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History : Profiles in Mojave Desert History

American Explorers

Kit Carson

The party pursued their business success- 
fully for some time on the Salt and San Fran- 
cisco rivers, when a part of them returned to 



"New Mexico, and the remainder, eighteen in 
number, under the lead of Mr. Young, started 
for the valley of Sacramento, California, and 
it was to this latter party Carson was attached. 
Their route led them through one of the dry 
deserts of the country, and not only did they 
suffer considerably from the want of water, 
but their provisions giving out, they were often 
happy when they could make a good dinner on 
horse-flesh. Near the Canon of the Colorado 
they encountered a party of Mohave Indians, 
who furnished them with some provisions, 
which relieved them from the apprehension 
of immediate want. 

The Mohave Indians are thus described by a 
recent visiter : 

" These Indians are probably in as wild a 
state of nature as any tribe on American terri- 
tory. They have not had sufficient intercourse 
with any civilized people, to acquire a know- 
ledge of their language, or their vices. It was 
said that no white party had ever before passed 
through their country without encountering 
hostility ; nevertheless they appear intelli- 
gent, and to have naturally amiable dispo- 
sitions. The men are tall, erect, and well-pro- 
portioned ; their features inclined to European 
regularity; their eyes large, shaded by long 


lashes, and surrounded by circles of blue pig- 
ment, that add to their apparent size. The 
apron, or breech-cloth for men, and a short 
petticoat, made of strips of the inner bark of 
the cotton-wood, for women, are the only arti- 
cles of dress deemed indispensable ; but many 
of the females have long robes, or cloaks, of 
fur. The young girls wear beads ; but when 
married, their chins are tattooed with vertical 
blue lines, and they wear a necklace with a 
single sea-shell in front, curiously wrought. 
These shells are very ancient, and esteemed of 
great value. 

" From time to time they rode into the 
camp, mounted on spirited horses ; their bodies 
and limbs painted and oiled, so as to present 
the appearance of highly-polished mahogany. 
The dandies paint their faces perfectly black. 
Warriors add a streak of red across the fore- 
head, nose, and chin. Their ornaments consist 
of leathern bracelets, adorned with bright but- 
tons, and worn on the left arm ; a kind of 
tunic, made of buckskin fringe, hanging from 
the shoulders ; beautiful eagles' feathers, called 
' sormeh' sometimes white, sometimes of a 
crimson tint tied to a lock of hair, and float- 
ing from the top of the head ; and, finally, 
strings of wampum, made of circular pieces of 


shell, with holes in the centre, by which they 
are strung, often to the length of several yards, 
and worn in coils about the nec-k. These shell 
beads, which they call ' pook,' are their sub- 
stitute for money, and the wealth of an indi- 
vidual is estimated by the 'pook' cash he 

Soon after leaving the Mohave Indians, Mr. 
Young's party, proceeding westward, arrived at 
the Mission of San Gabriel. This is one of 
these extensive establishments formed by the 
Roman Catholic cldrgy in the early times of 
California, which form so striking a feature in 
the country. This Mission of San Gabriel, 
about the time of Carson's visit, was in a flour- 
ishing condition. By statistical accounts, in 
1829, it had 70,000 head of cattle, 1,200 horses, 
3,000 mares, 400 mules, 120 yoke of working 
cattle, and 254,000 sheep. From the vineyards 
of the mission were made 600 barrels of wine, 
the sale of which produced an income of up- 
wards of $12,000. There were between twenty 
and thirty such missions in California at that 
time, of which San Gabriel was by no means 
the largest. They had all been founded since 
1769, when the first, San Diego, was established. 
The labor in these establishments was per- 
formed by Indian converts, who received in 


return a bare support, and a very small modi- 
cum of what was called religious instruction. 
Each mission had its Catholic priests, a few 
Spanish or Mexican soldiers, and nundreds, 
sometimes thousands of Indians. 

He therefore despatched Carson ahead with 
a few men, promising to follow and overtake 
him at the earliest moment, and waiting an- 
other day, he managed to get his followers in 
a tolerably sober condition, and succeeded, 
though not without much trouble, in getting 
away without the loss of a man, though the 
Mexicans were desperately enraged at the 
death of one of their townsmen, who had been 
killed in a chance fray. In three days he 
overtook Carson, and the party, once more re- 
united, advanced rapidly towards the Colorado 
River, his men working with a heartiness and 
cheerfulness, resulting from a consciousness 
of their misconduct at Los Angelos, which, but 
for the prudent discretion of Young and Car- 
son, might have resulted disastrously to all 


In nine days they were ready to commence 
trapping on the Colorado, and in a short time 
added here to the large stock of furs they had 
brought from California. 

Here while left in charge of the camp, with 
only a few men, Carson found himself suddenly 
confronted by several hundred Indians. They 
entered the camp with the utmost assurance, 
and acted as though they felt the power of 
their numbers. Carson at once suspected that 
all was not right, and attempting to talk with 
them, he soon discovered that, with all their 
sang froid, each of them carried his weapons 
concealed beneath his garments, and immedi- 
ately ordered them out of camp. Seeing the 
small number of the white men, the Indians 
were not inclined to obey, but chose to wait 
their time and do as they pleased, as they 
were accustomed to do with the Mexicans. 
They soon learned that they were dealing with 
men of different mettle, for Carson was a man 
not to be trifled with. 

His men stood around him, each with his 
rifle resting in the hollow of the arm, ready 
to be dropped to deadly aim on the sign from 
their young commander. Carson addressed 
the old chief in Spanish, (for he had betrayed 
his knowledge of that language,) and warned 



him that though they were few, they were de- 
termined to sell their lives dearly. The In- 
dians awed, it would seem, by the bold and de- 
fiant language of Carson, and finding that any 
plunder they might acquire, would be pur- 
chased at a heavy sacrifice, sullenly withdrew, 
and left the party to pursue their journey un- 

Any appearance of fear would have cost the 
lives of Carson and probably of the whole 
party, but the Indian warriors were too chary 
of their lives to rush into death's door unpro- 
voked, even for the sake of the rich plunder 
they might hope to secure. Carson's cool 
bravery saved the trappers and all their 
effects ; and this first command in an Indian 
engagement is but a picture of his conduct in 
a hundred others, when the battles were with 
weapons other than the tongue. The inten- 
tion of the Indians had been to drive away the 
animals, first causing a stampede, when they 
would become lawful plunder, but they dared 
not undertake it. 

The wily craftiness of the Indians induced 
the necessity for constant vigilance against 
them, and in the school this youth had been 
in all his life, he had shown himself an apt 


WHILE on the Colorado, Young's party dis- 
covered a company of Indians, (with whom 
they had had a previous skirmish,) as they were 
coming out from Los Angelos, and charging 
suddenly among them, succeeded in taking a 
large herd of cattle from them in the Indians' 
own style. The same week an Indian party 
came past their camp in the night, with a drove 
of a hundred horses, evidently just stolen from 
a Mexican town in Sonora. The trappers, 
with their guns for their pillows, were ready in 
an instant for the onslaught, and captured these 
horses also, the Indians hurrying away for fear 
of the deadly rifle. The next day they selected 
such as they wanted from the herd, choosing of 
course the finest, and turning the rest loose, to 
be taken again by the Indians, or to become 
the wild mustangs that roamed the plains of 
Northern Mexico, in droves of tens of thou- 
sands, and which could be captured and tamed 

only by the use of the lasso. 

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