• First Inhabitants
  • The Creation of the River in Indian Mythology
  • The Spanish Period
  • The Fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola"
  • The Fur Traders
  • The Steamboat Era
  • The Dams

HomeChapter 1: History of the ColoradoChapter 2: Needles AreaChapter 3: On the Road - Needles to BlytheChapter 4: Blythe areaChapter 5: On the Road - Blythe to MexicoChapter 6: Yuma AreaChapter 7: On the Road - Yuma to Lake Havasu CityChapter 8 - Lake Havasu CityChapter 9 - Lake Havasu City to Topock AZContact Us




The written history of Arizona didn't begin until the first Spanish expedition in 1539. Prior to that, prehistoric people called the Paytans (sometimes spelled "Patayan") were the first inhabitants of the river area.  The term Paytan is used by archaeologists to describe all of the pre-historic Indian tribes that lived along the river.  The Paytans lived in a portion of present-day Western Arizona, and maintained a trade route along the Colorado River.  A great drought between 1276 and 1299 A. D. ended the prehistoric civilization.  By the time Columbus discovered America, ancestors of the Paytans lived in Arizona.  Very little else is known of the Paytans, but their ancestors include members of the Mojave, Chemehuevi and Quechan Indian Tribes.





Mojave woman, taken in Needles in 1883, displays facial tattooing that was revered by the Mojave.  Courtesy NPS.


The Mojave (sometimes spelled "Mohave") Indians are a tribe of the Yuman linguistic stock.  Yuman is a language of the Hokan family, spoken by various tribes in the southwest.  The word Mojave is comprised of two Indian words: "aha", which means water, and "macav", meaning alongside.  The Mojave lived along the banks of the Colorado River, which was considered the center of their universe, near present-day Needles.  Their range extended from Black Canyon near Hoover Dam to about 100 miles south of present-day Parker, Arizona.  The Mojave lived in simple huts made of logs and brush, which were called "wikiups."   They lived a sedentary life, but were adept at agriculture.  They developed extensive irrigation canals along the river, which supplied water to their bean, corn, pumpkin and other crops.  They fashioned what little clothing they wore from the pelts of beaver and rabbit, which they hunted.  They supplemented their diet with fish which they trapped from the river.


The Mojave were generally peace-loving but did spar with the Chemehuevi nearby, and with white fur traders, whom they distrusted.  Several battles with the fur traders, with fatalities on both sides, eventually led to the establishment of Fort Mojave.


Much of the history of the Mojave is lost, because their language was not written.  Their history was transmitted from one generation to another orally, in the form of stories and songs.  When the Mojave were forced onto reservations they were taught the English language and prohibited from using their native tongue.  That, coupled with the extremely difficult translation from native to English words, is resulting in fewer and fewer descendents knowing their past.


The population of the Mojave tribe was estimated at 3,000 by Alfred Kroeber in 1770.  In 1965 the number had diminished to approximately 1,000 with only eighteen old clans still surviving.  Today approximately 1,120 people live on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.




The word Chemehuevi means "those that play with fish."  The Chemehuevi Indians are a branch of the Southern Paiute Tribe, and have been inhabitants of the Mojave Desert and shoreline of the Colorado for thousands of years.  They are known to themselves as "Nuwu" (The People).  Due to the sparse desert resources, they were a nomadic tribe.  The ancestral range for the Chemehuevi was from present-day Las Vegas and Death Valley to the north, the Tehachapi Mountains to the west, the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains to the south, and the river.  This area was far larger than any other tribal area along the river. 


The only ethnographical account of Chemehuevi life was written by Carobeth Laird in 1976. Laird was married to George Laird, a Chemehuevi.  George Lairds recollections of Chemehuevi life were compiled into a book called "The Chemehuevis". 


Carobeth Laird described the Chemehuevi character as one of complementing polarities.  They were said to be loquacious yet silent; gregarious yet capable of being alone; proud, yet given to self-ridicule; conservative yet curious.  In their native culture, they were said to be successful when they had learned how to dream properly.  Their diet consisted mainly of rabbits, lizards, wild grass and chia, and roasted pinon nuts.


The Chemehuevi lived in crude huts that offered scant protection from the elements.  But they also dug semi-subterranean round houses along the river and at Twentynine Palms.



 Chemehuevi house.  Courtesy Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian", the Photographic Images, 2001.


It has been estimated that the tribe probably never counted more than 800 members, because their ancestral land would not support greater numbers.  In 1875 the estimated population of Chemehuevi Indians was 350.


When the federal government declared their traditional lands public domain in 1853, the Chemehuevi, estimated at only a few hundred, dispersed.  They re-united in 1885, settling in the Chemehuevi Valley south of Needles.  The Chemehuevi Valley Reservation was established in 1907, but the Tribal members were removed to Parker and their tribal status taken away.  In 1935, congress authorized as much acquisition of the reservation land as necessary for the Parker Dam Project, and when the dam gates closed the ancestral land of the Nuwu along the river was inundated.


Despite their federal status, there was a persistence to achieve self-determination and recognition as a tribe, which resulted in the formal reinstatement of the Nuwu as the Chemehuevi Tribe in 1970.


Today the Chemehuevi own and operate the Havasu Landing Resort and Casino on the California side of Lake Havasu.  The resort employs 65 people and has annual sales exceeding $3,000,000.  This makes the Chemehuevi among the most successful of tribes, in terms of the extent of their economic progress from pre-reservations days.




The Quechan (also called Yuman) were much more war-like than their neighbors.  The Quechan battled other tribes, including the Papago and Apache, for control over the fertile lands along the river.  In Quechan mythology, the Mojave were the parent stock of the Quechan, and the Yuman offshoot migrated to the south.  Their ancestral lands were said to be in the area of present-day Winterhaven California, although they doubtless migrated several hundred miles radius from there.  When the first white migrants arrived in 1849, they crossed through Quechan territory and even used the Indian crossing near Yuma.  The enterprising Quechan were quick to avail themselves of ways to increase their wealth, and at first helped the whites cross the river.  They also looted many of the emigrant wagons, to a point where it became necessary to protect the migrant population.


Prior to the migration, the Quechan did not have a very stable tribal organization.  The unofficial Chief of the tribe was the person who was successful in battle, or who could afford to feed the population at large.  The Chief relinquished title only when defeated by some other tribesman, or when another tribesman could exceed the generosity.


The penchant for warfare was driven primarily by the prestige from winning the battle and for annexing more fertile land.  But the Quechan were not beneath taking children and holding them for ransom.  They fought the Cocopah, Mojave and Maricopa, their blood kin, but they dreaded the Apache more than death.  If an Apache tribe raided a river camp, the Quechan, Cocopah, Mojave and Maricopa would forget their own hostilities and join forces in a pitched battle to rout the Apaches.  If an Apache was killed he was scalped.  The Quechan women would care for the scalps, and use them in celebratory dances.


The Quechan were excellent horsemen.  They first obtained horses from the Mexicans, with whom they enjoyed an extensive trade.  Mexican beads and blankets were also obtained, in exchange for corn, melons, pumpkins and other agricultural products.


The typical Quechan homestead was much like that of the Mojave, a crude hut built as much below as above ground.  The Quechan built great pottery pots ("ollas") up to three feet in diameter to store their crops.  They used hollowed-out cottonwood logs or crude rafts to ferry gear across the river.  Quechan women could swim as well as the men, but children were placed in a modified shallow olla and pushed ahead of the women. 


Quechan men traded for articles of clothing with tribes as far away as the Havasupai in the Grand Canyon.  The Havasupai would first obtain deerskin and cotton garments from the Hopi, pass them on to the Walapai tribe, the Walapai to the Mojave, and the Mojave to the Quechan.  Quechan women wore simple willow-bark aprons and little else.  Footwear was not used by the Quechan.  Leather sandals were not introduced until the arrival of the Spanish.


Like their neighboring tribes, the Quechan incinerated their dead in a five-day long ceremony.  On the fifth day the funeral pyre is lit, and all of the deceased's possessions are also burned.  The practice in part explains why so few artifacts of the Quechan are in existence.


Today the Quechan live on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation in Winterhaven California, and the population totals 2,475.  The reservation encompasses 45,000 acres.  The Tribe leases a 700-acre farm and operates a large sand and gravel operation on the Reservation.  They also operate the Paradise Casino in Winterhaven.




 There are numerous versions of Indian mythology that pertain to the creation of the Colorado River.  The versions can be within a tribe and between tribes, but there is a common theme of a first person, a first born with tremendous powers, an offense, a slaying, a funeral, the creating of the river, a flood, the return to the homeland and the teaching and dispersal of the peoples.


According to Mojave Indian myth, the oldest spirit was Matavilya, whose parents were Earth and Sky.  Matavilya had two sons, Mastamho and Kaatar, and a daughter named Frog.  Matavilya had unwittingly offended Frog, who killed him.  Mastamho directed the cremation ceremony for his father, and when the ceremony was completed he strode up the Colorado River Valley, taking four giant steps.  At the top of the valley he plunged a cane into the earth, and the river spewed forth.  An enormous flood ensued, threatening all downstream.  Mastamho then plunged the cane into the ground again, and a boat appeared.  Taking all his people in his arms, Mastamho boarded the boat and headed downstream.  Along the way, he created the wide river bottom by twisting and turning the boat, reducing the flooding.  He followed the water all the way to the ocean.  Once there, he gathered his people again and returned them to the Mojave Valley.  There he created the spiritual mountain Avikwame, and built a house on it.   From there Mastamho plotted the death of Sky-Rattlesnake, a shaman from the ocean.  He killed Sky-Rattlesnake by cutting off his head, and the spilled blood became noxious insects.  Mastamho then gave all the land to his people, and taught them how to farm.  His work completed, Mastamho turned himself into a fish-eagle and flew off into oblivion.


In another Mojave version first there was Sky, a man, and Earth, a woman.  Sky and Earth met in the far west and from this union first Matavilya was born, then his daughter the Frog, then Mastamho, all the people, the animals and the plants.   Under the leadership of Matavilya, all these went upwards toward the east.  Matavilya himself did not walk; he merely moved four times, twice to the left and twice to the right.  When the journey was finished, Matavilya raised his arms and declared this spot the center of the earth.  Here he built a house.  It was here that Matavilya offended Frog, and it became known that he would die.  During the funeral ceremony conducted by Mastamho, he directed that Coyote, whose intentions were suspect, would be sent to gather firewood for the funeral pyre.  While he was gone the Fly, a woman, created the fire and Matavilya was cremated.  Coyote discovered the ruse, and rushed back to the fire.  The people surrounded the pyre, but Coyote was able to leap over Badger who was very short, seize Matavilya's heart, and escape with it.


The bone and ash remains of Matavilya were offensive to the people.  To obliterate them, Mastamho first created wind, hail and then rain, but his efforts failed.  In the last effort he took four giant steps northward, carrying his people with him in his arms.  At this northern point he plunged his stick into the ground, and the river spewed forth.  A boat emerged, and he put himself and all his people in it.  As the boat floated downstream he tilted it to one side and the other, making the river valley flat and wide.  When the boat arrived at the ocean, Mastamho left it and went back north, carrying his people with him.  He arrived at a mountain, where all but the highest peak was submerged by water.  He made the water recede by taking a step to the north, south, east and west.  Then he planted vegetation, providing nourishment for his people.  Still carrying all his people, he continued northward to Avikwame, the sacred mountain of the Mojave.  Here he built a house for himself and his people.  Mastamho then made all the people shout four times, creating daylight, the sun and the moon.


Meanwhile, far south at the ocean an immense snake named Humesereha lived in a house of hair.  Humesereha was a medicine man who was feared because of his powers.   Pretending that a tribal member was sick, Humesereha was beckoned to Avikwame.  When he arrived he rattled his tail, making rain and thunder.  When he inserted his head into the door of Mastamho's house, Mastamho killed him.  Therefore it became that medicine men, who were thought to be the cause of all disease and death, are killed by the Mojave.


Then Mastamho sent off five of his tribes of people, telling them where and how to live.  The sixth tribe, the Mojave, was ordered to stay and build their houses.  Mastamho's work completed, he stretched out his arms and feathers grew.  After a few trials, he was able to fly and went off as the fish eagle.


In Quechan Indian mythology, Kumastamxo created the great river. 


In the beginning, Kwikumat created a woman and a man.  He named the woman Xavasumkul and the man Xavasumkawa.  The woman bore a child, and Kwikumat named him Kumastamxo.  Kumastamxo was given great powers, and was told by Kwikumat that he was his son and assistant at fixing up the world.  Kumastamxo asked why it was always dark.  He spit on his fingers and sprinkled the spittle over the skies.  Thus he made the stars.  Then he rubbed his fingers until they shone.  He pulled the sky down upon himself, and painted a great face upon it.  The sun was born.  Kumastamxo stomped the earth, cracking it and allowing plants to grow.  The arrow weed was the first plant to grow.  He taught people how to plant rather than eat all the seeds of the plants.  He gave power to make some things to others, but kept the power to make the river to himself.


When Kwikumat died, there was a great funeral pyre.  After the funeral, Kumastamxo took four great steps to the north.  All the people moved with him.  He carried a great spear, which he plunged into the ground.  He moved it back and forth four times, and water gushed forth.  When the water was made to flow south, he took four giant strides downstream.  At each stride he made a great scratch in the earth with his spear to guide the water to the ocean.  When he held the spear sidewise, the river channel was narrow and flowed swiftly.  When he held the spear flat, the river valley was made broad.  At Yuma he split the mountains to allow the river to flow through.   




The first Spaniard to explore the southwest was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca.  De Vaca was shipwrecked off the Gulf Coast in Texas in 1528, along with three others including a North African named Estavan.  For the next eight years de Vaca and Estavan wandered through Texas, New Mexico, parts of Arizona and Mexico trying to reach the Spanish Empire's outpost in Mexico, until they were finally rescued.  In 1536 he encountered a group of fellow Spaniards near Culiacan in present-day Sinaloa, and the Spaniards were dumb-founded to stumble across de Vaca.  During his travels, de Vaca's relationship with the native-American Indians was enhanced by a scant knowledge of medicine.  He became known as something of a medicine man when his cures, which consisted of a combination of faith and natural Indian remedies, proved successful.


In August of 1540 Hernando de Alarcon, said to be the first European to visit with the natives, sailed up the Colorado River.  At that time the river was known as Rio del Tizon or Rio de Buena Guia.  Alarcon was carrying supplies meant for the Coronado expedition that was in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola.  He sailed into the Gulf of California, and was credited with determining that Baja California was actually a peninsula and not an island, as had been supposed at the time.   Alarcon was to meet Coronado at a pre-determined point about 85 Spanish miles north of the Gulf of California, on the Colorado River and near present-day Yuma.  Alarcon was unable to find Coronado, but he explored the river for a few months before he returned to his base in Acapulco. 


Two other Europeans, Juan De Onate (the first Governor of New Mexico) and Padre Francisco Garces also explored the river between 1604 and 1768.  Onate is credited with renaming the river.


Governor Don Juan Onate had previously taken possession of New Mexico for Spain, and established a settlement in San Juan.  Besides claiming the area for Spain, part of the purpose for the exploration was exploitation of the immense riches said to be found in the southwest.  Not finding the "gold bars in the road" as had been promised, Onate expanded exploration westward.  He was also anxious to find a passage to the South Sea (Gulf of Mexico).  He began an expedition westward in 1605 that would lead him to the Rio del Tizon, which he renamed the Colorado, and did indeed discover the passageway to the Gulf.


Fray Francisco Garces was a Spanish Fransiscan missionary and the first white man to interact with the Native Americans.  Garces was born in 1738 and died in 1781, and was ordained in 1763.  In 1768 he was assigned to the Mission San Xavier del Bac near modern day Tucson.  Garces conducted extensive explorations of northern Arizona, and the Colorado and Mojave deserts, sometimes on his own and sometimes with Juan Bautista de Anza.  He traveled the Gila and Colorado Rivers extensively, the Gulf of California, and upstream to the Grand Canyon and Hopi villages.  During part of his journey he met the Mojave Indians, and passed through Chemehuevi lands.  Missions and colonies were sought to be established on the Colorado River.  Garces and Juan Diaz established two mission colonies at Fort Yuma, where the Spaniards met with resistance from the war-like Quechan tribe.  The natives clashed with the invaders, and in 1781 Garces and his followers were killed in a general uprising and massacre.  Along with the visitors came diseases for which the natives had no defense.  Colonization wasn't just for religious purposes.  There were political reasons, and the natives were also exploited for cheap labor. 




Cibola and Quivira were two of the mythical "Seven Cities of Gold" in New Spain, a land claimed by the Spaniards but virtually unexplored at the time.  The cities were said to have been founded by seven bishops who had fled the Spanish city of Merida after the Muslim invasion around 1150.  Besides Cibola and Quivira, the other cities were Marata, Aeus, Ahacus, Totonteac and a seventh un-named city.  The myth persisted for centuries, until the first report of legendary cities of splendor and riches in North America came from Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in 1536.  De Vaca had been shipwrecked off the Florida coast in 1528, and wandered through parts of what later became Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finally being rescued eight years later.  He reported on the fabulous cities to Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of "New Spain."  Rumors of the finding of the legendary cities soon swept the country.  The Spaniards at the time were afflicted with a national tendency toward embellishment.  The fabled cities became larger and more opulent as word spread throughout the country. 


The first expedition to find the fabled cities was commissioned by Mendoza and headed by Franciscan Monk Marcos de Niza.  De Niza took Estavanico along as his guide.  At a place called Vacapa, thought to be near present-day Sonora, de Niza sent Estavanico to scout up ahead.  Estavanico met a monk who told him about cities lined with gold.  Estavanico sent word of the fabulous find back to de Niza, and pushed ahead.  He eventually wound up in Hawikuh, in present-day New Mexico, where he met his fate at the hand of the local Indians after an indiscretion with an Indian maiden.  When word of the cities got back to de Niza, he returned to Mexico City.  He reported that the expedition continued on even after Estavanico died, and claimed to have seen a city far away where the people used dishes of gold and silver, wore jewelry and gigantic pearls, and whose houses were decorated with turquoise.  These attributes existed only in the mind, of course, but in typical Spanish style the reputation of the fabled cities grew by leaps and bounds.


Upon hearing de Niza's report Mendoza promptly marshaled a second expedition; this one comprised of militia and headed by Francisco de Coronado.  The purpose of the military expedition was to forcefully take the possessions in the name of the Queen of Spain.  Coronado departed from Culiacan in 1540, taking de Niza along as a guide.  At the same time, the expedition headed by de Alarcon departed by sea to meet up with and re-supply de Coronado.


De Coronado entered present-day Arizona in April 1540, following the San Pedro River along the Huachuca Mountains.  After months of travel Coronado's expedition finally arrived in Cibola in July 1540, only to find mud and stone houses and hostile Indians. The Indians refused to surrender in the name of the King of Spain.  Coronado's troops were in dire straits due to hunger, so he ordered an attack on Cibola.  The Indians threw stones and shot arrows from rooftops, injuring some troops and horses.  Coronado himself was pelted with stones and suffered an arrow wound to his right foot in the skirmish.  But the troops soon prevailed, and the Indians were routed.  They took possession of the town and houses, and satisfied their hunger with corn that was stored therein.  About a week after the battle, Coronado had recovered sufficiently enough to make a 22-mile round-trip tour of the province.  Coronado was interested in learning more about what he had conquered, despite the disgust expressed by his soldiers that the streets weren't paved with gold.  Undaunted, Coronado organized scouting parties to explore the surrounding territory and claim it for Spain.  Along the way, the soldiers were also to hunt for Quivira, another rumored city of gold.  They would learn what they could of the area from the Indians, and report back any findings.


 Meantime, the natives had become adept at telling the invaders more and more what the invaders wanted to hear, which got the invaders moving along their way. But the further along the invaders got the further away the fabled cities were said to be.  The soldiers covered a very large area, ranging all the way to the Colorado River to the west, north to the Grand Canyon, east to Santa Fe and northeast to near Salina, Kansas.  Finally, de Coronado conceded that Cibola existed only in people's minds.  With only 100 men left, he humbly returned to Mexico City in 1542.  He reported back to Mendoza, and described his ordeal.  In a prime example of the frenzied fantasy that the Spanish had ascribed to regarding the fabled cities, he spoke of Totonteac, a village which was described as being grand and of great size.  Coronado described it as "a hot lake, on the edge of which are a mere five or six houses."  The legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola was officially debunked, and Coronado was left bitter over the ordeal.




In 1821 the Southwest, including California, had been freed from Spanish rule and became a part of the new nation of Mexico.  This didn't mean much to the Mojave, whose culture had not changed with the influx of the Spaniards.  But the same could not be said for the rest of America.  After a second war with Britain, America had freed itself as a British colony and became sovereign.  At the same time it had acquired vast portions of the North American continent, which intrepid adventurers were busy exploring.  Some of these explorers were the so-called "Mountain Men", fur traders who were setting up trapping and trading routes to the west coast.  One of these was Jedediah Smith.  Smith was perhaps the most famous of the Mountain Men, being the first American to cross the Continental Divide and the first American to traverse the Sierra Nevada in California.  Few people are aware of Smith's journeys through the desert southwest, where he became the first American to cross the forbidden Mojave Desert into California, and amazingly, back to the east.


Smith was born in 1798 in Bainbridge, New York.  He became one of the original "Ashley Men" while still a teen, joining other adventurers under trapper William Ashley.   In 1826, Smith led a group of 17 men to appraise the trapping potential of the vast region south and west of the Great Salt Lake.  This expedition led him through southern Utah and into Arizona, along the Virgin River and eventually the confluence with the Colorado.  He followed the Colorado River south to the Mojave Indian villages near Needles, crossing into California with their help.


 The Mojave were a generally peaceful tribe, although they did have violent skirmishes with the Chemehuevi.  They treated Smith and his entourage with hospitality.  This hospitality began to change as the purpose of Smith's and other fur-trapping groups became known.  The Mojave began to see more visitors, principally because the best place to cross the river was near their villages.  The Mojave revered the beaver, and beaver was the principal pelt of the fur traders.  In 1827 a group of traders led by Ewing Young came to the villages, proudly displaying numerous beaver pelts.  They marched noisily through the villages and set up camp about three miles south.  The Mojave Chief and some warriors followed them, and, with gestures, indicated that the beaver pelts were their property.  They demanded payment in terms of one horse.  The visitors refused.  The Mojave Chief shot an arrow into a tree and gave a war shout, which was met with gunfire as Young split the arrow with a bullet.  War had been declared.


The next morning the Chief returned and demanded payment again, only to be turned down once more.  He then brought down a horse with a spear, and was promptly shot to death.  Once again the natives retreated, only to storm the camp again the next morning to avenge the death of their Chief.  A fierce battle ensued with casualties on both sides, until the trappers finally relented and retreated back north through the villages.  This was to be the first of many skirmishes with the Mojave.


In 1827 Smith was told to leave California by the Mexicans, whose laws prohibited hunting and trapping without permission.  The group arrived at the Mojave villages and based on the way they were dressed and equipped, it was obvious they were trappers.  The Mojave reaction was subdued and wary.  But they did trade some horses with Smith, and Smith provided the new Chief with some corn and beans as a present.  It wasn't until Smith's group was actually crossing the river when they were set upon by the Mojave, instantly killing 10 of Smith's men.  Smith and seven others managed to escape after killing two warriors.


In 1830, Peter Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company came down the river with a large band of trappers.  A fierce battle erupted despite posted sentries, and 26 Mojave warriors were killed.


The Mojave had made their point.  Their reputation became one of a cunning and treacherous group to be avoided.  Soon the traders began avoiding the villages, traveling instead on the Spanish Trail and crossing the river far to the north.  During the rest of the 1830's and all of the 1840's, Mojave Territory was avoided altogether.




The first watercraft to navigate the Colorado from the Sea of Cortez arrived in Yuma on December 3rd, 1852.  The "Uncle Sam", a 65-foot side-wheeler, brought 32 tons of freight from San Francisco and put a scare into the local Indians with its noise and belching smoke.  Piloted by Captain James Turnbull, it took fifteen days to get to Yuma.  The Uncle Sam sunk in 1853, and freight transport reverted back to mule shipments from San Diego.  In 1854, Captain George A. Johnson dismantled a steamboat in San Francisco, and had it shipped to the mouth of the Colorado where it was re-assembled.  Propelled by a powerful 70 horsepower engine and with the advantage of a mere 30 inch draw, the 104-foot General Jesup sped up the Colorado to Yuma in 2-3 days, carrying 50 tons of goods. At $75/ton, the venture grossed about $4,000 per trip, making it most profitable. 


The freighters required wood fuel, which wasn't in large supply in a desert.  Wood yards needed to be spaced about a day's voyage (or about 30 miles) apart along the river, and fuel needed to be available there.  The Cocopah Indians were not intimidated by the noisy paddle wheelers, and actually took advantage of the situation.  They would cut wood from the nearby mountains and transport it to the wood yards.  The first wood yard to be established was called Port Famine, but it and other wood yards along the river proved profitable for the Cocopah involved in the operation.


Captain Johnson was always looking for ways to expand his business.  He had heard rumors that steamboats could get as far upstream as the mouth of the Virgin River, near present-day Las Vegas.  Surmising that the forts and settlements of northern Arizona and Utah needed mail and supplies, and that water routes would get them there more quickly, Johnson talked Secretary of War Jefferson Davis into asking Congress for funding.  A $70,000 appropriation was approved, and Congress asked for bids.  Johnson offered the General Jesup for $3,500 per month, and his second steamboat, the Colorado, for $4,500 per month.  But the new Secretary of War gave the job to a relative, a young topographical engineer named Lieutenant Joseph Ives.  Ives had the iron-hulled stern wheeler the Explorer built in Philadelphia and shipped to the mouth of the Colorado River by way of Panama in 1857.  The Explorer was only 54 feet long, and had an unusual profile.  There was a howitzer on one end and a cabin on the other, with its over-sized boiler in the middle.  When the craft arrived in Yuma, the Indians laughed at its size, calling it a "Chiquito Boat."  The artist of the expedition called it a "water-borne wheelbarrow." 


Nonetheless, Ives embarked on his expedition to explore the full limits of navigation on the Colorado on December 31st, 1857.  Unbeknownst to Ives, Captain Johnson left Fort Yuma on the same day on the General Jesup, with the same goal.  Johnson was peeved about losing the bid, and was determined to be the first to the Virgin River.  He got as far as the first set of rapids about 75 miles south of the mouth of the Virgin River when, because of a shortage of supplies, the expedition was forced to turn around. 


Meantime, the Explorer was proving no match for the powerful Colorado River current.  It turned out to be under-powered, over-loaded, and susceptible to becoming grounded on sandbars.  In fact, it had run aground within sight of well-wishers attending the launching.  The Indians, of course, found much humor in this.  Captain Robinson later claimed that he became able to recognize sandbars ahead by the number of Indians along the bank of the river, crowding wherever they expected another grounding.  But the Explorer chugged along.  A week after turning around, Captain Johnson and the General Jesup met the Explorer and its chagrined Captain, still plugging along upstream.  The meeting was amicable enough, the crew members exchanging tobacco and information before the Explorer continued upstream.  The Explorer actually got further upstream than the Jesup, finally running aground on a rock at the entrance to Black Canyon, which knocked the boiler off its foundation.   Ives determined that Explorer Rock, which he named for the incident, was the practical extent of northern navigation on the river.  In his official report, Ives concluded that steamboat navigation to the Virgin River might be possible during periods of high water.  Ives conveniently omitted reference to Johnson and the Jesup.  The Explorer's mission completed, the steamboat was offered up for auction.  The winning bid was for $1,000, and was submitted by none other than George Johnson.  Johnson used the Explorer to haul firewood up the Gila River.


In 1862 placer gold was discovered at La Paz, 130 miles north of Fort Yuma.  Soon there were dozens of other discoveries all up and down the river, and an earnest rush to the area ensued.  Within a year there were more than 2,000 miners working the diggings, and La Paz was the largest town in the Territory.  Despite the influx, Johnson still operated only the two steamboats and freight began to stack up in Yuma.  The situation was ripe for competition, and into the void stepped one "Steamboat Sam" Adams.  The Esmeralda, a 93-foot sternwheeler, and the barge Victoria were built for navigation on the Sacramento River.  The Esmeralda was smaller but more powerful than Johnson's boats, and could haul a combined payload of 100 tons.  Adams had the Esmeralda and Victoria transported to the mouth of the Colorado.  Despite the load, the Esmeralda steamed up the Colorado in record time.  To keep pace, Johnson built the 135-foot Mohave, the most powerful boat on the river.  The Mohave set a record of 10 days and two hours to navigate all the way to El Dorado Canyon, a distance of 365 miles.  The competition was forcing prices downward, and both men began to look further afield for business.  They focused on the Mormons who had built a warehouse at Callville Utah, 75 miles north of Explorer Rock where Ives ran aground.  No steamboat had yet gone that far, and Johnson rejected the Mormon's offer to ship freight to Callville. Adams, however, was determined to give it a try.  Under the steerage of Captain Thomas Trueworthy, the Esmeralda got past Bull Head Rock, supposedly the end of the line, and easily avoided Explorer Rock.  The rapids above Explorer Rock were the next supposed barrier, but they were negotiated in seven minutes.  The Esmeralda and barge pulled triumphantly into Callville in October of 1866.  But the gambit had left Adams deeply in debt, and when he returned to Yuma the Esmeralda was seized by the sheriff.


For the next decade Johnson faced no other competition for his customers.  Every few days steamers left Yuma for the upriver landings and the towns of La Paz and Ehrenberg.  Passengers rode in the steamers, and barges toted the freight.  Many of the passengers were bound for the Army post at Ehrenberg, and sometimes included the soldier's families.  The fare was $15 to Ehrenberg and $35 to Fort Mohave.  Johnson's business was booming.  He incorporated the Colorado Steam Navigation Company in 1869, and by the mid-70's the company was doing over a quarter million dollars in business and carrying 7,000 tons of freight and 1,000 passengers annually.  But the railroad was coming.


The Southern Pacific Railroad reached the Colorado River in 1877.  While the steamboats still had business, the railroad quickly became the transport method of choice.  Johnson sold out to the railroad in 1878.  Paddle-wheelers continued to feed the railroad for a period of time, but the construction of the Laguna Dam in 1909 closed the river 14 miles north of Yuma.  The colorful era of the paddle-wheelers became a footnote in history.




The Reclamation Act of 1902 is a U. S. Federal Law created to fund irrigation projects in the west.  One of the earliest proponents of man-made irrigation was John Wesley Powell, who began a series of expeditions of the west in 1867.  During his exploration, Powell noted that spring floods would release millions of gallons of water every year, but the rest of the year was too arid to support natural irrigation.  He became the "Father of Reclamation", and mapped out many locations for dams along the river.  The resulting Act was authored by Representative Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, and was signed into law on June 17th, 1902.  The act set aside funds for the construction and maintenance of irrigation projects.  The act was later amended by the Reclamation Reform Act of 1982.  Under the act, the Secretary of the Interior created the United States Reclamation Service to administer the program.  In 1907 the office was renamed the Bureau of Reclamation.



Laguna Dam in the '30's.  Courtesy John Barnier.


The Laguna Dam was the first impoundment of Colorado River water. 




Construction started in 1905 for the purpose of diverting water to the farmlands of Yuma.  An interesting note about the construction of the dam is that some of the construction supplies were delivered by steamer, helping to bring about their own demise.  The dam consisted mainly of three parallel concrete walls, with the interval in between filled with loose rock, and the surface paved with 18 inches of concrete.  The space between the walls was filled as quickly as possible - basically faster than the river current could carry the fill away - and the water slowly rose to 11 feet above its previous level.  The filling operation lasted 14 days.  The symbol engraved on many concrete faces of the dam was for 3,000 years a symbol of good luck, power, strength and the sun.  Around 30 years after the dam was built, the swastika became the hated symbol of Nazi Germany. 




Swastikas on a bridge at Laguna Dam


Not knowing the history of the symbol, some visitors to the area are still appalled upon discovering it.  With the construction of the Imperial Dam, the Laguna Dam became redundant and it no longer diverts river water.


Parker Dam


Shortly after the completion of Hoover Dam 155 miles upstream in Nevada in 1936, construction began on Parker Dam.  Completed in 1938, the dam created Lake Havasu which is capable of holding nearly 211 billion gallons of water.  Located 11 miles north of the town of Parker, the dam is the deepest in the world.  73 percent of its 320 feet of height is below the riverbed.  The primary purpose is to store water which is pumped into the California and Arizona aqueducts, and it also produces non-polluting hydroelectric power.


Imperial Dam


The Imperial Dam was completed in 1940.  It is located a few miles north of Laguna Dam, making the Laguna diversion no longer necessary.  The Imperial Dam diverts water into the All American Canal, the Coachella Canal, and the Gila River and Yuma Project aqueducts.  The dam also acts as a de-silting basin, dropping out sediments and placing them back in the river via a sluiceway.  The overall length of the dam is 3,485 feet.  The storage capacity behind the dam is insignificant, the shallow lake quickly filled with sediment.


Palo Verde Diversion Dam


Like the Imperial, the Palo Verde Diversion Dam doesn't impound much water.  However, it was the first structure built on the river to divert river water into irrigation canals.  Work diverting river water began as early as 1873.  Over 200 miles of canals in and around Blythe are fed by water diverted by the dam.


 Headgate Rock Dam


This dam is downstream a few miles from Parker Dam, and was completed in 1941.  Its primary purpose is to divert water for the irrigation of Indian Reservation farm fields nearby, although it also provides electricity.  It does provide some impoundment.  The waters behind the dam are known as Lake Moovalya, more accurately described as a "swollen river."


While it is undoubtedly accurate to say these dams brought life to a region otherwise unable to sustain it, and created one of the most extensive agricultural areas on the planet, they also brought with them some environmental impacts, some known and others unanticipated.  These impacts are discussed in various chapters of this book.