Captain Joseph R. Walker, was one of the greatest mountain men that ever lived. Captain Walker, a lover of horses, had for over 30 years provided livestock - and much, much more - to the Federal Government. After an adventure filled career, he lived out his final years in Contra Costa County.
Young Joe began his career at the age of 15 as a horse boy and express messenger during the War of 1812. Serving under the Command of General Andrew Jackson, Joseph Walker was seen as a very patriotic American of unusual character, known to be honest, sensible and diligent. He was perfect for what lay ahead. As early as 1775, President George Washington recognized the need and necessity of an intelligence gathering operation, composed of elite specialists, who could travel freely in foreign territories, using a variety of covers and disguises in both overt and covert operations to gather and maintain secret records relative to military information.
Born in Tennessee on December 13, 1798, Captain Walker became one of the most powerful and most knowledgeable man alive in the West. He possessed the qualities and unusual character of a true pathfinder, explorer, guide, trapper, smuggler, Indian fighter, commander and spy. He was a soft-spoken man, never a bragger, kind and affable, with the ability to establish and maintain discipline with men who were sometimes no better than gangsters. He never ran from a fight and seldom had to pull his gun to stop a fight. When dealing with Indians, he had a very simple policy - negotiate or be punished. He never was one to drink more than a toast, but he did like his tobacco.
The Captain never did things in halves and could take his men and pass anywhere in the wilderness without fear or favor. A true John Wayne of indomitable bravery, it was recorded that he only lost one man in all his adventures. He died at his ranch in Contra Costa County, California on October 27, 1876. Now buried in the old Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery in the City of Martinez, he is known to only a few lovers of Western lore and intrigue. This Shadow Master, who left his name at Walker's Pass; Walker Lake; the Walker Rivers; Walker Trail; Walker Basin; Walker Mining District; Walker, Arizona; and Yosemite, has proven how good he really was, yet still, who was he?
To understand Captain Walker it is important to realize that he was a true believer in Manifest Destiny, Thomas Jefferson's dream of joining the entire United States together, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But, this dream would not manifest itself without a little undercover help. Most, if not all U.S. Presidents, had a secret fund set aside for the enlistment of scouts, agents, smugglers and bribe money to provoke or to support revolutions. Well-known men like Lewis and Clark, Joel R. Poinsett, Zebulon Pike, Sam Houston, Jim Bridger, Christopher Carson, Benjamin Louis Bonneville and John Charles Fremont were but a few of those men within this system. Both Andrew Jackson and James Polk were known to send agents, acting as trappers or smugglers, into Spanish and Mexican-held territories to create or supply such revolutions that would, in the end, put California, Texas and all the southwest into U.S. possession.
As far back as 1821, and later in 1833, when Captain Walker and his men were camping above the Yosemite Valley watching the stars and awe-struck by the giant Redwood trees, their true mission was to locate new routes into and out of California. From Fort Osage in Missouri, to the Great Salt Lake in Utah and beyond to Oregon, knowledge of trails, forts, water, and establishing friendly relations with Native Americans were the goals to be achieved for the United States.
In 1846, Captain Walker drove over 500 horses from California to Santa Fe, New Mexico (over trails he discovered) to sell to the Army of the West and to Colonel Alexander Doniphan's Missouri Mounted Volunteers for the use in the War against Mexico (1846-1848). We already know that, as an outcome of this war, more people were needed to settle this vast area. The discovery of California gold in 1848 would provide the new pioneers needed to settle the newly conquered Mexican territories.
Most mountain men and trappers, having worked the waterways, knew of gold yet gave it little importance. Beaver pelts had a much greater value to them. But by 1845 beaver hats, now going out of style, forced many trappers to become guides or scouts. Yet many men, like Captain Walker, remembered where they had seen traces of gold during their wilderness explorations throughout the Southwest.
On October 31, 1848, General Stephen Watts Kearny died. A 34-year old army officer named James Henry Carlton began using Walker's talents. By 1858, Carleton found himself stationed at Fort Tejon, California, as Commander of the First Dragoons and on July 26, 1861, he was appointed to Colonel of 1st Infantry, California Volunteers and later to General of the California Column. General Carlton was ordered to march his 2,350 men from Wilmington, California to El Paso, Texas (one of the longest marches in U.S. infantry history) to secure the territory against Confederate intrigue and later to subdue hostile Indians. At the same time, (now in his 60's), Captain Walker also received orders to secretly explore the purposed route and provide detailed maps of trails, watering holes, grazing areas for the horses and any othe. useful information to General Carleton and the Union army. As part of the cover, a Union journalist, A.F. Banta, published in southern newspapers that Captain Walker and his party were not Union scouts but rather Confederate soldiers. The ploy worked and valuable information was acquired for the war effort.
General Carleton and Captain Walker had been friends for over 20 years and had worked on many operations together. The General requested other favors of Captain Walker, one being the capture of Mangas Coloradas, the great Chief of the Mimbreno Apaches, father-in-law of Cochise and, secondly to locate and secure more gold fields. The capture of Mangas Coloradas would solve two problems as his band had infested the region surrounding the Pino Alto gold mines in New Mexico. Captain Walker had one ace-in-the-hole, for he had in his employment the young Indian boy, Pena, who had been a seven-year captive of Mangas Coloradas's band until liberated by the Captain in 1851. The lad was more than happy to guide the party and as a result, Mangas was taken prisoner, executed by the Army and several days later, his head was removed to be sent back East for display. This done, Captain Walker and his men headed west to Arizona to open several gold mines in the Tucson area. Afterwards, he then disbanded the expedition.
This story is only one of the many accomplishments of Captain Joseph R. Walker. He lived a full life as few western heroes ever have, yet still his life is still hidden in the shadows of our Western history. After an action packed career, his final resting place is our own Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez.
- Slocum, W.A., 1882, History of Contra Costa County, California, republished by the Contra Costa County History Society.