In 1849 a band of gold seekers (and perhaps some exiles of the law from the eastern states) made their way to the lower Colorado River in search of the precious metal. Rumors had been circulated by earlier mountain men that the banks of the stream, covered with sand from flooding, contained large numbers of gold nuggets and flakes.
These early years saw the Colorado rise and fall almost unpredictably. The Spring runoff from the far away Rocky Mountains produced floods and covered wide stretches of flat desert landscape – making the river miles wide at many points. But at the place that would eventually become the city of Yuma, two outcroppings of granite, one on each side of the stream, held their place against the river’s muddy churning. Through this gap the river ran swiftly toward the Gulf of California. Though the crossing from one bank to another was hazardous it could still be accomplished by ferry. The Yumas natives had mastered the crossing and built a fairly lucrative business from emigrants.
The value of the crossing wasn’t lost on a group of Americans led by John Glanton, and they forcibly took over the ferry crossing.
The Yumas had resisted white men before, and after nursing their anger for a time, they attacked the Glanton party and killed fifteen of them on April 23, 1850.
The newly formed government of California took steps to punish the tribe by sening a military force against them. The army established a post near the junction of the Colorado and the Gila Rivers, but on the California side. The camp was named Camp Independence. It was later abandoned only to be reestablished in 1852 as Fort Yuma.
Various explorations took place from this location. Wagon roads were established on the eastern side running up the banks of the Gila toward Casa Grande and Tucson. and northward toward the mining camp at Prescott. The treacherous road across the Imperial Valley to San Diego wound westward through the dry desert.
There were even hopes, stemming from Mormon settlements in the Utah Territory to the north, that a way might be found to navigate the Colorado southward from Utah to reach the Pacific Ocean through the Gulf of California. In line with this thought, Major Samuel P. Heintzelman, the commander of the Yuma garrison made a valiant attempt to paddle up the Colorado in small boats in 1851, but the heavy flow of the river turned them back. Navigation on the Colorado finally took a serious turn when Captain William Turnbull brought the first steamboat, the Uncle Sam, up the Gulf of California in a schooner, assembled her at the river’s mouth and sailed to Fort Yuma on December 2, 1852.
In July of 1854 a settlement and town were marked out on the eastern shore of the Colorado River across from Fort Yuma by Charles D. Poston and others. Named originally Colorado City it would later be renamed Arizona City and finally Yuma.
Currently the Colorado has been tamed by the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams up stream. The flow from these structures and the diversion dam at Parker have channeled the Colorado to the farms in the imperial valley and the growing populations of southern California. The “mighty Colorado” has been reduced to a trickle near Yuma and seldom spills any of its contents into the Gulf of California. Still, before it was silenced, the Colorado made one last attempt to show its strength and dominance – but that’s another story we’ll tell next week.
Copyright Harold Hickman, 2015 All rights reserved.