by Barbara Patton

Most Prescott residents know there is a Walker Road named after the man who in 1863 led an expedition up the Hassayampa River in search of gold —  the discovery of which contributed to the founding of Prescott in May 1864.  However, Joseph Rutherford Walker was known for many other accomplishments before he led that last expedition of his career. Most importantly he was a man who garnered great respect from his fellow mountaineers, some of whom became much more famous than the quiet unassuming Joe Walker; although those who knew him proclaimed him one of the best.

Joseph R. Walker was born in December 1798 in Roane County Tennessee into a stalwart Scotch-Irish family.  His parents, Joseph Walker and Susan Willis Walker, had settled into the Western reaches of the frontier in the late 18th century.  The Walker family was a hardy pioneer people who thrived on the edge of civilization.   In 1819, after Tennessee was filling with settlers, the large extended Walker family moved to Fort Osage, Missouri, which at the time was the most westerly white settlement controlled by the US government.

Not interested in farming, Joe Walker spent the next twelve years trapping in New Mexico, buying and selling horses. He also served five years as sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri.  However, the frontiersman’s real ambition lay in exploration of the west.  He found such an opportunity with Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville, who was leading an expedition into the Rocky Mountains.  Bonneville had obtained leave from the Army supposedly to lead a fur trapping venture, but more likely this was a covert reconnaissance mission approved by the government.

Walker and Bonneville led 110 men out of Fort Osage in May of 1832.  The party was well outfitted with supply wagons and horses.  They headed directly west into Kansas and then swung north to the Platte River. By July 20, they were on the Sweetwater River with the Shining Mountains ahead of them.  They would be the first party to lead a substantial wagon train through the South Pass.

After spending the winter in different locations, they all met again at the 1833 Rendezvous on the Green River, where Joe prepared for an expedition into California.  With so many mountain men gathered in one place, Walker was able to recruit such men as Bill Williams, Joe Nidever, Bill Craig, Joe and Stephen Meek, Pauline Weaver and others for a trip into California.  He also hired young Zenas Leonard, who kept a detailed journal of the expedition.  Leonard was a great admirer of Joe Walker and 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 offense - - and to explore unknown regions was his chief delight.”

Walker and his men left the Green River on July 27, 1833.  After stopping at the headwaters of Bear River “to make meat,” a week later each of the 60 men continued with 60 pounds of jerky in their packs, other essentials and four horses each.  They headed west across the salt desert to the headwaters of the Humboldt River.  After some problems with the local Paiutes who were stealing their supplies, they followed the river south, ultimately fording the river and heading west to the mountains.  It was October before they started their climb into the Sierra Nevada, and their provisions were low.

Although the men were all hardened frontiersmen, none expected the hardships they faced crossing the formidable mountain range in late fall.   As they climbed into the snow, the temperature dropped and game was scarce. Cold and hungry, the men pleaded with Walker to take them back to the plains; however, he reasoned with them that going forward was their only chance.  During a month in the mountains, they killed and ate 17 horses, but none of the men died.

While documenting the deprivations they endured, Leonard also recorded descriptions of the scenic grandeur they experienced, the Yosemite Valley being one of the grandest.  Walker’s men were the first white men to gaze upon the “deep chasms” and “lofty precipices” encasing the deep valley.  However, the beautiful canyon presented a challenge to their forward progress.

To find out how Walker and his men made it out of the mountains, read Part 2 of the Walker story next week.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.