I knew Joseph R. Walker was a mountain man who happened to be buried in Martinez. I wrote about him years ago when we were working on the historic prevalence papers. I believe I referred to this picture as a “Dreamy Mona Lisa with a beard.” Ha! But I never realized before how very important he was to the eventual settlement of California. It’s not a stretch to say we might not even be here if it wasn’t for him.
He was the first white man to cross the Humbolt Sink in Nevada. The first to find a pass over the Sierras. The first white man to stand in Yosemite. And although he is fairly forgotten by history, he was considered the greatest of fur trappers in his day.
He was a big man, 6 feet 2 and 220 lbs – but a thoughtful, unboastful, determined man who was said to never drink more than a toast. He was fair and cautious in his treatment of natives, but brutal if he felt they wronged him. While he never earned the fame of Bonneville (Who got Washington Irving to write his memoirs) or Fremont (who is famed for naming Tahoe) he was regarded as a remarkable leader of men and encouraged the most loyal regard by those who served him. The saying was that he only lost a single man in all his travels and that man had been attacked by a grizzly bear, not an indian.
Given our current political fray I found this quote about Fremont, attributed to Walker, amusing.
“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.”
Yikes! That’s kind of respectable and catty at the same time. (Kind of like those leaked emails of Colin Powell.) Fremont was a complicated character in his own right, with his notable achievements including taking over as Governor of California, getting court marshaled for insubordination, being one of the new states first senators, and eventually running for president on an antislavery platform for the GOP.
Different story. Different day.
Back to our hero, I guess compared to Walker lots of men were short on courage. He was just 34 when Bonneville retained him to do a reconnaissance mission in ‘Alta California’ – which is what the Mexicans who were in charge of it called the territory. Since they were asking him to spy on another country Bonneville got him a Mexican passport before sending him out the door. Walker’s disguise was a fur trapper so he hired 60 grizzled others to look the part. They traveled down the Green River in Utah to the Humbolt in Nevada to the edge of the Sierras. They had been assured they would find the “Bonaventura” which was supposed to flow from Utah to the Pacific. Guess how true that turned out to be? Unfortunately it was already November by the time they started their ascent of the Sierras and conditions quickly went from bad to miserable.
Here’s how a nice article in the Half Moon Bay Review recently described it
Growing short of food for themselves and feed for their animals, they moved ahead. What followed as they made their assault on the mountains is a truly California story. Their animals began to starve. The air was thin. Their wool and fur-lined clothing was little match for the snow and freezing wet cold. Most of all, the unknown way forward became a brew of uncertainty and fear, even for these seasoned men.
Walker needed to use both reason and inspiration. As they neared the highest ridges in mid-November they were also approaching the very edge of their ability to survive. They began eating their horses. There was talk of mutiny and retreat. They began to wonder whether they were more likely to survive by going forward or by retracing their steps in retreat.
The part about eating their horses stuck in my craw the first time I read this. I guess because they theoretically were there to hunt beavers which they were just tossing away after they skinned them. Apparently during dire times mountain men were known to eat horses, mules, dogs, and their native guides – not to mention sucking what little nutrients they could glean from their beaver skins, leather fringes or moccasins. Apparently they were on the original Paleo diet, gorging on barely cooked meat and fat when it was available and not eating much of anything else.
Suffice it to say our noble captain lead his men through an eventual pass and they left the snow to camp under the really big trees of Yosemite. He eventually discovered “Walker Pass” and opened all California for discovery. After Joseph and his friends had trapped out beaver they rented themselves as guides to the pioneers heading west.
He lived to the remarkable age of 80 and eventually went to live with his nephew on a ranch on Mount Diablo.
And so it came to pass that the most famed beaver trapper of his day was buried in the town of the most famous beavers in the nation which happened to be the home town of the most famous conservationist ever and where he was visited by the author of the most famous beaver book ever.
Because … castor coincidence.
- Belated note. RIP to early Martinez Beaver supporter Paul L. Wilson who died peacefully and with family yesterday. Paul was the city watchdog and always ready to make sure they did the right thing. You will be missed.