Joshua Tree National Park


The Joshua Tree area has been the focus of sporadic archaeological investigations for over 60 years, but the sequence of prehistoric human occupations is still imperfectly understood. Fluted projectile points of the Paleo-Indian period have been found in the region. These artifacts are thought to be associated with a tradition of big-game hunting that may date back to 9000 BC. Artifacts of a slightly later period, the early Archaic, which include those of the Dieguito and Lake Mojave complexes, were also found in the region. There may be evidence at Joshua Tree National Park of Paleo-Indian or Early Archaic occupations. There is good evidence of human occupation from the Middle and Late Archaic periods, which together range from 3000 BC to 1100 AD.

After about 1000 AD, occupation of the area increased considerably, judging from the frequency of sites that date within the last thousand years. At the time of European contact, the boundaries of three American Indian groups—the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Serrano—intersected at points now in the park. The descendants of these Indian groups continue to live in the area.

Exploration, cattle raising, homesteading, and mining took place in what is now the park. The first European to enter the area was a Spanish army officer, Pedro Fages, commander of California's Spanish forces, who described the date palms, probably Joshua trees, that he saw as he crossed the Mojave Desert in 1772. There were more Spanish expeditions in the area in 1774 and 1776. The southern periphery of the present park was briefly explored from December 1823 through January 1824 by Captain Jose Romero, representing the government of Mexico, who was dispatched to find and evaluate for overland travel the east-west Cocopa-Maricopa Trail from San Bernardino to the Colorado River. This route of Cocopa-Maricopa Indians was one of the major pre-European contact Indian trails in the area. Another such trail was the Mojave, located farther north, which also extended from San Bernardino to the Colorado River, connecting with north-south trails along both banks of the river.

Jedediah Smith made an overland journey to California in 1826. He was a fur trapper with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company who visited the Mojave Indian villages along the Colorado River and trekked westward over the Mojave Indian trail toward the Pacific Ocean. There were few other early expeditions in the 1830s and 1840s. During the gold strike of 1849 goldseekers from the east passed through on their way to central California.

In 1865 the first mining claim was filed in what became the park. It was for the Jeff Davis mine in Rattlesnake Canyon. Mining, mostly for gold, continued in or near the park into the 1960s. Mining over the years brought adits, diggings, shafts, equipment, structures, and roads to the landscape. It also added sources of water as wells were dug or pipelines were constructed from water sources to process ore. As many as 3,000 shafts or other diggings remain.

The first attempts at cattle raising took place in the area in the early 1860s in the Mojave where stockmen grazed large numbers of cattle in the desert and along the river or wash bottoms in the winter. The high desert had reliable grazing. The galleta grass and succulent saltbushes provided good browse in the winter and spring. The first stockman to graze cattle in what is now the park apparently was Oliver Smith, whose Texas longhorns grazed near Quail Springs from about 1870 to 1876.

Cattle raising peaked during the 1920s, about when local homesteading was beginning. Grazing continued through the 1940s and may have lasted longer. William F. Keys (1879-1969), an entrepreneur, miner, and rancher, lived most of his life on the homestead known as the Keys-Desert Queen Ranch. He is known to have maintained a cattle herd of about 100 head in the early 1940s. He stayed on the ranch until his death in 1969 and may have had some cattle into the 1960s.

Cattle raising (which included open-range grazing, ranching with corrals, fences, and even some rustling in the hidden canyons and valleys) brought dams, reservoirs, and wells plus buildings and other structures that often revealed a highly individualistic, entrepreneurial adaptation to the desert. Evidence of ranching remains at several sites, including Keys Ranch (the Desert Queen Ranch).

Joshua Tree National Monument was set aside in 1936 to preserve an ecologically dynamic component of the California Desert—much more than just Joshua trees. The east-west Transverse ranges support examples of Mojave and Colorado Desert ecosystems. The elevations range from almost 6,000 feet to near sea level, which creates an unusual compressed transition zone between the Mojave Desert and the Colorado province of the Sonoran Desert. Philip Munz, a botanist and early park advocate, thought it was important to protect mountains, canyons, and basins because of their relationships. The original monument boundary took this into account. A deletion of acreage in 1950 to accommodate mining interests took away some of the mountains and canyons.

Early proponents of the monument envisioned a representative segment of the two deserts that would be large enough to embrace a self-sustaining natural system. This system contains biotic and abiotic components that influence each other and are in turn influenced by climate, fire, earthquakes, and other natural phenomena. In 1994 the California Desert Protection Act added 234,000 acres to Joshua Tree National Monument and promoted it to national park status.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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