From 1863 to 1977, United States citizens could claim 16O-acre parcels in the Mojave Desert from the Federal Government—though not after 1936 in the area that became Joshua Tree National Monument. Claimants had three years to "prove up" on their property, which meant building a small cabin and an outhouse. After sending a photo of the improvements to Washington, D.C., the homesteader received a deed to his property.
Several wet years beginning in 1912 provided for crops good enough to attract people to the area. Veterans of World War I, suffering the effects of mustard gas, came hoping to benefit from the dry desert climate. Later, because of hard times created by the depression, some people sought out a rural lifestyle where they could raise their own food without relying on unstable markets and inflated prices.
But the rains didn’t last. Several years passed with little or no rainfall and the crops failed. Homesteaders drilled water wells, but most were unsuccessful. In many cases water had to be hauled several miles even for household purposes. Conflicts between homesteaders and ranchers over water rights became common.
Life in the desert presented other challenges: Summers were extreme for those used to more temperate climates; the work was hard and neighbors far away. Few homesteaders met the challenge. Many farms and small homesteads were abandoned, leaving behind the tiny cabins which still litter the desert in some places.
One family that not only survived but thrived in the desert was that of Bill and Frances Keys. For more information about them, take a guided tour of their ranch.
Last updated: February 28, 2015