Mojave Desert Indians -
Historic Desert Indian Territories Map:
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
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
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).
... he traveled along a branch of what became known as the Mojave Indian Trail, up the fickle Mojave River and into ...
... 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 ...
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 ...