Little-known Desert History of the Bradshaw Trail

Significant was the humble contribution of a rare book by Francis J. Johnston entitled “The Bradshaw Trail” to the Palm Springs Historical Society. The book preserves a largely unrecognized part of Coachella Valley history. Carefully gifted by Bud Hoover – who has contributed to the entire desert in myriad ways large and small – the small volume chronicles the taming of an intimidating expanse of land, the territories of New Mexico and Arizona, which separated civilization on the East Coast and the emerging colonies of Southern California at the end of the 19th century.

Johnston explains that it was “wild and barren and lonely, made up of endless desert and great mountains. The white man found the land inhospitable and repulsive. They viewed its Indian cultures and civilizations as exotic, unpredictable, and often very effectively warlike. “

For centuries the land has been crossed by Indian tribes. The Spaniards began to colonize it at the very beginning of the 17th century, unbeknownst to the nascent settlers of Plymouth Rock. But the ruthless wilderness precluded any real connection or travel between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Bernardino, California, until enterprising pioneers led the way.

Johnston explains: “In the 1820s this virtual ‘no man’s land’ – the free abode of Native Americans – was penetrated by scouts and explorers of East Coast civilization. … highlanders and trappers wandered in and out of Arizona, without following a real route. A few … came to California and settled there under the Mexican regime. After the war with Mexico, even more Americans made their way precariously into a country that was without a government and barely had legal status as part of the United States.

The discovery of gold in northern California was used for transit traffic en route to the gold fields. The cities of the south favored the overland passage for the commerce which it brought with it. According to Johnston: “New Orleans, Shreveport, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Houston, Texas, all encouraged or sent groups overland to California via the southern route” from Santa Fe to the west following d ‘old cart tracks.

But by early 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, the territories of New Mexico and Arizona were wild and untamed land.

William Bradshaw had come to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 to make his fortune. Realizing that the strike was being played out, in June 1862 he assembled a group of adventurers and headed east from Los Angeles to a new discovery of gold in La Paz before what he predicted would be another scramble. gold and the boom that could make him rich.

Johnston writes that the effect was to “wake up this virtually undisturbed giant of raw wealth.” The route they took, the trail they made, firmly and rightly became the Bradshaw Trail. From its inception, central Arizona became accessible to California. By 1864, the California connection had been extended east to New Mexico. By the end of the Civil War, the link was complete with the Eastern States. Bradshaw had, in fact, opened Arizona and joined it to the United States.

The route began in San Bernardino, California, through the great Banning Plateau which included Highland Springs, Gilman Ranch, and Whitewater, across the San Gorgonio Pass to Agua Caliente, now Palm Springs. Bradshaw has established stagecoach stations every 15 to 30 miles or so.

“Palm Springs, called Sexhi by the Cahuilla and Agua Caliente by the Spaniards and Mexicans, had a major stop built in adobe …”

Early accounts mark the next stop at Sand Hole, an unreliable waterhole on the trail past Agua Caliente in what is now Palm Desert.

The route was heading east towards Point Happy. “Indian Wells was just that. First called Old Rancheria on maps, it was originally a village of Cahuilla, and the current name developed from the known presence of a deep well dug there by the Indians … where a permanent station was built in stone and adobe.

Probing further east to the Salton Well, the depression that would become a sea as the Colorado River leaked from its shores some four decades later, Bradshaw befriended Cabazon, a Cahuilla chief and a visiting Maricopa Indian from Arizona who shared their knowledge of ancient trade routes through the Colorado desert and the location of springs and waterholes, where Bradshaw would establish stations.

From the sink, Bradshaw continued. “Winding around the Santa Rosas ledge, the road reached Toro Spring at the mouth of Toro Canyon. This area was heavily occupied by the Cahuilla Desert, and their villages were everywhere. Cabazon lived here. … Another permanent station has been established here. … It is listed as Toro Mail Station in a table. The name Martinez, which applies to part of the Indian reservation that includes this section, comes from Martin’s House, part from the village of Toro … “The road continued to” Palma Seca, a place of bitter water which could not be used men or teams “recorded as” Bitter Spring “on some maps.

The trail continued through the Orocopia and Chocolate mountains to Dos Palmas, a lush oasis a few miles east and south of Palma Seca. “It has been used as a crossing point since prehistoric times. The old Cahuilla-Maricopa Trail crosses this grove, following the mesas and sidewalk from the Tucson Desert to the San Bernardino Valley. From the abundance of artifacts and pottery shards still strewn in the swamp grass and among the gravel on the outskirts of the grove, it seems that the early Cahuilla not only passed there, but often stayed in a semi camp. -permanent.

Additionally, Canyon Spring, Chuckwalla Well, Mule Spring, Laguna, and Willow Spring stations were established until the arduous trail finally met the mighty Colorado River. Here, Bradshaw built a ferry to take the gold miners across the river. On November 7, 1864, the Territorial Legislature allowed the ferry to charge $ 4 for a wagon and two horses, $ 3 for a wagon and 1 horse, $ 1 for a saddle horse, $ 0.50 for a man on foot, $ 0.50 per head for cattle and horses, $ 0.25 per head for sheep.

Two hundred and fifty miles east of Los Angeles in La Paz was gold. The inevitable exodus of miners and fortune-seekers from northern California would now follow, taking advantage of the Bradshaw trail, stagecoach, and ferry. Other businesses, like Wells Fargo, vacationers and merchants of all kinds began to use the trail and, having no alternative, were forced to use Bradshaw’s expensive ferry service to cross the river. .

By 1870, La Paz’s gold was almost exhausted, but the trail remained a vital connection through the desert to the southwest. Much of the route would parallel the interstate highway in the 20th century, speeding motorists from Blythe to Los Angeles, blissfully unaware of the courage and ingenuity it took to find the way.

To explore the unpaved trail a bit and cultivate an appreciation for William Bradford’s remarkable achievement, hire Big Wheel Tours’ Evan Trubee,, for a special outing to the heavily traversed and tamed Bradshaw desert.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected]

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