The Owens Valley – Three Stories of Deprivation

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”

Benjamin Franklin

 Reconstructed Guard Tower #8 at the 6,200 Manzanar Internment Camp National Historic Site in the Owens Valley

The symbol of deprivation within the Owens Valley that inspired this post.


A recent automobile trip renewed an acquaintance with the Owens Valley in east central California.  It was once a lush and fertile land with hundreds of streams and springs, as well as ponds and marshes – both large and small, all of which supported abundant flora and fauna.

Little rain, however, falls within the Owens Valley.  Moisture from the Pacific is largely deposited upon the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains before making it inland to this region.  This makes the Owens Valley an arid place, despite its historically luxuriant grasslands.  Here, the weather is hot in the summer, cold in the winter; and the wind blows constantly.

   The Owens Valley from the California Escarpment

The Owens Valley in California is a rift valley, a divergent boundary in which both sides are moving apart.  The Sierra escarpment of this valley is pictured above.

The Owens River, 120 miles long, whose headwaters begin in the snow melt near the 11,600-foot summit of the San Joaquin Mountain north of the present day town of Mammoth Lakes, California, once flowed south through this valley.  Within recorded history, and before 1913, this river ended in the waters of Owens Lake at the valley’s southern end.  During the last part of the 19th century, this lake usually covered 108 square miles to an average depth of approximately 30 feet and had dimensions roughly 12 miles long by 8 miles wide.


Federal Government: 145,000 – Paiutes: 5,000

For at least 3,000 years, several loosely connected family groups of Paiute Indians occupied this valley.  They lived a sustainable life.

They were primarily food gatherers and farmers.  They built canals to irrigate their hyacinth and yellow nut grass plots on whose tubers a major portion of their diet depended.

In addition, they lived on deer, big horn sheep, fish, and small game.  The animals were mostly trapped and hunted in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains bounding the valley on the west or the White and Inyo Mountains bounding the valley on the east.

Missionary contact with the Paiutes by Spanish and Mexican priests can be traced to 1776; but significant contact with white ‘mountain men’, whose exploration immediately preceded Caucasian settlement in the valley, didn’t occur until 1833.  By the 1860s, however, the Indian and Anglo populations in the valley weren’t getting along.

Paiute Women Performing the Revitalized 'Ghost Dance'

 Paiute women perform the revitalized ‘Ghost Dance’.

The winter of 1861 – 1862 was especially severe in the Owens Valley.  During the spring that followed, the cattle of the settlers didn’t have the good sense to avoid grazing in the Indian nut grass plots; and the Indians concluded that the offending bovines were simply varmints, which also happened to be good to eat.

After a few cows, red men, and white men were killed, the settlers complained to the federal government about the behavior of the indigenous population, despite the fact that theirs wasn’t any better and despite the fact that they, obviously, were the interlopers.  Army units were dispatched several times between 1861 and 1865 to administer lessons on etiquette and Anglo culture to the uppity savages.

In most of these early engagements, the Paiutes were armed with bows and arrows, while the cavalry were armed with repeating rifles.  Consequently, it wasn’t a fair fight.

The Indians instituted what is now often called ‘asymmetrical warfare’ with harassment raids, ambushes, and other quick engagements.  They practiced the kind of guerilla combat that many middle-aged Americans believe was invented by Fidel Castro, or Che Guevarra, or Ho Chi Minh and first practiced to rid Cuba of Batista or to rid Viet Nam of the French and the Americans.

The Paiutes, often led by one of their own, a man called “Joaquin Jim”, employed this style of combat to kick the federal government’s ass all over the Owens Valley.  They controlled this entire region by the middle of the summer of 1862.

However, from 1863 onward, and especially after 1865 rolled around, there were plenty of white troops available to take care of those annoying savages in the Owens Valley.  What followed was an agonizing extermination of Paiute culture in this region.

In the process, Washington DC generously offered the Paiutes other places to live, such as Death Valley in the Mojave Desert, approximately 100 miles away.  However, the Indians politely declined such governmental magnanimity.  Hence, as one might imagine a dismissive legislator saying, “They have only themselves to blame for the eventual outcomes.”

By 1954, a combined population of Northern, Southern, and Owens Valley Paiutes, once estimated in excess of 150,000, had been reduced to approximately 2,500 living in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona and almost the same number living in Oregon and Washington.  The federal government decommissioned the tribe in that year, effectively concluding that Paiutes no longer existed.  This made it easy to nullify all treaties that had been negotiated with these tribes.

Twenty-six years later, in 1980, Washington DC changed its mind about the existence of Paiutes and restored some recognition to the existence of its remaining members.  By 1992, a census concluded that the Paiute population totaled over 11,000, including 7,323 Northern Paiutes, 2,266 Owens Valley Paiutes, and 1,456 Southern Paiutes.  Nearly half of the Paiutes lived off-reservation, often in small, federally recognized ‘colonies’ that blended into surrounding white settlements.

Paiute Woman Weaves a Cradleboard

Basket weaving among the Paiutes is considered the highest form of art.  Here, a modern Paiute woman weaves a cradleboard.

To be fair to the federal government, far more Paiutes were lost to disease than to war, the burdens of relocation, or any other single cause after these native people met European settlers.  Nevertheless, it would be difficult to overstate the hardships that the federal government imposed upon them.  For example, although several large reservations (Moapa, Pyramid Lake, Walker River, Duck Valley, and Malheur) were established for the Paiutes in Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho between 1859 and 1891, by the turn of the following century, total tribal lands had been reduced to less than 5% of their original territory.


Los Angeles: Wet – Owens Valley: Dry

Thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, the native Paiutes had been replaced by the many settlers in the Owens Valley.  Very much like the Paiutes, they were mostly farmers and ranchers.  The land remained nearly as lush and as fertile as it was during the Indian occupation; and life for these Anglos was good.

Further, their lives were about to get better.  The residents looked forward to organizing a large irrigation project in their valley through the newly formed federal Reclamation Service.

Unfortunately, the federal agent for the Reclamation Service whose territory covered the Owens Valley was a political crony of Mr. Fred Eaton, a former mayor of Los Angeles.  Mr. Eaton foresaw that the continued growth and prosperity of Los Angeles would require water, lots of it.

In fact, Mr. Eaton believed that Los Angeles, particularly the undeveloped San Fernando Valley, would need all of the water supplied by the Owens River.  He was correct about the ends. However, he was as incorrect as one can be about the means to secure those ends.

Fred Eaton - Mayor of Los Angeles 1898 - 1900

Fred Eaton – Mayor, Los Angeles 1898 to 1900

The Owens River was 200 miles away from Los Angeles; but that didn’t bother either Mr. Eaton, or his partner, Mr. William Mulholland.  In fact, nothing much bothered Eaton, Mulholland, or the agent of the Reclamation Service.

Eaton hired and paid this federal agent to assist him and Mulholland in their project to obtain the water of the Owens Valley.  The agent kept his job with the federal government while working for Eaton.  To point out the conflict of interest this arrangement encompassed would be a disservice to the intelligence of most readers.

William Mulholland - Head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power 1902 - 1928

William Mulholland – Superintendent and Chief Engineer, Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles 1902 to 1928

Together, the agent for the Reclamation Service, Eaton, and Mulholland conspired and colluded through deception and bribery to acquire enough property and water rights in the Owens Valley by 1905 to prevent the long-envisioned Owens Valley irrigation project from becoming a reality.  They did this by convincing the government of Los Angeles of a false, immediate, desperate need for water and by using public funds released under this charade to purchase critical Owens Valley parcels and water access privileges.

When President Teddy Roosevelt became aware of these shenanigans, he approved them.  Thus was the federal government, and a president often regarded as a conservationist, brought further into the group that inflicted the greatest ecological damage ever within the land area of the contiguous 48 States.

Once sufficient access to Owens Valley water was established, $23 million in public funds were subsequently raised and expended in a five-year effort to divert the Owens River from its namesake valley and to build a 233-mile viaduct for the transportation of its waters to Los Angeles.  This was all completed by the end of 1913 when the first cascade of water reached the final reservoir along the aqueduct.

The first uses found for this water were to irrigate some orchards within the San Fernando Valley.  At the time, Los Angeles had plenty of potable water.

The 'Cascades' Section of the First Los Angeles Aqueduct near Sylmar, California

The ‘Cascades’ Section of the First Los Angeles Aqueduct near Sylmar, California is designed to aerate the water as it enters the final reservoir as well as to dissipate the last of its energy in the gravity-fed aqueduct.
Many movie scenes involving the dramatic struggle between good and evil have been shot at this location because of the dynamic, powerful, and menancing nature of its water movement. Hence, innumerable bodies of villains must lie in this channel.


The intake for the first Los Angeles aqueduct is centered in the Owens Valley six miles south of the Lake Tinemaha reservoir near the town of Aberdeen, California.  By 1924, within eleven years after the weir was closed to divert the entirety of the Owens River into the Los Angeles aqueduct, Owens Lake disappeared.

The channel of the Owens River south of the intake became an arroyo almost imediately.  Ponds and marshes below the weir quickly became salt flats and desert brushlands.    What remains of a luxuriant, fruitful, natural paradise is now often evidenced by brush-filled depressions and sometimes huge clouds of blowing dust.

Owens Lake (dry) ca. 1992

Owens Lake (dry) ca. 1992 while establishing dust monitoring stations

Farmers and cattlemen of the Owens Valley initially sabotaged the Mulholland viaduct that robbed them of water; then, they gave up; and many moved on.  Many little towns and settlements disappeared.  Only the tourist-supported hamlets along US Highway 395 have survived this exodus.

In 1941, the Mono basin watershed north of the Owens Valley was drained by an additional intake to the original Los Angeles aqueduct.  In 1970, Los Angeles constructed a second aqueduct alongside the first to increase water delivery to the city.

Nearly 100 years after it all began, Los Angeles was sued for the environmental damage it had inflicted on the Owens Valley and it lost.  The City of Angeles is now required to restore, in part, the Owens River and Lake.  It has not met a single deadline for such restoration as ordered by the courts.


Japanese Navy: Pearl Harbor – Americans of Japanese Decent: Manzanar

Coincident with the time Los Angeles was extending the reach of its aqueduct and further damaging the environment of the Owens Valley,  in Washington DC, all Japanese were melded into one monolithic, enemy entity after December 7, 1941, whether they lived in Japan, or somewhere else.  As befits any entity that chooses to believe that Death Valley is as suitable for habitation as the Owens Valley, or that a valley is the same, with water or without, a ‘Jap’, living in America after Pearl Harbor, was an enemy, just like Nazis of Germany, or Fascists of Italy.

In the absence of such nuance, either with respect to problem definition or solution specification, it then becomes possible to believe that we interred our own citizens during WWII.  When FDR signed an executive order (#9066) in February of 1942 authorizing the Secretary of War to establish military areas within America and to remove from them anyone who might be a threat to the war effort, it didn’t take long for the Army to declare the three Pacific States exclusion zones for all having “. . . . . a Japanese ancestor in any degree. . . .”, citizens or not.

Without the benefit of any due process, the federal government ordered everyone of Japanese ancestry living on the West coast to decide what to do with their houses, farms, businesses, and other possessions.  They were given only days to make such decisions; and, in most instances, Japanese families simply sold what they could of their belongings at a significant loss.

Taking only what they could carry, Japanese families were loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains and were transported to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks, fairgrounds, and similar facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona.  They were then moved to one of ten hastily build relocation centers.  By November of 1942, the relocation of 120,000 Japanese living in the Pacific States was complete.

One of these relocation centers was in the Owens Valley.  It was named Manzanar.

Ansel Adams Picture of Manzanar Entrance (1943)

Picture taken in 1943 by Ansel Adams of the Manzanar War Relocation Center entrance.  The sign has been restored and stands at its original location today.  The outer sentry post also remains today, as shown below.

 Manzanar Outer Sentry Post at Entrance

 Outer (nearest) and Inner (farthest) military sentry posts at main entrance to the Manzanar War Relocation Center for American Japanese.  These buildings stand today as they did when the camp was hastily constructed in 1942 on 6,200 acres of land (9.7 square miles) leased from the City of Los Angeles in the Owens Valley.  This concentration camp had a population in excess of 10,000 internees.


In the ‘irony file’, we note:
  • the oriental architecture of these two buildings;
  • ‘Manzanar’ is the Spanish word for ‘apple orchard’ something which once existed in abundance nearby to support the town of the same name that stood near this site.  In case you haven’t guessed, both the town and orchards were gone, courtesy of the efforts of Mulholland, et al., by the time the camp was established;
  • the ‘Manzanar FREE Press’ was a camp newspaper printed in a building that once stood on this pictured street, on the right, just beyond the inner sentry post.  The buildings adjacent to, and across from, the newspaper housed the civilian and military police and the camp administration.  (Insert remark about ‘prior restraint’ here.)

All ten internment camps resembled prisons with poor food, cramped quarters, and communal facilities.  The housing provided was tarpaper-covered barracks without plumbing or cooking facilities.  A family of five or six occupied a single room of 25 by 20 feet.  A bath, laundry, and toilet building was shared by more than 250 people.  Meals were served to hundreds at a time in large mess halls.

Typical Manzanar Block Layout

Portions of the two columns of tarpaper barracks of one block are shown on either side of this photograph.  None of these original barracks have survived.  Four have been duplicated recently and can be seen on the driving tour of the Manzanar site.  In the center, behind the flagpole, are the communal laundry, shower, and toilet facilities which many Japanese women refused to use.  Note the wind. It blew on the day we visited.  It blew then.  It has blown every day in between.

Manzanar was surrounded with a barbed wire fence.  Each corner of the concentration camp had a guard tower and the middle of each side of the camp also had a guard tower.  Of these eight guard towers, none of the original ones remain.  Guard tower #8 was reconstructed at its original location recently, is pictured at the beginning of this post, and was the inspiration for it.

Potential and actual internees immediately filed court cases on matters surrounding their constraints (e.g., curfews, reporting, leave, etc.,), arrest, internment, or imprisonment.  Several of these were appealed to the Supreme Court before the camps were closed.  In general, the Supreme Court ruled that curfews and reporting requirements were constitutional in wartime circumstances.  It never directly addressed the question whether internment was constitutional.

Two of the cases whose appeals reached the Supreme Court likely bitchslapped federal authorities hard enough to wake FDR to the fact that a great injustice had been done to the vast majority of Japanese interred in these camps.

In Enyo, a woman applied for release from internment by filing a writ of habeas corpus.  The court decided, instead, that she should be released on the basis that the civil War Relocation Authority had no power to detain citizens whom it conceded were loyal.

In Korematsu, the court affirmed the constitutionality of the exclusion of citizens from the west coast but, again, avoided commenting on the constitutionality of their internment.  Korematsu’s conviction for evading internment was overturned in 1983 in a manner that did not reverse the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the constitutionality of FDR’s executive order.

The truth is that the obstructions placed in the way of the filing of, and the ruling upon, writs of habeas corpus, and the suspension of the rights granted by the Fifth Amendment that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, were both implemented by military action under FDR’s executive orders, which led to these internments.

Washington DC realized soon enough the eventual prognosis as cases like Enyo and Komatsu passed the hurdles of the appellate courts.  President Roosevelt rescinded his executive order in 1944, and the last of the camps was closed in March, 1946.


The Owens Valley remains a beautiful place.  A trip there will certainly be worthwhile if you enjoy the comeliness of nature and the feeling of being almost alone in a remote, perhaps wild, location.

It is, however, a place representing and documenting deprivation.  For those who know its history, the natural attraction of the Owens Valley belies the ugliness that government so often imposes on the governed in our time.

The Paiutes and the natural flow of waters into this region both deserve to be there.  Neither will ever return to this valley.

The loyal citizens who were interred in this valley did not deserve the loss of their fortunes, livelihoods, or liberty.  Nothing can restore to them what they lost. (However, see first comment, below.)

All of the wrongs embedded within the 200 years of Owens Valley history summarized above arose from perceived exigent circumstances.  Native Americans were slaughtering the cattle of the settlers.  Los Angeles desperately needed more water.  Persons of Japanese ancestry might facilitate or assist a Japanese attack on the West coast.

Similarly, the Patriot Act, FISA, Medicare, Social Security, along with a host of other legislation, were all suggested by circumstances perceived as demanding.  Each deprives us of a certain measure of liberty, as the Owens Valley Paiutes were deprived, as the Owens Valley settlers were deprived, and as the Americans of Japanese decent were deprived at Manzanar.

Perhaps the Owens Valley deprivations are larger, singular, or more obvious than the constant drip of deprivations from these security and socialist acts. Nevertheless, a pattern is clear here.

Franklin’s admonition about the trade off between “Essential Liberty” and “Temporary Safety” seems both prescient here and, at the same time, too specific.   Perhaps one of you, after reading this, can better compose Franklin’s essential truth to forestall in the future what was done in and to the Owens Valley during its recent past.


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