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the largest in California, extending about width from forty miles at the south end 150 miles from east to west and 100 to nearly 100 miles at the north end, miles from north to south, and contain- but is in reality divided there into two ing over 15,000 square miles. In shape mountain regions, by the occurrence of it very nearly resembles the States of the San Jacente plains, an extensive Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Con- and nearly level region, twenty to forty necticut combined, and is somewhat miles long and wide, and about 1,200 larger than they are. This immense feet above the sea - level. The climate area can be divided into three portions, is hotter in summer and cooler in winter differing widely from each other in cli- than near the coast; the rain-fall is much mate, soil, and productions, as well as greater; snow and ice occur, and on the in general appearance.
higher peaks remain for several months, First, the western (extending from the it being not uncommon to see them late Pacific Ocean back a distance varying in May. During the summer the air is from twenty to thirty miles) may be call- remarkably dry and invigorating, and ed the “Mesa Division,” as it consists on some of the pine-covered peaks and largely of sloping table - lands or mesas, ridges almost perfectly free from damprising gradually from a level to eleva- ness without being very hot. tions of from 500 to 1,000 feet. It is From the eastern border of this regenerally destitute of trees, but covered gion, at an average elevation of 5,000 with a variety of shrubs, plants, and feet above sea-level, there is an exceedgrasses, many of them furnishing good ingly rough, broken, and precipitous degrazing; and, being cut through by nu- scent to the third or "Desert Division,” merous streams running into the ocean, which extends to the Colorado River, it has many valleys of fertile land, from an average width of about seventy-five 500 to 12,000 acres in area, with good miles, including nearly one-half of the soil and some timber along the water- county. This region is one of the most
The climate of this region is singular in the world, as regards climate, similar to that of most of the Pacific soil, productions, elevation, and comCoast, though much less cool and damp paratively recent geological changes. than farther north. There are no great Its first and most remarkable peculiarextremes of temperature, no snow, no ity is, that a large portion of this desert ice, very little frost, little rain-fall, and a is below the level of the sea; the greatremarkable uniformity during the whole est depth, in the bed of Dry Lake, near year.
its northern end, being about 250 feet. The second division, which may be the earlier explorers doubted the accucalled the “Mountain Division,” con- racy of the measurements by the baromsists of parallel and transverse ranges of eter, but recent railway surveys, with mountains, from 2,000 to 9,000 feet high, accurate instruments, have proved this with deep valleys intersecting, some of remarkable fact. This depression gradthem of considerable size. These val. ually diminishes farther south, but a leys are always well watered, and most canal from the head of the Gulf of Caliof them well supplied with timber; pine fornia, thirty or forty miles in length, and cedar of large size and several vari- would let the waters of the ocean in, and eties of oak growing on the ridges, and overflow an area probably twenty to oak, sycamore, cotton-wood, willow, and thirty miles in width and sixty to eighty some other trees, in the valleys. This miles in length. division extends north and south the In the report of the survey for the Pawhole length of the county, varies in cific Railroad, by Lieutenant R. S. Will
iamson, of the United States Engineers, grazing all about it. Now, it is not over in November, 1853, he speaks of a tra- eight or ten feet deep; the dead stump dition among the Cohuilla Indians, that of the palm - tree alone remains; the at a period not very remote this basin water is alkaline and brackish, and nothwas filled with water, and the Indians ing but salt grass grows around it. Yet, subsisted on fish and water-fowl caught singularly enough, it contains fish, of in it. I heard the same story from an what species I could not ascertain, but aged Indian of the vicinity, on a recent numerous, about two inches in length, trip. The occurrence of a plainly mark- and shaped like the "pumpkin-seed," soed beach or water-line on the rocks, as called, of the Eastern States. No other well as among the sand and bowlders, fish exist, to my knowledge, within one the incrustations coating the stones near hundred miles. It was probably formerly this, of an appearance resembling coral, a natural artesian well; the diminished and similar to what may be seen near flow of the water has caused it to dry the bay of San Diego-the great quan- up, and the evaporation concentrated tities of shells which are strewed over the the mineral salts in solution. surface of the ground, some of them of Doctor Widney, in an able article in fresh and some of salt water origin, and the OVERLAND MONTHLY for January, several other facts-all go to prove that 1873, describes the manner in which this at some late geological period this whole basin, which was no doubt part of the region was under water. And there is Gulf of California, became cut off from it, a good deal of evidence to show that this and gradually dried up; and there is period was very recent. Besides the every reason to believe that both his Indian traditions, which are usually very arguments and his conclusions in favor of untrustworthy, there is plenty of proof restoring the ancient condition of things, that the country is now, and has been and the advantages that would probably for some time, going through a very rapid result therefrom, are correct. Lieutendrying-up process. Springs, that it is ant Williamson, also, in the railroad reknown flowed freely fifteen or twenty port above alluded to, discusses the years ago, are dried up, or only furnish a same subject and arrives at the same little water; places where good grazing conclusions; while a recent survey, by could be had only show now a little salt J. E: James, civil engineer, establishes grass or bare white alkali ground; hun- the perfect feasibility of this project. dreds of iron-wood and other trees in Few persons probably have attemptsome localities are dead or dying, with ed, as our party did, in March, 1875, few young trees to replace them; the to cross Dry Lake, at a place where it stumps and logs of palm-trees are nu- is about ten miles wide. Our attempt merous, and were evidently indigenous was a failure, and we were compelled to to the country and quite plenty; and the go back, after proceeding nearly three remains of frail Indian houses and fences miles from shore ; but we learned some are to be seen, where now is nothing interesting facts. The surface is a bed but sand. At one point there is a sin- of dried mud (clay mixed with small gular pond, circular in shape, about fifty shells), forming a crust about a foot and feet in diameter, with its bank some four a half thick; below this is a thin crust feet above the surrounding plain. One of a crystallized white substance resemof our party said when he visited it, fif- bling salt or alum, but having neither teen years ago, it was fifty or sixty feet taste nor smell; and under this exists deep, the water clear and fresh, a large an unknown depth of moist white clay, palm - tree leaning over it, and good like soft putty, into which men and ani
mals sink as soon as the crust is broken. growth of timber of varieties peculiar to The water this contains is saturated with the desert. There are the iron-wood and salt, and round the eastern edge of Dry mesquite (which resemble the acacias), Lake are many springs and streams of and the palo verde, looking at a little clear cold salt water running into it. distance like a green willow, but having
The southern portion of the great des- no leaves at all, the small twigs termiert is quite level, but the northern and nating in sharp thorns. The iron-wood north-eastern portions are broken by is very hard and heavy, about the color isolated peaks and ranges of mountains, and grain of rose-wood. It will not split, which seem to be the continuation south- and when dry is too hard to be cut with eastward of the San Bernardino mount- an axe, but can be broken off in slabs ains. They are composed of broken, by blows with an axe or sledge-hammer, abrupt, barren rocks, generally almost and would no doubt furnish material for black from exposure to the weather, very beautiful finishing-work, as it takes though sometimes red, or brown, or of a high polish, and is of very handsome a gray color. They always seem to ter- color and grain. It is also an excellent minate at the base as if at a shore-line, fuel, burning into clear hot coals, like not only near the depressed basin, but mineral coal. when 1,500 or 2,000 feet higher; the Every vegetable growth on the desmouths of the gorges and cañons by ert is covered with thorns: the trees, which they are cut being choked by bushes, many varieties of cactus; even a enormous quantities of gravel, sand, sort of grass called gallete by the naand large bowlders, as though the tor- tives, and which furnishes a rather poor rents which brought them down had article of hay for stock, though wild anbeen met and checked by the breaking imals seem fond of it. It grows around of an ocean swell. Lower down fre- and over small hummocks of sand, is cut quently occur long slopes covered with with a hoe, and looks as much like old flat small fragments of rock, as regular- brooms with a few seeds on them as ly laid as a mosaic pavement, and almost anything else it can be compared to. as black as ink; then slopes of sand and The varieties of the cactus are numergravel, and, at the bottom of the valley, ous: among them the "Turk’s-head," as sand-washes, as they are called, like the large as a pumpkin; the "prickly-pear," beds of ancient rivers, generally quite or puma, with beautiful crimson flowthickly covered with trees and bushes, ers; the “cholla," with its terrible barbvarieties of cactus, and other deserted thorns; the “lace cactus,” looking as growth. These valleys vary from a mile though it was covered with a lace veil ; or two to ten miles wide, but all have and many others. There are also the the same general character: sand-wash- "mescal,” which sends up a tall floweres, rising by gravelly or rocky slopes to stalk; the “Spanish bayonet," with a the base of steep broken mountains, ab- sheaf of delicate creamy blossoms; and solutely destitute of vegetation.
a curious plant resembling a bundle of Some of these valleys are from twenty fish - poles diverging from a to fifty miles long, and one can travel in root, growing twenty or thirty feet high, any direction without difficulty by keep- with small green leaves, no branches, ing a little away from the foot of the but superb crimson flowers, that can be mountains; the sand- washes and the seen for a long distance. And with all gravel mesas being generally hard and this growth of vegetation there is no wacompact. The valleys frequently look ter to be seen. One may travel for days, quite pretty, there being a park - like may search all the cañons, may dig in the sand, and finally perish of thirst, and one dangerous to travel in without while all around are green trees, bright carrying several days' supply of water flowers, and plenty of vegetable growth. for men and animals. Scarcely a seaThe trees and plants seem to absorb son passes without loss of life for want enough moisture during the rainy sea- of water, one of the most terrible deaths son to last them the rest of the year, known. and to be of such a structure as not to There are a good many animals ingive it off again. It is maintained by digenous to the country: deer, antelope, some that the juice of the mescal, of the and mountain sheep of the big-horn vaTurk's - head, and of other cacti can be riety, are comparatively numerous. Of used to quench thirst. Perhaps it might the smaller animals there are the Caliserve to moisten the mouth in extreme fornian hare or jack-rabbit, the common cases, but the experience of the writer, rabbit, the kangaroo - rat, two or three who has tried them all, is that it does varieties of mice, numerous varieties of more harm than good. The sap is acrid, lizards (including one called the iguana, and causes soreness, even blisters, on very good to eat and much prized by the the mouth and tongue, and in a short Indians), the Arizonian quail (a different time the thirst is more intense than be- species from the Californian one), and fore.
many varieties of small birds, among The air is perfectly dry, day and night; which humming - birds are very numerno moisture is perceptible in the morn- ous. Insects are also numerous: fies, ing, and one never catches cold by sleep- moths, beetles, a small black bee, gnats, ing on damp ground or in a wet blank- and ants. The distances from water to et. Yet this region is not entirely des- which these animals range appear to be titute of water. There are occasional about as follows: Small birds, one to springs, generally impregnated with al- two miles; rabbits, two to three; hares, kali, or more or less brackish, but serv- four or five; deer and other large aniing to supply the requirements of men mals, ten to twelve; quails, two or three; and the wild animals of the country. bees, three or four; while other insects Some of the desert mountains are strat- and lizards are everywhere; as are also ified, and where the dip of the rock is the kangaroo-rats, which live in colonies, toward the mountains natural cisterns either in crevices in the rock or in holes occur, that fill with rain-water during the excavated in the ground. It is very rainy season and last during most of probable that water might be found by the year. These can be found by per- sinking wells in any of the sand-washes. sons acquainted with the peculiarities of One very interesting animal, of which I the country, by observing the structure have not been able to find any descripof the mountains, and by following the tion or plates in the reports of surveys trails of wild animals as they lead up and explorations, is the desert tortoise, into the arroyos by which the mountains or land- terrapin. These animals are are very much cut up. In other places very numerous in the northern and eastthe presence of palm - trees is an almost ern part of the desert, and are excellent certain indication of water below the eating. They are from twelve to fifteen surface, which can be reached by dig- inches long, the shell very much arched, ging, sometimes only two or three feet, the feet provided with long claws, and where the ground presents on the sur- the hinder ones very much like those of face only a dry white sand; and such an elephant. In crawling they raise the water is always good and sweet. Yet it body two or three inches from the ground, is essentially a dry and desert region, and can travel quite fast for an animal of
THE CALIFORNIAN DESERT BASIN.
their kind. Under the arch of the up- something terrific. Thunder-storms ocper shell they carry a sack or pouch of cur during the summer months, and rains water, and, as they live far from water from December to March, but the ansupplies, no doubt they fill this during nual rain-fall is no doubt very small, and rains and subsist on it the rest of the the evaporation very rapid. The sandtime. The shell is covered with plates, storms of the region are the dread of all that can be separated and used for orna- travelers. Any wind, that elsewhere mental purposes. They excavate holes would scarcely be noticed, sets in mounder bushes and where a steep bank tion the fine sand that in places is piled favors them, probably by aid of a point- up in dunes or spread over considerable ed projection of the under shell resem- areas; and when the wind increases the bling a shovel, and with their sharp air becomes filled with the driving sand. claws. Into these holes they crawl On so large an area of open country, backward, and can be found looking subject to such extreme changes of temout, as if admiring the scenery. They perature (for the nights are generally appear to live on vegetable food, those cool), wind-storms, of course, are frethat we killed containing the leaves of quent and often very severe; and anythe grease-wood and other plants. one who has been exposed to an old
It is a curious study to examine the fashioned eastern snow-storm can imnumber and variety of tracks sometimes agine what it would be with sand submet with on the fine white sand. Deer stituted for snow. It fills the eyes, nose, and other large animals, coyotes, rats, and mouth, and does not melt as snow rabbits, lizards, birds, beetles, and ter- does; it cuts the skin so as frequently rapins, leave evidence of their nocturnal to bring blood; it sifts into everythingrambles; and their habits, mode of trav- food, clothing, and baggage; and at last, el, of eating, visiting one another, even when the storm becomes violent, all attheir fights, and the way in which the tempts at travel must be abandoned, carnivora capture their prey, can be and, seated on the ground with a coat studied in characters as plain as the or blanket wrapped round the head, so hieroglyphics of ancient nations. And, as to be able to breathe, the traveler indeed, hieroglyphics were not used ex- must wait until the storm subsides. clusively in ancient times. On the rocks Most of this great territory is utterly near many of the water reservoirs may uninhabitable, though there are valuable be seen modern ones, cut or scratched mineral deposits, and some mines are by the Indians. Several of the figures being worked for gold, silver, and copare plain enough, such as the figure of a per. Fine specimens of iron ore are man, of a mountain sheep, of a serpent, found, and no doubt other valuable of a tree; some mathematical figures mines will be discovered and worked. and others are not so easily understood. There is plenty of timber for fuel, the Whether these were made simply for iron-wood especially making a very hot amusement, or as records, or for the fire and lasting a long time. Wells can sake of indicating where water could be be dug, or cisterns built for the accumfound, I had no means of ascertaining. ulation of rain-water, to supply the needs
The climate of this region is of a tor- of men and animals, perhaps enough for rid and desert character. From April crushing and working ores. By a small to November the thermometer ranges expenditure of money and engineering from 90° to 120° in the shade; while the skill, great changes could be produced, heat of the sun, combined with the re- and a large part of this territory redeemflection from the bare sandy ground, is ed from its present worthless condition.