CAHUILLA WALK-IN WATER WELL

walk-in well

 

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.

Eytel well
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/

Fig Tree John, his Wife and Grandchildren

A legendary figure in the Coachella Valley, Fig Tree John, a Cahuilla, was often photographed wearing a top hat. In July 1901, Frances Anthony in “Below Sea-Level,” The Land of Sunshine, described him as “the distinguished owner of an orchard of fig trees.” In “On the Desert,” The Youth’s Instructor, October 1905, Jocie Wallace, described a visit to his fig plantation, thirty of his trees being at least thirty years old and “quite an orchard” of younger trees.  It is generally believed these were Mission fig trees, the first figs planted in the Coachella Valley.

Life was not to remain idyllic for his family, as the 1905-1907 flooding by the Colorado River that created the Salton Sea inundated his home at Fig Tree John Springs, on the west side of the Salton Sea, near the Riverside/Imperial County line. At the height of the flooding his land was under 5 feet of water, forcing him to move a few miles to Agua Dulce (near Oasis). After the water settled in the Sea, it is said he returned to visit his old home almost every day, but never moved back.

Fig Tree John, Wife & Grandchildren,

This photo of his family is floating around the internet and pinned on Pinterest. with the label, “1934” and a Salton Sea Database Project logo in the lower right corner. In fact, Fig Tree John passed away in 1927. I found it printed in Wallace’s article, published October 17, 1905!