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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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