Owens Valley history rivals any John Ford western ever made. I believe Ford took many of his story line ideas directly from the history of Camp Independence and the Owens Valley. Owens Valley was the scene of conflicts between the native people and settlers, corrupt Indian agents, nefarious road bandits, tensions between Confederate sympathizers and Union loyalists, including secessionist gun-running to native peoples. In the midst of all the tension was the 2nd Cavalry and the establishment of Camp Independence to keep the peace.
I would heartily recommend a book called “The Boys in the Sky-Blue Pants” by Dorothy Clora Cragen as an excellent account of Owens Valley history through the story of Camp Independence. When I started reading this book, I could not put it down. (It is quite a bit drier than a Louis L’Amour novel, but admittedly I am a history buff). The research has led us to many adventures in the Owens Valley and Independence tracking down evidence of the colorful history of this area.
The book is out of print, but the Eastern California Museum has recently come into possession of a great quantity of these books and they are very reasonably priced. Follow the link, give them a call, and tell them Major Tom sent you!
Having traveled through the Owens Valley for many years, and recently reading Cragen’s historical account, we set about to explore the area and find what remains of the early history. Along the way we have been frequent visitors to the Eastern California Museum. One of those visits found us searching through their archives. I took the opportunity to photograph many of their records. This blog/pictorial will share many of those historical photos, as well as photos I have taken along the way. Occasionally I will toss in my two-cents, or offer some insight from Cragen’s book.
There is very little left of Camp Independence. Ironically, Colonel Evans and company were dispatched to the Owens Valley to protect the invasive settlers from the defending tribes native to the Owens Valley (then called Winnedumah). In time, many of the native peoples settled around the Camp Independence for protection against the settlers. Eventually the land occupied by Camp Independence became a reservation and is currently known as Fort Independence. In 1981 the Slim Princess Chapter of E Clampus Vitus dedicated this plaque to the memory of Camp Independence in the area of its historic location.
Hardship Camp | The caves
One of the few remnants of Camp Independence are the caves built by the soldiers in Oak Creek canyon. Here the soldiers were able to weather and survive the first winter. Camp Independence was considered a “hardship camp” and soldiers were often clothed in burlap and without shoes while living in the ground. The location of the caves is in the reservation property.
Not too long ago, the caves were still relatively intact. I made these images from the archives of the Eastern California Museum. I am not sure of the dates.
The next set of photos are as things appear in 2019. With very sketchy directions, we were able to find Oak Creek “canyon” and what is left of the caves. They are largely collapsed.
“The military post … took shape, and there were finally quarters for the officers, a school, hospital, commissary storehouses, company quarters, guard house, kitchen and mess halls, and all the buildings necessary for a substantial and permanent post. It was laid out in rectangular shape, the parade grounds in the center, and the buildings around it, facing into the center of the grounds. Company quarters were finally built, 95 feet in length and 27 feet wide, floored with pine, as were all of the buildings. The buildings were all of adobe, plastered on the inside and out, and had shingled roofs. They would be warm in winter, and fairly cool in the summer.” – Dorothy Cragen
This is a collection of photos I made from the archives at the Eastern California Museum. I am not sure of the dates of the photos.
Much of Camp Independence was auctioned off (on insider deals) after the Camp’s decommission. “After 15 years and 6 days, Camp Independence was abandoned on July 10, 1877. On November 3, 1883 the buildings were sold at auction. Though they cost over $50,000 new, less than $3,000 was taken in at the sale.” –Dorothy Cragen. The camp hospital sold for $290. The Captain’s quarters sold for $345. Both were moved to Independence and remain as residences or historical landmarks.
Camp Independence school house
According to Cragen (author) “A schoolhouse was built in Independence sometime during 1866, becoming the first school in the new county other than the school winch had existed at the military post off and on, when there were children there.”
The following set of photos may or may not be that school house. According to the Eastern California Museum the first photo was the school house. The window configuration around the front door is only slightly different than the photo illustrated in Cragen’s book, otherwise the two buildings look very similar. Also, the location of this building is on the Camp Independence site, so perhaps this was that original school house, or one built after the earthquake. It is still barely standing, as I have illustrated from my photos taken in 2019.
Camp Independence Cemetery
The Camp Independence cemetery was originally reserved for active soldiers. Captain MacGowen, a later commander of the camp allowed for the burial of civilians at the base cemetery with the understanding that the surviving family members would see to the upkeep of plots.
When Fort Independence was officially decommissioned in July of 1877. The graves of soldiers were eventually exhumed and relocated to the Presidio in San Francisco. Civilians buried there were left behind. According to the Eastern California Museum, a reenactor would visit Independence annually around July 4 and see to the cemetery’s maintenance.
With some perseverance we located the remains of the cemetery. The clerks at the county courthouse in Independence could not tell us the location of this historic site. The Eastern California Museum only told us that the cemetery is located on private property. Google maps actually gave us the final clues. We circled a large block of land along surface roads and determined its location behind a fence in the middle of a field largely surrounded by private houses. In the course of our meander we met one of the residents who graciously permitted us access to the cemetery main gate through his property. It is obvious that the reenactor who previously maintained the grounds had not returned in a number of years.
The motivation behind searching out this site was to find the grave site of Arnold Wapelhorst. This gentleman came into the country with the cavalry. He subsequently married Miss Lewis at the American Hotel in Cerro Gordo in 1875. My wife and I were also married at that hotel 121 years later. A more complete account of his story can be found at the end of my blog on the American Hotel
Camp Independence summer camp | Saline Valley
While not on duty, many of the soldiers and officers of Camp Independence spent time prospecting in the Waucoba district of the Inyo Mountains. There was also a summer camp known today as “the parade grounds” on the north pass of Saline Valley, in that district. Roy (Red) and Delores Braden own a claim at that site. While looking through the archives at the Eastern California Museum I found the following correspondence discussing vandalism at the parade grounds and efforts to contain the thievery. This series includes correspondence from Delores Braden.
We found the Parade Grounds, a Braden cabin as well as a few other structures. It is too bad and so sad that “collectors” have to “high-grade” (steal) and vandalize so much of historical interest.
Owens Valley history continues
The Owens Valley History is pivotal to the evolution of California and Los Angeles and in turn the country’s western frontier. Silver mined from Cerro Gordo was responsible for Los Angeles becoming a major port city. The expansion of Los Angeles and surrounding communities was made possible through the acquisition of water from Owens Valley. Say what you will about the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the city’s acquisition of Owens Valley lands and water rights has served to preserve the valley’s rural nature and allowed many of its historical features to escape the fate of developers. There are always two sides to a coin.
Excellent reading on the history of Owens Valley should include The Story of Inyo, by Wm Chalfant. Chalfant covers the early history of the valley dating from the incursion of settlers through the water wars with LADWP, which were ongoing when the book was published. Chalfant heroes the perspective of the local Owens Valley residents in that water war. Rounding out the perspective can be accomplished with further reading. The Water Seekrs by Remi Nadeau (great grandson of the freighter from the 1800’s) sides with the perspective of the city of Los Angeles. Water and Power by William Kahrl offers are more objective, and well documented perspective.