The Desert Route to California

Trails to the West

by Jay W. Sharp

1846 Map
Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1846. Published just before the War with Mexico, Mitchell's map shows the recently annexed former Republic of Texas in its largest territorial form, including its farthest claims into present New Mexico and Colorado. Looming large in pale yellow is the vast Oregon Territory. The map largely followed the printed map of Oregon from the report of Charles Wilkes's expedition. The large pink area labeled "Upper or New California" includes the Mexican territories of Upper California and New Mexico.

The desert route to California emerged piecemeal, segment by segment, in the mid-19th century, when hundreds of thousands of Americans, in a historic human migration, took to the great trails to the West. Crossing western Texas, southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and southern California, the desert route served as a yellow brick road to hope for immigrants, an invitation to gold for treasure hunters, a gateway to new markets for entrepreneurs, a march to war for troops, opportunity for plunder by Apache raiders, an irresistible lure to adventure for free spirits, and the setting for tales about legendary frontier characters and events. Offering a somewhat less punishing roadway and better weather than the more northern trails, the desert route to California became a key link in the realization of the notion of Manifest Destiny, which cast American expansion to the Pacific Coast almost as a sacred duty. “Go West, young man, go West,” famed journalist Horace Greeley had advised.

Remnant of the Woodbury Cutoff in Nebraska: Preserved ruts created from 1847 to 1860 by the wagon wheels of the wagons pioneers used to move westward. By Ammodramus - Own work, CC0,

The Trail Route

The desert route headed west, not as a single thread, but as a complex of trails with converging and diverging branches. Fed by roadways that originated in Missouri, Tennessee, eastern and central Texas, Santa Fe, northern Mexico and other wellsprings of emigration and commerce, the desert route evolved constantly over time, reflecting the growth in settlements and the increase in travel across the Southwest. It would become known as part of the Ox Bow Trail, which originated in Missouri and Tennessee and ended in San Francisco. Segments from southwestern New Mexico to the Pacific coast would become known as Cooke’s Wagon Trail. The segment paralleling the Gila River would sometimes be called the Gila Trail. The entire length – from the Pecos to the Pacific – would be known by drovers as the Texas-California Cattle Trail. Whatever it was called, the desert route foreshadowed the coming of an intercontinental railroad.

Desert trails to California
1857 drawing of an American wagon train and Maricopa native Americans at Maricopa Wells, Arizona. From the 1860 book "Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean" By Joseph Henry (1797-1878) and Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887) Wikipedia

The route – or, branches of the route – began at several different crossings along the Texas stretch of the Pecos River, at the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. These included, for instance, the lower river crossing, near the juncture of the Pecos and the Rio Grande; the Lancaster Crossing, near the village of Sheffield, Texas; the Pontoon Crossing, near the community of Iraan; the Horsehead Crossing, 12 miles northwest of the hamlet of Girvin; the Emigrant Crossing, some 20 miles southwest of the town of Monahans; and Pope’s Camp, just below the border between Texas and New Mexico.

Horsehead Crossing, 2014. Billy Hathorn, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Horsehead Crossing, eerily marked at the time by stacks of horse skulls, scatters of livestock bones and the graves of Indian massacre victims, became perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most infamous – of the Pecos River fords. It served as the crossing, not only for the desert route to California, but also for the Comanche War Trail, which ran from the upper Texas Panhandle southward through the Big Bend into northern Mexico. Its alkaline waters poisoned hard-run ponies that Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties had stolen from haciendas south of the Rio Grande and driven mercilessly northward across 60 miles of open dry desert. It also served as a ford on the Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail, which began in north central Texas, ran southwest to the Horsehead Crossing, then northward up the Pecos to markets in New Mexico and Colorado. Its treacherous quicksands trapped thirsty longhorns that cowboys had driven relentlessly for miles across an arid prairie to reach the river.

According to the “Map of Texas Frontier,” prepared by John J. Roome in 1992, trails that forded the Pecos River north of the lower river crossing and south of Pope’s Camp converged at Comanches Springs and Fort Stockton. From that point, they followed a common route to Fort Davis, at the southern end of the Davis Mountain Range. The trail that passed over the lower river crossing joined the others at Fort Davis. From the fort, the unified route led northwest to Van Horn then west to Fort Quitman and the Rio Grande about 25 miles southeast of Fort Hancock. From there, the trail paralleled the river, passing through the old Spanish colonial settlements of San Elizario, Socorro and Ysleta en route to El Paso. The trail that forded the Pecos River at Pope’s Camp paralleled the Texas and New Mexico border westward, passing the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountain range and the famous Hueco Tanks Indian rock art site en route to El Paso. The routes that converged then followed the Rio Grande from Fort Quitman into El Paso were generally called the “Lower Trail.” The route that paralleled the Texas and New Mexico border was called the “Upper Trail.” It overlay an ancient Indian pathway.

Hueco Tanks
Hueco Tanks, near El Paso, Texas

At El Paso, the route to California merged with the Chihuahua Trail, the northernmost leg of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the ancient Royal Route to the Interior Land, which ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe. The route overlay the Chihuahua Trail northward for some 50 miles into New Mexico, passing the communities of Las Cruces, Mesilla and Dona Ana before turning west, away from the Chihuahua Trail and the Rio Grande. At the juncture in El Paso, the California route lost some travelers, especially merchant caravans, which turned south on the Chihuahua Trail to markets in northern Mexico. At the turn west, the route gained travelers – settlers, treasure hunters (or “Argonauts”), merchants and adventurers from Santa Fe or other points – who had yielded to the lure of California.

Headed west, just northwest of Las Cruces, the California route passed the distinctive Picacho Peak, a dormant volcano, on the left, and it struck across the Chihuahuan Desert to Cooke’s Peak and Fort Cummings, located at a dependable spring about 15 miles northeast of Deming.

From Fort Cummings, the route wound through Cooke’s Canyon, one of the most historic passages on the entire route. This segment crossed the path pioneered by the Mormon Battalion, an ad hoc military force bound for California in 1846 to join the war against Mexico and settle new lands in the west. It passed ancient Indian rock art, which some in the Battalion interpreted as validation of the Book of Mormon. It served the coaches of John Butterfield’s storied Overland Mail service. It became a setting for famed Chiricahua Apache chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise to massacre and plunder parties who dared travel through the canyon – called the “gauntlet of death” – that claimed more than 100 victims. “One soldier, George Hand, noted in his diary that he ‘found many bones, skulls, & graves,’” according to E. R. Sweeney in his fine biography, Mangas Coloradas.

Desert trails to California
Replica of a blacksmith and wagon shop, a key service on all the trails, Old Town, Tucson

From Cooke’s Canyon, the route bore due west across the Chihuahuan Desert. It passed the Soldiers’ Farewell Hill, the point where military escorts bid westbound caravans good-bye and good luck and turned back east to Fort Cummings. At the border between New Mexico and Arizona, the route skirted Stein’s Peak and passed through Doubtful Canyon, a fearful Indian ambush site that left travelers in doubt about their safety.

From Doubtful Canyon, the route continued westward across Arizona, leaving the Chihuahuan Desert and entering the Sonoran Desert. It threaded through Apache Pass just north of Fort Bowie, the military post that lay at the heart of the campaign against the Chiricahua—the last of the Indian wars in the United States. It was in Apache Pass that a green lieutenant, George N. Bascom, deceived Cochise in February 1861, killed several members of the chief’s family and band, and triggered widespread bloody reprisals by the Chiricahua. In Apache Pass, the Chiricahua ambushed a Union force from California en route to defend New Mexico from a Confederate force from Texas. The conflict, one of the most famous between the Apaches and U. S. soldiers, became known as the Battle of Apache Pass.

Apache Pass
Apache Pass, Arizona, as viewed from Fort Bowie facing north. Photo by Mark Wilson.

From Apache Pass, the route to California passed through Willcox then followed a gentle arc southwest then northwest past the San Xavier del Bac mission church and into Tucson. From Tucson, it paralleled the Santa Cruz River northwestward to its juncture with the Gila River, then it paralleled the Gila west to its juncture with the Colorado River, near Yuma, on the border between Arizona and California. From Tucson to the Colorado River, the corridor for the route had been pioneered in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by the famous Jesuit missionary and explorer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and in the mid-18th century by the Franciscan missionary and explorer Father Francisco Garces. It would be used as a route of travel (rather than exploration) for the first time in 1775, when Juan Bautista de Anza led his colonizing expedition from the Royal Presidio of San Ignacio de Tubac, a Spanish outpost in south central Arizona, to Royal Presidio of Monterey, the springboard for Spain’s first significant California settlement.

After the route crossed the Colorado River and entered California, it bore generally west, along the border with Mexico, through the tortuous northwestern Sonoran Desert, where daytime air temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. It crossed the Algodones dune fields and Imperial Valley. One branch continued west paralleling the border with Mexico and crossing the low mountains of the coastal sierras into San Diego. Another branch turned northwest, passing through what is now the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Leaving the Sonoran Desert behind, it crossed over mountain passes of the coastal sierras into Los Angeles. Generally, it was this route that the Anza expedition had followed from the Colorado River crossing to the Pacific Coast in 1775.

From the Pecos River to the Pacific Coast, the route to California extended for some 1100 to 1200 miles across the deserts of the Southwest.

The History

The desert route materialized out of a confluence of historic events: the rapid national growth of population (from 4 million in 1800 to 23 million in 1850), which produced a yearning for more land and opportunity; the idea of Manifest Destiny, which validated American expansion to the Pacific Coast; the Mexican War, which raised a need for military roads and opened the Southwest and the Pacific Coast to American settlement; the Sutter’s Mill gold discovery, which sparked feverish dreams of quick and easy wealth; the exploding western emigrant population, which created new markets for entrepreneurs and intensified demands for mail and passenger service; and the Civil War, which once again raised a need for military roads. “Go West, young man, go West,” Horace Greeley had said to those hungering for a better and richer life. And they did.

Through four decades, from the 1840’s to the 1880’s, hundreds of thousands of Americans followed not only the desert route but also the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and others to the West in pursuit of their dreams. The mountain men came first on the desert route, exploring the trails of Indians and early Spanish missionaries and colonists, trapping the beaver of the rivers. Vanguard settlers came next, answering the call of California even before America fought Mexico to win control of the Southwest. When the war with Mexico erupted in 1846, the Mormon Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, forged a wagon route from New Mexico to California, anticipating the acceleration of emigrant migrations in the wake of an American triumph. When James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in the Sacramento Valley of California, young men in the United States, frenzied by gold fever, abandoned their families or dragged their wives (sometimes pregnant) and their children westward to pursue the willow-the-wisp vision of easy wealth. While wagon trains trekked across the desert route, the U.S. government dispatched negotiating and survey teams to finalize the nation’s newly won international border and to scout potential railway routes. With the burgeoning population in the west, the government contracted with John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Stagecoach Company to provide postal and passenger service over the desert route beginning in 1858.

When the Civil War began, ending stagecoach service and slowing emigration, 3000 Confederate troops, under the command of an alcoholic brigadier general, Henry Hopkins Sibley, marched from San Antonio to ford the Pecos River at the Lancaster Crossing, follow the Lower Trail to El Paso, and ascend the Rio Grande to battlefield calamity. Meanwhile, Union troops, under the command of Brigadier General James Henry Carleton, marched from southern California east over the desert route to the Rio Grande, quashing any hope Sibley may have had for a counter offensive in his campaign. After the Civil War, the surge of emigration over the trail resumed, and entrepreneurs moved their merchandise and cattlemen moved their herds over the desert trail to new markets in California. In 1881, near the small west Texas community of Sierra Blanca, Collin P. Huntington connected his railway from southern California to Jay Gould’s railway from eastern Texas, fulfilling a long-held vision of train transportation across the desert to the Pacific. As Gould drove a silver spike in the rail to memorialize the joining, the sound of his sledgehammer signaled the coming end of wagon caravans, stagecoach service, cattle drives, Indian raids and cavalry marches on the desert route to California.

Some Legendary Figures, Heroic and Villainous

While the stories of human conflict and expansion unfolded, legendary figures, heroic and villainous, of the desert Southwest inscribed their names in the history of the trail.

For instance, Juan Bautista de Anza’s milestone colonizing expedition over the hardest miles of the trail – from Tucson to the Los Angeles area – in the winter months of 1775 tested the endurance of the emigrants and led to the founding of San Francisco. He gave the Spanish government its first overland route from Mexico to settlements, missions and harbors in California.

Kit Carson
Kit Carson with Beaver Hat
By Unknown photographer -, Public Domain,

In 1847, Kit Carson, fresh from Mexican War battles near Los Angeles, served as a military courier, guide and Indian fighter on the trail, which was virtually unknown to the U. S. Army at the time. In 1853, several years after the Mexican War, Carson traveled over the trail again en route to his home in Taos to accept the appointment as Indian agent for northern New Mexico.

During the winter of 1846 and 1847, Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, commanding some 400 Mormon troops of the Mormon Battalion, demonstrated the feasibility of moving wagon caravans over the desert route to California. “Half of [the expedition] has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature,” said Cooke in his report about the trip, according to O. B. Faulk in his book Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest. “…Marching half naked and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.”

On September 15, 1858, John Butterfield began operation of his Overland Mail Company postal and passenger service from Missouri and Tennessee across the desert to California, and he made the Corcord stagecoach – a masterpiece of the coach maker’s craftsmanship – an enduring symbol, not only of the desert route, but also of the American West. In one of the great achievements in transportation history, Butterfield hired some 800 employees, improved the roadway, built and provisioned some 150 way stations, purchased and stationed 250 coaches, purchased and stationed nearly 2000 draft animals, and began operation—all within one year! Moreover, in hundreds of trips over two and one-half years of service, his company never failed once to make its contractual commitment of completing a run of the 2800-mile-long trail, one way, within 25 days or less—an average of more than 100 miles a day.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the boozy Confederate general, Henry Hopkins Sibley, a man with a grandiose vision for conquering the Southwest and northern Mexico, had led his troops westward across the Lower Trail to the Rio Grande in anticipation of glory. He would lead the remnants of his force back again, beaten and straggling, in the aftermath and humiliation of defeat. He left behind a third of his soldiers – some 1000 men – dead, wounded, sick or captured. In his first major engagement with Union forces, at Valverde on the Rio Grande, he had laid in his bed drunk during the fighting. In his next, and last, major engagement, at Glorietta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail, he had missed the action altogether. In something of an understatement, Martin Hardwick Hall said in his book Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign that “There are indications that [Sibley’s] efficiency as a commander was hindered both by a lack of physical strength and by overindulgence.”

As Sibley’s disastrous campaign played out, the Union general James Henry Carleton, a man with an imperial notion of ruling New Mexico and Arizona, marched his 2000 troops, called the California Column, eastward from the Pacific coast across the desert route to take command of the region. With Sibley in retreat and the Civil War battle fronts beyond his reach, Carleton, a sanctimonious Indian hater, turned his soldiers and guns on the Apaches and Navajos. He cheered when his troops treacherously captured, tortured and murdered the famous Mangas Coloradas in January 1863. By Carleton’s command, Kit Carson rounded up the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos, herding them to a concentration camp – for many, a death sentence – at the Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner on the Pecos River, in west central New Mexico. Meanwhile, as more than 600,000 died in the great struggle to end the slavery of the blacks in the South, Carleton tacitly promoted the enslavement of Indians in the Southwest. He allowed slaving parties to prey on the Apaches and Navajos. Finally, in September of 1866, Carleton’s string ran out. The Secretary of War relieved him of command, banishing him to oblivion in Louisiana. New Mexico cheered.

With the currents of history running against them, Mangas Coloradas (before his murder), Cochise and Geronimo – all legendary sons of the raiding and war-making Chiricahua Apaches – led battles against the military and massacres of civilians across the route from the Rio Grande to Tucson. They gave heart, nerve and sinew to a four-decade struggle that finally ended in early September 1886, when Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, located near the boundary between Arizona and New Mexico and a few miles north of the border with Mexico. It marked the end of America’s Indian wars.

Tack in Tombstone, AZ
Tack, another remnant of the trail days, Tombstone, Arizona

Some Defining Moments

Like all the historic trails through the Southwest, the desert route to California spawned tales that took on the patina of legend.

For example, at Hueco Tanks, a rocky island in the desert beside the Upper Trail branch between the Pecos River and El Paso, several hundred Mexican dragoons and militia ambushed a Kiowa raiding party of 20 warriors in a box canyon in 1833. The soldiers drove the Kiowas into a cave, a forlorn and primal recess that promised to be a stony entombment. Rather than run the risk of attacking the Indians inside the cave, the soldiers laid siege after they had killed one warrior, wounded another, slaughtered the raiders’ horses and cut off food and water. The soldiers taunted the imprisoned Kiowas, promising them provisions at the cave’s mouth but giving them, in fact, burlap bags full of live rattlesnakes. The soldiers held the raiders captive for 10 long days, laughing at the Kiowas’ hunger and thirst and suffering. Then, on the tenth night, the soldiers discovered, to their astonishment, that the Kiowas had found an escape route, an opening in the roof of their cave. The soldiers fired blindly at swift moving shadows, managing to wound two before the raiders raced over a rocky hill and through spiny desert plants to steal Mexican horses and escape their tormentors. The several hundred dragoons and militia had lost their stranglehold on 20 Kiowa raiders. Virtually empty handed and certainly embarrassed, the soldiers returned to their homes – the villages of San Elizario, Socorro, Ysleta and El Paso – where their people had long suffered from Indian raiding. The militia commanders reported that they had killed 100 to 150 Apaches. The people cheered.

About a mile or two deep into Cooke’s Canyon, that “gauntlet of death” in southwestern New Mexico, Mangas Coloradas and Cochise, with a combined force of 100 to 200 warriors, ambushed a San Antonio and San Diego Mail Company stagecoach, manned by seven men, in late July of 1861. According to Ed Sweeney, the Apaches forced the seven to abandon their coach and team and flee on foot into a tributary canyon, carrying weapons, ammunition and provisions in their arms. The Apaches swiftly surrounded the men, who threw up stone fortifications as best they could. The Apaches attacked with a hailstorm of musket balls and arrows, but they soon learned that the seven men, courageous and dangerous as a nest of diamondbacks, came armed with the new breech-loading Sharp’s rifles, weapons far more accurate and deadly than the Apaches’ armaments. In spite of the Apaches’ overwhelming advantage in numbers, Mangas Coloradas’ warriors suffered so many casualties – dozens of dead and wounded – that he withdrew from the battle before the shooting stopped. Cochise’s warriors finished the job, but he and his oldest son may themselves have suffered wounds. When the Apaches finally overwhelmed the seven, they mutilated the corpses, stripping the bodies, breaking the arms and shelling the heads—an act of retribution. Mangas and Cochise, however, knew gallant men when they saw them. According to one report, said Sweeney, Mangas proclaimed that “if the Apaches were as brave ‘as these few white men, he could whip the world.’” Cochise said that “with twenty-five such men he would undertake to whip the whole United States.”

On the Gila River, about 125 miles upstream from its juncture with the Colorado River, the family of 12-year-old Olive Oatman made a lonely camp on the night of March 19, 1850. Her father, impatient with the progress of a large wagon train, had pushed on ahead with her mother and her five brothers and sisters. Her family had drawn a few miles ahead in the race to California but had forfeited the safety in numbers of fellow emigrants. As evening fell, her father began to have second thoughts. He felt a sense of foreboding. “I know something dreadful is about to happen,” he said, according to Faulk. He had realized his blunder too late. Early the next morning, Olive’s isolated and vulnerable family fell under attack by 19 Yavapai Indian warriors, who clubbed her father, mother and three youngest siblings to death. Her older brother, Lorenzo, collapsed under the Indians’ clubs, but he managed to survive. Olive and her eight-year-old sister Mary fell captive to the Yavapai, who soon traded them to the Mohaves. For a time, Olive worked as a slave as her health declined under the hardship. She had her chin tattooed, Mohave fashion, with thick vertical stripes. She lost Mary, who could not survive the tragedy and the hard Mohave living conditions. At length, Olive found a home with a Mohave family, where she experienced better treatment. Her health improved. She learned the Mohave language and forgot her native language. For almost six years, she longed for rescue. At length, she won release when a Yuma Indian bought her from the Mohaves for a little cloth and a few trinkets. Soon reunited with Lorenzo, she began a new life among her own people. She re-learned the English language. She went to school. She married. While she was still a young woman, Olive Oatman posed for a photograph. She wore her dark hair parted in the middle. She wore a long, elegant dress with a lace collar. She rested her right hand on the back of an elaborately crafted dining room chair. With all the trappings of civilization, she still bore the Mohave tattoos on her chin, an indelible reminder of that terrible day on the trail beside the Gila River and the years of captivity by the Indians.

Travelers’ Notebooks

With roots in the forested and more settled lands to the east, travelers across the desert route to California saw their journeys through the strange new land as a trial of body and spirit, seasoned with a continual undercurrent of danger and a frequent sense of wonder.

The Pecos is a narrow, deep, and muddy stream with no timber on its banks. It is now level with the banks. Very bad tasted [sic] water. There is a skiff that the mail is crossed in, and we have permission to cross our things in it. Commenced crossing as early as we could get all the stock to the ford [probably the Horsehead Crossing or the Emigrant Crossing]. They would put the things out of the wagons into the skiff and then tied ropes to the wagons and crossed. One wagon came uncoupeled [sic] in the river. Another broke the rope that was on the tongue, but those on the opposite side still had holt [sic] of the other ropes and the men swam in and brought all safe to shore.
From Harriet Bunyard’s 1869 diary, published in
Ho for California!, edited & annotated by Sandra L. Myres

Passed through Fort Davis [on the Lower Trail]. It is a pretty little place by the side of the mountains. The valley is wide here and the mountains small. Here are found vegetables. Very high, roasting ears one dollar and 50 cents per dozen, butter one dollar per pound, eggs the same per dozen.
From Harriet Bunyard’s 1869 diary, published in
Ho for California!, edited & annotated by Sandra L. Myres

…I never shall forget the gorgeous appearance of the clouds: tinged by the setting sun above those jagged peaks [of the Guadalupe Mountains, beside the Upper Trail], changing like a rapid panorama, they assumed all sorts of fantastic shapes, from frantic maidens with disheveled hair to huge monsters of fierce demeanor, chasing one another through the realms of space.”
From newspaper correspondent Waterman L. Ormsby’s 1858 dispatches,
compiled in his book The Butterfield Overland Mail

Climbing amid the boulders [at Hueco Tanks, on the Upper Trail], we found many to be cupped or dish-topped, or creviced, and filled with the purest, coldest water… Exploring further on the smooth, square face of an immense boulder, we found almost life-size nude-Indian paintings in red and yellow, descriptive of a battle wherein the nude red men were victorious slaughterers of hundreds of uniformed Mexicans…
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

Passed through La Crusa [Las Cruces]. It is a very pretty situation for a town, but the buildings are not pretty. The church bell was ringing as we passed through, and the Mexicans were crowding to the chapel. They were all dressed very nice with large bright colored shawls over their heads and shoulders. They were carrying their musical instruments with them to the church. Bought some nice cabbage and onions here.
From Harriet Bunyard’s 1869 diary, published in
Ho for California!, edited & annotated by Sandra L. Myres

In 12 miles from the last camp we came to the Rio Membris [the Mimbres River, about 15 miles west of Cooke’s Canyon]. It ought to be called Rio Disappointment, for the crossing is as dry as the palm of my hand; _ mile up we found a standing pool in the bed of the river; the water is very good to a thirsty man, one would be careful not to swallow more than a pint of Tadpoles at one drinking.
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

Cow Skull
Cow skull, a sight often seen along the desert route, which claimed much of the emigrants' livestock.

The country on either side of the road is thickly covered with [a] large species of cactus… The body is as large as a flour barrell [sic], five feet up it forks into four stems, the whole highth [sic] is not less than twenty feet. Take a bundle of rods two inches in diameter, tie them together, paint a delicate green, stock some pins, point outward in the citers of each rod the whole length, and you have a pretty good idea of this species of cactus. [Description of the saguaro cactus].
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

San Xavier’s [San Xavier del Bac] population consisted of Papago Indians. They had a stone church near one hundred years old, costing it was said, a half-million dollars, rich paintings and decorations included. The people lived in conical wigwams made of loose stone having doors level with the ground and two feet high.
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

Adobe houses greet the eye upon entrance [to Tucson]. The plan is very irregular; the church is about ten by twenty feet, no attempt at ornament, except in the front plastering, immediately over the door and in the gable, is hung a small Bell; on the right hand of the door are two more, upon one is inscribed VUESTRA SENORA DE GUADALOUPE ANO 1807 [Our Lady of Guadalupe Year 1807]…

As night approached the sound of a violin in a house nearby, gave some evidence that there would be a Fandango [a Mexican-style party and dance] at night; these preparations were going on during the hour for confession, and within twenty yards of the church door.
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

…several of us made a calculation [during an encampment on the Gila River] of the amount of property lost during the present year, on this route. At reasonable calculations we make out that, three thousand head of cattle at $25 each, $75,000, and enough mules, Horses and other property destroyed to make $25,000 more, making in all $100,000…

The Indians are in possession of _ of it.
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

Remained in camp all day [12 miles west of the Colorado River crossing into California], while James [a cow man and drover] has gone to the Colorado to make arrangements for crossing his cattle. Erskin’s camp [with another herd] is about four miles below; he is in a quandary, whether to swim his cattle or ferry; the price of ferrying is – for cattle – $1.50 per head; Man $2.00, Waggon, $8. The ferryman offered, that he would deliver him over entire for $1500…

In looking over the books of the ferry company, I find that over four thousand head of cattle have crossed here.
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

Everything being ready for ferrying the river, our boat was loaded with provisions, ammunition, and articles required to be kept dry. A guard was left with the cargo sent across. The Indians would begin to swim the animals to the north bank, strictly notified that if an animal was carried below a designated line or was drowned, they would be shot at. Whenever they approached that line, guns on both banks were pointed at the delinquents and good care took they to be above it.
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

We camped on the desert [in today’s Anza Borrega Desert State Park]. About 10 A. M. the next day we met Sonorians [from Mexico], about eighty strong, returning from the diggings [the gold mines]. The cheered us with the statement that much gold abounded there, verifying it by showing nuggets from a pack whose mule’s only load was the precious metal. Dead animals lined the road, and being dry, had been stood on all four feet by irreverent humorists in ghastly mockery and gloomy fun.
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

About 4 P. M. [August 17]…in line parallel and three-quarters of a mile to the right [in today’s Anza Borrega Desert State Park], we beheld what appeared to be three or four hundred mounted and armed men, supposedly Indians. [A companion] and I decided to ride out to them. His brother all the time implored us not to, as they would murder us. Answering that they had surely espied us and could easily catch us and that it would be only a few minutes’ of life at best, we headed our horses towards them. At a quarter of a mile or so we waved our hands as a sign of peace. They, in turn, waved their numerous hands at us. While we were regarding them, they commenced vanishing at the rear, leaving only a dim, light mist where they had so lately stood. In a few minutes, all had disappeared. Imagine the relief it gave us to know that it was a mirage…
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

Before night [on August 27th], Los Angeles—then containing two or three thousand people – saw our horses drinking from its little river. Its houses were one-story adobes roofed with thatch smeared with brea [pitch], which, during the heat of the day dripped from the eaves like ropy tar.
From B. B. Harris’ 1849/1850 chronicle
The Gila Trail: The Texas Argonauts and the California Gold Rush

Around the town of Los Angeles are numerous vineyards. Fresh grapes on the table every day; also Celery, Parsnips, Carrots, Beets, Irish and Sweet Potatoes, Cabbage, Cauliflour [sic] and other vegetables.

The Landlord of the Hotell [sic] gave me some native wine, which is of splendid quality, and which I class Sherry…

It is my opinion, this county of Los Angeles, in five years from this time will be the first county in the state…
From James G. Bell’s 1854 letters, published as
“A Log of the Texas-California Cattle Trail, 1854,”
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vols. XXXV and XXXVI

Trail Highlights
If you follow the desert route to California from the Pecos River across the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts to the Pacific Coast, you will find a long list of engaging places to visit. On the Lower Trail across western Texas, you can, for example, visit the buildings and ruins of Fort Stockton and Fort Davis and the Spanish colonial-era churches at San Elizario, Socorro and Ysleta. On the old Upper Trail, you can explore the Guadalupe Mountain National Park, where Ormsby saw “all sorts of fantastic shapes” in late afternoon clouds above the mountains. Not far from the park’s visitor center, the ruins of Butterfield’s “Pinery” stagecoach way station still stand. You can easily spend a day at Hueco Tanks, about 35 miles east of El Paso, exploring the hills, canyons and prehistoric and historic rock art. In El Paso, where the upper and lower trails converge, you will find several historic sites that recall the days of the trail: the Fort Bliss historic district, the Concordia cemetery and the territorial-style Magoffin home.

In Mesilla, New Mexico, about 40 miles north of El Paso, you will discover one of the most charming and authentic Hispanic- and territorial-style plazas on the trail today. It has been the scene of territorial negotiations between Americans and Mexicans, stagecoach stations for Butterfield’s operations, a brief conflict between Confederate and Union troops, a trail and incarceration of Billy the Kid, visits by Kit Carson, a feud between local powers, a theft by the infamous Texas judge Roy Bean, and some dandy stories about local ghosts. Northeast of Deming, at the east end of Cooke’s Canyon, you can – with the help of a knowledgeable local guide – visit the ruins of Fort Cummings and the old cemetery and the nearby walls of another Butterfield way station. At the other end of the canyon, you will still find – with the help of that knowledgeable guide – the prehistoric rock art that intrigued the Mormon Battalion. The Cooke’s Canyon sites lie along rough, unmarked dirt roads.

In Apache Pass, in southeastern Arizona, you not only can visit the ruins of Fort Bowie, you can see firsthand Apache Springs (which gave rise to conflict between the army and the Chiricahuas), another Butterfield station, various ruins and replicas, and several famous massacre sites. You will have a walk of perhaps a mile from the parking area through low woodlands and Chihuahua and Sonoran Desert plant communities to reach Fort Bowie. A few miles southeast of Tucson, you will find San Xavier del Bac, which began as a Jesuit mission church then became a Franciscan mission church. It is one of the most beautiful of all the Spanish missions in the Southwest. Tucson, of course, ranks as one of the more historic cities in the Southwest, with origins dating back to Spanish colonial times. Its Sonoran Desert museum and the nearby Saguaro National Park offer a breath-taking insight into the regional wildlife and plant communities. At the Yuma Crossing State Historic Park, near the juncture of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, you will get a snapshot (preferably in the winter months) of one of the Southwest’s most famous stream fords—a gateway to the promised land of California.

In southern California, if you follow the branch of the route that turns northwest, you will pass through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which spans more than 900 square miles of arid lands. Its basins lie below sea level. Its peaks rise to 8700 feet above sea level. Its terrain tumbles wildly from south to north. Its diverse mammal, bird, reptile and plant communities follow cunning strategies for adapting to one of the harshest environments in America. When you leave the park, you – like the Spanish colonists, pioneers, treasure hunters, adventurers and merchants before you – will put the desert behind you and begin to final leg of the route into Los Angeles and that land with “Fresh grapes on the table every day…”

Jay W. Sharp

More Trails

Desert Trails
Trails of the Native Americans
Coronado Expedition from Compostela to Cibola
Coronado Expedition from Cibola to Quivira then Home
Chihuahua Trail
Chihuahua Trail 2
The Juan Bautista De Anza Trail
Jornada del Muerto Trail
Santa Fe Trail
The Long Walk Trail of the Navajos
Bradshaw's Desert Trail to Gold
A Soldier's View of the Trails Part 1
A Soldier's View of the Trails Part 2



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