Tuesday, Sep 10 2013 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: A famous naturalist's journal rediscovered: The lost account of Hart Merriam's 1905 visit to Tehachapi

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Hart Merriam was one of the most distinguished and influential of all American naturalists.

Merriam was born in 1855 and was 49 years old when he first visited the Tehachapi Mountains.

Merriam made many priceless images of California Indian culture, including this one of an acorn flour leaching stand.

Merriam's Chipmunk, the only species native to the Tehachapi Mountains, is named for the great naturalist.

01 Aug 1918 A Diegueno woman grounds acorns with a primitive mortar and pestle. Image by C. Hart Merriam / National Geographic Society/Corbis

Clinton Hart Merriam was one of the most famous American naturalists of his time: a mammologist, ornithologist, ethnographer, a gifted and energetic man who was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, the American Society of Mammologists and much more. Known to his friends as simply Hart Merriam, he came through the Tehachapi Mountains more than a hundred years ago and made detailed notes of the plant and animal life, and documented many words in the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian language. But his field notes were filed away and disappeared into obscurity. They were unavailable until a few months ago, when they were rediscovered by researcher Laura Grant of the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center.

Laura had gone to Washington D.C. as part of the Breath of Life Archival Institute, a two-week program which is designed to help language revitalizers find and make use of archival materials about Native American languages. It was in the Library of Congress that Laura discovered the materials that Hart Merriam's family had bequeathed following his death in 1942. The original documents had been photographed and were available as microfiche -- the tiny film images that are only about 3 percent of the size of the originals -- and using the somewhat clunky viewing machines that are available for enlarging microfiche, Laura selected Merriam's notes that pertained to the Tehachapi area and had copies made.

She then brought home these copies, and her niece Amanda GrantSmith transcribed Merriam's often difficult to read handwritten notes and now we have a detailed account of Hart Merriam's exploration through the Tehachapi Mountains by horse team and wagon. He took a train from San Francisco down to Mojave on November 6, 1905.

"Left San Francisco for Mojave on 'The Owl' train at 5 p.m. Moonlight," is the way he ends his entry for November 6. After a 12-hour train ride, the Owl arrives in Mojave the morning of November 7. "Heavy rain at Moj when the train pulled in a little after 5 this morning. Rain continued as a steady downpour for some time & at intervals all day & evg [evening]. Heavy cloud hid the sky all day. Cold mg [morning]." In between rain showers, Hart Merriam spent the day photographing Soledad Mountain south of Mojave and observing local bird life and the view of the Tehachapi Mountains shrouded in clouds, a sight that all of us who live here have seen many times, as we approached Tehachapi from the desert while a storm front hovered over the mountains.

That afternoon, Merriam took a train up to Tehachapi: "Left Mojave by belated Freight train at 5:30 & arrived at Tehachapi at 7:30. for the night at a house kept by a Frenchman named .L. Laffargue. Rained in ." The next morning he began his exploration of the Tehachapi area. ". 8, 1905. Cloudy & very cold all day, clearing in late afternoon. Stiff chilly NW wind all day.

"a team & driver & in forenoon drove over to [Proctor] whichis salt & where there are some ducks which I could not identify. The lake is about 7 miles east of Tehachapi town, in the valley well toward its east end.

"In Tehachapi Valley saw many Ravens everywhere, some meadowlarks, 2 's Phoebes, 2 Shrikes, several Bluebirds,& American Kestrel, also Flicker.squirrels are fairly common in the valley." Merriam used ornithological names, many of them obsolete, for the birds so I substituted the current common names for them. He also describes traveling west from the Tehachapi Valley into Brite and Cummings Valleys.

"Drove to west end of the Tehachapi Valley & up over a low divide to Brite Valley -- a small high-up valley higher than Tehachapi & only 2 or 3 miles in length -- & then followed the drainage gulch from Brite Valley down northwesterlyto Cummings Valley -- whichis a large fine flat bottomed open valley about 8 miles in length by 4 in breadth, with a long projecting ridge pushing into it like a promontory from the East, splitting its east end in two parts. On the South a large hitimbered Mt. (CummingsMt.) rises between it & the desert & reaches easterly to Tejon Canyon.

"the west end of Cummings Valley the road winds down among high & steep foothills clothed in yellow grass & forested iblue oaks & (sparingly) graypines for a dozen miles in a general northwesterly direction till it comes out on a high barren promontory overlooking the & arid Kern plain [San Joaquin Valley] whichtoday is hidden in haze."

Merriam also mentions an encounter with a Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian man: "High up in the canyon I found a Tehachapi Indian named John, hauling wood on a large sled (hauled by a team) down the steep slopes to the wagon road, for the lime kilns. Got a short vocabulary from him in a short time, but it was far too cold to sit still & write. He was born at the old big ranchina about 2 miles west of present town of Tehachapi, in floor of valley. He tells me that his people (Tehachapi Valley tribe) call Tehachapi Valley Tă-hā'ch-ă-tum-ban'-dah ; and the tribe Ow'-wah-tum New-oo-ah. He says they are essentially the same people and speak essentially the same language as the branch living at Piute Mt."

The tribal name which Merriam writes is achingly familiar to those of us who speak the language: what he expresses as "Ow'-wah-tum" we write as "Awaatum," with "Awaat" meaning "many" and "um" indicating that it refers to living things. "New-oo-ah" was Merriam's way of writing Nüwa, so what Indian John said when Merriam asked what tribe he belonged to was simply "Many Nüwa Indians."

I will be sharing more of Hart Merriam's Tehachapi observations in the future. Merriam was a truly remarkable American -- a close friend of President Teddy Roosevelt, a companion and fellow camper with John Muir -- and his list of accomplishments is lengthy and varied. Several species of wildlife are named for him, including the Merriam's Chipmunk, which is the only species of chipmunk native to the Tehachapi Mountains. Hart Merriam spent much of his later years photographing and documenting vanishing California Indian culture, which to my mind are his greatest achievements.

Merriam worked in Kern County and the Tehachapi Mountains, though the results of his research have been inaccessible for more than a century. But now, thanks to some dedicated sleuthing by Laura Grant and the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center, his precise and accurate accounts are available.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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