The Great Basin: A Natural Prehistory

The Great Basin: A Natural Prehistory

by Donald Grayson

Hardcover(First Edition, Revised and Expanded Edition)

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Covering a large swath of the American West, the Great Basin, centered in Nevada and including parts of California, Utah, and Oregon, is named for the unusual fact that none of its rivers or streams flow into the sea. This fascinating illustrated journey through deep time is the definitive environmental and human history of this beautiful and little traveled region, home to Death Valley, the Great Salt Lake, Lake Tahoe, and the Bonneville Salt Flats. Donald K. Grayson synthesizes what we now know about the past 25,000 years in the Great Basin—its climate, lakes, glaciers, plants, animals, and peoples—based on information gleaned from the region’s exquisite natural archives in such repositories as lake cores, packrat middens, tree rings, and archaeological sites. A perfect guide for students, scholars, travelers, and general readers alike, the book weaves together history, archaeology, botany, geology, biogeography, and other disciplines into one compelling panorama across a truly unique American landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520267473
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/18/2011
Edition description: First Edition, Revised and Expanded Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 848,658
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Donald K. Grayson is Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Professor at the Quaternary Research Center, University of Washington. He is the author of The Desert’s Past, the previous edition of his Great Basin prehistory, and The Establishment of Human Antiquity, an American Library Association “Best Book of the Year.”

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The Great Basin

A Natural Prehistory Revised and Expanded Edition

By Donald K. Grayson


Copyright © 2011 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26747-3


Discovering a Great Basin

It was July 13, 1890, and the first Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States lay dying in a New York City boardinghouse, his son by his side, his celebrated wife, Jessie, in Los Angeles, a continent away. Seventy-seven years old, John C. Frémont had come to New York from Washington, where he had finally obtained a $6,000 yearly pension for his military service. That sum, Frémont hoped, would secure his family from the poverty that had marked their recent life, but he had not counted on dying so soon, and Congress had made no provision for continuing a pension in the absence of a pensioner.

The events that took place in Washington and New York that spring and summer echoed sequences that seemed to mark everything Frémont did: grand successes followed by remarkable failures. Born to loving parents but illegitimate at a time when that mattered; a hero to some in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 that led California to independence but court-martialed and convicted for what General Stephen Watts Kearny saw as mutiny; nominated for president but smeared as a "Frenchman's bastard" and defeated by James Buchanan; a millionaire in California but soon bankrupt; a Californian in the end but buried in New York because so many Californians opposed the use of public funds to bring him west for one last time. Ironies everywhere, but they especially surround his final resting place, overlooking a river named for the great explorer Henry Hudson—second place in death for one who desperately wanted first place in life but could never quite hold on to it. He was buried in New York, where not one significant place carries his name, and not in California, where he himself named so many significant things—Walker River, Owens Valley, and even the Golden Gate, above which he might have been buried. He was denied the final trip west by Californians, citizens of the very state his efforts had helped swing from Mexican to American control, citizens whose parents and perhaps even themselves had been spurred to come west by his Report of the Exploring Expedition to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–1844. Buried not in California, where he had once been a hero, but in New York, the state to which he and Jessie had retreated in personal defeat after his twice-failed role as a Union general in the Civil War.

Of Frémont's successes, perhaps the grandest was his second expedition for the U.S. Bureau of Topographical Engineers. His first, in 1842, had gone from St. Louis to just beyond South Pass in the northern Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, an expedition that he made with Kit Carson—John and Jessie Frémont together turned Kit into a legend—as one of his guides. The second expedition was to go much farther.

Although following from, and funded as a result of, the expansionist dreams of Thomas Hart Benton, the powerful senator from Missouri and Frémont's father-in-law, it is not clear what unwritten goals Frémont carried with him on this second excursion deep into the American West. What is clear is that he went farther than his written orders allowed, wintering in Mexican California even though he was a representative of the American military. It is also clear that he had no written authorization to bring along a twelve-pound mountain howitzer, the famous Frémont cannon.

He left St. Louis in May 1843; three months later, he was back at South Pass, the terminus of his first expedition, but now simply the jumping-off point for the work that was to make him famous (figure 1-1). Accompanied once again by Kit Carson, Frémont made his way south to the Bear River, his description of which was to be crucial in guiding the Mormons to Salt Lake Valley in 1847. On September 6, the expedition reached the Great Salt Lake, Frémont's "Inland Sea, stretching in still and solitary grandeur far beyond the limit of our vision" (Frémont 1845:151).

The Great Salt Lake was a major target of the party's work and it spent nearly a week here, exploring the lake's shores by foot and its waters by boat. The expedition renewed its journey on September 12, heading north to Fort Hall on the Snake River, then down along the Snake River to Fort Boise in western Idaho. From here, the explorers cut across the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, reaching Marcus Whitman's mission just east of the Columbia River near modern Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington, on October 24. They then traveled west along the Columbia River, arriving at Fort Vancouver on November 8.

Fort Vancouver moved several times during its history, but when Frémont arrived, it was on the north side of the Columbia River, just north of the mouth of the Willamette River. Today, it is within the city limits of Vancouver, Washington, and a reconstructed version exists as the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. At 300 feet wide and 700 feet long, it was massive, the Hudson's Bay Company's prime redistributive and administrative center in this part of the world. Ships came up the Columbia River to supply the fort and to be supplied with furs (the British bark Columbia was there when Frémont arrived). The Fort also served as a stopping-off point for the growing number of American emigrants who were then entering Oregon's Willamette Valley, some 2,400 of them in 1843 and 1844.

Frémont was well treated at Fort Vancouver, as were all others who came here, but he stopped only long enough to stock up for the return home. His orders for that return were simple. "Return by the Oregon road," Colonel J.J. Abert had ordered, "and on again reaching the mountains, diverge a little and make a circuit of the Wind river chain" (Jackson and Spence 1970:160). But the "Oregon Road" was pretty much how Frémont had come to be where he was, and he was not about to return the way he had gotten there. When Frémont stocked up, he did so for a far more rigorous journey, and by the time he had returned to The Dalles, on the eastern edge of the Columbia's passage through the Cascade Range, he had three month's worth of supplies for his twenty-five men, along with a herd of cattle and 104 mules and horses. And, rather than heading east from The Dalles, as Abert's orders indicated he should, he headed south.

Leaving The Dalles on November 25 in the midst of flurrying snow, Frémont moved south along the eastern flank of the Cascades, past the Metolius River, past the headwaters of the Deschutes, and south to Klamath Marsh. Arriving at the marsh on December 10, Frémont used his cannon for the first time, discharging it to impress the Indians whose fires were visible across the marsh. These were the Klamath, Frémont knew, but he was incorrect in thinking that this was Klamath Lake and that the river he had found here—the Williamson—was the Klamath River. In fact, Klamath Lake was still thirty miles to the south. But thinking he had found the lake, Frémont spent several days at this spot, resting his horses, exploring, and even buying a little dog that he named Tlamath. Once satisfied with what he had seen, he headed east, leaving on December 13. Three days later, after the explorers forced themselves, their animals, and the howitzer through deep and crusted snow, the woods suddenly ended:

We found ourselves on the vertical and rocky wall of the mountain. At our feet—more than a thousand feet below—we looked into a green prairie country, in which a beautiful lake, some twenty miles in length, was spread along the foot of the mountains, its shores bordered with green grass.... Not a particle of ice was to be seen on the lake, or snow on its borders, and all was like summer or spring.... Shivering on snow three feet deep, and stiffening in a cold north wind, we exclaimed at once that the names of Summer Lake and Winter Ridge should be applied to these two proximate places of such sudden and violent contrast. (Frémont 1845:207)

These places still bear the names Frémont gave them, a highway marker on Oregon State Route 31 pointing out where Frémont and his men suffered their way down Winter Ridge on the evening of December 16, 1843, leaving the howitzer halfway up, to be retrieved the next day. Now, he said, they were "in a country where the scarcity of water and of grass makes traveling dangerous, and great caution was necessary" (Frémont 1845:208). Frémont had entered the Great Basin.

From here, the group continued south and east, farther into the Oregon desert. Lake Abert came next, so named by Frémont "in honor of the chief of the corps to which I belonged" (Frémont 1845:209), then farther south and east to Warner Valley, where Christmas Day was celebrated with a blast from the howitzer. Crossing the 42nd parallel, which today marks the boundary between Nevada and Oregon but which then marked his passage into Mexican territory, they moved deeper into northwestern Nevada: High Rock Creek, it seems; then Soldier Meadow; then, on New Year's Day, along the Black Rock Desert through what is now Gerlach, Nevada; and then, on January 11, to Pyramid Lake, "a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad [that] broke upon our eyes like the ocean" (Frémont 1845:216). Here they rested, trading for cutthroat trout with the Northern Paiute who occupied the shores of the lake, allowing their horses to feed, killing the last of their cattle, and getting their howitzer unstuck from the steep shores of the Lake Range that forms the eastern edge of Pyramid Lake.

The lake itself they named from the "very remarkable rock" they saw jutting from it, a rock that to them "presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops" (Frémont 1845:217). Once recuperated, they followed the Truckee River south, and then left it as it swung west toward the Sierra Nevada. Instead, they headed south to hit the Carson River, named by Frémont for the scout whose legend he had begun.

It was here, in the Carson Valley on January 18, that Frémont said he made his decision to cross the Sierra Nevada into California, though there are indications that the decision had been made well before. Faced with horses in poor condition and with no means of making shoes for them, Frémont "therefore determined to abandon my eastern course" (Frémont 1845:220) and to cross the Sierra Nevada into California.

The expedition's passage over the Sierra Nevada was one of remarkable hardship; it is to Frémont's great credit that the members all survived. Frémont himself became lost, knowing mainly that they had to go west and that they had to go up. They first tried going up the East Walker River, then gave up and followed the West Walker. They ended up in snow deep enough to bury their horses; the only way through was to build a road by stamping down the snow and covering it with pine boughs. On February 10, Frémont established what he called Long Camp, where, three days later, hunger forced them to eat their dog Tlamath. Thusly fueled, Frémont and his dyspeptic but talented cartographer and illustrator Charles Preuss then climbed nearby Red Lake Peak and became the first to record seeing Lake Tahoe. The party then forced its way over the top, through Carson Pass, eating horses and mules as it went, stumbling and crawling through the snow, emerging into the green California spring on February 24. On March 6, they finally reached the American River, only a mile from the Sacramento River and Sutter's Fort. They had left The Dalles with 104 horses and mules; they had begun their ascent of the Sierra Nevada with 67; they arrived at Sutter's Fort with 33 exhausted and nearly useless animals. Another, less animate loss was the howitzer: this they had abandoned on January 29, somewhere along the western flank of the Sweetwater Mountains, its whereabouts still a debated mystery. "If we had only left that ridiculous thing at home," Preuss had grumbled months earlier (1958:83), and now it was gone.

Three weeks at Sutter's Fort saw both men and animals revived. They left on March 24, this time with 130 horses and mules and some 30 cattle. Rather than moving north and out of Mexico, they went south and deeper into it, following the San Joaquin Valley to southern California's Tehachapi Mountains, crossing over them and into the Mojave Desert a few miles south of Tehachapi Pass. Back in the Great Basin again, they moved mostly east, hitting the Mojave River near what is now Victorville, California, and roughly following the Spanish Trail across southern California and southern Nevada into Utah. At Bitter Spring in southern California's Mojave Desert, Kit Carson and his companion Alexander Godey revenged the deaths of a party of Mexicans, and the stealing of their horses, by tracking down and scalping two of the Indians who had done the killing. "Butchery," Preuss disgustedly called it (1958:128), and it was a sign of the savage ferocity for which Carson was later to become infamous. Then, along the Virgin River near Littlefield, Arizona, one of Frémont's own—Jean Baptiste Tabeau—was killed by Indians on May 9, the first of his men to die (a second, François Badeau, was to die on May 23 from a gun-handling accident).

Leaving the scene of Tabeau's death, the expedition moved northward, reaching Mountain Meadows on May 12. Thirteen years later, this site, on the very fringe of the Great Basin in southwestern Utah, was to become the location of a Mormon-engineered massacre of some 120 emigrants from Arkansas and nearby states. For Frémont, however, it was simply a "noted place of rest and refreshment" (Frémont 1845:271). Equally important, as the expedition left Mountain Meadows, it was joined by Joseph Walker, one of the most famous of western backwoodsmen. It was Walker who guided the group north to the Sevier River and then to Utah Lake, south and east of the Great Salt Lake. Finally, on May 27, Frémont and his men headed east into the Wasatch Range and out of the Great Basin. On August 6, nearly fifteen months after his departure, Frémont was once again in St. Louis.

Frémont had thus struggled his way south from the Columbia River, deep along the eastern edge of the Great Basin, and then over the Sierra Nevada in the dead of winter. He had then moved even farther south in the interior valleys of Mexican California and then east across one of the most challenging deserts in North America, ultimately swinging north to nearly rejoin his original diversion into the Great Basin at Great Salt Lake.

His orders, however, directed him to return by the Oregon Trail, not by the Spanish Trail, some five hundred and more miles to the south, and those orders said nothing about California. He explained his entry into California by the situation in which he found himself in January 1844. Why, however, did he swing so far south from the Columbia River, and from the Oregon Trail, in the first place? Just as Frémont used his Report to justify his decision to enter California, he also used it to justify making this move.

There were, he said, three prime geographic reasons for making this "great circuit to the south and southeast." The first was to find Klamath Lake and explore the Klamath country, then poorly known. The second was to find and explore Mary's Lake, the sink into which the Humboldt River flows in western Nevada and that is now called Humboldt Lake. Third, he wished to locate, if it existed, the Buenaventura River, "which has had a place in so many maps, and countenanced the belief of the existence of a great river flowing from the Rocky mountains to the bay of San Francisco" (Frémont 1845:196).

Of these goals, Frémont approximated achieving the first, but failed at the second. He explored the Klamath country, but never found Klamath Lake, having mistaken it for Klamath Marsh, to the north and east. This was hardly his fault, since he also referred to the "imputed double character" of Klamath Lake as "lake, or meadow, according to the season of the year" (Frémont 1845:196), a description that applies not to the deep and permanent Upper Klamath Lake but that fits Klamath Marsh well.

After leaving the Klamath country, however, his movements south from Warner Valley and past Pyramid Lake brought him well west of Humboldt Lake, and his Report provides no clarification of the location and nature of the sink of the Humboldt except that it could not be found the way he went.

Ironically, even though Frémont himself was to name the river "Humboldt" during his next, 1845, expedition, he saw neither lake nor river until the summer of 1847. And, when he finally saw Humboldt Lake, he was heading eastward in the forced tow of Stephen Watts Kearny, who was to have him arrested and court-martialed for actions he had taken during the Bear Flag Revolution and the acquisition of California for the United States.


Excerpted from The Great Basin by Donald K. Grayson. Copyright © 2011 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


PART ONE The Great Basins,
1. Discovering a Great Basin, 3,
2. Modern Definitions of the Great Basin, 11,
PART TWO Some Ice Age Background,
3. Glaciers, Sea Levels, and the Peopling of the Americas, 45,
4. The End of the North American Pleistocene: Extinct Mammals and Early Peoples, 67,
PART THREE The Late Ice Age Great Basin,
5. The Late Pleistocene Physical Environment: Lakes and Glaciers, 87,
6. Late Pleistocene Vegetation of the Great Basin, 135,
7. Late Pleistocene Vertebrates of the Great Basin, 173,
PART FOUR The Last 10,000 Years,
8. The Great Basin during the Holocene, 217,
PART FIVE Great Basin Archaeology,
9. The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Great Basin, 289,
PART SIX Conclusions,
10. The Great Basin Today and Tomorrow, 341,
INDEX, 409,

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"Well supported by photographs, maps, and tables, along with detailed chapter notes and extensive references."—Choice

"It is . . . an excellent resource for scholars and professionals working in the Great Basin and . . . is essential for beginning archaeologists."—Journal of Anthropological Research

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