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Mojave River Valley Museum
Profiles in Mojave Desert History
Joseph R. Walker
Joseph R. Walker (1798-1876) was an explorer/fur trapper and was one of the first Americans partaking in
open fur trade with the Spanish of Santa Fe.
Joseph R. Walker was born in Virginia shortly before his parents moved to eastern Tennessee. In 1819 he
left home to go to Independence Missouri. At that time Independence was the farthest west of all American settlements,
the center for the Western fur trade.
Walker became a fur trapper and trader and became a member of the party that
traveled to Santa Fe to trade with the Spanish colony there. After a short period of employment
as sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri, Walker set out with Benjamin Bonneville in 1832 on a fur-trading
expedition to the unexplored lands of the West. After a year of trapping, Walker met up with Bonneville in eastern
Utah in July of 1833. Bonneville then sent Walker west to look for furs and/or find a trail to the Pacific Ocean.
It took Walker and his party a month to travel over the desert west of the Great Salt Lake before reaching the
Humboldt River. They followed the river to the Humboldt Sinks, where the river disappears into marshlands
in the desert. At the Sinks, Walker and his group of 60 men were approached by a band of Indians. Walker's group
felt threatened and killed "several dozen" of them. Walker then crossed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at
Mono Pass and were the first Westerners to see the famous waterfalls of what is now
Yosemite National Park.
Traveling through California, Walker and his party saw redwood forests, experienced a major earthquake, and
witnessed a meteor shower. They traveled down the coast to Monterey, the capital of Mexican California and stayed
there several months until January 1834. Returning east, Walker went down to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley
and traveled through what would become known as
Walker's Pass, which, years later was to be one of the
main gateways for gold-seekers migrating into California.
Walker's group turned north through the desert, nearly dying of thirst before reaching the
Humboldt Sinks. Again, they attacked defenseless Indians, this time killing over a dozen and wounding
them and wounding many more. They avoided the desert on this trip by heading north to the Snake River. Walker
reunited with Bonneville on the Bear River in July of 1834. The route that Walker had found was to
become the main trail to California in following years.
For the next nine years Walker continued to trap and trade in the Rocky Mountains. He made another trip in 1841
to Los Angeles to buy horses. In 1843 he led a group of American settlers to California showing them the pass
(Walker's Pass) he had discovered years earlier. He served as guide for
John Charles Frémont's 1845-1846 expedition to
California. He joined the flood of Americans heading west to find fortune during the Gold Rush in 1849.
He started a business selling cattle to the miners as well as leading prospecting expeditions.
He also led a group of prospectors to Arizona in 1861. Walker retired and settled down near San Francisco
in 1868, where he died eight years later.
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