California Desert trips,interesting places to visit: ghost towns, old mines, lost treasure, personalities and bits of the old west


The desert is sort of my second home. The places described below are special and worth visiting provided you know the story. That's what this blog is all about. Now I have tried as best I can to be factual but sometimes you hate to let facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Bloody River Crossing

Lt. Cave Johnson Couts, U.S. Army, West Point class of 1843, led an escort company of dragoons from San Diego to the Yuma Crossing at the Colorado River. They followed along the southern wagon road established during the war with Mexico. He accepted this assignment in lieu of a court marshal for his part in challenging a higher ranking officer to a fist fight. The two officers were stationed at the San Diego Army Headquarters at the time of the incident. Couts was noted for his fighting, spirited and quick temper: a temper that served him poorly in later years.

The column of regulars supported a party of surveyors headed by Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple who would later gain notice for his historic path-finding exploits in California and other parts of the west. The survey party was on orders to find where the Gila and Colorado rivers met, to determine longitude and latitude of that location and to place a monument on that site -- a critical transit point on the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The two officers did not get along: Couts, born and raised in Tennessee, had an outgoing devil-may-care way about him, Whipple, a bookish New Englander, seemed peevish and withdrawn by contrast. In one exchange, Whipple complained to Couts about traveling at night. This led to the following comment in Couts’ diary “… Washington City dandies with white gloves, etc. don’t like roughing it any more than having to get up early in the morning, saying nothing of losing a night’s sleep”.

The soldiers met an endless stream of emigrant wagons heading for the gold bearing central rivers of California – over 10,000 worthies paying their dues along the southern desert trail between 1849 and 1851. Couts mentioned that he was constantly pestered by his fellow countrymen preparing countless maps, answering questions: “[with] them standing ten deep wanting to know about the trail ahead”. The soldiers also handed out food to those near starvation. The worn and rutted road, littered with dead animals and broken wagons, gave belief to the suffering that some folks endured.

A group of Yuma Indians greeted the column as it approached the Colorado River. The tribal spokesman, set apart by his unusual uniform -- a red military coat with officer’s epaulettes, three sets of pantaloons of various length, a wool hat, green goggles and a two foot sword, -- had earlier been appointed captain of the Yuma nation byMexican authorities.                                                                               
The natives populated both sides of the Colorado River numbering between three and four thousand in the 1850s. Immigrants considered them feisty, arrogant, and not to be trusted. The men tended to be tall -- some well over six feet in height. They fought their neighbors up and down the river over territory; and had a particular hatred for their neighbor the Co-co-pah. Those living near the river crossing were known as “Cu-cha-no”.

Whites were well known to them. The Spanish explorer Ft. Eusebio Kino visited among them in 1701. Ft. Francisco Garces established a mission in their midst in 1771 and was killed by them along with 34 of his countrymen. Use of the trail ended after a nearby settlement was destroyed in 1781. The war between the United States and Mexico followed by the discovery of gold reopened the route again exposing these happy river dwellers to the white-man’s insults and disdain.

Camp Calhoun headquarters and trading post took form on the California side of the Colorado River. Couts showed strong leadership in settling disagreements and solving problems that arose. The need for a permanent army base was heartily voiced by many who came through this critical river junction. But, once the survey was completed and tent stakes pulled, Couts and his troops began their journey back to San Diego.

With the army now gone, the river tribes returned to their restive ways until the Glanton Gang appeared in their midst.

John Glanton, wanted in Texas and Mexico for murder, rode into the river camp with fourteen cretins widely know as the scalp-hunting Glanton Gang. At gun point, the men took control of the crossing and began charging fares that amounted to extortion. Glanton issued a warning that anyone crossing the river by other means would be shot. All competing rafts operated by the Indians were destroyed leading to a confrontation between Glanton and tribal leaders.

Smarting from their dismissive treatment by Glanton, the leaders agreed that revenge was in order. So, a few evenings after the confrontation, after the gangs’ drinking party ended and after members of the gang had fallen asleep, a number of strong young braves crept into their stockade and fell upon them crushing skulls with heavy boulders. Eleven gang members were killed, but unfortunately three men, not present that evening, escaped to San Diego sounding an alarm heard all the way to Sacramento.

Governor Peter Burnett acted upon this news ordering the state militia to organize a force of volunteers to pursue, punish and “bring to terms” the Indians and protect immigrants on their way to California. A sixty-man expedition under the command of General J.C. Morehead, headed for the Colorado River spoiling for a fight. A confrontation between the general and one of the chiefs led to a showdown when 100 Indians attacked the camp causing panic among the volunteers. The next day General Morehead, after pondering his situation and considering his options, decided to quick-march his troops back to the safety of San Diego. The newspapers had their fun called the fiasco “The Morehead War”.

Again, peace settled among the tribes and wagons crossed the river without incident. This was the scene when sea Captain George Alonzo Johnson and his company arrived to compete for business on the river. Johnson set up camp about a mile below the abandoned post and commenced building a flat bottom scow. A few weeks later the Captain and his crew launched, tested and began ferry service charging a reasonable ten dollars to take wagon and team across the river.

By November, 1850, three companies of infantry were on their way led by Major Samuel Heintzelman. Their orders: to establish a permanent army post near the river crossing and terminate hostilities among the Yuma Indians. It took awhile, but the Major and his troops eventually brought the natives to an understanding that stealing livestock, taking women and children from neighboring tribes and pestering immigrants would not be tolerated 

Within a few years, steamboats plied the river bringing supplies to the camp from ships anchored in the Gulf of California. 

The southern road continued in use by wagons, stage coaches and later by automobiles. The first bridge across the river, constructed in 1914, served an important role as part of the Ocean to Ocean national highway system.


Cave Couts returned to San Diego, resigned his commission from the army and married Ysidora Bandini, daughter of a wealthy early California family. The life of a prosperous land baron posted him as one worthy of elected office. He soon, however, found himself before the local court, first for beating an Indian to death and, later, for shooting and killing an adversary. He was found not guilty at both trials. His temper got him into other scrapes that he was able to buyoff. He died June 10, 1874.

Amiel Weeks Whipple returned to California in 1853 as commander of a transcontinental railroad survey that crossed the Mojave Desert. He reached the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army and was killed at Chancellorville.

Samuel P. Heintzelman served the Union as a brigadier general and led troops at “1st Bull Run” and other battles during the Civil War. He died in 1880

J.C. Morehead returned to San Francisco after his retreat from the river and was soon bound by schooner for Mazatlan in command of a company intent on helping local rebels oust Mexican authorities and establish a new country more favorable to mining interests. For Morehead and the other privateers, that mid-19th Century misadventure called “The Mexican Filibuster” turned out to be a disaster.


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