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MONO LAKE (CONT.)
1) Walker's party was not the first to cross the Great Basin or the central Sierra Nevada; Jedediah Smith and two companions made both crossings from west to east in 1827, six years earlier.
2) It is unlikely that Walker's large armed party traveled to California for "spiritual reasons." Many historians believe the expedition was motivated by a combination of military and commercial objectives.
3) The "journal" of Walker's clerk, Zenas Leonard, was written, largely from memory, five years after the expedition and therefore cannot be relied upon for detailed factual accuracy.
4) It is impossible to identify with certainty which Great Basin lake (if any) Leonard had in mind when he described one with floating stones and water suitable for washing clothes. Far from "sitting improbably" in the desert, Mono Lake is one of a number of large alkaline desert lakes in the western Great Basin; Leonard describes at least four of them in his Narrative. His descriptions of the country traversed, both on the approach to and after leaving the lake in question, make it highly doubtful that Walker's group could have reached Mono Lake. A far more likely alternative is Walker Lake in Nevada.
I think it is important that Walker not be credited with a discovery he never made. The most important sightings of his 1833 expedition, of Yosemite Valley and the first grove of giant sequoias, are more than sufficient to make his journey memorable. The discoverer of Mono Lake was Lieutenant Tredwell Moore of the 2nd Infantry, who led a party of soldiers to its shores in 1852.
? Gilbert agrees it is "impossible to identify with certainty" which Great Basin lake Leonard was describing. However, he sides with those historians who believe it was Mono Lake and that Walker's party was the first to discover it. Gilbert sets forth his arguments in his new book, Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker (Atheneum, $17.95), to be published this month. It was from research for the Walker biography that Gilbert also drew an earlier SI article, on Captain William Drummond Stewart and the mountain men ("Thar Was Old Grit in Him," Jan. 17). As for Walker & Co.'s being the first white men to cross the Great Basin and the central Sierra Nevada, Gilbert said only that they were the first to cross "to the Pacific."—ED.