How appropriate that on the last day of 2015 we took a trek back in time to the real wild west of old. To a place so far off the beaten path that one feels like they might be intruding on unseen activities going on has they have for a thousand years.
We continued our quest of following sections of the old Mojave Road. We headed out to explore a place just off the “old government road”.
This road has been used by Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, explorers, Mexican traders, the Pony Express, American Cavalry, miners, and western settlers alike.
All with the same quest; to reach California.
Long before any non-native set foot in the area, legend has that bands of Paiute, Navajo, Apaches, Chemehuevi, and Aha Macav (Mohave) Indians fought for ownership of the most valuable resource in the desert.
And as we would find out for ourselves, Piute Springs has plenty of it. Cool and fast flowing water that comes up out of the ground only to disappear back into the desert in just a half mile.
The native Americans used this route to trade with coastal Indians in California. The Mohave “Runners” could cover 100 miles a day in some of the most inhospitable terrain to be found.
Just trying to hike amid the cactus is challenge enough for this city girl…I can’t imagine running through it for a hundred miles.
Ok dang it, I’ll just admit that I can’t run a half mile anywhere. Even if someone was chasing me. With a gun.
The earliest recorded non-native traveled this road in 1776 in the form of Francisco Garces, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who would convert the first area native to Catholicism in what is now Hesperia, California.
Francisco Garces would be killed in Yuma just a few years later by natives as a punishment for Spanish settlers violating terms of their treaty.
The Mohave tribe first provided guidance through Piute Spring for Friar Garces into what is now known as Cajon Pass in 1776, and for many more for the next nearly 100 years until the Mohave and settlers/soldiers/miners became increasingly hostile over what amounted to simple misunderstandings. As a result, Fort Mohave was erected at the Colorado River to keep peace and provide protection for white settlers.
Fort Mohave no longer exists.
Just 22 miles west of the Colorado River however, lies the ruins of what is now known as Fort Piute (originally called Fort Beale after the man that brought camels into the area as a failed experiment).
So off the beaten path we go to find this relic of wild west history. 21st century explorers replete with our spirit of adventure and a well appointed off road vehicle.
God bless GPS. Within just a couple of hours, we had traversed a very rough road (I actually have city girl bruises from foolishly trying to rest my arm on the door while being bounced around like a tournament ping pong) to reach our destination.
We parked the Jeep and equipped ourselves in preparation for going back in time. For peeling the layers of human habitation and walking among the remnants of those intrepids in whose footsteps we were about to follow.
The most obvious and looming is the ruins of Fort Piute, built in 1867 and abandoned in just 6 months.
I walked into the fort and as always, am filled with a certain reverence for those who came before me. Especially in a place as harsh as this.
As I looked back at our lone steed parked below and took in the beautiful vista, I thought about how this place had been a flashpoint of violence for generations of peoples.
View from the soldiers quarters room.
And I don’t feel alone. I feel as though there are still sentries here.
What looks like a fort is really just a single layer amid many layers of human struggle. Layers of time one on top of the other like an onion. The Indians, the Spanish, the soldiers, the homesteaders, all imprinting this tiny half mile of land with their own blood, sweat, and tears.
Just a few feet from the fort is the snapshot of a layer from 1929. The Smith family lived here and although it is overgrown, I can still see where their home sat.
Really? They had a regular ole car that managed to carry them to and fro? I’m not feeling so good about my bruises from the Jeep right now. A little wimpy in fact. Nothing new.
Members of this family still live in nearby Needles, California.
Just east of the Smith home lie the layers of ruins from two failed farms.
In 1928 Thomas Van Slyke homesteaded here to make a go of farming fruit and grapes. He patented the land and subsequently sold it in 1944 to George and Virginia Irwin who attempted a turkey farm. A letter from George and Virgina Irwin to a Mrs. Welsh in 1957 brings this couple to life with their own words…
George and Virginia Irwin to Mrs. Welch, 7/10/1957
This letter was found at a garage sale by Keith Collins.
Wednesday July 10, 1957
Dear Mrs. Welch;
We have been the owners of Fort Piute or as it is known in the War Department records, Fort Beale, named after Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale who made the original survey in the year 1853, since 1944. The property was purchased from Mr. Thomas van Slyke who took a homestead and later patented the land in 1928. Mr. van Slyke told us that the fort was built in 1867 and it was one of six such redoubts that were established along the old Government Road from St.Joseph Missouri to Los Angeles (Wilmington – Fort Drum). This road roughly ran paralell (sic) to the 32 meridian and was surveyed as early as 1847 just prior to the finding of gold in California. After the news of the gold strike activity was increased in making roads across the country therefore these stopping places were established which were near water and were approximately one days traveling time between stops. There have been many articles published about this old Government Road and it would take a small book to elaborate on the history of this road. However we like to pass on any information that we have and we are in a position to refer you to Mr. L. Burr Belden who is the history editor for the San Bernardino Sun newspaper. He has at his fingertip pictures and the full story of this famous trail. May I suggest that you write him in care of the newspaper. I feel sure that he will answer any questions you might have. If you are ever out here near the fort drop in and see us and we will be glad to talk to you about the fort. We live at tne Metropolitan Water District switching station 25 miles west of Needles on Highway 66. As you no doubt noticed the area is replete with Indian writing petroglyphs. These writings are very old and even the Indians who live near here at this present date do not understand them nor can they interpret their meanings. Also there are numerous graves located along this trail and unless one were pointed out they would pass unnoticed.
We hope this information will be of help to you and would be glad to speak to you in person if you are ever out this way.
George & Virginia Irwin
As for the ancient petroglyphs? Yes, they are there providing a deep time layer amid the more recent ruins of the turkey farm.
The ruins of the turkey farm and the home of George and Virginia (feel like old friends now don’t they?).
Lastly, I add my own layer in the form of footsteps as we hiked the “old government road” (old Mojave Road) through Piute Springs and back again.
What an ending.
‘Til next year dearest.