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Vallecito - Destination Along the Emigrant Route

By Manfred Knaak


This article was originally published in The Sand Paper, the membership newsletter of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association

Journalist Waterman L. Ormsby left Fort Yuma on Tuesday, October 5th, 1858, at 6:15 a.m. and arrived at the end of an all- day journey at the Vallecito Stage Station. Exiting the stage coach, he brushed off the prodigious amount of fine desert sand that had settled on his clothing, having just crossed 120 miles of the Colorado Desert, a desolate and nearly waterless area, furrowed with deep, sandy washes. He didn’t have much time to linger as his coach driver was in a hurry, noting in his journal, “. . . Vallecito, or Little Valley, is a beautiful green spot--a perfect oasis in the desert . . . and the green bushes and

Vallecito Stage Station 1930's photo, shortly before restoration

grass and hard road are a most refreshing relief from the sandy sameness of the desert. There are a number of springs, some of them salt. There is but one ranch, where we changed horses.” However, Mrs. Lassitor, mistress of the simple, adobe home, undoubtedly provided him with a meal. The Lassitor-Mulkins family had settled at this little desert oasis in about 1854, making a living by tending to emigrants and overland travelers, some farming and raising a few cattle and sheep.


Twenty-three-year-old Ormsby, reporter for the New York Herald, had just traveled 2,000 miles in a jostling stagecoach, which he had boarded in Tipton, Missouri, on September 16th, 21 days prior to reaching Vallecito. He still had another rugged 706 miles ahead of him before arriving in San Francisco on October 10, 1858, at 7:30 a.m. According to his calculation he made the entire trip of 2,866 miles, from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, in 23 days, 23 hours, and 30 minutes. [For the first 160 miles, mail and passengers were transported by the Pacific Railroad from Saint Louis to Tipton.] No one in the country believed it could be done in such a short time, except John Butterfield, president of the Overland Mail Company. John Butterfield delivered what people in California had been demanding since becoming the thirty-first state in the Union, on September 9, 1850 – that is, quicker mail service. For the years from 1858 to 1861, the company known as the Butterfield Overland Mail delivered mail and passengers with daring speed on a twice-weekly basis between Saint Louis and San Francisco and back along this oxbow route.

Young Ormsby had been the lone passenger from Fort Smith, Arkansas, on this historic inaugural run. He didn’t report anything too unusual, except that he had heard of the murder of three Americans at Dragoon Station in Arizona. No stage hold-ups, chases or major mishaps were noted in his journal.

 Historically, this locale had already served two expanding empires – the Spanish and the Mexican. And now, at the time of the Butterfield Stage Line, it was about to assist a third--the United States of America. But, for this oasis in the desert, the coming and going of the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coaches was just another turning point in the wheels of history. Vallecito, more than any other geographic location in the

Butterfield State Coach

western Colorado Desert, had been for centuries part of an all- important communication, transportation and emigration route into California.

Native Americans had inhabited this oasis for millennia prior to the coming of the Europeans. Their name for the village was Hawi. Already a center of culture in prehistoric times, Hawi was located on a major trail. Along the trail, trade and the transfer of information took place among the native people living along the Colorado River, in southern Arizona and Baja California, Mexico, as well as with those living in the mountains and along the Pacific coast of southern California. The strategic importance of Hawi was recognized by Spaniard Pedro Fages when he recommended that this area be considered for the establishment of a presidio.

In 1772, in pursuit of deserters, Fages and his soldiers left San Diego Mission and followed an old Indian trail that led across the Cuyamaca Mountains. They continued down Oriflamme Canyon to Mason Valley, then on to Vallecito. From Vallecito, they headed toward Carrizo Creek (later known as the Carrizo Corridor), north to San Sebastian Marsh, then headed northwest across the Borrego Valley and on through Coyote Canyon. In 1782 and 1785, due to unforeseen events along the Colorado River, the Carrizo Corridor route through Vallecito was again used by Pedro Fages.

The coming of the Europeans had brought enormous social, religious and political changes to California, seriously affecting the natives. In July 1781, the Quechan Indians living at the Colorado River near the Yuma Crossing led a revolt against the Spanish that cut off overland communication and transportation between Sonora, Mexico, and California. The armed insurrection caused the closure of the Anza Route traversing the Colorado Desert from Yuma to Mission San Gabriel (near Los Angeles). Under Pedro Fages, the Spanish made several attempts to reopen this important overland route. In 1782, Fages returned from the Colorado River by way of the Carrizo Corridor to Vallecito. There, Fages and his men spent the night. He noted in his diary, “. . . this location (Fages referred to Vallecito as San Felipe) is so well provided with pasture and water, with a superabundance of fine magueys, as well as of firewood, that it has the conditions requisite for establishing a presidio.” The next day, they continued north to Mason Valley, up Oriflamme Canyon and over the Cuyamaca Mountains to Mission San Diego. Pedro Fages used this route again in 1785 on reconnaissance for a mission site along the Colorado River. However in 1786, the Spanish decided that native hostilities along the Colorado River and in southern Arizona would make traveling too dangerous and abandoned the Anza overland route.

vallicito stage station anza borrego

The last major attempt by the Spanish to establish communication with Sonora was in 1796, under Jose Arrillaga. After exploring northern Baja California in hope of reopening a land route from Sonora to California, Arrillaga returned via Carrizo Corridor (Fages’ route) and stayed at Vallecito where he camped on October 25, 1796. He made the following observation, “There were several small houses of gentiles in this place. Eight of the gentiles came this afternoon, and they remained until the first hours of the night when, after giving them pinole and cigarettes, they were sent away. San Felipe (Vallecito) has a small spring, which can be sufficient only for a small vegetable garden . . .” Arrillaga and his men left Vallecito the next day and returned to Mission San Diego using the Fages Trail. Communication and transportation between Sonora and California by way of an overland route were at an impasse for the remainder of Spanish rule.

The Fages Trail (later also known as the San Diego Trail), never gained the notoriety of the Anza route. However its historic importance is of no less significance. Fages had found a new way of traveling from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado Desert. His route provided a shortcut through the arid Colorado Desert by using available water at Carrizo Creek, Palm Spring and, most importantly, at Vallecito.

By the end of Spanish rule in 1821, about 3,500 non- native people were living in California, making it a self- sufficient colony of the Spanish Empire. Of equal importance to emigration was the large number of livestock driven across the Anza Trail from 1775 to 1781, which helped to sustain the small colonial communities in California. Sufficient in quantity, these immense herds of cattle accounted for California’s reputation in the 1820s as a producer of tallow and hides. Herds of cattle and sheep were scattered across the watered valleys and mission lands that had penetrated the interior region of southern California in the last years of Spanish rule. The founding of the small chapel or assistencia at Santa Ysabel in 1818, and the use of San Jose Valley (Warner’s Ranch) by the missions of San Diego and San Luis Rey to pasture their grazing animals, proved to be significant in the eventual discovery of another important route. The new route had a leading impact on the making of the State of California and became known as the Sonora Road. Later it was known as the Southern Emigrant Trail and used by John Butterfield for his Overland Mail Company.

Manfred Knaak is chairman of the anthropology department at Imperial Valley College, where he teaches physical and cultural anthropology and American Indian Studies. He is retired as an Associate State Archaeologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and is the author of the award-winning book, The Forgotten Artist, Indians of Anza-Borrego Desert and Their Rock Art. © 2000, Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. From the ABDNHA Membership Newsletter “The Sand Paper”

© Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA), The Sand Paper.