“A people without a history is like the wind over buffalo grass”
When I camp on the desert at night and hear the wind blow across the empty desert darkness or walk through the juniper woods on the benches of the Simpson, Onaqui or Keg Mountains; I think about those who populated the land long before first European contact. I similarly wonder if those mysterious people walked in the same areas I now walk and if they marveled at a desert sunset the same way I do.
It is unfortunate that the history of those people was not somehow better captured. The record isn’t totally void as there are petroglyphs, pottery shards, spear points and oral traditions passed down through generations of descendants of those who were here before. Imagine for a moment however, the numberless, interesting and fascinating stories of bravery, conquest, love, sacrifice, joy, loss, survival, sorrow and other experiences and emotions. Stories told as only the Native American can tell them with their eloquence and clear speak that peels away the nonsense and gets right to what is important.
I imagine all of these stories and occurrences echo endlessly in another dimension, off the mountain barriers that wall in the bed of an ancient long-gone sea. Maybe the desert wind is the song of those people and the violence of a thunderstorm is a retold story of an ancient battle or other significant event.
The history of the ancient ones and their apparent abrupt departure from the area hundreds of years ago is a difficult mystery to unravel. Archaic cave dwellings and archaeological sites are sparsely scattered through the desert but other than clues offered by items found in the layered silt of the cave floors such as woven articles, pinyon pine husks or animal bones, it is hard to decipher what their lives must have been like. No doubt a vibrant, deep and gleaming lake Bonneville, or even in more recent historic times, its marshy remnants, must have made the desert we now know a dramatically different place.
There is some record of interactions between the first American explorers and pioneers. As I study the history of the desert and the writings of encounters that the white men or Spaniards had with the Native Americans, I am taking note of all mention and descriptions of the Goshute, Shoshoni, Bannock, Paiute and other tribes who may have dwelled in, crossed or raided in the West Desert from the time of first European contact through the days of the Pony Express and Overland Stage. Many of the descriptions of the Native Americans on the desert — namely the Goshute or “Digger Indians,” as they were often called, were dismissive, and down right cruel and insulting.
The Indians that early explorers and travelers such as Cpt. James H. Simpson, Mark Twain, and Lt. Beckwith encountered were no doubt very different from the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanche or other tribes farther east, or even the Ute and Shoshone in the local area. Their lack of tipis, horses, clothing to a large degree, and the constant struggle they waged against the environment to simply survive in the high Great Basin Desert, caused most of the aforementioned explorers to dismiss these desert dwelling people as wretched savages, which is how they often described them in their reports and writings.
Other people, however, mostly Mormon pioneers, such as Major Howard Egan, Henry Jacob “Doc” Faust, Harrison Severe and others, were fascinated by their tenacity and extraordinary ability to survive in the high desert and the ingenious ways that they made the most out of their surroundings and utilized all available resources to survive. When I think of my own experiences in the desert where I have met with suffering and privation whether it was due to running out of water on the summit of the Indian Peaks in the Simpson Range or feeling the bite of extreme cold on my hands while changing a tire in the snow near the Old Riverbed, I am astounded when I realize that these iron desert dwellers suffered a million times worse any of my experiences and continued on with life in the desert day after day.
Battling the climate back in those days no doubt led to rampant diseases and devastating, immobilizing injuries — all of which resulted in very high mortality among the desert tribes. Another thing that terribly impacted desert peoples, even worse than the climate was the arrival of the White Man who brought with him diseases of his own, some of which the Indians had never been exposed to before, that wreaked havoc on Native American populations.
The expansion of American civilization was no different in our desert than other places as personnel searching for cultivable land and natural resources, or in this case, resources for transportation linkages, pushed the indigenous people off the most viable areas. When Chorpenning staked out his stations through the west desert, often based on the advice of Howard Egan, those sites were located in most instances on the best or only water and resources in those localities. Native people who for generations and maybe hundreds of years, depended on water and game at Meadow Creek — Faust Station in Rush Valley, Simpson Springs, Fish Springs, Willow Springs, and Deep Creek, were swept aside and prevented from utilizing these resources as they were deemed “nuisances” around the stations.
Eeking out an existence in the desert was already difficult to the extreme for people trying to subsist on the scant food and water that environment could provide, but when these people were essentially banned from the best areas the desert had to offer, it resulted in starvation and when the promised supplies from the Government did not materialize, many of these Indians were reduced to begging at the stations for food or resorted to stealing whatever they could from the tempting resources that the stations and their stores represented.
The Goshutes are a unique people due to the fact that they are one of the only tribes that still remain on their historic range. They were not relocated to the Nations of the Oklahoma Territory or even the Uintah Basin as was planned and directed. In the end, once the rails were connected at Promontory and 98% of West Desert Traffic rerouted to the north, The Goshute were no longer a nuisance to the westward march of progress and they were left alone and largely forgotten by the Government.
As I wander across the desert, it is sometimes hard to imagine that there were always people here. People who knew where all the water was. People who understood each season and what plant and animal resources each season would provide. There are some very interesting stories I have come across over the years that tell of interactions between early pioneer settlers, travelers and explorers. We will look at several of these stories and hopefully when we are done you will have a better understanding of some of their ingenious customs and ways these people survived in the desert and some of the old names will be heard again and remembered.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.