Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Amargosa River: Retracing an 1849 Journey

In my quest to retrace the 1849 route of George Q. Cannon, I went several times to the Amargosa River below Tecopa: First, in November of 1997, I went alone, also exploring other areas nearby; then in January 1998 I went with my family and walked several miles down the Amargosa to the China Ranch Wash and back; and finally, from February 13th to 14th, 1998, I took the young men on a hike along the Amargosa River, from just below Tecopa, to the Dumont Dunes, about ten miles.
The evening of February 13th, we camped at the Dumont Dunes. We had Sam, Andrew, Jim Sullivan, David Vilt, Jeff Brice and Josh Brice.
The morning of February 14th, we left a car at the Dumont Dunes, near the Amargosa River, and then drove to Tecopa. The river can be reached by taking a dirt road that goes between the store and post office in Tecopa. The road goes south about a mile until it dead-ends into a loop where a sign indicates you have reached the Amargosa Canyon Natural Area. From there a trail follows the east side of the river for about five miles to the China Ranch Wash. Much of the trail is located on a berm created for the Tidewater and Tonopah Railroad that ran through Amargosa Canyon from 1907 to 1940.

On Thursday, November 29, 1849, about noon, Charles Rich and his company of horsemen, left Resting Springs and traveled 7 miles to a ridge above the Amargosa River, near present day Tecopa. The Jefferson Hunt company of wagons stayed behind. George Q. Cannon had previously been walking and allowing his horse to "run loose" in an effort to save her, but she still "could not travel," so he left her with Francis M. Pomeroy of the Hunt company, who "proferred to take charge of her and drive her through with his animals." They called the Amargosa, "Saleratus Creek." Saleratus is another word for baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, that has an alkaline taste and reaction. Alkali is a soluble mineral salt.

The picture below is from a hill overlooking the Amargosa River. The river itself is not visible as trees, in their fall colors, obscure it. The picture was taken in November 1997, about the same time of year the Rich company was there.

Henry Bigler described it as the "meanest looking co[u]ntry I ever saw, fit for nothing but hobgoblins to live at." George Q. Cannon shared the same sentiments: "Never during the whole of the route have I seen a place so sterile and the curse of God so visibly manifested as I did here. It seemed as though...his strong displeasure had been exhibited." From the hill, Cannon also noted, "we could see about a mile and a half distant - the banks crushed white with alkali." Addison Pratt described the distant alkali flats as a "large flat, part of it...covered with grass and...part of it...white as snow with Salaratus."

A close-up of the alkali flats.
An even closer look. The ground is very hard and crusty.

The Rich company descended the hill to the river and camped near a "spring of pure water" which flowed into the Amargosa. In the picture below, the spring is hidden in the dense vegetation on the right side of the hill. The area around the spring is so dense with vegetation, including cattails, that it is virtually impossible to get to the source of the spring. The spring is about one-half mile down the trail below the Amargosa Canyon Natural Area sign.

Water from the spring crosses the trail on its way to the Amargosa River.

Within the next 100 yards, at least two other springs flow out of the side of a cliff.

The Rich company found plenty of "good grass," but they had to be careful with the horses "to prevent them from drinking" water from the Amargosa, which Cannon noted, "was poisonous, looking like strong l[y]e more than water." Addison Pratt described the Amargosa as "about knee deep and so strongly impregnated with alkali that it [was] about the color of madeir[a] wine" (an amber colored dessert wine).

About five years later, in August of 1853, G.H. Heap of the Beal Expedition, wrote that the Amargosa flows "underground almost as much as it flows on the surface" leaving a "scanty supply of warm, fetid, and nauseating water, in a succession of holes." No one in the Rich or Hunt companies wrote anything to suggest that the river was not constantly flowing, but Beal was there during the hottest time of the year. The Amargosa River does surface from below ground just south of Tecopa, and after winding around through Amargosa Canyon, it heads west, near the Dumont Dunes, into Death Valley National Park where it terminates at Badwater, the lowest place in the United States.

Henry Bigler stood guard that night and reported that two men from another [Gruwell-Derr] wagon company had abandoned their wagons and were headed for the "settlements, carrying their provisions on their backs."

Below is some thick grass near the river.

On Friday, November 30, 1849, the Rich company started early in the morning, traveling down the Amargosa, "crossing and recrossing repeatedly," all the while "being careful with the prevent them from drinking" from the river.

Today the river is so thick with vegetation, particularly from non-native species, like Tamarisk, that it is difficult to get near the river. This is particularly the case the first four or five miles beyond Tecopa. Those following the route today are not able to go back and forth across the river as described by those traveling the route in 1849.

Some white and orange colored alkali on the ground near the river.

Addison Pratt said that the "banks or walls on each side [of the canyon] appear to be" a "composition of clay, lime and saleratus and in many places presents the appearance of dilapidated walls of ancient castles and other works of art."

Today, about a half-mile above China Ranch Wash, the trees thin out and the river becomes accessible.

A waterfall about ten feet in height is found.

Jeff Brice and Andrew standing at the top of the waterfall.
Just below the waterfall.
Another quarter mile down the river, on the west side, a beautiful, multi-hued hill with streaks of yellow, red and purple is found.

Jeff, Andrew and I near the Amargosa with the multi-hued hill in the background.

Looking back from down the river.

Although the '49ers did not mention any dead cattle along this portion of their route, it was a common occurence along other sections, and we found several, giving us a sense of what they experienced.

A spring is located in China Ranch Wash and today there is a commercial establishment called China Ranch located there. In April 1844, while John C. Fremont was camped near the Mojave River, Andreas Fuentes and an 11 year old boy, Pablo Hernandez, found Fremont and related their story to him. They were with a caravan of New Mexicans that had been to Los Angeles. Six of them left the caravan for an early start back to New Mexico, following the Old Spanish Trail, and were waiting at Resting Spring for the caravan to catch up to them. Fuentes and Hernandez were guarding their 30 horses when a party of about 100 Indians charged into their camp shouting and discharging arrows. At the urging of Santiago Giacome, another member of their party, Fuentes and Hernandez drove their horses away as fast as the could, back toward Los Angeles, hoping to get back to the caravan. They eventually left their horses at Bitter Springs and walked to the Mojave River where they found Fremont.

Fremont agreed to help them and traveled with them to Bitter Springs where they found the horses had been taken by the Indians. Kit Carson and Alex Godey volunteered to pursue the Indians. They tracked the Indians late into the night, following the trail by moonlight. The trail led into a narrow canyon with a nice spring, believed to have been China Ranch Wash, where they could no longer follow it. At daylight, Carson and Godey discovered the Indians and the movement of the horses alerted the Indians of their presence. So Carson and Godey charged into the Indian encampment, consisting of four lodges, firing their rifles and narrowly avoiding a barrage of arrows. Two Indians were killed and the rest fled. Carson and Godey scalped the Indians and found that the best horses had been killed, skinned and cut up into pieces that were stewing in large earthen vessels on a fire. Carson and Godey rounded up the 15 surviving horses and drove them back to Bitter Springs where they arrived later that afternoon, with the two bloody Indian scalps dangling from the end of Godey's gun.

Four days later, Fremont and his men reached Resting Springs where they found the naked, mutilated corpses of Pablo's father and Giacome, pierced with arrows. Pablo's father's legs and one of his hands were cut off. Pablo's mother was gone, apparently carried away captive by the Indians. However, a little lapdog that belonged to Pablo's mother was alive and frantic with joy at seeing Pablo. In commemoration of these events, Fremont named the place "Agua de Hernandez - Hernandez's Spring." I have posted previously on Bitter Springs and will have a future post on Resting Spring.

The picture below is looking east up China Ranch Wash.

In the vicinity of China Ranch Wash, the water has eroded deep ravines into the railroad berm and it is not possible to walk on the berm through that area.

In 1849, after traveling another 5 miles below China Ranch Wash, the Rich company "emerged from the canyon" and left the Amargosa River to continue on south, while the Amargosa continued on west into what is now Death Valley National Park. This is where we parked our car, in the vicinity of the Dumont Dunes.

Today, the 5 miles on the Amargosa below China Ranch Wash are not as interesting as the 5 miles before China Ranch Wash. The later miles do not have the variety of vegetation or the interesting geologic features. The tamarisk does thin out and it is easier to go back and forth across the river, although you do still hit patches where the tamarisk is very thick and must be avoided. Below, Sam crossing the Amargosa.


  1. This blog is great, I'd forgotten a lot of the details from these hikes. I love the pictures of the festering bovine corpses.