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Desert Between the Mountains
Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin 1772-1869
By Michael S. Durham
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1997 Michael S. Durham
All rights reserved.
A "Dead" and "Rich" Land
The Great Basin is aptly named. It is like a bowl that has been wedged between two mountain ranges — the Sierra Nevada on the west and the Wasatch branch of the Rocky Mountains on the east, although the mid-nineteenth- century explorer James Hervey Simpson saw it as having "a triangular shape, nearly that of a right-angled triangle," with the Wasatch Range forming "the hypothenuse." As a region, it is vast — 220,000 square miles. It takes in almost all of Nevada, the half of Utah lying west of the Wasatch, parts of southern Idaho and Oregon, a corner of Wyoming, and a thin slice of eastern California bordering on Nevada. It also reaches into southern California almost to the Pacific Ocean. From north to south, it is nearly 900 miles long at its longest point; east to west, its maximum distance is 570 miles. In all, the Great Basin covers one-fifteenth of the entire country, but, despite its great size, it was 1776, the year of American independence, before any white man made any significant attempt to explore it, and its unique character as a land of interior drainage would not be understood for another three-quarters of a century.
John Charles Frémont, "the Pathfinder," was the explorer who recognized the region's uniqueness and who named it the Great Basin. Frémont first saw the Great Basin on his expedition of 1843–1844, and his reports and memoirs, written in collaboration with his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, are still among the best writings ever produced on the region. "It is a singular feature," he wrote, "a basin of some five hundred miles diameter in every way, between four and five thousand feet above the level of the sea, shut in all around by mountains, with its own system of lakes and rivers, and having no connexion whatever with the sea." Frémont did not realize it at first, but the Great Basin is really a series of basins and valleys — like cups arranged side by side within a bowl — many of them with their own drainage systems. They are formed by interior mountain ranges, between thirty and one hundred miles long, that trend (to use a word geologists favor) in a north-south direction. On a topographic map, these interior ranges look like the fingers of a hand stretching down over the region. Fifteen years after Frémont's expedition, Army explorer Simpson noted that the term Great Basin is misleading, since the region is neither concave nor "filled with lakes and rivers" as the term implies. "The truth is," he concluded, "this is only a basin so far as that the few lakes and streams that are found within it sink within it, and have no outlet to the sea."
Some of the interior mountains rise eight to ten thousand feet above sea level from valley floors that might themselves be four thousand feet high. The peaks are what geologists call block-faulted mountains, which eons ago tilted out of fault lines on the desert floor, leaving steep escarpments on one side, gentle slopes on the other, with eroded debris spreading out at the base in what are called alluvial fans. This "alluvion," Frémont explained in a rare, less-than-graceful passage, "may be called fertile, in the radical sense of the word, as signifying a capacity to produce, or bear, and in contradistinction to sterility."
Although the Great Basin is generally high — and, in winter, so cold that even the basin floors will briefly hold snow — it is also a land of extreme variations and contrasts. The basin's Death Valley, for example, is one of the most exotic areas in the United States and, at 282 feet below sea level, the absolute lowest. A mere eighty miles away in the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the country outside of Alaska, rises to 14,494 feet. As Frémont made his way around the Great Basin in 1843–1844, he wrote of following the basin's "rim," but, as the geologist Nevin M. Fenneman has pointed out, there is no rim around the entire region; in places plateaus rather than mountains mark its boundaries. At best, the Great Basin is a leaky vessel; if it were filled with water, most of it would overflow into the sea.
With its barren mountains, salty lakes, and vast stretches of sagebrush, the Great Basin's scenery is not to everyone's taste. In 1833, Zenas Leonard, clerk to one of the earliest exploring parties in the Great Basin, was appalled by his surroundings; the Humboldt River, he wrote, should be called the Barren, "as the country, natives, and everything belonging to it deserve the name," while twenty-six years later Horace Greeley, creator of the New York Tribune, exclaimed about the same waterway, "Here on the Humboldt famine sits enthroned, and waves his scepter over a dominion expressly made for him." Contemplating the waterless expanse he had just traveled through, another newspaper editor, Samuel Bowles, deemed the Great Basin "a region whose uses are unimaginable, unless to hold the rest of the globe together, or to teach patience to travelers, or to keep close-locked in its mountain ranges those mineral treasures that the world did not need or was not ready for until now." Even admirers of the Great Basin often take a deprecating approach in describing its attractions. So the late Wallace Stegner wrote of the Great Basin:
Its rivers run nowhere but into the ground; its lakes are probably salty or brackish; its rainfall is negligible and its scenery depressing to all but the few who have lived in it long enough to acquire a new set of values about scenery. Its snake population is large and its human population small. Its climate shows extremes of temperature that would tire out anything but a very strong thermometer. It is a dead land, though a very rich one.
Frémont wrote of the trees found on the mountains of the interior Great Basin — the pine, cedar, and aspen — and of the excellent quality of the grass there, "equal to anything found in the Rocky mountains." He also pronounced the valleys between the mountains to be absolutely sterile — "no woods, no water, no grass; the gloomy artemisia [sagebrush] the prevailing shrub ..." That is a common but inaccurate observation; there are sections of "absolute desert" in the Great Basin where nothing grows, but biologists know today that the region — even the valley floors — harbors a rich variety of plant life. Sagebrush, to Mark Twain "an imposing monarch of the forest in exquisite miniature," covers nearly half of the Great Basin like a gray-green carpet. But early travelers such as Frémont did not realize that there are a dozen species of sagebrush and that among sagebrush communities many different grasses flourish. Sagebrush is also mistakenly lumped together with two other important plants: shadscale, a prickly plant with a gritty name, which grows where it is too dry for sagebrush, and the desert-loving creosote bush, which thrives where it is too hot for shadscale.
Hydrology, Biology, Geology ...
Not everyone agrees what the Great Basin is, although the common definition of it as a region that drains into itself is adequate for most purposes. With this in mind, even someone not familiar with the region can roughly follow the jagged "rim" of the Great Basin on a map by figuring out which way the water flows and distinguishing between the inward- and the seaward-flowing rivers. Thus it is possible to trace a dividing line along the mountain peaks between, say, the upper reaches of the Great Basin's Bear River in the northeast, which feeds Great Salt Lake, and the nearby streams to the east, which run into the Green River. Or, in the north, it is easy to separate the tributaries of the Great Basin's Humboldt River and those of the Snake River north of it, or in the southeast, between the Gulf-of-Mexico-bound Virgin River and the Sevier, which ends up in a salty lake of the same name. And so in the west, the headwaters of the Great Basin's Truckee River and California's west-flowing American River are not far apart; together the two historic streams formed one of the earliest and most arduous crossings of the Sierra Nevada.
Biologists use criteria other than rivers to define the region; they do not include the Mojave Desert in the Great Basin because much of its plant life, such as the stately Joshua tree, is not found elsewhere in the region. Geologists think in terms of huge geophysical areas with similar landforms; to them, the Great Basin is just the northernmost part of the Basin and Range province, which extends south into Mexico and eastward across southern Arizona and into New Mexico. Some archaeologists include all of Utah and a thin slice of western Colorado in their Great Basin because the people of the Fremont culture lived throughout the Rockies in prehistoric times. Ethnologists interested in the distribution of historic tribes speak of a Great Basin Cultural Area that about doubles the size of the Great Basin as defined by rivers and includes most of Idaho and Colorado and half of Wyoming.
Aridity is the characteristic that defines the Great Basin. Samuel Bowles noted in 1865 that "rain is a rarity, — near neighbor to absolute stranger. ..." Whatever precipitation occurs is deposited on mountaintops, often as snow. Westerly winds blowing in from the Pacific deposit their moisture on the western Sierra Nevada and then sweep down into the Great Basin as a hot, dry wind. Western Nevada, therefore, is said to be within the "rain shadow" of the Sierra. In this shadow, however, there is little rain and few clouds. As Stephen Trimble pointed out in The Sagebrush Ocean, Nevada's yearly rainfall of nine inches is the lowest in the country, while Reno enjoys more sunny days than Miami, Florida. Storms that form within the Great Basin also move east and deposit their rain on the west slope of the Wasatch, producing the strip of verdure that sustained the Mormons, the first permanent settlers in the Great Basin.
The Great Basin's few lakes are all that remains of a time when one-fifth of the land of interior drainage was covered with water. In the Pleistocene epoch, a million or so years ago, there were some one hundred large lakes in the Great Basin. The largest of these were Lake Bonneville, whose waters would have covered today's Salt Lake City, in the eastern Great Basin and Lake Lahontan, whose western shore was the Sierra Nevada. Lakes Bonneville and Lahontan were cut during the Ice Age by glaciers descending from the mountains. Bonneville, spreading westward from the foot of the Wasatch Range, covered 19,750 square miles and had an irregular shoreline 2,550 miles long. At its highest stage, its shoreline, which is etched on the slopes of the Wasatch today, was one thousand feet above the present Great Salt Lake. At that level, the Great Basin was no longer a basin, and Lake Bonneville overflowed through Red Rock Pass into the Snake River system. Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake (the freshwater body that flows, via the Jordan River, northward into the Great Salt Lake), and Sevier Lake in southern Utah were all at one time under the waters of Lake Bonneville.
Less than half as large as Bonneville, Lake Lahontan at its height covered 8,422 square miles and encompassed such present-day landmarks of western Nevada as the Humboldt Sink, Walker Lake, and Pyramid Lake. High-water marks on the mountainside tell us that Lake Lahontan was once nearly nine hundred feet deep. From the west, Lake Lahontan was fed by rivers that still run out of the Sierra Nevada — the Truckee, the Carson, and the Walker. From the east, Lahontan was fed by the Humboldt, the Great Basin's only major river to rise from its interior mountains. In the nineteenth century, the Humboldt became the famed Highway of the West, the route across the Great Basin for trappers, settlers, Mormons, miners, railroads, and, finally, the interstate highway. A million years ago the Humboldt entered Lake Lahontan to the east of where the town of Golconda is today, about a hundred miles west of its present sump, the historic Humboldt Sink.
First into the Basin
Human beings arrived in the Great Basin about 9,000 B.C. Theirs was a difficult life; they left behind almost nothing in terms of permanent dwellings or cultural artifacts to fire the imagination of the general public, but the way they survived in the basin's inhospitable environment has been of great interest to archaeologists. Out of necessity, most of the prehistoric people of the Great Basin were nomadic hunter-gatherers: Where food was scarce, they moved far and often just to sustain themselves; where sustenance was more abundant, such as the Humboldt Sink area, evidence suggests that they were more inclined to stay put and establish semipermanent communities.
The prehistoric people of the Great Basin often lived in caves, with lakefronts considered prime locations. At Hogup Cave in the Great Salt Lake region, studies showed that its residents between 6400 and 1200 B.C. relied heavily on small animals such as hares, rabbits, and rodents, while occasionally killing larger bison and deer. In the western Great Basin, archaeologists have concluded that prehistoric people used a site called Hidden Cave near Fallon, Nevada, for storing food and stockpiling projectile points.
Technology is helping to change what we know about the prehistoric Great Basin. In 1996 a technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry was used to count the carbon atoms in the hair of an ancient mummy that was found in a cave near Fallon, Nevada, in 1940. At the time, experts thought the mummy was no more than two thousand years old, but the recent tests put its age at more than nine thousand four hundred years. The discovery has caused experts to begin the process of reevaluating what is known about the Great Basin's earliest inhabitants and their environment. In appearance, the male, who stood about five feet two inches, looks more like a Southeast Asian than a modern American Indian. The mummy, known to anthropologists as the Spirit Cave Man, was found with examples of extremely well preserved weaving so sophisticated that experts believe they must have been created on a loom.
The Fremont Indians of the eastern Great Basin, latecomers on the archaeological time scale, were the only prehistoric people in the region to practice agriculture — and that only on a limited basis, since hunting and gathering remained essential to their survival in the years A.D. 500 to 1400. They also lived in crude pithouses, which are the first signs of permanent settlements.
What happened to the Fremont after A.D. 1400 is uncertain; archaeologists do not believe there is any connection between them and the Utes, who were resident in the eastern Great Basin when white men first encountered them in the late eighteenth century. A small tribe in western Nevada, the Washo, are the only natives who might have ancestors among the prehistoric Indians of the Great Basin. They speak a dialect with linguistic roots different from other Great Basin Indian languages and could be descended from the people of the Lovelock culture, who lived in west-central Nevada between 2600 B.C. and A.D.500 and left behind interesting decoys made of bulrushes over which they drew the feathered skins of real ducks.
There were three major tribes in the Great Basin when the white men arrived — Paiute, Ute, Shoshone — with the Bannock from the Snake River to the north making occasional forays into the region. Like their prehistoric predecessors, they were hunter-gatherers, and because part of their food came from digging for roots and grubs and insects, the whites lumped them together under the disparaging name of Diggers. The Paiutes were divided into two branches, northern and southern; the latter fought the Pyramid Lake War in 1860, one of the most serious conflicts in Great Basin history.
In the eastern Great Basin, Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon settlers, believed it was better to feed the Indians than to fight them, but there were still clashes, including some pitched battles. The raids of Ute Chief Joseph Walker, or Wakara, precipitated the 1853 Walker War with the Mormons, in which many Utes died. This was the same tribe that the Spanish explorer Father Escalante encountered on the shores of Lake Utah in 1776 and that won the admiration of the great American trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith during his swing around the Great Basin in 1825–1826. During the Civil War, the Shoshone, who lived around the Great Salt Lake, stepped up their raids on Mormon settlers and wagon trains, and, in retaliation, soldiers stationed at Salt Lake City massacred some 224 of them in 1863.
The attitudes of the first white men in the Great Basin toward Indians ranged from sympathy to disdain. On one occasion recorded in his notebook, Jedediah Smith went to great lengths to comfort and feed a hungry and frightened elderly Indian woman. On another, in a preemptive strike, he ordered his marksmen to gun down two defenseless Indian men. Of course, the trappers had to learn Indian ways to survive, and they learned these lessons so well that they were often indistinguishable from the natives. In his western classic, The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, Washington Irving wrote: "It is a matter of vanity and ambition with them to discard everything that may bear the stamp of civilized life and to adopt the manners, habits, dress, gesture, and even walk of the Indian."
Excerpted from Desert Between the Mountains by Michael S. Durham. Copyright © 1997 Michael S. Durham. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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