The People of Death Valley

Part 1: Shoshone and Paiute Tribes

Western Slope of the Panamints in winter

California’s Death Valley is magnificent. Wildly beautiful, strange, remote, awe-inspiring – it deserves these accolades, and more. It is an odd place; nothing quite like it exists anywhere else on this continent. Nothing is on a small scale here; extreme is the name of the game. Colors are brighter . The mountains are higher, the valleys are deeper, the temperature is hotter, the vegetation is sparser – whatever a desert can do, Death Valley does it better, bigger, and more passionately.

No one I know ever visits Death Valley exactly twice. Either people come here, hate the place, and never return, or they come back time and again to experience one of the most outrageous places on the face of the earth.

Relatively easy ways exist to visit. Travelers can come by bus or car to some very fancy hotels on the valley floor, or camp in the Panamint Mountains during the pleasant winter months. The roads in and out of the valley are paved and maintained; not freeways, of course, but easy enough and safe enough for an RV or passenger car.

The snowcapped Telescope Peak and Happy Canyon, in the Panamints

The Panamint Mountains are a startlingly steep backdrop to Death Valley. They rise from the floor of the valley (about 280 feet below sea level at Badwater) to more than 11,000 feet – in just a few miles. They rise from the flats like stone walls climbing far into the sky, an impenetrable barrier.

The whole area is a shock to the system. Land can’t be this dry; it is incredibly barren, empty beyond words. This is desert to the extreme, a land so devoid of water it pulls it from every visitor to use and reuse before it is lost to the hot, dry wind. And yet, there are springs draining the nearby mountains. The valley runs north and south, and it’s a trap. Getting in or out is difficult work.

The sight of this incredible land is scary enough from your car or bus; imagine walking into this valley. When you stare at the ruggedly dry flats and hills you absolutely know that you can die here. Easily. People did, and still do; even today, every so often the National Park Service loses a visitor to the heat and dehydration.

Imagine, then, the Native Americans that lived here, Shoshone and Paiutes, small tribes of dark, wiry men and women, capable, tough and compact people who made this valley their home for thousands of years. They were here when the Spanish came in the 1700’s, and when the American mountain men started exploring the area in the early 1800’s.

The Shoshone occupied much of what we call Death Valley, with certain Paiute clans that lived nearby. These groups made Death Valley their winter homes and spent summers in the nearby mountains. Archeological evidence shows that people have lived in this magnificent area for 10,000 years or more.

They lived fairly well. They had reliable food sources and they had water. For such dry country, there are several springs and water sources. This is because of the Valley’s depth. It drains the nearby mountain ranges, and the winter snows at the higher elevations provide a flow of underground water in the valley year-round.

With water, the desert can flourish, and these native groups had a surprisingly abundant life in this dry land. Petroglyph specialist David S. Whitley, who has exhaustively studied these and other native groups, calls them true environmental experts. As he asks in his wonderful book The Art Of The Shaman, who but a true genius could find sufficient food to feed a family in a place such as Death Valley?

With mesquite beans plentiful in the spring – and dried or ground into flour for consumption all year long – and the annual pinon nut harvest in the fall, the first Americans had their basic foods for a good life. With the seeds of native grasses and sunflowers, wild grapes, and squaw cabbage, they could have some variety; small animals – rabbits, squirrels, quail and so on – gave them meat. By moving to the mountains each spring, and back to the valley in the fall, they could avoid the worst of the seasons; by changing their homesites often, they could fit in with the environment without destroying it.

So they had the essentials and they lived simply. They had no need for elaborate structures because the weather was always moderate, even if a little warm. They were also in a land that no one else wanted, with few neighbors, so war or the threat of war was not much a problem as it was for native groups in other areas.

They were astonished when the first pioneer wagons descended into their valley. One Native American who, years later, went by the name of George Hansen, was around ten years old when the first Americans came. His story was recorded by an interviewer decades later.

He said ‘The snow was on the Panamints when a strange tribe of other people came down Furnace Creek wash, some walking slow like sick people and some in big wagons pulled by cows.

“Our people were afraid of these strange people and these cows they had never seen before. Never had they seen wagons or wheels or any of the things these people had.”
Those strange people were bringing big changes to the Death Valley communities, but those changes had actually bowfin some years before when the Spanish passed through the valley.

Part 2: Spanish and American Visitors

Decades before the Americans found gold at Sutter’s mill, It was the Spanish who first intruded upon the quiet of the indigenous Death Valley people. Spanish explorers and missionaries had traveled through this area in 1776. Much later, around 1830, traders traveled through Death Valley on the long trip from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. This was the Death Valley Indians’ first contact with these outsiders. It was also their introduction to the horse. In the years that followed hundreds of thousands of horses came east this way; some purchased, some stolen from the ranches near the coast.

Early on, the route through Death Valley was known as the Spanish Trail from Los Angeles to Santa Fe. Later, with the cutoff through Utah to Salt Lake Cuty, it became the Mormon Road, used by the church to expand their territory into California. The road added many miles of harsh desert travel to the trek to the gold fields, so the 49’ers did not use it until it was too late in the year to risk crossing the Sierras. This was just a couple of years after the Donner Party met disaster in the snowbound Sierras. So late arrivals knew they had to either wait till the snow melted or travel south to the Mormon Road.

In the fall of 1849, a group that was waiting in Salt Lake heard enough about the Mormon Road to give it a try. They became what history and legend knows as the lost 49’er wagon train.

It was actually more than one wagon train – and some of the travelers made it through without major problems, by staying on the Old Spanish Trail. Most did not, however. The trail was long and hard on horseback; by wagon, it was virtually impossible. No wagon road had ever been cut.

It was so hard that most of the wagon trains that came south from Utah turned around and returned to Salt Lake long before reaching Death Valley. The largest group, the San Joaquin Company (later, the members called themselves the Sand Walking Company), was led by Jefferson Hunt, who had been up and down the trail before but had little experience leading a wagon train. With 400 to 500 people, more than 100 wagons, and a thousand cattle and oxen, there was a lot of discord and problems from the start. The worst problems began when some of the group decided to try a shortcut through Death Valley.

The train quickly broke down into at least a dozen separate groups. Some of these groups soon disbanded, and by the time the leaders were leaving the Spanish Trail to find Death Valley, the train was scattered more than 200 miles along the trail. It was early November of 1849 when the first members of the San Joaquin Company descended into the Valley. By then they were disorganized groups of exhausted men, women, and children. They lost their wagons and belongings along the way, and nearly starved in the process.

Following disparate routes, all of them gradually realized that the Panamint Mountains were a wall that would stop their westward progress. There was no good way out. Most eventually made their way back to the Old Spanish Trail to follow the path of those hundreds of thousands of horses. The Death Valley Indians rescued some. Others died, but ironically, only one of these first pioneers was known to die in Death Valley itself.

Two of the pioneers – Lewis Manly and John Rogers – were traveling with a group of about thirty, including three families – the Bennetts, with three children, the Arcans, with an infant child, and the Wades, with three children. With this group was Luis Nusbaumer, a German immigrant who recorded his experiences in a journal which surfaced over a hundred years later. This journal gives us a glimpse into the horrible conditions the migrants endured during this long journey.

The incredibly rugged and barren eastern side of Death Valley

“December 24. Twelve miles. Our prospects again look dismal. One of our oxen is about to die but we will not despair on the eve of the day when our Saviour was born. We came about fifteen miles today through abominable alkali swamps and were compelled to camp without water and grass. In fact, we had to go back quite a distance to get water for our supper.’

They slowly wandered south from Furnace Creek along the base of the Panamints. At a point of final desperation, in mid-January, Manly and Rogers decided to go on ahead to get help from the California settlements. These two men made the difficult journey to settlements, then immediately turned around to ride back and rescue the families that were relying on them. It was mid-February when they finally returned to find the families, who had almost given up hope of ever seeing them again. The ragtag group found its way out, and one of the men – it isn’t known which \ – looked back at the barren expanse and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley”, thus giving this remarkable place its modern name.

The Natives of the valley had watched the settlers, helped them the they could, and were well aware of the suffering of these strange invaders.

“As they go, they drop things all along the trail, maybe they are worthless things, or too heavy to carry…. By and by they went away, all go over the Panamints and we never see them again. The hearts of our people were heavy for these strange people.”

Though it was a rabble, the 49’ers were a tough but undisciplined group and were caught up in the frenzy of gold lust. This frenzy was a consuming fever that kept them hunting for gold and silver even while they were staring death in the face in the barren Desert.

At least two of the lost 49’er groups actually found gold and silver. Ironically, the first gold was found by a couple of Mormon missionaries who were on their way to the South Seas. Another group found silver – lots of silver, in an almost pure state, pieces that were enticingly large and pure. One 49er carried a chunk out with him, and later had it hammered into a gunsight for his rifle – thus creating the legend of the Lost Gunsight mine, a story that sent thousands of prospectors onto the Mojave. Some of the lost 49’ers swore they’d never return to this God-forsaken desert, no matter how much gold was here, but when the gold rush faded away in the Sierras, the prospectors made their way to the desert. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tens of thousands of prospectors – now called Rainbow Seekers – came to dig holes in the ground, build towns and railroads, and take the wealth of the land away. But except for a few exceptional cases, the finds were short lived or cost far more to develop than they could ever return. By the 1920s there were few mines and miners left on the Mojave.

Badwater, elevation 280 feet below sea level, and the Panamints, rising to 11,000 feet above sea level.

Now Death Valley has hotels, highways, an airstrip, and even golf courses. But, beyond the few settlements, the wilderness remains. The mines and camps tell stories of men and women long gone, men and women who tried but usually failed to remove the mineral wealth at a profit. The cost of transportation and the lack of water were the real enemies of the miners; these problems could not be overcome and a profit made. That reality didn’t keep them from trying in dozens of camps and thousands of mines and claims.

But the land rests peacefully now, recovering from the onslaught of miners and gold seekers who left when they finally learned it was not cost-effective to remove most of the minerals found here.

Death Valley now has National Park status to protect the land from further development. This status protected the land, but it also completed the job the Rainbow Seekers began. The Timbesha Shoshone and other tribes who had lived here in harmony for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years were fully dispossessed at first, when the Park Service took charge of the land. They were allowed to live on 40 acres in the heart of the valley, but could no longer hunt or forage for the pinons and mesquite beans that were their mainstay in the old days.

This finally changed with a 1999 agreement that returned some 7,000 acres of land to them. It also gave them rights to share in the management of a 300,000-acre Timbesha natural and cultural preservation area where the land will be managed as it was by their forefathers. The land has gone full circle.

Leave a Reply