The Colorado River in 1861

Report Upon the Colorado River of the West

Lt. Joseph C. Ives

Government Printing Office  Washington 1861



We found a large party of Cocopas – men, women, and children – waiting on the bank with grinning faces, for the arrival of the “chiquito steamboat,” as they call our diminutive vessel. They have been thronging about the camp fires all the evening, chattering, laughing, begging, and keeping a sharp lookout for chances to appropriate any small articles. I had no hesitation, however, in leaving the packages of provisions and stores taken from the skiffs piled in a conspicuous place near the edge of the bank, merely notifying them that the things belonged to the other steamboat. They reap too much benefit from the parties who ply regularly past their village to risk losing all by a single depredation. One of the Cocopas seemed to apprehend that my mind might be ill at ease in regard to the safety of the property, and disinterestedly offered to remain and watch it, and deliver a letter from me to Captain Wilcox when he should arrive. As he expected me to be equally disinterested, I gave him a piece of cotton, of which he was much in need. A few are provided with blankets, but nearly all, males and females, are on a scanty allowance of clothing. The women generally have modest manners, and many are good-looking. They have a custom of plastering their hair and scalps with the soft blue clay from the riverbank, the effect of which is not at all pretty, but the clay is said to be a thorough exterminator of vermin, and as such must give them a great deal of comfort.



As the steamer emerged from the canyon the Mohaves began to cluster upon the banks, and I was glad to see, from the presence of the women and children, that they had no immediate hostile intentions. A chief, with a train of followers in single file, approach the edge of the bank to pay his respects, but as it was not convenient just then to stop, I made signs to him to visit us in camp at evening. All day the Indians have followed us, examining the boat and its occupants with eager curiosity. They, on their side, have been subjected to critical inspection, which they can stand better than any of the tribes that lived below. The men as a general rule, have noble figures, and the stature of some is gigantic. Having no clothing but a strip of cotton, their fine proportions are displayed to the greatest advantage. Most of them have intelligent countenances and an agreeable expression. The women, over the age of 18 or 20, are almost invariably short and stout, with fat, good-natured faces. Their only article of dress is a short petticoat, made of strips of bark, and sticking out about 8 inches behind. Some of the younger girls are very pretty and have slender, graceful figures. The children wear only the apparel in which they were born, and have a precocious, impish look. Their delight today has been to mimic the man at the bow who takes the soundings, every call being echoed from the bank with amusing fidelity of tone and accent. At some of the prominent points as many as 50 women and girls would be collected presenting, with their brilliant eyes and teeth, an agreeable picture. They regard the steamboat with a ludicrous mixture of amusement, admiration, and distrust. The stern wheel particularly excites remark. It is painted red, their favorite color, and why it should turn around without anyone touching it is evidently the theme of constant wonder and speculation. The little babies form a remarkable feature of the group. Those that are very young and the mothers, with unusual good judgment, dispose of by tying them in a wooden arrangement, shaped like an old-fashioned watch case, which may be carried in the hand as conveniently as a walking stick, or suspended to a tree, and the infant thus be securely and at the same time conveniently put away till required for nursing. When a few months older, they are taken out of the case and carried upon the projecting petticoat, where they sit astraddle, with their legs clasping their mother’s waist and their little fists tightly clutched in her fat sides. They have a sharp, wide awake expression, and their faces may always be seen peering from under their mother’s arms spying out what is going on. They nurse without moving their position, having only to elevate their mouths at a slight angle. It is rare for one of them to utter a cry, which may be attributed to the judicious system of their early training.



There has been a great deal to interest us among the people of this valley, and I regret that we have had to pass as hurriedly, and what we have been unable to learn more in regard to their habits and customs. Very few parties of whites have visited them, and none have remained longer than a few days. They are, therefore, in their native state, as they have existed for centuries. Of their religion or superstitions, I have not been able to learn anything. Government, they have so little of, that there cannot be much to learn. They are not at all communicative concerning their institutions. The marriage tie seems to be respected in more than an ordinary degree among Indians. I think that few, if any, have more than one wife.


Their minds are active and intelligent, but I have been surprised to find how little idea of the superiority of the whites they have derived from seeing the appliances of civilization that surround those whom they have met.



Mohave Valley—Description of the tribe

Firearms, and the Explorer’s steam whistle, are the only objects that appear to excite their envy. In most respects they think us their inferiors. I had a large crowd about me one day, and exhibited several things that I supposed would interest them, among others a mariner’s compass. They soon learned its use, and thought we must be very stupid to be obliged to have recourse to artificial aid in order to find our way. Some daguerreotypes were shown to them, but these they disliked, and were rather afraid of. I heard one or two muttering, in their own language, that they were “very bad.” There being a few musicians and instruments in the party, the effect of harmony was tried, but they disapproved of the entertainment, as of everything else, and when the sounds died away, appointed two or three of their own musicians to show ours how the thing ought to be done. These artists performed a kind of chant, in a discordant, monotonous tone, and after making some of the most unearthly noises that I ever listen to, regarded us with an air of satisfied triumph. I tried, by showing them the boundaries upon a map, to make them comprehend the extent of our nation, as compared with their own, and to explain the relative numbers of the inhabitants. The statements were received simply as a piece of absurd gasconade, and had the same effect as the visits of some of the chiefs of the Northwestern Indians to the Atlantic cities, which have resulted in destroying the influence of the unfortunate ambassadors, by stamping them forever, in the estimation of their own tribes, as egregious liars.





The Mohave’s preserve constant friendly relations with the Chemehuevis and Yumas, and were skilled with the matter in the attack upon the Pimas and Maricopas, last September. At that time they lost one of their five chiefs and a great many of their best warriors. The Cocopa Indians they bitterly hate, and make forays into their country, slaying and taking prisoners the unwarlike habits of that tribe have not permitted them to offer much resistance to these incursions, but they avenged themselves by giving the warning to the Pimas, which resulted in the wholesale slaughter of the attacking force. The animosity of the Mohaves against the Cocopas has been raised to the highest pitch by the disaster which befell the war party from the intervention of their despised foes.


It is somewhat remarkable that these Indians should thrive so well upon the diet to which they are compelled to adhere. There is no game in the Valley. The fish are scarce and a very inferior quality. They subsist almost entirely upon beans and corn, and occasional watermelons and pumpkins, and are probably as fine a race, physically, as there is an existence.

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