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Travels With Ernie — Ernie Travels to Laws Spring, Hidden Adventure and Day Trip from Sedona, Arizona

Petroglyphs are found at Laws Spring along the old Beale camel trail.Ernie Explores Laws Spring Along the Old Beale Camel Trail

One of my favorite dog adventures is a visit to Laws Spring, an off-the-beaten track, must–see trip for any tourist interested in Arizona history and prehistoric civilizations. I like it because it’s a great place for a dog to relax and kick back, take a little swim in a really cool natural spring, and spend some “quiet time.” Because it is little known, the swarms of tourists that flood other well-known parts of Northern Arizona have not discovered this adventure. Another benefit is that visitors have a great opportunity to see elk, deer, wild turkey, antelope and other indigenous animals of the region that make their home in this part of the country.

Laws Spring is about five miles north of I-40 about half-way between Flagstaff and Williams, and isn’t hard to find. It does require some travel on unimproved forest roads that aren’t a problem for a dog like me, and really shouldn’t be a problem for the people’s cars. The history of Laws Spring really is a story about Lieutenant Edward Beale and his accomplishments in settling the West, and prehistoric native Americans who made this area their home hundreds of year before. So, a bit of history about the major players who frequented Laws Spring is in order.

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Edward Beale was a key player in settling the West during the mid-1800’s, yet very few people really know very much about him. It’s kind-of sad the this dog is has to be the one to give a brief history lesson for all of peoples out there that don’t know about this subject. But, someone has to do it, so why not a dog? Not only did Beale play a key role in the Mexican American War in the 1840’s, but also essentially forged the first interstate road commissioned by the U.S. Government in 1857. Beale was appointed by President Buchanan that same year to lead an expedition to determine if a safe all-weather route could be identified for immigrants heading to California. That original wagon road would eventually serve as the route for the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railroad, Route 66, and Interstate I40.

Edward Beale’s public career started as a naval officer during the mid 1840’s. He had numerous influential connections that helped propel his career in the navy. The Mexican-American War had begun in April 1846, and, at Beale's request, was reassigned to serve under General Steven Kearny, who was leading the American troops against the Mexicans. In December 1846, Beale joined Kearny’s forces just prior to the start of the battle of San Pasqual, the bloodiest battle of the relatively short Mexican American War in California. About the time that Beale joined Kearny’s forces, the Mexican Army had surrounded Kearny’s troops. The troops under Kearny's command were low on supplies and weakened from their 2000-mile march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By Dec. 8, it was clear that without further help, Kearny’s forces faced defeat and possible annihilation.

That evening, under cover of darkness, Kearny sent Beale, along with Kit Carson, the famous mountaineer, and an Indian guide to sneak through the Mexican lines and carry dispatches to Commodore Stockton 28 miles away in San Diego, seeking troop reinforcements. In order to avoid alerting the Mexican troops as they passed through their lines, Carson and Beale abandoned their canteens and boots and walked barefoot through desert. Through the first mile of their trek, they crawled on their bellies within 20 yards of Mexican sentries. They successfully made their way to San Diego where they alerted Stockton to the dire situation at San Pasqual.

Approximately 200 American troops were sent from San Diego on Dec. 10 to reinforce Kearny’s troops. The tide of the battle quickly turned in the Americans' favor and Mexican forces withdrew and dispersed. Beale’s and Carson’s actions were credited with saving Kearney’s soldiers. Beale almost died from his 28-mile trek through the desert, and his recovery took many months.

Beale’s exploits during the Mexican-American War were not the end of his colorful and successful career. He was viewed as one of the pioneers and explorers that helped tame the West and his greatest achievements lay in front of him. In 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Edward Beale to survey and build 1,000-mile wagon road from Fort Defiance, New Mexico to the Colorado River. In 1857, the United States government commissioned the Southwest's first interstate road, setting aside $210,000 for the survey and construction of a road along the 35th parallel, which many felt was a logical alignment for the route. Two alignments had been considered, one along the 35th parallel and one along the 38th parallel. The 35th parallel was chosen as the preferred route for a number of reasons, but one major consideration was the fact that the U.S. Government was at odds with the Mormon community in Utah, and there were concerns that a route along the 38th parallel would not be safe for the workers building the road nor the immigrants that would eventually be using the road on their way to California. Beale was lured out of California semi-retirement when offered the challenge of finding a suitable route to bring settlers to his adopted state. The Beale Survey would plot a route from Fort Smith Arkansas, through Oklahoma Indian Territory, on to Fort Defiance (near present day New Mexico/Arizona border), connect to Fort Mohave on the Colorado River and into California.

Ernie Shows the Camel Trail MarkerTo ease the expected desert hardships, Beale employed 22 camels as pack animals in a unique desert surveying experiment. Jefferson Davis, who served as Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857, was one of the early proponents of the Army using camels in the harsh and semi-arid southwest deserts. His experience as a Colonel of a volunteer regiment during the Mexican-American War had demonstrated to him how such an animal could be a great benefit to the Army. In 1855, due to Davis’ efforts, funding was finally identified for the first camels, and Davis immediately began the procurement process. After his stint as Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis returned to the U.S. Senate. He resigned his seat in the Senate at the breakout of the Civil War and eventually became the president of the Confederacy.

On August 27th, 1857, Beale and his survey team of 50 men left Fort Defiance, on the Arizona/New Mexico border, and by late fall of the same year, after carving out a wagon road along the 35th parallel across northern Arizona, reached the Colorado River separating Arizona and California. Beale made subsequent trips in 1858 and 1859 to further develop and refine the route. Beale was a big fan of the camels and believed that they had proven their worth on the trips. They outperformed mules and and horses, and demonstrated that thery were a much better pack animal for the military. Their speed, endurance, and ability to carry much larger loads than mules made them much more suitable for the military, especially in the arid southwest deserts. However, the United States Army had reservations about the future of the camels because they smelled, upset the mules and horses, and at times could be difficult to control. Also, it was clear that civil war between the states was immenent, and the military had other much more pressing issues on their mind. The camel experiment was abandoned shortly after Beale completed his last trip in 1859. The remainder of the camels were sold by the army, and were used as pack animals. Camels sightings were reported as recently as the 1940's in the deserts in California and Arizona.

The other major players that helped put Laws Spring on the map is the Cohonina Native American culture. The Cohonina peoples inhabited north-western Arizona and are thought to be the ancestors of the Yuman, Havasupai, and Walapai peoples. It is estimated that the Cohonina culture existed between 500 and 1200, at about the same time as the Anasazi culture. It is believed that during the 1200’s, a severe drought hit the region and forced agriculture-dependent cultures to abandon their settlements and disperse. This seems to have occurred with other prehistoric cultures in other parts of the Southwest roughly during the same period of time.

The majority of the archaeological evidence that does exist consists of pit houses, with walls made of wood and stone, agricultural remnants, and pottery. More than 6,000 archaeological and historic sites have been recorded on the Kaibab National Forest, and the majority of these sites are associated with Cohonina who occupied the Kaibab between AD 500 and AD 1200. These sites consist of stone houses, pottery sherds, stone tools, grinding stones and rock art across the forest. As a dog, sniffing around these parts, I have come across a number of archeological sites, and it is obvious that they are not well known, given their pristine nature. These sites are very sensitive and easily disturbed by human contact. In many cases, humans have purposely vandalized these sites, and spoiled them for the enjoyment of others. As a dog, and speaking for many other dogs, I don't understand why humans feel the need to destroy archeological sites. Dogs may dig a few small holes here and there, and mark our territory, but we don't destroy prehistoric sites. So, if you come across any of these sites, please show some respect to the cultures that occupied them.

Beale’s expeditions and the subsequent waves of immigrants as well as the Cohonina peoples left their footprints at Laws Spring. There is a considerable amount of historic graffiti interspersed with prehistoric rock art surrounding the spring itself. Laws Spring is the only developed site along this stretch of the Beale Wagon Road with interpretive signage. One reason for this is that this site has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the significance of both the historic and prehistoric markings. And, there is a nice monument sign with concise history about this location

When you pull up to the trailhead, there is a gentle, rocky slope leading down about a quarter of a mile to the spring itself. However, about fifty yards down the trail, before you reach the spring, there is the beginning of a rock ledge on the north side of the trail, that eventually grows into steep basalt walls. If you are a good explorer, you will find many fascinating petroglyphs, some clustered together, that tell the story of the existence of a prehistoric culture and the importance of this site. No one can say for sure if this site was a settlement, a place for sacred rituals, or just another reliable watering hole for a thirsty people.

As you explore the spring itself, you will see for yourself the interspersing of the historic and prehistoric markings and petroglyphs that surround the spring. Emblazoned on the face of one of the boulders immediately adjacent to the muddy-looking spring are the words “LAWS SPRING,” meticulously etched in perfect letters. Laws Spring received its name in July of 1859 when Lieutenant Beale honored a member of his military escort, Major W.L. Laws. Peachy Breckenridge, a tombstone carver and member of Beale’s party, actually did the inscription. Peachy happened to be the son of John C. Breckenridge, then Vice President of the United States. John C. Breckenridge would later serve as a major general of the confederate army, and after that, as Secretary of War for the Confederacy under President Jefferson Davis.

On the west side of the spring, there is a marked trail of about 100 yards that leads you to the actual location of the Beale Wagon Road. It is marked with a post that has a sign attached to it that is emblazoned with the image of a camel.

As I walked back from the location of the actual road, and rested on the boulders overlooking the spring, I enjoyed the quietness and beauty of the site, thinking that it still is much like it was in 1857. As a dog, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any dogs that had been with the immigrants, or with Beale’s party and how those dogs handled the rigors of traveling hundreds of miles across rugged country. There certainly were dogs. I could envision them running alongside the wagons, begging for scraps of food, chasing prairie dogs, laying around the campfire at night, listening to the peoples talking about what happened today, and what might happen tomorrow. Tomorrow was always a surprise. Comparatively speaking, us dogs have it easy these days.

You will definitely enjoy the experience of visiting this site. It is rich in history and tells its own story. The mystery of the historic markings and prehistoric petroglyphs will captivate you. But keep in mind that these historic and prehistoric markings can be very fragile. You should treat this site with respect so that future visitors and dogs can enjoy the site.


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