Wandering Lizard
Southeastern California

An Online Magazine with Information relating to attractions, lodging, dining,
and travel resources in selected areas of the Western United States

Death Valley


Death Valley is the lowest place in the United States. It is also the driest and the hottest. It is bounded by the Grapevine Mountains and the Funeral Mountains of the Amargosa Range on the east and the Panamint Range on the west. The north end of the valley is guarded by the Last Chance Mountains and the south end by the Owl Head Mountains. Telescope Peak is the highest point in the immediate area and Bad Water is the lowest. (Death Valley is only sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States.) The Amargosa River runs through Death Valley, but is rarely seen. About the only time the river appears is after a storm when flash floods rush off of the surrounding mountains and flow down into the valley. During the remainder of the year the surface is bone dry and the only flow is underground. Some have claimed that the Amargosa is the longest underground river in the world.

Humans are known to have lived in the valley for at least ten thousand years. After the last ice age the floor of the valley was a deep lake and the climate was milder than today. Scores of ancient camp sites have been found around the edges of that long vanished lake. Before Anglo-Europeans began arriving in Death Valley in the nineteenth century, the people living in the area were of four primary groups - the Shoshone, the Northern Paiute, the Southern Paiute, and the Kawaiisu. Territorial boundaries were fluid and inter-tribal marriages were common. Pine nuts, mesquite beans, and small animals were the basic foods. Because pine nuts were gathered in the fall from pinyon pines growing in the mountains above 7,000 feet and Mesquite beans were collected in the spring from mesquite bushes growing in the valley, the people moved seasonally. Along the way many other plants provided additional food sources and periodically the tribes would hunt rabbits collectively. All of their settlements were very small and were usually composed of one extended family. They were located near springs and their shelters were usually simple affairs of branches, grasses, and bark. Sweat houses were similarly constructed, but plastered with mud as insulation.

The first sustained contact with outsiders occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century when Mexican traders were reopening the Spanish Trail from New Mexico to California. Antonio Armijo left Abiquiu with the first caravan late in 1829, passed through Death Valley, and arrived at San Gabriel Mission in California on January 31, 1830. In California he traded serapes for livestock and a month later returned to New Mexico with a fine herd of horses. It was a profitable venture and other traders quickly emulated his success. The traders were followed in turn by horse thieves and travel over the trail was fairly constant up until the middle of the century. From time to time Native Americans clashed with the travellers on the trail and managed to steal horses from them, but other than that contact was minimal.

When the first Anglo-European settlers and miners reached Death Valley in the middle of the nineteenth century, the largest single Native American settlement was Mahunu, a Shoshone village of about thirty people located at the spring in Grapevine Canyon near where Scotty's Castle now stands. The next largest village was Tumbisha, where a community of Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Kawiisu people spent their winters. It was located at the mouth of what is now known as Furnace Creek Canyon. Other smaller settlements were sprinkled through the valley. The Northern Paiute villages were all located across the Panamint Range in what is now known as Owens Valley. All of these people practiced limited farming of corn, beans, pumpkins and squash.

During the California gold rush a few wagon trains traversed Death Valley on their way to the gold fields in the Sierras. The trip was always a difficult one and sometimes resulted in death. It is thought that the valley got its name during this period. Initial contacts between Native Americans and Anglo-European transients and settlers did not generate much violence, but from 1863 through 1867 there were a series of skirmishes that resulted in people on both sides being killed and wounded. In 1867 an informal peace was established and relations improved. A few intermarriages occurred between early Anglo-European ranchers and Native American women that created cultural bridges between the two races. Mining boomed in Death Valley during the last decades of the century and large numbers of prospectors scoured the valley and its surrounding mountains in search of precious metals. The search for quick riches attracted outlaws, renegades and crooks of all shapes and forms.

Cristalen believes all information to be correct
but assumes no legal responsibility for it's accuracy

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