Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Red Pass to Bitter Spring: Retracing an 1849 Journey

In April 1998, I had the opportunity to visit the Fort Irwin Military Military Installation, an area not open to the general public, as part of my effort to trace George Q. Cannon's 1849 trip to California. See my initial post. This is where the military trains for desert warfare in places like Iraq and Kuwait. A friend of mine got me an introduction to a commander and he connected me to Neil C. Morrison, curator of the museum located on the base. Neil arranged a time for me to visit the base and took Andrew and I on a guided tour Humvee ride of the places I wanted to see: Red Pass, Red Pass Lake and Bitter Spring; landmarks on the Old Spanish Trail that are featured prominently in journals of those traveling to California in 1849.

On Friday, November 30, 1849, George Q. Cannon, with Charles C. Rich and others, started early in the morning and traveled 42 miles from what is now Tecopa, California, following the Amargosa River to the Dumont Sand Dunes, then past the Salt Spring Hills, the dry Silurian Lake bed, and up a hill, north of Silver Dry Lake, to the head of Red Pass, where they stopped to camp about midnight. Toward the end of the evening, one of the horses in the party "gave out and was left." The area where they camped had no water or grass for their horses and they had to tie them to bushes. Charles Rich wrote that many were "worn out" from the long day's travel and did not get up until 2:00 p.m. the next day. William Farrer noted, "I felt very much fatigued this evening and was not very well. I had walked nearly all the distance as my horse did not appear very well and I had packed the mare today to rest him."

They camped near Red Hill, which is at the top of Red Pass, now in the Fort Irwin Military Installation. From the picture you can see how Red Hill got it's name.

The picture below is from the canyon before reaching Red Hill. Red Hill is in the middle of the picture, on the right. From this distance and angle it does not have the distinctive red color.

The Soda Mountains are visible to the east.

From Red Hill, looking back down Red Pass.

At Red Pass, Neil Morrison showed us a replica of a musket used in the Mexican-American War, from 1846 to 1848 and gave us an opportunity to fire it. He also had a replica Mexican-American War uniform which Andrew got to put on. It was wool and very warm.

Saturday morning, December 1, 1849, it was "clear and frosty." They found the horse that had given out the night before, apparently rejuvenated, and brought it to camp. Some of the men were on the "march" by sunrise. This day of travel was to be substantially shorter than the day before, and those sleeping in could catch up. After traveling southwest for 6 miles they "observed a camp of wagons to the left about a mile and a half" on Red Pass Lake. Addison Pratt, in a wagon with Jefferson Hunt, two days behind, described Red Pass Lake as "a dry bed of a lake some two miles across...composed of dry clay on a water level." Charles Rich sent one of the men over to the emigrants in the wagons to learn who they were and discovered that the emigrants had "accidentally" found "plenty of fresh water there standing in holes." Before leaving the trail to get water, Rich left a note for Jefferson Hunt letting him know that there was water at the lake. The men arrived at the lake about 10:00 a.m., "unpacked" and put the "cooks" to "work preparing something to eat." The horses were allowed to graze and drink.

The picture below is of Red Hill, left of center, with Red Pass to the right of it. This is the view Cannon would have had as he looked back to where they camped the night before. Red Hill is much more visible from this direction.

This is a view Cannon would have had of Red Pass Lake from the trail.

I was excited to find water "standing in holes" when we visited. In order to maximize the experience, I threw caution to the wind and drank directly from the water without treating it. It did not taste very good. The water was not visible until we were nearly on it.

Two days later, when Hunt's company arrived, Addison Pratt described the water as "muddy water standing in holes." It apparently did not improve with age.

At 1:00 p.m., after resting for three hours, the Rich company "packed up," went through a gap in an arm of the Soda Mountains and traveled 5 miles to Bitter Spring. During their travels that day, both Joseph Cain and Henry Phelps had pack animals give out that had to be left behind. At Bitter Spring they found "lots of emigrants," including a number of wagons that were out of provisions. The emigrant's cattle were suffering. As there was "no grass," the men of the company fanned out and found some grass about a mile from the spring.
The next morning, Sunday, December 2, 1849, they were on the "march" by 8:00 a.m. George Q. Cannon recorded that he, Joseph Cain and Henry Phelps "stayed behind trying to get their animals [horses] up but to no avail as [they] had to leave them about 3 miles from Camp."

Several days later, when Jefferson Hunt's wagon company arrived at Bitter Spring, they mentioned finding a number of cattle, some dead, some alive, but no other emigrants. Addison Pratt noted that the "water was bad and [there was] no grass." James Brown, years later, said that the spring would be more appropriately named "Poison Springs, instead of Bitter, for it seemed that from that place our cattle [oxen pulling their wagons] began to weaken every moment, and many had to be turned loose from the yoke and then shot to get them out of their misery."

When we visited in April 1998, we found some tanks resting from military exercises at the top of a small hill above Bitter Spring.
They allowed Andrew to put on a helmet and go on top of and inside one of the tanks. He later told me, "Dad, I know it's not real holy, but that was one of the best days of my life."

The head of Bitter Spring is visible below, marked by the thick vegetation, mostly mesquite and cattails, around it.
The Soda Mountains are visible to the east.

The Tiefort Mountains are visible to the west, as is a small rivulet of water from Bitter Spring.

The spring is protected from military manuevers at Fort Irwin by an approximate half square mile barbed wire fence.

Tamarisk, an invasive, water guzzling, non-native tree, has been a problem and the military had recently cut down most of the tamarisk around the spring and had it laying in piles.

Away from the head of the spring, the vegetation thins out, and a small rivulet flows for about a quarter of a mile.
It eventually sinks into the ground near the base of a small hill.

The hill is below, viewed from a distance.

Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who was with John C. Fremont on his fifth expedition when he visited Bitter Spring in 1852 (four years after Cannon), said that the springs "are not bitter, but possess a brackish taste. There are small springs in different places; the largest admitted one horse at a time to drink, the rest would have to wait until the water was replenished from the earth."
Crampton and Madsen say the water has a high sulphate content which gives it the bitter taste from which its name is derived. In keeping with my decision earlier in the day, I drank directly from the spring. It had a soft water taste to it, but it tasted much better than the water at Red Pass Lake.
It was a wonderful day of adventure and discovery and one I was happy to be able to share with Andrew.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I just finished reading "A Trip to California" and am looking for more information. I am a great-grand-daughter of George Q. Cannon.

  2. While assigned to Ft Irwin as a young tank officer I travelled all over... noting the history of many of the areas from the Okie's camp at Cave Spring, to some of the old mines on post. But I never realized how important Bitter Springs was historically until recently.

    Thanks for posting this.