Joshua Tree by James Kaiser

Joshua Tree by James Kaiser

Author:James Kaiser
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: Joshua Tree National Park;Joshua Tree;California
Publisher: Destination Press
Published: 2019-01-31T16:00:00+00:00

Smallpox Invades the Desert

On January 24, 1848, nine days before Mexico officially handed California over to the United States, gold was discovered in Northern California. Although both countries were unaware of this fact when the papers were signed, within a few months the biggest gold rush in the history of the world was on. Prior to the discovery of gold, there were only a few thousand white settlers living in California. In 1849 alone, over 80,000 people flooded the state. Ten years later, California’s population was nearing 400,000.

California was booming, but the tidal wave of humanity was concentrated almost entirely in the northern half of the state. In 1860, over a full decade after the Gold Rush kicked off, Los Angeles was still a small cattle ranching town with a little over 2,000 full-time residents. The deserts to the east were even more untouched. In 1853 a scout for the U.S. Railroad Survey wrote of the region surrounding Joshua Tree: “Nothing is known of this country. I have never heard of a white man who had penetrated it.”

Since the arrival of the Spanish, California’s deserts had acted as a kind of natural barrier between the Indians that lived there and the settlers clustered along the coast. During the first decade of the Gold Rush, when Indian populations across much of the state were decimated, tribes living in the remote deserts remained relatively unaffected. But in 1863 this natural barrier was shattered when a smallpox epidemic swept through Los Angeles and headed east. Within a matter of weeks, many Serrano and Cahuilla had fallen ill.

For centuries desert shaman had treated sick Indians by sending them into sweat houses (enclosed shacks heated by a small fire) where sick Indians sweated profusely for hours. This treatment was believed to cleanse the body and promote health. But the results were disastrous when applied to smallpox. Sweating rapidly increased the rate of transmission, and soon the virus had blanketed the desert. Indian populations plummeted, and whole villages were abandoned. Within a matter of months, the social and political structures that had governed desert Indians for centuries started to fall apart.

The Serrano at the Oasis of Mara were among those who abandoned their village. When the survivors returned a few years later, they found a group of Chemeheuvi Indians living among the palms. The Chemeheuvi (sometimes called the Southern Paiute) were the eastern neighbors of the Serrano, but a series of wars with the more powerful Mohave Indians along the Colorado River had driven them west.

Both tribes had fallen on hard times, and they agreed to peacefully share the resources at the oasis. But the Chemeheuvi and Serrano were both facing the end of traditional Indian life. As new settlers continued to arrive in California, Indian populations continued to decline. By the late 1800s over 75 percent of California’s Indians had died due to disease and warfare. A government report issued near the end of the century summed up California’s Indian situation in one tidy sentence: “Never before in history has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness.


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