Joseph Reddeford Walker (1798-1876) was a fur trapper and was one of the first Americans partaking in open fur trade with the Spanish of Santa Fe.
Joseph Reddeford Walker was born in Virginia shortly before his parents migrated to Roane County in eastern Tennessee. In 1819 he moved to Independence in western Missouri, then the farthest west of all American settlements and the center for the Western fur trade and what was to become the Santa Fe Trail.
Walker became a fur trapper and trader and took part in the first attempt that the Americans made to travel to Santa Fe and open trade with what was then a Spanish colony. For a while Walker was sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri. On May 1, 1832 Walker set out with Benjamin Bonneville on a fur-trading expedition to the West. After a year of trapping, Walker met up with Bonneville in July 1833 at the annual fur rendezvous on the Green River in eastern Utah. Bonneville then sent Walker west to look for furs and/or find a trail to the Pacific Ocean.
Walker and his party traveled for a month over the desert west of the Great Salt Lake before reaching the Humboldt River in northern Nevada that had been found by Peter Skene Ogden in 1828. They followed the river to the Humboldt Sinks, a series of marshy lakes in the desert where the Humboldt River disappears. There, Walker and his group of 60 men were approached by a band of curious Digger tribesmen. The Americans opened fire and killed "several dozen" of them within a few minutes. From there, Walker traveled up the Walker River to Walker Lake and then crossed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Mono Pass between the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers. They entered what is now Yosemite National Park and were the first Westerners to see its famous waterfalls.
Traveling through California, Walker and his party were amazed by the redwood forests they saw, experienced a major earthquake, and witnessed a meteor shower. They traveled to San Francisco Bay and then down the coast to Monterey, the capital of Mexican California. The Americans were well received and stayed there from November 1833 until January 13, 1834. On the return east, Walker went down to the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley and traveled through Walker's Pass, which was to be one of the main gateways for Americans moving into California.
The Americans then turned north through the desert where they almost died of thirst before reaching the Humboldt Sinks once again. Again, they fired on defenseless Digger Indians, this time killing 14 of them and wounding many more. From there, the Americans headed north from the Humboldt River to the Snake River in southern Idaho, thereby avoiding the desert west of the Great Salt Lake. Walker and his men met up with Bonneville on the Bear River on July 12, 1834. The route that Walker had found was to become the main trail to California in following years.
Walker continued to trap and trade in the Rocky Mountains for the next nine years, making one trip to Los Angeles to buy horses in 1841. In 1843 he led a group of American settlers to California via Walker's Pass and met up with John Charles Frémont on his return. He then served as guide for Frémont's 1845-1846 expedition to California. In 1849 he joined the flood of Americans heading west during the Gold Rush and went into business selling cattle to the miners as well as leading several prospecting expeditions. He led a group of prospectors to Arizona in 1861 and finally retired and settled down with his nephew in Contra Costa County near San Francisco in 1868, where he died eight years later.