Human transportation routes have long crossed the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Road refers to a particular corridor used to traverse this dry expanse. Originally used by Native Americans, and later by Spanish and American explorers and travelers, the road was named by the U.S. Military when it established several outposts along the militarily protected road.
Water is the primary determinant of travel in the desert. It is relatively plentiful along the California coast and at the Colorado River, so the trick is to find water in between. There are a string of watering holes or springs - Piute, Rock, Marl, and Soda - that move into the Mojave River system and make for a natural travel route across this region. This would be the route later called the Mojave Road.
At the time of European contact; the peoples that lived along the Colorado River (near present day Needles, California) were the Mojave Indians. They used this corridor extensively to move goods from the Southwest, in exchange for goods from coastal Indians such as the Chumash. The Mojaves appear to have been extraordinary strong travelers, and were famous as desert traders.
As you moved away from the Colorado River, you entered the territory of the Chemehuevi Indians who also used the route. In earlier times the Anasazi culture and economy, centered in New Mexico and Arizona, had an impact here. They had turquoise mines in the area, and traded for goods from the California coast. In all likelihood they also used the Mojave Road, as did other Indian tribes through the centuries.
One of our first records of the route comes from the pen of Father Francisco Garces. Spanish colonization was moving northward from Mexico, and Garces, then a priest stationed at Mission San Xavier del Bac, accompanied an expedition up the Colorado River and then through the desert to the San Gabriel Mission.
They moved upstream until they "reached the territory of the Jamajab (Mojave) nation." There, he said, "I showed them the paintings of the Virgin, which pleased them very much; of the Damned Man they said that he was very bad. I was the first Spaniard to enter their land, at which they rejoiced greatly on account of their desire to know us. They had heard said that we were brave, and they showed extraordinary pleasure at being friends of so valiant a people."
"I laid before them my desires to visit the Fathers living near the sea; they gave assent and offered to accompany me, for they had heard of them and knew the way." They soon set out across the desert "through a flat and grassy country and came to a mountain range (Providence Mountains) with small pines; I called it the Sierra de Santa Coleta. The watering place has little yield and is high up.... Here I met four Indians who had come from Santa Clara to traffic in shell beads. They were carrying no food supply nor even bows for hunting. Noticing my astonishment at this, where there is nothing to eat, they said 'we Jamajabs can withstand hunger and thirst for as long as four days,' giving me understanding that they were hardy men." Garces successfully crossed, but made little lasting impact on the desert.
In the 1820s, there was another brief period when explorers associated with the fur trapping trade entered the desert. The legendary explorer Jedediah Smith () used Mojave Indian guides to cross the Mojave corridor over to the coast. Another group of trappers precipitated a conflict with the Mojave Indians in which numerous people were killed on both sides, perhaps indicative of what was to come. This traffic soon died down as the fur trade collapsed.
In 1848, as a consequence of the Mexican-American War, the United States acquired nearly half of Mexico. Now the Mojave Desert along with the entire Southwest was American territory, and an expanding nation looked to consolidate its hold on the land. Transportation was seen as critical. Several surveys were dispatched to select potential routes, both for roads and railroads, and the Mojave Road was seen as a natural route across the desert.
One of the most colorful episodes was the camel expedition under Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Camels work well in the Old World desert, so why not here? - or so the reasoning went. A ship was sent off to the Middle East to buy several breeds of camels, and they were brought back to United States and promptly marched across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and then California across the Mojave Road. They did very well in the desert, but there was one problem. They scared the daylights out of the horses they crossed along the way. Since there were a lot more horses around than camels, it was written off as a bad experiment.
After the Civil War, traffic along the Mojave Road picked up considerably. Prescott was the capital of Arizona, so it was critical that a protected route be developed so mail and other essential items could be brought in from the California coast. Native-Americans had suffered greatly under American occupation, and many young men were now turning their fury against the new conquerors. The Mojave Road crossed Chemehuevi and Mojave territory, and attacks on travelers was common. The U.S. military responded by establishing forts along the Mojave Road. Within Mojave National Preserve stood military outposts at Soda Lake, Marl Springs, Rock Springs, and Piute Springs.
Nearly as soon as the road become established as an official route, forces began to work against its existence. Steamships could maneuver up the Colorado River beyond where it crossed the Mojave Road. Cargo could be carried by ocean vessels and then up the river by steamboat, completely bypassing the route across the Mojave. A more serious blow came in 1883 when another trans-continental railroad, todays Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, was completed just south of the Mojave Road. The march of progress had brought more effective means of transport. What had been the most effective route across the Mojave for centuries, now became a forgotten dirt path through the desert.