A Brief History of the Mojave Desert: Background information when reading Gods Without Men

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Gods Without Men

A Novel

by Hari Kunzru

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 384 pages
    Jan 2013, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
A Brief History of the Mojave Desert

Print Review

The Mojave Desert is located primarily in Southern California but extends into parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It encompasses Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park as well as communities such as Barstow and 29 Palms. Interstates 14 and 40 penetrate into and cross the desert.

map of the Mojave Desert Nearly 12,000 years ago, once the Pleistocene glaciers receded, Paleo Indians occupied what we now call the Mojave Desert. According to the US National Park Service, "The Chemehuevi lived on prickly pear, mesquite and roasted agave blooms and hunted deer and bighorn sheep." As the region became more arid, various native tribes such as Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Mojave moved in.

When Spanish explorers arrived in the late 16th Century in search of gold and silver, "the Mojaves were the largest concentration of people in the Southwest." By the 1700s, Franciscan missions were being established on the California coast, and people such as Father Francisco Garces (who is also a character in the novel) traveled through the desert, visiting and living with the inland Mojave Indians. Incidentally, he left the only surviving written record concerning their way of life.

Mojave PeopleIn the 1800s, explorers, trappers and traders from a young America led by men such as Jedediah Smith and James Ohio Pattie arrived in Mojave territory, which resulted in a fair amount of violence. By the mid-1800s, the United States annexed much of the southwest from Mexico, including Arizona, "and with it began encroachment by the US Army." Though the Indians did not recognize any outside ownership of their lands, roads and railroads were built as miners and wagon trains of settlers moved into the area. By the end of the century, natives had been confined to reservations and were controlled by the Office of Indian Affairs.

Joshua Tree National Park The 1900s brought increased mining and homesteading. A railroad built from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles became the Union Pacific. In 1916, Route 66 was built alongside the railroad. Military bases were established from 1940 to 1960. During the 1960s, interstates were built. These decades saw dramatic increases in population as the gaming industry, military presence, and suburbs expanded.

UFOs and their connection with the Mojave Desert began in 1947 with a sighting by US Air Force personnel on July 8 at the Muroc Air Base (now Edwards AFB), located on the borders of three California counties at the edges of the Mojave Desert. The sightings led to a joint investigation by Army Air Force Intelligence and the FBI. The Roswell, New Mexico UFO Incident, concerning the recovery of an object thought to be the remains of an extra-terrestrial spacecraft, complete with alien occupants, sparked interest, controversy and conspiracy theories that continue to this day. Both events gave rise to various UFO religions and cults, large and small, based on the belief that humanity will be saved by aliens who will educate humans about a better way to live.

Map by Cepha

Article by Judy Krueger

This article was originally published in March 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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