Monday, June 15, 2015

On The California Trail of Captain Joseph R Walker- Mountain Man

My footfalls are softened as I walk among the tilting concrete and wooden stumps of potter’s field. 

The air is warm and sharp with pine and the graveyard is anything but quiet. Sugar pines  sway,throwing mottled shadows against grey granite tombstones, ship horns blare, as the steady rattle of a freight train floats up from below the ridge. This place is alive with sound, color, and  history.
This is not my first visit to the cemetery. I am a frequent visitor here. But today I am looking for a particular man.  I find him buried near the top of the hill, a leader among men; Captain Joseph R. Walker.

Born in 1798, Joseph Rutherford Walker was born in Roane County,Tennessee. How did he come to be buried at a Pioneer Cemetery in Martinez, California? 

Inscribed on his large granite tombstone are a list of accomplishments and a very succinct inscription:
“Camped at Yosemite Nov 13, 1833”

Tombstone of Joseph R Walker.
Photo taken by Sam Colacura

The power of that statement is readily apparent, perhaps more so to those of us living in California; California didn't become a State until Sept 9,1850, 

At the age of fifteen, Joe and his older brother Joel, joined General Andrew Jackson’s Army. It must have been a mighty adventure, especially since Joe was related to Jackson, as well as another hero of the War of 1812; Sam Houston. He learned about horses during this time, as his job was 'horse boy'. It was something that lasted him most of his life. Frequently history records that Joe was traveling with a herd of 100 or more horses, and on one instance he took a herd of 500 into Arizona. 

It wasn’t until Joe was nearing his 30’s that he decided to go west, when asked by Benjamin Bonneville to lead his trapping expedition. It is a matter of some speculation weather Joe was being paid by the U.S. Government to be a scout or a spy. Since Bonneville obtained a passport and visa for Joseph R Walker to enter into the Mexican held Territory of California, I might speculate to the latter.

Joe stayed with Bonneville and his party, making it as far as Green River Wyoming.   In January 1832 Bonneville sent  Joseph and a band of 58 well provisioned men, to scout passage to The Great Salt Lake and the Mormon held territory beyond. He was to return the following summer. But Joe Walker had his own ideas. It was rumored that Joe built his own party to continue into California. Perhaps he was working on behalf of the United States, recording new trails into and out of California. His extensive knowledge of  topography and Native American peoples served him well as he ventured where only two other white men had ever traveled. 

 He and his men traveled down the Humboldt River, camped around the Humboldt Sinks, and then went on to the shores of what is now Mono Lake. Seeking a passage across the mountains, they came across one of the greatest sights known to any man, Yosemite Valley.  Joseph and his men camped on the rim, unable to reach the valley floor. It must have made quite an impression, for every man that was able described it later in diaries and personal papers as one of the greatest sights of their lives. The date- you guessed it- November 13, 1833.

They had to continue South and then over the mountains, an arduous journey that proved to be nearly deadly. Though he never lost a man, the party was reduced to eating quite a few of their horses. Finally they reached the the Sequoia Big Trees, then North to San Juan Bautista where they obtained permission to camp from the Mission  Fathers. They were were 40 miles from St.(San) Francisco and 50 miles from Monterey. 

Over the next 34 years Joseph R Walker continued to criss-cross the deserts and mountains of California. He traveled frequently to the Southwest, selling mules and horses to the Army. He was friendly to the Native Tribes when able, and though he was asked to scout for the Mexican Government, he declined, preferring to travel and trade horses, scout trails and be a free man.  He often traveled with his nephew Frank McClellan. Again and again he traveled the trails from Missouri, across the United States and up and down California, leading Armies, wagon trains and explorers.
Never one to be intimidated by any man, his contemporaries were Capt John Sutter and Capt John C Fremont, Jim Bridger and U.S. Presidents. as well as simple men, He was an  individual that people were drawn to because of his strength of character

Finally with his eyesight failing and old age approaching, Joseph Walker retired to his nephews ranch called Manzinita,in Contra Costa, described as being near the Walnut Creek. It must have been closer to Martinez, because he was buried there after his death  on October 27,1876.
It was by his own request that the inscription was chiseled upon his stone.

View from Joseph R Walkers Gravesite, overlooking the Carquinez Straits
 Taken by Barbara Glenn
All in all Joseph R Walker has a Pass, a lake, a town (in Arizona) a river, a Basin, and a mining district named after him. He carried the first white child over the Continental Divide on his own horse. He risked his life to see what lay over the next ridge, and to make travel into the bountiful land of California safer for settlers.

photo circa 1860.Taken by Mathew Brady