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The Anza-Borrego Desert

The Anza-Borrego Desert is an arm of the Colorado Desert, on the eastern edge of San Diego County. It's best known for the huge Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- the largest state park in the lower 48.

I've been tramping around the Anza-Borrego since the 1970s. The desert is a place that seems to beg to be explored, with its long vistas stretching off to the horizon, and its winding canyons with the hint of new surprises around every curve. It's a place I never get tired of.

--Phil Brigandi


Old Borego. . . The Historic Heart of the Borrego Valley

The first homesteaders began to arrive in the Borrego Valley around 1910. The valley was isolated, hemmed in by rugged mountains on three sides. Going to town for supplies meant at least a five-day round-trip to Brawley, or the long climb up Grapevine Canyon and on to Ramona. But slowly, a little community began to develop. In the mid-1920s a road was opened up through Sentenac Canyon, and the Ensign family put down the first deep well in the valley, attracting more settlers to the area.

1928 was a banner year for the Borrego Valley. The first public school opened in the valley; a local voting precinct was established; the first chamber of commerce, the Borego Boosters Club, was formed; San Diego County assigned a deputy sheriff to the area; and on March 1, 1928 the Borego Post Office was created. ("Borego" -- with just one "r" -- was how the old timers always spelled the name.)

The first postmaster was Eslie Wynn, an Azusa jeweler who had taken up a homestead in the southeastern part of the valley around 1918. The original Borego post office was located in his home. Wynn's place was close to where the old roads past Borrego and Barrel springs met the road over the hills from the Narrows that connected with the new Sentenac Canyon route (which later became Hwy. 78). With the post office there, Wynn's homestead became a natural meeting place for the residents of the valley. This was the start of Old Borego.

Wynn was quick to take advantage of the increased traffic. Before the year was out, he installed a gas pump in front of his home, and opened the first gas station in the valley. In the spring of 1929, Wynn had a new building built opposite his home, and moved the post office across the way. That September, he opened the valley's first store in the new building. His clerk was homesteader Herbert LaNiece. The county also established a branch library in the store building, and Mrs. LaNiece agreed to serve as librarian. Later, around 1935, a separate little library building was built north of the store.

The mail for Borego came down from Julian two days a week, and local residents could pick up their letters at Wynn's post office. Henry Nelson, was the first to drive the mail, and also carried passengers and freight. Milo Porter, who homesteaded near the mouth of Henderson Canyon in 1927, hauled the mail from October, 1928 to June, 1930. "He got $60 a month," his widow, Lelah recalled, "and furnished his own transportation and his own gasoline."

Fred Robinson had the contract next, but gave it up in February of 1932 to become road foreman for the new Borego Township.

Eslie Wynn continued to expand his commercial enterprises. In 1933 he built a garage north of the store building. His mechanic, it seems, was James Thomson, a recent arrival from Los Angeles. In 1932, Wynn concluded that hauling the mail paid more than serving as postmaster, and since the government wouldn't allow him to hold both jobs, he resigned as postmaster on March 1st and started making the twice a week run to Julian. James Thomson became Borego's new postmaster, but after his wife's death in 1934, he decided to leave the valley, resigning as postmaster on July 31, 1934. His replacement was Glenn DuVall, who had proved up a homestead near Clark Dry Lake in 1929.

Eslie Wynn drove the mail until January, 1935, when he died of a heart attack after a heated argument with a pair of prospectors who had rented some burros from him and never paid him. Milo Porter took over the mail contract again, and held it until July, 1938, when he left the valley for Julian. Glenn DuVall continued both as postmaster and storekeeper, and was soon joined by his younger brother, Edward. They promised customers "a good line of staple groceries" and fresh vegetables every Saturday.

When Glenn DuVall got married in the summer of ‘36, he left the valley, and Eddie DuVall took over the store and the postmastership. Eddie DuVall got married about that same time. His wife, Alta, first came to the valley on a Sierra Club field trip. She taught school in Los Angeles for most of the rest of the decade.

What little other commercial development there was in the valley then was mostly centered around Old Borego. In 1930 Frank Osborne built a little store and trailer camp on his homestead south of DuVall's, near what is now the northwest corner of Yaqui Pass and Borrego Springs roads. He also sold gasoline at times. Osborne remained in the valley until around 1936. The Yaqui Pass Road was built in 1934-35 to connect with the new state highway through the Narrows. It was paved by the military during World War II -- the first paved road in the valley. Across from Osborne's, Noel Crickmer opened the valley's first hotel, the Desert Lodge, in 1939. Greatly expanded, it survives today as La Casa del Zorro. Crickmer's original adobe is now a part of the lobby.

The Borego Post Office survived until July 31, 1940, when it was discontinued due to lack of business. The population in the valley had dropped by more than two-thirds during the Depression; by 1943, it had sunk so low that the Borego School had to close for a year. Mail for the few remaining residents came on a star route from Julian, with Al Mathes doing the driving.

Eddie DuVall kept the store going, though. His son, Denny, recalls how his father would take his ‘35 Ford and haul a trailer out to San Diego to load up with merchandise for the store. "He'd come back, and the rear bumper would be about six inches off the ground!" he says. During this time, Eddie also served as Deputy Sheriff for the valley. Besides the store, he had several small rental cottages nearby, and in 1948 he even expanded the place, building an addition between the store and the garage.

After World War II, things began to pick up again in the valley. Electricity arrived in 1945, and in 1947, the new community of Borrego Springs went on the market, shifting the center of valley affairs northwest to Christmas Circle. In 1949, Borrego Springs got its own post office, and the new (and proper) spelling became official. Eddie DuVall always aggressively resisted the new spelling of Borrego, and kept his "Borego" Store open until the late 1950s. Even on into the 1960s, he kept a supply of auto parts on hand, and still did a little business now and then. Eddie DuVall finally died in 1973.

Old Borego has long since passed into other hands, but fortunately many of the historic buildings there have been preserved by her current owners. The stone portion of Eslie Wynn's original home and post office is the oldest surviving building in the valley, and DuVall's Borego Store was a local landmark for decades. Although it is no longer the center of the community, Old Borego remains the historic heart of the Borrego Valley -- a reminder of the pioneer heritage that forms the foundation for modern Borrego Springs.


More About Old Borego

A Place Called Borego. Homesteader Days in the Borrego Valley 

Borrego Valley Pioneer Register

During my research on the early days in Borrego Valley I collected information on as many of the early settlers as I could. Click here to see my brief summary of these homesteaders, cattlemen, farmers, oilworkers, and even a few real estate boosters. 


Along the Southern Emigrant Trail

In 2001, a delightful thing happened -- the California/Nevada chapter of the Oregon California Trails Association agreed to come to Southern California, and hold their annual convention in Temecula. One of the many things I learned that weekend is that the naming, classifying, and rating of historic trails is a serious business with those "rut hounds." To the layman, it seems almost like a competition.

Having said that, I still think the Southern Emigrant Trail has not been given its due. The trail crossed some of the most rugged country in the West. It was used by a wide range of travelers, and remained in use for decades. Yet it has been largely ignored when the history of our overland trails has been written.

The Southern Emigrant Trail began as a dozen or more trails crossing Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, gradually merging, and finally becoming a single trail along the Gila River. The trail crossed the Colorado River at Yuma, dipped down into Mexico to avoid the sand dunes east of El Centro, crossed the border again near Calexico, and then set off across some of the bleakest desert I know.

After 45 barren miles, the trail finally reached the alkali trickle of Carrizo Creek. Vallecito was the next important stop, then on up San Felipe to Warners Ranch. Here the trail divided, one branch leading to San Diego, the other to Los Angeles by way of Aguanga, Temecula, and the Temescal Canyon.

The trail as we know it today first came into use in the 1820s, while California was still a part of Mexico. American trappers followed the route during the 1830s. Beginning in 1846, soldiers took to the trail during the dark days of the Mexican War. Kearney came through on his way to defeat at San Pasqual. Cooke and the Mormon Battalion pushed through with wagons.

Then gold was found at Sutter's Mill, and for a few years, the Southern Emigrant Trail was a busy thoroughfare -- the only all-year overland route to California. First came the Mexican miners from Sonora and other areas. Then the American ‘49ers. It has been estimated that roughly a fourth of miners who came overland that year came by way of the Southern Emigrant Trail.

All those hungry miners lured ranchers onto the trail. Cattle by the thousands, sheep by the tens of thousands were driven across the trail in the 1850s from as far away as Texas. Losses were high, but the profits were even higher.

The Butterfield Overland Mail followed this route through Southern California from 1858-62 -- at 2,700 miles, the longest stage route in the world. Soldiers returned with the coming of the Civil War to defend California, while Confederate troops came as close as Arizona.

It was not until the Southern Pacific railroad completed its line through the Coachella Valley in 1877 that travel on the Southern Emigrant Trail finally faded.

But the trail survived as a regional trail through Southern California and Arizona. As previously detailed in these pages, the last big cattle drive from Arizona was run by the Vails in 1890. When the Imperial Valley opened up after the arrival of irrigation water in 1901, homesteaders set off down the trail; a few others stopped along the way to settle (largely unsuccessfully) around Carrizo and Vallecito.

Modern roads replaced more and more of the old trail in the early 1900s. For more than half a century, the Imperial Highway Association pushed for the creation of a truck route, connecting the rich farmlands of the Imperial Valley with the cities of Los Angeles and Orange counties. Still, it was not until 1962 that the last of the old trail through the Anza-Borrego Desert was replaced by a paved road. Today, the Southern Emigrant Trail is just a memory. 

More on the Southern Emigrant Trail

A general overview of 150+ years of travel across the desert, originally published in The Branding Iron (the historical quarterly of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners), Fall 2009. An expanded version was later published in Overland Journal, the journal of the California Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.



Sebastián Tarabal

The story of Sebastián Tarabal casts a unique light on some of the early Spanish explorations in Southern California. Best known as Anza's Indian guide, Tarabal played  brief, but important role in our history.

Tarabal was a Cochimí Indian from Baja California, born about 1745. As a young man, he lived at Mission Santa Gertrudes, about halfway down the peninsular on the gulf side. From there, he was one of a number of Indian recruited to come to "Alta" California in 1769 with Father Serra to help found the new missions here.

Tarabal returned to Baja California in 1770, but in 1773 he and his wife, Maria Dolores Tarabal, agreed to head north again. They were placed at the Mission San Gabriel, where they worked to till the fields and build the new mission.

But Tarabal was not happy. Father Francisco Lasuén, who had brought one of the groups of Indians north with him in 1773, recalled a few years later that the "Indians from Lower California ... were disconsolate, with good reason. By virtue of an agreement entered into with the Dominican Fathers and by reason of their love for me, they became exiles from their own land so that they might work for the improvement and enrichment of this."

"It is they ... who put the mission on their way to prosperity.... Despite all this, they are treated like stepchildren.... [T]hey work harder and receive less in return than in their own country."

Finally, Tarabal decided to flee. In October, 1773 he and his wife and another young man (perhaps his brother-in-law) left San Gabriel, heading south. Rather than travel by the trails the Spanish used along the coast, they turned inland, across the San Jacinto Valley and down Coyote Canyon to the Anza-Borrego Desert.

It was a tragic journey. Lost in the sand dunes of the Imperial Valley for days without water, Tarabal's wife and the other young man died. Only Tarabal finally made it to the Yuma villages on the Colorado River. There, Chief Palma took charge of him and took him to the Spanish settlements in Arizona, perhaps hoping for a reward. They arrived the day after Christmas, 1773.

As it happened, Juan Bautista de Anza was just making preparations to try to find a new overland route to California across the desert. When he heard an Indian had arrived who had just made the same trip, he sent for him.

"As a runaway," historian Herbert Bolton wrote, "he probably expected a beating. Instead, he was welcomed by the captain and mustered into his service. For more than two years this wanderer - El Peregrino he was called - played a conspicuous part in pathfinding."

One wonders if Anza gave Tarabal much of a choice?

Barely two weeks later, Anza and his men set off for the Colorado River. But once they had crossed into California, Tarabal proved to be a poor guide. He had been lost for days, and didn't recognize a thing until they reached a salty marsh at the confluence of San Felipe and Carrizo creeks. Tarabal was sure he had been there on his trip south. Anza was so pleased that he named the spot San Sebastián.

Tarabal also served Anza as an interpreter, and was sometimes sent out to meet with the local Indians ahead of the main party. They followed his route across the Borrego Valley, and up Coyote Canyon to climb out of the desert. (The exact route was forgotten in later years, but when Dr. Bolton identified it in the 1920s, the little town near the top of the pass changed its name to Anza.)

In March, 1774 Tarabal found himself back at Mission San Gabriel. He never seems to have been punished for his escape. Even Father Serra, writing about him a few days later, does not condemn him.

But El Peregrino's wanderings were not over yet. After a few weeks rest, he joined one of the priests from the expedition, Father Francisco Garces, on his return to the Yuma villages, exploring the territory along the way. When Anza returned, Tarabal followed him back to Arizona, and remained there for almost a year and a half until Anza set out on his second expedition - this time with a group of California colonists and cattle. No longer needed as a guide, Tarabal helped tend to the pack mules on this trip.

Father Garces came along again as well, but he left the main party in February, 1776. Quite a wanderer in his own right, he wanted to find a more northerly route across the desert to California, and perhaps all the way to New Mexico. Dr. Bolton called "one of the epic journeys of all North American history." And Sebastián Tarabal went with him.

They traveled up the river as far as the Mohave villages near Needles, then secured an Indian guide to take them across the Mojave Desert, eventually crossing the Cajon Pass and returning once again to Mission San Gabriel. Then they headed north into the San Joaquin Valley, then over the Tehachapis and back across the desert to the Mohave villages.

At this point, Father Garces wanted to try for New Mexico. But after 1,200 miles, Tarabal had finally had enough, and refused to go, "for all that I begged him to do so," Garces wrote. So Father Garces asked Tarabal to wait for him on the river as he headed east.

But Garces was soon turned back by hostile Indians. When he returned to Mohave villages in July, 1776, he found Tarabal gone. He had given away the items Garces had left in his care and moved on.

"This is the last we hear of Sebastián," Dr. Bolton notes, and ... El Peregrino disappears into ... history." He was, says historian John W. Robinson, "one of those mysterious figures in history who seem to come from nowhere, shine briefly, then fade into obscurity" He was a "poor guide" for Anza, but a "loyal companion" to Father Garces.

Coyote Canyon Notes

A Natural Route of Travel

It was the animals that first passed through Coyote Canyon, long before man ever set foot in this area. Later, generations of Indians traveled its well-worn paths. The first Spanish explorers seem to have found their way through the canyon in 1772, and in 1774 Coyote Canyon became a link in the famous Anza Trail. For a few brief years this was the principal overland route into California, but an Indian uprising on the Colorado River in 1781 closed the trail to the Spanish.

By the late 19th Century, cattlemen, prospectors, and other desert travelers were following the canyon's trails. The first recorded automobile -- a Hupmobile -- rattle through the canyon in 1924, and for more than 50 years there was talk of building a highway through the canyon.

By the 1940s, four-wheel drive tourists had discovered the canyon's beauties. But to protect the rich riparian habitat of Lower Willows, a by-pass road was built south of the creek through Cow Trail Canyon in 1988. Then in 1996, the Middle Willows area was closed to vehicular traffic. Now only trails traverse the entire canyon -- just as it was centuries ago.

The Joel Reed Homestead

On January 3, 1888, Joel Reed filed a claim for 160 acres near Santa Catarina Spring, near Lower Willows. Reed was often challenged in his possession of the area; first by Bill Fain in the late 1880s, and then by John Collins in the early 1900s. Collins had brought his family to the valley that bears his name in the late 1890s. He insisted that Reed's original claim was faulty, and in 1902 attempted to file his own homestead on top of it. What happened next is debated, but it seems that both men tried to run the other out, and in the end both of their cabins were burned to the ground. Collins left the valley, and not long after, the Land Office denied his homestead, certifying that Reed did indeed own the land.

Reed had long since moved up to the Anza area, but after the fire he built a second cabin in Coyote Canyon that became a regular stopping place for cattlemen and prospectors, especially the Clark brothers from Anza, who had been running cattle in the canyon since the eraly 1890s. Around 1915, Reed built a third cabin, which survived on into the 1960s. An old eucalyptus tree still marks the site. Sometime in the 1920s, Reed moved back to his home state of Mississippi, where he passed away a few years later. He was a distant cousin of cowboy historian Lester Reed, who writes about him in all of his books.

Beaty Ranch / Horse Camp

Alfred Armstrong "Doc" Beaty came to Borrego in 1912 and established a homestead across from the present airport. In 1913, he filed a Desert Land Act claim at the mouth of Coyote Canyon. Doc cleared the land and raised alfalfa, watered by a series of diversion dams, irrigation ditches, and reservoirs. By 1921, Doc had about 25 acres under cultivation.

Doc tried to sell his ranch several times in the 1920s, but the deals always fell through. Finally, he found a buyer with both the interest and the cash. In 1931, Doc sold the ranch to a group of Los Angeles investors. They named the place the 1000 Palms Ranch, and leased it to various farmers, who planted tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables.

In 1933, developer Dana Burks bought the ranch and renamed it the Rancho de Anza. In 1934 he sold out to Albert Ahern and Donald Armstrong, who also acquired 1,000 more acres in the mouth of the canyon. Tomatoes and alfalfa remaiend the major crop. Ahern built a home on the ranch in 1937, which still stands.

In 1936, A.A. Burnand, Jr. purchased an interest in the ranch, later buying out his partners. He planted Thompson Seedless grapes in 1937, but the vineyard was washed out before the vines matured. Sometime before 1945, he also built a home on the ranch, which had the great desert luxury of a swimming pool. It also survives. Burnand fell in love with the desert, and went on to found the modern community of Borrego Springs in 1947.


A Desert Cattle Drive of 1890

The last major cattle drive into California on the old Southern Emigrant Trail was in 1890, though the trip is better remembered for another reason.

In the 1880s, Walter L. Vail was one of the leading cattlemen in Arizona. His massive Empire Ranch east of Tucson controlled most of the grazing for hundreds of square miles. In 1888 he decided to expand his operations into Southern California, beginning with a lease on the historic Warner Ranch in Northern San Diego County. He used the Southern Pacific railroad to move stock between the two ranches, shipping the cattle to Beaumont, and then driving them down to Warners.

In the fall of 1889 the Southern Pacific railroad suddenly increased their shipping rates into Southern California by about 25%. Arizona ranchers protested, but the SP refused to back down. In retaliation, the cattlemen decided to go back to driving their herds overland across the desert, as they had before the railroad was built in the 1870s.

Walter Vail took the lead in organizing the first drive. His brother, Ed Vail, got the job of actually accompanying the cattle on the trail, along with Empire Ranch foreman Tom Turner, seven or eight Mexican cowboys, and a Chinese cook. Ed Vail started a diary of the trip, describing their preparations. Supplies for the drive included flour, baking powder, beans, sugar, coffee, tea, matches, six cakes of soap, oil, molasses, salt, lard, bacon and beef. Vail lists the cowboys as Chappo, Nestor, Francisco, George Lopez, Jose Lopez, Jesus Elias, and Rafael.

On January 29, 1890, they set off from the Empire Ranch with 917 head. The 65-day trip that followed was typical of many of the old cattle drives, but hardly uneventful. The cattle stampeded several times, and often 100 or more head would stray. Over the course of the drive, 71 cows were lost -- many in the brushy areas along the Colorado River.

Crossing the Colorado itself was a challenge. It was a wet winter, and the river was running high. Vail and Turner selected a spot south of Yuma to swim the cattle across. They hired Indian workers to dig a cut in the ten-foot high bank. Two hundred thirty head refused to swim in the deep, swift current, and Vail was forced to pay to have them shipped over the SP bridge across the river. "It would no doubt have been cheaper to have shipped all our cattle across the bridge at $2.50 a carload," Ed Vail later wrote, "but we did not like the idea of depending on the railroad in any way on the drive."

"Between nine hundred and a thousand head of beef steers, in charge of that enterprising and extensive cattle dealer, Mr. E.H. Vail, arrived here on Saturday last," the Yuma Times reported. "They were forced to swim the Colorado River about three miles south of Yuma and are now on their way across the Colorado desert, overland. Three only were lost by drowning. This is Mr. Vail's second trip across the desert. He had our wishes for as successful a drive as was his last."

After crossing the river, another 113 head that were faltering were cut out and sent on by rail before they reached the worst stretch of the old Southern Emigrant Trail -- eleven days from Pilot Knob to Carrizo Creek. Shortly after they left the river, around March 17, two young men rode up on a couple of very thin horses. They gave their names as Will and Frank Thompson, and asked if they could join the men in crossing the desert. Vail agreed, provided they did their share driving the herd. So the boys went to work, and got on well with the other cowboys.

There were several dry camps from Pilot Knob to the New River, then about 25 dry miles to Carrizo -- the longest dry stretch of the trip.

"From our camp at New River we drove to Indian Wells, north of Signal Mountain," Vail wrote in 1922. "Late on the next day we started for Carrizo Creek, which marks the western boundary of the desert. This was the longest drive without water we had to make in crossing the Colorado Desert. I think it was about forty miles. Our cattle had done well while camped at New River as there was more pasture for them there than at any place on the trail since we left the Empire Ranch. The country was open so we loose-herded them....

"We drove frequently at night as the days were warm on the desert. We hung a lantern on the tailboard of our wagon and our lead steers would follow it like soldiers. Before we had reached Yuma only one man was necessary on guard; so we changed every three hours, which gave the men more sleep, but it was rather a lonesome job for the fellow that had to watch the cattle.

"The road had a decided grade as it approached the mountains and there was much heavy sand most of the way which made it very tiresome. I am not quite sure how long we were making that part of the drive, as we had to rest the cattle every few hours. When we reached Carrizo we found a shallow stream of water in a wash, the banks of which were white with alkali. Not only the stream, but the hills, barren of all vegetation, were full of the same substance. I never saw a more desolate place in my life. In all of Arizona there is nothing to compare with it that I know of."

The men finally reached the old Butterfield station at Carrizo on March 28, 1890, and turned the cattle out to graze.

The next day, Vail was surprised to see a carriage rolling into camp from the north. On board were Sheriff Gray of Maricopa County in Arizona, a deputy sheriff named Slankert, a rancher from Phoenix, and their driver. Sheriff Gray pulled Vail aside, and told him the two boys who had joined his cattle drive had stolen several horses from the rancher. They had tracked them as far as Yuma, then taken the train to Temecula and driven down to intercept them.

"I knew if the boys were sure that the men were officers there would be bloodshed at once," Vail recalled. "It was a very unpleasant position for me as I really felt a good deal of sympathy for the brothers." But at Sheriff Gray's insistence, he introduced the men as miners, and invited them to supper.

"Both boys were in camp," Vail wrote in his diary, "and after stopping about an hour the Sheriff and his deputies had a chance and making a rush on the boys disarmed them and ordered

them to surrender at the point of the sixshooter. One of them made a run and was shot dead by one of the deputies, the ball passing through his back and heart."

In his 1922 recollections, Vail described the scene in more detail:

"...I was standing on one side of the chuck wagon and the elder brother was leaning on the tailboard, with the other brother standing near the front wheel on the opposite side of the wagon from me, I suddenly heard a scuffle and when I looked up I saw the sheriff and another man grab the older boy and take his gun. His deputy and an assistant were holding his brother on the other side of the wagon. They had quite a struggle and young Fox pulled away from them, ran around the wagon past me with the deputy in pursuit. He had run about a hundred yards up a sandy gulch when the deputy, who was quite close to the boy, suddenly raised his gun and fired. Young Fox dropped and never moved again. I was close behind the deputy, as I had followed him. When he turned towards me his six-shooter was still smoking and he wiped it with his handkerchief. ‘I hated to do it,' he said, ‘but you have to sometimes.'

"I was angry and shocked at his act, as it was the first time I had ever seen a man shot in the back. I then saw the other Fox boy walking towards his brother's body which was still lying on the ground. The officers who had him handcuffed tried to detain him, but he said, ‘Shoot me if you like, but I am going to my brother.' He walked over to where the body lay and looked at it. Then he asked me if we would bury his brother and I told him he could depend on us to do so.

"Then I told the sheriff there was no excuse for killing the boy as he could not get away in the kind of a country. He replied that he was sorry about what had happened, but said, ‘You know, Vail, that I got my man without killing him, and that it was impossible for me to prevent it, as I had my hands full with the other fellow at the time.'"

After he quieted down, the older brother admitted that their names were really Will and Frank Fox, and that they had fallen in with a band of desperadoes after accidentally witnessing one of their crimes. He claimed they traveled with them for several months before they stole some horses and headed for Mexico. But the law had been hot on their trail, so the gang broke up and the Fox boys ended up joining the Vail drive.

Sheriff Gray and his men soon left Carrizo, with Will Fox still handcuffed, sobbing and cursing. What are you going to do about the body? Turner asked one of the lawmen. ‘Why, he's all right. He can't get away,' he replied.

Before leaving Carrizo, the cowboys wrapped the younger Fox boy in a blanket and buried him where he fell under a pile of stones. Later someone set up a tall stone, and carved into it: "Frank Fox killed April 1 1890 age 15." That crude tombstone (and several replacements) has long-since vanished, but Frank Fox's grave can still be seen.

The San Diego Union (April 3, 1890) had nothing but praise for the lawmen -- "The whole thing was neatly done and reflects great credit on the Arizona Sheriff and his men." The San Diego Sun saw things a little differently. "The officers had no warrants allowing them to make arrests in California," they reported on April 19, "and the outrage is such that some official action by the proper authorities must be taken."

Will Fox is said to have spent a few years at old Yuma Territorial prison. After his release, he came out to the Empire Ranch, still swearing vengeance against Deputy Slankert. But the men talked him out trying to kill him. Tom Turner's nephew later claimed that Fox did kill Slankert, and showed up at the Empire Ranch "on a well-lathered horse," picked up a fresh mount, and hurried off, heading south. Not long after that, a posse arrived, but Turner told them he hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. That story seems unlikely, since Slankert lived several hundred miles away in Phoenix. Turner's nephew added that Fox soon "got a job on a cattle ranch in Mexico and later became the foreman of the ranch. He married and had a family down there."

The story of the shooting of Frank Fox was told and retold by desert cattlemen for years to come. Cowboy historian Lester Reed heard it while on his first cattle drive through Carrizo in 1910. Almost 75 years later he told me:

"Old Uncle Ed Vail said this young fellow...was running up this little gully here and this deputy was after him with his gun. Ed Vail was right behind the deputy, yelling, trying to get this deputy not to shoot. And he shot anyway and killed the fellow."

Five days after the shooting, the Vail cattle finally reached the Warner Ranch. Though they had lost 71 head, the drive was considered a success, and other Arizona cattlemen soon began planning their own cattle drives.

"A short time after our return," Vail recalled, "a meeting of cattlemen was called at the Palace Hotel (now the Occidental) in Tucson.... The object of the meeting was to consider the matter of establishing a safe trail for cattle from Tucson to California. From our experience I was able to make some suggestions, viz., to build a flat boat to ferry cattle across the Colorado River; to clean out the wells at the old stage stations on the Colorado Desert, and to put in tanks and watering troughs at each of them and if necessary to dig or drill more wells. Without delay all the money necessary for this work was subscribed.

"When the Southern Pacific Railroad Company had heard of the proposed meeting they asked permission to send a representative and the cattle association notified the company that the cattlemen would be pleased to have them do so. Therefore, the Southern Pacific agent at Tucson was present....

"Soon after our cattle meeting we received an official letter from the Southern Pacific Company saying that if we would make no more drives, the old freight rate would be restored on stock cattle. The company kept its promise and it held for many years. Therefore, the trail improvements were never made."

Local travel continued on the Southern Emigrant Trail, but the days of the great cattle drives to Southern California were at an end.

A Note on Sources...

Ed Vail (1849-1936) never tired of telling the story of his 1890 cattle drive, both in person and in print. Cowboy historian Lester Reed (1890-1984) remembered hearing it from him when he worked on the Vail Ranch in Temecula in the early 1930s. Reed later included the story in his first book, Old Time Cattleman and Other Pioneers of the Anza-Borrego Area (1963), though he mistakenly places it in 1886 -- perhaps because that was the year of Tom Turner's first drive to California. That error that has misled some later writers.

Mesa Grande pioneer Edward H. Davis (1862-1951) wrote the story for Desert Magazine in June, 1940 as a "Forgotten Tragedy of Carriso Creek." He first heard about the killing in the 1890s from some of Vail's men on the Warner Ranch. In his article, the date appears as 1882, apparently based on a tombstone that had marked the grave until just a few months before. Yet Davis knew better. In 1904 he had sketched the original tombstone and made notes about the story. His earlier account can be found in his notebooks, available on microfilm at the San Diego Historical Society's Research Archives.

Author Frank M. King retells the story in his book, Longhorn Trail Drivers (Los Angeles, 1940), supposedly based on Tom Turner's recollections, but seemingly drawn more from Ed Vail's published account.

Ed Vail first seems to have written up his recollections in 1922. They were published as "Diary of a Desert Trail" in The Arizona Daily Star in 12 installments from February 22 to March 9, 1922. An editor's note accompanying the first article places the drive in 1896, and a typographical error puts the SP rate increase in 1898, but Vail clearly states that they left on January 29, 1890.

These articles were revised and published as "The Diary of a Desert Trail" in Texasland magazine in three installments beginning in May, 1926. For some reason, the SP rate increase was placed in the fall of 1890, though the correct start date of January 29, 1890 follows. When this series was reprinted in 1973-74 in The High Country, someone decided to leave the first date uncorrected, and instead changed the departure date to 1891.

Fortunately, Ed Vail's original diary has survived, which combined with contemporary newspaper accounts destroys any doubt about the year of the big Vail cattle drive. His little pocket-sized "Excelsior Diary for 1890" can be found in Special Collections at the library of the University of Arizona in Tucson (AZ 271), along with an interesting collection of Empire Ranch Papers.


The Truckhaven Trail

"Traversing as it does a region resplendent with natural resources and scenic grandeur, this road should be traveled by all people who are looking for new fields to explore as the region opened up by this road has been traversed by very few men." -- Borego Valley correspondence, Ramona Sentinel, May 13, 1930.

The Truckhaven Trail was built in 1930 by the homesteaders in the Borrego Valley. It takes its name from the old Truckhaven service station, with stood for many years along Highway 86. A.A. "Doc" Beaty, one of the pioneer settlers in the valley was the driving force behind its construction.

For several years, local ranchers had been trying to get the County of San Diego to build a road into the valley. When their pleas were ignored, they decided to take matters into their own hands. The closest paved road was Highway 99 (now Hwy. 86) along the shores of the Salton Sea, so that's where they decided to go.

Plans for the road were laid late in 1929, and in January, 1930 the Borego Valley Chamber of Commerce voted to back the project. Funds were raised and volunteers recruited, and work began early in 1930.

As the road stretched further and further out across the Borrego Badlands, a construction camp was established in Arroyo Salada, near 17 Palms, so that the men would not have to come all the back to the valley each night. The local women took turns cooking for the road crew.

Lelah Porter (1906-2001), who came to Borrego in 1927 with her husband, Milo, recalled:

"This end of it was just a matter of grading, and they did a lot of it with Fresnos.* Doc had a couple of teams and they did a lot of it by hand. But when they got over to the Imperial County side they ran into those deep washes. Now they bridge those. Mile worked on it when they were building there and they had to go with the Fresnos down the side of those washes. You don't go straight down, you angle down, then they'd turn and angle up the other side. There were three of them. I think it took as much time to build the road through those three canyons as it did to build the rest of the road, if I remember right."

(* A Fresno scrapper was a simple metal scoop, hitched to a horse or mule to move dirt. The old ranchers used them for digging, leveling, and all sorts of earthmoving.)

According to a May 1, 1930 accounting, the new road had already cost $640, with four miles left to go. Doc Beaty had paid another $118 out of his own pocket. The total cost was something under $1,000.

On June 22, 1930, a barbeque was held at Doc Beaty's ranch at the mouth of Coyote Canyon to celebrate the completion of the road. More than 100 people attended.

Even when new, the road left a lot to be desired. "It was a slow road," Lelah Porter recalled. "I don't suppose you could drive over 20 miles an hour over it, if you could drive that fast." And parts of the road were forever washing out when it rained.

Two years later, Highway 78 was completed south of the valley, and in 1934 the Yaqui Pass Road was built to shorten the distance even more. The Truckhaven Trail soon fell into disuse and disrepair. Still, it was not until 1968 that the current Borrego-Salton Seaway (S-22) was built to replace it.

* * *

At the celebration of the completion of the Truckhaven Trail in 1930, homesteader Nora Carpenter read an original poem she had written for the occasion. I got a copy from Doc Beaty's daughter, Fleta McCandless, in the 1980s:

Welcome, friends, to our Borego

We're not far from San Diego

But it's quite a little journey to L.A.

And the road was so durned pore

It made Boregoans good and sore

So they up and built this shorter better way....


So the men all got together

Didn't stop for any weather

For they worked in rain and snow and in the blazing sun

Grubbed the cactus, scraped the sands

Got big blisters on their hands

Worked like demons ‘till they got this road all done.


And when it was hot as hades

To the road camp came the ladies,

Two by two, and ran the cook stove with a snap

Fed the men on such good chow

They could do their work - and how

Thus they helped to put Borego on the map.


Everyone deserves great praise

All have helped, in various ways

Our "Doc" Beaty was the one to start the load

Then the rest at his appeals

Put their shoulders to the wheels

And today we all may ride along this road


"All roads lead to Rome" twas said,

Tho' this saying's long been dead

We can use it here in county San Diego

If we all with one accord

Pull just like a brand new Ford

Until ‘tis said all roads lead to Borego.


The Mollie Mine

Little has been written about mining on the Anza-Borrego Desert, and even less about the Mollie Mine, on the southern slopes of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Mollie Clark was a niece of A.A. "Doc" Beaty, one of the first settlers in the Borrego Valley. Her husband Frank (no relation to the cattlemen Clarks of Clark Dry Lake) seems to have been out prospecting on the desert as early as 1928. In 1930, he located a promising vein of quartz high up on the east side of Palo Verde Wash. This part of the desert had just been made more accessible by the completion of the Truckhaven Trail, and Frank and Mollie built a home in a little cove along the wash, and lived there for perhaps two years.

Lelah Porter (1906-2001), a Borrego homesteader of 1927, remembered visiting the Clarks at their Palo Verde home back around 1930. "Their house was on a ledge on the right side of the canyon," she recalled, "it wasn't very big." But it had a nice ramada on one side, where they could sit and talk.

"Mollie was the dominant one," Lelah said. "She went to a seer, and he or she told her they would find gold there. She was very optimistic, and felt sure they were going to find something. I don't think Frank was so optimistic."

Still, Frank Clark did a lot of digging for one man. He blasted back two adits, each about 50 feet long, cutting along either side of the quartz vein. He didn't move any more rock than he had to though -- there is little head room in much of the mine.

The Clarks gave up in 1931 or ‘32. Did they ever find any gold? Lelah Porter never heard they did, "of course," she pointed out, "that's something nobody's going to tell, because if it got out, they'd be over run with gold seekers."

Over the years, the Clarks faded from memory. Mollie became Molly, then Moly, and some people decided it must have been a molybdenum mine. But Mollie or Moly, the mine remains -- an interesting part of Anza-Borrego's history.


The First Anza-Borrego Desert guidebook

Dr. Horace Parker (1913-1977) was the first person to attempt a guidebook for tourists visiting the biggest state park in the lower 48 states. To appreciate the significance (and difficulty) of what he did, you have to understand what a vast, mysterious place Anza-Borrego was in the 1950s. Dr. Parker spent three years and drove thousands of miles exploring the park, and yet still did not feel qualified to cover all of it. (Fortunately, Ranger Bill Kenyon stepped in to offer much of the material on the southern end of the park.)

Dr. Parker's book is not a step-by-step guide. Instead, it is a descriptive overview of the different parts of the park. It can be read with interest even if you never set foot in the park.

First published in 1957, the Anza-Borrego Desert Guide Book proved an immediate success, and sold by the thousands. Dr. Parker later published two revised editions (1963, 1969), each including more text and photos. It remained the standard park guidebook until the original Lindsay guide appeared in 1978.

In 1979, the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association brought out a new edition of Dr. Parker's book, revised by George and Jean Leetch (but still retaining much of Dr. Parker's original prose). It is long since out of print.

In 1957, Dr. Parker wrote:

"Many areas of the Anza-Borrego State Park have not yet been fully explored. Mazes of badland washes beckon to the adventurous. New springs and seeps are occasionally found. There is always that fascination of taking a look around the bend of some canyon or wash, where a new and unrecorded sight may be lurking."

Dr. Parker's guidebook encouraged thousands of people to pursue that sense of discovery, and helped to open up the park to the people it was set aside for. And almost 50 years later, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is still big enough and mysterious enough to make his words ring true.


Peg Leg Smith

For more than 50 years now, storytellers have been spinning tall tales around the campfire at the Pegleg Smith monument just outside of Borrego Springs.

The Pegleg Smith story starts with a real man, Thomas L. Smith, a mountain, trapper, and occasional horse thief, who claimed to have found a vast lode of gold while crossing the desert into Southern California sometime back around 1830. Smith, who lived until 1866, never could find the gold again, but he did find that he could sell his story to other gold seekers, and keep himself in beer and beans. It's Pegleg the storyteller whose memory we celebrate in the contest.

The Pegleg Smith Liars Contest starts with a real character, Harry Oliver (1888-1973), an Academy Award nominated set designer who found his way to the Borrego Desert back in the 1920s. Some folks will remember his five-page desert newspaper, the Desert Rat Scrapbook, which was published for more than 20 years. Others will remember Old Fort Oliver at 1000 Palms, his handmade adobe landmark.

Harry soon fell for the Pegleg story, and by the 1930s began inviting his desert pals over once a year to trade tall tales. In 1948, the contest went public, and Oliver added a New Years Day lost mine trek into the Borrego Badlands, seeking Pegleg's mythical gold.

The contest was a big hit, and in 1952 a rival contest began a few months earlier each year. Harry gave up in ‘54, but the second contest survived until 1960.

The Liars Contest was revived in 1975 under the leadership of Diana Lindsay, author of several books on the Anza-Borrego Desert. Retired Hemet newspaperman Bill Jennings served as master of ceremonies for more than 25 years, a job I took over in 2005. Simply honesty forces me to admit that I have won the contest four times since 1986, tied for first another time, and even won the title in abstentia in ‘93. That makes me the leading liar in the history of the contest.

As I always say, I lie for five minutes each year, just to get it out of my system.

The Legend of Pegleg Smith

My attempt to trace the origin and spread of the tale of Pegleg Smith’s lost gold. Published in The Branding Iron (the historical quarterly of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners), Spring 2012.

Hint: If you’re looking for clues, you won’t find them here.


Harry Oliver, the Old Desert Rat 

A little something I wrote that's ended up on a couple websites: 

Harry Oliver in Borrego


Randall Henderson and the Rise and Fall of Desert Magazine


A brief account of one of the Desert Southwest’s seminal publications, written for The Branding Iron (the historical quarterly of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners), Winter 2006.

Randall Henderson and Marshal South

Two recent books by University of Arizona scholar Peter Wild deal with related topics -- and treat them in similar ways. Desert Magazine: The Randall Henderson Years (2004) and Marshal South of Yaquitepec (2005) are both thought-provoking and disappointing.

Despite what its title suggests, Desert Magazine: The Henderson Years can hardly be considered a historical narrative. Instead, it is really an extended essay; not so much about Henderson or his magazine, as about what Wild thinks about them. And what he thinks about them is often not very pleasant.

With the simple addition of an introduction explain his purpose (a useful part of any book), Wild could have avoided many misunderstandings. As it is, his narrative seems jumbled, and would be rather confusing to any readers not already familiar with Randall Henderson and the magazine he founded in 1937.

We are already 14 pages in before a subheading announces "A Brief History of Desert Magazine." Instead, we get our first dose of Wild's complaints about Randall Henderson -- his "troglodytic thinking" and his "wildly conflicting values" about the development of the desert versus its preservation.

As Wild's essay unfolds, we meet many of his other favorite desert personalities, notably John C. Van Dyke. Not coincidentally, it was Wild's defrocking of Van Dyke's 1900 classic, The Desert that gave him his greatest recognition among Southwestern scholars. We also encounter a few of Desert's most popular writers, including Mary Beal, Everett Reuss, and Marshal South.

But many other contributors are notable by their absence. Wild highlights the lack of accuracy in some of Desert's features (even complaining that the articles did not include footnotes -- something I believe even National Geographic get by without), yet says next to nothing about scholarly articles by Edmund Jaeger, Arthur Woodward, Charles Kelly, and Harold and Lucile Weight, or even the more popular articles from Nell Murbarger (after South, certainly the magazine's most popular writer) and Russ Leadabrand.

More importantly, Wild never attempts to compare Desert Magazine with any contemporary regional magazines. Nor does he try to explain why this magazine he vilifies as "present[ing] a romantic illusion of the desert" was so popular under Henderson's leadership -- unless we can interpret his occasional comments about some of its readers ("those Joe-Six-Pack readers") as his explanation.

"Detail, detail, that's what much good writing is about," Wild suggests, yet this book is mostly his own subjective analysis, with a few facts sprinkled in along the way. Major episodes, such as Henderson's sale of the magazine in 1958 and his eventual break with the new owners four years later, pass without explanation; and even so simple a detail as Henderson's date of death is nowhere to be found. (It was 1970.)

Wild's book on Marshal South continues in a similar vein. His essay (which takes up only 28 pages of the book) is a little better organized here, but if he really wanted to "counter the froth and document [South's] life," he might have accomplished more with a straight narrative, and leave his quibbling about conflicting sources for the footnotes.

South's story is certainly unique. A struggling writer, in the 1930s he took his wife (and later their three children) to a rocky ridge in the Anza-Borrego Desert and tried to establish a primitive home he called Yaquitepec. Beginning in 1939 he found a ready audience for his tales of his life there in Desert Magazine. But in 1946, South's experiment in primitive living collapsed, and his wife sued him for divorce. He died two years later.

Throughout his life, Marshal South was a man who evoked strong reactions in almost everyone he met. Love him or hate him, you would never forget him.

One wonders who Wild saw as the audience for this book. Is it the South devotees, with their "irrational ... hero worship," literary scholars interested in the opinions of one of their own, or some other audience (perhaps even lazy feature writers looking for secondary sources to crib)? In any case, as with his Desert Magazine book, Wild seems to take it for granted that his readers already know a good deal about his subject.

He spends little time actually examining South's writings, but leaves no doubt about his opinion of them: "At their worst, South's pieces were horrible -- the ravings of an egomaniac; at their best, occurring far less often, they were pretty good...."

But as with his other book, we find ourselves asking, compared to what? Greater writers than South have failed to live up to their literary philosophy, or to leave us a strictly factual account of their own life. And many audiences beside the Desert Magazine readers have been duped by clever tales presented as fact. (One thinks of the adventure serials popular in South's days, or modern "reality" television.)

Wild's book is also overburdened with needless detail, including more than 20 pages summarizing every single article he wrote for Desert Magazine. Wouldn't it have been better to suggest that people go and read them for themselves, and form their own opinion about their literary worth and impact?

"I would suggest that whatever we write in some way reflects what we are," Wild opines. These books suggest that having helped expose one famous Southwestern literary figure as a fraud, Wild is looking for new lands to conquer. Along the way, he spends more time on his own analysis than on laying out the simple facts of the matter.

So we must still await full biographies of two deserving subjects -- Randall Henderson and Marshal South.

* * * Another version of this review was published in The Branding Iron (the historical quarterly of the Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners), Summer 2006.

Randall’s daughter’s six-word review of Wild’s misleading account of her father is perhaps the best: “I hope he feels better now,” she wrote me.


Lester Reed -- Cowboy Historian

Most anyone interested in the history of the Anza-Borrego Desert has heard of Lester Reed. I was fortunate enough to know him.

Lester Reed was an old time cowboy turned historian. Born in the hill country south of Hemet in 1890, he made his first cattle drive across the desert in 1910. From the beginning, he was captivated by the desert, and by the cattlemen other old timers who followed its trails.

Lester was in the cattle business with his brothers until 1929 -- "the year more banks went out of business than any other," he always used to say. Then he worked a few years on the Vail Ranch at Temecula, making his last big cattle drive across the desert for them in 1932. Eventually he ended up working [for who?] as a hunter and trapper.

After his retirement in 195x, he turned back to an idea that had been on his mind for more than 45 years -- a book about the old time desert cattlemen.

But Lester didn't rely solely on his own memories. He gathered up historic photographs, and tape recorded interviews with many other old timers.

The result was Old Time Cattlemen and Other Pioneers of the Anza-Borrego Area, first published in 1963. As the title suggests, it is primarily a book about people -- Clarks and Tripps and Baileys and Beatys and others. Its descriptions of desert cattle drives are also interesting, especially Lester's account of his own first trip in 1910.

Old Time Cattlemen has been reprinted at least five times now. I was privileged to provide the forward for the latest edition, published by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association in 2004.

Lester published another book of cowboy history -- Old-Timers of Southeastern California (1967) -- which has never been reprinted. Rarer still is his collection of his poems, Rhyming Thoughts of an Old Cowboy (1966). This is very different stuff from most of the "cowboy poetry" you hear today.

For many years, Lester lived in Castle Dale, Utah with his friends, Ann and Ira Whistler. He completed four more books (none of them yet published), and carried on a one-man campaign against 1080 poison -- an indiscriminate poison (it does not break down as it passed through the food chain) used for "predator control."

I started corresponding with him in 1982, while he still living in Utah. A few months later, he moved back to Southern California, and I jumped at the chance to meet him.

Lester was very sick by then. Years of riding and roping had left him severely crippled with arthritis and in a wheelchair. He typed by holding a pencil in the clenched fingers of each hand, poking out the letters one at a time with the erasers.

But when we first met, I found him bright and cheerful. He was a courteous man, eager to share what he had. We had several pleasant discussions over the next few months. Then his health took a turn, and I watched him slowly slip away. He died in January, 1984, at the age of 93.


Karl V. Bennis - Pioneer Tourist

Karl Bennis was one of the first tourists to visit the Anza-Borrego Desert. Others came as cattlemen, prospectors, and homesteaders, but Bennis came to explore and enjoy the desert vastness.

Born in Maine in 1876, Bennis came to California in 1897, and settled in Orange County a few years later. He worked for more than 20 years for the Los Alamitos Sugar Company, eventually rising to the role of superintedent.

Around 1910, Bennis made his first trip to the Anza-Borrego, returning year after year to explore the desert on foot, on horseback, and even by automobile in a rickety 1901 Autocar. He also enjoyed joining local cattlemen on their desert drives.

In the mid-1920s, there was an accident at the sugar factory, and Bennis had to rescue another worker out a room filled with caustic gas. His lungs were permanently damanged. Now the desert's dry climate also became an attraction.

Around 1930, Bennis left Orange County for Temecula, which became the new base for his excursions. There, he met the son of the local Santa Fe agent, Horace Parker, who started accompanying Bennis to the desert. Parker was soon hooked, and in 1957 completed the first guidebook to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Bennis can be seen in many of the photographs.

Throughout the 1950s, Bennis spent much of every winter on the desert. Lester Reed enjoyed joining him as they explored the old trails together. But as Bennis reached his 80s, the years began to catch up with him, and his trips became fewer.

"The old desert has been a good friend to me," he wrote in 1958, "it has helped me to make the contacts that make me happy. By Golly, people really rave about the desert lure, but how many of them are fortunate enough to have the desert lure come and get them...."

Karl Bennis died in 1968, at the age of 92. By sharing his love of the Anza-Borrego Desert with others, he built a legacy that endures to this day. Bennis Bowl, in the mountains above Borrego Palm Canyon, is named in his honor.


"Tis distance lends enchantment to the view...." - Thomas Campbell, "Pleasures of Hope"

© Phil Brigandi