Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
The Expedition of Capt. J. W. Davidson From Fort Tejon to the Owens Valley in 1859. Edited by Philip J. Wilke and Harry W. Lawton. Socorro, N.M.: Ballena Press, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Map. 55 pages. $4.95.
Reviewed by John E. Baur, Professor of History, California State University, Northridge, author of Health Seekers of Southern California (1959).
There are few Californians who have never heard of Owens Valley, but fewer still who have read its history. This small book adds importantly to the short shelf of the area’s early record. Captain John W. Davidson had set out in April, 1859, to apprehend and punish Indians who allegedly had stolen horses and cattle near San Fernando Mission. His military sweep of southern California’s Santa Clara Valley was futile, but somehow convinced him that the thieves had come from Owens Lake. Now, he suggested that an expedition be sent to the region. Three months later Davidson headed the endeavor, which included about fifty soldiers and a dozen civilians. In the 600-mile round trip via southern San Joaquin Valley, through Walker Pass and then north as far as Owens River’s big bend, the captain found no stolen livestock and became convinced that local Indians were not the culprits. While his major objective evaporated, secondary ones succeeded—to study the Indians’ population, culture, and livelihood, report on the resources of Owens Valley, and investigate the possibility of a reservation there. Davidson’s careful report is the focus of this booklet and stands out as the most significant of early documents on the area’s native peoples.
When John W. Davidson’s command set forth from Ft. Tejon-established five years earlier partly to check livestock rustling Owens Valley was still little known. It had been discovered in 1834 by the Mountain Man, Joseph Reddeford Walker, who in later years passed through the region several more times. Its general characteristics had been sketchily reported in the journal of Zenas Leonard, Walker’s companion, and by Edward M. Kern, who accompanied John C. Fremont in 1845, and in 1855-56 by Henry Washington and A. W. von Schmidt, government surveyors. Finally, mining prospectors entered the valley in 1858; their exploits were reported in the Los Angeles Star that year.
Davidson’s work was not immediately published, but its achievements were summarized in a popular account in the Star of August 27, 1859, by an anonymous reporter, “Quis,” who traveled with Davidson. Editors Wilke and Lawton speculate that knowledge of Davidson’s optimistic report on the valley may have led to the inrush of settlers and miners during the 1860’s and the resulting tragedy for the Indians.
Indeed, Captain Davidson was very favorably impressed. He praised the natives as an “interesting, peaceful, industrious people, deserving the protection and watchful care of the Government.” Meanwhile, “Quis,” whose journalistic sketch is included here in full for the first time, along with Davidson’s two expeditionary reports, agreed, and described Paiute honesty. Both he and Davidson praised the cleanliness, health, courtesy, and morality of these Indians. The commander talked with them frequently and suggested a reservation “before the Indians shall have learned the vices which the white man brings in his train.” Alas, only small parcels of land were ever set aside. With genuine interest, he reported on their housing, weapons, dress, religion, irrigation, and sources of plant and animal food. Davidson glowingly delineated the topography and geology from Walker Pass to Owens River Gorge, pronouncing the climate delightful. The soil’s fertility and the abundance of timber, grass, and water impressed him—a half century before William Mulholland!
Wilke and Lawton have photographed several important scenes and appropriately positioned them in the text. They have also included eighty-six valuable notes which introduce key individuals, clarify much geographical and anthropological data, and explain the flora and fauna. Their research serves readers well by identifying sites the names of which have changed since Davidson’s trek. A five-page bibliography can be useful for future reading on this sometimes controversial and always remarkable land.