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Antelope Valley Indian Peoples

The Gold Rush and the Push West


Chemehuevi women, around 1908, near Needles, California
Courtesy Bancroft Library, photograph by Alfred L. Kroeber
The Chemehuevi were related by language to the Southern Paiute and the Kawaiisu. They lived in the deep desert of the eastern Mojave Desert in southwestern Nevada and southeastern California. They lived to the west of the Mojave Indians of the Colorado River. When the Spanish Franciscan explorer Father Francisco Garces visited the Chemehuevi in 1776, they were allied with the Mojaves, from whom they had learned to experiment with limited farming at some of their desert water holes.

Given the relatively harsh desert environment in which the Chemehuevis lived, game hunting was more important than it was for Indian groups living closer to the southern California coast. These latter groups had a wider range of plant resources that they could process for food, including acorns. The Chemehuevi, on the other hand, lived too deep in the desert to have access even to traded acorns. They depended on several vegetable foods important to a number of groups in the southwestern Great Basin, including nuts of the piñon pine(found in desert mountains) and mesquite beans (found near dry lakes on the desert floor).

Mesquite storage basket

Ashpam, a Chemehuevi man, in a photograph taken around 1908.
Courtesy Bancroft Library, photograph by Alfred L. Kroeber
The Chemehuevi lived in small mobile groups of 30 to 60 people that camped at desert springs. These groups migrated from lower-elevation winter camps to summer camps often located in the mountains. In the eastern Mojave Desert important permanent springs were frequently found in upland zones like the Providence and New York mountains. These were sites of summer camping areas, as game moved up into the mountains.

The Spanish began to remove the Serranos, Tataviam, and Kawaiisu from villages in the upper Mojave River area and the Antelope Valley to the Franciscan missions (San Fernando and San Gabriel) between 1800 and 1820. After that the Chemehuevi gradually began to move southwestward out of the deep desert to these areas. They settled on a temporary or permanent basis, filling the void left by the departure of other groups to the missions. They were glad to have access to more abundant plant and animal resources on the coastward edge of the desert. When pioneer Anglo-American settlers came to the Antelope Valley in the 1860s, it was the Chemehuevis or "Paiutes" that they most frequently came across, rather than the original Indian inhabitants.

Antelope Valley Indian Peoples
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