Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree, California | C.1994

Photo Credit: Carlos Laboy Pérez

There’s something special about the solace that can be found at Joshua Tree National Park. This desert in America’s Southwest has attracted all kinds of people for thousands of years. Native Americans, Anglo settlers, gold-seeking miners, hardscrabble ranchers, stalwart Mormons, and Presidents have all shaped Joshua Tree as we know it today. And within these groups, there have been women who have made a mark on its storied history, namely Elizabeth  Crozer Campbell.

Born into a wealthy family in southeastern Pennsylvania, Elizabeth enjoyed the finer things in life. As a young girl, finishing school and private French lessons were part of her daily routine. When “The Great War” (i.e. WWI) began, Elizabeth served as a nurse and met a young soldier named William Campbell, who was recovering from exposure to mustard gas. Elizabeth and William married, and against her family’s wishes they decided to move out West for William’s health.

They settled in the Twentynine Palms area of the Mojave Desert, now one of the entry points for Joshua Tree. Elizabeth and William quickly adapted to desert life, befriending locals and spending time collecting arrowheads in the sand dunes by their home. Local prospector Bill McHaney would stop by to share stories of local tribes and inform the couple on Native American culture. For Elizabeth, this friendship inspired a passion for archeology. 

Elizabeth began exploring the surrounding countryside searching for archeological sites. Eventually, she and William became two of the earliest archeologists in the California desert. In the 1920s, not much was known about how long humans had lived in the Mojave Desert, especially during prehistoric times. In 1933, Elizabeth and William began investigating the Pinto Basin, a site that would lead her to a breakthrough within the archeological community.

Elizabeth argued that prehistoric peoples had lived within the area much earlier than previously thought. Elizabeth published her seminal paper on the subject, though many of her contemporaries disagreed with her findings. Elizabeth stood by her work, and it was later discovered that a rival archeologist’s report contained many factual errors. Though Elizabeth’s legacy may not be as widely known, her work helped shed light on the ancient history of Joshua Tree and its prehistoric people.

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