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Owens Valley

History of Owens Valley


Most historians believe that the first non-aboriginal people [27] to enter the Owens Valley area were American and English fur trappers and mountain men. Although early Spanish explorers may have discovered the area, no records of any such journeys have been uncovered. The Paiutes, however, probably had contact with travelers, judging from their rudimentary knowledge of Spanish. [28] Most evidence points to Jedediah Strong Smith as the first non-Indian to enter the region east of the Sierras in present California. [29]

After his exploratory journey across the Great Basin to southern California, Smith, who stands out as the epitome of the American combination of mountain man and explorer, came into contact with Mexican authorities who then laid claim to the present American Southwest. Disobeying his deportation orders, Smith traveled up the San Joaquin Valley. Faced with the need to return to a trappers' rendezvous at Great Salt Lake, Smith made the first crossing of the Sierra Nevada by a Euro-American during the late spring of 1827. The record of Smith's exact route remains unclear. However, most historians now believe that Smith crossed Ebbets Pass and either traversed the Antelope Valley or followed the Carson River northward, bypassing the Owens Valley vicinity entirely Nevertheless, his exploits encouraged later mountain men and explorers to journey into both the eastern and western Sierra Nevada of present California. [30]

The next Euro-American explorer to traverse present Inyo and Mono counties, according to several noted historians, was the British trapper Peter Skene Ogden. An agent of the Hudson's Bay Company based in the Northwest, Ogden has generally been remembered for his expeditions in the Great Basin from 1824 to 1830. Although his geographical descriptions are sketchy, some historians believe that his last trapping expedition in 1829-30 from the Columbia River to the Colorado River traversed Owens Valley and present eastern Mono County. [31]

Joseph R. Walker, one of the most persistent explorers of the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley, led three expeditions into eastern California. During the first expedition in 1833-34, Walker left the Great Salt Lake area, crossed the Great Basin, and travelled into the eastern Sierra in the first successful Euro-American effort to cross from east to west, While his exact route is not definitely known, most students of his travels suggest that he followed the east fork of the Walker River, perhaps traveled up Virginia Canyon, and crossed the Sierra somewhere in the vicinity of present Tioga Pass. After wintering on the California coast, Walker returned in 1834, some Indians guiding him over the pass across the southern Sierra that today bears his name. He then moved north through the Owens Valley, hugging the foothills of the Sierra. After passing through the valley, his party camped at Benton Hot Springs before turning eastward into Nevada. [32]

The Walker party's reaction to the eastern Sierra exemplified an attitude toward the land and the environment that would be echoed by subsequent generations of Euro-Americans. The expedition entered Owens Valley in late April 1834 and found the country not much to their liking. Zenas Leonard, a member of the party, described the region:

The country on this side is much inferior to that on the opposite side the soil being thin and rather sandy, producing but little grass, which was very discouraging to our stock. . . . On the opposite side vegetation had been growing for several weeks on this side it has not started yet. . . . The country we found to be very poor, and almost destitute of grass. [33]

The lack of pasturage and the harsh climate made the journey through Owens Valley slow for men anxious to get home, and probably affected their reaction to the valley. Significantly for its later history, numerous other exploratory and immigrant parties, most of whom traversed the arid Owens Valley during the harsher seasons, echoed Leonard's unfavorable reaction to the valley. Their negative comments, however, may have reflected, in part, an implicit comparison with western California and a lack of interest in lands that appeared to be a barrier to their final destinations.

Although westward moving Americans did not initially wish to settle on the barren lands east of the Sierra, they had to pass through them on their way to the mines and farmlands of western California. As a result the region began to be visited by passing wagon trains. In 1841 the first emigrant party to cross the Great Basin made its way into California. Sixty-four members of the Bidwell-Bartleson party left Missouri for California in spring. Internal dissensions divided the party, and half turned off on to a better known trail to Oregon in August. The others struggled toward the Humboldt River, still rife with conflict. They entered California passing through Antelope Valley, near present-day Coleville, in October, before following the West Walker River into the mountains and passing the crest of the Sierra in the late autumn somewhere in the vicinity of Sonora Pass. [34]

Joseph Chiles, a member of this successful crossing, returned to Missouri in 1842 and organized another group of emigrants. Hoping to avoid the hardships of the earlier group, he hired Joseph R. Walker to guide his party to California. Although Chiles later split off to find a northerly path, Walker led the bulk of the party through a portion of the Mono Basin, down the eastern shore of the Owens River, and over Walker Pass in 1843. The emigrants hauled their wagons, the first ever brought into California by overland homeseekers, and equipment all the way to Owens Valley, but to save their hard-pressed livestock they were forced to abandon much of their equipment near Owens Lake. After this journey Owens Valley became an occasionally used emigrant trail, providing a route into California that avoided crossing the High Sierra. [35]

John C. Fremont, a noted naturalist-explorer-scientist who became known as the "Great Pathfinder," ]ed a party through the Bridgeport and Antelope valleys on his "second expedition" in late 1843-44 during an unsuccessful effort to cross the Sierra in winter. Following this somewhat foolhardy adventure, he led a party into the Sierra during the late fall of 1845 on his third and final western expedition. While Fremont took a small band over the Sierra near Truckee, a larger party headed south under Joseph R. Walker, Edward M. Kern, and Theodore Talbot. The group passed east of Mono Lake through the Adobe Hills, striking the Owens River on December 16, 1845. Short on rations, the party hastened down the valley, leaving Owens Lake on December 21. The men crossed Walker Pass around Christmas and moved into the San Joaquin Valley to rendezvous with Fremont's group. [36]

Like the members of Walker's earlier party, this group also reacted negatively to the Owens Valley area. Edward Kern wrote in his journal that the area was "a sandy waste," lacked sufficient water, and provided poor grass for livestock. Kern noted a significant number of "wild-fowl," and was impressed by the "fine, bold stream," now known as the Owens River, but the "strong, disagreeable, salty, nauseous taste" of Owens Lake disappointed him. Kern spotted "numerous," "badly disposed" hidden Indians which caused apprehension for the party. [37] Needless to say, comments such as those of Kern and Leonard, did little to enhance the reputation of Owens Valley and Mono Basin. During this trip through the valley, Walker's third and last, the deep trough between the Sierra and the Inyo-White ranges received its name. Most sources argue that Fremont named the river, lake, and valley after reuniting with Kern, Walker, and Talbot. The namesake was Richard Owens, who like Fremont had never seen the valley One of Fremont's captains on his third western expedition, Owens was rewarded with this appellation. However, two historians, Philip J. Wilke and Harry W. Lawton, dispute this interpretation. Noting that Kern's daily journal mentioned "Owen's River" during the trek down the valley, and believing that the journal was written during the trip and not afterward, Wilke and Lawton have attributed the naming of the valley to Kern. Later, Fremont claimed credit for naming the river, lake, and valley in his Memoirs, published in 1887, during his only mention of the incident. In any case, the valley first appeared on a map under its present name in 1848. [38]

From the time of Walker's last journey to the late 1850s, many travelers passed through Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Most were on their way to western California, and likely viewed the arid lands east of the Sierra as the last obstacles in their journey. Various sources note the occasional presence of travelers in the area. In 1849, for instance, several groups of Midwesterners journeyed near Owens Lake during their crossing of eastern California, having suffered greatly while passing through Death Valley. Other emigrant trains, using various passes through the Sierra to reach coastal and central California, continued to pass through the area on their way to the mines and new settlements springing up throughout western California. [30]

After California was admitted to statehood in 1850, the new state government became interested in the area east of the Sierra. In 1855 the state Surveyor of Public Lands commissioned A. W. Von Schmidt to survey lands east of the Sierra and south of Mono Lake. During 1855-56, Von Schmidt's team worked the area from Mono Lake to Owens Lake. The observations of Von Schmidt, like those of Kern and Leonard, probably served to discourage interest in settling the area. Like his predecessors, Von Schmidt found the region inhospitable. With the exception of Round and Long Valleys, he declared the "land entirely worthless. . . . On a general average the country forming Owens Valley is worthless to the white man, both in soil and climate." He noted the scarcity of game and observed that the valley "contains about 1000 Indians of the Mono tribe, and they are a fine looking set of men. They live principally on pine nuts, fish, and hares, which are very plenty." [40]

Although they had done nothing to whites settling in California, the Indians east of the Sierra were under constant surveillance by the U.S. Army and the Office of Indian Affairs after the late 1850s. In February 1859, 22,300 acres near Independence in southern Owens Valley were withdrawn from settlement pending a decision about establishing a reserve. That year both the Army and the Office of Indian Affairs made excursions into Owens Valley, thus affording whites a better knowledge of the area. During the year, Indian agent Frederick Dodge of the Utah Superintendency travelled through the valley, exploring the region and preparing a map as he went. [41]

That same year Captain John W. Davidson led an exploratory expedition through the region. After heavy civilian livestock losses were reported in the Fort Tejon, southern San Joaquin Valley, and Los Angeles areas, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin L. Beall, officer in charge of Fort Tejon, ordered Davidson to lead a group of soldiers into Owens Valley to search for the stolen horses. Davidson, as well as many whites, had long suspected the Paiute of eastern California, but upon observing the natives of the region he concluded that such suspicions were incorrect. Finding few horses in the valley, he concentrated on observing the tribes and exploring the area, motivated in part by the prospect of establishing an Indian reservation on the withdrawn land in the valley as he had been instructed by Beall. Davidson observed that the Indians "are not only not horsethieves, but . . . their character is that of an interesting, peaceful, industrious people, deserving the protection and watchful care of the government." [42]

During July, Davidson's route took his group up the west side of Owens Valley to a point just north of Round Valley. Unlike most of his predecessors, Davidson was favorably impressed with the climate and much of the land. He found the climate "delightful." The soil, where "touched by water," was fertile and "well suited to the growth of weath [sic], barly [sic], oats, rye, and various fruits, the apple, pear, &cc." Grasses were "of luxuriant growth." In particular, Davidson found Round Valley to be "one of the finest parts of the state." To the farmer, it offered "every advantage but a market; to the Indian, nature, unaided by Cultivation, kindly bears on her bosom the means of his subsistence." He found "building timber enough for all the uses of a population commensurate with the agricultural resources of the valley." He noted an abundance of water in the region and suggested that much of the land could be irrigated from the many streams flowing down from the Sierra. Owens Valley and the Mono Basin were in his opinion "the finest watered portion of the lower half of the state." Davidson concluded that Owens Valley was an ideal location for an Indian reservation the "country is large enough, & fruitful enough, not only for them, but for all the Indians of the Southern part of California." "Properly managed," a reservation "should cost nothing to the Government but the first outfit." After the first harvest, it "should be self-sustaining, for the means are here and nothing is lacking but their proper application." Despite Davidson's favorable report, however, the February 1859 order withdrawing acreage for a reservation was revoked by the government in 1864. [43]

The final state-sponsored exploration of Owens Valley during the 1860s was conducted by a Whitney survey team in 1864. Commissioned by state geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney, William H. Brewer led survey teams over uncharted areas of California during the early and mid-1860s. After surveying the Mono Basin area during the summer of 1863, Brewer's men reconnoitered Owens Valley during late July and early August 1864. The party traveled from Visalia over Kearsarge Pass, down Independence Creek to Owens River and Owens Lake, back upstream past Camp Independence, a military outpost established in Owens Valley in 1862, past the headwaters of the Owens River, and back over the Sierra. Brewer described the valley during his travels:

It lies four thousand to five thousand feet above the sea and is entirely closed in by mountains. On the west the Sierra Nevada rises to over fourteen thousand feet; on the east the Inyo Mountains to twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet. The Owens River is fed by streams from the Sierra Nevada, runs through a crooked channel through this valley, and empties into Owens Lake. This lake is the color of coffee, has no outlet, and is a nearly saturated solution of salt and alkali. The Sierra Nevada catches all the rains and clouds from the west to the east are deserts so, of course, this valley sees but little rain, but where streams come down from the Sierra they spread out and great meadows of green grass occur. [44]

Throughout the trip in Owens Valley, which took place during a widespread drought in the state, Brewer and his party were uncomfortable in the dust and heat that frequently exceeded 100 degrees. Brewer noted:

It [the heat) almost made us sick. There was some wind, but with that temperature it felt as if it came from a furnace. It came from behind us and blew the fine alkaline dust into our nostrils, making it still worse.

Brewer failed to find any wood or other fuel. The cattle in the valley were "starving, because all but ten percent of the land, according to Brewer, was desert. Mosquitoes were a nuisance, preventing sleep. Brewer's party was happy to depart the valley, taking with it an unfavorable impression of the area that would contribute to its reputation as an inhospitable area for settlement. [45]

Despite these impressions, however, Euro-American pioneers had begun settling in Owens Valley by the time of Brewer's survey. His mention of cattle and settlements in the region demonstrated the extent to which white settlement had encroached upon the valley lands that had hitherto been the domain of Indians. With the commencement of Indian-white hostilities in 1861, the federal government made its first imprint on the area with establishment of Camp Independence the following year. To get to the valley Brewer had relied on well-traveled prospectors' trails through the rugged Sierra. His reliance on those trails indicated the extent to which prospecting and mining was drawing Euro-Americans to the valley.


By the late 1850s mining strikes and production in the goldfields of western California and the Sierra were declining, leaving many prospectors unemployed and searching for new beds of ore. The mining industry itself had been reorganized with the realization that successful extraction required the discipline, money, and organization that capitalist methods could bring to the mother lode. As a result, the means of production became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, and many miners had to face the prospect of working for mining firms. Although this reorganization probably provided more security and success than the earlier individualistic and haphazard methods associated with independent entrepreneurial prospecting, some men sought to retain the independence they had envisioned in the west. Largely excluded from new strikes in the eastern Sierra, these hardy independents turned to the area east of the Sierra in the hope of independently striking it rich. [46]

The region of present Inyo and Mono counties appeared forbidding at first. Transportation and communication was difficult in the desolate and isolated region, the ores first extracted were not very high grade, and a lack of capital limited early development. Nevertheless, miners made their way to the inhospitable area, thus constituting the earliest Euro-American population in the area. [47]

During this period a series of gold and silver strikes drew attention to the semi-arid lands of the western Great Basin. The discovery of the Comstock Lode in western Nevada in 1859 stimulated great interest in the region. Yet Mono and Inyo attracted their own settlers, some prospectors arriving from western California and some traveling from Los Angeles. The Mono County area, in particular, was first populated by the overflow from the California gold rush in the late 1850s. [48]

Early mining strikes in present Mono County included Dogtown in 1857 and Monoville or Mono Diggings in 1859. Other strikes in the Mono County area included the discovery of gold at what would later become famous as Bodie in 1859 and discovery of silver east of present-day Benton in the early 1860s. These findings, however, were dwarfed by the larger, more fruitful strikes at Aurora on the Esmeralda Lode in Nevada in 1860. [49]

To the south, mining in Owens Valley began slightly after the establishment of Dogtown and Monoville. The greatest stimulation to mining activity in the valley resulted from nearby strikes, including not only those around Mono Lake but also those east of the valley. Prospectors from Los Angeles and from the western Sierra crossed the mountains to get to the valley. In 1860 Dr. Darwin French and his prospecting party discovered the rich Coso Ledges southeast of Owens Lake. That same year prospectors located the first claims in the valley in Mazourka Canyon, but did not develop them, and the New World Mining and Exploration Company, a San Francisco firm, explored the valley and staked claims southeast of present-day Independence. By July, nearly one hundred men were reportedly prospecting in the valley.

Enthusiasm for mining in eastern California soared during the early 1860s. In late 1861 the Mining and Scientific Press announced the success of mining east of the Sierra, declaring that its gold, and especially its silver, deposits would eventually provide "riches beyond computation." Although such enthusiasm would eventually have some merit, development of mining in the area proceeded slowly during the first few years as a result of hostilities between whites and Indians. After the Army was called in to quell the difficulties in 1862 and 1863, however, mining operations increased. Some of the cavalrymen found gold in the foothills of the White Mountains. In 1862, the San Francisco-based San Carlos Mining and Exploration Company, assured of military protection, established a camp between the Owens River and the mountains to the east. [50]

Virtually all of the first mining camps in Owens Valley were founded on the east bank of the Owens River. Owensville was established in the northern part of the valley in 1862 or 1863, some 50 homesteader claims being filed before 1864 when mining activity declined. By 1871 the last resident had departed, and the buildings were dismantled and the lumber floated downstream to Independence, Lone Pine, and Big Pine. [51]

Further south along the Owens River, three other mining settlements were established in the 1860s. each of them having a shortlived tenure. These communities included San Carlos, near the mouth of Oak Creek at the site of a soldier's gold discovery, Chrysopolis, and Bend City. The latter was a town that at its height included 60 houses, mostly adobe, two hotels, five stores, several saloons, a library, "stock exchange," and vigilante committee. [52]

Like the early strikes in Mono County, the first mining endeavors in Owens Valley amounted to little. Activity in the area remained slower than that taking place elsewhere in eastern California or western Nevada. Nevertheless, as miners entered the valley, the land was opened up to more permanent types of settlers. Visitors to the region noticed that the area could be used for agriculture and ranching, and the influx of miners and mining-related endeavors provided a market for dairy and beef products, farm produce, and the services of craftsmen and entrepreneurs. [53]


The first recorded occurrence of Euro-American settlement in the Owens Valley region and its adjacent valleys took place in the Antelope Valley in autumn 1859, when Rod Raymond drove a herd of cattle to feed there. The following year George W. Parker homesteaded in Adobe Valley near the trail that connected southern California and Aurora. During the summer of 1861, the first white settlers entered Owens Valley. A cattle-driving party, including A. Van Fleet and Henry Vansickle, moved into the valley from the north in August, scouted the land as far south as the present site of Lone Pine, and returned to the northern edge of the valley to build the first white dwelling, composed of sod and stone, near the site of present-day Laws. About the same time, Charles Putnam built a stone cabin on Independence Creek, at the present site of Independence, as a trading post to tap the increasing traffic of prospectors through the valley. Samuel A. Bishop drove a herd of 500 to 600 cattle from Fort Tejon into Owens Valley and built a ranch southwest of the town that today bears his name. In late November 1861 Barton and Alney McGee herded some cattle into the Lone Pine area from the San Joaquin Valley and built a residence. [54]

After the first year of white settlement in the Owens Valley, three of the valley's four major town sites had been selected. Independence, known for a short while as "Putnam's" and "Little Pine," grew slowly, aided by the establishment of Camp Independence in 1862.

Thomas Edwards and his family, traveling with a large cattle herd, moved into the valley in 1863, purchased Putnam's trading post and stone cabin, and laid out the valley's first official town at Independence. Lone Pine prospered with the influx of miners, quickly attracting a multi-ethnic population. In 1862 several cattlemen from Visalia in the central valley settled on George Creek to form the nucleus of a community that would later become the orchard town of Manzanar. [55]

These nascent communities formed the loci for settlement expansion in Owens Valley. Yet the influx of settlers, and especially of ranchers and farmers, was not large. When the Army established its fort near Independence in 1862, there were few sources of food for the soldiers. Only in the next several years did sufficient settlers enter the valley to support a non-agrarian population. Thus, the driving force of permanence in the valley. and the bedrock on which valley development would be based during the next 40 years, was the settlement by ranchers and farmers that began populating the valley during the early and mid-1860s. [56]

One of the primary impulses for the rapid increase of farmers and stockmen in eastern California during these years was the drought that afflicted western California grazing and agricultural lands from 1862 to 1864. Searching for adequate pasturage for their stock, sheep and cattle raisers from the Central Valley drove their herds over Walker Pass into Owens Valley and northward into the Mono Basin. Later, while developing a route that remains in use today, herders pushed their stock over Sierra passes in Mono County into the northern part of the Central Valley, thus completing a circle of travel for summer pasturage. Some of these stockmen made their permanent homes east of the Sierra, while others continued making the summer journey annually, thus providing a steady stream of traffic through the region. [57]

Cattle and sheep proved to be the staples of agricultural production on the remote and semi-arid lands of eastern California. Expansion of farming operations in the area was hampered by lack of a reliable nearby market for produce. Nevertheless, the growing number of settlers had to provide for themselves, and they found a temporary, although unstable, market in miners and prospectors. While beef continued to be a staple for most diets, the expanding population in the region developed taste for a mixed diet of meat, dairy products, and vegetables. Thus, despite the primitive state of the region's economy, agricultural production expanded, and by 1867 some 2,000 acres had been enclosed with fences in Inyo County and 6,000 in Mono County Barley became the principal crop, but other foodstuffs were also raised for human and animal consumption. [58]

As mining and settlement increased in eastern California, governmental bodies were established. The early prospectors established mining districts with defined boundaries and drew up rules and procedures for staking claims and resolving disputes. Owens Valley and the Mono Basin fell within the jurisdiction of several established California counties, including Tulare, Mariposa, and Fresno, but the distance from those centers of government was so great and the means of transportation so difficult that the miners felt they needed their own governments. [59]

On April 24, 1861, the California legislature established Mono County as the first mining county east of the Sierra. Formed from parts of Fresno and Mariposa counties primarily, the county represented an attempt to bring governmental order to an area rapidly filling up with prospectors and mining operations. [60]

Residents south of Mono petitioned the California legislature to form Coso County in 1864 but the motion was not acted upon. Two years later, on March 22, 1866, the petitioners succeeded in establishing Inyo County out of portions of Tulare and Mono counties. At that time the southern boundary of Mono was moved up to Big Pine Creek, and four years later Inyo purchased for $12,000 another portion of Mono County, including the present town of Bishop, making the county's borders approximately what they are today. Competition developed between Kearsarge, a mining town high on the eastern slope of the Sierra, and Independence, near the U. S. Army post, for the honor of serving as the seat of Inyo County, but the latter was selected by county residents. After weathering dissension within the county that threatened to have its northern portion returned to Mono in the early 1870s, Inyo went on to become the second largest county in California. [61]

Hostilities Between Indians and Euro-Americans. The growing number of Euro-American settlers in eastern California led to tensions and conflicts with the Indians as the whites superimposed their settlements on lands that had long been inhabited by the native Paiutes. These bands of hunters and gatherers that belonged to the family of Great Basin Indians had suffered some of the problems of survival in that arid climate of eastern California but had also enjoyed the benefits of the river valley as their habitat. Until the late 1850s these people had lived largely secluded from the white man. Upon the arrival of growing numbers of Euro-American miners and settlers, however, the Owens Valley Paiute faced a severe and penetrating challenge to their centuries-old culture. [62]

In 1859, during his aforementioned expedition, Davidson had characterized the Owens Valley Indians as "an interesting, peaceful, industrious people, deserving the protection and watchful care of the government." Davidson went on to credit the Indians' indigenous agricultural practices:

They have already some idea of tilling the ground, as the ascequias [irrigation ditches] which they have made with the labor of their rude hands for miles in extent, and the care they bestow upon their fields of grass-nuts, abundantly show. Wherever the water touches this soil of disintegrated granite, it acts like the wand of an Enchanter, and it may with truth be said that these Indians have made some portions of their Country, which otherwise were Desert, to bloom and blossom as the rose. [63]

Davidson's observations were later shared by Colonel James H. Carleton of the First Infantry, California Volunteers, who described the tribe as both "inoffensive and "gentle". The supposition that these agrarian and food gathering people would not have the weapons and the hunting technology to make them dangerous to the encroaching white civilization would later surprise military officials when war broke out in the early 1860s. [64]

In 1859 Davidson not only recommended that Owens Valley be set aside as a reservation, but he also promised the Indians that their valley would be reserved, precluding whites from settling there. Provided that the Paiutes allowed free travel through the valley and that they "maintained honest and peaceful habits," Davidson was willing to protect them. It is likely that this plan had been approved, or perhaps suggested, by military and governmental officials far removed from the valley. [65]

Promises made by Davidson were reiterated by other agents of the Office of Indian Affairs. Warren Wasson, an agent with the Nevada Superintendency, reported in 1862 that the Indians had been promised security, material goods, and land by "officers of the government," presumably including both military and Indian agents. [66] In the Owens Valley, as in other areas east of the Sierra, the government had spoken too freely. Nevada's territorial governor, James B. Nye, reported in 1861, "the Indians have been promised too much, and led to expect more from their government than it would be possible to perform." [67] In the case of the Owens Valley Paiute, Nye's commentary proved prophetic. Once valuable minerals, grazing lands, and agricultural plots had been discovered in the area, the flow of white settlement could not be restrained by government promises to the Indians, and armed conflict resulted.

Tensions between Euro-American settlers and the Paiutes began to mount as miners and stockmen invaded Indian lands in Owens Valley, By 1863, the valley had become "a great thoroughfare. White cattlemen and herdsmen, hoping to feed their stock or sell it to miners in Esmeralda, Mono, and Inyo counties, drove their herds through the valley, undoubtedly the most passable route in the region. The sheep and cattle devoured the seed plants that the Paiutes relied upon for winter food, and the increase of lumbering in the eastern Sierra, as an adjunct to mining development and settlement, depleted the supply of pinyon trees, and thus pine nuts, a staple of the Paiute diet. Game, another staple of the Paiute diet, was depicted by the influx of miners and settlers. Not only did the Paiute lack an adequate food supply, but they also lost much of the surplus which they used to barter with Indians west of the Sierra for other goods. [68]

As tensions mounted in the early 1860s, word of the conflict began to spread. Neighboring Indian tribes and whites became acutely aware of the forthcoming hostilities. Colonel Carleton understood the problem rather clearly, observing that the poor Indians are doubtless at a loss to know how to live, having their field turned into pastures whether they are willing or not willing. It is very possible, therefore, that the whites are to blame, and it is also probable that in strict justice they should be compelled to move away and leave the valley to its rightful owners. [69]

They rejected Paiute demands for tribute and appeals to move off their cultivated and gathering lands. Thus, the rift between the two peoples grew larger, pushing both sides beyond compromise or reconciliation.

The breaking point was finally reached during the winter of 1861-62. By felling pinyon pines for fuel, destroying seed plants and meadow lands with their stock, and depleting game, whites drastically reduced the natives' supply of food for the winter. Because of the particularly harsh conditions that season, the Paiutes virtually had no place where they could turn for food. When they began raiding the herds of cattle in the valley to replace depleted game, ironically capturing the very animals that had destroyed their seed plants, whites retaliated by shooting the Paiutes. Hostilities soon escalated. By joining forces under several leaders, most prominent among them Captain George from southern Owens Valley and Joaquin Jim from the north (a Yokuts), the Indians, by superior numbers, were in undisputed control of the valley by early 1862. The damage caused by the Indian raids was never made clear. It is possible that Indians may have been blamed for the thefts of other whites, as well as their own, because some whites probably suffered with the Indians that winter. In any case, the Indians that Captain Davidson had found peaceful in 1859 became hostile and feared by whites by 1862. [70]

Although most settlers, miners, and soldiers in the area hoped to put the Indians down forcibly, agents of the Office of Indian Affairs continued to work for peaceful resolution of the difficulties. During the spring of 1862, while early skirmishes were occurring around Bishop Creek, Indian agent Warren Wasson met Colonel Evans, who was leading the California Volunteers in the struggle to subdue the Indians. Wasson complained that his peace-making mission had been squeezed out by the military. His complaints were reiterated the following year by John P.H. Wentworth, Indian agent for the Southern District of California. After being turned down by Congress when requesting a $30,000 appropriation to subsidize and pacify the Paiutes, Wentworth lamented:

" By heeding the reports of its agents, who are upon the ground and ought to know the wants of the Indians far better than those who are so remote from them, oftentimes formidable and expensive wars will be averted, and the condition of the Indians vastly improved." [71]

The military first appeared in Owens Valley during early 1862 after it received reports of troubles between the Indians and white settlers. A troop of California Volunteers arrived as the Indians laid Putnam's to siege in the vicinity of present-day Independence. Led by Evans, the troops drove away the natives and proceeded to Bishop Creek where a larger battle was underway. Following some skirmishing, Evans determined that a military post should be established in the valley to protect the growing numbers of white settlers. [72]

After a trip to Los Angeles to resupply his outfit, Evans returned to Owens Valley in June 1862 and established Camp Independence near the present-day county seat on July 4. Soon thereafter a short-lived treaty was signed with the Indians at the Indian agent's instigation, and the level of hostilities receded. As the supplies of both the Indians and the soldiers began to run out, however, warfare was renewed, especially after the soldiers and Indian agents could not provide the Indians with the material goods they had promised as part of the treaty. [73]

Armed conflict between the Paiutes and the whites extended into 1863, the military using increasingly brutal tactics to subdue the Indians. As Indian attacks increased during the early months of the year, choking off white traffic through the valley, soldiers and civilians responded harshly, killing and imprisoning the natives and destroying their homes and food supplies. Some white soldiers began taking advantage of Indian women, and the Indian women in turn looked to the whites for food and protection when their own tribesmen were deprived of the ability to provide for and defend them. Squaws began to stay around Camp Independence as early as 1862, angering the Indian men who had been undercut by white intrusions in the valley. Generally, the Indians fought on an "informal" basis, although during much of early 1863 they roamed the area in a band consisting of 150 to 300 warriors. A group of 41 Indians was exterminated on the shores of Owens Lake, just east of where the river flows into it, as revenge for the Indians' killing the wife and son of a civilian. Other pitched battles occurred on Owens Lake at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, and in the Black Rocks area near Bishop. [74]

In the spring of 1863 Captain Moses A. McLaughlin replaced Colonel Evans as commander at Camp Independence. After ruthless pursuit of the Indians and decimating many of their homes and much of their food supply through a "scorched earth" policy, McLaughlin managed to subdue the Paiutes. Hungry and beaten, the Indians trickled and then poured into Camp Independence during the late spring and early summer until approximately 1,000, or slightly less than one-half of the estimated native population of the valley before the coming of the whites, had surrendered. Anxious to dispose of the beaten and troublesome Indians and to dismantle Camp Independence, McLaughlin, heeding the advice of local Indian agents, herded the Indians to San Sebastian Reservation in the southern San Joaquin Valley and Tehachapi Mountains near Fort Tejon, a military post that had been established in 1854 to suppress stock rustling and protect San Joaquin Valley Indians. Of the approximately 1,000 Indians who began the forced march, only about 850 finished it, those not finishing either dying along the way or escaping back to the valley that was their home. The escapees would be followed during the next few years by a large number of those who made the journey to the San Sebastian Reservation as the reservation and fort were ill-equipped to hold and provide for the people. These Indians gradually sifted back into the economy of the Owens Valley, living in rude and rocky camps along the fringes of white settlement and dependent largely for employment and sustenance upon the whites who had dislodged them from their homeland. The Indians, their former way of life largely decimated, began working for whites as farm and ranch hands and performing other menial jobs in the expanding white-controlled mining, ranching, and farming operations, while attempting to supplement their subsistence with some natural products. [75]

Although many of the displaced Indians returned to Owens Valley, their tribal ways were severely disrupted and their former social and familial structures all but destroyed. In 1870 a census counted 1,150 Indians an the valley, but by 1877 there were only 776, or about one-third of the estimated native population before the coming of the whites. [76]

When McLaughlin removed the Indians to Fort Tejon., whites assumed that the valley would be safer for their mining and agricultural pursuits. The development of these activities, which had been slowed considerably by the hostilities, accelerated. Nevertheless, some hostile Indians, who had not submitted to the soldiers, continued sporadic attacks against the white settlers. Camp Independence., which had been dismantled when McLaughlin returned to Fort Tejon in 1864, was reestablished to protect white settlers as well as travelers through the valley and remained in operation until 1877. With the reopening of the camp, most of the Indian attacks ceased. [77]


Development: 1860-1890s. With the conquest of the Paiute, the lands of the eastern Sierra opened up to rapid settlement and development by white Americans. During the last thirty five years of the 19th century, Owens Valley underwent substantial development that would shape its future and determine to a large extent its present character. Two prominent mining booms took place in the area the strikes at Cerro Gordo and Bodie that would dominate the history of the region. Before reviewing these mining booms, however, it is important to understand their historic context and their relationship to ongoing settlement and agricultural development. [78]

While the mining rushes had profound effects on the development of the Owens Valley region, they were primarily short-lived affairs. Agriculturalists began settlements that had a more permanent character, although even farms were but temporary features upon the landscape in some parts of eastern California. Initially, agriculture relied upon the market that miners provided, as did other industries that supplied lumber, transportation, and water. Despite this dependence, however, farmers and ranchers lent an air of stability to the lands east of the Sierras. The hard economic times that set in after each boom reduced agricultural interests but could not eliminate them as they did mining. The slumps in the region after 1880 attest to the difficulties in the economic sector that supported miners, but the persistence of farmers and stockmen attests to the steady character of livelihoods tied to renewable wealth of the land. [79]

Although farm operations got off to a slow start in Owens Valley, they expanded rapidly during "the late 1860s. By 1867 farmers were cultivating approximately 2,000 acres. Barley was the principal crop. Two years later, 250 tons of grain were harvested from 5,000 acres of cultivated land in the valley, thus indicating a rapid expansion in farm operations. By 1886, a variety of fruits and vegetables were being raised in the valley, bringing good prices to growers. [80]

A promotional pamphlet published in 1886 optimistically advertised the agricultural possibilities in Inyo County and Owens Valley. The publication reported that more than 82,000 acres were still available for cultivation, and two-thirds of Round Valley, which contained much of the region's most fertile land, remained open for settlement. This estimate, however, was likely too optimistic. Cattlemen and sheep raisers dominated most of the choice "open" land in the region, and probably would have resisted extensive settlements by newcomers. Despite the promoters' claims, the best usable land was beginning to fill, leading to disputes and fights between potential settlers and those who had already established themselves on the land. [81]

Despite expanding settlement and farm and ranch operations, Owens Valley remained largely isolated from the outside world during the late 19th century. Although it generally grew faster than the settlements of Mono County to the north, it still developed slowly, particularly after the decline of Cerro Gordo in the mid-1870s. By the 1870s the valley had become a base camp for climbers heading into the High Sierra, and the route up Mount Whitney had its beginning, as it does today, at Lone Pine. Prominent visitors to the valley, who climbed Mount Whitney during the early and mid-1870s, included John Muir, the noted naturalist, explorer, and writer, and Clarence King, a prominent government surveyor in the West. [82] But visitors to the valley in the late 19th century were comparatively rare. Besides Muir and King, the most famous visitors to the valley in the late 19th century were members of the Wheeler Expedition, an Army Corps of Engineers scientific survey team assigned to explore the Great Basin. The expedition based some of its activities at Camp Independence from 1870 until the camp's abandonment in 1877. [83]

Selection of Owens Valley as the expedition's base camp symbolized the character of the valley in the late 19th century. Located on the fringes of the Great Basin, it epitomized the features of the region's semi-arid geography Yet it also lay on the eastern perimeter of California, adjacent to the rapidly developing settlements in the western and central parts of the state but separated from them by the wall of the Sierra Nevada. This location as a Sort of isolated backwater, lying between the turbulent mining-related prosperity of western California and western Nevada as well as the advancing modernization of California and the dry undeveloped stretches of the Great Basin, lent to Owens Valley a somewhat motley and unstable character. The population of Lone Pine in 1873, for instance, was a mixture of Mexicans, Americans, Indians, French, Swiss, and Chileans. Mining strikes, such as Cerro Gordo, created an opening for Asian workers as well. That ethnic groups could mix so easily suggests that no one element controlled the valley during these early years. Due in part to its geographical location and to its largely undeveloped character, society in Owens Valley would remain impermanent and unstable throughout the late 19th century. [84]

Yet some families found this backwater of civilization appealing, and some agriculturalists strove to establish permanent institutions east of the Sierra. Elements of these efforts were visible largely in the small towns that dotted the landscape of the valley. Bishop Creek, a town of approximately 600, brought the first "religious society" to the eastern Sierra region in 1869 with establishment of a Baptist Church. By 1886, the town featured two churches, three hotels, and a public school. The first Inyo County newspaper, the Inyo Independent, was established at Independence in 1870, and the first telegraph between that town and Camp Independence was installed in 1876. The first elements of an irrigation system crucial to agricultural development in the valley were begun during these years. [85]

Camp Independence, although a temporary military post, provided an aura of stability to Owens Valley Through the 1860s it aided white settlement in the valley by serving as a base for fighting Indians, protecting travelers, and providing a market for local meat and farm produce. During the 1870s, the post helped to resolve some of the problems associated with accelerated settlement. The struggle between farmers and ranchers for land and water, and the violence and lawlessness associated with the nearby mining booms, required and received the soldiers' attention. In the mid-1870s, for instance, at the height of the Cerro Gordo boom, soldiers at Camp Independence settled feuds between cattlemen and sheepherders over rights to pasturage and water. By 1877, however, the Indian threat was gone and local government was well enough established to handle settlement problems. Thus, the camp was disbanded, and the buildings torn down or auctioned off. [86]

A devastating earthquake in the early morning of March 26, 1872, had a major impact on the growing settlements as well as the landscape of Owens Valley. One of the greatest tremors recorded in the history of California, it is estimated that the quake would have registered 8.3 on the Richter scale. Lone Pine, near the epicenter, suffered extensive damage. All of Lone Pine's adobe houses collapsed in the tremor, killing 29 and injuring more than 60 of the town's 300-400 residents. Of those killed in the quake, most of whom were Mexicans, 16 had no nearby relatives. They were buried in a common grave that remains extant on the northern outskirts of Lone Pine. The adobe structures at Camp Independence toppled, but no fatalities and only a few injuries were reported. Most of the buildings in Independence were built of wood, and thus there were no reported injuries to its population of 400 because the wood flexed with the quake and did not break. [87]

The earthquake also resulted in changes to the landscape of Owens Valley Scarps that reached 23 feet in height were formed along the eastern edge of the Alabama Hills, and in some places the ground moved horizontally by 20 feet. Some 28 miles north of Lone Pine, the bed of the Owens River sank, and as the river filled these new fissures the flow stopped to the south for several hours. About seven miles north of Lone Pine, the ground along the river banks sank, creating a new channel for the river. The faults and scarps of that dramatic event remain in the valley, and along with the grave of the earthquake victims, are reminders of the valley's geological history. [88]

Cerro Gordo and Bodie Mining Booms

Compared to the slow, steady development of agriculture and settlement in Inyo and Mono counties, the Cerro Gordo and Bodie mining booms shook and realigned the character of the region. In a sense, they put the lands of the eastern Sierra on the map by stimulating rapid demographic and economic growth and by linking the area, albeit tenuously, to the outside world. The mining booms typified the approach of most Americans to the region Unwilling to settle in the lowlands of the two counties, for the most part, many were willing to endure hardship and cultural deprivation at Bodie and Cerro Gordo for a few years to strike it rich. These miners planned to tap the mineral resources of the area, hoping to spend and consume its wealth elsewhere. Nonetheless, their frenzied existence in the region contributed substantially to the region's growth. [89]

The silver boom at Cerro Gordo, the richest strike in the history of Inyo County, exemplified these patterns of development. Discovered about 1865 and worked constantly for 12 years, the mines at Cerro Gordo generated travel and wealth in the valley, but as was common in many western mining strikes, the profits from the venture tended to flow away from the valley to large cities and distant capitalists. Nonetheless, the mine stimulated commercial growth, created new business opportunities in the valley, and connected the region with Los Angeles, the expanding metropolitan area to the south that would one day acquire much of the valley. [90]

By 1868 some 700 people had made their way to the peak high above Owens Lake, and Cerro Gordo became a full-fledged mining camp. Stage lines sprang up, connecting the mine with Owens Valley twice daily, Nevada twice weekly, San Francisco via Walker Pass three times weekly, and Los Angeles once weekly. By 1870 nearly 1,000 claims had been filed, and the town began to acquire the meager rudiments of civilization, featuring frame houses, hotels, dance halls, and unpaved roadways. [91]

Despite problems with crime and disorder, Cerro Gordo became one of California's richest mining strikes. Its total output was uncertain during its principal years of operation from 1865 to 1877, but estimates suggest that it produced about $17,000,000 in silver. At its peak in 1874, the three smelters that served the mine produced 5,300 tons of bullion valued at $2,000,000, or an average of 400 bars of silver per day. [92]

The success of Cerro Gordo was due largely to its business organization. Developed by big businessmen, their disciplined organization turned the venture into a profitable enterprise. Mortimer W. Belshaw, a mining engineer from San Francisco, was responsible for much of the success of Cerro Gordo. Arriving with the earliest prospectors, Belshaw, with his partners, quickly gained control of the refining processes and later the water and lumber resources as well as the roads to Cerro Gordo, thus monopolizing production there. A proven mastermind of mineral engineering, Belshaw invented a special type of smelting furnace, and by 1868 he had begun to produce bullion at the unheard-of rate of 120 bars per day, each bar weighing 85 pounds and costing $20-$35. [93]

Getting the bullion from Cerro Gordo to the California coast was one of the developers' biggest problems. Until 1873 the production of bullion outraced the abilities of mule teams to haul the silver to market. A steamboat transported the bars from the base of the range across Owens Lake, where mule teams picked them up and transported them to Los Angeles, a journey that took between three and four weeks. In another three days, the bars were shipped to San Francisco, where they were refined further and passed on to the United States mint. After attempting several operations, Belshaw helped to establish the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company, headed by Remi Nadeau, in 1873, thus stabilizing the patterns of shipment for the remainder of the Cerro Gordo boom. [94]

Thus, the silver at Cerro Gordo gave Owens Valley its first consistent link with the outside world, and at the same time it fueled the growth of Los Angeles, which would later dominate the valley. The rise of Cerro Gordo coincided with one of the first land booms in the Los Angeles area, as farmers flocked to southern California. Cerro Gordo provided a market for their crops, and Los Angeles provided an entrepot for the bullion of Cerro Gordo. The 500 or so mules that hauled cargo between Cerro Gordo and San Pedro harbor near Los Angeles consumed all of the city's surplus feed crop, and the population at Cerro Gordo consumed other supplies from the city's farmers and merchants. Thus, the two regions became closely linked in a pattern of commercial growth. This connection almost resulted in construction of an early railroad between the two regions, but when the backing of an independent railroad promoter fell through, the Southern Pacific took over the idea. The company extended the rail line to Mojave, thus requiring Owens Valley to wait another 35 years for a direct connection to the city to the south. [95]

The Southern Pacific's reluctance to incorporate Cerro Gordo into its rail system reflected the decline of mining on that rim of the Owens Valley. During the mid-1870s mining activities were declining, and by 1877 all known silver deposits in the area had been extracted. Lack of reliable water sources and destructive fires contributed to the declining mining operations, and by 1879 Cerro Gordo had gone into decline.

The demise of Cerro Gordo came at an inopportune time for the Owens Valley. The financial Panic of 1873, which had afflicted the economy of the nation and California, began to impact Inyo County in 1875. As Cerro Gordo and smaller mining operations in the region slumped, miners, teamsters, and merchants experienced declining prosperity. During early 1877 soldiers at Camp Independence were discharged in a continuous stream, and on July 10 of that year the post closed, thus ending not only a social center and a source of authority but also a market for the produce of farmers and the goods of merchants. Disbandment of the fort and closure of Cerro Gordo signified the end of the first period of economic prosperity in Owens Valley. [96]

To the north of Owens Valley, the rising mining camp of Bodie was able to absorb some of those dispossessed by the economic decline in Inyo, and in so doing bolstered the sluggish development of Mono County. Rich veins of gold were discovered at Bodie during the mid-1870s, and by 1880 some 6,000 people had arrived to participate in the boom. Mining activity in Bodie reached its peak during the years 1877-81, as the town experienced a peak population of nearly 16,000. Although mining operations would continue into the 20th century, production at the Bodie mines declined drastically after 1883. The mines at Bodie far outstripped those at Cerro Gordo, the total value of the generally high grade silver and gold ore amounting to some $21,000,000. During the peak years from 1877 to 1881, approximately $11,700,000 of that total was produced in gold, the Standard Mine yielding two-thirds of the entire gross output. [97]

Carson and Colorado Railroad

The Carson and Colorado Railroad was one of the byproducts of the Cerro Gordo and Bodie mining booms, and it outlived both. The line was originally proposed in the late 1870s, although mining east of the Sierra had already begun to decline. The railway builders desired to connect Carson City, Nevada, with the Colorado River in southern California. But in the early 1880s, when this narrow gauge railroad was commenced, mining activity in Mono and Inyo counties had diminished to such an extent that the tracks from Carson City were extended only to Keeler on the eastern shore of Owens Lake at the southern end of the Owens Valley The builders originally intended to profit from the trade of the mining strikes in the area that the railroad served, but when the railroad was completed in 1883 Cerro Gordo had been abandoned and mining operations at Bodie were declining. Nevertheless, the railroad replaced the teams of mules and burros that had been such a frequent sight through Owens Valley Because of the stagnant mining activity in western Nevada and eastern California, D. O. Mills, the owner of the railroad, was forced to sell out to the Southern Pacific in 1900 for $2,750,000. Shortly thereafter, strikes at Tonopah, Goldfield, and elsewhere in western Nevada made the line profitable, staving off its inevitable decline for several decades. [98]

Despite its relative lack of success, the Carson and Colorado Railroad influenced the development of Owens Valley The line was the valley's first modern transportation link to the outside world, connecting it with Reno and San Francisco. The function of a narrow gauge railroad in the American West was generally limited to local or regional businesses, such as livestock, lumbering, and mining. Because these industries were generally migratory and temporary, use of these railroads was generally limited, and only two narrow gauges the Denver and Rio Grande and the Carson and Colorado survived into the mid-20th century as did the White Pass and Yukon Route in Alaska. The purpose of the narrow tracks was to facilitate travel over and through mountain passes. The Carson and Colorado squeezed over the White Mountains near Benton, connecting western Nevada with eastern California. [99]

While the railroad stimulated the economy of the eastern Sierra by creating new markets for its agricultural produce in western Nevada, the principal interest of its builders was mining. As a result, the tracks travelled down the eastern side of the valley, bypassing each of the major settlements that had emerged on the west side of the Owens River, where the elements of irrigation were available for agriculture. Thus, each permanent settlement in the valley had to build a station on the east side of the river in order to be served by the narrow gauge. Bishop utilized the town of Laws, Big Pine the town of Alvord, Independence the station at Kearsarge (originally known as Citrus), and Lone Pine developed Mount Whitney Station. The railroad's tracks skirted the northeastern shore of Owens Lake, where in later years they would provide transportation for the non metallic minerals extracted from the lake bottom. [100]

Despite the comparatively long life of the Carson and Colorado (in later years renamed briefly the Nevada and California and for most of the 20th century known simply as the Southern Pacific Narrow Gauge), it was doomed to extinction from its earliest years. Mining activity in eastern California never improved sufficiently to warrant full-time service, and the strikes in western Nevada were transitory in nature. Towns such as Tonopah and Goldfield provided a market for farmers, but most of the business and the ore moved from Mono and Inyo counties toward Reno and San Francisco. Competition also impacted operations on the narrow gauge line. The Southern Pacific extended its standard gauge tracks from Mojave to Owenyo in 1910 to provide transport for the construction of the aqueduct that would carry water from Owens Valley to Los Angeles, and rail traffic began to enter the region from southern California over the Southern Pacific lines. Along with other American railroads, the Carson and Colorado faced increasing competition from increased use of automobiles and trucks on passable highways that connected Owens Valley with Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s. When Los Angeles completed its aqueduct in the 1920s, the railroad lost the business of the valley's farmers. Though it still made regular trips through the 1940s and 1950s, the railroad continued to decline, and made its last run in 1960, and within a year had been dismantled. [101]

Owens Valley at the Turn of the 20th Century. In 1900 the economy of Inyo County rested on an agricultural base. With a population of 4,377, the county had 424 farms and 141,059 acres of farmland. The annual value of its crops (ten-year average) was $394,846, while the annual value of its livestock was $574,229. [102] The Carson and Colorado Railroad provided a means of export for farm produce and a mode of import for other goods. The growing season supported more crop production than Mono County, its neighbor to the north, but, like Mono, the Owens Valley largely depended on livestock. Owens Valley residents produced some fruits and vegetables, but they concentrated on feed crops such as alfalfa. [103]

Earlier in 1893 the federal government had become a fixture in Inyo County when the Sierra Forest Reserve was established, protecting more than 4,000,000 acres of forest lands in five California counties. In 1907, when "timber reserves" were redesignated "national forests," parts of Inyo and Mono counties became the Inyo and Toiyabe national forests. As a result of this new land designation, sheep grazing was somewhat curtailed as restrictions on land usage in the national forests limited the number of animals that moved through the area. [104]

At the turn of the 20th century, the population of Owens Valley was linked together in a chain of towns that ran the length of the valley, each sharing the river and the railroad as common communication channels. Foremost among the towns in the area was Bishop, located at the north end of the valley. After building a bank, public high school, and utility company in 1902, the town was incorporated in 1903. By 1909 its population numbered about 1,200, and it had acquired electric power, a town water supply system, a post office, telephones, and a telegraph The town boasted six churches and four schools. [105]

Lone Pine exemplified another aspect of the growth of Owens Valley at the turn of the 20th century. Although whites had dominated the valley's non-aboriginal population, a strong Mexican community sprang up in Lone Pine. The Mexicans had arrived in the settlement during the mining rushes in the region, and a deeply rooted community remained there. Mary Austin, a noted author whose own tragic life in the valley was part of the story of Independence during this period, depicted the foreign community sensitively in her The Land of Little Rain in 1903. [106]

Northeast of Lone Pine, another community, known as Owenyo, was established by Quakers in the early 1900s. Located on the Carson and Colorado narrow gauge, Owenyo became the center for a 13,000-acre settlement project by the William Penn Colonial Association of California. Incorporated on June 9, 1900, the association, whose officers were headquartered in Whittier and Los Angeles, was capitalized at $200,000. The association attempted to sell land for $25 per acre, and it planned to construct electric power, light, and heating plants and erect a sugar beet processing factory. Liquor, gambling, and "houses of ill repute" were banned from the colony. The Quakers dug some 42 miles of irrigation canals ranging in width from 18 to 50 feet, but it soon became apparent that the settlers, most of whom were from the East, were unprepared to work the arid lands of Owens Valley. Thus, the Quakers were among the first to sell their lands to Los Angeles in 1905 when the city began to purchase land for its aqueduct.[107]

The Basques were another European group present in Owens Valley at the turn of the 20th century. Since they came and left as transient sheepherders, little was ever recorded about them. Many of those labeled as Basque were in actuality French, Spanish, Mexican, and Portuguese. These European herders had come to North America as early as the 1850s, working primarily in western California, but some Basques had apparently reached Owens Valley and Mono Basin by the mid-1860s. However, they did not arrive in large numbers until the setting for Basque herding began to shift from central and western California to the Great Basin during the closing decade of the 19th century. In 1896-97 all but two of the 34 licenses in Inyo County went to Basque or French herders. Establishment of a hotel catering to Basque and French herders in Bishop provides evidence that these people kept to themselves in order to maintain their cultural ties and perhaps to protect themselves against discrimination by the dominant white society. [108]

For permanent settlers in Owens Valley survival depended on the building of irrigation systems. The Paiutes had constructed an extensive network of ditches which allowed them to irrigate "nearly all the arable land in that section of the country." [109] When Euro-American settlers moved into the area, whites had to construct watercourses to channel water to their mining and agricultural endeavors. Early white settlers in the Owens Valley moved on to the lands formerly cultivated by the Paiutes along the rivers and streams, taking over the ditches the Indians had dug and using them to irrigate farmlands just as the Paiute had. As the number of settlers increased in the valley, conflicts erupted over the limited water supply, as farmers and ranchers both attempted to employ it for their own interests. [110]

As the prime lands along the streams of the valley were settled, new arrivals began to choose lands that lay farther away. To avoid the conflicts that had permeated valley life since white settlement began, and to prosper as farmers and ranchers, residents began digging their own canals. The first sizable white irrigation projects were undertaken in 1878, when the McNally Ditch near Laws, Bishop Creek Ditch, Big Pine Canal, and Lone Pine Ditch were planned. Work began on the Owens River Canal and the Inyo Canal in 1887. Most of these canals tended to run parallel to the river, and many were located north of Bishop. By 1906 nineteen canals were in operation in Owens Valley, and by 1910 artesian wells near Independence had been dug successfully and used to provide water for irrigation. The combination of plentiful water and increasingly prosperous agricultural activities helped Owens Valley to overcome its economic doldrums in the wake of the decline of the Cerro Gordo mining boom and seemed to portend a bright future for the Owens Valley. [111]

The continual increase of agricultural production in the valley during the early 1900s supported the promising expectations for the valley's economy. In 1910 an agricultural census of the valley showed that there were 43,000 sheep, 5,000 horses, 20,000 cows and cattle, 5,800 colonies of bees, 20,000 apple trees, and 40,000 grapevines. Farm production included 58,000 bushels of corn, 51,000 bushels of wheat, 53,000 bushels of potatoes, 174,000 pounds of butter, 37,000 tons of alfalfa, 100 tons of honey, and 150 tons of grapes.

One horticultural specialist, however, was less than enthusiastic about the agricultural prospects of Owens Valley during this period. J. S. Cotton, in his Agricultural Conditions in Inyo County, observed that of the 500,000 acres of land in the Owens Valley, about 200,000 acres were held under patent, and one-fifth of that was under cultivation. He noted that the "great majority of farmers in the Valley are very lax in their methods." Irrigation of unleveled land by flooding led to over-irrigation and increased alkalinity of the soil in many areas. Furthermore, valley farmers were "badly handicapped" by inadequate facilities to market their produce. The Carson and Colorado Railroad connecting Keeler with points in Nevada ran along the east side of the valley, far from the agricultural districts on the West. The railroad was poorly managed and freight charges were high. Much of the feasibility of any new project in the valley depended "on the future value of the land, which in turn may depend on the transportation facilities." [112]

Despite this negative assessment of Owens Valley agriculture, however, the combined ranching and farming industries in the valley were beginning to reach their peak by the early 1910s. Nevertheless, a water controversy with the City of Los Angeles loomed on the horizon that would shatter the valley's agricultural-based economy and have drastic impacts on the region's development.


Los Angeles, the Aqueduct, and Water Controversy. By the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles had experienced what seemed like a perpetual boom since the heyday of Cerro Gordo, and the continual influx of people demanded more and more resources. As the city became accustomed to growth and the profits to be made from expansion, its leaders, who were committed to the "ethic of growth," began to plan for expansion. Long before the city needed actual resources, men were planning how to bring them to the rapidly expanding metropolis to insure continued prosperity and growth in the future. This was especially true in the case of water. [113]

The Los Angeles Basin comprises approximately 6 percent of California's habitable land, but enjoys only 0.6 percent of the natural stream flow of the state. This small portion seemed adequate until the turn of the 20th century. At that time the city had a population of about 100,000, but its phenomenal growth rate suggested that it would soon double in size. A dry weather cycle that stretched from the early 1890s until 1904 convinced city leaders that future growth of their city depended upon obtaining a large water supply from elsewhere. [114]

In 1902, three years before Los Angeles civic leaders became overtly involved in the aqueduct project, the U.S. Reclamation Service began studying Owens Valley in preparation for extending irrigation throughout the basin. Largely because of the efforts of Joseph Barlow Lippincott, who was employed by both the chief engineer of the Reclamation Service and the City of Los Angeles, the federal project was dropped when the city began to show interest in the valley's water. Los Angeles began moving into the area, purchasing lands adjacent to the Owens River as well as other streams and canals, thus acquiring most of the riparian rights to the water in the southern half of the valley. Although their methods were not illegal, the buyers for the city, under the leadership of the superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Department, William Mulholland, and former Los Angeles mayor Fred Eaton, owner of a 440-acre poultry ranch near Big Pine that was reportedly the largest such operation in the state [115], sometimes employed unscrupulous methods. Posing as ranchers and agents of the Reclamation Service, buyers purchased valley lands for Los Angeles throughout the middle years of the first decade of the 20th century. By falsely representing themselves, the city's agents were attempting to avoid sudden speculation by local landholders, but many valley residents later came to resent these tactics, feeling that they had been misled into selling their land. [116]

The City of Los Angeles received assistance from the federal government in its quest to obtain land in the Owens Valley. The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed the rise of the progressive movement in American politics during which time many leaders became strong supporters of urbanization, urban reform, regional incorporation, bureaucratic management, and municipal ownership of city services. In addition, the progressives promised a solution to local underdevelopment through scientific conservation, reclamation, organizational efficiency and economic centralization. [117] Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive who served as President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was sympathetic to the proposed water project , and as a result his administration aided the efforts of the city by protecting much of the unsettled portions of Owens Valley from further settlement. This objective was accomplished in 1908 when Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the fledgling U.S. Forest Service, extended the borders of the Sierra National Forest to include 275,000 acres of valley land, despite the fact that the protected acreage was virtually treeless. This action, along with the Reclamation Service's earlier decision to drop its irrigation plans in favor of the Los Angeles plans to construct an aqueduct, would later lead many to conclude that the federal government was an accomplice in "the rape of Owens Valley" and encouraged distrust of the federal government in the valley. [118]

By 1908 the voters of Los Angeles had approved bond issues that funded the project, and construction of the aqueduct was begun. As construction got underway, a promotional pamphlet issued by the Owens Valley Chamber of Commerce optimistically stated:

It has been reported that Los Angeles owns the greater part of the irrigating waters of Owens Valley; not only is this not the fact, but it is true that the city of Los Angeles owns only a small minority of such waters, depending principally for its supply on the surplus flow of Owens river. . .

The water rights of Owens Valley are secure; the continued appropriation and use for many years has given vested rights, which are as near perfect as water rights can be. The exceptionally few law suits over water rights are a part of the history of Inyo county. [119]

At its completion in 1913, the 230-mile aqueduct, largely the brainchild of William Mulholland, stood as one of the engineering triumphs of the early 20th century. To complete the project the Southern Pacific, at the behest of the city, built a rail line from Mojave that connected with the narrow gauge at Owenyo. Initially, it supplied the construction, already underway, of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and later provided an outlet, albeit roundabout and costly, for Owens Valley farmers. To provide the builders with electricity, the city constructed power plants which were later converted for use by valley residents. The aqueduct intake was built at Aberdeen, where the Owens River entered a channel that pulled the water by gravity through a string of reservoirs, pipes, tunnels, and canals to Los Angeles. During the years immediately after completion of the aqueduct, the city did not need much of the water for domestic or industrial use, thus diverting much of the flow to irrigate farmlands in the expanding San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles.

Although concerned about the actions of Los Angeles, Owens Valley residents remained generally optimistic about the future of their homes and livelihoods until the 1920s. The aqueduct extended only to Aberdeen, leaving untouched most of the irrigated lands and riparian rights in the more cultivated northern half of the valley During the early years of that decade, one promotional tract, for instance, contended that there was plenty of irrigation water left for new settlers and that "the filings of the city in no way jeopardize existing water rights in the valley." [120]

Another promotional pamphlet circulated during the early 1920s optimistically stated that agriculture in Owens Valley was "still in its infancy." There were some 75,000 acres under cultivation, of which "at least 98 per cent" was irrigated under gravity flow of water." "In the last few years," however, a "new awakening" in agricultural development had occurred in the valley that would "lead us to a development four times as large as our present cultivated area, with 30 and 40-acre holdings, and a class of people more contented than in any other section in California." [121]

Despite this optimism, however, two sets of circumstances combined during the 1920s to shatter the confident illusions of Owens Valley residents. First, a number of factors prevented the construction of a dam and reservoir at the lower end of Long Valley that would have helped to regulate the inconsistent flow of the Owens River and store for later use excess water from wet years. When it became clear that this dam would not be constructed, the stage was set, according to several historians, for misunderstandings and violence. [122]

A second set of circumstances provided the more immediate cause for the battles that erupted in Owens Valley during the mid-1920s. A severe drought that afflicted southern California in the early 1920s, combined with the explosive growth that continued in the Los Angeles area, demonstrated the need for the city to expand its holdings in Owens Valley Initially the farms and ranches of the northern half of the valley had been ]eft with enough water to operate easily. During the dry years of the early 1920s, however, these residents consumed most or all of the river water before it reached the aqueduct intake. While Los Angeles had earlier planned to take only the "surplus" water from the Owens River, the drought and continued growth of the city forced it to change its goals. Thus, the City launched a new land acquisition program in the Bishop and Big Pine areas, hoping to close off the ditches and canals so that all of the Owens River water would flow into the city's aqueduct. The city's new campaign led to vigorous arguments over the monetary value of the valley lands and reparation demands by valley residents for the damage the aqueduct had done and was expected to do to business and prosperity in the valley. When the two sides were unable to reach a compromise, valley residents became increasingly angry over the "rape" of their valley by the powerful and wealthy metropolis to the south and turned to bombings and violence as a last resort. Their most notable act of sabotage occurred in November 1924, when a group forcibly opened the Alabama Gates four miles north of Lone Pine, diverting water from the aqueduct and sending it down a spillway to the abandoned river bed over a five-day period.

An additional development that added to the frustrations of Owens Valley residents was the inability of the area's farmers, ranchers, and townspeople to reach a consensus on how to deal with their more numerous, powerful, and wealthy rivals in Los Angeles. Those who were willing to accept the city's terms sold out and then either moved away or stayed in the valley as tenants of Los Angeles. They were viewed as traitors by some valley residents, who sought either to hold out for high prices or to resist the Los Angeles land acquisition program entirely. Those who did not want to sell at any price often resented other opponents of Los Angeles who were merely trying to get more money for their properties. As a result of these differing opinions, many suspicions, feuds, and community disruptions occurred in the valley during the 1920s, thus shattering the former camaraderie that had characterized its small communities. This legacy of suspicion and distrust would linger for decades. [123]

The heightened conflict between the City of Los Angeles and the residents of Owens Valley ended abruptly in 1927. Opponents of Los Angeles had organized behind the leadership of Wilfred W. and Mark Q. Watterson to resist the aqueduct until they received their price. The Watterson brothers operated the only banks in the valley, and represented the only source of loans to valley farmers and ranchers. In August 1927 the Watterson banks were suddenly audited and closed, and the brothers were convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to San Quentin prison. The collapse of the banks destroyed all effective opposition, as the valley lost not only its strongest leaders but also the money necessary for resisting Los Angeles. Ironically, many valley residents who had sold out to the city had deposited their windfalls in the Watterson banks, causing them to suffer also from the collapse. [124]

During the next few years the city and the valley worked to reconcile their differences. The ability to compromise on prices and issues, which had eluded both parties for so long, suddenly made itself apparent. Both parties consented to some arbitration and price adjustments, and Los Angeles proceeded to acquire all the essential land and water rights in Owens Valley. By 1933 the city owned 95 percent of all farmland. In lieu of paying damages to townspeople who lost business as a result of the aqueduct, the city also purchased some 85 percent of all town property in the valley. [125]

The impact of the water controversy upon the people and lands of Owens Valley was tremendous. The local economy slumped as people streamed out of the valley an event that was aided in part by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The population of Inyo County declined from 7,031 in 1920 to 6,555 in 1930, and Bishop, its largest town, suffered a drop in population from 1,304 to 850 during the same period. [126] Land use also changed drastically as Los Angeles acquired virtually all privately owned farm lands and the federal government withdrew from homestead entry much of the public land to protect Los Angeles water rights. The city leased a small fraction of its 278,055 acres to farmers and ranchers, allowing a semblance of agriculture to persist in the valley. Nevertheless, over 500 modest farmers in 1920 were replaced by 80 cattle ranchers in 1930 who managed, on average, 5,000-acre ranches of city-owned land valued at over $1,000,000 each. [127] Despite the on-going agricultural activities, however, the city was given priority for water from the Owens River, so no farmer or rancher could be assured of a steady and certain supply to irrigate his lands. Farming declined as a result of this uncertainty. Because the livestock industry required less water, it remained in the valley, and some feed crops were also grown. But for the most part, agriculture would never again be the dominant way of life in the valley as it had been before the coming of the Los Angeles aqueduct. [128]

Owens Valley During the 1930s. During the late 1930s, a paved highway was completed from Los Angeles to Owens Valley, and with improvements in automobiles, Owens Valley and eastern California became increasingly popular tourist destinations for the expanding population of southern California. To some extent the promotional activities of some leading local residents were instrumental in developing tourism. While at the nadir of economic life in Inyo and Mono counties during the Great Depression, concerned residents joined to restore the economy of the area. Under the leadership of Ralph Merritt and Father John J. Crowley, pastor of the Santa Rosa Parish headquartered in Lone Pine, [129] the aforementioned Inyo-Mono Associates was organized in 1937 to publicize the scenic beauty and recreational and investment opportunities of the two counties. By 1940 the organization had a membership of 30, including representatives from Olancha, Death Valley, Panamint, Darwin, Keeler, Bishop, Lone Pine, Big Pine, and Independence.

Among the group's most prominent members were George Savage, owner of the Chalfant Press which published the three major Owens Valley newspapers; W. A. Chalfant, editor of the Inyo Register at Bishop for more than 50 years; Roy Boothe, supervisor of Inyo National Forest; S. W. Lowden, division engineer of the State Division of Highways; and Theodore R. Goodwin, superintendent of Death Valley National Monument. The organization sought to restore the Owens Valley economy through a program of cooperation with the City of Los Angeles, and Merritt was appointed chairman of the committee on relations with the city. To attain its goal, the Inyo-Mono Associates posited that Owens Valley "was but a part of the whole area called by them 'America's Range of Recreation' and that by bringing prosperity to the area they would inevitably bring prosperity to the valley itself, not alone through the revival of agriculture but through the scenic beauties and more tourists." [130] Serving largely as a regional chamber of commerce, the organization helped to pump life and confidence into the area's decimated economy, although its initial enterprise was clouded by Merritt's reputation for "sharp practice" and rumors that Merritt and Crowley had been closely associated in Fresno during the 1920s when Merritt's Sun Maid raisin growers' association had gone bankrupt. Nevertheless, by encouraging local businessmen to subscribe funds to the advertising and public relations activities of the Inyo-Mono Associates, Merritt and Crowley were able to raise an annual budget of $20,000 by 1942. Crowley and Merritt recruited Robert Brown, a former English teacher at Big Pine High School with a journalism background, to head the Inyo-Mono Associates as its chief of publicity. Brown was successful in his attempts to get the major Los Angeles newspapers, particularly the Los Angeles Times, to carry articles in their sports sections about the abundance of fish and game in Inyo and Mono counties. [131]

The most important achievement of the association and its supporters occurred when they convinced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to co-operate in efforts to make the region a tourist haven. Such an idea had been proposed before, even by planners in Los Angeles who felt that recreational use would enhance the city's efforts to protect the watershed that drained into the aqueduct, but the city had resisted any further development of the valley. During the late 1930s the Department of Water and Power began to change its mind and commenced working with the Inyo-Mono Associates to promote tourism and recreation in eastern California. Its main contribution to this cause during the pre-World War II years was the release of some city lands in Owens Valley. Some property was leased or sold back to town businessmen, and some city land was allocated for recreational purposes. With the valley's largest landowner participating, efforts to promote tourism and recreation showed marked success. In 1940 it was estimated that approximately 1,000,000 tourists visited Owens Valley. [132] ) These efforts seemed assured of continued success on the eve of World War II and would later contribute to the postwar economic development of the valley economy. [133]

Adapted from; MANZANAR
Historic Resource Study/Special History Study

Joseph Walker c.1860 Matthew Brady photo

Owens Valley Paiute

Owens Valley Indian War

Camp Independence

Inyo County


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