Bicycling along Cooke’s Wagon Road

And we’ll have maps!

During the last week of February, I and two dozen others will bicycle along some of Arizona’s historic roads. We will be doing the Cactus Classic, the relatively easy-going week-long expedition with which PAC Tour begins its annual Desert Camp for serious cyclists. Part of our route will follow the course first plotted by the Mormon Battalion and soon thereafter developed into a major migration route.

During the 1840s, the desert southwest was conflicted territory. Mexico and the United States (and until granted statehood on December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas) claimed sovereignty in this vast region. Their armies tried, with fluctuating effectiveness, to enforce the claims of political forces in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.

Older and more complex rivalries, however, were more immediate threats to the well being of the people who lived in this arid territory. With civilizations and cultures that went back a thousand years or more, Native American communities had created ways to live relatively quiet and comfortable lives by skillfully using the region’s limited water supplies. Arriving later in time (estimates vary from 850 to 1400 CE) several nomadic bands of Native Americans, collectively referred to as Apaches, established a hunting and gathering way of life that conflicted with the agricultural patterns of their predecessors.

Add the Spaniards, beginning in the 1500s. Driven by their desire for gold, conquest, and conversion of Indians to the Catholic faith, and unwilling to acknowledge the prior claims of indigenous peoples, the Spaniards intensified the conflict. Finally, the Americans moved through the region, interested primarily in the riches of California, but also willing to tarry in the desert when their eyes were blinded by the sparkle of copper and silver that were buried in the Arizona mountains.

The dominant need, as the Americans saw it, was a land route from the Rio Grande River, across what would become New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California to San Diego. Without a road, the only viable way to get from the United States to California was around the Horn, an 18,000 mile trip that could take as long as six months. To be useful, the road had to be one that wagons could use and it had to be within reach of water for livestock and humans. Across this desolate stretch of the continent, the rivers were of little use as transportation arteries. Some of them ran north and south instead of east and west, and even when they went the right direction (as did the Gila), their water supply was too uncertain to plan regular travel.

The specific assignment given to the Mormon Battalion that marched across this country in 1846 was to establish the route for this wagon road. Under the steady, determined leadership of army regular Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, that is what the volunteer Mormon army accomplished.

It seems only right that for a time, this route bore his name. It was the Cooke Wagon Road. According to Cooke’s own log, the total distance was 1,800 miles. From Tucson to the Pima Villages was 81 miles, and Cooke writes that from there to the crossing of the Colorado River was another 205 miles (perhaps thirty miles longer than that same trip on modern roads). That portion of his trail paralleled the westward course of the Gila River  to its junction with the Colorado River at Fort Yuma. Increasingly this migration trail for Americans on their way to California came to be known as the Gila Trail.

Two processes during the latter part of the 1840s secured the American identity of this primitive road. The first was a tense negotiation between the United States and Mexico to establish a political border between these two nations. Finally, after several aborted efforts, the Joint Boundary Commission completed their work on August 16, 1855. It took four more years before accurate maps were published.

For the American team of surveyors, one of the primary considerations was to make sure that the Cooke Wagon Road would be in American territory. While the politicians and surveyors were doing their work, however, the second process was more powerfully at work. In his book Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, Odie B. Faulk explains it this way:

The maps did not appear in print in time to be of service to the first major horde of pilgrims to use this overland route, the gold-seekers of Forty-Nine. While Cooke’s Wagon Road was influencing the final boundary between the United States and Mexico, an abstract line upon the surface of the earth, it was being put to hard and practical use by thousands and tens of thousands of Americans who considered themselves far more practical than the government servants trying to survey and mark the international boundary. The lure of quick riches was a powerful magnet to eastern men, one that lured them across Cooke’s Wagon Road even in the absence of good maps (p. 57).

2 Responses to Bicycling along Cooke’s Wagon Road

  1. Klaus Schreiber says:

    is always interesting to follow your bicycle blog.
    I see you also signed up for Route 66. See you there.

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