Legends of The Mojave Desert

Legends of The Mojave Desert

Prolific photographers and explorers Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves on an expedition in the California desert. Photographer unknown. Photograph from Atlas Obscura

Little is known about William David Bradshaw. A fellow named Horace Bell spent some time with Bradshaw in the gold camps of California. In his journal he called him a “most polished gentleman” and a “natural lunatic.” He may have been a bit of both. Even though the historic record is thin, there is no doubt that Bradshaw was a man that recognized opportunity. And apparently he was tougher than ironwood bark.

Well, mi amigos, if you are a fan of stories about colorful characters and forgotten chapters of southwest history, this blog is for you. Today I will be sharing the story of Bradshaw, and the Bradshaw Trail that once was a vital artery of commerce across the forbidding desert of southern California. And I will also introduce you to two very amazing women, Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves.

As a fan of western frontier history I was vaugely aware of the Bradshaw Trail. But my knowledge of the trail, and its namesake, was almost comparable to a frogs knowledge of tap dancing.

At the venerable old Auto Books Aero Books store in Burbank, California, I have a book signing every December. Afterwards it is my custom to peruse the shelves in search of new additions for my growing research library. One of the books purchsed this past December was Postcards From Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves 1916-1936.

Historian Dennis Casebier best known for giving the old school in Goffs, California along Route 66 a new lease on life, and for chronicling the history of the Mojave Road, introduced me to these two adventuresome women many years ago. We were talking about early 20th century exploration in the Mojave Desert. He asked if I was familiar with Smith and Graves, daring cousins and prolific photographers. He then showed me some of their real photo postcards.

So, for several years I have picked up snippets here and there about Smith and Graves. Their story is a tale of inspiration, of adventure, and of a toughness that is rare today. Finding this book about their desert adventures was akin to finding treasure for me.

Susie had been crippled with polio as a child. But this did not hold her back. Her father taught her how to maintain and even fully rebuild a Model T Ford. He also taught her a profiency with firearms. Both of these skills served her well, first when her parents moved to a ranch near Mecca, California, and then when she became postmaster in that remote desert town. And of course, when she and her cousin began venturing deep into the desert to photograph rugged miners, prospectros and cowboys, and stark landscapes, these skills as well as horsemanship proved priceless.

By the time Smith and Graves began exploring the desert, the Bradshaw Trail was little more than an historic footnote. But they traveled it from the Colorado River to San Gorgonio Pass, which lies east of Riverside, and they documented the vanishing ruins of stage stations, ranches, and outposts.

In April 1846, William Bradshaw joined the California’s Bear Flag Rebellion that fought to overthrow Mexican rule and establish an independent California Republic. By the early 1860s, Bradshaw was a veteran of the great California gold rush, and countless other strikes.

In early 1862, as news spread about the discovery of a major gold discovery on the Arizona side of the Colorado River by Pauline Weaver, a well-known scout and trapper, Bradshaw sensed opportunity.

This time he intended to profit from the flood of miners, prospectors, sepculators, gamblers and investors rather toil away in search of richs. Weaver’s strike was about 250 miles east of Los Angeles. But this was across unexplored wilderness. The most viable route was an arduous one: down the coast of California by ship, up the Gulf of California, and then steam ship or long hike up the Colorado River.

Delmer G. Ross in his book Gold Road to La Paz: An Interpretive Guide to the Bradshaw Trail, wrote, “Bradshaw was befriended by Old Cabezon, chief of the Cahuilla Indians of the Salton Sink, and a Cocomaricopa Indian mail runner from Arizona who happened to be visiting the Cahuilla villages. The two Indians provided Bradshaw with a map showing an ancient Halchidoma Indian trade route through the Colorado Desert – the northern extension of Mexico’s Sonoran Desert – complete with the location of springs and water holes.”

With this map and infromatioon in hand, Bradshaw and eight daring men set out to chart a trail from Los Angeles to the Colorado River. Bradshaw knew that if he could cut a trail through the harsh desert and promote it, he would prosper mightily from a ferry that he would build on the river.

After mapping the route and establishing rudimentary service stops at key water holes and palm shaded oasis, he established a ferry on the Colorado River. After giving his brother Isaac the position as manager, and William Warringer as operations head, Bradshaw began promotiing the trail in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Traffic began flowing along the trail in ever growing numbers. And the ferry which could carry freight wagons as well as draft animals became a cash cow. To protect his investment Bradshw traveled to the newly established capital of Prescott in Arizona, and was awarded a 20-year exclusive franchise for his ferry service from the territorial legislature.

As was often the case, the gold strike spawned a boom town. Soon La Paz had a population of more than 1,5000 people. According to some sources within one year twelve saloons were built of adobe with canvas roofs, there were several stores, a few brothels and other businesses.

But the fabulous strike at La Paz proved to be short lived. By 1870, most of the mines had played out. Prospectors were finding little color in placer mining. La Paz faded and soon became a ghost town. With the exception of a few propsectors, and adventurers such as Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves, no one used the Bradshaw Trail.

William Bradshaw made quite a fortune. But he never had an opportunity to spend it. And he never saw the abandonment of La Paz for he committed suicide in 1864. That, however, is not the end of the Bradshaw story. His brother Issac would play a pivotal role in the development of the Arizona territory. He is the namesake for the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott, Arizona.

This, however, is a story for another day. This is another one of America’s stories to be told by Jim Hinckley’s America.

Today, the Bradshaw Trail, like the Mojave Road, is barely discernable in many places. A few sections are maintained by BLM for four-wheel drive vehicles or hiking. If you want to learn more about the trail, you can find more information on this website:


I hope you that enjoyed this story about the 19th century Bradshaw Trail across the Mojave Desert. If you did, please leave a comment below and share it with your friends. And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for more of America’s stories.