Arizona State Historian, Marshall Trimble, had this to say about Joseph Rutherford Walker “…one of America’s greatest of the mountain men, scouts and trailblazers; right up there with Carson, Smith, Fitzpatrick and Bridger. He had the admiration of and respect of both white men and Indians and was comfortable in both cultures. He was married to a Shoshone woman and at home in Indian country for more than fifty years. He was a big man for that period; well over six feet tall and weighing 200 pounds. During the 1830s he was one of the nation’s foremost scouts and mountain men. The famous artist Alfred Jacob Miller used him as a model for some of his paintings on the American West.
In 1833 he led a winter expedition over the daunting Sierra Nevada range, becoming the first to accomplish that feat and the first Anglo American to gaze upon what would become Yosemite National Park.
The mark of a great leader, Indian or white was the ability to keep your men alive. Most remarkable, in all those years as a leader of brigades of trappers of trappers and emigrants he lost only one man. The man died accidentally from his own carelessness when a revived grizzly mauled him to death.
In 1819 the family moved to Missouri. A year later he headed down the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. For the next few years he was one of the Taos Trappers who trapped the beaver streams of Arizona. For a time he returned to Missouri where he served two terms as sheriff of Jackson County.
Walker could never say in one place too long. In 1830, while in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma he made the acquaintance of Captain Benjamin Bonneville and accompanied his expedition in 1832 to explore the Green River country in Wyoming.
Bonneville Expedition I (by Johnny & Laurie Walker)
The adventures of Captain Bonneville and the related expeditions to California, led by Joseph Walker, were agreed to if not instigated by Andrew Jackson and some of his Cabinet members. General Alexander Macomb gave Bonneville a two year leave of absence beginning in the fall of 1831. This was an unheard of situation in the annals of the U.S. Army at that time. The official mandate was to find a way to California and to reconoiter the strength of the Spanish/Mexican army as well as that of the native tribes.
The “cover story” was that this was a fur trading enterprise financed by Bonneville. One insider in the U.S. Government wrote “Bonneville still bothers me. He is a good enough little man for a frog, and ambitious as all sin, but he doesn’t make a convincing fur trader. For that matter, if they get a chance at California, I don’t see him leading a gang of those hillbillies across the mountains, wherever they are. He’s likely to get his French pizzle caught in a beaver trap and ours with it.”
During the winter of 1832 Bonneville was dealing with the War Department and his New York investors Jacob Aster and Washinton Irving. Walker was back in Fort Osage recruiting men for the expedition and making arrangements for supplies. Most of the recruits were green hands because most of his acquaintances and neighbors were already engaged in the Sante Fe trade or working for other fur companies. One stroke of good luck was that he hired a band of Delaware Indians who had a good reputation for this kind of work.
The Bonneville expedition left Fort Osage in May of 1832. It was the most lavishly supplied single fur brigade to leave Missouri and included 110 men, each with extra horses and mules and 20 freight wagons. They headed straight west into Kansas and then angled north to the Platte River. The first band of Indians were from the Kansas tribe with their Chief White Plume. Walker had know the Chief since 1825 and was not impressed with him, thinking him a scruffy scalliwag. Further on the North Platte they met a party of some 60 Crows that were chasing some Cheyenne raiders.
By July 20th the column was on the Sweetwater River and the Rockies, the “Shining Mountains”, first became visible. During the next week they became the first wagon train to go through South Pass and then came down to the Green River. Camping on the Green River in Wyoming, near where it is joined by Horse Creek they prepared for the winter building Fort Bonneville.
Bonneville/Walker Second Expedition
Spending the winter of 1832 with 20 of the expeditions men camped near the confluence of the Blackfoot River and the Snake River, this team of men trapped 2200 lbs of beaver pelts worth $15,000. On July 13, 1833 the party all reunited at Fort Bonneville, this was the site agreed upon for the 1833 trappers rendezvous that drew about 350 white trappers. Capt. Bonneville was making plans for Walker to find a way West to California while Bonneville himself planed to stay and work the fur trade.
Among the first men hired by Walker for the California trip was Zenas Leonard, a 23 year old Pennsylvanian hired as a clerk. Leonard’s journal was one of the best ever compiled by a genuine mountain man. He wrote after signing on that “Mr. Walker was a man well calculated to undertake a business of this kind. He was well hardened to the hardships of the wilderness, understood the character of the Indians very well, was kind and affable to his men, but at the same time at liberty to command without giving offense, and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight”. Among the 40 who went with him were: Bill Williams, Bevin Mitchell, George Nidever, Powell Weaver, Bill Craig, Joe Meek, and his brother Stephen Hall Meek, all were famous for their shooting ability and hardiness.
Walker and his men left the Green River on July 27, 1833. They stopped on the Bear River to hunt Buffalo and gather at least sixty pounds of meat per man for the trip. At the Bear River the party grew by 15 or 20 men that were free trappers who were “enthusiastic about joining the California column.
The Brigade was just north of the Great Salt Lake in mid August looking for the outlet of a large river. Rumors of the river, the Buenaventura, was marked on many early maps flowing from the lake directly to the Pacific. Of course no trace of it was found, thus Walker had the distinction of doing away with the last major mythic geographical feature in the country.
Walker decided to strike out directly West and in a few days came upon the upper stretch Humboldt River. Further downstream they came into increasing contact with the Paiutes, then known as Diggers. At the end of the first week of September the party came to the Humboldt Sink, an area of marshes and shallow lakes. While setting up camp they bacame surrounded by 800 – 900 Indians. The next day a short battle ensued with the Paiutes, 39 Indians were killed and the rest disbanded.
Pushing West, they came to the North of Mono Lake and there first glimpsed the east wall of the Sierra. By this time they were about out of supplies and really had no choice but to try to find a way through the mountains and hope that California was as bountiful a land as they had heard.
They spent the next month trying to find and force a passage through the Sierra’s. Pushing through snow and often above timberline, trying to cope with snow filled crevasses, and icy rock walls and suffering from numbing cold. Surviving on half rations the men were becoming weak and the first of 17 horses were eaten. As best as can be determined they reached the main ridge of the Sierra northeast of Tuolumne Canyon. Not able to find a way through this maze of peaks and boulder fields they turned South along the crest looking for a descent route West.
On October 20 they came to one of the great natural marvels of North America, being the first whites to reach the brink and look down into the Yosemite Valley. Walker to the day he died was to remember the moment, chronicled by Zenas Leonard. The descent was slow and dangerous but the hunters were able to find deer and black bear, “all very fat and in good eating order…”
On October 30 they found “Trees of the red wood species, incredibly large some of which would measure from sixteen to eighteen fathoms round the trunk and at the height of a man’s head from the ground.” (Probably the Merced Grove) They became the first whites known to have seen one of the stands of giant sequoias.
Bonneville’s Third Expedition led by Walker
While camped along the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley on the night of November 12, 1833 the expedition was witness to one of the most spectacular meteor showers ever recorded. Zenas Leonard recorded “our men were again thrown into great consternation by the singular appearance of the heavens. Soon after dark the air appeared to be completely thickened with meteors falling towards the earth, some of which would explode in the air and others would be dashed to pieces on the ground, frightening our horses so much that it required the most active vigilance of the whole company to keep them together.”
A few days later while camping along the San Joaquin River the company was able to hear the waves of the pacific crashing on the shore. This was described as “we were startled by a loud distant noise similar to that of thunder. Whilst lying close to the ground this noise could be distinctly heard for a considerable length of time without intermission. When it was at first observed some of our men were much alarmed, as they readily supposed it was occasioned by an earthquake, and they began to fear that we would all be swallowed up in the bowels of the earth”. Joseph was able to keep order by his commanding presence, Leonard wrote, “Capt. Walker allayed their fears, he supposed that the noise was originated by the Pacific rolling and dashing her boisterous waves against the rocky shore.
They made their first seaside camp on the beach at Ano Nuevo Point by a spring of “delightful water”. They found the carcass of a beached sperm whale and were astonished by the monster. On the third day camped on the beach they spotted the sails of the 292 ton Lagoda, out of Boston, commanded by John Bradshaw who was trading along the coast for cowhides and tallow. Bradshaw invited Capt. Walker and his men aboard for dinner and some “untapped barrels of Conaec”.
The company then headed to Monterey to present their credentials to the Mexican Governor. Bonneville had, prior to the expedition, applied for and received a passport and visa for Joseph. Along the way they met friendly Spaniards and fellow Scotsman John Gilroy. He was the first english speaking settler in northern California, having jumped from a British ship in Monterey in 1814.
As he had promised, Capt. Bradshaw met the party in Monterey, and arranged for an appointment with the Governor of Alta, California, His Excellency Jose Figueroa. The meeting went very well, Figueroa told Walker that he and his men were welcome to stay all winter, to travel freely, to kill as much game as they needed and if they wished, to trade with Mexican citizens. However they were not to brawl with or molest any resident citizens, and were prohibited from trapping on Indian lands or trading with Indians.
Capt. Bradshaw, Capt. Walker, and Governor Figueroa attended the New Year on the Lagoda and got along “famously”. Following the New Years celebration Figueroa took Walker aside and made him an extraordinary offer. Figueroa said he would give the American outright title to 30,000 acres of what ever unoccupied land he found most desirable in northern California if, in return, Walker would undertake to establish a colony of fifty American “mechanics of different kinds.”
Walker was well aware of what he might gain. He told Zenas Leonard that he listened carefully to the governor because he “was well pleased with the country, and had no doubt the could, in a few years amass a fortune, and be the head of a rich and flourishing settlement.” However he politely refused the offer. Privately he told Leonard that his “love for the laws and free institutions of the United States, and his hatred for those of the Spanish government, deterred him from accepting the governor’s benevolent offer.”
One must reflect on the irony, that the instigator of the expedition was Andrew Jackson, and the objective was to spy on the Spanish. Then there is the family legend that included Jacob Walker as a brother to Joseph who was killed at the Alamo along with another cousin, Asa Walker. Sam Houston had invited Joseph’s brother Joel to move to Texas and take part in the rebellion there as well. Not to mention Joseph’s capture by the Spanish outside of Santa Fe. So in light of these events it is not all that surprising that Joseph turned down the land grant offer in California. Joseph R. Walker was a man of character!
The Creek Nation
A remarkable advancement in frontier technology occurred in this part of Appalachia at this time. Prior to this movement axes were made on the English model and were thin bladed and not conducive to cutting through the brush and thick timber found on the western frontier of the 1730’s. Thus a thicker sturdier model looking much like the modern axe, was developed. Being the first blacksmiths to inhabit the area the Walker’s seem to be in a prime position to lay claim to the invention of the American Felling Axe. The advancement was acclaimed by Benjamin Franklin who once watched two “white savages” working with these new American axes. He reported that in six minutes they felled a pine, fourteen inches in diameter at the cut.
Corn turned out to be the ideal crop for the woodland clearings. The leaves and stocks were pulled and dried for winter fodder. The ears could be eaten green, kernels could be parched and would keep almost indefinitely and then could be ground into meal. The Scots-Irish had a long tradition of turning corn into the finest of whiskey. Finally corn did not take much work, once enough timber had been cut for cabins furnishings and fence railings the corn was planted between the stumps. Transporting whiskey to market was much easier and more profitable than marketing the corn crop in virtually any other way.
“Gun stocker John” Walker the patriarch of the family was so nicknamed to distinguish him from his nephew “Gun maker John”. The Walkers had apparently picked up the Gun smithing trade in their brief stay in Pennsylvania. The guns they produced were a marvel of the time, known as long rifles, they had barrels that were 4′ long and rifled with either 6 or 8 rifleings. Most were made in smaller calibers than were the .50 cal – .75 cal muskets of English and German origin, .25 cal. – .45 cal. This economized on the number of shots a frontiersman got for the weight he had to carry. A pound of lead gave 40 – 60 shots, and the guns were accurate out to a range of 250 yards. Until the early twentieth century one of the Walker Rifles remained on display in Lexington, Virginia as a particularly fine example of these beautiful frontier pieces.
During the 1730’s and the 1740’s the Indian nations surrounding the Creek Nation chose to ignore them. There were simply too few people to be much of a problem and they were a good source of English trade goods. But all that changed around 1750 when all three neighboring tribes started feeling the pressure of the expanding white population. 1755 to 1814 is given as the dates of the Indian Wars in the eastern United States. Starting with General Braddock fighting the French and Indians and ending with the last vestige of Indian power in the east being defeated by Andrew Jackson. This “forest war” was the bloodiest up to that time with over 5000 white settlers being killed along with as many natives.
From the 1750’s onward there is no record of any able Walker man who did not take part in the Forest war, and fifteen members of the family were killed or captured by the Indians. John Walker along with his brothers Samuel and James fought at Point Pleasant one of the most crucial pitched battles of the border wars. At the Kanawha and Ohio rivers at least 1200 white frontiersmen and 900 Shawnee Indians under their war chief, Corn Planter had at each other for two days in October 1774. Over 200 men on each side were killed. Corn Planter was forced to the other side of the Ohio River and settlements in western Virginia were spared from the Indian raids that would have been likely to come.
John Walker became the family’s first recorded casualty in the Indian wars. In 1778, when he was seventy three years old, he and his second son, Samuel, went off hunting or exploring in the Clinch River valley along what is now the boundary between Virginia and Tennessee. There the two men were caught by the Cherokee killed and scalped.
In 1814 Joseph and his brother Joel joined up with Andrew Jackson to fight the Cherokee and Creek Indians in the last great battle of the Forest War. Jackson and 2000 volunteers attacked 1000 “red stick warriors” at Horseshoe Bend. This is where 20 year old cousin Sam Houston met Joe (15) and Joel Walker (16) 1000 Creek Indians were killed in the battle and the settlers suffered 50 casualties and 150 wounded. Joel was wounded in the battle and Joe came through unscathed even though he was among those that stormed the Creek barricade.
The Creek Indians and others that escaped the battle along with some bands of runaway slaves went to Florida to create the Seminoles (Runaways). The Seminoles raided for the next 50 years causing the American military considerable expense and embarrassment, but were never caught and put down the way the tribes in the way of America’s “manifest destiny” were.
Great Great Uncle Joel Walker
In the spring of 1840 after 17 years of working the family holdings around Fort Osage Joel and his wife, Mary, pregnant with their 5th child, their 4 children and a sister-in-law Martha Young were the first of 300,000 emigrants to travel the Oregon Trail.
The winter of 1839 Joel sold all his land and property, bought two light wagons and the family headed out on April 30th for the Green River the site of the last rendezvous. Traveling with the party were Jim Bridger and Henry Fraeb, famous mountain men in their own right. The party was also joined by a mixed religious party including Harvey Clark, Philo Littlejohn and Alvin Smith each with their wives. The other “devine” in the party was Father Pierre Jean De Smet probably the most famous of the missionaries in the westward movement.
In June Joel Walker carved his name in Independence Rock and became the first of thousands of emigrants to do so. The party arrived at the rendezvous on the Green river on July 30th where they met “one of my brother’s men” Bill Craig, who led them to Fort Hall on the Snake River.
The party arrived on September 13, 1840 in the Willamette Valley. Later in September Joel went to the Hudsons bay Company outpost in Vancouver and got some farming equipment from Dr. John McLaughlin. Returning to the Willamette valley, Walker selected land and sowed it in wheat. there He found Ewing Young, one of his wife’s family, and an old friend with whom he had worked years before as a Taos Trapper. Young had settled in Oregon in 1834 and trapped otter and beaver, raised horses and had a prosperous ranch.
On January 14th, 1841 Mary had their fifth child, Louisa, born near Salem the first American baby in Oregon. The family Traveling by ship, arrived in San Francisco in September 1841, adding to the historical record book being the first American family to reach California. Joel Walker became the manager of John Sutter’s farm and also did some stock trading on his own. The family stayed a year and a half then went back to Oregon, because there were english speaking schools for the children in that territory. Joel and his son John and some wranglers returned by the overland route, driving 1200 cows and 600 sheep and 200 horses. On the way Joel reported “We were met by a large number of Indians who pretended to be friendly, but killed a good many of our horses. The next day we returned the favor by killing a good many Indians.”
Joel claimed 640 acres of land in Yamhill County and farmed it for the next 4 years. Then he sold it for a good profit and in the fall of 1848 moved again to California. There he met his old Missouri political ally Lilburn Boggs and the two of them served as delegates to the California Constitutional Convention in 1849. Thereafter the Walker’s settled down in the Napa Valley and prospered. He became known as the “Pioneer of Pioneers”.
WALKER, Isabella: d/o Joel P. and Mary Young Walker
WALKER, John (1834- ): s/o Joel P. and Mary Young Walker
WALKER, Joseph (1828- ): s/o Joel P. and Mary Young Walker
WALKER, Louisa (1841- ): d/o Joel P. and Mary Young Walker; was born Jan 1841 near Salem.
WALKER, Newton: s/o Joel P. and Mary Young Walker
Behind the Scenes of Mono Lake Expedition
G. Andrew Miller is the author of a wonderful series of books called the Joseph R. Walker Frontier Adventure Series. Mr. Miller has consented to contribute some of his insights as to writing and researching some of the tales of the Old West.
While talking with the Travelsos.net magazine’s manager about the Joseph R. Walker Series, a suggestion was made that it might be interesting to know what goes into developing a story from clues and newspaper leads. I agreed to scratch out some notes and see if I could put something together that might help others in following clues and developing a story.
The book New Trails to Coso & Mono Mines was not planned in the normal way, it was developed from the discovery of one event after another. I had just finished the Expedition against Mohave Indians and was wondering how Capt. Joseph Walker would return to the ranch at Manzanita. I was thinking about him riding back up through the San Joaquin Valley and realized he would have to pass through Visalia on his return. It hadn’t dawned on me at this time, that he would have probably bought passage on the steamer from San Pedro to San Francisco.
So I started by searching microfilm newspaper copies of the Visalia Weekly Delta, during the later part of 1859 through 1860. While doing this tedious work I found an article where the Delta’s editor interviewed a Col. Walker. Studying the article closer, I became convinced that the Col. was none other than Capt. Joseph Walker. In the article the editor states, The Col. passed through this route the first time in the fall of 1834. This would be the Indian trail Zenas Leonard mentioned in his narrative. At the end of the article the editor printed, Walker’s Pass as laid down on the map is incorrect. Using the article and topo maps, I tried to trace a route through the mountains that exited near Owens Lake according to the story.
Around this time, I had made an appointment to meet with the director of collections of the Upper Mojave Desert Historical Society located at Ridgecrest, CA. While discussing the Walker Series with Lou Pracchia, I mentioned the newspaper article and told him what the editor wrote. Mr. Pracchia informed me that a Mr. Horst had also written a piece on the same article. Lou found the work and was kind enough to put me in touch with Bill Horst, the historian at Porterville, CA.
After meeting with Bill and discussing our work, it wasn’t long before we agreed to co-author a story on what I was calling Mono Lake Expedition. As the story developed further we changed the title to New Trail to Coso & Mono Mines. After weaving the two pieces together, Bill told me about the time he was shown, what was thought to be, the wagon wheels from the Walker – Chiles party and said they were at the museum at Independence, CA. After several letters back and forth an interview was scheduled with the director of the museum.
When discussing the Walker Series with the director, I was allowed to look through the many files stored at the facility. While going through the files another newspaper article was found entitled: Round about the Museum, which was printed in February of 1965. The article describes a number of articles donated to the museum by a Mr. Cooper and among the items were some wagon wheels which were found in a canyon many years ago behind the ‘Way-station’ at Dunmovin. The article then asked the question Could they be wheels from the wagon’s left by the Chiles’ Party?
On the return trip back down Owens Valley, I examined the area behind Dunmovin and noticed it was a short distance from the entrance to Haiwee Canyon which leads to Haiwee Pass. On another field trip into the area, we learned of three more passes and Indian trails over the mountain heading in the direction of Walker’s route, described by the editor of the Delta. A couple more field trips to interview old ranchers whose families have been in the valley since the 1860, resulted in more small pieces to our story. Bill Horst and I included the many references for future researcher to build on. The evidence and facts that we have found speak for themselves. Many more items were found, a good example would be the notes in Edward Kern’s journal that speak of Walker’s northern pass.
The Santa Fe Trail
In the spring or early summer of 1819 Joe Walker went to the Missouri frontier. One of Joseph’s favorite memories of these days was his ride on the first steamboat to come up the river, the steamer Independence. In September of that year the family left Tennessee for Missouri. In addition to Joseph and his brother Joel, the group included their younger brother “Big John”, their sister Jane and her husband Abraham McClellan, and their two sons, a widowed cousin Annis Carrick and her two children, and a slave named Hardy.
The Walkers headed for the westernmost point in the country, Fort Osage. When they finally selected and occupied a piece of land west of the government post, it is likely that they became in 1819 what their grandparents had been in 1733 – that is, the most westerly permanent settlers of the United States. In fact, they were several miles beyond the point where the United States government officially thought any of it’s citizens should or could reside.
In the spring, after completing the building of a cabin and fencing some stump filled fields, they put in a crop of corn, planted the apple trees they brought from Tennessee, and set up a smithshop. Having established this base, and done their part in providing for the women Joe and Joel Walker left the family in the charge of Abraham McClellan and their younger brother Big John. They set off to take a look much further West.
In 1820 Joe and Joel set out on what was to become the Sante Fe Trail. The expedition was set upon by the Spanish military in New Mexico and they briefly became prisoners in Sante Fe. These men became known as the Taos Trappers.
Washington Irving provided the first publication regarding Joseph Walker, describing him as “strong built, dark complexioned, brave in spirit, though mild in manners. He had been among the earliest adventurers to Santa Fe, where he went to trap beaver, and was taken by the Spaniards. Being liberated, he engaged with the Spaniards and the Sioux Indians in a war against the Pawnees…”
Joseph spent the next 4 years trapping beaver and living on the upper Arkansas River netting as much as $30,000 per season. In 1825 he returned to to the family holdings in Missouri.
In March of 1825 President James Monroe got congress to put up $30,000 to survey and establish the Sante Fe Trail. Joseph Walker and his younger brother “Big John” got two of these “lucrative” jobs. The positions paid $20/mo. Bill Williams one of the west’s famous mountain men, was recommended by Joseph and hired for the task of interpreter as well.
On the Neosho River, 150 miles from fort Osage, Bill Williams and Joseph Walker negotiated with fifty of the principal Osage chiefs and warriors. After 4 days of talks and $800 worth of trade goods a treaty was reached with the Osage who agreed to let the trail pass through their territories and never thereafter to molest any white travelers or merchants who might use it.
The only thing Joseph Walker would say about his pioneering of the Sante Fe Trail was that at least they “broke the crust”.
Sheriff of Jackson County Missouri
In May of 1827 at the urging of Abraham McClellan, the head of the clan as far as the settlement business was concerned, Joseph Walker became the newly organized counties first sheriff.
In 1825 a treaty with the Osage Indians opened up the land west of Fort Osage. Abraham McClellan, his son Mike, along with Joseph, Joel and John Walker, as well as Annis Carrick filed land claims, collectively taking up about 1500 acres of the best land. Joel married shortly thereafter and had a son and subsequently settled down and stayed on the farm. Three years later the town of Independence Mo. was founded.
In 1827 Joel Walker became the first justice of the peace, appointed by the Governor and his brother Joseph became the first sheriff. The initial circuit court was held in the oldest house in Independence, which had been built by Joel Walker.
During Walkers term of office 33 criminal cases were tried in the Jackson County circuit courts. More than half were assaults of one sort or another, but none involved gunplay. At 6’4″ and 225 lbs., Joseph Walker the frontier veteran was able to handle the position without resorting to gunplay. When he took office he was only 29 years old, he was reported to have a knack for keeping “discipline”.
According to the sketchy court records, Jackson County was a relatively orderly place during Walker’s term of office. Presumably his presence and reputation were in part responsible for the keeping of the peace. The time and the place are evidence enough of the rough feud prone characters that frequented the area. A year after Joseph left office the community had it’s first murder, and after that a religious war erupted between the Mormon’s and the Scotch-Irish.
Joseph’s duties in the position as sheriff included summons of jurors and witnesses along with managing the local jail, a log building which was constructed in 1827 at a cost of $150. He held and apprehended one cattle thief and 2 horse rustlers. Sheriffs were also expected to look out for runaway slaves and indentured servants. One of these was posted in 1826. “Christopher Carson, a boy about 16 years old, small for age but thick set; light hair. “Kit” Carson had run away from David Workman who offered a one penny reward for his return. Joseph took a liking to the young man and got him a job working for one of his Taos trapper friends, William Wolfskill. He worked as a horse boy and went with William to Taos for the season. It was the Taos trappers who nicknamed Carson as “Kit.”
By 1830 Joseph had enough of the “city life” and became restless. He remained in contact with his friends living on the frontier. The list of western notables is remarkable. The Sublette brothers, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jed Smith, Jim Bridger, Bill Williams, and William Wolfskill among them. Joseph wanted to become a freelance explorer with the freedom of action to live and explore in the unknown regions of the west.
In 1830 Joseph drove a string of horses to Fort Gibson with the idea of getting aquainted with U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville. His introduction was arranged by Sam Houston, a cousin, who he became friends with while serving with Andrew Jackson in the battle of Horseshoe bend. Houston had become the political protege’ of Andy Jackson and was at the time living with the Indians outside of Fort Gibson. Walker and Bonneville met and agreed upon a joint venture that would connect their lives for the next 4 years.
What Washington Irving wrote about Joseph Walker and the Bonnieville Expedition:
“As sub leaders or lieutenants in his expedition, Captain Bonneville had made choice of Mr. J. R. Walker and Mr. M. S. Cerre. The former was a native of Tennessee, about six feet high, strong built, dark complexioned, brave in spirit, though mild in manners. He had resided for many years in Missouri, on the frontier; had been among the earliest adventurers to Santa Fe, where he went to trap beaver, and was taken by the Spaniards. Being liberated, he engaged with the Spaniards and Sioux Indians in a war against the Pawnees; then returned to Missouri, and had acted by turns as sheriff, trader, trapper, until he was enlisted as a leader by Captain Bonneville.”
In fact in 1832 Joseph Walker organized and led the entire brigade of 110 of the best equipped men to ever leave Missouri. Lavishly outfitted for the time, the 22 wagons and 110 men led by Joseph Walker was to become the first wagon train to cross South Pass.
Bonnieville had decided to stay in Wyoming on the Green river to “trap beaver” (turns out that he wasn’t very successful as a trapper) and late in July of 1833 Joseph Walker led a brigade to California, battled with Piute Indians, dispelled the myth of the Buena Ventura River and in October of 1833 discovered the Yosemite Valley, the first to see the giant redwoods, negotiate with the Spanish Governor, and come back without the loss of a single man.
Washington Irving got his name wrong, ignored his discoveries, cast him in the light of a lieutenant enlisted by the great Captain Bonnieville when the reverse is quite obviously true. Due to this rough handling by the “Press” of the day Capt. Joseph R. Walker was thereafter very reluctant to have anything written about him. In fact he has been described as reticent and generally shied away from granting any interviews about his incredible story.
Explorer Joseph Walker Discoverer of the Yosemite Valley
Joseph Rutherford Walker was the second white man to cross the Sierra Nevada and the first to do it in an east-to-west direction. When he left California the following year, he made a southerly crossing over a relatively low Sierra pass that still bears his name. While crossing the Sierra Nevada in 1833 Walker and his party were the first white men to gaze upon the Yosemite Valley. They were also the first to see the huge redwood trees that became known as “Sequoia gigantea.”
Walker was born in Tennessee in 1798 and raised on the Missouri frontier. In 1832 he joined a party of 110 hunters and trappers under the command of B.L.E. de Bonneville. Bonneville was a French-born U.S. Army officer who was detached from active service and ordered to lead a military intelligence gathering expedition through the far west. Bonneville’s adventures during the escapade were chronicled colorfully by Washington Irving in the Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U.S.A., published in 1837. The captain’s two most important accomplishments were the leading of wagons through the South Pass and sending Walker to spy on the Mexicans in California.
El Capitan, was a prominent point in Yosemite Park, and must have been looked at in awe by Walker and his men. Walker’s detachment consisted of 70 men, including Zenas Leonard, his second-in-command, clerk, and journal keeper. Walker’s orders were to find a way to the Pacific through the “unknown country to the west.” Walker did not follow Jedediah Smith’s route to California, however. Instead of striking south from the Wasatch Mountains, Walker led his men on a westward arc around the north shores of the Great Salt Lake to the headwaters of the Humboldt River, then known as “Mary’s River.”
Walker followed the Humboldt River to its sink, where he was confronted by 800-900 Paiute Indians. When warning shots failed to disperse the braves, Walker’s men fired into them, killing 39. The following year, having made a southerly exit from the Sierra Nevada, Walker’s group was again confronted by hostile Paiutes, and 14 more braves were slain by Walker’s muskets. These battles may have contributed to the endemic hostilities of the southern route.
Historians are not sure where Walker and his men crested the Sierra Nevada, and a great deal of speculation has been indulged in. The most likely ascent was along a route that led to and over the Sierra Nevada in the vicinity of the Tioga Pass. This conclusion follows from the fact that after cresting the Sierra the expedition worked its way west along the divide between the Tuolumne and Merced rivers. This in turn is supported by Leonard’s description of the rugged terrain they crossed, the sighting of the Yosemite from the northern rim of the valley, and their observations of the redwoods in the lower foothills. Furthermore, according to Zenas Leonard’s account of the journey, the ascent of the eastern Sierra Nevada was made relatively quickly once the expedition headed west into the range. It is steep and rugged but relatively short, and it could be climbed by men on horses in two to three days. It also is aligned with the trails over which Walker probably traveled that ultimately developed into the Tioga Road. Half Dome The only other thing that can be said with certainty is that Walker’s descent from the Sierra crest was longer and more difficult than the ascent. During the descent Walker lost 24 horses, 17 of which provided nourishment for his famished followers. They were traveling more or less blind. But their route had its rewards. “In two or three days,” Leonard recorded, “we arrived at the brink of the mountain. This at first was a happy sight, but when we approached close, it seemed to be so near perpendicular that it would be folly to attempt a descent.” Walker took out his spyglass and inspected the “plain” (i.e., valley) below. Leonard had no need of a spyglass. “On looking on the plain below with the naked eye,” he wrote, “you have one of the most singular prospects in nature. From the great height of the mountain … we found … a beautiful plain stretched out toward the west until the horizon presents a barrier to the sight. From the spot where we stood to the plain beneath, must at least be a distance of three miles. As it is almost perpendicular, a person cannot look down without feeling as if he was wafted to and fro in the air, from the giddy height.”
Gazing at the grandeur of the valley, Walker considered descending into the plain below to make his way west from there. The descent was obviously too steep and precipitous, however. Men and horses would have to be lowered over two thousand feet by ropes. Working their way west from the rim of the Yosemite Valley, Walker and his men finally made their way into the foothills. There they came upon groves of sequoia gigantea, the huge redwood trees that are the largest plants on earth. “Big trees,” they called them, recording another historic first.
Emerging from the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley, Walker’s party worked its way north by following the San Joaquin River. Walker eventually came to Yerba Buena and San Francisco Bay. This route is consistent with Walker’s military orders, as the Mexicans staffed a presidio at Yerba Buena.
He then turned south and traveled down the Peninsula to the Santa Clara Valley, where he turned west and climbed over the Santa Cruz mountains. The expedition came out of the mountains on the coast near Point Ano Nuevo. Walker’s expedition then made its way down the coast to another presidio at Monterey. His interest in coastal settlements is further evidence of the military character of his expedition. Three Brothers The irony of Walker’s group is that unlike the Smith and Pattie parties, who were entirely innocent but treated as hostile, the Mexicans welcomed Walker and his men warmly with open arms. There was considerable friction and rivalry between the Mexican civil officials at San Diego and the military dons at Monterey, however, and it occasionally ripened into rebellion.
Don Juan Bautista Alvarado, the military governor at Monterey, offered Walker a large land grant, which Walker politely refused, no doubt mindful of the touching irony of being offered the olive branch by the unwitting victim of his espionage. When Walker left Monterey, however, several of his men remained behind to become expatriate dons.
Walker left Monterey to rendezvous with Bonneville in the Rocky Mountains on Feb. 14, 1834. He was disinclined to return the way he had come, however, so he and his group worked their way south along the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Eventually Walker discovered a relatively low-lying pass (5,250 feet) through the mountains by ascending the Sierra Nevada up the gorge of the Kern River to Lake Isabella, then moving along the South Fork of the Kern River to the pass, which is located south of Owens Peak. From the pass the Walker party descended the eastern Sierra Nevada into the Owens Valley.
The pass through which Walker took his eastbound expedition is named for him. It can be found in Kern County along California Highway 178 about 10 miles east of its intersection with Highway 14 near the town of lnyokern.
Monument dedicated to The Walker Party of 1833
Note: Cheryl and I found this monument located along the Tioga Pass Road (Hwy 120) that takes travelers through the Yosemite Valley. (ed)
Yosemite National Park – Halfdome The adventures of Walker and his group were recorded by Zenas Leonard and published by him in 1839 as the Narrative of Zenas Leonard. Leonard later settled down as a fur trader and storekeeper in Missouri, but Walker continued his trips to and from California. In 1843 Walker led another expedition to California in company with Joseph Chiles, who had first entered California with the Bidwell party in 1841. The two men hoped to lead the first wagon train into California, and they selected Walker’s Pass as the best way to crest the Sierra Nevada with wagons. The approach was too rugged, however, and the settlers were forced to abandon their wagons in the Owens Valley before going into the mountains. The group traveled west through the Central Valley and wound up in southern Santa Clara Valley near the present city of Gilroy.
Walker also served as a guide for John Charles Fremont’s second and third expeditions (1844-1846). During the third expedition in 1846 Walker was more than a scout, however. While Fremont parleyed with the Mexicans at Monterey, Walker was in charge of the main body of Fremont’s small army, which had been left in the Santa Clara Valley. He was also with Fremont when the aggressive pathfinder assumed a defensive position at the top of Mt. Gavilan for the Hawk’s Peak Incident, where Fremont all but dared Alvarado to come and get him. When the Mexican general approached Hawk’s Peak with overwhelming force, Fremont and his men quietly slid down the backside of the mountain and headed back to the Sacramento Valley where Fremont would help foment the Bear Flag Rebellion. After the Mexican War, Walker continued his expeditions, and he is regarded as an important explorer of the southwest. He died in 1876 in Contra Costa County, where he had spent the last 10 years of his life. On his tombstone is engraved his discovery of Yosemite.
The latter research from cousin Johnny Walker and his wife Laurie.
During the 1840s Walker was a scout along with Kit Carson, on two of John C. Fremont’s historic expeditions to California.
There are several chronological gaps in Walker’s life. Not much is known about his life as a Taos Trapper in the 1820s but it’s likely he trapped along the Gila River and its tributaries. Also little is known of his dealings with Captain Benjamin Bonneville other than what my cousin and his wife researched and is copied above.
Sometime around 1836 he married a beautiful young Shoshoni girl. They were together for at least a decade and produced several children but unfortunately her name and the names of their children are unknown. Walker, typical of many of his ilk was a man of few words.
The Shoshoni or Snake women were known for their beauty, personality and conduct. Apparently, white men married them in far greater numbers than any other tribe. Her beauty is documented by the artist Alfred Jacob Miller. She was Walker’s constant companion on all his expeditions. They traveled to Missouri to visit his family where she exhibited poise and made quite an impression on the people she met.
Walker spent the winter of 1837 trapping in the central mountains of Arizona along the Mogollon Rim and was among the first whites to visit that country. In 1862-1863, a quarter of a century later, Walker led his last expedition, this time a party of gold seekers returning to the rugged and remote mountains of central Arizona where they found placer gold in the stream beds at the headwaters of the Hassayampa River in the Bradshaw Mountains. One of those tributaries, Lynx Creek, would be the richest streambed in Arizona history.
The following year the town of Prescott was founded on the banks of Granite Creek and was named capital of the new Territory of Arizona. A nearby community was named Walker in his honor.
Walker returned to his California ranch in 1867 where he died a few years later, on October 27th, 1876.
There is an excellent biography on him. Westering Man; The life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert.