When Ewing Young and Kit Carson brought a group through again in the fall of 1830, they likewise took precautions when 500 Mojaves, possibly hoping to trade, crowded into their camp. After the Mojaves released their customary flight of arrows, Carson ordered them out of the camp (Sherer 1994:26-27).

After the word about the attack on Smith's 1927 expedition got out, traders needing to go from New Mexico to California began to avoid the Mojave villages, and in order to do so, traveled on what became known as the Spanish Trail, which began at Santa Fe, crossed the upper Colorado and Green rivers, and then bent back southwesterly by crossing Santa Clara Creek, a branch of the Virgem, veering off to Meadow Valley wash, and going thence to the Mojave Desert and San Bernardino (Hafen and Rister 1950:155-194). The Mojave territory during the 1830s and 1840s seems to have been avoided by the white man. If any came through, they left no known record.

The Mojave had other things on their minds. In 1827, they launched a "strategic offensive" against the Halchidhoma, who were their neighbors to the south in the Great Colorado Valley. The Halchidhoma fled and joined related groups to the east (Kroeber 1925; Dobyns, Ezell and Ezell 1963, Bean and Vane 1978:5-26). Although it may be that in years prior to this the Halchidhoma, who were friendly with the Cahuilla, made some use of the Project Area, we have found no record of such use.

In the early 1830s, the Mojave permitted the Chemehuevis, who were more enthusiastic fish eaters than the Mojaves, to move into the Great Colorado Valley from which the Halchidhoma had fled. Mojave elder Frances Stillman, speaking many years later, explained that the Chemehuevi Valley on the western side of the river was a sacred place to the Mojave, "where the departed spirits live, coming down from up above," and therefore a dangerous place for Mojaves to live. "We were not going to live there, [and] we wanted to get them off the desert, and to live there in that valley. Besides, there's other game there [besides fish], like rabbits and things (Stillman 1988, cited in Sherer 1994:45, ftnt.). The Chemehuevi, as we have noted, have a slightly different story.

Indians educated at the coastal missions continued to find refuge among the Mojave, bringing new language and other skills, and sometimes horses. For example, of six Mojaves met in 1844 by the American John Charles Fremont on the Mojave Trail across the Mojave Desert, one had been a "Mission Indian" before the missions were broken up. He spoke Spanish fluently, and told Fremont that the Mojave lived along the Colorado River and the mountains bounding its valley to the north, and that they raised melons of various kinds (Fremont 1845).

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Also see:

Jedediah Smith
... he traveled along a branch of what became known as the Mojave Indian Trail, up the fickle Mojave River and into ...

Ewing Young
... with traveling companions crossed Arizona, the Colorado River, the Mojave Desert and arrived at the San Gabriel Mission, ...

George C. Yount
Skilled hunter, frontiersman, craftsman, and farmer, he was the true embodiment of all the finest qualities of an ...

Kit Carson
The expedition moved south into the Mojave Desert, enduring attacks by ...

Peter Skene Ogden
... a dangerous man, whose actions were deplorable especially considering his background as the son of a ...


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