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Photo of Mojave Desert - "A Place in the Sun"

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Human Settlement 

Early Peoples of the Mojave Desert

Recently, Mojave Desert petroglyphs (rock pictures) have played an important role in debates about the age of the first human occupation of the New World. New dating results show that Paleoindians may have reached this area as long as 15,500 years ago. No associated habitation sites have yet been discovered in the Mojave, however, which suggests that these prehistoric peoples moved from place to place. Over time human settlement patterns became increasingly organized, with more complex rituals and a subsistence reliant on seeds, plants, and farming. Small-game hunting contributed meat protein to the peoples’ diet.

Photo of Native American petroglyphs (rock pictures).

Native American petroglyphs depict many different Mojave species. The desert bighorn sheep has a particularly prominent place in the photo below.


Petroglyph (rock drawing) of desert bighorn sheep.
Several tribal groups have lived in the Mojave Desert within the past 2,000 years. The northern and eastern portions, for example, were occupied by the Kawaiisu, Kitanemuk, Serrano, and Koso, and Southern Paiute bands, including the Chemehuevi. Culturally distinct, these groups nevertheless spoke related languages and had similar socioeconomic systems. Resource gathering was done in family groups over wide areas, but for at least part of each year life centered on more permanent villages. The tribes knew much about Mojave Desert resources, enabling them to gather supplies from all portions of their territories. They generally had friendly relationships with neighboring groups such as the Mojave, though they also experienced episodes of intertribal hostility.

The Mojave Indians made pottery from clay and crushed sandstone, decorating their creations with geometric designs. The art of tattooing was also important to the Mojave, who frequently adorned their faces 500 km trips to the Pacific Coast to trade pottery and other goods for seashells and beads. Mojave legend holds that tribal runners could cover the distance in only a few days, traveling by way of perennial springs and the Mojave River. 

Mojave Indian woman photographed in 1883.

This Mojave Indian woman, photographed in Needles, California, in 1883, displays the intricate facial tattooing once so esteemed by the Mojave people.


The Chemehuevi tribe spoke a different language from that of the Mojave Indians. They occupied a particularly barren portion of the Mojave Desert and wrested a rough living from the open land. Like their Mojave neighbors, the Chemehuevi were highly mobile, making use of resources throughout their large territory; however, they also had settlements to which they returned regularly. To transport goods and for other purposes, they created complex, beautiful baskets from reeds and grasses. Like other Southern Paiute groups, they sometimes worked small farms. Fortune hunters were the first outsiders to venture into the Mojave Desert, at a time when the Mojave Indians were the largest concentration of people in the Southwest. But it wasn’t until 1775 that Francisco Garcés, a Spanish Catholic missionary, became the first European to meet the Mojave Indians, who accompanied Garcés on his journey to the coast. Garcés’s route, which also took him through Chemehuevi lands and was documented in great detail in his diary, became known to later travelers as the Mojave Road. 

American “mountain men,” led by the legendary Jedediah Smith, appeared in Mojave Indian territory in 1826, and though tribe members first welcomed the trappers, conflict was not long in coming. .
Mojave Indian railroad workers photographed in late 19th century.

Many late 19th-century Mojave Indians sought work with the railroads after being forced from their tribal lands.


In 1827, another trapping party came through Mojave land, ignoring the tribe’s requests for goods in exchange for trapped animals. The resultant conflict left victims on both sides. When Smith returned later that year, his party was also attacked, and for the next 20 years violence reigned, reaching a peak when trappers from the Hudson Bay Company killed 26 Mojaves.

In 1850, southwestern territory was annexed by the U.S. Army, the beginning of military encroachment on the region. New transportation routes were critical to an expanding nation, and a wagon trail was opened. In 1858, the first wagon train en route to California was attacked when it lingered at the Colorado River crossing near present-day Needles. Spurred by public outcry, Indian fighters were sent to the area from San Francisco. Though there was no combat and the Mojave claimed no responsibility for the wagon attack, prominent tribe members were jailed and the army established Ft. Mojave at the crossing. When several Mojaves escaped from prison, soldiers hunted them and others, eventually banishing the tribe from its homelands near the river crossing.

In 1865, the U.S. Government created the Colorado River Indian Reservation near Parker, Arizona, an area of poor farmland. Favoring peace, the new Mojave chief guided hundreds to the reservation, while the former chief remained to lead those who refused to leave their homeland; the tribe was effectively split into two. A compulsory education law for Indians was passed, partly to eradicate native language and culture. The Mojaves were taught American farming methods, though they had no railroads for work, others labored on riverboats, and some sold crafts to tourists. During this same period the remaining Chemehuevi were forced onto reservations in California. 

Traditional Mojave tribal leadership was changed forever in 1957, with the creation of a seven-member tribal council. The Mojave Desert’s current resident populations of Mojave and Chemehuevi Indians, collectively numbering less than 2,000, live on reservations in California, Nevada, and Arizona. Today many local tribes are united as the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance. 

Mojave Desert, Here We Come! Miners, Homesteaders, and Route 66 

During the mid-19th century, mining in all areas of the Mojave created boom towns with colorful names and characters. On Christmas Day in 1860, for example, the first producing Mojave mine, named “Christmas Gift,” was opened in Death Valley. As the mining boom continued, borax—“the white gold of the desert”—was discovered; it has been mined profitably in the Death Valley area since. During the 1870s, the Clark Mountain Mining district was established and with it the town of Ivanpah, which at the time was the only American community of any size in the eastern portion of the Mojave. 

Photo of abandoned gold mine in California's Ivanpah Valley

Developed in California’s Ivanpah Valley in the mid-1980s as a small, open-pit, heap-leach operation, the now-abandoned Morningstar Gold Mine has the potential to cause cyanide-related environmental problems.


Gold was discovered in El Dorado Canyon in the late 19th century, where a single mine ultimately produced $1.7 million in gold. Small prospectors, however, generally made very little money, the biggest problem being the costs of transporting supplies to such remote locations. “Boom-or-bust” mining was the usual approach: As soon as a strike played out, miners moved on, leaving ghost towns in their wake. 

With the coming of the Santa Fe Railroad, water and other supplies were made available to companies intent on capitalizing on the Mojave’s resources. In the early 1900s, more mines were open and profitable in the Mojave than at any previous time, establishing such towns as Cima, Kelso, and Fenner. Demand for Mojave metals such as gold, silver, and manganese, peaked during World Wars I and II. Today most Mojave mining is for gold and nonmetals such as borax. Beginning in 1910, land was homesteaded in the Mojave Desert, usually in 64.8 ha (160 ac) parcels. Claimants had three years in which to improve their properties to receive a deed from the General Land Office, a predecessor of the Bureau of Land Management. Among the came from other parts of California to settle in the Lanfair Valley area.
Photo of Mojave Desert homesteader at railroad station along Nevada Southern Railway.

A Mojave Desert homesteader poses at California’s Lanfair Valley railroad station, which was served by the Nevada Southern Railway. A branch railroad of the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railway until it closed in 1923, the Nevada Southern line was the main economic lifeline of the high country in the eastern Mojave.


For a few years after 1912, rainfall was relatively plentiful, and crop production was vigorous enough that more people were attracted to the area. Mustard-gas victims of World War I also came to take advantage of the benefits of the dry desert air. Ultimately, the rains didn’t last, and water rights conflicts erupted between homesteaders and ranchers. In many cases, after digging unsuccessful water wells, homesteaders were forced to haul water for several kilometers for household use. Many small farms and homesteads were abandoned with only tiny cabins left behind.

During the 1920s, Route 66 appeared out of a desire to improve the road network in the West, which featured a hodgepodge of tracks and trails that had been established by American Indians and pioneers. A descendant of the early 1900s “National Old Trails Road,” the new two-lane route would join the Midwest to California. Route 66 was also to become a legend—“the Mother Road” and “the Main Street of America”—immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Nat King Cole’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” and a popular 1960s television show. During the Great 

As Historic Route 66 meanders through the Black Mountains of western Arizona, it presents travelers with hairpin curves and steep grades—some of the most fearsome obstacles along its length.


Photo of Route 66 in western Arizona's Black Mountains.
Depression of the 1930s migrants sought out the Mojave as an area where they might be able to grow their own food without regard for unstable world markets. Sandstorms and drought drove millions from the Dust Bowl toward California on Route 66. During and after World War II Americans traveled the route heavily, though the roadway was narrow and accidents frequent. In 1956 interstate highways, including Routes 40, 15, and 10 through Arizona and California, began to skirt around the towns along Route 66 closely paralleling the older route. By 1985 the last of these, Williams, Arizona, was bypassed.

It is no longer necessary to drive any part of Route 66 to reach California from Chicago. However, a new generation of travelers has made a hobby of tracing authentic pieces of the highway, following the “Historic Route 66” signs that began appearing in 1995 in all of the route’s eight states.

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Last updated: 05-25-2012