Salt Lake Desert

Joseph Walker California Travels Images


Ned Eddins

Thefurtrapper Article Catagories:

Mountain Men                American Indians                Exploration

Emigration Trails            Forest Fires            

Historical NovelsMountains of Stone     The Winds of Change

Mountain Men:

William Ashley    Jedediah Smith       Thomas Fitzpatrick   

Joseph Walker       William Sublette          Etienne Provost

Fur Trade Articles:

Fur Trade Trivia          Fur Trappers          Rendezvous Sites   

Fort Bonneville

Related Links:

Captain Bonneville          California 1833             Monterey 

Fort Hall           Fremont             Epitaph

Until the mid-1700’s, the vast majority of people in America lived within one hundred miles of the Atlantic Coast. The English-European settlers brought their customs and culture with them. For the most part, new immigrants settled around people from the same areas of Europe and England they had migrated from.

Colonial Distribution – 1771

States and huge privately held land companies needed rugged settlers with no cultural ties to settle along the border of Indian country; they went after the lowland-Scottish people from Ireland. Extremely poor and fiercely independent, these Scots-Irish people had a deep-seated distrust of outsiders and any form of government. The Scots-Irish knew nothing but hardship and starvation—anything was better than what they had.

The Ulster immigrants brought nothing with them except a strong-willed determination to own land. Within a generation or two, Scots-Irish offspring settled deep into the valleys of the Allegheny Mountains and the Ken-tuc-eee lands. These people did not adapt the land to fit what they had left behind–the Scots-Irish adapted to fit the land. The Scots-Irish were the first true American pioneers.

John and Katherine Walker migrated from lowland Scotland to Ulster, Ireland and after a few years, to America. Arriving in 1728, the John Walker family settled in Pennsylvania, but in a few years moved to an area below Jump Mountain in western Virginia. The settlement was called Creek Nation.

John Walker’s grandson, Joseph Walker married Susan Willis in 1787. Leaving his wife in Virginia, Joseph went to an area about fifty miles from Knoxville, Tennessee to establish their new home. It was ten years before it was safe enough to move Joseph’s wife, Susan, and three children, Lucy, Jane, and Joel, to Tennessee. Joseph Rutherford Walker was born on the thirteenth of December, 1798 in Tennessee. He was the fourth child in a family of seven children.

Joseph Rutherford Walker’s heritage was seventy years of border warfare and two hundred and fifty-four direct descendants from his great-grandfather John Walker. His extended family through marriage included Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. This background and heritage served him well as America’s greatest mountain man-explorer (In my opinion). His closest rivals for the honor are Jedediah SmithThomas Fitzpatrick, Etienne Provost  and three Canadians, David Thompson, Alexander McKenzie, and Peter Skene Ogden.

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Joseph R. Walker 1798 – 1876 

Joseph Rutherford Walker’s—the middle name is often erroneously sited as Reddford—adventurous career began when he and his two-year-older brother, Joel, joined Colonel John Brown’s mounted riflemen to serve under Andrew Jackson. Joseph and Joel were present when their kinsman Sam Houston climbed the Red Sticks’ log fortifications during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

The Red Sticks were a warrior sect of the Creek Indian Nation. Seven months prior to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Red Sticks led by two Métis Peter McQueen and William Weatherford killed and mutilated over four hundred settlers at Fort Mims, Alabama.

In 1819, the Walkers and several related families—McClellans, Whitleys, Toomys,  Hayes—left Virginia and Tennessee to settle near Fort Osage, Missouri.

William Clark built Fort Osage as a Factory Post in 1808, and it remained a factory post until Fort Atkinson was built above Omaha, Nebraska in 1819. After the building of Fort Atkinson, Fort Osage served as a military storage facility. Located fourteen miles downriver from Independence, Missouri, Fort Osage was abandonment by the military in 1827 with the building of Fort Leavenworth. The area settlers renamed the small settlement Sibley.

Joseph R. Walker left Missouri in 1820 to trap beaver in New Mexico and possibly continue on to the Pacific Coast. He was arrested by Spanish authorities, but released with a promise to help the Spanish against the Pawnees. After cooperating with the Spanish, Walker returned to the Fort Osage area.

Walker with his brother Joel and Stephen Cooper returned to Santa Fe in 1821 with the William Becknell wagon train. Four years later President James Monroe signed a bill providing thirty thousand dollars to survey a wagon road from Independence to Santa Fe, Joseph Walker was hired as a guide and hunter.

Sante Fe Trail
Santa Fe Trail 

In June 1827, while living in Independence, Missouri, Walker was appointed sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri. Founded in 1827 near the mouth of the Kansas River, Independence was at the time as far as paddle-wheedlers could travel up the Missouri River. Independence soon became known as the trail town. It was the major starting point for the Santa Fe, Oregon Trail, and California trails.

Paddle-wheelers on the Missouri River – Google Images 

After two terms as sheriff, Walker refused to run for re-election, instead he started trading horses at military posts as far south as Arkansas and Oklahoma. At Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, Walker met Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville. The Captain had applied for a two year leave of absence from the military to trap beaver in the Rocky Mountains—his army leave started in the fall of 1831.

Captain Bonneville:

Bonneville asked Joseph Walker to invest in his fur trade venture. When Walker refused, he ask him to join him as the field commander. Looking for an opportunity to go west, Walker eagerly accepted Bonneville’s offer. Walker returned to Independence, Missouri, and started making preparations for the expedition.

One hundred and ten men with extra horses, mules, and twenty wagons left Independence, Missouri, the first of May, 1832 —most history books say Fort Osage, but with the building of Fort Atkinson (1819-27), it was used as an army storage depot. The wagon train cut across the Plains to the Platte River, and then followed the North Platte to the Sweetwater River. The Bonneville party passed over South Pass on the twenty-fourth of July, 1832, and camped on Pacific Creek. The Bonneville-Walker party brought the first wagons over South Pass.

The next two pictures were taken while standing on the Continental Divide at South Pass.

OT-South Pass East
Continental Divide Facing East
South Pass - West
Continental Divide – South Pass Facing West
Pacific Creek
Pacific Creek West of the Continental Divide 
1833 Horses Creek Meadows
Horse Creek Meadows – Daniel, Wyoming

On the twenty-seventh of July, Bonneville crossed the Horse Creek Meadows and stopped on the south side of the Green River.

 Bonneville and Walker left the Green River camp for the Salmon River on the 22nd of August, 1832. The party arrived on the Salmon River in mid-September, 1832, and Bonneville set the men to building winter quarters.

Walker was as opposed to the Salmon River camp as he had been to the Green River camp. Two days after arriving on the Salmon River, Walker took twenty men to the Madison River, a tributary of the Missouri. In November, Walker and his men returned to the Salmon River camp with three packs of beaver.

The Salmon River camp turned out to be a poor choice—there was little game in the area. After two days, Walker took forty men and wintered at the junction of the Blackfoot and Snake rivers. His spring hunt was along the Bear River, Bear Lake Valley, and Salt River in Star Valley, Wyoming…my grandfather homesteaded in Star Valley in 1890.

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Star Valley Wyoming 

In early June, Walker and six men accompanied by two hundred lodges of Shoshone Indians traveled through the upper end of Star Valley over the Wyoming Range to the caches on Green River. Walker opened the caches and started trading with the Shoshone. Bonneville didn’t arrive at the camp until mid-July.

At the 1833 rendezvous on Horse Creek, Bonneville’s one hundred plus men had twenty-two and a half packs of furs. The overwhelming majority of these plews were taken by Walker’s men. After the rendezvous, Captain Bonneville sent Michael Sylvester Cerré back to St. Louis with the packs of pelts and a package of military intelligence information he had assembled over the previous two years.

California 1833:

Based on information from William Sublette, Washington Irving claims Bonneville believed the sources of streams emptying into the Great Salt Lake were not accurately determined, especially an outlet. According to the historical fiction writer Wash Irving, Bonneville instructed Walker:

…to keep along the shores of the lake [Great Salt Lake], and trap in all of the streams on his route; also to keep a journal, and minutely to record the events of the journey, and everything curious or interesting, marking maps or charts of his route and all the surrounding country.

It is interesting to note that Walker was severely condemned by Irving and later by several historians for not carrying out Bonneville’s instructions concerning the Great Salt Lake. The inference is this is why Bonneville failed in his fur trade endeavors. If this was Bonneville’s intent why did he obtain Walker a Mexican passport

…1832 January 23rd: Secretary of State in Washington D.C., Edward Livingston, issued passport & a visa from the Mexican consul to Joseph R. Walker. The passport was delivered to Captain Benjamin Bonneville.

According to Zenas Leonard these were Walker’s instructions :

Bonneville instructed Walker with fifty eight men to head west “. . . through unknown country towards the Pacific, and . . . he should return to the Great S. L. the following summer. Each of Walker’s men were provided with four horses, and an equal share of blankets, buffaloe robes, provisions, and every article necessary for the comfort of men engaged in an expedition of this kind.

During the rendezvous, Walker circulated among the various fur trading camps along Horse Creek seeking forty volunteers for a journey to California…not to explore Great Salt Lake. One of the first to sign up was Zenas Leonard. Hired as the clerk, Leonard kept an account of the journey. Other well known mountain men to sign on with Walker were Bill Williams, Levin Mitchell, Bill Craig, George Nidever, Powell (Pauline) Weaver, and Joe and Stephen Meek.

Walker 1833 – 1834 California Journey 

No pains or expense were spared in out fitting the party, of forty men, which Walker commanded: they had supplies for a year, and were to meet Bonneville in the ensuing summer in the valley of the Bear River. A good deal of what follows is paraphrased from The Adventures of a Mountain Man by Zenas Leonard.

The Walker party traveled north of the Great Salt Lake into the most extensive & barren plains I ever seen. The natives which we occasionally met with, were the most poor and dejected kind – being entirely naked and very filthy. As we continued to extend our acquaintance with the natives, they began to practice their national failing of stealing. The great annoyance we sustained in this respect greatly displeased some of our men, and they were for taking vengeance before we left the country – but this was not the disposition of Captain Walker.

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Great Salt Lake Desert 

These discontents being out hunting one day, fell in with a few Indians, two or three of whom they killed, and then returned to camp, not daring to let the Captain know it. The next day while hunting, they repeated the same violation – but this time not quite so successful, for the Captain found it out, and immediately took measures for its effectual suppression.

At this place, all the branches of this stream is collected from the mountain into the main channel, which forms quite a large stream; and to which the men called the Barren River (Mary’s or Humboldt River). On the 4th of September, the party camped on the edge of some lakes formed by this river (Humboldt Sinks).

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Humboldt Sinks – Nevada 

The Indians of this area are totally naked with the exception of a shield of grass, which they wear around their loins. They are generally small and weak, and some of them very hairy. They subsist upon grass-seed, frogs, fish. In warm weather there is a fly, about the size and similar to a grain of wheat, on this lake, in great numbers. When the wind rolls the waters onto the shore, these flies are left on the beach — the female Indians then carefully gather them into baskets and dried for winter provender. These flies, together with grass seed, and a few rabbits, is their principal food during the winter season.

A great many Indians were seen in this vicinity, and it was decided to fortify the camp. A breastwork was made by piling up the baggage and saddles. Before every thing was completed, eight- to nine-hundred Indians marched straight toward the camp. About one hundred and fifty yards away, the Indians stopped, and five of their chiefs continued on to the camp. They indicated their people wanted to come into camp and smoke.

Capt. Walker refused to let the Indians enter the camp. To frighten them off, he had some of the men shoot at ducks on the lake. The ducks were killed, which astonished the Indians a good deal, but the noise of the guns caused them to fall flat to the ground.

A few days later, large numbers of Indians were moving in the tall reeds around camp. A party of eighty to one hundred approached in a threatening manner. The boldness of the Indians alarmed Capt. Walker. When he gave his consent to show them the strength of our rifles, thirty-two men mounted and surrounded the Indians. Thirty-nine Indians were killed and the remainder ran into the high grass in every direction, howling in the most lamentable manner. Capt. Walker then gave orders to some of the men to take the bows of the fallen Indians and put the wounded out of misery. Our object was to strike a decisive blow.

The Walker party left the Humboldt Sinks and traveled toward the high snow covered mountains. Leonard mentions in his Journal the party camped:

…on the margin of a lake formed by a river which heads into this mountain. This lake has no outlet for water, except that which sinks into the ground. The water in the lake is similar to lye, and tastes like pearlash (potassium carbonate). …There is also a great quantity of pumice stone floating on the surface of the water, and shore is covered with it.

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Tufa Formations – Mono Lake California 

David A. Smith, a military historian at San Jose State University, believes the route of approach to the mountains, and Leonard’s description leaves no doubt this was Mono Lake. Mono Lake is located just east of Yosemite National Park’s present-day boundary.

On the 25th, one man brought a basket full of acorns to camp. An Indian had been carrying them on his back, but when he saw the hunter, he dropped the bag and ran off. These were the first acorns anyone had seen since leaving the State of Missouri. It was little comfort to the men an the Indians had to pack food to get over these mountains. As the men continued westward, the party started to encounter a series of small streams which served as the watershed for larger streams cascading into deep valleys–Yosemite Valley.

Dr. L. H.. Bunnell, historian of the Yosemite, who in 1851 was with the first party to have actually entered the Yosemite Valley, accords Captain Walker the honor of being its discover…Scott Stine, A Way Across The Mountains (2015), walked and studied the  references material on Walker crossing the Sierra mountains. Stine determined the Walker Party followed the Stanislaw River to the valley floor which is southwest of the Yosemite Valley.

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Half Dome – Yosemite National Park – Google Images 

Unable to reach the valley’s floor, Walker led his party westward along a mountain ridge between two deep canyons. The only way off the ridge was to zigzag back and forth off a steep mountain slope. At one point, a sheer rock ledge blocked the way, and the horses were lowered with ropes. As preparation to lower the horses began, a hunter returned with a small deer. This was the first wild game larger than a rabbit killed since the fourth of August.

On the evening of the thirtieth of October, the party followed the Stanislaw River to the valley floor. A hunter returned just after dark with two large black tailed deer and a black bear.

The Walker party spent close to a month crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Twenty four of the horses starved to death after leaving Mono Lake; seventeen of the dead horses were eaten. Leonard described the meat as being so foul nobody should have to endure the misery of eating it.

In his journal, Leonard noted a grove of large redwood trees. Walker’s men stumbled upon a grove, of Sequoia trees located southwest of the Yosemite Valley—there is no evidence any of Walker’s men went into the Yosemite Valley.

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Redwood Trees Tuolumne Grove 

As the Walker party made its way toward the Pacific Coast, the men started trapping, but few signs of beaver were found. As they traveled west large herds of wild horses and cattle were seen. Leonard described the cattle as:

The horns of these cattle which measured 3 1/2 feet on the outside or bend, and one foot in circumference at the root or thickest part. These cattle are much larger and look better in their wild state than when domesticated.

Reaching the coast, a ship was sighted on the horizon. Using blankets to signal the ship, Captain Bradshaw anchored off the coast and sent a long boat ashore. He informed Captain Walker the nearest settlement was the small town of St. Francisco, about forty miles to the north on the south side of the Francisco Bay. The capitol of upper California, Monterey, was sixty miles to the southwest.

The ship’s Captain told Walker there was a Russian settlement one hundred miles to the north. The settlement was eighteen miles north of Bodega Bay. Settled in 1812, Fort Ross contained one hundred and fifty families. The Russians at the fort hunted sea otter, grew wheat and other crops for the Alaskan settlements, and traded with the Spaniards. When Captain Bradshaw left, he agreed to meet Captain Walker in Monterey.

A few days later, the party reached the town of St. Juan (Mission San Juan Bautista). Captain Walker obtained permission from the mission Priests to camp in the area between present-day Gilroy and Salina.

Leonard described St. Juan:

…situated on the banks of a small creek in a rich level plain, about twenty miles from the coast and about the same distance from Monterey. Besides the Priests and a few other people, there were from six to seven hundred Indians at the Spanish Mission. The Priests were teaching and instructing these heathens in the ways of religion and truth; besides giving them instructions in the art of farming and rendering the soil productive.

After establishing a camp, Captain Walker and two men went to Monterey. Captain Bradshaw acted as his interpreter with the Spanish Governor. Captain Walker explained where his party was from and his intention to leave in the spring. Showing the Governor his passport, he asked the Governor’s permission to spend the winter in St. Juan area.

The Governor gave permission for Capt. Walker to remain in the country during the approaching winter. The men were allowed to kill as much game as was needed to support themselves. Walker was given permission to trade with the Spaniards, but was forbidden to trap on Indian lands, or trade with the natives.

The Spanish governor offered Captain Walker a tract of land seven miles square if he would bring fifty families and settle on it. Captain Walker graciously declined the offer. Walker’s respect for the laws and free institutions of the United States, and his hatred for the Spanish Government, deterred him from accepting the Governor’s offer. Walker’s time in the Santa Fe jail had probably influenced this decision.


Leonard described Monterey as:

The town of Monterey is build on a beautiful situation on the south side of Monterey Bay – this Bay being formed by Kings river. This is the Capital of Upper, or North California, and under the government of New Mexico. The town is small containing only about 30 or 40 dwelling houses, one church.

This bay affords an excellent harbor for any number of vessels. The town has every natural advantage that a seaport could desire; and if a proper spirit of enterprise prevailed among the inhabitants, it might be made to flourish equal to any other town in the dominions of New Mexico. as it is the last white settlement they pass, until they reach the Russian dominions of the North-West. The inhabitants raise no grain only what is used for home consumption; the mariner is only enabled to supply his vessel with meat and water.

While at St. Juan, Leonard noted:

The dry season is occupied by the inhabitants in gathering large herds of horses, mules, and cattle. The mules and horses are sold to the  Santa Fe traders.

When a trading vessel anchors on the coast, the owners of cattle, who are of the wealthier class, collect together all the poorer Spaniards and Indians for the purpose of catching and butchering the cattle. After they strip off the hides and take out the tallow, and sometimes the choice part of the meat. The hides are then stretched out on the ground, and the tallow molded into large cakes. Hides are sold at $1.50 a piece, and the tallow at 4 cents per pound.

Over the winter, Walker decided to head southeast and find an easier pass over the Sierras. The Walker party left the Monterey area on the fourteenth of February 1834; six of the men stayed in California. Walker left with fifty two men, three hundred and fifteen horses, fifty head of cattle, and thirty dogs.

The party spent the spring traveling through the San Joaquin Valley. Near present day Portersville, California, Walker met a Spanish speaking Indian tribe, the Concoa. Captain Walker hired two guides to take them over the mountains. The Concoa guides followed an old Indian trail up Deer Creek, then north across the head of the Kern River, and over the summit of the Sierra Nevada mountains at Haiwee Pass into the Owens Valley.

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Deer Creek Monument – Courtesy of G. A. Miller 

In Owens Valley, several of the free trappers decided to go to New Mexico. Among them were Bill Williams, Bill Craig, Levin Mitchell, Mark Head (a Delaware Indian), and Stephan and Joe Meek.

From the Owens Valley, the party traveled northeast across the desert to find the trail  made on the westward trek. On the edge of Death Valley, the party found little fire wood, and very little, if any, water.

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Edge of Death Valley – Google Images 

Moccasins were cut from dying cattle to protect the injured hooves of the horses. Finally, Walker turned back towards the base of the Sierra Mountains to find water. Before reaching water, some of the men were drinking the blood of dying cattle. The party lost sixty-four horses, ten head of cattle, and fifteen dogs in the Nevada desert.

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Nevada Desert – Google Images 

Arriving at the Humboldt sinks on the eighth of June, a large number of Digger Indians surrounded the men. The men wanted to drive them off, but Walker would not allow it. Finally there were so many Indians around them, Walker let his men charge them. Fourteen were killed and a great many injured.

Some historians criticize Walker for killing the Digger Indians. In later years, Captain Walker expressed his regret in killing these poor destitute Digger Indians, but the sheer numbers of them forced the necessary action. Walker had more problems with Digger Indians than any other Indian Tribe.

In Leonard’s journal, he noted:

The desert which had presented such an insurmountable barrier to our route is bounded on the east by the Rocky mountains, on the west by the California mountain, on the North by the Columbia river [Snake River], the west by the Red, or Colorado river [Green-Colorado river]. These two mighty rivers rise in the Rocky mountains adjacent to each other [~70 airline miles], and as the former flow in a N. W. and the later in a southern direction, forms this plain in the shape of an A.—There are numerous small rivers rising in either mountains, winding there way far towards the centre of the plain, where they are emptied in lakes or reservoirs, and the water sinks into the sand. Further to the North where the sand in not so deep and loose, the streams rising the spurs of the Rocky [mountains] and those descending from the California mountains, flow on until their waters at length mingle together in the same lakes.

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Great Basin 

This is the first topographical description of the Great Basin. Leonard described the concept of the Great Basin ten years before the “Great Pathfinder” John C. Fremont searched for the Buenaventura River as the outlet to Great Salt Lake.

Following the trail made the previous year, Walker and his men returned to the Bear River Valley where they found Captain Bonneville on the twelfth of July, 1834. On the twentieth of July, Michael Cerré reached the Bear River camp. Accompanied by forty men from St. Louis, Cerré had a pack train of supplies and merchandise. Walker and Bonneville did not attend the 1834 Rendezvous on Ham’s Fork.

Ten days later, Cerré and forty-five men returned to St. Louis with about ten packs of furs. Bonneville’s trapping was no more successful than Walkers, and he had accomplished nothing in terms of exploration not already known.

Following the meeting on Bear River, Bonneville took fifty men to hunt the headwaters of the Columbia. Captain Walker and fifty-five men crossed the Rocky Mountains to hunt and trade on the upper Missouri, Yellowstone, and the Bighorn country of the Crow.

On the way to the head of the Yellowstone River, a grizzly bear attacked one of Walker’s men. The man climbed a tree, but the bear ripped the man’s leg. The man died the next day. Encountering a band of Crow Indians, Walker’s party stayed with them for some time. With the trading concluded, Walker left Zenas Leonard and one other man with the Crow to keep them hunting. Walker moved the rest of the men to the Wind River Valley, where he planned to build a makeshift trading post.

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Wind River Valley Near Riverton, Wyoming 

Leonard rejoined Walker in mid-December near present-day Crowheart Butte in the Wind River Valley. While digging a cache for the pelts, one wall collapsed and buried four men including Leonard. One was killed and the other three badly hurt. When the party left for the spring hunt, the three injured men were taken on travoises. Walker’s spring hunt was on the Tongue, Powder, Yellowstone, Gallatin, Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone, and the Stinkingwater (Shoshone) rivers.

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Cache Pit North Horse Creek Wyoming 

Walker met Captain Bonneville on the Popo Agie (Popoasia) on the tenth of June 1835. Collecting the men who wished to return, Bonneville led the party back to Missouri; they arrived at Independence on the twenty-ninth of August 1835. Walker stayed in the mountains with fifty-eight men to continue to trap and trade with various Indian tribes. In 1836, he married a Shoshone Indian woman. This formed a strong bond between Walker and the Shoshone Indians. With rare exceptions for the next ten years, she was his constant companion.

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Walker and Wife – Alfred Jacob Miller 

During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Walker made a number of return trips to California. He established a good business buying California horses and trading them in the mountains, Bent’s Fort and Santa Fe. Most of the furs he obtained for his horses were marketed through Abel Stearns in Los Angles.

Pueblo de Los Angles – 1869 

Walker and his wife spent the winter of 1842 with his family and relatives in Jackson County, Missouri; his first time back in ten years.

At Fort Laramie in 1843, Walker met the Chiles wagon train headed for California. Walker’s nephew, Frank McClellan, and other friends and acquaintances from Missouri were with the Chiles party. About half of the members were women and children. With only two or three exceptions, none of the Chiles Party had any western experience and were poorly provisioned to make the trip. Walker felt there only chance of reaching California was to guide them.

The wagon train stopped at the burned-out Fort Bridger to rest the stock and dry meat. With Bridger gone, the Cheyenne had burned the buildings and drove off the game. After two weeks of poor hunting, the Chiles wagon train left for Fort Hall.

Fort Hall:

Walker was warmly received at Fort Hall by Hugh Grant of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but Grant refused any supplies for the wagon train; Hudson’s Bay officials did not want Americans coming into the Oregon Country. Grant finally agreed to four cows and a few other provisions because Walker and the Chiles Party was headed for California. Walker sent Joe Chiles and several other men to Fort Boise for provisions, but they were refused any help at Fort Boise, except a crude map to get them across the Sierra’s to Sutter’s Fort.

Walker had agreed to meet Chiles at the Humboldt Sinks, but when Joe Chiles didn’t show up, Walker continued on to Owens Valley. These were the first wagons to enter California from the west–the 1841 Bidwell-Bartelson Party abandoned their wagons in the Nevada Desert.

Lateness of the season, poor forage, and the condition of the livestock forced Walker to abandon the wagons in Owens Valley. With the children on horses, Walker led the Chiles Party over Haiwee Pass and, following his trail of 1834, into the San Joaquin Valley near Portersville, California. Walker took the people of the Chiles Party to John Gilroy’s ranch where he had stayed a few day in 1833.

Walker and eight men left the Chiles Party at Gilroy and went to Pueblo de Los Angeles to purchase horses for Fort Bridger.


In southern Utah, Walker found John C. Frémont; in Frémont’s mind and writings, he was in deadly danger from marauding Indians. Walker determined the Indians were Ute led by his friend and namesake, Wakara (Walker), and Frémont was in no danger.

Despite having Thomas Fitzpatrick and Kit Carson as his guides, Frémont hired Walker to guide them to Utah Lake. Walker continued on with the Frémont party to Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River to market his horses. During the trip to Bent’s Fort, Walker agreed to be Frémont’s chief guide for next year’s expedition.

Frémont’s 1845-1846 Expedition met Walker near Fort Davey Crockett. Twice the party split up: Frémont made a diagonal path to Walker’s Lake; the main party followed the Humboldt River to its sink and then to Walker Lake.

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Walker Lake – Google Images 

When the parties were united at Walker Lake, Frémont’s group crossed the Sierras south of what is now Donner Pass (probably Carson Pass) and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on December 10, 1846. Captain Walker, Theodore Talbot, and Edward Kern went to the Owens Valley. Continuing further south, Captain Walker led the men over Walker Pass to Lake Isabella and from there into the San Joaquin Valley. The men camped at Tulare Lake for twenty-two days waiting for Frémont to show up. When Frémont and his group didn’t appear, the Walker group continued up the San Joaquin Valley; they located Frémont near present-day San Jose.

Frémont met with the Mexican authorities in Monterey, and the Mexican Governor ordered Frémont to leave the country. Instead of leaving, Frémont fortified a position on Hawks Peak between Salinas and San Juan Bautista. When a Mexican General with a large force approached Hawk’s Peak, Frémont and his men quietly slid down the backside of the mountain. Frémont headed back to the Sacramento Valley.

After the Hawks Peak debacle, Walker took his men and withdrew from the expedition. Few books on Frémont mention Walker as being the guide for the third Frémont expedition. Probably because Walker considered Frémont a coward for not fighting the Mexicans at Hawks Peak. Walker wrote:

Frémont, morally and physically, was the most complete coward I ever knew. I would call him a woman, if it were not casting an unmerited reproach on the sex.

Many historians list people who do not agree with Walker’s assessment of Frémont, but none of those listed were from Frémont’s fourth expedition in 1848 to the San Juan mountains of Colorado to survey a railroad line. By the time the surviving members of the expedition made it back to Taos on February 12, 1849, ten of the party were dead; some eaten by the other men. Except for the efforts of Alexis Godey, another fifteen men would probably have been lost. This was the only Frémont Expedition the “Great Pathfinder” did not have competent mountain men to show him the path.

Walker, his nephew, Frank McClellan and seven men went to Los Angeles and purchased close to six hundred horses and mules to take over the Old Spanish Trail to Bent’s Fort.

Old Spanish Trail 1
Old Spanish Trail

 On the way, Walker decided to stop at Fort Bridger and most of his horses were sold to immigrants camped at Fort Bridger. Walker stayed at Fort Bridger for two weeks with his wife in a nearby Shoshone camp.

Many of the immigrants sought Walkers advice on travel to California. The Hastings Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake desert was being strongly touted back east. Walker strongly advised against this route. The only ones to ignore his advice were the Donner-Reed party—it was so hard to cross the salt flats they become snow bound in the Sierra Mountains (near Truckee) and forty-four of them died.

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Donner Party 1847 – 

After selling most of the horses at Fort Bridger, Walker and his nephew took close to a hundred horse to Bent’s Fort. Walker’s nephew Frank McClellan want on to St. Louis for a supplies and trade goods.

In the winter of 1846-1847, Walker returned to Jackson County, Missouri. Walker was always reticent about his activities and life, but this time he was worse. The family knew something was wrong, but Walker would not talk about it. Frank McClellan returned there in April with the goods from St. Louis, but Walker didn’t not mention leaving until late summer.

Later speculation was Walker’s wife and children had died from Cholera. After being at Fort Bridger, she was never mentioned in any immigrant journals again. Walker had lived with the Snake Indians for fifteen years, but after his wife’s death, he never lived with any Indian tribe again.

Walker returned to California during the gold boom, but he was not interested in the day to day drudgery of mining. He believed more money could be made supplying the miners. With two nephews, Walker started supplying the gold fields around Sutter’s Mill. Walker brought horses, cattle, and supplies to his ranch near John Gilroy, but he never went near the gold fields. The nephews handled the gold field business.

In 1853, Walker testified before the California Senate Committee on Public Lands as to the best route for a railroad to the east. Walker proposed a route over the southern end of the Sierras. After testifying, Walker moved his ranch to an area near Walker Peak, approximately 25 miles east of Mission Soledad.

Bored with ranching, Walker started to explore unknown regions of the southwest. Near the Mojave crossing, Mojave Indians attacked his party and wounded one man. Walker returned to Los Angeles for medical help, but the man died. A year later, Walker served as the guide for an army expedition against the Mojave Indians.

The man killed by the Mojave Indians is the only known man to be killed by Indians in a Walker led expedition. Walker had two other men killed in Wyoming; one from a grizzly bear and one from the collapse of a cache wall.

With a few men, Walker returned to the southwest corner of what became Utah. He crossed the river at the Virgin-Colorado river crossing and continued northeast along the Grand Canyon to an area with a number of pre-historic Indians ruin.

Picture courtesy of G. A. Miller 

Leaving the ruins, Walker stayed with the Hopi (Moqui) Indians for a week before continuing on to Santa Fe…the Hopi village of Old Oraibi and The Sky City of the Acoma have been continuously inhabited since 1150 A.D.

Old Oraibi - 1051
Old Oraibi – Inhabited since 1051 A.D. 

During the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, Walker and most of his men remained in the mountains awaiting the return of some of his men who volunteered to fight with the militia. When the Confederates were driven out of New Mexico, Walker took his men back to Tucson.

From Tucson, he and his men went to the Prescott area where they saw signs of a rich gold field. Walker stayed there until the Governor’s party arrived and claimed the area as part of the Territory of Arizona. The boom of the gold mines in the Prescott area opened up one of the most racist places in the West; it was a white man only town until the miners realized they needed Spanish workers.

With his eye sight failing, Walker retired in 1867 to his nephew’s “Manzanita” ranch near Walnut Creek, California. Captain Joseph Walker died the twenty-seventh of October, 1876. He is buried in the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery near Martinez, California. The peaceful, oak-studded, cemetery overlooks the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.


Daniel Conner had this to say about Joseph Rutherford Walker:

“I was with him [Walker] two years of his last explorations of our mountain country under the most desperate hardships and still I could never see any change in him. Always cool, firm, and dignified. I never heard him tell any wonderful story. He was too reticent about his certainly bleak and wild experiences and he was never given to saying foolish things under any circumstance. Brave, truthful, he was as kindly as a child, yet occasionally he was ever austere. I was but a boy and he kept me out of dangerous places without letting me know it or even know how it was done.. . . my greatest concern is the fear that his character will never be known as well as it ought to be. His services have been great and unostentatious, unremunerated and but little understood. Modesty was his greatest fault.

Truer words were probably never written about a great man. Walker is given little credit for his accomplishments, while lesser men, i.e. Bonneville, Frémont, and Bridger, were made into national heroes.

Joseph Rutherford Walker Accomplishments:

–Battle of Horseshoe Bend – 1814

–Arrived in Santa Fe with first wagon train – 1821

–Guided and hunted for Santa Fe Trail Survey – 1826

–Led first wagons over South Pass – 1832

–First crossing of the Great Basin via Humboldt River – 1833

–First to see Yosemite area – 1833

–Explored part of the California Trail – 1833

–Discovered Walker Pass across Sierra Nevada Mountains – 1834

–First concept and outline of the Great Basin – 1834

–Led the first wagons into California – Owens Valley – 1843

–Guided the third Frémont Expedition into California – 1845

–As far as known, only one man on a Walker Expeditions was killed by Indians.

–Discovery of the gold fields in Prescott, Arizona in 1861 led to the creation of the Arizona Territory in 1864 by President Lincoln.

My thanks to G. A. Miller, Silver Spur Books, for the information on the Haiwee Pass and the Deer Creek trail used by Walker in 1833-34, and with the 1843 Chiles Party.

The Joseph R. Walker article was written by  Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming.

Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Afton, Wyoming. 2002.

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Reader Comment:

No question…just a compliment, very well written article. We need more men like Joe Walker in our country today…Amen

No Name

Could you possibly tell the truth about Walker’s activities in Mexico? It would be refreshing. What is presented here is a sanitized pack of lies!

Reply: Where in Mexico are you talking about? Are talking about Walker or Frémont at Hawks Peak? These kind of idiotic comments from no name  “liberal activists?” make my day. My article references are listed below. Send me references to back up your comments, and I will gladly make the appropriate corrections.

Reference Books:

Ferris, W. A. Life in the Rocky Mountains. Paul C. Phillips ed. Old West Publishing Company. Denver, Colorado 1940.

Gilbert, Bil. Westering Man The Life of Joseph Walker. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma. 1985.

Gowans, Fred. Rocky Mountain Rendezvous. Perrigrine Smith Books Layton, Utah. 1985.

Irving, Washington. Adventures of Captain Bonneville. Binfords & Mort, Publishers. Portland, Oregon.

Horst, Bill,  and Miller, G. Andrew. Joseph R. Walker New Trails to Coso & Mono Mines. Frontier Adventure Series. Silver Spur Publishing. Camarillo, CA. 2003

Lavender, David. Bent’s Fort. Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Garden City, New York. 1954

Leonard, Zenas. Adventures of a Mountain Man. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1978.

Miller, G. Andrew. Joseph R. Walker California Expedition 1833-34. Frontier Adventure Series. Silver Spur Publishing. Camarillo, CA. 2004.

Miller, G. Andrew. Joseph R. Walker Expedition against Mohave Indians. Frontier Adventure Series. Silver Spur Publishing. Camarillo, CA. 2003.

Miller, G. Andrew. Joseph R. Walker In Search of Arizona Gold. Frontier Adventure Series. Silver Spur Publishing. Camarillo, CA. 2003.

Russell, Osborn. Journal of a Trapper [1834-1843]. Bison Book. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1970.

Vestal, Stanley. Jim Bridger Mountain Man. Bison Books. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, Nebraska. 1972.

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