Fur trader and explorer Joe Walker kept up his family’s wandering tradition and contributed mightily to U.S. expansion to the ‘far coast’.
At the fur trade rendezvous of 1833 at Horse Creek, on the Green River in what is now Wyoming, Joseph Rutherford Walker signed up men for an expedition to California. Walker had proved the most reliable guide and trapper working for Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who the prior year had led a large expedition into the Rocky Mountains to trap beaver for profit but also to explore and gain information for the U.S. government. Washington Irving was wrong when he wrote in 1837 that Walker’s job was solely to locate beaver in the Great Basin and that the venture to the far coast was unsanctioned. The California excursion had been planned all along, and the choice of Walker to recruit men and lead them farther west was a wise one. Unlike most of his fellow mountain men, Joe Walker had not come west primarily to make money in the fur trade. He was first and foremost an explorer. Walker sought to emulate Lewis and Clark.
The collective opinion of his fellow frontiersman was that Walker didn’t follow trails, he made them. He certainly would have to do that now. Although mountain man Jedediah Smith had ventured to California in 1826 and again in 1827, few other white men had ever crossed the Sierra Nevada, and the Pacific Coast remained little known to anyone but the natives. Walker recruited about 40 other trappers for the expedition, all of whom were enthusiastic to have a man of his credentials commanding the venture. What orders Bonneville gave Walker are not known, but the captain probably instructed him not only to see about beaver but also to see if there truly was a “Rio Buenaventura” leading west from the Great Salt Lake—or in any case to find a navigable route over the Sierra Nevada. Once in Mexican-controlled California, Walker would seek horses, supplies and information.
Whether or not Walker followed Bonneville’s instructions to the letter, he proved capable of leading the challenging wilderness mission. The party met with incredible hardship over the next few months, but he remained strong and steady. After following the Humboldt River to the Humboldt Sink, Walker and company clashed with Paiutes and defeated them. Facing near starvation in the snows of the Sierras, they won that battle, too. The party lost 24 horses—17 of which they ate, as there was no other food—but not one man died. Finally, the explorers crossed Mono Pass in the rugged mountains and emerged to a sight for sore eyes and feet—the Yosemite high country. “A glorious sight to behold,” said Walker, who was born into a family of Scotch-Irish pioneers dedicated to westering (see sidebar, P. 39) and who would behold more Western sights, glorious or otherwise, than any American of his day.
Although he was born in 1798 and only a youngster when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the northern Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, he still managed to record many firsts: first to guide a government survey party to map the Santa Fe Trail; first to find a practical route over the Sierra Nevada to California; first to lead an emigrant train over that route; first white man to set eyes on the Yosemite Valley (or, according to some accounts, the Yosemite region); and first to discover the gold that spurred Arizona to become a territory in 1864. Not that he was chasing fame any more than he was chasing fortune. He simply enjoyed spending time in unsettled areas. Unexplored areas held even greater appeal.
Survival in the wilderness depended on attention to the smallest details, and Walker paid closer attention than anyone. He would return to an area he hadn’t seen in 20 years and still recall where to find water, game and forage. Because of his uncanny survival skills and knowledge of the land, including parts of the country only American Indians had previously roamed, Walker was more sought after as a guide than Jedediah Smith, Bill Williams, Joe Meek, Jim Bridger, Ewing Young or Kit Carson. People under their leadership often lost their lives. Those who traveled with Walker survived, thanks largely to his strict rules regarding provisioning and Indian affairs, not to mention his exceptional organizational ability. During his 40-plus years of leading expeditions into the West, only one person accompanying him is known to have died. No other guide could make such a claim. Joe Meek once said of Walker, “To accompany him on an expedition put a feather in a man’s cap.” Exploration was the magnet that drew Joe Walker westward, and he did it as well as anyone of his era.
Joe Walker’s adventurous side came to the fore at age 16 when he, his older brother Joel, their kinsman Sam Houston (all still teenagers) and other family members joined the Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Gunmen. Led by General Andrew Jackson, they participated in the March 27, 1814, Battle of Horseshoe Bend—a decisive American victory over the Red Sticks (a force of Creek Indians initially organized by the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh). The Creeks were forced to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which ceded 23 million acres of their land (half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia) to the U.S. government.
Walker was also with Jackson when he defeated the Spanish in Florida eight months later. On January 8, 1815, Jackson and his 5,000-man army, including his Tennessee militia, won the Battle of New Orleans, although the War of 1812 had already officially ended. These victories propelled “Old Hickory” to the presidency; he assumed office in March 1829. Joe and others of the Walker clan were with him every step of the way, forging a bond with Jackson that lasted until his death in 1845.
When Americans entered the highly lucrative fur trade in the early 19th century, they generally believed the Spanish Southwest to be full of excellent, untapped fur-trapping areas. But Spanish authorities arrested the few trappers who ventured west and confiscated their furs. In 1818 Jackson devised a scheme to penetrate the Southwest and secretly aid Mexican guerrillas trying to overthrow the Spanish. He chose a few trusted followers to gather intelligence on the Spanish. It is believed Walker and David Meriwether were among them.
Shortly after Walker and Meriwether arrived in Santa Fe in the summer of 1820, Spanish officials arrested them on suspicion of spying. A deal was arranged, however, and the two Americans earned their release by helping the Spanish battle the Pawnees. Spanish Governor Don Facundo Melgares also gave Walker free rein to trap anywhere he wanted in Spanish territory, but Walker returned to American soil and reported what he had seen. He then headed up to Fort Osage (in what would soon become the state of Missouri), to which his family had migrated two years earlier. But he soon got the itch to return west.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain on August 24, 1821, trade opened up in the Southwest. That year William Becknell took a pack train on what became known as the Santa Fe Trail. Twenty-one men helped him, including Walker, Ewing Young and William Wolfskill. In Santa Fe, Melgares, now interim Mexican governor, helped Becknell sell his goods at an astonishing profit.
Walker chose to remain in Mexican-controlled New Mexico and trap beaver, while Becknell returned to Missouri for more trade goods. By early spring, Becknell was on his way back to Santa Fe with three full wagonloads. He spent weeks struggling to find a passable route through the mountains, then he ran into Walker (who was returning to Missouri with furs) near the Arkansas River. With the guide’s help, he found a wagon route near the Cimarron River (later called the Cimarron Cutoff). But it was Becknell who got the credit and was named “Father of the Santa Fe Trail.” That was fine with Walker, who returned to exploring and trapping the Rocky Mountain wilderness— one of the famous Taos trappers. Years later Walker modestly said of his work with Becknell, “I helped him break the crust.”
Walker’s reputation kept growing. In 1825 American officials selected him to guide the first government survey of the Santa Fe Trail. On his return to Fort Osage, Walker selected a new town site at the request of the governor and named it Independence. Joe became the first sheriff, while his brother Joel (now married to Ewing Young’s first cousin Mary) served as justice of the peace. Joe’s solid 6-foot, 200-pound frame and calm but firm demeanor commanded respect in the new town. No murders were recorded during his two terms in office, suggesting that townspeople were as safe as frontiersmen on Joe Walker’s watch.
Among his duties as sheriff was to watch for runaway slaves and indentured servants. One such runaway he encountered was 16-year-old Christopher Carson. Walker took a liking to the lad, who had fled an unhappy apprenticeship to a saddle maker. Instead of returning the runaway to his master, Walker put him in the care of his Taos trapper friends. Young hired Carson to tend horses, nicknamed the boy Kit and eventually taught him to trap. Walker, Young and Carson remained lifelong friends.
In 1830 Walker answered a summons from Sam Houston to come to Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and bring horses. There, Houston introduced Walker to Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, whom President Jackson had given an intriguing assignment. The cover story had Bonneville launching a major fur-trading expedition, privately financed by John Jacob Astor. But many historians believe the secret purpose was to find a navigable route over the Sierras to California and to assess the strength of the Mexican armies stationed there. Jackson wanted Walker to guide this venture, even readying a passport for Walker to show Mexican authorities in California.
Bonneville’s lavishly outfitted brigade—110 men, four horses per man and 20 well-supplied wagons—left Fort Osage on May 1, 1832, and arrived at Pierre’s Hole (in present-day Idaho) in time for the annual rendezvous. In attendance were at least 400 trappers and traders from various fur companies, along with friendly Nez Perce and Flathead Indians. This rendezvous included all the usual drinking, gambling, horse racing and whoring with Indian women. But everything was overshadowed by the Battle of Pierre’s Hole, a mid-July fight between mountain men and hostile Gros Ventre Indians. Bonneville and Walker probably missed that engagement, but shortly afterward their expedition crossed South Pass to camp in the Green River Valley. This marked the first time wagons crossed South Pass on what would become the Oregon Trail.
Walker went into the mountains to explore that winter, but met up again with Bonneville at the 1833 rendezvous, near the junction of the Green River and Horse Creek. Walker and his 40 recruits braved Paiute territory and then the Sierras to reach California. After spending almost four months in the Mexican province, the explorers returned by a different route. Traveling up the San Joaquin Valley near present-day Porterville, Walker found an Indian route through the mountains near the Kern River. This route lay north of what became the official Walker Pass, which Joe used 10 years later while leading a John C. Frémont expedition. Walker reunited with Bonneville in time for the 1834 rendezvous, on Hams Fork (in present-day Wyoming). Zenas Leonard, who hired on with Walker as a clerk for the California expedition, wrote: “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 offence. To explore unknown regions was his chief delight.”
From 1835 to 1839, Walker trapped for the American Fur Company. The 1837 rendezvous at Horse Creek stood out due to the presence of artist Alfred Jacob Miller, who had come west with Scottish adventurer Captain Sir William Drummond Stewart. Mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick guided the party of 45 men and 20 carts into Green River country. Miller sketched constantly during the trip, painting many scenes of the colorful rendezvous, including a portrait of Walker and a Snake Indian woman he had apparently married about this time. Not many rendezvous were left; the last one took place in 1840. By the late 1830s, the rivers had almost been trapped out, and fashion had turned from beaver felt to silk top hats.
In 1844–46, Walker served as a guide on Charles Frémont’s second expedition and for part of Frémont’s third expedition to California. In Walker’s 47 years on the frontier, Frémont was one of the few men he ever disdained. On his third expedition, the so-called Great Pathfinder defied Mexican authorities and unfurled an American flag atop Hawks Peak in the Gabilan Mountains. But then, with Mexican troops and artillery assembling below, he abandoned his position and hotfooted it to Oregon Country, leaving behind Walker and most of Walker’s men. Walker wanted nothing more to do with Frémont after that. Later, when a reporter questioned him about the event, a still fuming Walker replied, “Morally and physically he was the most complete coward I ever knew.” On the other hand, Kit Carson, who also served as a guide for Frémont, remained loyal and in awe of him. In turn, Frémont’s popular writings about his adventures and numerous “near death experiences” (the writing greatly assisted by his wife, Jessie Benton, the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri) played up the role of young Kit, which launched Carson into the national spotlight (see “Wild West Power Couple: John and Jessie Frémont” in the December 2008 Wild West). But if Walker ever felt any jealousy toward Kit Carson, he never showed it.
In 1849, in the wake of the Mexican War, Walker became a ranch owner in the Monterey area and later moved to Contra Costa County, to which most of his family had migrated by the 1850s. Though he’d reached the mines early during the California Gold Rush, he was not as gold-hungry as many men. Walker did remain hungry for adventure, however. He bought and sold horses on a grand scale during this period, but explored new territory whenever possible. For instance, in 1850 he led an expedition to the Upper Virgin River and in 1851 traveled to New Mexico Territory to bring sheep to California. Although based in California, he remained in demand as a guide for both federal and private expeditions. In 1853 the U.S. government asked Walker to advise the Committee on Public Lands as to the best route between San Francisco and the Mississippi Valley for the transcontinental railroad.
In 1858 Walker and his nephews, including Joseph Rutherford Walker Jr., were busy supplying beef and mules to miners in the California hills. While visiting the mines, Walker studied the gold-bearing rock formations and realized he had seen these same formations years before while trapping in what is now Arizona. That set his blood rushing, although the lure of gold was only partially responsible—adventure was calling once again. He organized a prospecting party of six men, including friend George Lount and George’s brother Seth.
Late one night while the group was camped in the Mojave Desert and Seth Lount and Thomas Johnson were on guard, Indians raided the horses. Both guards were badly wounded. Lount received an arrow in the thigh that veered up into his abdomen. Johnson was struck above the heart, but fortunately the arrowhead hit a rib, and he would survive. Lount, however, died the next day, becoming the only man killed on Walker’s watch. The survivors returned to the California coast, where Walker reported that incident and other desert raids to authorities. The Army immediately organized an expedition under Lt. Col. William Hoffman to pursue the Mojave Indians. Hoffman hired Walker as his guide. Shortly after reaching the Colorado River, the force came under attack and retreated back to San Bernardino. Hoffman then organized a much larger force, again with Walker as guide, and proceeded to the Mojave village. This time he dictated a peace treaty with the Indians.
Walker turned 62 in 1861, yet he retained the energy and vitality of his youth. For 20 years he had wanted to explore the western part of New Mexico Territory (present-day Arizona and the southern tip of Nevada), but the region remained at the mercy of the fierce Apaches and was considered terra incognita (“unknown land”). But the time had come. Indeed, the adventure would stand out as his most memorable—and his last.
In May 1861, Walker’s nine-man party left Keysville, Calif., soon to be joined by the Miller party of 10 miners from Virginia City, Nev. For the next two years, they explored Colorado and New Mexico territories. In January 1863, they had left Santa Fe and were deep in Apache country when they saw smoke signals in all directions and realized Indians were stalking them. Once more, Walker’s frontier skills came into play. A member of Walker’s party, Daniel Ellis Conner, chronicled the terrifying experience: “Time and again they would have our party surrounded entirely, and we would pass out of their lines upon the highest ground which lay in our direction. Captain Walker kept them laying plans for two weeks without giving them any satisfaction. They would fortify a gap and wait for us, but we never went through it. They would lay in wait at watering places, but we would camp in a dry desert.”
There was every reason to be worried. At one point they came across three men hanging by their ankles, all in a row, from a horizontal tree limb. The victims’ hands were tied behind their backs, and their heads hung to within a foot of the ground where the Apaches had built little fires beneath them. They were naked and gave a ghastly appearance with all the skin and hair burned off their skulls.
Near the future site of Silver City, some of Walker’s men, with the help of frontiersman Jack Swilling, lured Apache leader Mangas Coloradas into their camp on the pretext of offering him valuable trade goods, then captured him. They told him he would be released once they had passed safely through his stronghold, a promise Walker would have honored. But soldiers camped nearby demanded Mangas be turned over to them. That night, January 18, soldiers guarding him at Fort McLane, New Mexico Territory, goaded him and then killed him, later cutting off his head and boiling it in a pot. The Walker party passed unharmed through Apache territory before news of this atrocity reached Mangas’ followers. The horrific image of their beloved leader wandering headless in the afterlife set the Apaches on a venomous rampage that lasted many years.
In the spring of 1863, the Walker party finally discovered the gold it had been after in Arizona Territory, which was carved out of New Mexico Territory on February 24, 1863, but didn’t get a territorial government for almost a year. The “Walker diggings” drew gold seekers and led to a settlement that became the first territorial capital. The Civil War was still raging, and the Union needed the gold to help finance the war effort.
Walker, who was losing his eyesight, returned to California in 1867 and lived in retirement for nine years with his nephew James T. Walker in Ygnacio Valley, Contra Costa County. Reporters beat a path to Walker’s door, wanting to record thrilling tales from one of the last surviving frontiersmen, but the most they got out of him was a polite yes or no about his adventures. Walker had kept a journal for many years, but had since lost one while crossing a flooded river. Anyway, self-glorification was not in his nature, and he would tell reporters he couldn’t rely on his fading memory. One reporter did see sparks fly when he asked Walker about Frémont. “They tell me Stonewall Jackson whipped him in battle,” said Joe. “That’s no credit to him. Any old squaw could whip Frémont.”
Joe Walker was 78 when he died on October 27, 1876. “I was with him in his last exploration under the most desperate hardship and never saw a change in him,” recalled pioneer writer Daniel Ellis Conner (1837–1920). “I never heard him tell any wonderful story [about himself]; he was too reticent about his wild experiences and was never given to saying foolish things under any circumstances. Always cool, firm and dignified. He was brave, truthful and as kindly as a child.” Famed historian Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832– 1918) shared similar sentiments: “Captain Walker was one of the bravest and most skilled of the mountain men; none was better acquainted than he with the geography or native tribes of the Great Basin; and he was withal less boastful and pretentious than most in his class.”
Although Joe was not one to boast, his name survives on Walker Pass, Walker Lake, Walker River, Walker Valley, Walker Gulch, Walker Canyon, Walker Creek, Walker Trail, Walker Peak, Walker Mining District, Walker, Ariz., and Walker, Calif. His pathfinding accomplishments are a testimony, in no small part, to his Scotch-Irish heritage and his family name. Walker is said to have dictated the epitaph that appears on his tombstone:
BORN IN ROAN COUNTY, TENNESSEE – DEC 13, 1798
EMIGRATED TO MO. – 1819
TO NEW MEXICO – 1820
ROCKY MOUNTAINS – 1832
CALIFORNIA – 1833
CAMPED AT YOSEMITE – NOV. 13, 1833
It all sounds so matter of fact, but that’s the way it was for this modest man of adventure, one of the most significant figures in Western exploration.
Kate Ruland-Thorne, of Grand Junction, Colo., is the author of Gold, Greed and Glory. Also read the five-book Joseph R. Walker Frontier Adventure Series, by G. Andrew Miller; Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker, by Bil Gilbert; J.R. Walker and the Arizona Adventure, by Daniel E. Conner; and Chasing the Frontier: Scots-Irish in Early America, by Larry J. Hoefling.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.