If you are familiar with the history of the Cahuilla People, or the Coachella Valley, you probably are familiar with the water well shown above. Sources of water in the desert Valley were scarce, especially in its eastern end. A freshwater lake, Ancient Lake Cahuilla, was intermittently formed by flooding from the Colorado River, but when the river resumed its course south to the Sea of Cortez, the lake would slowly evaporate. In order to survive, the Desert Cahuilla were one of the few (if not the only) Native Americans to dig water wells.
This photo is generally credited to Charles C. Pierce, a photographer from Los Angeles. He probably took the photo on a trip to the Valley in October, 1903, which was the subject of Edmund Mitchell’s article, “On Desert Roaming” in The Strand Magazine (January 1905).* In the article, Mitchell does not name Pierce, but says one of the party of four was “a professional landscape photographer from Los Angeles” and all of the photos were credited to Pierce. Mitchell describes the party’s visit to the Martinez and Torres Reservations (Torres-Martinez Reservation) where they found “wells dug as inclined planes.” Pierce’s notes say the well was at Toro, and he was told it was dug about 75 years earlier (circa 1827).
George Wharton James’ The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (2 volumes, 1906) included a drawing (below) by Carl Eytel that is obviously from the same time period as the photograph.
Due to artesian wells being drilled in the eastern Coachella Valley, James describes the well as having a neglected appearance: “Brush and weeds grow freely around it and the water that accumulates has a yellow appearance and is somewhat brackish to the taste, so that even wild animals despise and forsake it.”
When J. Smeaton Chase wrote California Desert Trails (1919), about his travels in the desert, he describes the wells as having become “shapeless pits filled with mesquit and other brush.”
*Per the notes on the Huntington Library’s collection of Pierce photographs in Online Archive of California, “The most outstanding aspect of his business, however, was the vast picture library he amassed over three decades at work. Aside from making his own photographs, Pierce acquired the negatives and prints of other regional photographers such as Emil Ellis, Parker and Knight, Ramsey, Herve Friend, L.M. Clendenon, George P. Thresher, George Wharton James, and F.M. Huddleston. Pierce eradicated the existing signatures from the photographs, stamped his own name on the images, and organized the lot into subject files. The consequence of Pierce’s business practices assured that most, if not all, of the connections between the images and their original creator are now lost. However, the archive which he advertised as the ‘C.C. Pierce Collection of Rare, Historical and Curious Photographs, Illustrating California, the Pacific Coast and the Southwest,’ became an invaluable resource for researchers and boosters alike, all of whom came to Pierce’s shop to locate an image for their purposes.” https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt7199q9m3/