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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Settling in the California Desert

A flurry of mining and cattle ranching activity first brought European Americans to the Mojave Desert in the 1860s. These prospectors and ranchers moved to and from mining districts and range land, gathering for water at natural springs like the Oasis of Mara in the present-day California town of Twentynine Palms. Permanent homesteaders did not arrive in the Twentynine Palms area until the 1920s. Under the Homestead Act, these settlers claimed 160-acre parcels of land just as thousands of families had done in the 19th century.

The arid climate made the land unsuitable for farming, but some people came to the area to improve their health. Many World War I veterans who had been exposed to poison gas during battle developed respiratory ailments that seemed improved by the Mojave's elevation, dryness, and lack of fog. The new settlers chose areas near the Oasis of Mara because of the reliable water source. By the mid 1930s, the area had evolved into the small town of Twentynine Palms. Between the two World Wars, life in the remote desert region near Twentynine Palms was much different than in more settled areas of the United States. In the desert, roads consisted of wagon tracks, mail took at least 10 days to receive, electricity did not exist, and phones were lacking. Survival often depended on adaptation and ingenuity.

In 1938, land officials acknowledged that the Mojave Desert was not suitable for large-scale farming. The Federal Government passed the Small Tract Act granting five-acre or "jackrabbit" homesteads in such dry and unproductive areas. This Act brought more people to Twentynine Palms and transformed the area once again. But even as Twentynine Palms evolved into a bustling community, a handful of homesteaders on larger plots of land maintained a way of life similar to that of the earlier pioneers. Nestled in a rock-enclosed canyon approximately seven miles from Twentynine Palms, but separated from it by impassable rock piles, one of those homesteaders--Bill Keys--carved out his own niche.

Born in Russia on September 27, 1879, Bill Keys and his family moved to Nebraska in the early 1890s. He left home at the age of 15 and began working at mills, mines, and cattle ranches. In 1910, Keys arrived in the Twentynine Palms area where he began working at the Desert Queen Mine as custodian and assayer (one who analyzes ore and judges its worth). After the owner's death, Keys gained possession of the mine as payment for back wages. In 1917, he filed on an 80 acre homestead under the Homestead Act and began to build a ranch. He soon married Frances May Lawton, who left the comforts of the city to move to the Mojave Desert ranch and start a family. The couple had seven children between 1919 and 1931, three of whom died during childhood. Together the Keys family tackled the hardships of isolated desert life. Eventually, the Keys' homestead included a ranch house, store, two school houses, a home for a teacher, outhouses, sheds, a stamp mill, a corral, supply yard, orchard, cement dam and lake, windmill, irrigation systems, rock retaining walls, and a cemetery.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What factors contributed to the establishment and growth of Twentynine Palms?

2. What was everyday life like in the California desert region between the two World Wars? How was this different from many other areas of America?

3. How did Keys acquire the Desert Queen Mine?

Reading 1 was adapted from Gordon Chappell, "Keys' Desert Queen Ranch" (San Bernadino County, California) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; and Linda W. Greene, "Historic Resource Study: A History of Land Use in Joshua Tree National Monument," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983.

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