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Freighting on the Desert

A Page of History

I found an article taken from the 1892 "Illustrated Sketches" of Death Valley by John R. Spears discussing the Twenty-Mule Team. Of course, this was from my mother Marion Deaver's extensive files of history of East Kern County and beyond.

Keep in mind this book was written in 1892, so when I quote certain portions, remember not everything was "politically correct" in that time over 100 years ago.

"If historians and poets have been justified in writing rapturously about the Arab and his steed, what may we not say of the Death Valley teamster and his mules?"

Spears poetically noted how the teamster would soar over the front wheel to his perch, gather in the slack of a jerk-line, loosen the brake and yell "git up, (yelling obscenities) git up!"

The mules would settle forward in their collars and with one accord start the train of 60,000 pounds on its way.

The teamster noted how intelligent the mules were. When they turned a corner in a canyon or on a trail, without one word from the teamster they would jump over the long chain and pull away on a tangent so that the heavy load could be dragged around the turn. The mule team that still runs in parades today accomplishes the same feat – and it is a wonder to behold.

Spears explained that every teamster had an assistant referred to as a "swamper." The swamper's duties were "multifarious," according to Spears. On the trail when a down-grade came, he would climb on the back of the last wagon and put on the brake. When uphill grades were encountered he reasoned with and threw rocks at the "obstreperous" mules to make them climb.

As meal time approached he gathered dead branches from the grease-bushes (creosote) and pulled up roots of sagebrush to build the cook fire. When the train stopped for the night, the swamper would cook the meal while the teamster fed the animals. After dinner the swamper washed the dishes, placed the rest of the food in a box and stored it in the wagon for the next day.

The mules got their grain from boxes that were secured to the wagon tongue and between the wheels. The mules also grazed from the ground's grasses. The mules enjoyed rolling in the sand, and with cyclonic vigor at that!

The author said that when all the mules decided to roll around the air around them, "looked like a Death Valley sand storm!"

The drivers of the mule team were paid $100 to $120 per month, with swampers getting $75. They had to supply their own food and bedding. Food at camp included bacon, bread and beans for the basics and every other canned good they had to heat up.

They used Dutch ovens, frying pans and tin kettles for stewing. Not much fancy food was available except for an occasional cobbler using canned peaches.

They rarely carried liquor with them on the road. Spears said that was not to say the teamsters were members of the "Woman's Temperance Union." At their short overnight layover in Mojave, the teamsters were allowed to enjoy some "nightlife."

The teamsters could go broke overnight and the next morning the men were said to invite the team to roll and, no matter the driver's condition, the mules simply moved on out. Whether alcohol, gambling or other "sports" enjoyed at night, the teamsters were, with rare exceptions, unmarried men.

There were dangers along the trail, including steep downhill grades. If the brakes set by the teamster and the swamper held, all was well. If not, the mules, the load and the drivers could be killed in the process.

The drivers were, "not men of education or of very wide experience." At other times, crimes were committed. When a teamster and swamper got in an argument by the campfire, the swamper hit the other man in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

Next time you are at your job, just be thankful that you are not a teamster or a swamper, with a big load to manage in the middle of the desert – things could be worse.