by Daniel Pritchett
Scientists’ field notes have long been recognized as a source of important historical (as well as scientific) information. For the White Mountains, UC Berkeley zoologist Joseph Grinnell and five of his colleagues (including noted botanist W.L. Jepson) all left notes of their expedition to the White Mountains in July and August of 1917. Ornithologist Donald Ryder Dickey left notes of his trip in September 1921 and Jepson’s student, Victor Duran left very detailed notes of summer collecting trips between 1926 and 1933. While most of the notes are filled with lists of organisms seen and/or collected, some of the scientists also commented on the people they encountered in the mountains. These encounters documented an economy and ways of life now vanished. Native Americans, Basque sheepherders, cowboys, miners, prospectors, and wood cutters all make appearances in the field notes.
One lesson is unmistakable: the Whites were not as isolated in the past as they may seem today. Grinnell’s party camped at a wood cutter’s camp in Silver Canyon, then ascended the (now abandoned) north fork trail to camp at sheepherder Jean Blanc’s camp and corrals near the head of Crooked Creek. Both Blanc’s corrals and “Blanc’s Bluff” (the ridge immediately to the east) were labeled on early maps, as were several mining camps in the vicinity. The remains of Blanc’s stone cabin are visible by the gate where the road enters Crooked Creek Station, and some of the hand-hewn bristlecone logs used to construct his corrals remain on the ground just outside the gate.
After 10 days at Blanc’s camp the Grinnell party moved north, to the sheep camp at McAfee Meadows, just below the future site of the WMRC Barcroft Station. There, they found another stone cabin, a stone (not bristlecone) corral, as well as a stone bread oven (in 1930 Duran watched Basque sheepherders bake bread in this oven). When the Grinnell party was ready to move camp a week later, the sheepherder who was supposed to pack the gear was too sick to do so, and the scientists couldn’t handle his unruly mules by themselves. Not a problem–one of Grinnell’s colleagues rode back down Silver Canyon and returned the next day with the wood cutter bringing his pack string.
The next time you visit Crooked Creek or Barcroft Station, remember that the depopulated landscape of today is a relatively recent phenomenon. And when you have enjoyed a hot meal and are dozing off in a warm bed, remember Jepson’s notes after availing himself of the sheepherder facilities at McAfee Meadows and climbing White Mountain Peak in August 1917:
“It was very cold here last night, at 12,000′. The sheepherder’s blankets were poor and wet, and rather than pass such a miserable night as last night–there is hardly any food except macaroni and the like–I determine to walk back to the main camp [at Crooked Creek] 14 miles over three divides 11,700 to 12,000 feet high.”
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Daniel Pritchett is the System Administrator and de facto archivist for White Mountain Research Center.
From the Spring 2014 edition of the White Mountain Research Center Newsletter