Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Spanish Canyon: Retracing an 1849 Journey

This is a continuation of my retracing George Q. Cannon's 1849 journey. On Sunday, December 2, 1849, the Rich company set out from Bitter Springs about 8:00 a.m. As indicated in the post for the prior day, George Q. Cannon, Joseph Cain and Henry Phelps stayed behind to try and salvage several horses, but they ultimately had to leave the horses about 3 miles from Bitter Springs. They traveled southwest to the foot of Alvord Mountain and ascended the mountain to a ridge at the head of Spanish Canyon, 12 miles from Bitter Springs. Below, the view is looking up toward the ridge of Alvord Mountain.

Part way up Alvord Mountain, looking back toward Bitter Springs. Bitter Springs is behind the first mountain ridge in the upper center of the picture.

At the top of the ridge, they caught sight of the San Bernardino Mountains in the distance, which Cannon referred to as the Sierra Nevadas. After passing over the ridge, they descended into Spanish Canyon. Below, Spanish Canyon is in the foreground and the San Bernardino Mountains are visible in the distance.

After passing over the ridge, they descended through Spanish Canyon. They found some water and stopped to let the horses feed. The picture below is looking back up Spanish Canyon, the way they had just come.

Henry Bigler noticed some sign of gold and did a little prospecting. After two hours of rest, they left another horse that could not go further, and continued on down Spanish Canyon then on through open desert toward the Mojave River. Below, looking back north toward Spanish Canyon and Alvord Mountain.

19 miles from the head of Spanish Canyon, they reached the Mojave River about 10:00 p.m. and found "plenty of feed and water." After this 31 mile day, Bigler noted in his journal that he was "tired and hungry" and "such tramps and fatigues" will "make men old before their days are half gone." George Q. Cannon noted a "considerable quantity of timber" and "an abundance of grasses. There was no water in the bed" of the Mojave, but they found water standing in pools.

Hunt Company:

Two days later, on Tuesday, December 4th, the Hunt company had to make the same ascent up Alvord Mountain. However, they did so in a cold rain, that turned to snow, accompanied by a strong wind. About 6 miles from the summit, one of Addison Pratt's oxen gave out and refused to get up. Pratt, some distance ahead, ordered Hiram Blackwell to shoot the ox, but Blackwell was unable to, claiming he was too discouraged. James Brown borrowed Pratt's pistol and went back to shoot the ox himself and to remove and bring up the yoke. Years later, Brown reminisced:

"We had to shoot one of brother Pratt’s oxen to end its suffering. This act fell to my lot. Oh, how inhuman and cruel it seemed to me, to drive the patient and faithful dumb animal into a barren desert, where there is neither food nor drink, to goad him on until he falls from sheer exhaustion, so that he bears any punishment, that his master sees fit to inflict, without giving a single moan, to make him rise, then to walk around and calmly look him in the face and fire the deadly missile into his brain, then leave his carcass to the loathsome wolves and birds of prey! In looking back over a period of fifty years since then, [I] cannot call to memory a single act in [my] life that seemed so cruel and ungrateful as that; and still there was no earthly means to save the poor creature from a more horrible death, which would come if he had been left in that driving snowstorm, when his whole frame shook with cold, there to lie and starve – one of the most miserable deaths that the human mind can conceive of. Of the two evils, we chose the least by ending the suffering in a moment, when it would have taken hours if it had not been for this act of mercy, as we call it, after taking in [to account] the whole situation."

The snow continued to fall and Pratt, with the strongest set of oxen, and Jefferson Hunt, just ahead, marking the trail, reached the summit at 11:00 p.m., in two feet of snow. Hunt directed Pratt to go down the other side into Spanish Canyon and at the first place they found feed for the stock, build fires and prepare for the rest of the wagons. Hunt went back to encourage the other wagons up the mountain. The canyon was deep and sheltered from the wind and they soon found a spot where the snow melted when it hit the ground. James Brown brought up the spare yoke, made of black walnut, and used it to start a fire in a frying pan in the bed of the wagon. As their matches were all damp, they had to use flint and steel to start the fire. They had plenty of fuel and soon had a large fire blazing outside the wagon.

Finding Spanish Canyon:

Today, the area between the Mojave River and Spanish Canyon is criss-crossed with dirt roads and the exact route is not obvious. However, the approximate route can be found by taking the Harvard Road exit off of the I-15. On the north side of the I-15, turn left onto paved Hacienda Road and travel about four miles west to a dirt road on the right which begins just before Hacienda Road turns into Coyote Lake Road and veers to the left (south) across the I-15. The dirt road goes north for about a mile and then connects into the dirt pipeline road which travels in a straight line to the northeast. The pipeline road is easy to pinpoint because large electric towers mark its course. After following the pipeline road about nine miles, turn left (north) on another dirt road toward Alvord Mountain. The mouth of Spanish Canyon is about two miles up this dirt road. A four-wheel drive vehicle may be necessary to negotiate the sand in Spanish Canyon and will definitely be necessary to climb the last 30 yards to the summit ridge. A more direct access to Spanish Canyon can be found by taking the Harvard Road exit and continuing north on a dirt road to connect into the pipeline road and turn to the right.

The ridge of Alvord Mountain where the Old Spanish Trail enters into Spanish Canyon is not the summit of Alvord Mountain. The actual summit is further to the west. A monument, apparently erected by a scout troop as part of an Eagle Scout project in 1969, marks the ridge.

Andrew and Sam sit next to the monument.

About one mile north past the ridge is a sign indicating the Fort Irwin Military Installation and travel beyond that point is not allowed without permission. The name mountain seems a misnomer when applied Alvord Mountain. From the north, Alvord Mountain appears to be an unimposing hill. However, the appearance is deceptive, as the distance is great and the ascent is unyielding and unforgiving to those having to travel it.

Below, the monument marking the ridge is visible at the top of the rutted trail down into Spanish Canyon.

A close-up of the older, more rutted, portion of the route from the ridge.

In areas of Spanish Canyon, the sand is so loose that my Jeep, in four-wheel drive, struggled to get through. At the mouth of Spanish Canyon, the vast Mojave River valley spreads out for miles in the distance.

The area of the Mojave where the Rich company camped was known as the "Fork of Roads" because the Old Spanish Trail and another trail that headed east toward Arizona intersected there. It is about four miles east of Yermo, just south of the I-15 and east of Minneola Road.

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