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July 28, 1864: Owens River

July 28, 2014

Bend City

Inyo Mountains from near Bend City site (vicinity of Camp 183); by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

Camp 183

[Today] we were up at dawn and went to Owens River, sixteen miles. Six miles brought us out of the canyon on the desert—then ten miles across the plain in the intense heat, and we camped on the river bank, without shade or shelter, the thermometer 96° in the shade, 156° in the sun. Yesterday in the snow and ice—today in this heat! It nearly used us up.
Owens Valley is over a hundred miles long and from ten to fifteen wide. It lies four thousand to five thousand feet above the sea and is entirely closed in by mountains. On the west the Sierra Nevada rises to over fourteen thousand feet; on the east the Inyo Mountains to twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet. The Owens River is fed by streams from the Sierra Nevada, runs through a crooked channel through this valley, and empties into Owens Lake twenty-five miles below our camp. This lake is of the color of coffee, has no outlet, and is a nearly saturated solution of salt and alkali.

Bend City

Owens River near Bend City site; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

The Sierra Nevada catches all the rains and clouds from the west—to the east are deserts—so, of course, this valley sees but little rain, but where streams come down from the Sierra they spread out and great meadows of green grass occur. Tens of thousands of the starving cattle of the state have been driven in here this year, and there is feed for twice as many more. Yet these meadows comprise not over one-tenth of the valley—the rest is desert. At the base of the mountains, on either side, the land slopes gradually up as if to meet them. This slope is desert, sand, covered with bowlders, and supporting a growth of desert shrubs.

Here is a fact that you cannot realize. The Californian deserts are clothed in vegetation—peculiar shrubs, which grow one to five feet high, belonging to several genera, but known under the common names of “sagebrush” and “greasewood.” They have but little foliage, and that of a yellowish gray; the wood is brittle, thorny, and so destitute of sap that it burns as readily as other wood does when dry. Every few years there is a wet winter, when the land of even these deserts gets soaked. Then these bushes grow. When it dries they cease to put forth much fresh foliage or add much new wood, but they do not die—their vitality seems suspended. A drought of several years may elapse, and when, at last, the rains come, they revive into life again! Marvels of vegetation, some of these species will stand a tropical heat and a winter’s frosts; the drought of years does not kill them, and yet the land may be flooded and be for two months a swamp, and still they do not die. Such for instance is the common sagebrush of the deserts, Artemisia tridentata.

The aspect of these deserts is peculiar. In the distance, when individual bushes cannot be distinguished, they look like a gray plain of uncovered soil; near by they are still gray, or yellowish gray, but covered with bushes—no grass, few herbs, and no trees, only half a dozen species of bushes.

Bend City

Sierra Nevada from Bend City site; by Tom Hilton, on Flickr

The Inyo Mountains skirt this valley on the east. They, too, are desert. A little rain falls on them in winter, but too little to support much vegetation or to give birth to springs or streams. They look utterly bare and desolate, but they are covered with scattered trees of the little scrubby nut pine, Pinus fremontiana, and some other desert shrubs, but no timber, nor meadows, nor green herbage. There are a few springs, however. These mountains were the strongholds of the Indians during the hostilities of a year ago. They are destitute of feed, and the water is so scarce and in such obscure places that the soldiers could not penetrate them without great suffering for want of water. Camp Independence was located in the valley, and for a year fighting went on, when at last the Indians were conquered—more were starved out than killed. They came in, made treaties, and became peaceful. One chief, however, Joaquin Jim, never gave up. He retreated into the Sierra with a small band, but he has attempted no hostilities since last fall. These Indians are in the region where we are now, and it was against them that we took the escort of soldiers as a guard. There are a number yet, however, in the valley, living as they can—a miserable, cruel, treacherous set.

Mines of silver and gold were discovered in the Inyo Mountains some two or three years ago. They made some excitement, a few mills were erected, and three villages started—Owensville, San Carlos, and Bend City. The last two are rivals, being only 2 1/2 miles apart; the first is 50 miles up the river. We camped on the river near Bend City and went into town for fresh meat and to get horses shod. It is a miserable hole, of perhaps twenty or twenty-five adobe houses, built on the sand in the midst of the sagebrush, but there is a large city laid out—on paper. It was intensely hot, there appeared to be nothing done, times dull, and everybody talking about the probable uprising of the Indians—some thought that mischief was brewing, others not.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2014 7:38 pm

    Is that 156 degrees a typo? Or did Brewer actually write that in his journal, believing it to be an accurate measurement?

    • William H. Brewer permalink*
      July 29, 2014 8:25 pm

      That’s what he wrote. I’ve wondered if maybe the thermometers they were working with in those days were not reliable (for ambient temperature) in the sun. I’ve seen car interiors as hot as 140 degrees, so 156 isn’t that far-fetched if what it’s measuring is the temperature inside the glass bulb as opposed to ambient temperature.

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