Saline Valley has for a long time been considered one of the most remote valleys in California. From the center of the valley it is over 60-miles of rough dirt roads to reach pavement, add-on some additional miles if you are in search of a gas station, or anything which resembles a town. In the valley there is one main central gathering place for those that brave the trip, the relaxing atmosphere of the Saline Valley Hot Springs. In a sense the naked “tubbers” at the Hot Springs are a modern-day tribe of free thinkers, and doers. They go about their lives in our everyday world, and return seasonally or annually to their tribe’s village site in Saline Valley.
Southwest of today’s gathering point, there was once Ko’onzi Village, inhabited in the winter months by the Ko’onzi Indians (now part of the Timbisha Shoshone) from as early as the late prehistoric time through the 1950s. The people of this region were nomadic people, traveling in summer months to the higher altitudes of nearby Hunter Mountain to escape the heat of the valley in the summer.
The first white man to have contact with the Ko’onzi was none other than famed mountain man and explorer, Jedediah Smith. Smith first came upon the people as early as 1826. He found the people to be friendly, and overall peaceful. However once a flux of miners and settlers began making their way the region, the atmosphere began to change. The Army was brought in, and an effort was made to round-up or even exterminate the local Native populations. Lucky for the Ko’onzi, the Army was less than successful, probably because of the remote setting that they inhabited. Other tribes in areas around nearby Owens Valley suffered great losses.
When the Army retreated, the Ko’onzi returned to life as usual. As miners and prospectors came to the Valley, the Ko’onzi people became familiar with their ways, and learned to use the marshy lands around their village site for agriculture. They built a canal system from the stream in Hunter Canyon, diverting the water to their newly planted fields of alfalfa, barley, melons, wheat, squash, beans, and corn. They also barreled the water from Hunter Canyon, and sold it to the miners for a hefty price.
With the help of W.L. Hunter, a neighbor of the Tribe, the Ko’onzi were able to secure land and water ownership through a Homestead Land Grant. They were the only Tribe to have obtained ownership of land in the entire Death Valley region. By the 1890s they had the most modern farming equipment available, and were producing great crops. They also introduced a horse and mule breeding operation, and for a period had a herd of goats (probably to provide milk).
Despite the modern techniques that they utilized in farming, the Ko’onzi made little change in their living arrangements. They never opted to build fancy structures, but rather continued in their tradition of living in wickiups.
The population of the Ko’onzi in the late 1800s is estimated to have been around 125 tribal members. These numbers declined with the introduction of “white man diseases,” and dwindled further after the mining rush in the region ended in the late 1920s. Many of the Tribe members depended on jobs at local mines, and once those jobs left, so did a substantial number of the tribal members. Many of the Ko’onzi moved to the community of Darwin, which offered more services, including the opportunity for their children to attend school. By the 1940s there were a reported four families remaining at the village.
In the 1940s, Colonel Montieth, purchased land above the village. He built several ponds on his property, diverting the water flow away from village’s farm. Arguments ensued over the water rights, despite ownership clearly belonging to the Ko’onzie. Montieth, was quoted saying, “They’re only Indians. It’s my water and I’ll do with it as I wish.”
In 1952, two young Ko’onzi boys had enough of the situation, shooting the groundskeeper, then setting him on fire inside one of the structures. The two boys were arrested, and the Ko’onzi lost their water rights over the ordeal. The last of the Ko’onzie left the valley, never to return.
Today, as one enters Saline Valley via the south pass, and rounds the corner of the ecological preserve there is no evidence of the substantial agricultural area had been present just 65 years ago. All visible traces have long vanished, the desert having reclaimed the land.
The village site is another story, on an alluvial fan overlooking the valley there are several hundred petroglyph and pictographs which adorn the rocks. Archeologist have dated the petroglyphs, and have indicated that the designs range in age from 100 years to several thousand years old. Old Indian trails connect nearly a dozen stone house circles, weaving up, and down the hills. Hundreds of shallow ancient burials dot the landscape.