It Took Forever for Angelenos to Notice the Beauty of Joshua Tree

This 1937 map shows the desert right around the time it was protected as a national monument
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1937 Map of Joshua Tree by Cartographer Lowell Butler
“Within and About the Joshua Tree National Monument,” Westways Magazine, cartographer Lowell Butler, 1937

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These are the days when cafes, bars, clubs and certain neighborhoods are thinned by the annual migration of the young to Coachella. Absent are the man bun-sporting, fully bearded, beanie-wearing fellas and the short-shorted, peasant-bloused girls who depart to enjoy music in the dust and heat of the Coachella Valley. This 80-year-old pictorial map shows another part of that same desert that offers more than “Lush,” “The Kills,” “Savages,” “Rancid,” and an artist I’m actually familiar with—Gary Clark Jr.

The focus here is on the beautiful Joshua Tree National Monument that later became a national park. The pristine beauty of the area—which blooms in the spring—was once seen as a sun-scorched wasteland in the eyes of all but the resilient Pinto people. They saw the potential of the land and settled here on a day so long ago, it wasn’t far removed from the Ice Age. European settlers wandered through in the 19th century, but the valley wasn’t even given an English name until the Mormons saw the tall Yucca brevifolia stretching what looked like arms to the sky and called them Joshua trees.

In the 20th century, automobiles encroached on the desert ecology, and a forceful and wealthy Pasadena socialite, Minerva Hoyt, worked to protect this amazing land. In 1936—the year before this map was made—Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill to make Joshua Tree an 800,000-acre national monument.

The map here makes Joshua Tree and its surroundings look pretty cool. There are palms everywhere on the map—among them, presumably, Washingtonia filifera or the desert palm, the only true native. The Painted Canyon is visible here, as are the Cottonwood, Eagle, Pinto and Little San Bernardino Mountains. The Colorado River Aqueduct crosses the map as a white line; construction had finished shortly before the rendering, and water began flowing toward Los Angeles in 1939.

The few humans depicted here are mostly tourists and miners. At the time, the land was only just beginning to draw developers out from L.A. Homesteaders had begun settling the area in the teens, but they were always few in number. Even as late as 1941, the permanent population of Joshua Tree town was just 49 folks with 22 buildings. Keys Ranch (near the top center of the map) is where early settlers Bill and Frances Keys spent six decades—though Bill sat in San Quentin for eight of those years for murdering his neighbor in a land dispute. Farmers managed to grow Medjool dates in the desert soil, and in both Cabazon and Indio you can enjoy a date shake in the shade of a date palm. Every year, well over a million visitors come out to Joshua Tree, which became a National Park in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act.

This time of year the Joshua Tree wildflowers bloom spectacularly. Those of us not Coachella-ing can drive out on the 10 freeway to find plants like apricot mallow, chuparosa, phacelia, brittle bush, palo verde blossoms, suncups, desert senna, and purple mat, along with 250 species of birds in what was once thought to be worthless sands.


Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.

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