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Joshua Tree National Park

Human History

    Paleo Indians

      Pinto Culture

      As the Pleistocene Epoch drew to a close ten thousand years ago, and the rivers of glacial ice melted, people lived in ...

    Native Americans

    A Land of Plenty?

    “Oooohhhh! Look at all of that food!” ...

    Modern Historic Man

      The Gold Seekers

      Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the take from the mines in the Sierras petered out, miners fanned out into the deserts. Here hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging environment in which to operate a mine. But a few hardy adventurers persevered and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park—although few were good producers.

      An exception is the Lost Horse Mine, which produced 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver (worth approximately $5 million today) between 1894 and 1931. When the story of the Lost Horse Mine is told, it sounds like a western campfire tale: gun slinging cowboys, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, the lure of gold, and a sticky-fingered miner.

      Ranchers

      Cattle grazed throughout the park from the 1870s until 1945. The grazing ratio was about one adult animal to 17 acres. Old-timers noted that the grass was tall and abundant. The cattle companies located springs, dug wells, and developed rainwater impoundments called “tanks,” which can be seen today at places like White Tank and Barker Dam.

      In the early years the desert was open range and cattlemen moved their animals seasonally from one area to another in search of adequate food and water. “In those days, if you were a cowpuncher, you had a pair of chaps, a horse and a pack horse, a bedroll, salt, staples, a six-shooter, and a big chew of tobacco.” according to Jim Hester, an early area cowboy.

      Homesteaders

      From 1863 to 1977, United States citizens could claim 16O-acre parcels in the Mojave Desert from the Federal Government—though not after 1936 in the area that became Joshua Tree National Monument. Claimants had three years to "prove up" on their property, which meant building a small cabin and an outhouse. After sending a photo of the improvements to Washington, D.C., the homesteader received a deed to his property.

      Several wet years beginning in 1912 provided for crops good enough to attract people to the area. Veterans of World War I, suffering the effects of mustard gas, came hoping to benefit from the dry desert climate. Later, because of hard times created by the depression, some people sought out a rural lifestyle where they could raise their own food without relying on unstable markets and inflated prices.

      But the rains didn’t last. Several years passed with little or no rainfall and the crops failed. Homesteaders drilled water wells, but most were unsuccessful. In many cases water had to be hauled several miles even for household purposes. Conflicts between homesteaders and ranchers over water rights became common.

      Life in the desert presented other challenges: Summers were extreme for those used to more temperate climates; the work was hard and neighbors far away. Few homesteaders met the challenge. Many farms and small homesteads were abandoned, leaving behind the tiny cabins which still litter the desert in some places.

      One family that not only survived but thrived in the desert was that of Bill and Frances Keys. For more information about them, take a guided tour of their ranch.
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